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Thursday, 30 September 2010

Passport to yesterday? The Trefoil Guild and exploring the "other country"

With “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” now reaching its second edition’s second anniversary, it has been a little while now since I have attended any signings. Therefore my father and I were delighted to visit the Trefoil Guild to give a one hour talk and PowerPoint presentation on our book. When we launched the first edition of the book it was in front of the Circus Friends Association. When we launched the second edition it was in front of the Wolverhampton Historical Society. Both institutions obviously had a strong interest in the subject. On other occasions we have done signings for zoo enthusiasts and historians who were either interested in the general subject of performing animals in music halls, zoos and circuses or in how the legend of these two elephants impacted on their locality. However, from time to time we get requests from societies – like the Ladies Probus Club – who booked us on the basis of the unusual quality of our subject. The Trefoil Club was this sort of booking.
It is always interesting to not only help bring people’s memories alive again – some of our audience members were into their 80s – but also to listen to their accounts of the times I only know through researching documents, books, photographs and newspaper articles. The era Salt and Sauce lived in was one that dramatically changed around the time their demise thus helping to condemn these once exceptionally well-known elephants to the “forgotten history” archives. Although none of those who attended our talk remembered these elephants - despite one contemporary author quoted in my book calling them the most famous elephants of their time - they did have very fond memories of my family’s elephants. One lady even had several photographs she had published taken in the early ‘60s of my family’s elephants being walked from the now non-existent Chipping Norton station. Despite being interested and buying plenty of copies of our book, much of the discussion and questions centred on my father’s involvement with my grandparents’ large number of elephants.

I often find it hard not having sympathy for the cliché that history provides “windows into the past”. Much of the time I found researching Salt and Sauce really fired my imagination and excited a sort of faux nostalgia I think most historians are infected by. As Heather Vallance often tells me, history is another country. If I may be so bold, I can appreciate what she means. Looking through the primary source evidence of show posters, programmes, reviews and other paraphernalia conjured up images of another reality my generation and subsequent generations cannot relate to. I am talking about huge productions that dwarf West End London and Broadway shows in cast numbers alone. I have read about five ring circuses packing out the old Wembley stadium and gigantic royal command performances occurring on a regular basis. You have only to trawl through the Pathe news archives to see how much my culture was so much a part of my country’s fabric. Royal command performances were common and the celebrities of the day – some of which are celebrities of today – were happy to be pictured with the various animal trainers and artists of the big top.
My mother often mourned the time television caught my interest as a child. It was a strong opposition that was probably passed down from her father who saw its negative impact on live entertainment in the 1960s. His circus, Chipperfield’s, which he ran with his brothers and sisters, had peaked in the 1950s as a gigantic touring spectacle and cemented its title as a household name in Britain. However, by the ‘60s the proverbial writing was on the wall and the move to South Africa for three years, which also helped result in the formation of the Natal Lion Park in Pietermaritzburg, was in result to the threat presented by television. Paul Gallico’s 1960s novel, “Love, Let Me Not Hunger” refers to the Chipperfield decision when the book’s fictional circus director makes a similar choice based on the number of aerials he now sees populating the cities, towns and villages across the country. Of course, both Chipperfield’s and Smart’s circuses would enter into a short yet very memorable marriage with television through their Christmas shows, but that was more of a postscript to the golden age of circus story than anything else.
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