Joining the circus seems to be be one of those apocryphal things… nobody knows someone who actually did it, but so many people threaten to do just that. The magic of the circus is something one is totally taken in with as a child. So much so, that it assumed mythic proportions when I was very little. My parents took me to the Boswell Wilkie Circus for the first time when I was around three or four. The main thing I remember about the journey there was the ghostly grey-green of the trees rushing by briefly appearing in the headlights and then sinking back in the dark mystery of Outside the Car. To my alarm, my nose started whistling when I breathed. I anxiously wanted to know whether they’d still let me in, then became angry when my trusted advisors, The Only People Who Knew, laughed at me.
I remember the buzzing excitement as suddenly the famous little clown called Tickey ran into the ring, his arms up in welcome and acknowledgement, and the roar that went up from the crowd. The acrobats floating up high… wearing silver caps on their heads, flashing back and forth like fish up there, almost hidden above the smoke all over the Big Top… it was something so alien and strange, so completely new. Years later I read that Tickey had retired and was a cattle farmer. From clown to cattle farmer. Hmm. Well, why not? As for the Boswell Wilkie Circus, they now seem to be stationary – and are running management courses. Check it out here. Fascinating.
Later I took my own kids to the circus, and for the first time saw through adult eyes the tired performers behind the stalls, selling ice-cream and chips, already painted up (increasing the anticipation no doubt)… the fading paint and the shabby but brave appearance of it all.
Next morning the kids and I stood and watched it all come down. What harmony and synchronisation in the way everything functioned as smoothly as a great machine, each unit knowing exactly what to do. The afternoon before, we’d watched as three men to a tent-peg swung their hammers in turn, the pinging rhythm of their work like music, the sun gleaming on their backs.
Perhaps a circus will always be romantic to me because of one of those melodramatic Afrikaans films that came to Winterton as sometimes happened, and was shown at the Farmers’ Hall – the cultural centre of our little village. Naturally the story included a circus train, a fire, huge drama, animals being saved from the flames, a tragic clown, a beautiful acrobat and a handsome lion tamer.
But my romantic ideas of the circus were a bit dented by my friend’s story of how he assisted at the circus when it came round on its annual journey. As a great animal lover, he was more than happy to clean the elephant’s cage. I’m sure he’s the only schoolboy in history whose tie was eaten by an elephant. Thinking about it, I’m wondering whether there wasn’t some collusion there…
Soon the Cirque du Soleil is coming to South Africa. When I was in Durban, in the Nineties, they put on one show in the country and that was in Cape Town. I resolved to move to Cape Town since that was where shows like this came… so I won’t be missing this one!