For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with the circus. Not so much the poor offerings of the modern day, but the fabulously faded ones from the past. The circuses of the 30s-50s have my specific interest and that leads into carnivals, freak shows and beach entertainment of those eras as well.
As a child I was fascinated by the animals and the people who seemed fearless in the face of those unyielding beasts. I also remember, as an adult, going to a circus when I lived in France. It was something that would be hugely frowned upon in British society, as the animals were not treated with the respect they deserved, however it still fascinated me nonetheless. I think what I love the most about the circus and travelling world is the uncertainty of it. These people, and their animals, travel from place to place in the hope that people will want to see what they have to offer. They play on the natural curiosity of human nature – the fact that people want to be transported from their mundane, everyday lives, into a world of mystery and playfulness.
Having read the ‘Electric Michelangelo’ by Sarah Hall I was transfixed by the lives of the freaks and show(wo)men of Coney Island. It elicited a sense of sheer nostalgia in me and I got butterflies. I know I wasn’t alive during the early 1900s, however there was something about the characters that made me think, for just one moment, that I may believe in reincarnation. A feeling deep within me made me think that I had once been a part of such a wonderful AND sinister world. It excited me to believe this and I was saddened when, a few years later, I visited Coney Island and was shocked to discover the ramshackle buildings and faded carnival signs. It highlighted that this was a dying breed of people and a way of life that no longer suited modern culture. With technology and amazing cinematography, people no longer need to use their imagination when they want to see something spectacular. They pay for the thrill of being transported to a digital world where anything is possible. They don’t need to woop and gasp at the tremendous risks people are taking with their lives as stunt men and women, as well as a huge team of safety experts, are on hand to make sure nothing goes wrong. It wasn’t so in the time of the great circuses of the past. People lived, and died, doing what they loved or had been forced into.
I’m now also recognising that not everyone got a choice about being a part of the circus. Some were forced into it, bought into it or just didn’t know any other way of life and so were trapped in a world where everything else was seen as “odd”. Freaks were bought into the circus and had to face atrocities – not all at the hands of other circus workers, but by the paying customers. They saw it as a safe haven where they could gain money from their disfigurement or body modifications. Others lived brutal and cruel lives at the hands of their captors. There are always two sides to the circus coin and I am aware, and have researched, both so that I don’t live in the idyllic, top hat and tails world where everything was glamorous and rosy.
It is probably the fact that circuses exude glamour, but are not all they seem, that attracts me to them. We all want to be seen as something we may not wholly be, but it doesn’t mean we can’t candy coat it. The circus is all about that – presenting something to the world that is, in the cold truth, fake. However, having read oodles of books and seen countless films and documentaries on circuses of the past, I have to say I am still a huge fan and find it absolutely fascinating to read about the things that went on. The shocking horrors of times gone by and the courageousness of the people who were involved. It is them that I am most interested in – these strong minded, strong bodied people, who lived by a strict code of “we’re in it together” and always supported each other. There were times when things were fraught, even amongst the performers, but they always came back together in the end. The circus taught me to understand that sticking to your guns is important and pursuing what you believe in is essential if you are going to be true to yourself. The perceived glitz and glamour of it is just a ruse, but the truth behind the curtained windows of those little trailers is where the most fascinating stories of all occurred.
Looking beneath the layers of something is so important in our modern world of fakery. Giving people a chance to shine, and looking beneath what they present to you, is really important. I will always love the circus for teaching me so much and allowing me to believe that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. It also taught me to be grateful of those who believe in me. They are few and far between and are treasured for this very reason.
Light and love, people. Mimi Cat xox