The funny thing about clowns ...

Image of Susie Boyt

Is there anything more idiotic than feeling glum at the circus? I ask you.

Imagine being glum at the opening weekend of the Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione in its stunning 1850s purpose-built theatre in the middle of Paris, where the red plush circus ring is electric with half-dressed chorus girls and growling tigers walking on their hind legs, storybook acrobats in flesh-coloured spangled lycra, miniature dachshunds jumping over tiny silver bridges, and serious-hearted male clowns wearing white court shoes!

Glum at the Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione in the rue Amelot, which used to boast the cheapest hotel in all Paris when I went as a child (and if you took a twin room and used only one bed it was cheaper still). Glum listening to nostalgic circus anthems from a genuine live orchestra mounted on high, whose beautiful first violinist has shimmering waist-length hair. Glum sitting at the ring-side, in a nest of popcorn and candyfloss with a six-year-old at my side who thinks magic is the highest art form in the land (well, magic and puppies).

Still, glum I was. A dodgy Paris kerb had sent me flying through the air, and I had skinned my knees and elbows, but most of all knocked my pride, which really was black and blue. The next morning it had happened again on a zebra crossing, and a lady sitting in a pile of bags on the street nearby reading French Elle through a green magnifying glass had come to my aid. “Je vous aide madame,” she actually said. Was it the highly cratered Paris streets? Were my spiteful shoes trying to kill me? Have I reached an age where people will say about me: “You know, she has the odd fall, now and then, in Paris”?

Cheer up, I commanded myself, but it was easier said than done, for in the middle of the ring a man was strapping a woman in a bikini to a large black shield-like structure, which he then spun round and round before throwing knives at her. As human relations go, it was hardly ideal. With some aplomb he kept narrowly missing everything from her armpit to her neck to her nevermind, but it seemed appalling to me, a man being applauded wildly for not quite killing women. It sure was entry-level chivalry

“Booo,” I roared. “Hissssss. Shame on you!” I hollered, a phrase I have never heard anyone utter in real life, although I believe Dorothy says it at one point to the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz when he gingerly menaces the scarecrow before he joins the dream team.

To the woman herself, I shouted, “What are you thinking? You can do so much better.” Was it just my imagination, or did I really receive an asymmetric quizzical glance in return? The next time I come here, I want it to be you who is throwing the knives, I tried to communicate through the sawdusty ether. OK, mademoiselle?

Soon after, a clown came on with a small wooden box, and when he opened it a fraction he somehow persuaded the audience to applaud and to stop again at the exact moment that he snapped it shut. Then he opened it wider, received even more applause, and suddenly shut it again – whereupon the clapping ceased. He then opened it as wide as it could go, luxuriated in the praise for quite some time, and banged down the lid. Happier than Larry, he left the stage.

There are times when praise is almost meat and drink to a person, and this is one of those times. How wonderful to be able to request and receive exactly the amount required. Might there be a souvenir version of the applause box in the gift booth?

But there was more: this same man later returned and tried to impress us with some quite modest juggling involving red hats. Three times he dropped them at the most crucial stage. At the fourth attempt the adulation that met him when he got it right was tumultuous. He did look pleased. Something important had been communicated about modest achievement.

Next he asked an audience member to try to throw one of the red hats from quite far away at the edge of the ring so that it would land on his head. Many, many goes were had at this human hoopla, to no avail. But, finally, with a brainwave, the clown covered his bald head in sticky tape and the task was achieved right away. He had taken the possibility for failure out of the equation and reaped the benefits.

Carefully I made my way along the streets afterwards, thinking, thinking. I would not take any further tumbles, but there were things to be learnt from clowns.

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