BACKSTAGE at Zippo’s, 76-year-old Norman Barrett, unblushingly billed as “the world’s greatest ringmaster”, is waiting to make his entrance.
He stands, head bowed, behind red velvet, the spotlight passing through a gap between the curtains, painting a silver stripe down the front of his body from top hat to shoes, and intensifying the already considerable twinkle in his bright blue eyes. He punches a white-gloved fist into a white-gloved palm, psyching himself up, and, as the curtains open, steps into the familiar glare and roar, a perfect grin transforming features which a moment ago were serious, perhaps even steely. “My lords, ladies and gentlemen,” he bellows, “welcome to the circus!”
It shouldn’t exist any more, the old-fashioned circus. Health and safety legislation, political correctness, and the ever-increasing sophistication of children should, in theory, have done for the big top and its motley denizens. The fact that circuses continue to tour Scotland and still seem able to pull considerable crowds is, I believe, a cause for cheer. It shows that we haven’t grown so jaded that we can’t be thrilled and delighted by the ingenuity and pluck which these performers demonstrate twice each day during the season.
There is nothing quite like the circus. It is the complete sensory experience. The audience, packed closely together in our banked plastic seats, feels snug in the dusky humidity, yet alert to everything from flames reflected in a fire-eater’s eyes to the chessboard design combed into a stallion’s glossy rump.
There is a gaudy, bawdy beauty to all of this. I could spend the whole show looking away from the ring, entranced instead by the shadow of the rising trapeze artist as it spreads like a dark stain across the canvas roof.
Zippo’s Circus visits Glasgow every June. I see it in Victoria Park. Their final performance in the city will be at 3pm today, and then it is on to Falkirk and many other Scottish towns throughout July and August. The arrival of the circus is part of the texture of summer. Riggers raise that tent in just a few hours. Somehow, the public never sees it happen. It seems to spring up overnight like a great psychedelic mushroom.
The big top is a creamy white with saltires and lions rampant fluttering from the poles. The air, as one approaches, smells of cut grass and sawdust and diesel and popcorn and horse muck. Inside, before the show, the ring is sunk in undersea gloom. The performers – or “artistes” as they are known with typical circus emphasis on genteel formality – are, a few hours before showtime, still relaxing in the huge wagons in which they travel. These are real homes, complete with all mod cons, satellite dishes propped up on bricks and pointing skywards.
Grooms, bent like Pissarro peasants, stagger beneath bales of straw, through the mud towards the stables. There are many people who loathe the whole idea of animals in the circus, but my own impression is that the horses look well because they are looked after well, rather like the working animals one sees on decently run farms. There are, indeed, a number of Weegie glamazons sitting in the audience who would pay good money for a beauty regime even approximate to that of these pampered palominos.
In addition to 15 artistes, Zippo’s travels with riggers, mechanics, electricians and carpenters, adding up to about 40 people on the road together for ten months of the year. The travelling circus is often likened to a family, and within it there are actual family groups – husbands and wives, parents and children and siblings. It is a close, sultry atmosphere in which romances and enmities, like hothouse flowers, blossom with greater speed than they would in the temperate outside world.
“Oh, yes,” says one artiste, rolling his eyes. “People are falling in and out of love all the time.”
Andrea and Emil, the Delbosq Clowns, became engaged earlier in the tour, Emil going down on one knee in the ring – a circus tradition – and asking for Andrea’s hand in front of the cheering crowd. They have, in fact, been a couple for years and have a three-year-old son, who snoozes in a pushchair backstage while his parents administer comic beatings to each other in the ring. “It’s not easy because we’re on tour all the time,” says Emil. “But I think about it this way – my grandmother went on the road with eight kids and we’ve only got one.”
“At the moment,” Andrea adds, pointedly.
Meeting the artistes is fascinating; an exotic lot, Pollyannas and polyglots. Ask a question in French and you’ll get a cheerful answer in Spanish, Romanian or Italian. “We speak circus,” is how one puts it. The Ukraine, a country in which the circus is nationalised, is well represented at Zippo’s. Roman Stefanyuk, a 43-year-old Ukrainian clown who can do remarkable things on a trampoline, used to be a gymnast and was trained during the great Soviet era of state-sponsored sport. In his home country, he says, circus artistes receive pensions and benefits. Clowns in Britain have nothing to fall back on.
Still, performing in a circus seems more like an inherited obligation than a job one might choose to do. In the hours I spend hanging around backstage, I meet only one “josser” – the slang word for a circus worker who was not born into it. This is Kane Safronoskas, an 18-year-old from Swindon who, as ringboy, is charged with taking props in and out of the ring. It is his great ambition to become a clown. “My mum didn’t want me to join the circus,” he says, “but she knew she couldn’t stand in the way of my dreams.”
The artistes, by contrast, all seem to come from circus dynasties. They are the third generation in their family; the fifth, the seventh, the 11th. This great-great-aunt, a trapeze artist, performed for Queen Victoria; that great-grandfather, a unicyclist, for Nicholas II. The sense of history and swirling DNA is more dizzying than anything in the ring.
Norman Barrett the ringmaster is a relative newcomer, if one can say so about a septuagenarian who has been in the business since 1948. His father was a farmer with a taste for training animals; George Barrett first joined a circus and then bought his own. Norman grew up in show business. He started out in his early teens with a goat and dog act – “the goats jumped through hoops and the dogs jumped over the goats” – and then spent some time as a rather poor clown before his potential as a ringmaster was recognised in the late 50s.
He is very much in favour of elegance, gets his scarlet tail-coats made by Geno, an old Italian tailor in Preston, and believes that the most important tool in the ringmaster’s kit is a decent shoehorn, the better to ensure quick backstage changes from wellies to dress shoes. “The best shoehorns,” he confides, “are from Ikea.”
Barrett has, since 1962, performed a bird act. Since before The Beatles he has had budgies. They pull a toy car, fire a little cannon, climb a tower and unfurl a saltire. It is quite splendid. The ringmaster uses eight birds in his act – Willie, Manfred, Jonti, Albert, Percy, Morris, Fred and Albert – but travels with 14. “It’s like a football team,” he says. “The performance is only as good as the reserves.”
When one bird dies a new bird inherits the old name, which keeps things simple. There must have been a great many Freds and Alberts over the years. Budgies have a reasonable lifespan; the ringmaster has a nine-year-old veteran in his act; but they are also extremely sensitive and have been known to pass away from fright during thunderstorms. With the blithe air of one whose own money was not involved, Barrett tells the story of a man in Birmingham who paid £2,000 for a budgie which could say 28 phrases – only for it to die the following day. Its last words? “I told you I was ill.”
During Zippo’s 5pm performance, I go behind the scenes to watch the entrances and exits. It is a cramped and busy space, wet grass covered in sawdust, but somehow no-one ever gets in anyone else’s way. A Shetland pony called Baz breaks wind gently. The Delbosq clowns slurp Coke and roll cigarettes. Gabriel Carmonna, a graduate of the National Academy of Tango in Buenos Aires, sprays water on his long black hair so that it will not catch fire as he swings burning bolas round his head with his teeth. To the audience each routine looks effortless, but the artistes are dripping sweat when they return behind the curtain.
The grand finale is the Globe of Death – three Brazilian motorcyclists loop-the-looping within a small steel cage at approximately 50mph while Paula, wife of the lead biker, stands inside, wearing a feather headdress and a fixed grin. Paula finds this terrifying, but trusts the riders, and thus far has sustained greater injuries from her other circus job – operating the candyfloss machine. Nevertheless, the moments before the act are tangibly anxious. The Brazilians pray before mounting their golden Yamahas, and Paula crosses herself behind the curtain. When, a few minutes later, the four return unhurt, the sense of relief is even more palpable than the earlier anxiety. One can understand why the artistes say they find this way of life addictive – the adrenaline buzz must quickly become a physiological need. Nevertheless, it is astonishing to think that they will all be doing this again in a couple of hours, then tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
“Circus will never die,” says Emil Delbosq with an air of proud defiance in no way undermined by his red nose. “This is our job, our passion, and we give it our all.”