Prism

A Clown in Notts: "Who’s meant to cheer up the person whose job it is to cheer up other people?"

30 September 19 illustrations: Jenny Mure

"I can still vividly remember the first time I made someone laugh; it was like I’d injected a shot of Lucozade straight into my veins."

I wasn’t necessarily the funniest kid in my school, but I certainly tried to be. I don’t want to sound like a sob story, but I probably didn’t get the attention I needed at home, so I sought validation in other ways. Doing impressions of teachers, throwing things at the smaller kids and telling jokes — anything to try and get a reaction. I can still vividly remember the first time I made someone laugh; it was like I’d injected a shot of Lucozade straight into my veins. It was electric. 

After briefly flirting with acting and magic, I ended up doing an ad-hoc apprenticeship with a circus that was travelling around Europe when I was nineteen. My parents both passed away when I was quite young, and that was the first time I really felt like I had a family. I didn’t get paid, but I got to travel, eat and, most importantly, learn what it took to be a clown. There’s a closeness within a circle of itinerant people that’s hard to describe unless you’ve been a part of it. We were all lost souls, in our own way, looking for acceptance. It took a little while for them to accept me, but once they did, they were my friends for life. Everything I know about being a clown, I learnt from them. 

Before I was allowed to perform regularly, I was basically the promo guy. I looked like a clown, I acted like a clown, but all I really did was drum up interest in whatever town or city we were in. But all the while I was learning everything: stilt-walking, miming, comedy timing, juggling, costume making. The circus survives by one generation passing knowledge on to the next, and on and on it goes. 

Like with any family, there were fights, and sometimes they turned physical. When you’re working in tense situations with a live audience, the slightest error gets magnified one hundred times over. It sounds silly, but I’ve watched two men in their fifties throwing punches in full clown costumes. They know what the stakes are, especially when someone’s well-being is at risk, so there really isn’t any room for error. 

Those introspective moments seem worse when you’re a clown, because you’re looking at yourself in a mirror, thinking ‘I’ve got one shot at life, and this is what I’m doing?’ while a ridiculously painted face is grinning back at you.

The first time I got to perform properly remains the greatest moment of my life. Many of the specific details got lost in the adrenaline-fuelled rush of excitement, but there’s one thing I remember as if it happened yesterday: the noise of kids laughing. It’s like a chorus of angels; the sound you’ve been chasing your entire life. It’s confirmation that all of your work is worth something, that everything you’ve been doing actually has a point. 

Naturally, as with any form of entertainment, there are low points in a clown’s life. Shows go badly, people don’t laugh and you question why the hell you’re doing it. Those introspective moments seem worse when you’re a clown, because you’re looking at yourself in a mirror, thinking ‘I’ve got one shot at life, and this is what I’m doing?’ while a ridiculously painted face is grinning back at you. Who’s meant to cheer up the person whose job it is to cheer up other people? It’s like that great line from Watchmen: “A man goes to the doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. The doctor says, ‘Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.’ The man bursts out crying and says, ‘But doctor... I am Pagliacci.’”

The writing was on the wall for my circus a few years before we actually decided to call it a day. Crowds were dwindling, the animal acts were starting to come under scrutiny and the whole thing just became too expensive to sustain. In a world where everything that’s ever happened is available at the touch of a button, people just didn’t want to see clowns anymore. We struggled along, but deep down, I think we all knew it was over. My circus had been going for almost a century, with every clown passing on his knowledge to the next generation. I guess I was last in that long line, and there was no-one left for me to share what I’d learnt. 

I moved back to Nottingham and worked with a few different groups, mostly behind-the-scenes stuff, as well as doing a magic and clown act for kids’ parties, but it wasn’t the same. I’ve never been particularly business minded, and I’m not great with social media, so the work was pretty sparse. Even the gigs I did get weren’t fulfilling; I don’t know if it’s just me getting old, but kids seem different now. Half of them are bloody terrified of clowns anyway, and the ones that aren’t don’t want to concentrate when they’re being entertained. Why would they? They’ve all got phones and computers that let them fly in space or play football with David Beckham. No one has time for clowns anymore. 

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