Sawdust and sequins: Why I ran away to join the circus at 60
Dea Birkett is back as ringmaster of her own show to celebrate 250 years of the circus
Dea Birkett inside her circus caravan
Dea Birkett’s son River Toolis, aged 17, who is training as a juggler
Dea Birkett with a lifesize elephant puppet
As a little girl Dea Birkett will never forget watching the circus parade past the end of her street, “and within hours, the park where I played was transformed into a world of wonders. Then the next day that magical, exotic world was gone and I returned to life in my boring Surrey suburb.” A dream lingered, however, and many years later, that childhood longing was finally fulfilled when she ran away to join the circus.
In her 30s at the time, she was an award-winning journalist and broadcaster living in London and the mother of a small child, Storme. Having decided it would be her last chance to do something so wild and free, she applied for and won a travelling fellowship from the Winston Churchill Foundation enabling her to purchase a caravan and travel to Italy to work with the celebrated Togni Italian circus dynasty.
Having started selling popcorn, she became an elephant girl togged out in a sequinned bikini with feathered headdress and powdery hands.
“The ring didn’t only transform me, it transformed the world around me. It was a life-changing experience,” she recalls.
My caravan has been sitting outside our back door in the storms of Achill for a quarter of a century
But how did she handle the elephant? “I didn’t handle the elephant [called Julia] – she handled me. She was in charge and if she didn’t want to do something, she didn’t. She was the boss.”
After a year with the Tognis, Birkett then went on to join another circus in Scandinavia. “Circus is like family and you become part of it, and though I returned to being a parent, I never stopped being part of that family.”
She left the circus in 1993, but she has now decided to go back on the road.
“My caravan has been sitting outside our back door in the storms of Achill for a quarter of a century. I couldn’t bear to get rid of my old home, so this year, because it celebrates 250 years of circus and I turn 60, I decided it was time to run back to the circus,” she says.
The last few months have been spent doing up her tiny old home and setting out on the road travelling around festivals in the UK and Ireland as a ringmaster, in top hat and tails – not performing in the circus ring, but telling stories of running away to the circus inside her caravan for audiences of up to six festival-goers at a time.
She has had her adventures with the caravan. “When I first moved it from Achill to Dublin, it hadn’t been moved for 20 years and that evening outside Longford, the chassis cracked and I was stranded. Then some Travellers stopped, hitched up the caravan so I could move it to a field close by and the men told me to check into the Longford Arms for the night and come back the next lunchtime. When I did, they had rebuilt the front of the chassis with used lorry parts. Without those Travellers, the caravan would not be on the road.”
She is fond of describing the origins of circus history which go back 250 years to London and an abandoned patch of marshland near Waterloo. The showman, entrepreneur and equestrian rider Philip Astley laid out a 42ft ring with a piece of rope and filled it with breathtaking physical acts: jugglers, acrobats, clowns, strongmen, equestrian stuntmen and even his own wife riding around smothered in a swarm of bees. That was the world’s first circus and any circus anywhere in the world is 42ft across and can trace its roots to that moment in 1768. Today there are over 1,000 circuses in Europe. This year Fossetts, Ireland’s National Circus, marks its 130 years as the world’s oldest continuously touring circus. Circus is now regarded as an art form.
For Birkett, reviving her old home “and a wonderful part of my life” is a personal way of marking the current celebrations around the anniversary.
I remember the physical and mental demands and how you smile in the ring even if in pain
“I am back in my 1970s 11ft Elddis caravan with no washing facilities but a built-in bar. The fishnets and sequins no longer fit, but instead I will be wearing my ringmaster’s jacket and top hat and telling the secrets of circus life.”
So what did she love about circus life and did it live up to the dream?
“Circus life is really hard – you may have no electricity or water for days and there is real grind. It is not only physically demanding inside the ring but also outside. I remember the physical and mental demands and how you smile in the ring even if in pain. I remember a hula hoop girl who performed through fire and smiled all the time in the ring. Out of the ring you could see her stomach covered in scars. And I remember riding the elephant and hanging on for dear life – the hair of the elephant is like wire and rubs uncomfortably against your thighs and yet I was waving and smiling. You are presenting joy and that contrast [between pain and joy] is part of the circus”.
What draws her back again and again is “the community of the circus, which I love. People come from all ends of the earth and we can communicate without words and depend on each other for our lives. The community is so strong because we are utterly dependent on each other and no one is too proud to look under the chassis. Everybody helps even if there is a hierarchy, so it is a wonderful world to be part of, and transformative. You arrive on a patch of ground and transform it to bring joy and wonder to a place that has nothing. To bring joy to people is a wonderful privilege. I love doing it.”
Circus life changes: wild animals in circuses are now outlawed in many countries. Ireland’s ban went into effect in January, but, according to Birkett, “circus is a constantly evolving and changing art and it is fine not to have animals. We had a lifesize elephant puppet outside our caravan which was a great idea. This is an industry that is still thriving and we don’t need lions, tigers or elephants any more to evolve.”
History is repeating itself in more ways than one for Dea Birkett.
“Twenty five years ago I ran away from my first child. This time I am running away with my youngest child, River Toolis, aged 17, who is training as a juggler. He wants to be in the circus - so I could not be a prouder parent.”
Some places the Circus 250 Caravan will be visiting include:
South Bank, London August 18th
The Piece Hall, Halifax, UK September 15th
Pitch’d Festival, Cork September 21st-23rd and 28th-30th
Off the Shelf Festival, Sheffield, UK October 7th
National Circus Festival, Tralee, Co Kerry November 8th-11th