I don’t know how many books I’ve read that have been set in a travelling gypsy circus. From Enid Blyton to Alistair MacLean, they’re usually portrayed as places of intrigue and adventure; where young, yet ambitious rapscallions can escape their drudgerous existence and make something fantastic of their lives. I remember lying in bed as a kid of seven or eight, dreaming of running away to become a trapeze artist, or a tightrope walker. Obviously, I never did. The sort of person who ends up being an actuary is usually woefully poor at being a rapscallion. And besides, the only circus around my parts was the Boswell Wilkie Circus, which by the time I was a kid was getting a little frayed around the edges. And which I never managed to see – meaning that my literature-inspired vision managed to remain packed away in an old dusty memory box untainted by reality.
But alas, the era of that vision is long gone. There are no such circuses left in England. In fact, there’s only one gypsy circus left in Europe, and not only does it not travel, but last I heard it was in danger of being closed down in a fit of French xenophobia.
And so it was that my interest was aroused when I saw the posters up for a travelling circus in my area. Ok, so it was called “UNCLE SAM’S GREAT AMERICAN CIRCUS” which put the dampers on the gypsy bit just a little. And it was billed as “THE GREATEST CIRCUS ON THE PLANET” which I thought was a little hyperbolic (as the Cirque du Soleil would probably have something to say about that). But still, it’s something the children should experience, so I arranged some tickets. (Useful things, children. At times, they provide a great mitigation for doing things that you’re really not supposed to enjoy quite so much any more.)
On arriving at the big top tent (they’d set up in a field on the edge of town – one nod to the vision), it was hard to miss the AMERICAN part. Not only were there Stars and Stripes flying everywhere, but everything was either stripy or starry. And all the stripes were starry, and all the stars were stripy. Inside the tent, the usual tacky fairground knick-knacks were on sale from the usual tacky fairground knicker-knackers.
But once the show started, it was hard not to be impressed. The acrobats and tightrope acts were the usual exemplary standard, and the Thunderball Riders were rather impressive as well. Other acts were the Wheel of Death, an illusionist, and a trapeze act suspended from a circling rocket.
I’ve found, though, that a good measure of a show’s appeal is when you ask a kid what their favourite part was, and they reel off a list of everything that happened in the whole show. My only hope is that they’re young enough to remember the amazement and the romance, and filter out the tawdry veneer. It might just add a touch of realism to their reading-inspired dreams one day.