When Johnstone’s Circus came to town

At an unfashionable seaside resort,
no more than a country town
that happened to be near salt water,
Johnstone's Circus arrived
for its annual summer season,
though most of its well-known family
of spangled, toothy artistes
had long ago died,
replaced by a motley ensemble.
'The Big Top' wasn't big;
more like'The Medium Top'.
Small tears and gaps in the canvas walls
meant kids and shameless adults
who hadn't bought a ticket
peeped in at the show
or crawled between flaps
to squeeze into the audience.

The tent poles leant on an angle.

.             .             .

The ticket box opened. Holidaymakers

and locals piled in.
I wondered – would the banked wooden seating
hold under their weight?
Speakers crackled a fanfare
from the age of Edison
and the Grand Entry Parade began…
An old tiger I had seen,
sullen in a trailer-cage,
came in first,
led by the toupeed ringmaster
in a red lamé suit.
With a long wooden pole,
he tapped the tiger on the rump
to keep it from the crowd
– as if it could be bothered.
Then followed a skinny teenage boy,
pimply, leotarded,
falling off his unicycle
to the tufts of the football ground.
A bent, arthritic clown
(the only original Johnstone),
who should have been in an easy chair
on a verandah somewhere
entered next. He fumbled fake flowers from his sleeve,
presented a puzzled child
with balloons shaped into a sausage dog
and gibbered jokes at the rest of us.
I couldn't understand a word.
A middle-aged lady and man
in skin-tight lurex pranced into view
– the tightrope act.
But no danger of them being hurt;
the rope was thick wound steel,
four feet from the ground.
Other performers, animals paraded
– a pair of Shetland ponies,
a man wielding enormous knives,
a camel, a boy
riding a baby elephant.
The show began…
and ended.
The main thing I remember
was a bloke with a stockwhip
who selected a 'volunteer',
a sassy blonde teenage girl,
and cracked a cigarette from her mouth.
And the man with the knives wasn't bad,
though he threw his shiny missiles
with flagrant, focussed violence
– his shapely blonde assistant

looked pale and terrified.

.             .             .

We filed from the tent,

chattering, underwhelmed.
Even as a twelve-year-old boy,
I thought Johnstone's Circus crappy.
But now, three decades later,
its strong whiff of manure
smells richly aromatic.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review