Books: Elephants make your legs bleed

Josser by Nell Stroud Little, Brown pounds 14.99
If you wanted to know just how much work and pain it takes to achieve the smiles and glitter of circus, how much sweat there is under the spangles, how riding an elephant makes your thighs bleed, how risky it is to pull down the big top in the wind, it's all laid out here in a fascinating parade of personalities and acts. On one level, the book reads as a modern day account of the nice girl who ran away to join the circus. On another, as an elegy for a way of life in decline.

Above all, though, this book is a startling and accurate account of work. Nell Stroud's jobs at the circus - for there was always more than one job - mainly involved the care of animals. "At Santus Circus, as with any other travelling show, time was the most valuable commodity available. Time was borrowed, lent, stolen, argued over. No single person in the circus had one job to do."

It was hard work, the kind of work that makes you ache at the end of the day or, more often, ache well before the end, with hours of physical toil ahead before you can rest. Work so hard you stop thinking and fretting, where emotions are forced on to a back burner while life is divided into labour, rest and food. Work that makes your looks change, that takes a toll on your health.

Stroud's account of the circus is interwoven with scenes from her other life: the tragedy of her mother's accident which, we're led to conclude, propelled her towards this mythical escape for middle-class girls: to run away with the circus, replacing pain with work, horses and glamour. She races through three years of university in one sentence, though later on friends from that other world glide in and out of the different and more disciplined rhythms of the circus. "I stayed at university for three years, read some of the books, wrote essays, took the exams. When I left I had no plans except to find work in a circus in England ..."

Circus is all. But in the last third of the book it becomes clear that part of her enterprise is about writing a book, this book, and as a consequence her circus life is temporary, not essential. Her background gives her other options: the circus people recognise this, as she does herself. She remains a Josser, an outsider in circus language, always that slightly uncomfortable mixture between an anthropologist and a performer. She takes seriously the job of recording what's left of the circus way of life but the awkward edge between her roles as witness and participant is at the centre of the book.

It's no coincidence that her big top role is ring-mistress: introducing, commenting, explaining, but a little detached from the real danger, thrills and spills. At one point, she remarks - as perhaps only a writer could - on her growing involvement with a circus colleague, that "maybe a bit of feeling, torn this way and that, was as interesting as it was superficially painful ..."

Above all Stroud has written an elegy for circus and its traditions. She mixes facts about the decline of circus in this country, the increasing lack of respect for its special skills, with her life around the families and individuals who work the big top. "I would cry," she says, "that more is not seen and felt and recorded as the sun goes down and the colours bounce, brilliant, off everything." We are lucky to have the record of this book.