|Mabel Stark tussles with a tiger|
- a picture of the real life Mabel Stark
from Robert Hough's novel
It's World Circus Day again, this Saturday April 16, so here are my pick of books about the big top...
THE FINAL CONFESSION OF MABEL STARK by Robert Hough
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 Robert 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 circus writer Earl Chapin May 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.
THE POSTERS OF BERTRAM MILLS by Steven B Richley
The poster has always been the primary means of publicising a circus. Billed as the Quality Show and the show that put the 'O' in Olympia, Bertram Mills was Britain's biggest and most famous circus in the first half of the 20th century and they produced the finest artwork. Often every act on the bill would have its own poster, painted by some of the best regarded artists of the day, meaning a town could be blanketed with arresting images. In 1960 alone, Bertram Mills printed more than 60,000 posters. And what became of them? Most were simply ripped down and thrown away when the circus left town, meaning surviving examples now command big sums. You'd have to be a millionaire to collect all the designs in this handsome coffee table book which makes it both a visual delight and a complete snip at under £40 including postage. Order from www.doublecrownbooks.co.uk
GIFFORDS CIRCUS - The First Ten Years
by Nell Gifford
In October 1999, Nell Gifford was invited to give a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival the following May. She suggested that they book her circus and gave them a glowing description: "There will be showgirls and a dancing horse and a motorbike and a raucous atmosphere, lit by gaslight!"
The director booked the show. The problem was, Gifford didn’t have a show. Or wagons. Or costumes. Or artists. Or capital.
In Gifford's previous book Josser (by Nell Stroud, as she then was) she described her apprenticeship as a circus runaway. This beautifully illustrated follow-up tells how she and husband Toti took the next step to create a circus of their own - and one of the most successful of the past decade.
Click here to read my full review.
My Life With Lions by Martin Lacey
It was a visit to Martin Lacey's Great British Circus in 2009 that prompted my book Circus Mania. I’d already become fascinated with the daredevil lives of human circus performers and had written several articles on the subject. But when Lacey reintroduced elephants to a British circus for the first time in a decade, they called to me with the promise of a glimpse into the history of the art form. The highlight of my visit was watching Lacey in the cage with his Bengal tigers and it was as I sat ringside that I realised I had to document a traditional form or entertainment that was - and still is - in danger of being killed off in the land of its creation. Sadly, Lacey is retired now, but this slim hardback book provides a concise and colourful account of his more than 40 years of working with animals of all kinds. Best of all is a 140-page collection of photos of Lacey and his family with not just lions, but polar bears, zebra, camels, elephants and even a rhino.
Click here to read my full review.
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.
THE ADVANCE MAN by Jamie MacVicar
It doesn't matter how good a show is if there's no audience to see it. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - the Greatest Show on Earth - plays in arenas that hold 12,000 to 20,000 people and the job of filling those seats falls to promoters such as Jamie MacVicar - advance men who arrive in a city two or three months before the circus train arrives and strive to ensure it's greeted by a snowstorm of publicity.
MacVicar's account of his time promoting the circus in the early 70s reads more like a novel - at times a thriller - than a memoir as he takes us into offices where deals are cut, backstage as tickets are counted, and out on publicity stunts with the advance clown and Michu, the Smallest Man in the World. Click here for a full review.
THE SHOWMAN'S GIRL by Julia Douglas
When Emily runs away with the circus in the 1930s, she enters a magical world of perilous adventures, intense friendships and deep passions. Growing up in the big top, she admires from afar the charismatic showman Adam Strand. But Adam is torn between his wife, Jayne, a daredevil tight-wire walker and Molly the elephant trainer who's always carried a torch for him. Emily becomes a star, but will she ever be able to tell Adam how she really feels?
Click here to read this atmospheric big top romance on your Kindle - or pick up the large print version in your local library.
OLIVIA'S ENCHANTED SUMMER by Lynn Gardner
If you’re looking for a Christmas present for the 8-14-year-old girl in your life, look no further than the Olivia books by Guardian theatre critic-turned-author Lyn Gardner. Beginning with Olivia’s First Term, the six books follow the adventures of two circus girls - Olivia and her younger sister Eel - who are billeted at their grandmother’s London stage school while their dad Jack, the Great Marvello, busies himself with such stunts as walking a high-wire between the towers of Tower Bridge.
With a huge cast of characters, the books convey all the excitement of a school where students are daily called to auditions, appear in West End shows and pursue careers as pop singers.
On top of all this there are plenty of thrills as Olivia uses her tightrope skills to foil villains and rescue her pals from peril. Click here for more.
INSIDE THE CHANGING CIRCUS by David Lewis Hammarstrom
(Bear Manor Media)
Like a modern day Earl Chapin May, David Lewis 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, rip-offs and peanut pitches alongside the wonderful in his quest to make you “a more discriminating circus fan.”
CIRCUS MANIA by Douglas McPherson
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 reader some of the 5-star reader reviews.