In October 1999, Nell Gifford was invited to give a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival the following May. She suggested that they book her circus and gave them a glowing description: "There will be showgirls and a dancing horse and a motorbike and a raucous atmosphere, lit by gaslight!"
The director booked the show. The problem was, Gifford didn't have a show. Or wagons. Or costumes. Or artists. Or capital.
Building a circus from scratch in time for Hay-on-Wye took its toll on Nell and her landscape gardener husband, Toti. They ran up a £100,000 debt, had to move out of their rented cottage and slept on the floor of a pub where the landlord gave them free food.
Two engagements on the way to Hay did not improve their financial situation. They literally couldn't give tickets away. Their vehicles fell apart on the roadside. But they dragged their convoy, broke and broken, to the festival to find their three-day stand was sold out. The audience and critics loved them, and a new darling of the circus world was born.
The circus is full of wonderful stories - of magical moments plucked from disaster - and Giffords Circus - The First Ten Years (History Press) is one of them.
Gifford's previous book, Josser - The Secret Life of a Circus Girl, written under her maiden name, Stroud, describes how she ran away with a circus to escape her pain after her mother was brain-damaged in a fall from a horse. Her apprenticeship mucking out elephants on Santus Circus in the 90s was far from glamorous. It was, "a hard and negative world and a bad time for circus." But she had seen the flipside of how circus could be presented and appreciated in America's Circus Flora and Germany's Circus Roncalli, and she wanted to rebuild the dream world of the big top in her homeland.
Gifford's new book relates how she and Toti took the next step to create a circus of their own. Their work ethic is exhausting to read about. The side story of how they transformed a derelict garden centre into their home and winter base - a linked house and practise barn that symbolises how closely their lives and art are entwined - is a tale of hard work and determination in its own right. It's even more amazing that they did it between trips to Moscow and Hungary in search of performers, and rehearsals in which nobody shared a language.
This beautifully illustrated large format book delves deeply into both the artistic and practical sides of running a circus. Inspired by a chanced-upon drawing of a ballerina standing on horseback, Gifford sought out a ballerina and horse to create an act she describes as "A step forward to defining who we were."
When a rare excursion from Gloucestershire to inner-city Hoxton Square was nearly thwarted in its final yards by a gate too narrow for their vintage wagons, Toti pulled the gatepost from the concrete with his bare hands.
In a circus world fragmented into fifty shades of 'new' and 'traditional,' Giffords, with its vintage look, intimate tent, horses, dogs and gentrified audience, occupies a niche of one.
Gifford traces her artistic vision to memories of a bohemian middle class childhood, before her mother's accident, where special occasions were always celebrated on a grand scale but everything had to be homemade. Endless food and endless guests. Dressing up. Handmade decorations. Singing. Games. A visitor described their first show as "Edwardian children playing at circus," and Gifford took it as a compliment.
Giffords' style has been dubbed 'heritage circus.' But it's not just circus they're preserving, it's a slice of middle England - a rural middle class mindset of country pubs, village greens, fetes, gymkhanas and do-it-yourself fun; "An English world where the pony is childhood."
It's no wonder Giffords wowed the patrons of the Hay-on-Wye Festival - bohemian thinkers who would be out of place in the gritty working class environs of Circus Mondao (which is run by one Britain's oldest circus families) and who probably wouldn't be totally comfortable with the slick metropolitan aesthetic of Cirque du Soleil either.
It's funny. When I was writing my own book, Circus Mania, I often found myself comparing audiences as much as shows: different circuses for different classes.
On one hand, the appeal of the circus transcends class. But, in England at least, it doesn't unite the classes. Perhaps in England, it never could.
We like to pretend we're a classless society, but the tribes of class are as rigidly separatist as ever, and nowhere is that more apparent than in a journey through our circus tents. Giffords Circus thrives in the shires where its audience shares the same childhood memory of what a circus should be - and where they can afford the £25 three-course meals served in the Circus Sauce travelling restaurant as opposed to the £1.50 hotdogs available at other shows.
Giffords Circus - The First Ten Years is available from Amazon and the circus will be making its first visit to London in a decade when it pitches up at Chiswick House, June 11 - 24.
(Image: D McPherson)
Douglas McPherson blogs about circus at www.circusmania.blogspot.co.ukSuggest a correction