The wind is beginning to lose its raw edge, but the water is still lively and choppy. Join us on a moonless mad March night as memories of Shambala evoke a contemplation of high-wire walking in many of its different guises. The stove is warm, the kettle is on and there is always a warm welcome for you.
“6th March, Saturday.
"There’s a kerfuffle of rooks around the oak at the top of the hill.
They claw and scold the cold, sombre sky.
Two ducks fly low in tight formation
Lambs clustered under a tree
Are spooked in a shower of bleats and blossom.
There’s a patch of reeds thick the warm rough smell of fox
For a short while, Penny and I are lost in another world.”
Unfortunately, I no longer have any copies of the wonderful Orlando the Marmalade Cat books by Kathleen Hale.
The book I refer to is Orlando's Evening Out (1941) published by Puffin books.
Cover artwork of Orlando's Evening Out
Orlando at the circus from Orlando's Evening Out
More information about Nighttime on Still Waters
You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon.
In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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We weren't into circuses as a family when I was growing up. Oh, I was obviously aware of them and they appeared from time to time in the stories that populated my early and later childhood. Orlando the Marmalade cat went to one, but I seem to remember that it was not an entirely happy event and I had decided that, should I ever find myself at one, I would share his ambivalence. Circuses were peripheral to my world, like the Pleiades, I was conscious only of them at the corners of my vision. The closest we ever got to a circus was when the local fair came to the common, on the rounded shoulders of the hill above the village. There was always excitement in the school. Classmates boasted of visiting it before it opened, before the fair workers had finished constructing the rides and swings and stalls, before their coloured vehicles had been unpacked!
The playground abounded with rumours.
"I 'elp them unpack one of the lorries. Wagons they call 'em and they let me have a free go on the dodgems."
"Nah, they didn't."
"Yes, they did."
"If you go on Wednesday before five, all rides is free."
"My dad says the rides gonna be 50p. Day light robbery he says."
We do quick calculations of our pocket money and decide our future happiness will depend on our negotiating skills.
There were also stories of furtive night-time explorations, fierce dogs on big chains (that could break at any moment) that drooled violence and wickedness, men, who stood guard over the stalls, who could see in the dark and run faster than the wind. We couldn't wait for school to end.
And I know Wendy and I must have plagued Mum and Dad to take us, but when we got there, walking towards the small cluster of rides and stalls they looked less inviting. It was never the colourful, vibrant, pyrotechnic gaudiness, that pulsed with life and music that I saw in the pictures of my books at home. And what was worse, half my school was there. That familiar feeling of getting into the swimming pool at the shallow end and finding that your feet still didn't touch the bottom. The common upon which we walked the dogs and, on still summer evenings, sometimes flew our model planes, had become engulfed by the jungle of the school playground. I might as well have been back at school.
Funfairs - with my fierce love-hate relationship with them - were the closest we got to circuses. Even in those days, questions about animal exploitation and their use for entertainment, were being vociferously raised. Circuses were never really on our radar.
However, much later, Donna worked for a while as a childminder and our house was filled with little people and enthusiasm. One year, a circus came to the village and we were given some concessionary tickets for an early evening performance. It was a human circus, with a couple of horses. We hummed and haaed and then decided to give it a chance. At the time, two of the children Donna was looking after were from a family experiencing a lot of challenges and who would not normally have been able to take advantage of a treat like this.
The big top, was pitched in the field adjacent to the canal just outside the village at Nash Mills. The John Dickinson mill (by this time, Basildon Bond) was still working, hissing and steaming and filling the air with that peculiar but distinctive chemical smell that irritated the nostrils as you walked passed. The field was one of the Kenealy's a settled traveller family. It was often used for their horses, stocky and robust. There was a restless feel about them. It was as if the scent of thyme and the wild broom of the high fells and old lanes still blew through their shaggy manes. Four children were dropped off, wrapped up in thick coats and gloves, hats and boots. Torches found and tested. Soup was made and poured into thermos flasks. Last minute instructions were instructed and then repeated for good measure. Little heads nodded sagely, and we were off into the October darkness to go to the circus.
The big top smelt sweet of popcorn and straw, clouds of shocking pink candyfloss and sharp with fresh sawdust. The great canvas walls flapped and rustled. The circus ring was small, and we were seated around it on wooden benches. To the children, walking through those tent flaps, we had just entered into a universe of magic and wonder. I was not so sure. In fact, I have to admit, that I didn't really get it. Oh, I enjoyed watching the children, wide-eyed and open mouthed, drinking in the experience. But I found it difficult to get into the spirit, especially when crowd participation was demanded of us. The ring was small, the bellowing ring master needn't have shouted, we would have all heard him if he had mumbled, but I suppose, that would have undermined the theatre. Sparse audiences are difficult audiences and have to be driven with a firm hand and he was the man who was well up for the job. There is a thin line between robust encouragement and hectoring and I am not sure he was totally successful in maintaining that line. On the other hand, in fairness, I was not up for the job of audience member. My hollering and foot-stomping as member of the audience has always been well below par, and my inability to master the two fingered wolf-whistle would have appalled my younger self. My only real achievement as far as whistling is concerned was that I could do an almost perfect 1980s trim phone ring. However, even I realised that applauding a juggler's skill or greeting the acrobats' entrance with a trim-phone ring was pretty poor fare as far as audience participation was concerned. I also didn't trust the bellowed bon-hommie of the ring master. It was the sort of joviality that could crack at any moment.
Nevertheless, the children enjoyed it and we clapped with them and I could express proxy-parental concern with their well-being when I felt the heat getting too much. The clowns clowned and the jugglers juggled. There was a high wire act and trapeze artists. However, I had long since left the days when I was mesmerised and astounded by the aerial trapeze. They had long gone with Orlando the Marmalade Cat. My world had been disenchanted and the brittle veneer that hid the unpalatable truths behind desires and motivations had mercilessly ripped away. People only watch these events in the hope that they would see the artist fall. The more lethal the outcome the more attractive. Histories were paraded before me. Acts like these are simply pandering to the vestiges of the colosseum and the public executions I was told. Humans are dark and they hope for dark things. I wanted none of it. I felt played, by those up there on the high wire for trying to enflame those dark hopes, teasing me with clearly calculated mis-steps. I felt trapped that I was seen as nothing better than a person hoping to witness calamity happen to another. I did not want to see them fail. I did not want to see them fall. I did not want to see them injured or worse. I did not watch.
Later, much later. A lifetime later. Donna and I embarking on the next phase of our life, beginning to feel our way in an altogether new world that was opening up to us. We were camping at a music and arts festival. It rained piteously the entire time, turning the ground into a knee-deep swamp, but it was electric and terrifyingly beautiful. The ground pulsed and thumped all through the night and so we had little sleep. At one point, there was a thunder storm, but the thunder was drowned out by the music. We were exhausted, wet, muddy, but exhilarated. Circus performers were everywhere. Sloshing unicycles through a slurry of mud, flipping plates and diablo, spitting fire. Inevitably one night, we went to the circus tent. But something had changed.
It truly was a human circus in every sense of that word. It was creative, vibrant, poignant, energetic, sensual, magic. It was HUMAN and I understood. These young people, who had given their lives to their performance were doing things that were impossible, but it was more incredible than that, they were doing things that touched some deep part inside of me. How can a man, captured in the amber light of a floodlamp, dressed as a tramp, pretending to sleep with such mastery on a piece of rope strung between two posts, make me amazed, laugh, whilst at the same time evoke such pathos? This was circus close up and personal.
Then the high wire act was announced. It was not as high as the one we had watched all those years earlier. Perhaps 25 ft, maybe 30. But there was no safety net. Just that thin silver, spiderweb of a glint, garrotting the space just below the pavilion ceiling. Immediately the cynicism re-asserted itself as a young woman swung up the rope ladder steps to whoops and cat-calls. I remember, instinctively, almost unconsciously, inching myself to the edge of the crowd, falling backward through the press of people.
And there it was. That showmanship, manipulating the crowd. The carefully choreographed mis-steps to make the crowd grasp. Outstretched arms winging in the fight for balance. The lights. The music.
But I also became aware of something else. Something altogether unexpected and tumultuous.
As she threaded herself along to the centre of that wire that sagged beneath her weight, a razor cut of shimmering light, alive almost, in the stark amber spotlight's glare. Although the music still thumped - this was the time of drum and bass, and dubstep - and the tramp-clown with his golden sax still painted the air with soulful, broken-hearted riffs, the whole tent was becoming silent.
No movement. A stillness painted with musical notes that no one any longer heard, only felt.
No movement. Just the muted actions of the musicians and the figure on the wire high above us.
I suddenly noticed that the other performers had stopped their preparations for their own acts and were watching her too.
It was as if, in the midst of noise this young woman who had stepped out onto thin air cut by wire was walking in perfect silence, held up by the breaths that we were now forgetting to take.
All the theatre, all the glittering showmanship, all the careful choreography could not disguise the reality of a young woman, up there, on her own, trying to make it to the end without falling.
There, in the middle of the wire that sagged sickeningly down, all the games had stopped, the playing was over. Oh, no doubt the showmanship was still there, the deft wobble, the gasp from one of the performers below - cues to heighten the drama, but for us, below, we no longer saw it. We were no longer party to it. All we could see was a woman, high above our heads, alone, in the middle of a high wire so thin we could feel the pain as it cut into the soft soles of her shoes.
And then I started to begin to get it.
Slowly she inched her way up the other side, calves knotted and shaking with the exertion. Feet edging forward, feeling their way along the narrow route of safety.
We watched her. Out of time, lost to everything. The last few feet were the hardest, slippery, she slid back, checked herself, tried again, slid a bit, checked herself again, tried again...
Until, she finally made it to the platform at the other end of the wire.
And as she stepped onto it, she turned, and as she turned she smiled. She smiled with such joy, such life, such fulness her whole body could not contain it and nor could we. The whole tent spontaneously erupted with cheers and whoops and whistles. If there was thunder we did not hear it, nor the lashing rain outside, for we were flying on the wings of that broad, unconstrained, life-affirming, wild abandonment of a smile.
And in that moment, I got it, and my life changed forever for the better. I got what I hadn't got all those years ago in the big top in the Kenealy field by the canal. I got what people walk the highwire and why we watch them.
For, as we looked up and watched the young woman inch her way along the wire above a sickening drop, each and everyone of knew, deep down, that in truth it was us who was up there. And not just tonight, but every time we get out of bed, it is us who walk the highwires that are stretched out in front of us. We can make it a game, put on a show, post our filter-perfect pictures to Instagram make it look good, but that is all just showmanship and sparkle. Sometimes we feel lion-brave, wolf-sharp, goat-nimble, sometimes we feel indomitable, on top of the world, larger than our bodies could ever hope to contain. At other times, all we can see is the cavernous drop and our hearts and spirits dissolve. And there is no disguising that we are up here, trying not to fall. Without a manual, learning as we go. Trying to hold it all together for the next few steps, trying to make it to the end.
And those last few agonising steps, we walked with her, because that is us. That is our life. We can feel it, because our life is a wire strung between two great unknowns. And as she stepped onto the platform, it was not just her, but it we were there too. Realising we can do it. And that magnificent, epiphanic, life-transforming smile was ours too. 'Yes' she was saying, 'yes, you can do it.' 'You can get up those last few feet' 'You will do it'.
On that wet August night, I realised that we watch high-wire acts not to see them fall. Not for the catastrophe. We watch them for the smile.