I recently joined the circus. For about three days. I’m writing a book that’s set in one, so as a good writer, I owed it to myself to make sure I knew what I was writing about.
I contacted various circuses and told them about myself and my writing and finally one responded saying they’d love to have me join them and see what life was like living in such an incredible place. Sacha Santus, son of the owner of Santus Circus, even offered me the use of a caravan while I was there so I could live on the actual circus grounds themselves. Of course I jumped at the chance. Sacha warned me it wasn’t anything special, just a bunk to sleep on and a roof over our head, but I didn’t care. It was a caravan. In a circus!
So I dragged my husband Gary along as well to share my experience. He’s an amateur photographer and I thought it would make a great opportunity to take some incredible pictures.
And what an experience it was. The circus is like its very own kingdom. You have the King and Queen, the sons and daughters of Royalty, the Aristocracy, the Courtiers, the Serfs, the Transport Ministers…. all with their very own hierarchy and position. There’s also a lot of politics and intrigue contained at its core which I won’t spill the beans about too much but suffice it to say it would make a wonderful, riveting television show. I say this tongue in cheek because in all honesty, I’ve never met a more accommodating bunch of people. They made us feel so welcome, were there to answer all my disingenuous questions and opened up the grounds and the behind the scenes for me to take a look at.
Ernest, the owner and Ring Master was an absolute delight. He’s French, looking a little like Santa Claus, and a real charmer, and was hospitality personified. I had a long chat with his wife, Eva Santus, herself a well-known artist based in Whitchurch. Their son Sacha was wonderful too, answering lots of questions and telling me about the inner workings of the world into which he was born.
Then there was Craig and Walter. They are the trapezists, and also a partnership in both sense of the word, on and off the trapeze. Craig was helpful in telling me more about the work he does and how the circus works and Ruby, Ernest’s niece and a juggler, was lovely to talk to and made sure we were settled in as well as filling in some details I was missing about circus life.
Let me tell you a few home truths about circuses that might have been propagated by old films…
- Santus Circus has just over 30 people working there. And I mean working. They all have an employment contract and they all get paid for what they do. It isn’t just working for food and board, and the artists and performers are working individuals in their own rights.
- This brings with it the same pressures an ordinary working man or woman face- honing your skills, making sure you stay on top of what you do, making sure you remain an asset to the circus.
- They don’t all gather around a camp fire at night and sing ditties in their circus costumes. (I was gutted to find this out …) In fact, they don’t eat together at all unless they are invited to each other’s caravans for a meal, just like we would invite friends over.
- They all multi task. Craig the trapezist is also the man on the door showing people to their seats; Ruby the juggler is the face behind the pancake stand when the show is on; Lucy the aerialist is also on the door, selling programmes and helping the public before the show. Lucien the clown is the man selling the gimmicky glow tubes and kids toys prior to the show. They all take it in turns to man the ticket office during the day.
- They experience plenty of jealousy from other circuses to the extent their posters are defaced or pulled down. They’ve even had all their posters plastered with ‘Show Cancelled’ stickers from a rival circus.
- Everyone literally pulls their weight- mostly the men- moving props around during the show, changing the scenes and making sure the ring is set up for the next act. Even the top billed acts get into the act so to speak. There’s no favouritism. It’s quite old fashioned in this way- the men do the heavy lifting, the women the cleaning, cooking, manning the less physical tasks.
- When they aren’t putting up the Big Top, taking it down, practicing or making sure everything is ready for the show- the circus teams go into the nearby towns for the morning and drop off pamphlets, tell people about the shows, and do the promotional leg of the whole event. The pile into vans and cars and off they go, and only come back later afternoon.
- They make most of their own costumes by hand themselves.
- People that aren’t part of the circus are called ‘jossers’.
This is their typical week-
- Sunday night- the finish of the shows in a specific town/city- they dismantle the Big Top after the last show is over.
- They pack up, and drive all Sunday night to the next venue.
- Monday- the Big Top is put up. This can take most of the day.
- Tuesday- they all relax, have a day off.
- Wednesday- the first show at night. Off dropping pamphlets during the day and making last minute checks.
- Wednesday morning – pamphlet drops. Wednesday night- first show at 7.30 pm
- The rest of the week the show generally performs twice- afternoon and night.
- Sunday- it starts all over again.
- The season itself closes in November, until January and then everyone goes their own ways, home to visit absent family, wives, husbands and children. Some even take part in off-site training for their art.
- The Santus family remain on site with the caravans. It’s their home and it’s a tradition that there always has to be member of the Santus family on the site at all times.
Apart from the Santus family member having to be on site, there are other little quirks I found out.
Never open an umbrella in the Big Top. That’s a definite no-no
No cats are allowed in the circus, no matter what.
You can’t whistle in a circus, with the mouth. It’s bad luck.
Santus doesn’t allow any pure black or green costumes – again, it’s bad luck.
I had to finish with this lovely story about how Craig and Walter met. A few years ago, Craig was selling candy floss before a show Walter was coming to, as a paying patron. Craig quite fancied Walter and from the sounds of, the attraction was returned because Walter kept coming back to buy candy floss. That night Craig finally asked Walter if he wanted to go for a drink after the show, Walter said yes….and that was it. A while later Walter resigned his job as a receptionist in London and joined the circus with Craig. Craig taught him trapeze art skills and now they perform together in the Big Top. Here they are.
All together now -aww. Who said romance was dead? This sounds like a romance novel in the making.
I’d like to thank the Santus family for making Gary and I feel so welcome and allowing us a rather rare and privileged glimpse into the inner sanctum of their home.