Bread and circuses or being perverse

In the days when I used to trade birthday parties with Andrew Gwizdak, Rachael Iredale, Denzil Broadhurst, Elizabeth Clegg and John Hobson it was sandwiches, trifle and pin the tail on the donkey. Then my parents came up with a wheeze. With a packed tea from Thomas's the bakers we went for a birthday party to the Queens Hall in Leeds to see Billy Smart's Circus. The last circus I remember after that was when I was about fifteen and I went with Garry and maybe Tracey to a circus in the Boxhall playing field.

I'm sure there were animals. They were different times and mistreating animals, at least in the form that circuses do, was not considered a sin. I vaguely remember people standing on the backs of horses, dogs jumping through hoops and men putting their heads into lion's mouths but what I remember more are the strong men, the jugglers, the knife throwers, the unfunny clowns and the tightrope walkers. Even then I liked the tackiness of circuses - the leopard skin suits that didn't fit, the sparkly costumes and the unwashed splendour of it all.

I became aware that circuses were verging on evil sometime in the seventies and I haven't been to a circus for maybe forty years until today. That's actually not true. I've been to a couple of the Cirque du Soleil type a couple of times and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Circuses are common in Spain. They are a part of the Christmas tradition. I've wondered about going a couple of times but Spanish circuses always involve animals and any time I've broached the idea with Maggie she has reminded me of the cruelty. I'm against animal cruelty but it doesn't cause me as much pain as some other cruelties and I can rationalise zoos and circuses. Today, without Maggie to stop me my curiosity overcame my conscience. There was a circus about two hundred metres from my house in La Unión and I went despite the poster advertising over one hundred animals.

The ring was tiny. Were they always that small? They had lions, snakes, ponies, american bulls (I don't know the English name) and llamas. No clowns, no strong men, no knife throwers, no trapeze artists and no jugglers or acrobats but there was a woman with hula hoops and a sort of aerial acrobat plus a woman who could contort her body. There was no audience to speak of. I was able to count the occupied seats. There were twenty five of us. The seats weren't tiered, just plastic chairs on the dusty ground. I was the only person without a child as a shield. Minnie Mouse shook my hand. I thought that maybe that was all the exercise the llamas would get until tomorrow's show. The ringmaster had been replaced by a man who sat in a sort of mobile disco truck, a man who loved that Benny Hill tune. The costumes were tacky but lots of it was done in versions of street clothes anyway.

I was taking some snaps before the show began and a couple of lads, the stage-hands, asked me to take their picture with the lions. I saw them pat the lions on the head and stroke their paws but the lions were in tiny cages and I saw the llamas and ponies penned up too. I knew I shouldn't be there. I won't be going back.

On balance I wish I hadn't gone.


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