LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

5 Great Books for Circus250

Mabel Stark tussles with a tiger
- a picture of the real life Mabel Stark
from Robert Hough's novel

2018 is Circus250 - the 250th anniversary of the very first circus. If you’re looking for big top reading matter, to catch up on the world of sawdust and sequins, may I suggest...


From cooch dancer to tiger-wrestling star of the Greatest Show on Earth, with half a dozen husbands along the way, the real life of Ringling legend Mabel Stark provides plenty of material for Hough’s novel. But, written like a memoir, this work of imagination probably brings the golden age of the American circus more thrillingly to life than any factual account. The descriptions of life in the big cat cage, Stark’s many maulings and her relationship with her favourite kitty, Rajah, are especially vivid and convincing - informed, as they are, by some letters about her work that Stark wrote to Earl Chapin May (of whom more below) in preparation for a ghost-written autobiography that never materialised.

From the era to the circus trains and the animal training - and even the structure, which flashes back and forth between Stark's older and younger self - there are parallels with Water For Elephants. But this is a far, far better book, not least due to Hough’s glorious evocation of Stark’s spunky, spiky voice which snaps and snarls from every line.

CONFESSIONS OF A SHOWMAN - My Life in the Circus by Gerry Cottle

From running away with the circus at 15-years-old to running several of Britain’s biggest big top shows, few have lived the circus life as fully as Gerry Cottle and I have met no one with a greater passion for the sawdust and canvas theatre. This candid memoir provides a fascinating look at the inside workings of the circus industry while entertaining with all the pace, daring-do and belly laughs of any show ever presented by Britain’s Barnum.


May writes of the “ever changing, never changing circus,” and it’s that never-changing quality that makes his rollicking survey of the Great American Circus as fascinating today as it was when it was written in 1932. Mixing historical accounts of circus’ rise through the previous century with a then contemporaneous look at the backstage workings of the Ringling show, May takes in every aspect of the three-ring world, from clowns to elephants. His showmanly prose mixes hard facts and diligent research with just the right amount of ringmaster’s hyperbole to evoke the sparkle of spangles and the scent of cotton candy. Probably long out of print, this is gem worth seeking out in the dusty corners of a second-hand book shop.

INSIDE THE CHANGING CIRCUS by David Lewis Hammarstrom
(Bear Manor Media)

Like a modern day Earl Chapin May, Hammarstrom guides us through the American circus as it exists now. Things have changed from the glory days when Mabel Stark ruled the centre ring, with the Ringling Brothers having become the “Ringless Brothers” since moving out of big tops “that you could almost feel breathing in and out,” and into indoor arenas “as exciting to behold as an abandoned airstrip in the Nevada desert.” Alternately bubbling with enthusiasm and seething with frustration, Hammarstrom is rare among circus writers in pointing out the rubbish and rip-offs alongside the wonderful in his quest to make you “a more discriminating circus fan.”

New Edition
updated for Circus250
CIRCUS MANIA by Douglas McPherson
(Peter Owen)

Modesty forbids me saying too much about my own book, so let’s leave it to Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, the Mail on Sunday: “Circus Mania is a brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” Click on the above tabs to read an extract or click on the book cover above right, go to the Amazon page and use the Look Inside function to try before you buy.


  1. Have ordered a copy of Hammarstrom's book today - thanks for the recommendation. To develop more discriminating circus fans is a noble mission indeed!

    1. I also recommend Hammarstrom's first book, Behind The Big Top, from 1980, if you can find it. More about it in my next post.