Books: In the world of exotic humans
JOSSER: DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE CIRCUS BY NELL STROUD, LITTLE, BROWN, pounds 14.99
Thursday 20 May 1999
As in all the most popular children's fairy tales, transformation is at the heart of circus. But not everyone at Santus Circus shared my enthralment. A small group of protesters straggled outside, shouting abuse at those of us going to the show.
This small, family-run circus was sad and struggling. Yet it's at Santus that Nell Stroud, joining them as a circus hand, found "the truest manifestation of the idea about life and art contained within the word circus". Santus is not avant-garde like the hugely commercial Cirque du Soleil. It has horses and an elephant, but has no e-mail address. It is clearly descended from the troupes of wandering players. It is archaic, but not - quite yet, at least - dead.
Nell Stroud is a little bit archaic herself: a quintessentially English middle-class girl who had pictures of horses on her bedroom wall and who went on hunts with her family. But when Nell was still a teenager, her mother had a riding accident that left her alive but severely brain-damaged. Josser attempts to weave this personal story in with her later life in the circus, as if one perhaps led to the other.
The circus is certainly about loss, leaving and moving on. But the threads that connect the two halves of Stroud's story are very thin. And don't we all, at some time in our lives, want to run away and join the circus? Becoming a josser - an outsider who joins the circus - is probably one of the few dreams almost everyone has had.
Josser taps into that dream. It's a romp through the circus world in the manner of an eager Oxford undergraduate, which is what, until quite recently, Nell Stroud was. But the circus is so laden with resonance that, even in an essentially jaunty book, jewels of insight emerge.
It didn't matter where Stroud's circus was pitched, because it was always the same place. Like a ship, a circus moves but does not travel. Stroud notes how people can, and do, hide in the circus - from their family, from the law, from themselves - even though it is a place stripped of any privacy. At one circus I travelled with, the police arrived early one morning to take the advance biller away. He was a wanted man. The circus both conceals and reveals.
We have all seen where circus people live, almost touched their caravans, watched their washing blowing on a line hung between the trees in our local park. But hardly any of us has been inside their tiny homes. The circus lives close to us, but we never intrude inside it. Even the costumes suggest nudity, yet cover the artiste completely. G-strings are worn over flesh-toned body suits.
Josser successfully strips the circus of its romantic image. The overwhelming feeling of those who work with Britain's last travelling players is not glamour, but unremitting tiredness. The work is never-ending. Shifting from town to town is not the free-spirited life of a Gypsy, but drudgery. The pattern of the day is more strict and routine than in any office job. And the locations are far from romantic - Sidcup, Coventry, Dagenham.
On such a site one morning, Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey, the taxmen raided Santus - already a failing business - and took away all but one lorry. Nell Stroud packed her bags and ran away from the circus.
Santus Circus carries on. I know because, just a few weeks ago, I chanced to drive past it. The big top was pitched on an out-of-town site, presumably refused permission by the local council to use the park, right on the edge of a loud motorway. I spotted a few Shetland ponies eating the grass around the ropes. I couldn't see an elephant; perhaps there isn't one travelling with the circus any more.
Nell Stroud was once part of that scene I glimpsed through my car window. She did something we all dream of doing. Her book is a brave attempt to keep this dream alive.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove