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Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Circus travelling connections: a ramble

The branches of the Romani people and their hi...Image via Wikipedia

Throughout my childhood, teenage years and even during my early adulthood my hackles would rise if someone mistook my circus roots for being that of a gypsy. More playground fights would stem from someone referring to me under the title of any member of the nomadic races known in popular culture. It was a prejudice on my behalf that I freely admit to. Circus people are rarely 100 per cent nomadic. They are about as much a traveller as any artist who tours. They are on the road for as long as a season lasts, often from about March to October, and then they live at their winter-quarters, where many, particularly the circus directors, have their own houses. During the Christmas season, December to January, circuses have traditionally played in theatres. This is not an exact distinction from other travellers, as many travellers have lived for generations in their own permanent caravan sites, but it gives you a fair idea for how things have been for the most part of two centuries.

I write this as this year I have come across a few instances, where I have had to concede, quite happily, deeper connections between my people and the Romany gypsies as well as a full acknowledgement of how closely tied the show (fairground) or carnival people are to the culture of the circus. In Britain I was always led to believe that we were distinctly different from any other travelling culture. Circus people always aspired to high positions in business and during the golden age of circus did pretty well. My grandfather was a big believer in Rudyard Kipling’s model for male perfection that one should be able to “walk with kings and never lose the common touch”, and this is echoed in a documentary on our family conducted in the 1970s. He explained how wealthy European circus directors would have their sons drive tractors rather than flashy sports cars. His own son went to Wellington and his nephew went Marlborough secondary school, but they would return for their holidays in order to knock stakes into the grounds to put tents up and work as hard as any hired labourer. That was the circus way – what I guess some might call “renaissance” thinking.

As time went on I realized that we certainly shared some common ancestry with the fair people or showmen (what Americans call “carnie” or carnival folk). In fact, during my grandfather’s generation circus and fair were one and the same. My grandfather’s first cousin was a showman and passed the tradition onto his children. In Britain today “The World’s Fair” weekly newspaper continues its tradition of presenting a circus section in an otherwise showman dominated publication. A good deal of historical research for the circus is done through back issues of this very long running newspaper. However, apart from my relatives I do not recall ever having much contact with people from the fairground community. Then today my father received an email regarding an American article designed to set out the differences between circus people and carnie folk. It is interesting to note that the article’s author attributes the first carnival to Frank Bostock, a person he doesn’t mention came from a travelling menagerie family. Travelling menageries, like music hall also share circus ancestry. Many circuses had travelling menageries. Bostock, of course, was part of that most famous of British travelling menageries “Bostock and Wombwelle’s Menagerie”. My father is an avid historical fan of this particular institution and was even interviewed as an expert witness on them for the BBC.

As for the gypsies, there is not much connecting them with circus people in the UK. However, there is some. In Europe there are Romany connections with French, Spanish and Italian circus families - the Bougliones being a prime example. A week ago by chance I got talked to an old Romany woman. I recognized her background immediately, but she clearly mistook me for a “flatty” and she was surprised when I used the term, having not been around her own culture for a long time. When she realized my own background we discussed the similarities and differences in our slang. Circus slang is a virtual language, as are other types of traveller slang, and is used as a type of code. It interested me that circus shared several different words with the Romanies, but others were totally different. The lady pointed out that certain words like “mozzie”, meaning a girl, came from showman’s slang. Prior to this meeting I was always intrigued by the Polari used by the camp homosexual actor characters Julian and Sandy in the Kenneth Horne’s famous comedy radio show “Round the Horne”. They used many phrases that I recognized, but were being used within the context of the gay and theatrical subculture. At the time, of course, homosexuality was illegal and therefore it was understandable that the community would have a code language. It seemed to have been derived from the theatre, which had more than rubbed shoulders with the variety industry. Variety was just another evolution of music hall, a close relation and sometimes the same thing as circus. Many minorities and even criminals used versions of this language. Circus seems to be an amalgamation of Romany, show, theatre and even cockney slang. I once even heard a rhyming slang phrase used for another slang word – Norman Harper is slang for scarper which is slang for run away. Interestingly I have heard the word “scarper” being used by a circus person to mean steal or take – as in “You just scarpered my drink!”

Polari is a fast evolving language, although its usage is less evident in the British circus culture today as the traditional circus is very much under threat. For me it seems to be a representation of the many links and roots circus shares with so many other cultures.

My inspiration for this ramble, as you can see, came from many sources. However, this was the one that finally encouraged me to put finger to keyboard: 

Circus versus carnival

 An interesting Wikipedia entry on Polari

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