The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 11 (February 1, 1938)
The Circus Comes to Town
Looking on the Human Side of the Glamour.
It comes with the dawn, and brings jungle sounds into the sleeping town, a 500-ton circus train of sixty-seven ordinary carriage lengths, eighty-seven persons and a freight of wild animals. Mild burgesses turn over in bed and go up tropic rivers while the leopards, tigers, bears and baboons of their dream adventures pass beyond their natural latitudes into the local railway station two blocks away.
The dew is still damp on the rails and the folk of the small town yawn towards another day, hardly conscious yet of the dim thoughts or remembrances which are soon to tremble in staid minds and grow in the sunlight, until, when the dew falls again, they will come back with the full force of an old marvel renewed. In the summer night the stars will look down on the shadows of trapeze artists swinging up on the canvas walls. Death defying acts will be a moving silhouette against the tent roof, and under the big top there will be an intimate refreshment of the wonder that has lingered on through childhood into manhood.
The spell which brings young and old along the station yard fence in the early morning to watch the circus train unload is drawn out partly by the shadowy remembrance of such nights, and in part it is born of our own longings and dream fantasies. Our eyes are touched with it until even the decent homely domesticity of the wandering community of the circus is lustred into something strange.
For this train transforms the morning activity of the station, and particularly of the small town station, giving it the familiar unreality of a tale that is read and re-read and still fascinates. There are Indian pictures in the mind when the harnessed elephants curl their trunks about the railside cocksfoot. The immeasurable haulage power of the elephant competes with the train itself, like ancient tractors that cannot be superseded.
The town's main street stirs too, but with a furtive envy for the adventure it has not the courage to take.
It is easy to write thus of the romance of the circus, for the circus fosters the spangled thought. It is harder to make the pen put down the bald facts of the organisation within the station yard.
The cooks have a painted box of a kitchen to get breakfast ready for sixty men by eight o'clock, and while they work there is a chain of awakenings.
The agent calls the foreman who sleeps only, he says, on Sundays and Christmas days. The stud groom collects his staff of men to unload the horses—those horses which are trained even to parade formation when they go up for a drink to the town water trough, and the elephant keeper and the transport foreman and their men harness the elephants and unload the heavy vehicles.
The town agent and the foreman inspect the location—often a difficulty there, to get a well-drained paddock—and by nine o'clock the tents are measured out and the erection of the camp begins. That is a three or four hours’ job, according to the weather.
But who thinks of this? The elephant looks too large, and little stories, simple and vaguely familiar, run from lip to lip.
I heard the stories again in a sunny little place on the edge of the Canterbury plains. The town is sheltered by a half circle of hills and has made soft its skirts with English oaks. The branch line into the town curves round in a half-circle too, on a slight gradient before it ends under oaks, and to compass this bend the circus train had to be broken into four “bites.” It took an hour to get it placed, but then it rested happily, almost idyllicly in the morning shadows of the trees.
At Home on the Rails.
While on the one side of the train load of adventure the elephants and animal cages drew the crowd, on the other side a domestic routine began to creep out. The arrangements of the train are designed as near as may be for the comforts of a home and touched with the minute signs of domestic life. Although the sixty men of the labour staff are fed in a separate cookshop (the train carries two kitchens, one for the men and one for the Wirth family) the artists have their own individual primus stoves and provide for themselves. And it is remarkable what excellent meals are cooked on these small stoves. For behind the curtained windows family life is ordered with a pride page 21 that extends even to roses in crystal on the breakfast table.
I confess that so firmly has the glamorous fantasy of circus life seemed a thing apart that the twist in perspective made it strange that people who dare so greatly to give us a moment's thrill should live just as you and I do in humdrum hours.
She was not one of the regular circus troop, but a vaudeville artist, specially engaged. When I asked her if the films had limited the opportunities in vaudeville, she said with a soft assurance in her pleasant English voice, “Oh. Not our act.” Not their act; it was true. And because the morning was lovely and it was friendly scrubbing at her husband's shirt cuffs in the shade, she asked her little daughter to do a turn for us. The child's stage was the platform first, and again a trolly. She was a performer, too, but she was put to bed every night at 9 o'clock, and allowed to sleep in o'mornings.
Of course circus home life differs from the normal in this, that it is more adaptable. Yet the adjustments to local conditions which have to be made at each station are so casually accepted as the normal that the community which comes for a day and a night, might seem to an onlooker who had escaped the town's thrill, to have lived there for a year.
An Oriental tight rope walker in brogues, plus fours and a blue striped blazer, mends his Japanese umbrella on the shingle by the door of his carriage, not thinking at all how unusual it is to do that there. Between the unused rail tracks a European burns the scraps of paper, for there is never any litter. The circus gives the stationmaster the assurance of clean station yards and a guarantee of indemnity.
This power of adaptability, and the appreciation of small local conveniences extends also to the elephants. Cardie strolls back to the platform and himself turns on the tap for a drink.
Once when this great laconic fellow was travelling on a thirsty, all-day journey between Rockhampton and Brisbane he pulled (they say) one of the safety chains with which the Australian carriages are fitted, and the train stopped. His car drew up beside the engine water tank. Coincidence and opportunity united for Cardie's moral downfall, for his trunk was lifted out of the wagon, over the edge of the tank, and he almost emptied that tank.
In the inquiry into the stopping of the train the Australian officials were eventually satisfied that Cardie had actually pulled the safety chain with criminal forethought to get the drink. And they who tell the story let it go at that. Cardie has a thick hide and apparently he bore no grudge.
But the elephant does remember. A practical joking seaman on the Hobart-Bluff run scooped out an apple, filled it with pepper and gave it to Cardie. The man had the laugh then, but when Cardie was coming back to New Zealand again on the same ship, he recognised the seaman, picked him up and threw him down the hold.
The small boys who run and gape as the elephant does an engine's job with a string of trucks, hush each other to solve the mystery of the keeper's elephant language. But his “bulumphs” and “mollups” are not what they were.
In Wirth's circus the legend of the language arose thus. Years ago the head elephant keeper of that period was a man who had actually spent considerable time in India and could speak Hindustani, in which language Toby and the others were trained. The other keepers copied him, but the commands were handed down in corrupted form. Something like “fidjut” means back, “doll” is push, and “mile” means come on. “Mile” developed into “mile up,” and from that it fell to “mollup.” But sometimes you will hear English unashamed.
This Indian captain, as he called himself (they sometimes suffer a sea change) fell under the eye of the police in a minor thing, the too frequent lifting of an elbow or some such thing. But when they tried to arrest him he sat down between the elephant's legs.
“Come on and get me, then,” he shouted. “Come on!”
But when the police began to come on the keeper murmured something to Toby which made the elephant wave his trunk so threateningly that the law was discomforted and its purposes defeated.
Is it not to catch these little marvels and to enlarge the least that is unusual into a free show, that the banker halts his car and calls the land agent across? The grocer leans on his bicycle by the yard fence, and the butcher tucks his apron into his waist and keeps some housewife waiting for her morning joint. The children are as thick as ants.
The little town which stirs unusually in its summer greenness has heard a lion roar where once the stationmaster's cow was wont to graze. In the station reserve the dog daisies are white in the grass about the tents. The wild animal cages are pushed into the menagerie, and the big top catches the breeze as it is hauled upwards.
A Bitch Suckles Lion Cubs.
In the first year of the Great War six lion cubs, emblematic of the great effort, were born near Cambridge. But nature makes provision for the mother to feed only four. Two of them were, therefore, fostered on to a bull bitch. page 22 They remained with the dog until they were half grown, and always, after they were separated, when they saw any bull dog they seemed to be looking for their foster mother.
They had been parted for two years when the bitch rejoined the circus, and a scene of excited mutual recognition took place. Naturally she was not put in with them again. But one of the circus staff with thirty-five years of the wonders of the show behind him, declared almost scripturally, that if she had been the lions would have lain down with the dog—and the dog alive.
Miss Doris Wirth tells a little story, too, which reveals the affection in which the kiddies were held by an old lion tamer, and this sentimental touch is quite in the old tradition. Its setting is Herterton, in North Queensland, where the peanuts grow. An hotel keeper there received the following note:
“Consigned to Mr.—one female child, aged twelve years, with two £1 notes and one pony. Will Mr.—kindly feed and stable the horse, pay for child's entrance to the circus, give her bed and breakfast, keeping the change out of the £2 for expenses, and return child and pony to her grateful parent next morning.”
The lion tamer had probably talked with the little girl or else he had a soft heart for the thousands of children whose eyes had grown round with his bravery, for he cajoled the hotel keeper into giving up that letter to him, and until he died he could never be persuaded to part with it.
The circus dares more than physical risks. It is an uncertain financial venture, and the business man who thinks of the door takings with a vagrant envy can go back to his ledger contented. There are good years, but there are also bad ones. If a five-year period yields a five per cent. profit, that is lucky.
The flap of the circus tent is rolled up after the show and the feet of mild burgesses swish home through the long grass of the paddock, home to peaceful dreams again. But sixty men are already reloading gear on to the trucks by torchlight. There are little stabs of flashlight in the dark and the prosaic magic of the refolding of the tents. But strip it of glamour and consider the cost. One expense item alone runs to four figures.
In the dark the 500-ton train is packed up again—sixty-seven ordinary carriage lengths, eighty-seven passengers, besides wild animals. With the dawn it is gone.
Snuff-taking is coming into vogue again in London's smartest circles, according to a special correspondent. Gold snuff-boxes, the lids sometimes encrusted with gems, are often seen at society functions, it seems, members of both sexes indulging in the new-old habit. West End tobacconists consider this is just a passing craze and will soon be forgotten. Snuffing, a hundred years ago, or more, was universal. But there were comparatively few smokers then. To-day it takes countless thousands of tons of tobacco every year to keep the world's pipe alight—to say nothing about cigarettes. Here in New Zealand the brands credited with the largest sales are the “toasted” ones, Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold. The first three are the choicest of all pipe tobaccos; the other two make cigarettes of rare fragrance and most delicious aroma. The purity of all these famous blends is one of their outstanding merits. Toasting it is that rids them of most of their nicotine. They're as safe as they're enjoyable.*