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A Shout From The Attic: The Circus Comes To Town

…Perhaps that was the secret of the Circus: the nearness to danger but with little personal risk to the spectators whilst the performers seemed to be always under threat of death or mutilation…

But there came a day for Ronnie Bray when the magic of the circus was extinguished.

For earlier chapters of Ronnie’s experiences please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

The Circus combined all the magic that a child could dream of, and then some. The colour, the movement, the noise, even the smell was part of the composition of an event so miraculous and absorbing as to be out of time and place, existing only in the imagination.

Clowns were not real people. They could not be spoken to or approached, and when they came near with their bizarre garb and fantastic hair atop a face that could only have been born in a nightmare, one’s natural response was to run as far away as fast as possible, lest they take you into the outlandishly surreal world of Clowndom.

The animals were uncommon, with fear-filled eyes and snorting nostrils as plume-bedecked horses eyed the ringmaster with altogether too much white showing around their dark irises. Elephants from the sub-continent, strangely ponderous, full of wrinkled skin and latent power that might burst through any second to trample a crowd breath-bated by their unnatural antics. The tigers and lions were to be feared above all. Lion tamers always seemed harsh, uncompromising, and angry men, and there was always the prospect that their frightened beasts would eat one of them. That would have been poetic justice, but I never saw it happen.

The bunting that decorated the big top brightened the yellow canvas walls inside which played the band in their military style uniforms, all keeping time to the magnificent conductor in a distinctive uniform that owed much to the Napoleonic Wars. Speciality acts with unpronounceable names thrilled us as they did incredible things on trapezes and high wires. One wondered whether high fliers in Europe were called Smith or Jones and if those names sounded exotic to French, German, and Italian ears.

The Circus came to town after the place had been splattered with bright posters by the advance publicity vans. Shops displayed the posters and got two complimentary tickets for their trouble. Fly posters stuck up house-sized adverts with the head of a grinning Auguste and snaps of terrifying knife throwers and beautiful showgirls raising their arms and hands into the air in the familiar how-about-that-then? pose. The colours were brilliant, compelling, and urgent. Circus was a must, bringing, as it did, magic to town but for a short season. It was get-it-while-it’s-there and if you missed it, it could be a long time until another opportunity came your way.

For a few days heavy wagons rolled onto the Circus site. That could be Greenhead Park or the old pitch at the side of the tram sheds on Great Northern Street. Wherever it was it was soon transformed into a scene of absolute chaos from which emerged a tented Mecca that drew all classes and ages to its inviting maw. The crowds seemed not to notice the mud that was churned up by thousands of feet passing over the places where heavy lorries’ wheels had deeply rutted the landscape. The whirr and grumble of massive diesel fuelled generators provided power for the thousands of coloured and white lights that presented the spectacle with the markers of its location even at a good distance.

Although money was scarce, from somewhere the coppers were scraped together to buy seats. The closer to the front the better, although nearness increased the awful feeling of imminent danger that the Circus naturally generated. Perhaps that was the secret of the Circus: the nearness to danger but with little personal risk to the spectators whilst the performers seemed to be always under threat of death or mutilation. The knives seemed real, sharp, and as lethal as the sword-swallower’s instruments. If an elephant actually put weight on the foot held half an inch from that girl’s face, surely she would die. The fliers made it look easy but my mind continually ran along the lines of being half a second too early or, just as bad, too late. Even falling into the almost reassuring net could break a limb or two! Strange that we are often attracted by that which repels.

In a world rendered all too real by the harsh realities of a global war and its consequences, the Circus afforded at least temporary escape from gas masks, ration books, clothing coupons, air raids, warning sirens, stand pipes, static water tanks, stirrup pumps, and all other reminders that we were under grave threat of destruction. Welcome, welcome, Circus!. Weave your magic in our gray and fearful lives and for a time make us forget our dangers by exposing us to yours. Play that stirring Sousa music, bring on the exploding car, and make us laugh at the comic antics of men abusing each other with no dire consequences. Yet, this too, came to a sudden end.

The Circus animals were not often exposed to long journeys by road. Instead, they were herded into special animal wagons and taken by railroad to the nearest railway station where they would be unloaded by Circus people in gaudy and exotic dress and paraded from the railhead to the Circus pitch in the train of a brass band. This was not only good for the animals but it was good and free publicity as thousands lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the lavish and glamorous display.

The day the magic died, I was standing in the middle of St George’s Square opposite the George Hotel when something attracted my attention. One of the sad-eyed grey elephants was being ridden by a young woman in a gaudy showgirl costume. My eye caught a dark line down the leg of her black fishnet tights. It was a hasty repair to a ladder. In a moment the scales fell from my eyes and the magic died. I now could see with other eyes and what I saw disappointed and displeased me. The Circus was pretence, and all the gaiety and glamour was just a sham, the smile on her face was just a grimace.

That night at the circus I saw how tired and faded were the colours of the bunting, how desperately the clowns tried to get laughs, how badly out of tune and time the band were and how tatty their uniforms were. I imagined the spectacle of the free-running plumed horses without the music, and the fairy-tale was over as I sensed their confinement and senseless activities whilst being called Liberty Horses. The elephant’s eyes looked sadder than ever and I knew that they should not be there but tramping through the wild places of India with their fellows. The knife thrower, alarmingly, seemed to have a grudge against his assistant, probably his wife, and the trapeze artistes seemed tired and mechanical and insincere.

Suddenly, the Circus had resolved into a group of ordinary-sized human beings with all the cares and concerns that were common to humanity. Perhaps their evident cynicism had grown out of the fact that theirs was an uncertain existence. Whatever it was, the Circus has never held the same appeal for me since, and I have never returned.

Who is at fault, the Circus, or my false perception? Was I foolish to believe the illusion they were at such pains to conjure, or was I foolish to let it go? As I see others still nourished by the false dream of Circus and its shams, I sometimes, in quiet and reflective moments, envy them their joy and laughter that I exchanged for disgust and pain that growing up day those many years ago, and mourn the loss of so much laughter and so much self-deception. Perhaps it was not a bargain after all.

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