We are off to the circus. This is almost as much as a surprise to me as it is my children. I have successfully dodged the circus during its annual visit to our park for some years now, and, had it not been for a third installment of Madagascar, I might have got away with it.
But despite impressing upon Harry, seven, and Alec and Kit, four, that there would be no canons, knife throwing or inter-galactic trapeze work the momentum towards this year’s Big Top became unstoppable.
I have to admit that as family treats go, the circus nestles just above Build A Bear and a trip round the Hello Kitty archives on my list of priorities. I can’t help but feel the traditional circus may have had its day. But, and I need to keep reminding myself of this, today’s trip is not about me. Or even paid for by me (generous grandparents to thank here), so really, I should just shut up.
Entering the tent is dramatic, and I am encouraged. There is a slight haze in the air, a buzz of chatter and a cosy, cave-like ambience. After a lot of experimenting, we find four seats which, with only one child on my knee, allows us all to see the ring.
“Can I have a light saber?” asks Harry. “Look, they are giving them out free.” When I cast doubt on this interpretation he heads off to ask the seller himself. He returns looking determined.
“Can I have £5?” he says.
A man leans over us to pass three portions of popcorn to his children. “Can I have one?” Harry asks him. (This from the boy who claims he is too shy to say hello to his friends in the street.)
A moment later he is clutching a vat of popcorn and looking smug. I’m not sure if I should be proud of his new found confidence or appalled by his willingness to accept, no – demand, a treat from a total stranger. Almost certainly the latter. I sink lower into my seat.
Five minutes before the show starts, a woman asks if I can budge up the children to allow her and her partner to sit together. I am torn between innate politeness and the fact that if I do so I will be paying £11 for Kit to look at the back of someone’s head for two hours. I explain my dilemma, possibly a little tersely.
“Wow!” she says. “You won’t move.” She then pointedly sits on the steps next to our seats. Having made my stand I know I will now spend the entire performance feeling guilty. Damn that woman. And me. And the bloody circus.
Anyway, before the woman’s bottom has had a chance to numb, the show has started. A Cuban acrobatic troupe wearing American tan tights and leotards with flames stitched to their nether regions is enthralling the crowd.
Over the next few acts we see a van driving over a man (it’s ok, it is Strongman Hercules), a woman suspended by her neck from the roof and an elderly gent encouraging some budgies to operate a toy car. I am not looking forward to the questions at the interval.
The first half is rounded off by the roar of engines as motorbikes and a quad bike screech in, skidding, revving and, erm, wheelie-ing, before departing in a fog of exhaust fumes and Brazilian aftershave. I hope the budgies are still on their perches backstage.
The interval is spent saying no to demands for candy floss, horse-shaped balloons, plate spinning kits and having a photo taken sitting on said quad bike.
Harry has grudgingly allowed Alec and Kit a handful of popcorn each from his misappropriated vat of shame. On pain of having it removed and returned to its rightful owner he increases their rations. He is still only a quarter of the way through the tub.
As the second half gets underway, I glance over at the boys. They are enthralled. Alec has his hands clasped together under his chin. When the act finishes he bursts into double-quick applause.
Next up, horses. What? I am shocked. Not so much by the fact that they still feature in a 21st century circus, but by their handler – the Big Top’s answer to Hilary Devey, except slightly less natural looking. The crowd gasps, and for the first time I join in.
Aside from the obvious ethical issue, there is something odd, and rather pointless, about watching a horse lumbering round a ring roughly three times the size of a darts board. I look across at the boys. “Amazing!” mouths Harry.
The final act is a genuinely thrilling motorbike stunt which leaves me weak with fear that the boys will one day attempt to follow suit. The riders mass at the front of the ring, raise their right arms and, in unison, flex their biceps to a standing ovation.
It is fair to say that Alec, Kit and Harry enjoyed the show. A lot. I decide to leave my musings about a circus’ place in modern society for another decade or two.
The next morning my bedroom door bursts open and the boys run in, all wearing their PE kit.
“We’re training to be Hercules,” announces Harry. “Will you come and watch?”