Books: In the world of exotic humans

JOSSER: DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE CIRCUS BY NELL STROUD, LITTLE, BROWN, pounds 14.99
SEVERAL YEARS ago, I visited Santus Circus. This tiny troupe of artistes had transformed an unpromising muddy field on the edge of a small town in Kent into a magical, sparkling stage of exotic humans and beasts. Under the big top, nothing was as it seemed. The same woman who had, it seemed, been selling popcorn dressed in an overall just moments before swung from a trapeze in a sequined costume. The dog who had been tethered in front of one of the caravans like a dull domestic pet scampered about the ring and performed tricks.

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.

Dea Birkett

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