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Tina Jackson
Tina Jackson

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'Circus Mania' by Douglas McPherson

Tina Jackson

Circus is having a moment at the moment, with every creative Tom, Dick and Harry borrowing from its rich imagery to add motifs of magic to their endeavours. But how many people actually take themselves under canvas and experience for themselves the spectacular skills and very real risks undertaken by performers who take their lives in their hands to show their audience, for five miraculous moments, that they have transcended the limits of what human bodies are usually capable? A trip to the circus will usually reveal more bare seats than this wonderful form of art and entertainment deserves.
          Perhaps a read of Circus Mania, Douglas McPherson’s lovely, lively account of the world of the circus might tempt people to see for themselves the tricks they’re missing. Just like his subject, McPherson’s terrifically readable account is a mixed bag: colourful and populist, high culture and trash culture, mingling tales of outrageous daring, skill and beauty with things that are more tacky, if not tawdry. It’s a journey of discovery as well as a labour of love, prompted by the writer’s experience interviewing Eva, a performer on the aerial silks. McPherson’s interview was the last Eva ever gave; the day after she spoke to him, she fell 30 feet during her act, and died instantly.

          McPherson’s approach – a combination of candid curiosity and passionate fascination – allows him access to people from a tight-knit community whose way of life is rarely penetrated by outsiders. He talks to members of old circus families who provide him with a sense of the continuing history of the circus, and representatives of the new, art-driven form of cirque that has largely replaced the older tradition where animals would perform alongside humans. His most fascinating chapters, in fact, concern the issue of performing animals and the shift away from the practice that took place in the 1990s, prompted by the question of animal cruelty – something which, after much investigation, McPherson finds no evidence to substantiate.

          McPherson wears his heart on his sleeve about his admiration for circus performers of all kinds, for their dedication and physical skill. He is clear-sighted and non-judgemental at the same time as taking an unmistakeably partisan stance on the subject. He does not pretend to be an insider, however, merely a great enthusiast. This approach gives the book an appealing freshness and creates the sense that, with each new anecdote, the writer is sharing what he discovers. He speaks with equal fervour to traditional seaside clowns, to members of The Circus Of Horrors who have revived the old-school freak show for a rock’n’roll audience, and to European performers of theatrical cirque.

          Like a good old fashioned circus – McPherson’s favourite kind, in the end – the book rollicks along at a cracking pace, delivering a cast of colourful characters, and a parade of stories of the life-is-stranger-than-fiction variety. There are thrills and spills, acts of derring-do, heart-in-mouth moments, and laughs aplenty. The circus deserves this book and, like the circus, McPherson deserves for Circus Mania to reach a very wide and appreciative audience.



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