National Youth Circus Day Special
In celebration of National Youth Circus Day, ACAPTA asked Scott Grayland if we could reproduce the following story about our oldest contemporary youth circus, The Flying Fruit Fly Circus. The story will also feature in our upcoming “Awesome As” book, a collection of hero stories from the Australian youth circus community.
The Flying Fruit Fly Circus: A personal memory
Casting one’s mind back over decades, and journeying backwards through your life as an adult, you run the risk of romanticising or glorifying the past. Maintaining perspective, and understanding events as they are unfolding is an impossibility. The effect of these events lay ahead and is unpredictable. How will they echo forward through time and impact the future?
With this in mind and taking these possibilities into account I plunge bravely back in time to a series of events that were enormously important at the Fruit Fly Circus and life changing to me as an adolescent in rural Australia.
What connected any young child to the outside world in 1970s rural Australia, a time without mobile phones and computers, or even fax machines? There was no instant connectivity. The sense of isolation was real, it was immediate and yet it was quite normal and expected.
A fleeting sense of a world outside Albury came to me in the things that passed through our small town. The sound of trains in the night and the jetstream left across the sky by aeroplanes spoke of unknown places. Significantly, it was the annual visit of the travelling traditional circus that sent that tingle of anticipation through my young mind and heightened that sense of the outside world.
This small temporary circus village arrived and stayed for one short week every year. I remember it as a tangle of rigging and canvas and wagons and trucks that contained adventure and a different kind of grown up. It held within its heart all life’s possibilities I couldn’t yet understand but somehow knew to be there.
Like almost every kid, I identified with some aspect of the circus and wanted somehow to be part of it.
But just what if you did not have to run away from home and join the circus? Fate was about to bring the circus to me. A circus of our own here in Albury.
Albury bakes and swelters under blistering heat over long summers. Anyone who grows up along the Murray River knows this. The North wind is dry and parched and often dusty. Winters, cold and wet, seep into your bones and hold on. The gentlest times of the year are autumn and spring, but with spring in particular bringing the rains and storms.
If memory lets me down after 35years it seems logical that it was a spring evening when Ashton’s Circus came visiting again.
It was 1980, I was 15yrs old and I had recently started training with the newly formed Flying Fruit Fly Circus at our old “YMCA” building and I totally loved it.
Jim and Pixi Robertson were my two main circus teachers at Fruit Fly and they had organized for us all to go see Ashton’s at the Albury Show Grounds.
That day, the full force of spring was about. I remember the day because it was that unusual colour we sometime see. A grey/green twilight. The clouds pushed low and dark from above and winds ripped and tore underneath.
Years later I would recognise that these are the worst conditions for a big top, especially when raising the canvas. I can only presume that the tent team struggled throughout the day and I know it would have been quite terrifying.
Eventually the weather won out and the canvas was shredded and ripped from the king-poles. The story of my memory tells me that the tent canvas was blown completely away and never seen again
What I do remember was disappointment that the show would not go ahead due to the day’s events.
The hindsight of time and experience tells me now that the family and crew were undoubtedly exhausted and upset about loosing the canvas. What courage they showed in deciding that the show would go on that night.
The weather cleared and softened into what became a perfect, cool, still Albury evening. As I arrived at the site I saw the giant king–poles against a deep inky evening twilight encircled by the seating banks and glowing with the bunting and lights that signal a show will be performed, outside under the stars.
It was magic.
As it happened, travelling with the show was the great Mickey Ashton. Mickey had been part of the world acclaimed “Seven Ashtons” a hugely famous Rizley and acrobatic troupe that was the toast of the European vaudeville and circus scene during the ‘50s and ‘60s. One of the greatest international success stories of Australian Circus history.
A friend to Jim and Pixi, Mickey was quickly introduced to the Fruit Flies and there seemed to be a rapport almost instantly between us all. Mickey was from an earlier and harder Australia and I suspect he identified with our brashness. Over the week that the Ashtons remained in town Mickey got to understand what was happening in Albury with this amazing bunch of country kids. In the end his decision was an easy one. He would stay with us and bring his wealth of knowledge and experience to mentor the Fruities.
We loved Mickey. He was a larrikin. He had a twinkle in the eye, a sharp wit and a beautiful musical lilt to the way he spoke. A showman, with a song and a soft shoe shuffle always at the ready to bring mirth to any moment. He was also a troubled soul, who fell into bouts of self-doubt and sadness. He struggled with his own demons and felt perhaps that history had neglected his contribution and he had been put out to pasture without granting him the dignity he deserved.
If this was so, then he was wrong. His influence on us was immense.
Circus in Australia at this moment seemed perched at the edge of a major renaissance. The extent of this rejuvenation was unknowable in this moment. Of course we still had numerous traditional circuses in the country continuing on this rich tradition, but there was a youthful, modern twist on this grand old art form that was about to bloom.
Circus OZ was ushering in a new style and audience for circus. And now the Fruit Flies were about to take wing creating a place for a new generation to train and be inspired by the art.
Mickey was a slender tenuous link between the old world and the new of this circus tradition. He was robust but also fragile. It seems to me now that he was a doorway through which the past could slip and enter the hearts and souls of this new younger generation of circus artists. How easily this link might have been closed to us all. Time and circumstance seemed to be on our side in this moment.
Mickey stayed with us for five short years before his untimely death. In this time he instilled in us all a cheeky, brash, truly Australian style of circus that is still evident today across all of Australia and indeed the world.
The FFFC celebrated 35yrs in 2014 and has been helped and influenced by artists from China, Russia, France, Holland, USA, UK, Morocco, Canada, and Ukraine. But I for one will never forget that spring day the circus came to town in 1980. A day that changed my destiny, Albury’s destiny and the future of circus in Australia.
Mickey Ashton, Image supplied, photographer: Rob Connell