Saturday, 6 June 2009

Saturday 6th June 09

Up quite early as today I did have the Askham Bryan York Rotters gig so I was ready to go by just after 9, so went through Bishopthorpe Road, up Scarcroft road and out along Tadcaster Road and Moor Lane and over the new junction on the A1237 which I hadn't circumnavigated yet. I like the cycle facilities.

The Askham Bryan event (summer fair?) was on the big field but there were other things going on elsewhere such as a dog show and plant sales. I went to visit the chainsaw and log-wrangling area, and chatted with the various tree surgeons before it got busy and I had to get back to the Rotters stall.

The York Rotters mini-marquee had already been put up by Chris and Jean, and as I got into volunteer mode, Jo rolled up on her trusty bike. Jo is York's second most enthusiastic composter and we really worked the (small) crowds! My 'hook' was, when people walked past and looked at our cut-away dalek-bin with all sorts of compostable stuff in it, to ask them if they compost, and if the answer was affirmative, to ask them (excitedly!) to tell me about their compost heap! This isn't what a punter might expect, but it was in many cases irresistible and allowed a conversation to start. Invariably, people have questions about various aspects of composting... what can go on, cooked food, how to physically manage the heap, how to use the product... and more. I had a brilliant day, spoke to loads of people and met quite a few folks I knew, including Kit from around the corner, Martin from the Green Festival and several people who knew me as Fiddlesticks.

Jo went after lunch and was replaced by Claire, and we went on til 4.30pm. I helped her put the marquee down and start to pack up but needed to jump on my bike by 4.35. I cycled back through the village and then North via the ring road, which delivered me to Rawcliffe Bar 25 minutes later. I was due to meet Jonathan at 5.15 at Zippos Circus, to meet Martin Burton the Founder and Director, to be given a tour and see the show.

This came from the fact that there was an article in the paper about animal rights protesters removing publicity about Zippos, which has horses and budgerigars, including going into shops and saying they were from Zippos, and saying they had been forced to cancel and taking the posters and fliers away. I had responded with a letter saying I had some sympathy with them, and Martin Burton had written in the next day inviting me to come and see for myself (see clickable links in 3 June post).

Martin was waiting in the ticket office and when Jonathan and I turned up, took us for a coffee and a chat about how he had arrived at being the Director of Zippos Circus for the past 35 years. He had started out doing teacher training but had done some busking as a clown and escapologist, and this he felt was more his kind of thing. He told his parents that as there were not many jobs for middle school drama teachers, he'd do a few years as a performer and then settle down into teaching. He declared that he had been a disappointment to his parents as he'd never gone back into teaching and his mother still occasionally joked to him about getting a proper job... He'd done a load of touring with his clown troupe but the problems with different venues meant he needed a venue which would be the same each time, so he got a big top.. well, his first was a large frame tent, but at least the performers could get used to the venue!

He either helped organise or was responsible for the London International Festival of Circus back in the 1980s, where there was his 'traditional' circus, with clowns and jugglers, horses and, I think ducks, alongside a new or 'alternative' circus with no animals and things like people climbing ropes naked, and initially there was some mutual animosity and mistrust. But this went as the respect for the different approaches grew.

He has always had a lot of respect for the horses and other animals in his circus, and disapproves of wild animals being kept and used. Both the horses and budgies have been living alongside people for countless generations, and they are trained using positive reinforcement, never punishment. The horse trainer will sometimes go and just observe the horses in the paddock for hours at a time, and as soon as one does something he would like it to do in the ring, he gives it an edible treat of 'pony nuts' which are made of grain and horses love them. If the animal does this again, he gives it another. The whip which is used in the ring is not used for actually whipping the horse, it is a visual signal. I watched this closely during the show, and not once did the whip actually touch any horse. There is more info about the horses on this part of Zippos website (just click on 'animal welfare') .

Martin took us for a walk around the circus, showing us his chip-fat powered vehicles (all of them and the generators are powered by used cooking oil) and the low energy lightbulbs, making his chip-fat bill not quite as high! The loose-box stables, designed by Born Free had the 4 Palomino Arab-cross stallions in the front of the big top, where members of the public could see them, and the two grooms live very close to them so if there's any distress or problem, they would hear. One of the grooms came to the door of his caravan as we walked round, so they are listening all the time. The place where they pitch the big top must always have a paddock area, as the horses spend quite a bit of time outside, running free. Their travelling horse box has a ramp at the rear and at the side so that if there is a 'rear shunt' the horses can be taken out of the side.

We looked into the budgerigar caravan and heard a description of how they line up to get into their cage when the show is about to start, which I found hard to believe until I actually saw the show.

Most of the show is human, not animals. There is one part where the tiny Fallabella horse gallops round following one of the huge Palominos, and a part where the Palominos go round the ring and turn circles, and one of them rears up on it's hind legs, which is part of it's mating behaviour (which is why they use stallions). The budgie act was good, I really enjoyed that as I'd never seen performing birds. But for me, the best bits were the high wire, the aerial stuff, trapeze, rope work, jugglers and diabolo player, the Marinhos 'Wheel of Death' (brilliant!) and dancers. I'm not a big fan of clowns but enjoyed their many skills and their timing.

Martin chatted to us during the interval (and said hello to Jim Semlyen, who was there with his children and mother) and afterwards too. He took great pleasure in telling us as much as he could, and answering any questions, and I was left in no doubt that the animals and people are cared for, loved, respected and certainly not mis-treated. I came away feeling much more educated about real circuses, and the situation they find themselves in with regards to the tiny but vocal minority of animal rights protesters. I hope that these protesters concentrate on the few circuses left with wild animals, and leave Zippos alone. And if they do want to really see how Zippos treats their animals, I'm sure that Martin would show them around just like he did for me.

For a taste of what Zippos Circus is like, watch this 3 minute slideshow. Or go and see it yourself. And say hello to Martin from me!

I said my goodbyes to Jonathan who was there by automobile and I cycled home, getting in about 9pm. All was well at home, with a friend visiting and getting ready for a sleepover.

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