My journey into the circus world began at the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome where I interviewed aerial silk artiste Eva Garcia, just a week before she fell to her death during her act.
In Circus Mania, I describe that trip to the circus as my first since childhood. But in fact I made one previous visit to the big top as an adult, maybe a decade before that fateful trip to the Hippodrome.
I can’t remember the name of the show, or even if I knew the name at the time, only that it was in the Hampton Court area on the border of south London and Surrey, where my girlfriend and I frequented a pizza restaurant, beside the Thames.
That may have been why we went - the circus just happened to be local and it was something different to do. It may have been my girlfriend’s idea. To this day, she harbours a fond memory of a single previous trip to the circus before she met me. On that occasion she’d seen a poster of a bear riding in a car and been unable to resist the spectacle. The image of the bear circling the ring was all she remembered of that visit. In fact, she remembered wanting to see the bear more strongly than she remembered actually seeing the bear. The spectacle had left her bemused, but the image on the poster had made her buy a ticket.
I guess the best circus posters can be like that; they sell a dream, and how often does reality live up to our dreams?
Anyway, there were no bears that night in Hampton Court, but there is something dream-like about my memory of our night at the circus.
For one thing, it was in a location I don’t remember visiting before or since. All I recall is that it was pitch dark, remote and a long walk from where we parked. The air was damp from our proximity to the river. There was nobody about.
In the bright interior of the snugly small tent, we sat at ringside. We could have sat anywhere, there were so few people there. I can’t say we were the only people there, but there was certainly nobody on the seats immediately to either side of us. Perhaps a couple of families were dotted around the sawdust circle.
The recorded music began, that old circus classic, Entrance of the Gladiators, and I noticed that the sound of a cheering crowd was mixed into the recording. How sad, I thought, that they have to play a recording of cheers and applause to whip up an atmosphere, because there was none coming from the handful of people who had bought tickets.
I remember just two acts. The first was a chubby girl climbing a rope to strike some poses above our heads. Only two things struck me about her routine. The first was that she was the girl who had sold us our tickets. The second was that she had an enormous ladder in the thigh of her tights, which seemed to symbolise the threadbareness of the show we were watching.
The climax to the first half was a pony trotting around the ring with a chicken standing on its back.
I looked at my companion and we burst out laughing with embarrassment.
We didn’t stay for the second half.
As we made our way back through the darkness, a couple of young hippies tried to give us some leaflets, which we declined. They were trying to educate the public about the cruelty of keeping animals in the circus, they said. They were pleasant people and we passed the time of day for a few minutes before going on our way, bemused by the concept of people picketing a show no one was going to anyway.
Looking back, I wonder what I would have made of that show with the appreciation for circus that I have now. Would I have been charmed rather than embarrassed? Would I have overlooked the show’s shortcomings and been impressed by the pluckiness of performers carrying on a tradition that had been in their blood for centuries, despite the indifference of a public that had turned its back on them?
Or would I have been as underwhelmed as I was then? There are still bad shows out there. I’ve sat in empty, badly lit, freezing cold tents watching out of shape performers and unfunny clowns go through the motions of uninspired routines. I’ve reported on them truthfully - and been banned by the showmen from ever darkening their doors again. (Read here why circuses contribute to their own invisibility by refusing to be reviewed.)
I’ve also seen great shows full of heart-stopping, spellbinding and spirit-lifting spectacle that could compete with the best of any other form of entertainment.
But how many people have seen only one show like the one I saw in Hampton Court and never attended another circus, believing on the evidence before their eyes, that a dying form of entertainment had nothing else to offer them?
It was for those people, the people like me who never went to the circus, that I wrote Circus Mania, to show them a world rich in history, tradition, colourful characters, gripping stories and wonderful contemporary entertainment that is easy to overlook.
Mail on Sunday called my book “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” But it’s not really vanishing, just waiting to be discovered.