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.
Griffith Review