How to be free: Stepping into the ring

At the end of May, I went to give a talk at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. John Bird, of The Big Issue, and I, sang songs to my ukulele accompaniment and enthused about the pleasures of thrift.

That was fun, although one woman in the audience was incensed by what she saw as a trivialisation of a serious issue. The festival overall was characterised by a lot of handwringing and fruitless wittering about environmental issues, and a lot of silly lip service was given to ecology from giant world-wrecking sponsors such as Sky and Barclays. The whole thing was fairly sick-making, as they say in Decline and Fall. So it was a relief to take a break from the wittering and go to Giffords Circus, which was camped out on the edge of town by the river.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a circus that made you cry, but that’s what Giffords did to me. There was some spirit in the thing, some artistry, creative genius or spark of true love, a generosity – some transcendent quality, anyway. I’m really at a loss to explain why a 40year-old man would find himself sobbing at the sight of East European tumblers spinning each other in the air with their feet. Perhaps because here someone was doing something real: not moaning like Monbiot and the rest of the environmental whingers; not complaining, just getting on with a joyful form of artistic expression.

Throughout the performance rousing music is kept up by a sort of Balkan gypsy band, with fiddle and horns and lots of drums. There are Shakespearean elements: mad Ophelia and a marriage and a superb clown. There is mind-blowing prancing from the ponies and at one point a hawk flies around the big top. It is breathtaking – I mean, I was actually short of breath at certain moments. There is tightrope-walking, fire-juggling and an enormous sense of freedom. The circus is small and intimate,and really it’s the best thing I’ve seen for years. I wanted to join it. Not that I can do anything. Maybe I could play the ukulele in the band?

To add to the charm, the whole shebang is horse-drawn and car-free, and the circus workers live in beautiful painted caravans. The costumes are lavish and sumptuous, the performers impossibly glamorous and beautiful. It’s stunningly romantic, thrilling, exotic; it’s intimate and it’s a remarkable achievement. In a world of smoking bans, grey boredom and increasing restrictions on one’s activities, Giffords is a beacon of liberty and joy.

So who is the genius behind this stunning creation? Giffords was founded in 2000 by Nell Gifford, who is Britain’s only female circus owner. Folk say the creation of the circus was related to the trauma of her mother’s coma. Nell had always been circus-obsessed and had a vast accumulation of knowledge of its history. She started working for circuses in her late teens. She was known as a ‘josser’ or outsider, but was eventually promoted to ringmistress at French circus Santus. I salute the courage and the conviction of Nell and her husband in getting this terrific show on the road.

Two days afterwards, my friend Penny Rimbaud, Crass co-founder, and I were thrown out of the Hay festival for slashing a United Emirates banner as a protest against the rash of sponsors all over the festival. Barclays Wealth was the other particularly hideous banner. Penny did the slashing and I provided the knife, which meant he was arrested while I was only escorted off site. Penny reports the police, while not condoning his action, were broadly supportive of the spirit that inspired it. His courage was applauded by a family who approached him after his release to congratulate him. Like the circus, there was something moving and affecting about Penny’s action, and it said more than a million literary events. Like Giffords, there was something joyful and life-affirming in what he did.

It may seem odd for an idler to recommend direct action, but I think we need to go out into the streets and the fields of this country and recreate the spirit of Merrie Old England, before vast governments and corporations were born, before we’d had the spirit conditioned out of us, when the country was covered in strolling players and animals, and when life was lived with a passionate intensity rather than a supine and resigned passivity.

Giffords Circus is touring until 8 September, see

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008

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