I remember going to the circus - when I was very very little - there was a huge empty space, a fallow ground behind the stadium in our town, and every year the posters went up and the anticipation began to build and then one day we'd see them there, like magic, nobody ever knew when they came, but the big top was being raised, and there were pennants fluttering everywhere, and great striped canvas tents went up and a sense of magic and mystery and who knows what started to gather around the place like a strange cloud... and then on opening night... the lights went up... and you crossed a boundary into enchantment.
The clowns always left me fairly cold - I never WAS one for pure slapstick with no leavening - but in the beginning I used to be enchanted by the animal acts, before I grew up and the enchantment began to fade like old glitter and I learned about the manner in which circus animals spend their lives.
But one thing remained enchanted, and does to this day. The trapeze.
In one way it is the ultimate act of human trust, especially when performed (as it sometimes was) in less than ideal conditions and even without the net. You had to trust somebody to be there for you, ABSOLUTELY, as you launched yourself off that high platform into nothingness and lights. It took my breath away, then, and still does today.
I tried looking for images of trapeze, to put into this blog post, to illustrate what I was writing about - but you know what - it's odd - I could not find one that matched the thing in my head. Not really. Not that gilded childhood memory of it that I still carry. You'll just have to imagine what's in my own mind's eye - the smell of sawdust, the murmur of the crowd, the sparkling lights on the spangles of the costumes, the drum roll from the band which presaged that something breathtaking and dramatic was about to unfold before my eyes. That, or substitute your own dream-image from some circus of your own childhood. Go on. Close your eyes. It's all around you, isn't it...?
There's a song about the circus that I used to go to as a child - that PARTICULAR circus.
I'll translate the lyrics for you:
The circus is leaving our small town
on the wide road that leads out to the bridge
The circus is leaving and I am asking myself now
who was the visitor and who was the host?
The circus is vanishing in the wide plains,
behind it in the rain its tracks shimmer like silver
They're going, the fakir and the tightrope walker,
and the sad clown whom I loved.
Was everything really just fake?
Was everything really just a cheap trick?
Or do all those masks hide pain
and quite a different face?
The kids will talk about the lights of the arena
They might practice some small trick secretly at home
but tomorrow, as soon as some time passes,
they will rarely stop to think about it all.
There will remain a round imprint where the big top was,
there where we watched the brave man wrestle with a tiger,
and a few posters will remain around town, showing the fire swallower
on whom the kids will quickly draw a fake moustache
Good night, ladies and gentlemen,
this performance is now over.
I hope you enjoyed it.
It was a pleasure clowning around for you all these years.
I hope we can meet again in some other town,
in some other performance,
in some other circus.
The circus is leaving, it's better for everyone that way
Many have understood the performance by now.
New clowns are easily enough found by the crowds
as some other circus wanders into our town...
Here's the song itself - you might get the mood of the piece better through the melody:
You might well have some childhood vision of your own first visit to the big top - but to me, this song is so redolent of home and of my childhood - because I remember that wide road that leads out to the bridge, the bridge that isn't there any more, and I remember those posters curling in the rain on streetlamp poles, and I remember, oh so well, that wasteland behind the stadium where once tigers and elephants and trained dogs once pranced and roared. When I think of that place, I can still smell the sawdust and the excitement.
And I can still remember - and still experience to this day, well after I have left my childhood days behind - the catch in my breath as the woman in the spangled leotard let go of her bar and flung herself into the glittering arms of magic and of ultimate trust, reaching out for a pair of arms which simply had to be there waiting for her... had to be, or she was lost.
Sometimes, when I close my eyes and launch myself off the high trapeze of my own life, I close my eyes and try and forget that there is no net below me... and concentrate on remembering the simple fact that I have to trust, at a crucial moment, that there will be somebody there to catch me. That, or stay forever on that high small platform where I have climbed, too afraid to believe in magic.