September 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Small-time big top

By Cate Kennedy
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Perry Bros Circus has set up again at the showgrounds in town, its familiar red and yellow striped tent rising like a rare winter flower behind the Saturday footy match. Its two elephants, Minyak and Saigon, don’t perform anymore; they’re just for “display”, as the circus poster says. Behind the Big Top, where they’re tethered, local kids watch them stolidly munch hay before the show starts.

Elephants have been a part of Australian circuses for 150 years, but these two veterans, at 58 and 50 years of age, are about the last ones left. “Each year,” says a sign in front of their enclosure, “our elephants spend time off away from the circus roaming on our circus property with other retired circus animals.” When on that property, in Victoria’s north-east, they’re cared for by 80-year-old Fred Maynard, who also looks after a couple of retired lions, ponies, donkeys and camels.

Fred’s nephew, Perry, is an integral part of the current Perry Bros show. As Oscar the clown, he rides trick bicycles, which gradually fall apart. The kids in the front rows rock back and forth in hysteria, entreating him to get on the seven-foot unicycle. Finally, triumphantly, Oscar guides the towering unicycle around the ring – his huge red shoes flapping – in a routine that seems not so much timeworn as a precious fragment of a disappearing world.

He re-appears later on the highwire, doing everything from dancing to rope-skipping to traversing the wire blindfolded. For the adults present, that’s a spellbinding thing to be watching at a tiny family circus set up behind the local oval, but the kids are more taken with Geronimo the pony, bedecked in feather plumes, and the fire-twirling Miss Zena. Watching her spangles and megawatt smile, it’s hard to believe that, 10 minutes earlier, she was selling you a cup of popcorn outside. That’s true of all the performers. Perry Maynard’s lithe, handsome nephew, Warren James – who somehow juggles clubs and passes through a small hoop while balanced on a stack of rolling cylinders and a bowling ball – is the same person who tears your tickets at the door. The plate-spinning Chef Brodie, the ‘Master of Disaster’, mans the Laughing Clowns stall in the break, and the family’s matriarch, Lorraine Maynard (nee Perry), sells hot doughnuts and fairy floss before appearing with her Canine Wonders.

It’s a tight-knit spectacle of multi-skilling and multi-tasking, sometimes happening so quickly you can’t believe they’ve been able to get their wigs and white-face off in time to come back in cowboy outfits for the whip-cracking. The warm smell of grass mashed into mud by hardworking feet and hooves fills the tent. Yasmine Perry thanks the audience for coming, Warren James spins a 70-foot rope lasso, and the show’s over for another season. With barely a pause, the cast start packing up.

The Perry Bros circus opened in Melbourne in 1852 after Lorraine Maynard’s great-great-grandfather, George Perry, a convict, was granted his ticket of leave and arrived from Tasmania. “He played the violin,” says Lorraine as we sit in the plastic ringside seats after the show. “He wrote the ‘Circus Polka’.” She hums a few bars for me, smiling. “We all still know that tune. And it was the first circus to go right round Australia. They performed at Aboriginal missions, they performed at Marble Bar. My grandfather took the show to Cairns, back before there was a road up there. He put his wife and kids on a tugboat and they went up by sea.”

Her grandfather also took the circus overland with two Aboriginal trackers, driving the animals in front of them through the bush. “It all went OK,” says Lorraine. “They only lost one horse to a crocodile.” She reaches into her bag and pulls out some big, framed photographs. “Queer cargo for Cowes”, one is captioned, showing a couple of elephants loaded on the Phillip Island ferry. “We had a baby elephant born in the circus,” says Lorraine. “1912. A bull elephant named Tommy. He was in the circus for years but ended up killing his handler.” She pulls out another grainy reproduction, dated 1870. A group of men stand outside a tent that looks almost exactly the same as the one we’re sitting in.

The 1930 souvenir circus program that she shows me has a sense of glory days about it, full of drawings and details of the spectacular “Perry Bros. Centenary Circus and Zoo”. “Captain Monzalo trained these Wild Animals to perform their Wonderful Tricks,” runs the text beneath an engraving of an intrepid man facing down several roaring lions, which are “introduced by Capt. Wizard, who enters the Steel Cage with no other means of protection than an Ordinary Chair.” At the time, there was a whole troupe of elephants, “specially imported from India by Perry Bros., and trained by Captain Boston,” as well as Miss Doris, “who stands on her head at the top of a 30 ft pole.” Otherwise, the 1930s acts look very similar to those I’ve just seen: there was Tommy the Trick Pony, Martin the Comedy Juggler and the clowns Slip and Slide (“you will roar at their Funny Antics”).

 “We employ and feed 120 people daily, who eat 52 loaves of bread, 300 lbs of beef and any amount of groceries,” the program concludes, giving a sense of the size of the circus back then. “The animals eat 1 ½ tons of hay and chaff daily. All these items are obtained from your local tradesmen. We pay cash for everything.”

That’s another thing that’s barely changed. As I’m reading this, a local woman comes up to settle the week’s account for the hay she’s delivered to the elephants, camels and horses. Lorraine and I sit talking with her for a few minutes until the crew, who half an hour ago were spinning plates, doing balloon gags and dancing on the highwire, tell us they must stack our chairs and strike the tent. Holding the photos and memorabilia that span 139 years, we move outside into a wintry Sunday afternoon, so that the Big Top can finally come down.

Cate Kennedy

Cate Kennedy writes fiction, poetry and nonfiction, and lives in Central Victoria. Her short-story collections are studied on the VCE English and Literature syllabus.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Miles Franklin & Joseph Furphy

The Indian Ocean solution

Christmas Island

‘The Bee Hut’ by Dorothy Porter

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Ningaloo sharks


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Lines in the sand

By failing to take Indigenous knowledge seriously, a scientific paper speculating on the origin of WA desert ‘fairy circles’ misses the mark

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Serving time (after time)

Australian citizens are being held in supervised facilities after they have served their prison sentence, amounting to indefinite detention

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality