LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Monday, 5 October 2015

How to write a circus book

Ever been told you should write your life story? I expect many circus people have, and many have done so. But if a book is next on your ‘to do’ list as a showman or performer, how best to go about it? Former promoter of the Greatest Show on Earth, Jamie MacVicar wrote The Advance Man about his experiences. In the following article, which appeared originally appeared in Writers Forum, he shares his tips for a successful memoir.

Conversing with Jamie MacVicar after reading The Advance Man feels odd, like meeting your favourite fictional character. Because MacVicar’s adventures promoting the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus - the self-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth - in the early 70s read less like a memoir than a novel.

Unfolding hour by hour, scene by scene, conversation by conversation, the 650-page narrative gives us a real sense of sitting in offices as advertising deals are hammered out; backstage as unsold tickets are counted; and in “beyond seedy” motel rooms where the pressure builds and eventually takes its toll on a young man thrust into a high-stakes world.

“To write a book you have to be passionate and objective for a long, long time, so you better have something compelling to say,” says MacVicar, who’s book was a finalist for the Marsfield Prize, an American award for arts writing. “Very few people have held the job of circus promoter and to my knowledge no one had ever written a book about it. What I wanted to do in The Advance Man that I hadn’t seen done before was to teach a craft - the marketing of live entertainment - while somehow blending it seamlessly into the personal story. Since most memoirs are reflective, looking back at past events, I decided to write it in the present. I wanted the reader to experience events exactly as I had.”

To create that sense of immediacy, MacVicar advises the aspiring memoirist to use all five senses in their writing: taste, sight, sound, touch and smell.

“Detail makes the reader feel as though they are there,” he explains. “Why just drive across the bridge when you can drive past ‘a little girl sitting on a rail selling worms for 35 cents a box.’ I try to strip down descriptive elements to one or two at most - a sidewalk lifted by an oak tree, a man in a button-down sweater - just enough to trigger the reader’s imagination. It then becomes their story, and will stay with them.”

Asked whether the wealth of detail in The Advance Man stems from a good memory or whether a memoirist is permitted some creative license to fill in the gaps, MacVicar says, “I’m amazed at how much I remembered when I transported myself back in time, heightened I’m sure by the intensity of the period. The important things stay with us.

“I believe you can add colour to evoke a mood - ‘A tractor rumbled by in a swirl of dust, the trees looked barren against the grey sky’ - and you can guess at irrelevant details, like did I sell 500 or 600 tickets at that show twenty years ago?

“But the events and dialogue should be to the best of your recollection, and any historical details should be as chronicled. Our memories are faulty and we can be forgiven for that, but not for a lack of ethics, honest intent and due diligence.”

Although a memoir is by its nature drawn from personal experience, MacVicar’s book is notable for detailed passages on the history of the circus he worked for and the parts of America he visited.

“History and surrounding material that evoke the times give the story depth, and that makes the narrative far richer,” he says. “Context also renders a greater understanding of the actions and decisions of the protagonists. More than most books, a memoir gives the reader an opportunity to reflect on their own lives and what they might have done under similar circumstances.”

To aid his research, he hired a history graduate from his local university who uncovered “golden nuggets” of information, from the crops grown in Ohio during his time there, to a thorough biography of Gargantua, a famed circus gorilla. The author also sought the input of other people in the tale.

“I flew to Savannah, Georgia, and interviewed the head of the advertising agency I’d worked with twenty years earlier. He gave me perspectives and background material about Savannah that were priceless - things I never knew at the time.

“I also sent the manuscript to two of the main characters in the book as well as to the attorney for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, giving them three months to respond. My purpose was twofold: to discover any inaccuracies and to give them a chance to express any concerns before the book was published.”

MacVicar also hired a copy editor and content editor. The former would circle words in red ink with admonitions such as “You’ve used this word four times.” The latter would slash through entire scenes, saying, “This doesn’t move the plot forward.”

“They greatly improved the manuscript, tightening and streamlining the prose while teaching me what to look for myself,” say the author.

According to MacVicar, it’s becoming common for writers to hire their own editors, in America at least: “Agents will often insist on it before presenting your work.” Self-publishing writers are definitely encouraged to employ a professional editor, although MacVicar cautions, “Editors have different approaches. Not all are a good match. I advise asking two or three to do a chapter before deciding who is right for you.”

The Advance Man took eleven years to write, which is about four times longer than the period it describes. Editing and finding a publisher took another four years, and publisher Bear Manor Media took a further two years to bring the book to market.

MacVicar had to fit writing around his day job of running a graphic design firm. But while he would have preferred to complete the book more quickly, he urges all scribes to be patient with the writing process.

“Don’t look at the project as a whole - it’s too overwhelming. All you have to write today is one scene. Take your time. Fame and fortune are ephemeral. Pride in what you produce is permanent.

“I’ve never had a bad writing session because I don’t sit down to write until I know exactly what I am going to say and what I want to achieve. I stop when the going’s good, and then let the subconscious take over. At some point, the words start flowing again and I stop whatever I’m doing and write.”

Influences on his style included Robert Caro’s five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. “Caro is the master of making the mundane fascinating. But his pacing was particularly instructive. He knows how to build momentum into a paragraph.

Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar took the leveraged buyout of Nabisco and turned it into a business thriller, introducing me to narrative non-fiction, a style I’ve been drawn to ever since. But it was Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways that prompted me to write The Advance Man. He wrote it not to be liked or admired, but to look at himself objectively, warts and all. I found that powerful.”

The Advance Man deals unflinchingly with MacVicar’s stress-induced breakdown and the family issues that caused him to overwork.

“Writing about myself, I employed what I call the cringe factor,” he says. “If I wasn’t cringing at times by what I revealed, then I wasn’t doing justice to the story, the reader, and the lessons to be gleaned.”

As for the thorny business of writing about family, which some writers might find inhibiting: “A memoir is personal, so writing about loved ones is usually unavoidable. But a searing portrait can be mitigated by conveying why they may have behaved as they did. Maybe a cousin was a kleptomaniac, but could the lack of attention from a fatherless home have been the cause?”

In other cases, changing names can be a good idea - not least to avoid being sued.

“You might recall thinking someone in your past was an idiot, and while you might not care what he or she thinks about your opinion now, what about his or her spouse and children? Is it necessary to hurt their feelings too? In general, if I portray someone in a negative light, I change their name and description.”

MacVicar’s new book, A Year in a B&B in Banff, is set thirty years after his circus adventure, and describes how a new relationship lead to him running a bed and breakfast in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Both books can be ordered from Amazon.

Click here to read my review of The Adavnce Man.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Why Sherlock's Dr Watson Martin Freeman is wrong about circus animals

Martin Freeman
No s***, Sherlock

Martin Freeman, who plays Dr Watson in TV’s Sherlock, is the latest celebrity to join forces with PETA in calling for a ban on circus animals. In a letter to prime minister David Cameron, he said, “I’d like to see my children grow up in a country where animals are treated with respect, not as objects of ridicule.” The actor, who is also known for his role as Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit films added that “allowing circuses with wild animals to continue sends the message that it’s okay to dominate animals and ignore pain and suffering.”

As someone who was brought up to believe that the idea of performing animals was wrong, I can understand why Freeman might harbour that instinctive belief. But I have to wonder whether he has witnessed any “ridicule,” “pain” or “suffering” first hand. Because when I looked into the matter in great depth for my book, Circus Mania, I found myself forming a very different view of the unique relationship between trainer and animal and the benefits that watching such interaction can offer audiences and society as a whole.

I expect Sherlock Holmes would advise his sidekick to consider all the evidence before jumping to conclusions. So, for the benefit of Dr Watson, here are my reasons why I believe the show, with animals, should go on.

The Radford Report, commissioned by the last Labour government found no grounds for a ban. Although Labour wanted to introduce a ban, their six-month study, found only the inconvenient truth that circuses were as capable as other captive environments, such as zoos, of meeting the welfare needs of the animals in their care.

An earlier 18-month study by animal behavourist Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington found circus animals suffer no stress during performance, training or transportation. Kiley-Worthington found circus training methods to be no harsher than those in riding stables, kennels or other animal husbandry environments, and noted that while farm animals find transportation stressful, circus animals quickly become acclimatised to it and enter their transport without concern. Her report, which was sponsored by the RSPCA and published as Animals in Circuses and Zoos: Chiron’s World? also pointed out ways in which the relationship between animals and trainers could contribute to our scientific understanding of how animals think, learn and perceive the world.

Historically, just 7 UK circus trainers have been prosecuted for cruelty in 130 years - a tiny minority of the trainers who worked blamelessly in that time, and a tiny number compared with the number of livestock farmers and pet owners brought before the courts. Malpractice exists in every profession, but the solution is to ban the bad practitioner, not the profession as a whole.

Regulation is better than prohibition, and since 2012, UK circuses with wild animals have been strictly regulated by a licensing scheme that sees them inspected by vets six times a year (twice unannounced) with the results available online. Every aspect of the animal’s life, diet and accommodation is governed by strict guidelines. There is little room left for wrongdoing, and should it occur, we have existing laws to deal with it.

Mr Freeman doesn’t want his children to see animals ridiculed, but that’s not my experience of what you’ll see in a circus ring. Typically, animals are encouraged - not forced - to display perfectly natural behaviour, such as jumping and rolling over.

The children I’ve seen at ringside were enthralled by the animals they saw, and witnessing their obvious skill and intelligence at close quarters can only foster respect for other species, just as it was largely the tricks performed by trained dolphins that convinced the public that they were intelligent and therefore worthy of conservation.

The animals that I’ve seen in the circus, meanwhile, showed every sign of enjoying the interaction with their trainers. Every cat, dog and horse owner knows their pet enjoys playing with humans, and it’s no different for a zebra, camel or lion. Training and performance are organised play, like throwing a stick for a dog or pulling string in front of a cat. To see how that works in practise, click here to watch Thomas Chipperfield’s video diary in which Britain’s last lion tamer demonstrates how he trained two young lions with patience and reward.

For some people, of course, the issue is simply that animals should be free. But we shouldn’t anthropomorphise and assume that a captive-bred animal is intellectually capable of sharing our concept of freedom - or assume that it is any worse off than its wild-born cousin.

Animals in the wild are endangered by predators (including human predators) and shrinking habitats. They live short, dangerous lives. Circus animals receive food, shelter and veterinary care, and as a result live twice as long. One of Thomas Chipperfield’s tigers, for example, is 18-years-old. In the wild she would have died long ago, either from wounds or disease, or from starvation when she reached an age where she could no longer fend for herself. In captivity, she enjoys a healthy and pampered old age.

Do I think she’s happy? Elementary, my dear Watson.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus (Peter Owen Publishers)

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Chipperfield lions pictures

Here are the latest pictures from An Evening With Lions and Tigers, courtesy of the South Wales Evening Post. View the complete gallery here.

The show, presented by Britain's last lion trainer Thomas Chipperfield, is in Neath, Wales, until October 4. For details of how to get involved in the show, click here.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Crowd fund a circus lion

Buy a lion a new home at

Crowd funding has been a trend in the music business for a while now. Instead of needing a record company to cover the cost of making an album then recouping the investment through record sales, increasing numbers of independent artists are going direct to their fans, through websites such as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic, and asking them to donate small and large amounts of money to pay for the recording process in advance.

Depending how much they pledge, fans are rewarded with various packages, from a signed copy of the album to things like an invitation to the launch party, having their name on the CD sleeve, or even a private concert in your living room!

A big part of the reward for donating, of course, is the sense of involvement and the satisfaction of helping an artist you believe in bring their music to the world.

But can you crowd fund a circus?

Anthony Beckwith, Thomas Chipperfield’s partner in An Evening With Lions And Tigers has set up a Go Fund Me page to raise capital for a new, enlarged living and exercise space for the show’s big cats for a planned tour of England next year.

The company, which is currently touring Wales, needs £15,000 to double the size of the indoor and outdoor accommodation currently shared by the show’s two lions and three tigers. The new outdoor space will be four times the size required by the DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) licence that An Evening With Lions and Tigers needs to tour in England, and the indoor overnight accommodation will also be bigger.

Thomas Chipperfield
wants to give his big cats twice as much
living space.
It will also show Chipperfield’s commitment to providing the best possible care for his animals while his show itself is designed to educate the public about the humane ways in which big cats are trained for circus and film work.

According to Beckwith: “I've spent the last decade of my life working in British circuses, as I feel that they are the best medium through which to educate the public about wild animals. The bond between man and beast cannot be presented better than through live presentations.”

At a time when lions and tigers have disappeared from every other British circus, and only a few have even horses, dogs and exotics such as zebra and camels, Beckwith and Chipperfield are the only two showmen fighting back against the efforts of animal rights groups to force through Parliament a ban on all animals in the big top.

Cover stars
Thomas Chipperfield and Tsavo the lion
grace the Daily Telegraph
The Go Fund Me page offers a chance for fans of traditional circus to not just support Anthony and Thomas in their current fundraising project, but to demonstrate public support for a British tradition under threat. If you want lions in your circuses, you can literally put your money where your mouth is by pledging support here.

The anti-circus brigade have, after all, been asking the public for donations for years. Why shouldn’t circuses fight back with the same tactics?

So far, there is no suggestion of music business-style rewards for crowd funders. But maybe that’s something Beckwith should consider. How about a pair of free tickets and an “I bought a lion a new home" T-shirt for a minimum donation of say £25? And for those who wish to pledge £100 or £200, your name in the souvenir brochure, or engraved in a plaque on the side of the exercise enclosure? Maybe £1000 should get you a tiger cub named in your honour. And for anyone who stumps up the full £15,000, how about a personal appearance from Tsavo the lion in your own living roo... oh, er, well maybe not.

Apart from that, could crowd funding be the new way of supporting your favourite circus?

Douglas McPherson is the author Circus Mania, the Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Book Review: The Enemy Within by Gary Nott - a circus adventure with a 70s twist.

Do you remember the Bay City Rollers, Look-In magazine and the Six Million Dollar Man?

Gary Nott’s circus adventure The Enemy Within is about a gang of ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds who turn detective in true kids’ fiction tradition. But while it’s clearly aimed at children in that age group, I reckon it will appeal just as much, if not more so, to those of us adults who were that age in 1975, the year the novel is set.

Within the first couple of pages, mentions of Henry Cooper splashing it all over in the Brut cologne adverts, and the Disney film One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing ticked all the nostalgia boxes for me. Yep, I saw that film and, just like the book’s heroes, went to a Wimpy bar afterwards.

Add dancing to Tiger Feet by Mud at the school disco and I was right back there.

Nott’s love for and knowledge of the circus shines from every page as he describes a big top arriving in Torquay for an extended summer season. The circus kids are dumped at the local school for the last few weeks of term where they feel like the outsiders they are. But they quickly make friends with four town kids led by Pete who hopes circus girl Natalie will be his first girlfriend.

But then things start to go wrong at the big top, and the animal rights protestors at the gates are the least of the circus’ problems. With aerialists plummeting from sabotaged ropes and animals set loose, the story is packed with incident.

One of the funniest scenes sees a family of four hiding in a phone box after seeing an escaped bear. “Find somewhere to hide,” they urge the kids who are looking for the bear, “and before you ask, there’s no room in here!”

There are no shortage of suspects for the kids to snoop on, either, from the grumpy clown with a grudge to the shifty elephant groom and the tiger trainer with debts.

I have to admit I guessed the villain early on, but that didn’t stop me enjoying the book tremendously, including the denouement with its nod to Scooby Doo’s classic payoff (and another nostalgic titbit for us grown-ups), “I’d have got away with it if it wasn’t for these pesky kids!”

I also enjoyed Nott’s even-handed treatment of the always thorny issue of animals in the circus, which is a central theme.

Pete is uncomfortable with the sight of the elephant trainer’s bullhook and the confined living spaces in the ‘zoo,’ but notes the lions have more space than the workers in the bunk wagon. He’s somewhat won over by the obvious love that the cat trainers have for their animals. But then he’s shocked by the Russian bear trainers’ rough treatment of their animals - and the way the circus kids accept it.

“The Popov Brothers are rough with their animals,” Yolanda admits. “Not all trainers are kind.”

“Does the gaffer know?”

“Yes, but the brothers are cheap to hire.”

In the event, the circus owner is persuaded to confront the bear keepers, but only under threat of more bad publicity his show can ill-afford. It’s a hollow victory for Pete, meanwhile, because the brothers leave and take their animals to another circus.

“Who’ll look out for them now?” he wonders.

Elsewhere, 12-year-old lion trainer’s son Timmy is resistant to the idea of providing an exercise enclosure when the cats sleep most of the day anyway: Putting up an exercise cage would mean effort and money - you’d have to buy a second cage and then spend time putting it up; he didn’t think it was practical at all.

“We know how to take care of our animals. We don’t need outsiders to tell us how to improve things,” he says, making clear the circus kids’ friendship with the town kids has limits.

Tumblers’ daughter Natalie, meanwhile, keeps her doubts about the animals to herself, knowing that to voice them would mark her as a traitor within a community under attack.

Seamlessly entwined in a children's adventure story, this is a brilliantly judged commentary on a complicated subject. Not anti-circus, or even anti-animals in circus, but precisely pinpointing the grey areas in a subject usually viewed in black and white, I frequently found Pete's reactions to the circus mirroring my own.

Buy it for your kids. Read it for yourself.

The Enemy Within by Gary Nott is published by Vanguard Press and available from Amazon.

For more circus fiction try The Showman's Girl by Julia Douglas - elephants, adventure and romance in the big top in the 1930s. Click here to read a preview.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Bears escape from circus... or do they?

Have you seen
this bear?

Reports from the Iranian city of  Karaj say police and are hunting two bears that escaped from a circus during freak floods that hit northern Iran last weekend.

At least 16 people were confirmed killed in the floods, but rumours that a “giant bear” and its cub were hiding out in a warehouse by the river seem to have been less confirmed.

The circus manager has denied having any bears and claimed the rumour was started by animal rights activists. So they have them in Iran, too.

The story reminds me of the activists who furiously protested at Giffords Circus featuring the ‘bear’ pictured above, a few years back.

As if it wasn’t obviously a man in a suit, the said animal was photographed having a beer after the show. Perhaps his brother’s working in Iran this season.

Heaven knows what the protesters would say if they knew this lion had been forced to wear tights and walk around on its hind legs all day...

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Are circus animals happy?

This one looks like he is. Thanks to Thomas Chipperfield's lion Tsavo for posing so beautifully in the sun.

See him for yourself in An Evening With Lions and Tigers in Neath, Wales from 24 Sept to 4 October.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Lion takes swipe at trainer Thomas Chipperfield in Wales as elephants rampage in Denmark

Car charged for parking in the wrong place

It’s been a bad week for circus animals as a series of headline-making incidents around the world showed the dangers of working with such unpredictable performers.

In eastern Belarus, an elephant was descending backwards from a pyramid of pedestals at the Dziva Circus when it lost its footing and crashed onto its side just inches from front row spectators. A few more feet and they would have been crushed by the falling pachyderm, which typically weigh three or four tons.

Video taken from ringside shows two other elephants entering the ring and going to the aid of the fallen animal, which struggled to return to its feet after the three-metre tumble.

Elephant rampage

In Denmark, three elephants from Cirkus Arenas went on the rampage after being taken for a swim in the sea. Video footage of the incident at Karrebaeksminde was taken by a bystander and shows one of the elephants chasing a man and then taking out its anger on a parked car. First the elephant shows its strength by giving the vehicle a side swipe with its tusks and trunk, lifting the car onto two wheels. Next the elephant lifts the front of the car and shoves it backwards several metres as if it were as light as a toy.

The elephants’ trip to the sea is an annual event and the circus issued a statement blaming onlookers for getting too near the animals and parking where they shouldn’t have.

Lion attack

In Wales, Britain’s last travelling tiger trainer, Thomas Chipperfield, had a narrow escape when a male lion called Tsavo took a swipe at his handler’s head during a show in Wales called An Evening With Lions and Tigers.

Video taken by an audience member shows Chipperfield leaning forward to kiss the lion, which was towering above him on a pedestal. At first, Tsavo leaned forward as if to return the kiss, then suddenly swiped his left paw at the trainer’s head. Chipperfield, who has worked with big cats all his life, ducked away from the swipe and continued his performance without breaking a sweat. Talking to audience members after the show, the trainer fear forgot said the swipe was “nothing.”

Tsavo - was just "play fighting."
The show’s director Anthony Beckwith told local paper The Daily Post, “Things like this happen all the time. At the end of the day lions are animals and do attack, but no damage was caused and they’ve never hurt Thomas. It is more like play-fighting rather than aggression. The animals see Thomas as one of their own but because they are animals they don’t realise that they weigh 400lbs and when they do take a swipe it can knock you back. It’s like if you have a horse, it’s likely at some stage they’ll step on your toes or if you have a house cat they might scratch you.”

Chipperfield said much the same thing in February when he wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph titled Why Lions Attack Their Trainers. His current show is intended to educate the public about the conservation of big cats in the wild and the way they are trained for circus and film work in captivity.

An Evening With Lions and Tigers is in Wrexham until Sunday 26 July. Box office: 07821155513.

Douglas McPherson PLC

Douglas McPherson PLC

My thanks to Tracy Baines for the following letter in this month's Writers' Forum:

"Is Douglas McPherson one man? Does he have ten brothers named Douglas? Or is it the name of a warehouse somewhere containing a team of people tapping away on laptops - Douglas McPherson PLC?

"What an output. Do you think it would be possible to isolate a sample of his DNA and identify his discipline and work ethic? We could market it as the McPherson Productivity Pill."

Also in this month's Writers' Forum is my interview with Daily Mail film critic Christopher Tookey; my interview with My Weekly Pocket Novels editor Maggie Swinburne; my piece on how to begin writing your memoirs; and my behind-the-scenes account of penning the My Weekly story Teddy Girls, which I wrote under the pen name Julia Douglas.

So, yes, pretty productive I guess!