The Circus

The banging would start about six o'clock in the morning. I would rush to my bedroom window and yes, there in the field behind my house, they were starting to put up the big top. A circle of gaily painted vans and trailers surrounded the heap of poles and canvas on the ground. Long metal tent pegs were being driving into the earth with sledgehammers and the four kingpoles were being winched into position.

I couldn't get dressed fast enough and get out the back door, through the hole in the hedge and up into the Rec Field.

It was a mass of activity and I could see some of my friends were already there. We were all looking for odd jobs. Carrying small poles, washing vans, not for money but for free tickets to the show. This was incredible. Being part of a circus was so exciting, even if only for a day.

Then there were the animals. Those were the days of real circuses, Duffy's and Fossett's were the main ones. They had tigers, elephants, bears. All kinds of curiosities – two headed chickens, calves with eight legs, bearded ladies, strong men, midgets. Where you would have to pay to see these later at show time, they were all being shuffled into their respective enclosures and they didn't mind us having a preview. We would, after all, run off and tell our friends and relations about the wonderful treats in store.

By late morning, the big top would be up and the job of building the seating would begin. This consisted of tiers of wooden planks radiating from the central circus ring outwards.

Having been promised free tickets if we washed his camper van, one of the showmen didn't pay up and told us to scram. He had a sparkling, clean vehicle but reneged on the deal. It was not long afterwards that his van was 'decorated' with horrible muddy divots. Idiot!

There would be two shows. An afternoon matinee and an evening show. Ringside seats cost more than the ones higher up at the back. You also had a much better chance of getting in on an act. Bobo and his clowns would often bring children into the ring and get them involved in some stunt or another. Sometimes it was just a matter of telling a clown if they saw the ghost. The ghost would creep up behind the clown and all the children would be shouting in a frenzy "Behind you!" When the clown was persuaded that there really was something behind him he would turn around but the ghost stayed behind him as he turned and the shouting would get even louder. Eventually, he would see the ghost and a chase would ensue with the ghost occasionally stopping and patting some poor ringside kid on the head to much screaming.

Even better than being called upon to work with the clowns, a few lucky kids would get to be hooked up to the harness for a horse act. Like a revolving crane, it would support the child as it stood on the back of the pony trotting around the ring. I never got picked to do this and I really wanted to try it.

How we marvelled at the trapeze acts and shook with terror as the lions and tigers clawed at the tamer's chair. We laughed at the antics of the chimpanzees and walking dogs and cowered as the fire-eater spat flames far into the air.

Next morning, all that would be left of the circus would be a circle of sawdust and a few wheel tracks in the soft ground but for weeks afterwards, we played at circuses and relived all those wonderful moments.

Joe Gillespie

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Joe Gillespie
Joe Gillespie

Joe reminisces about his childhood in Larne in the 1940s and '50s.