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No matter how I try, I can’t forget the day the circus came to our little town in Leicestershire. That day now belongs to a faraway, mystical era unencumbered by grown-up concerns.
My two sisters were completely puffed out by the tine they got home after racing back from Roundhill Secondary the day the circus came to Syston. They were so short of breath, the news came in bursts between pants.
A real circus has come to Syston, they managed to get out. What? A real circus. A real circus? We saw it. You saw it? We saw it. Caravans and wagons, Where? In the meadow behind The Midland Hotel. Gaily-painted they were. Gaily-painted? Up by the railway bridge. By the railway bridge? The railway bridge. A Big Top is being put up right now. A Big Top? Right now? Yes, right now. Do you have to keep repeating everything we say?
As soon as I’d gobbled down my tea, I jumped on my bike. My little legs became all of a whirr as they pedalled up the hill to the railway station, as fast as they could go. It was too good to be true. I had to see for myself. And it was true. A real circus had actually come to Syston.
Turned out, it wasn’t so much a Big Top as a Tiny Top, but none the less exciting for that. It was certainly newsworthy. I could already see the headlines in that week’s Syston Times ‘A REAL CIRCUS ACTUALLY COMES TO SYSTON’. We’d all be famous in no time.
Little did I realise things were destined to become far more newsworthy than that. The following afternoon, splashed all over the front page of the Leicester Mercury’s late edition, was a story that more than half the circus had been arrested. In the words of the crime reporter “a pair of midgets, a contortionist and a troupe of inebriated clowns, all of whom have no fixed abode” lay languishing in Syston’s police cells on remand, without bail. Having been banged up for drunk and disorderly conduct they were summoned to appear before magistrates on Monday morning. Monday morning! But the circus was only in Syston for the weekend. What sort of policemen would do a thing like that? The sort of policemen who hate children, that’s what sort of policemen would do a thing like that. Spoilsports! I mean, what would be left of circuses if all policemen went round arresting clowns for disorderly conduct? It’s part of the profession. Orderly clowns could only make a mockery of centuries of tradition. With it being the eve of the opening performance my sisters and I felt a conflicting mixture of thrill and disappointment. Thrill at Syston being the centre of county-scale attention for a spate of criminal activity, and disappointment at the thought of only half a circus.
Nevertheless, we comforted ourselves with the knowledge half a circus is better than none. And, as the old adage has it, the show must go on. If only because tickets had already sold out, and refunds were out of the question. After all, heavy fines might have to be paid to save clowns from doing porridge. That’s not so funny.
Friday night came and a misty drizzle settled in, but our renewed spirits weren’t to be dampened. The circus was in town. A real circus actually in Syston. The Tiny Top didn’t take long to fill, size being the determining factor. Size also ensured there wasn’t a spare seat left in the house.
I can’t remember all the details of the evening programme, except to say there was an awful lot of time to fill and not much circus left to fill it. I do recall several very long intervals listening to Freddie and The Dreamers ‘tellin’ us now over and over again. Or was it Herman and his Hermits tellin’ Mrs Brown what a lovely daughter she’d got?
How the blur of Shetland ponies running round and round the ring, so many times, till some ended up looking quite dizzy and faint, sticks in my memory. And the motley assortment of little dogs jumping through more coloured hoops than appear at opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. When I first spotted them, I hoped they were going be set aflame. Not the little dogs, the hoops. No such luck.
One performer stuck out especially. And in a very special way. The juggler’s glamorous, leggy assistant. She wore fishnet tights right up to her, well, right up to her tight-fitting sequined costume. What I remember most is the oversized, thick woolly cardigan she wore to ward off the damp evening chill. Every time she bent down to pick up the juggler’s juggling stuff, and hand it to the juggler, her cardigan came a bit apart, and I could see her jugs jiggle. Well, a sizeable portion of her jugs jiggle. Throughout the rest of my boyhood, sex and glamour got tangled up with contradictory images. A few brief glances of a limp, damp cardigan barely concealing a jiggling, chalky-white pair of jugs gave knitted garments an entirely new meaning that night.
The main act was one I’d seen before. Several months previously, Fyfe Robertson, a Scottish TV reporter more famous for his wispy goatee and tweed fishing hat than his investigative journalism, had interviewed a British Railways porter on BBC’s Tonight programme. The porter’s claim to fame was that he could eat broken light bulbs. Lo, and behold, there he was, having done what every schoolboy threatens to do after quarrelling with his parents. After stopping carrying other people’s bags in and out of trains, he’d packed his own and run away to join the circus. Trading in his British Railways uniform he’d donned a skin-tight leotard. The amazing transformation was awesome in every detail. it showed me what heights could be achieved if you really tried.
In the flesh, before our very eyes, he began crunching light bulbs with his teeth and swallowing nails. Just like he’d done on the telly. I was gobsmacked. What a fine example to the assembled children. The only thing I’d ever seen that came anywhere near, was when little Terry Simpson swallowed a worm, which he promptly threw up. I couldn’t wait to get home to try crunching a few lightbulbs myself. I’d start with the small one in my bike lamp. And then move on to swallowing a handful of dressmaker’s pins.
And that reminds me, I must see how our neighbour’s gran is doing. Her false teeth got stuck fast after she climbed out of the bath and sat on them. The doctor says he can’t operate until next week. Apparently, she’s doing fine apart from having some difficulty chewing.
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