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.

Lyndsay Lennon and Jan West

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


The Tin Lid has uncurled himself and is spellbound.


Before trying his hand at a little balancing action…


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.


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.


Is it rude to ask what flavour?


This Savage City

Back in this savage city and the air is edible, a crunchy mix of asbestos, diesel and grit, drizzled with a 9-5 sauce and served with a side of 24/7 connectivity.

Rhys Pope

My attorney, with a wry grin, suggests I ditch the soft-edged romanticism of desolate expanses and pubs with no chrome and head to the arrhythmic heart of Sydney’s urban degeneration.

You know. To cheer me up.

I rope in the secretary. Notebook at the ready, a sharpened lead behind her ear, she has no intention of allowing me to dissect the urban rot from the darkened confines of the local pub. Which is bittersweet.

Tally-ho she calls, her bristling efficiency our standard bearer as we board the one-time Smack Express, our destination flickering in the distance like a neon flare.

Cabramatta is known affectionately as Cabra. To those who have little affection for it, it is known as an ethnic ghetto, a no-go zone that is the poster child for the perceived failure of multiculturalism in Australia.

At the end of the Vietnam war Vietnamese boat people bound for Australia acted as the crash test dummies of a new policy of multiculturalism.

It is a moment in history that finally buries the infamous White Australia Policy and transforms a nation. The years that follow are as dramatic as they are turbulent – a people struggling to find their place in a foreign land. In this one tiny Sydney suburb, the 80s and 90s see the arrival of street gangs, a heroin epidemic and the first political assassination in Australia’s history. The Vietnamese people are vilified and demonised. Cabramatta… represents all that is wrong with Asian immigration.

                                          Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta

This social experiment created a culture of impoverishment, and became a case study for what can go wrong. At its heart was the institution of family and the crumbling of traditional familial roles – nurtured in a suburban hothouse this led to a generational and cultural chasm. The description of a 5T gang member says it all:

By the age of 11, he was arrested for carrying a sawn-off shotgun and in the next couple of years was suspected of the murder of two rival gang members.

(5T stands for the five Vietnamese words tuổi trẻ thiếu tình thương which roughly translates to childhood without love.)

But time has healed much of this pain and the streets of Cabra have always welcomed me, Today, in spite of an oleaginous hangover, the hot breath of Asia embraces me with the scent of scorched meat and sugarcane.

My liver grumbling rudely, I suggest a little snack, my longing for the sweet-sour-salty-crisp-smoky-tang causing me to salivate inelegantly:

We over-order and lose sight of natural caution, ending up with ‘broken rice with shredded pork chop’, a side of flash-fried goat’s intestines and cubist carrots.

But once high on the tart juice of Little Asia, we venture on.

The scrabble of life is raw here. Hawkers and vendors spruik and holler, a tangle of shops sell Korean, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Khmer and Chinese life, from the exquisite to the prosaic. Tiny arcades crammed with glaring, beeping, whirring, flashing neon bristle in competition with each other, while every other shop is a gastronomic experience, a market selling mock duck, chicken’s feet and beancurd, or a fabric joint that sucks you into a nylon vortex.

In this pumping heart the spiral of supply and demand is tightly wound, a bargain to be had at every corner. But as we step out into weary veins that sidle into the suburbia beyond, the manky scent of dystopia wafts towards us.

Lives are started, lived and lost on these streets, and here life is cheap. There is no obvious ostentation, rather a sparsity and neglect that howls of poverty and sad resignation.  A woman at the bus stop eyes us up and down, a yelping kid climbing up bald ugg boots to reach a plastic bag full of coke and chips. Her expression says it all.

Towering over the Hughes Street playground, a notoriously septic site at one time that was devoid of children and haunted by addicts and dealers, the blank eyes of a block stare down.

A torn sign barricading a smashed window asks if this is my new rental home and I have to resist the urge to call L J himself to decline in staccato words of one syllable. There is bleak resignation here, hidden behind knock-down walls and empty windows.

The Secretary questions my myopia. Her mind like a steel trap, she asks whether the community here has a different set of ideals? What is aspiration? What has value?

I grudgingly admit she is spot on. I blame it on the hangover. Life in Asia often looks grimy and jumbled, a third-world to our first. Yet, I know that life to be one of the best – robust, exciting and filled with family and joy.

Flecked with satellite dishes the houses here hold flocks of families: aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, in laws and more. They are utilitarian and devoid of decoration, but they are crammed with life. Cars line front yards, swing sets and slippery dips are bright spots of colour and there is a sense of a hidden world.

There is no need for a spiky plant in a colourful pot to welcome you in, no requirement for twitching net and floral curtains. The houses are tired, sleeping on the job, backyards bald and scorched, but that cannot hide the vibrancy of the community behind the facade.

In 2000, a mob of first-school kids wrote a letter to the local Councillor about the Hughes Street playground. They said,

[The playground] is not a safe place because of the number of syringes lying around… We have been approached by addicts and have seen them in the yards of our units.  Some of us have also seen addicts with knives and we are scared.  We have come across people lying on the ground with their lips turning purple and stuff coming out of their mouths.

Today, the Cabramatta community gardens frill the edges of the park, verdant and deliciously alive. An elderly Italian Nonna, sheltering from the sun behind an advertising hoarding, eyes us indifferently, before peering over her leafy charges and settling back to the local rag.

The playground is now a green idyll, a meeting place that whispers of the future rather than a barren space lost to the past.

Around the next corner Buddhist flags entwined with the Southern Cross fly high, streams of colour adorning a huddle of temple-houses:

Gleaming in their devotion (and avid appreciation of concrete animals), the temples are the antithesis to the concrete blight, a lush appreciation of the natural and spiritual worlds. It’s as if they represent a communal backyard, filled with aesthetic beauty, adorned, decorated and proud.

Despite obvious poverty and hardship, Cabramatta is a rich pluralistic community that is proud of its culture and its heritage. If multiculturalism is about communication within an immigrant society and between this society and the wider population then the conversation here is getting louder by the day, a stream of insight into how it can be.