The Great Sixth Birthday

Birthdays are pernicious little things – the older we get, the less appealing they become and yet still they stalk, tip-toeing up behind us with an ageist agenda. But I remember birthdays that, despite their wintery provenance, were suffused in a halcyon glow and the softly-lit memories of childhood, celebrations rife with love and laughter, and old orange boxes spilling recycled paper and spent sparklers.

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To celebrate not losing me in the supermarket each year, my parents would cast aside the prosaic traditions of old – cake, cards, sugar-spun chaos and a rousing battle of pass the parcel – and instead dress up in wild-haired wigs and 7″ flares, serve ham and salad to a tribe of seven-year-olds (with no scent of jelly or trifle or ice cream), and lead stirring renditions of the theme to The Muppet Show

IMG_0775It was chaotically beautiful, right up until that day Mum lost a kid in a snow-topped drainage channel…

But while these memories fuel a wistful nostalgia, they cast a razor-sharp perspective on the modern cult of kids’ birthday celebrations. In the searing light of the immediate, the cutting edge of ‘now’, kids’ parties routinely feature absurd extravagance – from baroque-inspired edible gold-leaf table decorations to glitter-spewing unicorn balloons, from disco-dancing for three-year-olds – squealing in sequins – at the Ivy, to a gift registry that specifies which brand of e-reader little Grayson would prefer.

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Nursing my horror (as if it were dying of shame) at having to accompany the Tin Lid to these prodigal parades, doused in the sodden hysteria of little darlings denied the sacrificial last whack of the pinata, and ambushing weekends like weakened prey, I am in denial of the ‘new normal’.

The party’s off.

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So, armed with a four-fingered beaver and the Tin Lid’s bestie – a free-spirited hybrid beauty, part clown part gypsy, with luminous eyes and a child’s innocence (which on closer inspection is adeptly skewered by a shrewd sense of ratbaggery) – we hit the road for the Great Sixth Birthday, a road trip into the abyss, beyond the rabid squall of an ever-evolving birthday culture.

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It should be mentioned that the Bestie is averse to kids’ parties too. Here she is moonlighting as a multi-hair-hued princess, in her other incarnation as Kids’ Party Entertainer:

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It didn’t take much to convince the birthday boy. In fact, the words: “Gem’s coming” and “Dad bought snakes” sufficed, even with the dawning realisation that the vertiginous pile of plastic commonly associated with little-known school friends and the last-minute K-Mart dash would be missing.

OK Mum, but can we take the Beaver? And have a midnight feast with Vegemite on toast and hot chocolate?

Sure we can darl’, because this is a journey for you, that we get to celebrate too, minus the clean-up and the chocolate-crackle comedown.

First up, the greatest show on earth, complete with giant popcorn and sadistic clowns. The Bestie had to hold my hand – as a child of the ’70s, I am cautiously terrified of clowns (you can’t show too much fear, obviously. They jack up on that stuff…)

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Then, with not a dead fairy pinned to white sliced in sight, we head south on rain-slicked urban streets, until the sky peels open its soul to reveal sparkling stars in an ocean of black. How easy it is to forget the true night sky, and fall for the acid-washed version put on for humanity’s seething mass, for whom bleeding light steals the firmament.

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To celebrate we stop at a neon-gilded servo and eat hot chips.

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Before the back seat falls quiet:

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In time-honoured tradition, we have found a “little house”, a generic home for much of the Tin Lid’s breathy excitement – cupboards and carpets and broiling hot air, bunk beds and pillow fights and dens made of sheets. I revel in unmade beds and crumbs on the floor, teetering towers of forsaken shop-bought packaging and countless tea-towels.

The Cowboy likes the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and the Bestie has spotted the spa…

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His birthday bleeds into a new day, the lights of the little house dim (It turns out running the spa, toaster, microwave and air conditioning at once puts strain on what can only be described as a paltry system), and I am content to leave the thick dusting of hot chocolate to get better acquainted with a synthetic carpet.

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At some point, the Tin Lid had requested a science party. In the knowledge that science parties often cause roof damage, the decision was made to take the party to a space so inherently scientific it vibrates with barely controlled kineticism.

He discovered that the air organ can be played with one’s head…

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Spent an hour mastering coffee-cup flight,

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Investigated heat hands and jazz hands,

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And won sartorial awards in a boilersuit. He also hurled his small frame down a 20ft drop, freefalling like a boss.

Ultimately, though, the highlight of the Great Sixth Birthday is the little house and the treasures it holds. Set in the desolate heart of a Soviet-inspired wasteland, it is made of plastic and cunningly disguised as one of its siblings/ spawn (the true nature of this relationship remains shrouded).

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There is much on offer, from the well-stocked reception shop – “of course you can have a Paddle Pop darl’, just try not to get the drips on your scarf and gloves…” – to the fire hydrant, from the multifunction space to the dining hall, all feathered with signs, as subtle as an ibis wearing a trout.

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This motel home has a utilitarian beauty, sharp lines over clear dictates – footwear must be worn in the dining hall – frosty grass speckled with oak leaves, a phone box to clatter open and shut, and a natty section of barbed wire between the site and the C3 Church next door, presumably to prevent the Christians getting in.
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The Tin Lid shows his deep appreciation for the post-mid-century faux asbestos architecture by taking pictures of his feet and other lenses:

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But in its decent simplicity – cold breath that crackles with life; a small hand curled into mine; an overly ambitious round of pin the tail on the possum – it wholly beats X-Box dancing games and over-excited children’s performers high on red cordial and strobe lighting. Although we fail to resist the temptation of Twister…

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The excruciating idiosyncrasies of children’s birthday parties – “do I invite the whole class? Should I get The Magnificent Man of Stripes or just wing it? Why do we not have a working stereo for pass the parcel? How many splintered pieces of dollar-shit gifts do I have to include in the damn parcel? Fuck! The fucking fairy bread! Can I start drinking now?” – remain at bay.

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In fact, by the time we hit the cake display in the retro splendour of the Paragon Cafe, heartbeat of a sleepy town’s main drag, talk has turned to next year’s not-birthday, and how many pieces of banoffi pie a six-year-old can have (as opposed to a five-year-old)…

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Six apparently, despite a single piece of said pie being the size of his newly grown head.

As we thread our way home along chugged arteries amid his long-thrown snores, the Cowboy and I make a pact – a deal to ensure there is always an option for the ‘new normal’. Because it is here, in the shadows of convention – clattered full of little houses, midnight feasts, spontaneous frivolity and greasy-spoon roadside diners – that we belong.

It’s time to drop the wishing wells and catered hors d’oeuvres, time to axe the multiple entertainers and the lavish party bags. I’m begging here. Please move on from the marquees and pony rides with white-coated waiters and retreat back into the world of pass-the-parcel and chocolate crackles.

Shauna Anderson, Mamamia.com.au

 

 

The Greatest Show on Earth

Marian is 78. The Tin Lid and I met her one morning as we were gazing at the lions that prowled and paced along their hurricane-fenced bit of pavement on a grimy stretch of the Princes Highway in that bit next to Tempe that has no name.

Proud, eclectic and dripping with the irreverence of a life less ordinary, the circus has come to town, set to run away with my imagination. The Big Top, resplendent in stripes, flies the Southern Cross while a tidy paddock is cordoned off as home, trailers and trucks bivouacking the perimeter.

This is Stardust, one of Australia’s last travelling animal circuses, a mongrel tribe of wanderers and their money-makers – ponies, peacocks, monkeys, big cats and sometimes llamas, when they feel like it.

Marian is quick to dish the dirt. She is the circus school teacher and responsible for a mob of yowling tin lids (and their education) when they are not learning how to ride a bare-back pony on one leg wearing a star-encrusted leotard and crimson lipstick, or drive a clown car with size 22 shoes…

This family-run affair is a curious hybrid. With all the hallmarks of scandal and intrigue, Stardust is the illegitimate offspring of two great circus families, the Lennons and the Wests.

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When Lindsay Lennon married Jan West in 1989 they united their 11 offspring from two separate performing families and created Stardust. Beneath a clinging miasma of divorce and ‘lost persons’, two families became three… Five of the original West children and their families still perform with the circus while the others remain at Lennon Bros Circus and Webers Circus.

While the Tin Lid trips out on the teacups I am afforded the chance to dig around in the dirty daks of a notoriously tight-lipped mob. As we are talking, faces appear from trailers, the ‘nine-week-old one’ howls in indignation and ‘one of ’em Wests’ pops out for a gander.

It feels a little like jabbing Tony Soprano with a sharpened calzone… dangerous. It is a glimpse into a carnie life, the romantic idealism of a traveller’s journey grating hard against diesel-fumed mechanical beasts, the grind of flashing neon, the acrid primordial stench of wild animals and the lingering grease of stale popcorn.

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On a wild, wintry day a lifetime later, we return, with longer legs and refreshed headgear. A year on and there is no sign of Marian. The “nine-month-old-one” is dangling from a fuel pump and scoffing fairy floss and the circus is harried by the elements, hunkered down, its glitter slipping a little.

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Wide-eyed rugged-up tin lids are oblivious to the cold and the dire warnings of clown-assisted ejection for the use of ANY CAMERAS ANYWHERE in the Big Top.

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The greyer among us sidle past carnies in hot-rock-pockmarked fleece,  iPhones smuggled beneath layers, trying to restrain the primordial surge of children under the influence of  sugar…

Frogmarched past tatty neon signs – that promise Photos with our lion cubs, just $40! Complete with souvenir Stardust frame! and conjure spangled memories of the 80s while re-igniting my inordinate fear of clowns – the Tin Lid curls himself into my silhouette, a bunny caught in the lights. Our seats clang as we sit and the air is streaked with greasepaint and nerves and the sound system bellows that classic “Showtime!” carnival music.

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The moon-faced ringmaster is a smear of sequins wearing a sheen of bourbon and a glinting diamond ear-stud. He morphs in and out of spangle-frosted outfits, a dazzling array of gaudy gauzy bling, his grin skids the edges of leering and he emits the tarnished gold of shattered dreams.

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But the show must go on…

Full-grown lions pad across the sawdust to an eerie echo of ‘oohs’. These majestic creatures inspire awe and revulsion and force a jagged debate about animal cruelty, protestors out the front in wild-animal onesies quick to denounce the circus and its ways. This is no open veldt, but to these eyes the lions seems utterly unfazed by the man in red, and do his bidding in their own sweet time in the knowledge they will be rewarded.

Burly men in blacks double as security and stagehands and keep a healthy distance from the big cats. Once back in the paddock, the rickety cages are ripped down and more than a few of the men head backstage to slip into something more comfortable. Like spandex…

This is undoubtedly family affair with a good degree of moonlighting. From toddlers to pensioners, all are involved and at the interval it is clear why. The circus inhales workers like a two-pack a day smoker inhales tobacco – with a wheezing dedication. The gravelly-voiced black-clad roadie in his 60s who serves me margarine-slathered popcorn later appears as the trapeze catcher, decked out in a lycra leotard split to the navel. The chick with the door list sports glitter-encrusted lids and dangly earrings that belie her night job and a clown is serving coffee, makeup intact.

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Sisters, cousins, fathers, sons and lovers, with a grandparent or two thrown in for good measure, Stardust is entirely self-sufficient. From aerialists to monkey trainers, diesel mechanics to fluffy-toy sellers, no outsiders are required.

Father and son acrobats come complete with regulation pointy toes and are adept at the old throw an orange in the air and spear it on a spike on your chin routine. Lascivious clowns entertain with overly expressive groin movements and Orwellian pigs are obligingly human. A shetland pony sculls a bottle of goon while perched on an armchair and pretty ladies clad in the best stripper gear money can buy gyrate to the strains of I’m a good girl…

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The Tin Lid has uncurled himself and is spellbound.

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Before trying his hand at a little balancing action…

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The performances have a simplicity to them that is endearing, a ‘time-gone-by’ relapse that is as feelgood as a random episode of Kingswood Country. As the sound crescendos we are remind that “if it’s too loud, yer too old”, before the stars of the show are introduced, a litany of Shae, Shania, Shakira and Mephis, Roxanne, Wonona, Wonita, Dakota, Cassius, Kevin, the seven-year-old plant, and a pony called Shazaam.

The finale features a trapeeze net that unfurls to the highest reaches of the Big Top. It is a thing of ethereal beauty, made from entirely natural fibres and slung low and heavy. It looks out of place in this unnatural world, but as neon forms flip and turn in the air above it, grazing bellies on the canvas roof, the net comes into its own.

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This a disparate extended family that exists for each other. Of her children’s decision to stay with the circus, matriarch Jan has been quoted as saying:

“I’ve not forced any of them to stay, not that you could even if you wanted to, but they’ve all chosen this life, and they all work hard and take the bad with the good.”

A different breed, they have been bred to populate Stardust and, like the animals they perform with, their lives are entangled in the lore of the road, in the star-spangled roar of the show and the closest-knit bonds of a very family affair.

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Is it rude to ask what flavour?