Not all childhood memories are humorous, but all are formative.
In North America rodeos are still popular. They have clowns. The job of the clowns in a rodeo is to distract an angry animal so that a rodeo contestant can be rescued or escape the rodeo ring. You may not know that clowns in circuses are also required to be a distraction from time to time.
It is Christmas 1950. I am four years 8 months old. I have never been to a live performance. My dad surprised Mugwump (my brother, who was almost 11) and mum and me with tickets to the Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia in London.
We were all excited. Dad must have had a bonus at work that year because he was able to get us very good seats – almost ringside and right in the centre of all the circus action. My memory of our trip to the circus is a bit murky – but I can see some details more clearly through the mist.
I catch glimpses of clowns, of elephants holding onto the tail of the one in front, of sparkly sequinned costumes, and the very unique sound of circus orchestras. I wonder if they go to circus musician school so the brass always sounds the same, and they play the same circus tunes.
But my most vivid – rather, least misty memory, is of the star of the show. They erected a very high ladder with a small platform at the top. The ladder was set up very close to our seats. At the bottom was some kind of shallow container of water. The man-in-tights came on to special music. The Ring Master introduced him as the great somebody or other – how sad I don’t know his name, stage or otherwise. The RM described how he would defy gravity, climb to the top of the ladder and leap from the platform, landing in the shallow pool of water. A miraculous jump. In my imagination I hear him saying “never before performed” (except for the last sixteen shows). The band started to play music to build the tension. The man threw off his sparkling cape and started to climb the ladder. The lights dimmed and the spotlight isolated the performer as he slowly climbed the ladder. The audience was very quiet – just the sound of the orchestra building, building the tension. Then the man was on the platform haloed by the spotlight.
With a crescendo on the drums and a crash of the symbols he jumped.
In movies, the descent of a falling person from a window or ledge etc, is excruciatingly slow. But in my memory the man came down – whoosh – really fast and missed the container of water. ONe second he was up on the platform, the next he was lying on the floor of the circus ring.
There he was in front of us just lying on the sawdust floor. For several seconds it was completely quiet under the big top. Then the orchestra struck up a rousing tune, and the clowns came tumbling in, distracting the audience. A team of four came running over to the man, lifted him onto a stretcher and ran off. As Mugwump recalls “the audience didn’t seem to react – there were no gasps or shouts, just silence”. Perhaps they were stunned, or, this being just after the war, most had seen more than their share of death and injury. They had seen neighbours houses bombed to bits. Most families had lost loved ones. This was just one more tragedy in so many. Or, maybe the clowns did their job and distracted most of the audience from the tragedy they had witnessed
The crowd was soon busy watching the clowns perform. Shortly the show was over and we were filing out to find our cars.
The next day the newspapers reported an accident at Bertram Mills Circus the previous night in which a performer had been killed leaping from a high platform.
I wonder if this is why I don’t like circuses very much. I can’t watch a movie scene of someone on a ledge or falling. I am not good at heights and climbing ladders is challenging.
On a sarcastic note, maybe this is why we get some of the politicians we get when the world is in crisis, they distract us by sending in the clowns.