I was on a flight to Edinburgh a few weeks ago and through the gap between the orange seats I spotted a report in the Wall Street Journal about the approaching end of the greatest show on Earth.  Frustratingly the page was flipped over before I’d finished reading it.  Once off the flight, I Googled and found this:

‘Feld Entertainment Inc., parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® and the world’s largest producer of live family entertainment, announced today that the iconic 146-year-old circus would hold its final performances later this year. Ringling Bros.®’ two circus units will conclude their tours with their final shows at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., on May 7, and at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21, 2017.

The decision to end the circus tours was made as a result of high costs coupled with a decline in ticket sales, making the circus an unsustainable business for the company. Following the transition of the elephants off the circus, the company saw a decline in ticket sales greater than could have been anticipated.’

The end of the circus.

This is a cultural turning point, not necessarily to be mourned, because our readiness to accept animals performing in circuses has rightly diminished.  But we might miss the cauldron of hyperbole.

There is something in the outlandishness of the circus that some see as the first whip crack of the public relations trade or at least the modern manifestation of the publicist’s art.

P T Barnum (pictured above), the master exaggerator, was at the helm.

Barnum was a brilliant stuntmeister.  In 1842, he perpetrated his first major hoax, a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish, known as the “Feejee” mermaid. Barnum justified hoaxes by saying they were “advertisements to draw attention. I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.” 

Barnum followed up with the introduction to the world of Charles Stratton, aka, General Tom Thumb (‘the Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone’) who was then four years of age but was stated to be 11. Through a worrying combination of heavy coaching and, er, natural talent, the boy was taught to imitate people, including Hercules and Napoleon. By the ripe old age of five, he was drinking wine and by seven he was smoking cigars for the public’s amusement.

Barnum’s eye for questionable sensation made him the darling of European nobility and royalty. He became wealthy and at one stage almost bought William Shakespeare’s birthplace.

Barnum did not enter the circus business, which is the bedrock of his fame, until he was 60 (there’s hope for us all). In Wisconsin in 1870 he established P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, later shortened after merger to Barnum & Bailey’s.

The show’s first major attraction was Jumbo, an African elephant Barnum bought in 1882 from London Zoo.  The idea that you can name your price for a zoo animal feels like a tall tale in its own right.

Barnum was adept at snaring patrons, by giving them a glimpse of something that had never been seen before, regardless of its veracity. He was often accused of deception but he justified his actions as simply a gloss on the truth that made it seem more appealing.

Barnum owned a train that ferried his circus.  In a way, he owned a proto-social network.


Barnum’s promotional posters are things of wonder.  I have several on my office wall.  They’re like reworkings of those didactic paintings of the northern Renaissance.

Here’s another:

The loss of Barnum’s circus is worth considering in the context of his legacy.  Ideas are porous and arguably the counter-intuitive spectacle that he masterminded is now baked into everyday life.

ClickBait, fake news, the sidebar of shame – these are all digital circus acts.

It’s getting harder for writers of fiction to come up with plot lines because we are constantly being washed by waves of evermore implausible events.  Fiction has almost become a modest iteration of reality. Consider how baffling the last 12 months have been.  I started reading the excellent book The Sellout and then found myself pausing to listen to podcasts or graze news about political events in the United States.  The Sellout now feels modest in its parody.

Life could hardly be more incoherent. To craft fiction in a world clothed in absurdities is so difficult.  To deliver news is equally so.  It requires us to find curious collisions that are satisfyingly real.

Back to the circus, I recall a conversation between Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the father of magical realism, and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in the excellent book The Fragrance of Guava.

Here’s a brief extract:

Mendoza: The way you treat reality in your books, especially in One Hundred Years of Solitude and in The Autumn of the Patriarch, has been called ‘magical realism’. I have the feeling your European readers are usually aware of the magic in your stories but fail to see the reality behind it…

Marquez: This is surely because their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn’t limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs. Everyday life in Latin America proves that reality is full of the most extraordinary things. To make this point I usually cite the case of the American explorer F. W. Up de Graff who made an incredible journey through the Amazon jungle at the end of the last century and saw, among other things, a river with boiling water, and a place where the sound of the human voice brought on torrential rain. In Comodoro Rivadavia, in the extreme south of Argentina, winds from the South Pole swept a whole circus away and the next day fishermen caught the bodies of lions and giraffes in their nets.

Magical reality. Extraordinary collisions.  That’s what we have to find now. Truth that outstrips fiction. It’s always there. We just need to look harder.  That’s the art of successful modern storytelling.