The relief I felt when my taxi pulled up in front of a gaggle of caravans, clustered around a white, billowing big top, was palpable. We had been driving aimlessly around rural Oxfordshire for the last half an hour, searching in vain for any sign that the circus had come to town. I had been desperately trying to explain to the driver that, No, I’m not a trapeze artist or acrobat or tightrope walker and, Yes, it really is a circus and, No, I’m afraid I don’t know how to juggle.
And then, suddenly, there it is, looming before me, and I’m so excited and nervous and relieved. It looks exactly like I imagined (except that it is spitting with rain and everyone is wearing high-vis jackets). Within minutes of arrival I am seated in the box office, pen in hand and a stack of tickets in front of me. This, I quickly come to understand, is the circus way. No time for introductions or training or any of that namby-pamby stuff; you learn as you go, and you’d better be quick about it. It would all be irrelevant anyway since almost all jobs are communal.
Having lived and breathed circus life for a week and a half now, I can confidently report that it is bloomin’ hard work! I am bruised, blistered, muddy, and at one point nearly ended up being transported to our next location while still asleep in my bunk! If there is one thing I have learnt about circus life it’s that you have to embrace it completely and hit the ground running. Many of my colleagues are circus veterans who have experienced all of this many times before. So many times, in fact, that it’s everyday life to them. They know you have to slam caravan doors to close them properly (it’s extremely awkward when they swing back open during the night while you’re sleeping…) and not to leave a bottle of mouthwash slightly unscrewed on move days (almost everything I own now smells strongly of spearmint). But this knowledge won’t be passed on; you have to figure it out on your own through trial and error. It’s a bit like an initiation. Circus living is not easy, and you have to earn your place within it.
I’ve been here just over a week now. My first day on site it rained so much that when I went into town, shopkeepers asked me to take off my boots because they were so caked in mud, and yesterday we experienced two short hail flurries and a small thunderstorm. Needless to say, I have mastered the art of wearing wellies (rain boots) with any and all outfits. But all this becomes irrelevant when you wake up one day to the sun streaming through your caravan window, or the clouds suddenly melt away to reveal one of those long, languid summer evenings. I can feel myself falling in love with this alfresco lifestyle and have been pleasantly surprised at how liberating it is to strip my life down to the bare essentials. For the first few nights at the circus, my bunk had no light, and I used a head-torch to see with. Yesterday I bought a second-hand lamp for £5, and I still feel giddy with happiness every time I look over at it. I can think of nothing else I have purchased in the last twelve months that has bought me that much joy.
I am also completely enamored with the ‘circus family’ mentality that exists here. I’m very much the new girl so am still carefully feeling my way through the social dynamics at play here, but I can see how close everyone is and can hardly wait until I’ve been here long enough to earn my place within the system. It is this sense of community that I hope will be the crowning glory of my time with the circus. Having only been here a short time, I think the phrase ‘tentatively hopeful’ sums up my feelings best. I’m still learning, but perhaps by my next column I’ll be slamming caravan doors like a pro!