At Jay Miller’s Circus, from left, Joel Hatton, Ashleigh Littlefair, Ross Farrer, Charlotte Miller and Paul Gray. Picture by Jennifer Burton.
WHEN Liz Miller was 14, she ran away from home and joined the circus.
I suppose you can’t blame her. After all, who among us has not stared out of a classroom window during a particularly dull lesson about fractions or chemistry’s periodic tables and dreamed of becoming a star?
The difference between Liz and bored teenagers everywhere was she actually went ahead and traded double maths for a stint as a juggler, snake charmer and candy floss maker.
Not only that, she met husband John, another school runaway, while working at the circus and ended up marrying him under the big top itself.
During the 1970s, at about the same time as Liz made her decision to spend a lifetime on the road, circus was in what seemed to be terminal decline.
TV, film, theme parks and a hundred and one other temptations had lured families away from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowds had become, quite frankly, a whimper.
Yet over the last two decades, circus has undergone a remarkable renaissance. Drop into any music festival, and it sometimes seems you can’t move for acrobats, people on stilts, clowns and jugglers throwing anything from knives to burning torches.
Rumours of circus’s death then have been greatly exaggerated. And, in fact, while the patient was struggling away on the operating table in the UK during the 70s and 80s, it was enjoying rude health in parts of Eastern Europe and still does to this day.
This year, Jay Miller’s Circus celebrates its 25th anniversary of coming to the Island and putting on big top-style entertainment for countless thousands of Island youngsters and their families.
Liz, now 42, has also clocked up more than 25 years of a life which is, to put it frankly, anything but run of the mill.
Early morning starts, a whole day to put up the big top, the ticket office, the seating and the equipment, then weeks later, taking it all down and travelling to a different part of the country, you would think it would all take its toll.
But for Liz, and her children, all of whom were born 'on the road’, they would not have it any other way. She fusses over all her performers like a mother hen, all part of her 22-strong extended family.
Hoola hoop expert Jodie Miller, 16, and her sister Charlotte, who works on what non circus people call the flying trapeze, (an aerial artiste to those in the business) have a staggering 240 different sets of school uniforms between them, a reflection on the number of schools they have each attended while on tour in the south.
Yet despite this, both girls have achieved good GCSE passes and Charlotte has recently completed a sports course with distinction.
They make friends easily, have encountered little prejudice about their travelling life and appear remarkably mature for their years, far more so, in fact, than their contemporaries.
Charlotte said: "I would go crazy if I could not do this and was just stuck in one place. We have blue, green red and yellow uniforms — every single colour you could think of.
"I am one of those people who goes into a school and just gets on with it. I make friends and they look after me for the week."
In fact, Charlotte and Jodie have a respect for their elders and education which would not look out of place at an English public school.
Charlotte added: "I think about some pupils, 'why are they not listening to their teachers?’"
Jodie said: "I find it easier to make friends because you have to talk to people. When you are a kid, you feel a little bit left out. The other children have their own little social groups but I am not really one of those people who has to go out all the time. Being in the circus makes you stronger and more grown up."
But what about those who were not born into circus life? What’s the attraction there? Well, take the example of ringmaster Ross Farrer.
He studied at a mainstream school, passed his GCSEs and went to drama school until he was 18 before deciding the theatre was not for him and he would like to join the circus instead.
He said: "Theatre was not satisfying me as a performer. I started looking at other forms of performance. I went to circus school and got taught everything about circus. When I went into it, a lot of my friends said 'you don’t want anything to do with it. Circus is dying’.
"At the moment, it is the only thing I love doing. You are at work 24/7 so all the people you are working with are like a family. If you can’t fit into that environment, it is probably not for you."
Another star performer at the show is 27-year-old Hungarian high wire artiste Zsofia Jakab, who joined a circus school in Budapest when she was ten years old.
She said: "I have loved circus since I was a little girl. We have a circus tradition in Hungary. There is the state circus and it is very good. This is my seventh season with Jay Miller. I am very happy with this life. It is like a family."
Joel Hutton, 22, originally hails from Blackpool and is on his first season with Jay Miller’s Circus, performing with spinning plates and a unicycle.
He said: "I wake up every morning and I am in a different place. My job is to make people happy. When I step into the ring I am excited to go in there."
So, it’s fun, you are never in the same place for too long and your job is to put a smile on people’s faces. What’s not to like?
But Liz does have a word of warning for youngsters who are thinking of running away and joining the circus as she did all those years ago.
She said: "I would really say, first try to get a summer job and just try it and see how you feel. You really have to think hard. You really have to want to do it."