Tuesday, 1 September 2009
Brighton, the summer of 1978. In April me and 80,000 others had marched across National Front turf to see Jimmy Pursey jam with The Clash in Victoria Park. It all seemed downhill from there. Punk couldn't last of course. Not as anything that was even mildly threatening to the bastions of power. Punk was doomed to become just another facet of pop-culture, albeit one that provided hours of fun. People like me had no right to expect anything else, but that didn't help the feelings of disappointment as the 70's drew to a close and the grim reality of what the 80's might hold started to dawn on me. No direction known. I needed a pick-me-up big time and there it was, in the job section of the Argus, WANTED, CIRCUS HANDS.
The Brighton Centre was playing host to a circus for a couple of months and they were hiring local labour as ring-hands. I could join the circus without running away! Perfect. In no time at all I was rigging safety nets for the trapeze artists, leading a camel into the ring (my camel was called Iran and it was love at first sight) and quickly running in with a shovel to remove piles of horse, camel and elephant poo. Bobby Robert's elephant act provided me with my personal high point. Along with another guy I would lug a heavy revolving mirror globe into the centre of the ring. On top of the globe was welded a steel plate and we would go down on one knee, place our hands under the plate to steady it as the elephant did a handstand. Bobby said that it was important not to put our thumbs on top of the plate to avoid having them trodden on. I could see his point. Once the elephant was in the handstand position we would back off and with a gentle shove from Bobby the beast would revolve a couple of times and dismount. That was our signal to run back into the ring and retrieve the prop. We had four seconds to do this before the rest of the elephants came charging into the ring. It's surprising how fast you can run when surrounded by charging elephants.
Lauri Lupino Lane came from a famous theatrical family, had been the star of the pre-war musical hit "Me and My Girl" and had made "The Lambeth Walk" an all time hit. Here he was doing what I came to learn is known as a "slop act", playing the fool with ladders and buckets of shaving foam. Looks easy but is actually a very highly skilled act. I was proud to carry his buckets. I marvelled at the skill and daring of the high flying Star Lords and that legendary trapeze artist Miss Mara and learnt the secret of sawing a lady in half from Ricky and Roddy. Jasmin Smart, legs seemingly reaching to her armpits, rode her beautiful Palomino horse. Chinese contortionists, crazy clowns, unridable mules. Two shows a day, six days a week. The stress levels could have powered a small town but I loved every minute of it. Punk was dead but the circus lived, and just for a while I was a small part of that special world.