While driving around Sussex last week I couldn't help noticing that Circus Season has arrived. There are fliers stuck up everywhere - several circuses seem to be open for business in the county just now. They all look similar, and while there is an obvious distinction to be made between proper circuses and funfairs, it isn't always easy to discern which kind of travelling outfit it is as one drives past. Both feature heavy lorries; big caravans of a type and make not usually seen on Caravan Club sites; and sundry 4x4 vehicles from pick-up trucks to Range Rovers, that can cope with a sometimes difficult life on the road.
I suspect that there is a definite hierarchy in the travelling world: certain families who are acknowledged to be topmost; and below them, a gradation of showpeople, from the best there is to the merest casual minder of some stall. I do know that there is a lot of capital invested in the equipment. A modern ride and supporting paraphernalia might cost its owner £100,000. A few families will have the ready cash to actually buy such a thing outright; most will have to borrow, and such financing is, as you would expect, arranged within the close-knit travelling community. Would it be fanciful to suppose that weddings between showpeople often involve a long-term business deal as well? I do often wonder whether in 2014 any of it can be a paying proposition, a worthwhile method of earning a living. One supposes so. But it's not well-regarded. Funfairs at least have acquired a low-grade image derived mainly from the typical customers: loud brash kids with empty heads and some cash to waste. Putting it another way, a funfair is hardly the place to take your fastidious great aunt. She wouldn't see it as a treat.
A circus might be different, and certainly would have been fifty years ago, when Billy Smart's Circus toured the land. Mum and Dad took me and my younger brother Wayne to see that particular circus at Cardiff in 1962 (I rather think it was around the time of my tenth birthday in July) - or it might have been at Easter 1963 (when I was still ten). My goodness, it was a grand affair, spread out in a vast expanse of parkland, perhaps the grounds of Cardiff Castle itself. An immense Big Top - I was fascinated by all the guy-ropes, and no doubt tripped over one. Other tents too. Caravans and big red-painted lorries of all kinds, with shining brass fittings and fancy lettering. A flood of eager spectators of all ages and every social class - with parents and their children predominant. Stalls selling pink candyfloss, and balloons on sticks: I was given one, a golliwog, I'm now sorry to say (and it wasn't what I wanted). And the noise: over the hubbub of the crowd was a background drone of diesel generators. And the smell: a certain animal odour that made you think of desperate caged tigers that might escape at any moment.
This was a scary, overpowering place, and I was glad to get seated at last inside the Big Top. But only as a sort of sanctuary from the rampaging tigers outside. By then I'd had quite enough, and wanted to get away back home. None of this was my kind of thing. It was too loud, too lurid, too theatrical, too embarrassing. I wanted to seem appreciative, but I wasn't prepared to scream with delight like the other children, and could not feel wonder at the elephant, horse and high-wire acts. I feared to witness dreadful injury or death if anything went wrong: I could not just sit there and be thrilled. (It was exactly the same last year, when I could only watch so much of the daring motorcycle stunt riders at the South of England Show)
The clowns did nothing for me. I think they were led by someone quite famous - one or two professional clowns of the time were nationally known, circuses of the calibre of Billy Smart's regularly appearing on TV. But the antics of this troupe seemed odd and unfunny, not what I considered to be in any way rib-tickling, even at ten. The traditional clown make-up was the only interesting thing: how it transformed and distorted the face, so that the wearer was unrecognisable! Clowns have become sinister figures in recent decades, associated with bad dreams. Back then I was not afraid, just perplexed. If they weren't really funny, then what was the point of a clown? I did not yet understand that historically, in Western culture, the clown (and allied figures like Pierrot) was a symbol for tragedy, and that, of all the characters on life's stage, they must pretend to laugh so that they may not cry. They are a universe away from modern stand-up comedy.
The Big Circuses have vanished. One or two became animal theme parks at a fixed location; others just faded away. The animal welfare pressure groups gradually wore them down. Health and safety legislation wore them down. The dazzling lights and costumes succumbed to the less spectacular but easier to watch offerings on TV. Circuses slipped from mainstream life. They had come to seem old-fashioned and niche, like attending an evening of Old Time Music Hall Entertainment in Victorian or Edwardian dress. And, shorn of lions and tigers and bears and elephants, their excitement had diminished. The small, intimate Circuses presently touring the Sussex countryside can only show you human performers - possibly the best around - but nothing to scare anybody.
I seem to be sounding a regretful note. I am certainly sorry that those who travel the roads as a way if life must find it harder to make a decent living nowadays. And I wonder whether those redundant circus animals were really happier behind their safari park fences, assuming the parks found room for them all. What a pity we could never ask them. I rather think they had no concept of human stuff like dignity and nobility, and were simply following a learned routine in the knowledge that it led to reward. I'm sure that whatever that reward was, they still hated captivity, and yearned to escape. If the cage door was ever left open, they'd be out and gone, and who could blame them? In that, I'm entirely with the animals. Whatever the benefits of a life behind bars, the regular meals, the veterinary checkups, the protection from the hazardous outside world, it's natural that any creature will seek freedom and won't care what the consequences may be, so long as food and a mate can be found.
Which seems to be the same basic condition of unfree human beings everywhere. Who can blame anyone enslaved who wants to be let out? And not simply refugees in sun-parched foreign lands, fleeing from oppressive regimes. What about the refugees within our own benign Western societies, people who are different and want a life of their own choosing - and not just one thought best for them?