Short Story: A day at the circus

On a breezy March day my two youngest children and I went to the circus. We had been given vouchers to obtain half price tickets and as live circuses are now a rarity my children were keen to go. To avoid being late we decided to eat at one of the fast food places which have sprung up everywhere in the last few years.

The eating place (it would be an abuse of language to call it a restaurant) was gaudily decorated, noisy and overcrowded and although I managed to find seats for Angela and Jermaine, I had to stand throughout the meal.

I was struck by how young the staff were; labour costs were obviously being kept to a minimum by avoiding having to pay adult rates The orders were shouted through to the kitchen from the self-service counter and. in a matter of seconds, cardboard containers slid down a chute from the kitchen to the servery. There were no plates, knives or forks – everything was disposable. Hot drinks were not available so we settle for “root beer” which looked and tasted like weak disinfectant.

Whilst we ate the teenage staff, dressed in brightly coloured uniforms and paper hats, constantly moved around the room sweeping up and clearing away the vast amounts of rubbish generated by the disposable containers.

The food was out of this world: it tasted unearthly! We ate square lumps of fish type food in doughy rolls that tasted like chewy plastic. The whole process of ordering, paying for and eating this unsatisfying “junk food” took less than twenty minutes but cost nearly as much as a proper meal at a restaurant. We left, consoling ourselves with the thought that the next meal would taste wonderful by comparison The fast-food places epitomise capitalist values; money is taken from the customers in the shortest time possible and the fact that the product is unpalatable and lacking in nutrition doesn’t matter as long as it is profitable.

We caught the ‘bus to the circus ground The “Big Top” was situated on a patch of muddy, waste ground; the booking office was a caravan adjacent to it. Everyone in the queue appeared to have half-price vouchers; perhaps that was why the prices were so high the issue of vouchers all over town gave the customers the appearance of getting in cheaply but the tickets, even at half price, were more expensive than cinema seats.

The “heated” Big Top had two electric heaters. each about the size that would be used to heat a small bedroom and we were thankful that the afternoon, although quite windy, was not colder.

We bought a programme with more misprints than the Guardian, which stated that it was the circus’s first British tour. Certainly the East European-sounding names of the artistes made it all sound quite exotic but their North of England accents contradicted this somewhat.

At the bottom of the programme there was a note stating that some towns refused to let circuses perform because of cruelty to animals, but claimed that all of their animals were well cared for. Cruelty or neglect of circus animals is usually not the result of individual culpability or sadism but the need to operate as cheaply as possible in order to make a profit.

A sudden gust of wind caused some of the tent props to collapse, rocking the Big Top and knocking over two or three tiers of seats which, fortunately, were still empty. The scene shifters rushed to shore it up again. More recently four people were taken to hospital when 200 seats collapsed at a circus at Tunbridge Wells, safety always takes second place when profits are threatened

After a delay and an only partly coherent explanation announced over the Tannoy system the circus began. Some clowns, dressed as Disney cartoon favourites ran around the sawdust covered, muddy ring in old, patched outfits spoilt further by mud stains. The jugglers came on next, one of whom was the programme seller. The old adage about being Jack-of-all trades and master of none certainly applied here as she dropped one of her rings and her exclamation of annoyance was clearly audible. Next came the Apache chief (who judging by his accent probably came from Leeds) and his fire pony. After a flame swallowing act the pony was supposed to jump over a bar on which rags, soaked with methylated spirits and ignited, were tied. The pony refused and the Apache said despairingly to the Ringmaster: ‘It’s no good, he won’t do it.’

To cover up the confusion the baby camel and llama were brought on quickly and scampered round the ring. Both of these animals smelled worse than a politician’s promise and. for a few minutes, we regretted having ringside seats. The Ringmaster took a turn as a magician, performing all the tricks that can be seen in second-rate amateur talent shows. Then it was the turn of a “ghost” to torment the clown who turned out to be the “Apache” chief, his hands still blackened from the flame swallowing act and making an incongruous contrast to his white makeup and red nose.

After a girl performed an act with pythons, there was an interval in which we bought home-made popcorn which tasted like sweetened rubber but was much more expensive We were served by the two jugglers who had changed into overalls.

Following the interval the artists who had performed the act with the pythons had knives thrown at her. But this was no ordinary knife-throwing act; the knife thrower was the only member of the circus troupe who looked over twenty one. He looked much nearer to seventy one. was white haired, bowed at the shoulders and had no teeth. The knives were thrown from a distance of about four feet and missed the girl by nearly as big a margin so that, unlike most knife- throwing acts, there was no need to feel apprehensive for her safety.

A trapeze act, no more than eight or nine feet from the ground, performed by one of the jugglers was followed by more clowns. All ten acts, announcements and moving of props had been performed by about half a dozen people My children had enjoyed the circus because it had been a new experience to see a live show instead of the television and the cinema. I had enjoyed the comedy of errors, but it was tinged with nostalgic sadness that live shows cannot compete with the vast sums of money that go into making up the glossy entertainment of the mass media and the huge profits to be made from them.

The youngsters who performed did so cheerfully and worked hard to entertain the public, the fact that they had to try and master every circus act (not always successfully) is an indictment of the capitalist system in which everything is reduced to a commodity and has to be commercially successful to survive.

Under socialism, live shows will be performed for the pleasure that they give; it will no longer be necessary to exploit teenagers to make a profit.

Carl Pinel