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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 11 (February 1, 1938)


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 The immeasurable haulage power of the elephant competes with the train itself, like ancient tractors that cannot be superseded.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.