As if by magic a circus appeared...
Like the shopkeeper who would materialize each time in the fancy dress shop and conjure up a new adventure for Mr Benn, one of my favourite cartoons from childhood (and yes, there is an episode where he runs away to the circus and becomes a clown) there is a wondrous magic about a circus tent appearing in the everyday space of Wandsworth Common.
A wee bit surreal too. On Sunday evening I had just arrived back in London from a very special family break in an oast house in Kent, sad to hop it (ba-boom!). I just wanted to crash after the train ride back but I had an Amazon deadline of that day to drop off a return at our local collection point,. As I trudged down Althorpe Road, ahead I saw a curious sight. A cluster of caravans on the Common. Well, spoiler alert, you already know it is Zippos, but at that moment I didn't. Was it the travellers back for Bank Holiday? They had swept in a few years back and lasted 24 hours before being moved on. As I got closer I saw trailers too. A film set maybe? Our Common is so blimming photogenic afterall (as you'll notice on my Instagram account!). Then I saw some men in high vis jackets with drills pegging our a large circular space, and on the edge of the Common a poster - the circus was coming to town!
Timing is everything. I smiled and groaned at the serendipity of it all. Of course, Lucy Loves Circus. But as a secondary school teacher, the last week of the summer holiday is when things get serious for me. I have lessons to prepare, admin to sort, not to mention checking that my own three children are sorted - the school labels I bought at the start of the holiday are now nowhere to be seen. That sort of thing. And then there is the school running club... all inclusive of all year groups, the sixth formers signed those of us over 17 (!) for the official Big Half marathon, the day before school goes back, and the morning after a friend's milestone birthday. This then was a week for getting my head down and being sensible. Instead I found myself juggling all that with running off to the nearest tattoo parlour for my daughter to get her ears pierced, ahead of a trip with friends to see Zippos circus on opening night...
And yet, timing *is* everything. When overwhelmed by to do lists, doing something for the sheer love of it pushes away the fear of dropping all the balls. And I've learned a new trick this summer on a course. Work out which balls are plastic and which are glass, and just focus on keeping the latter in the air, the others can drop. Discernment takes a bit of practice...
When the tent was up, the first thing I noticed was the LED display above the ticket box office, showing clips from the show and delivering messages to reel in the punters. Hello Wandsworth! the first one read. Well, hello Zippos!
To celebrate the occasion, I donned my gold circus heels, one with a female trapeze artist and the other a male, and little circus tents on the back. Mindful of the approaching half marathon though, I walked barefoot from home across the Common and just slipped them on before entering the tent. Looking ridiculous, trying to contort my feet into a position to show both them of and the circus ring with my daughter propping them up, got a laugh from the ushers even if the photo failed. Instagram has a lot to answer for! Bringing them was worth it though as we were also joined by Isabella, who I know from this circus journey, sharing a love of aerial. We met when she made my first pair of aerial gaiters, then tightwire boots (ahead of Harry Styles, thank you! see her website www.isabellamars.com) and the female artiste on my pair always reminds me of her.
In a sense, the travellers were back in town. Zippos' show this year is called "Nomads", the souvenir guide opens with Tolkien’s quote "Not all those who wander are lost", and it is a celebration of diversity of nationalities and the tradition of entertainers throughout history who have travelled from town to town to amuse and entertain. That chimes with me, both as a teacher of modern foreign languages, as a sailor who spent two years living on a boat, sailing islands and oceans without a night on land, and not to mention being a wondering blogger… But Lucy, get on, with it, what was it like…?!
Well, there was a traditional circus ring, at the back, there was a curtain, behind which a black background studded with little lights glittered like the stars that were about to make an entrance... And...well, let me just spell it out:
Nerve-wrecking. I have to confess I swore a little, out of earshot of the kids (probably) at tense moments. Acts like Ludvik Novoltny from the Czech Republic layering cylinder after blank after ball after box and balancing atop on the rola rola (the name on the programme – why did I think it was called the rola bola?) in a precarious equilibristic act. Then, in a metal sphere, floodlit blue, with petrolhead fumes and drama that reminded me of Mad Max in Thunderdome, there was first one motorbike, then a second, then a third, with perfect timing in a ballet of speed and wheels courtesy of Globe riders from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, that was the showstopper of the first half. That segued into the adrenaline kick start of another spherical ring of potential death, the wheel of steel. Alternatively known as the wheel of death (maybe a bit macabre for a family show), this involved Victor and Bismark from Colombia executing acrobatic stunts on two large rotating wheels at either end of a metal arm that rotates around a central axis, both inside, and, more dangerously, outside. I have seen the act before when the blindfold comes out. It still kills me, if not them… Then there were The Mighty Mongolian Warriors doing acrobalance and skipping acts. That sounds friendly enough until you factor in that at one point the rope was a performer, or that they skipped while doing a three high! Note: A "three-high" is a human pyramid with three tiers of people, with one person (the base) on the bottom, another (the middle) standing on the shoulders of the base, and a third person (the top or flyer) standing on the shoulders of the middle, an act that requires incredible strength, balance, and trust among the performers as did their flying and tumbling from one to the other of each others shoulders.
M is for musical. So important at driving the circus narrative. Epic music signalling its time to hold your breath, but also underscoring the comedy. One of my favourite moments was seeing clown Whimmy Walker coming on with his trumpet playing the most beautiful soliloquoy. It was a familiar tune, something I couldn’t quite place, the same vibe as Miles Davis playing “My Funny Valentine”.Later I contacted Zippos to find out what it was. “The Story of Love” came the reply. Of course it would be. That’s the story of circus for me, and the clown at the heart of it. Which leads on to…
Amusing. That’s an understatement. But there’s no F for funny in NOMADS, and here I want to bring in the clowns. I’ve mentioned Whimmy’s musicality, but his is also a fool who is constantly playing with the audience, when he isn’t juggling an insane amount of tennis rackets, or luggage (back to the Nomads theme!). Or Paulo Dos Santos, his foil, both in stature and character, who torpedos aforementioned soulful trumpet soliloquy with riotous drum-banging, deftly executes both tumbling and the most beautiful aerial acrobatics that kicks of the show, and with his trademark Brazilian joie de vivre always gets the audience engaging and cheering.
Daring. This I reserve for “our very own Jackie Louise”. London is so international “our very own” made me smile. But at the same time, the pride with which it was delivered was genuinely touching, and it is good to be able to cheer on the UK when deserved. Jackie Louise performed such graceful manoeuvres on the aerial loops… oh jeez, and the neck hang, it’s all coming back … then later stepped into the globe, bikes flying round her, without the hint of a flinch. I also enjoyed when she stood atop the globe, as though she owned the world. Brava!
Showstopper. The final act was Alexander Lichner, from Spain. Hang on, I thought, with my Spanish teacher hat on. What sort of Spanish name is that? Shouldn’t it be Alejandro at the very least? Then I reflected my kids have Dutch surnames, Swiss passports, live in London and English is their mother tongue. And its circus. Nomads. Who is really from where? It was not surprising to read that Lichner won Gold recently at the French Circus Festival of Massy. His entrance descent was a ridiculous feat of balance, then scaling the rope back up could have been an act in itself. The trapeze sequences were beautiful to watch, the toe hang must have been painful enough but the single heel hang high in the gods was almost too excruciating to watch, still, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
Afterwards we took fun pictures of the children sticking their heads through circus-themed face in hole boards, and generally dragged our heels, the last to leave. The children were so animated and delighted, it was a joy to watch their reactions throughout the show and to share this experience with family, bringing them together with their friends and me with mine, well, I felt immensely privileged and grateful.
On the way home we admired the blue super moon in the sky. I hadn’t known it was a thing until Isabella explained it to me. It was beautiful. Like a universal blessing on the night. The only thing it didn’t have were three motorbikes whizzing around inside…
The thing is magic, whether in a sudden circus appearance or a shared family experience, comes unexpectedly. Whether juggling work, family, and personal passions or simply trying to make it through the day, circus is my talisman, a reminder to appreciate the moments of joy and wonder that life brings. Sometimes, the most magical moments are the ones we least expect. So if you have the chance to attend a circus, take it. Zippos has two more shows tomorrow (Monday 4th September) on Wandsworth Common, before moving on. The experience is unforgettable, and the memories will stay with you long after the tent comes down.
See: https://zippos.co.uk/ and on Social Media (TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) for updates.