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February 13th 2017 print

Geoffrey Luck

The Wirthless Circus

When the Big Top came to town in the days of my youth it was all razzle-dazzle, bright lights and glitter. But I also recall my disappointment at noticing it was all a bit grubby, the paint chipped and gold braid tarnished -- not unlike the cavalcade of clowns and spruikers parading on Capital Hill

ommpah loompah shortenReflecting their resort in times of turmoil to cliché (as safe substitute for original thought) politicians have lately been indulging themselves in one of their favourite pastimes – drawing analogies. “The Liberal Party is a broad church”, we hear intoned, without explanation as to who fills the pews, who the choirboys are, and who pulls out all stops on the organ. We are left to guess, but can imagine, who delivers the sermon.

When Cory Bernardi left “The Tent”,  (via a flap) the news instantly took me back to my childhood, and the excitement in the neighbourhood when the Big Top came to town.  Australia in that far distant time had few entertainments, but the arrival of the caravan of Wirth’s Circus, endlessly circling the continent, brought shrieks of happiness to thousands of young lives.

The spare paddock down the road quickly filled with trucks, a semi-circle of cages of wild animals, and frantic activity.  Disobeying our parents’ orders to stay away, we watched wide-eyed as men dragged out the huge roll of canvas. With pulleys they hoisted the massive central pole upright. In no time at all a vast room as big as the town hall had magically been created. How could we have known, as watched the tent go up, and later as the performers thrilled us with their daring stunts, that we were witnessing a proxy for real life, a metaphor for the Commonwealth Parliament?

The circus was all razzle-dazzle, with bright lights, a brass band and glittering costumes. But I remember my disappointment at noticing it was all a bit grubby. The paint was bright but chipped, the golden tassels on the costumes tarnished. Behind the façade, the circus was rather tawdry. It had not travelled well.

But we were meant to put these thoughts aside, as the show began. First, the Ringmaster in his top hat and tails, white gloves and cane, to announce the programme. It was, of course, to be spectacular. No microphone then, but with voice and megaphone alone, he made himself heard in the farthest corners of the tent.

Then came the clowns with their painted faces; one too fat, the other ridiculously thin, stumbling, kicking each other, pulling faces at the children.

What a show!  The tumblers, turning somersaults, forwards and backwards as they ran; the jugglers, tossing balls into the air like ideas, higher and higher, till we looked up to discover the tightrope walker, delicately balanced on his wire. He wobbled, wavered and threatened to fall as a hush descended, but we were disappointed in never seeing gravity work its will.

Next came the animals – dogs with bow ties walking on their hind legs, show ponies with manes beribboned — inviting admiration but doing nothing special, plus bareback riders on camels who swiveled to face forward or backward as they circled the ring, bowing to the crowd.

The best of the bareback riders came back in, riding two white horses, holding two reins, and with a foot on each mount. The Roman Ride was always a favourite, as we hoped to see him do the splits. It never happened. The key to the trick was to keep his balance, not favouring one horse or the other.

To the big iron cage in the centre, a man dressed in an absurd outfit of wild skins  brought in lions and tigers. He made them climb stairs, jump through hoops of fire, then kneel down in order to show he was king of the beasts.

After that, it was up high again as the trapeze artists leapt from their perch, swung back and forth until one let go, did a somersault in mid-air and the other caught him. Sometimes in this trick, we were lucky: they missed and he fell! Ooooooh! But there was a safety net, and he bounced back, none the worse.

Finally a team of strong men made a pyramid, each level standing on the shoulders of those below, until the last and topmost  balanced, standing on his hands, upside down. This was the climax of the stunts. All seemed to have been designed to risk gravity and commonsense, to flaunt strength and bravery. How long could they keep it up?

At the end of the show, the whole troupe came back in and marched around the ring for applause. The last in the line were the elephants, tail to trunk, nodding their heads. There were always elephants in the room that was the tent. But nobody was supposed to leave before the end.