Glastonbury 2019: Running away to join the circus

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Glastonbury has a way of getting under your skin. By the time Sunday rolls around, you start dreaming of ways you could keep living the festival life forever. If you’re anything like me, there comes a point where you start to think: ‘Could I… could I run away and join the circus?’

Luckily, Glastonbury is exactly the sort of place which encourages these sort of insane dreams. With Monday’s threat of a return to reality hurtling towards me at breakneck speed, I decided to pull on my trusty space cat leggings and head down to the the festival’s circus field. There’s a whole tent there dedicated to teaching a range of useful everyday life skills like hula-hooping, poi, juggling, contact balls, devil sticks and plate-spinning. That’s where I meet Ben the Juggler. Not the most inventive name, but you get the idea. “I wanted to be called Willy Drop’em,” Ben tells me sadly, “But somebody had already taken the name.”

He points out the circus tent proper on the other side of the field, which boasts a line-up of some of the planet’s most in-demand acts. You can see everything in there from high-wire acts and acrobats to card tricks and contortionists. “There’s some world class acts in the circus tent,” says Ben. “And we’re the beginning of the next world class acts.” I can only assume he’s talking about me. I’m pretty good at juggling deadlines. How much harder can balls or clubs be?

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Pretty hard, as it turns out, although Ben makes it look as straight-forward as necking a pear cider. He’s been a professional juggler for 30 years, teaching in the south-west of England, and has come to Glastonbury in 15 of the last 20 years. “I always do the festival this way,” he tells me. “We get a lot of people coming here who can already juggle a little bit, so instead of just doing 1-2-3 we can open people’s minds to things that they never thought were possible to do themselves. That’s the cool thing about all this stuff, you do it for yourself. It gives you a little spring in your step knowing that you have a superhuman power with a hula-hoop. When people first learn to do something like spin a plate they get a look of joy on their face. It’s a leap of faith. You do it for yourself when you never knew you could. People feel good about themselves, that’s the thing.”

I like the sound of that, but when Ben starts showing me his moves with the juggling clubs I quickly lose confidence. “With clubs, it’s about knowing where the spin is,” he explains as they start flying around his body. “When I throw the clubs from one hand to another it spins around my shoulder height, and that way I know it will come down easily in my other hand.” He makes it sound so simple, but it looks close to magic. Soon he’s throwing them under his leg and balancing one of the clubs on his trilby mid-juggle. Showing off, in other words.

“Juggling, out of all these things, does take a bit longer to learn,” Ben concedes. “Hula-hooping you’re only concentrating on one thing, plate spinning you’re only concentrating on one thing, whereas with juggling you’ve got to get both sides going. People say it’s good for the grey matter, although there’s not much evidence for that for me.”

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Ben’s being self-deprecating there. He’s inspired me to further pursue my circus dreams, but sadly I’m a truly terrible juggler. I’m not much better at hula-hooping either, and I can’t seem to spin a plate without sticking my tongue out. There’s no way I’m giving up that easily though. My eyes have been drawn to the grand centre-piece of the circus field: the flying trapeze. It’s time for me to go big or go home, and I don’t want to go home.

Every afternoon of the festival, Above and Beyond runs two-and-a-half hours worth of free aerial trapeze workshops. The company is run by 71 year-old Glastonbury veteran Mike Wright, who’s produced performances for the Brit Awards, Euro 96 and Simply Red. Hard to resist calling that a high-flying career.

Just as my training is about to begin, I get a text from a friend that Nick Cave has just come out with Kylie over on the Pyramid Stage. Annoying. Still, that’s the problem with Glastonbury. You can’t be everywhere at once, and I can’t quit on my new dream already. The instruction is, frankly, minimal. It basically consists of being told not to let go of the fly bar, which I probably could have figured out for myself. Just as I’m thinking that, one of the people ahead of me slips straight off the bar as soon as they leave the platform and crashes clumsily into the safety net. I don’t want to be that guy. If I can hang on long enough, the plan is that I’m going to perform a move called a knee hang, generally considered to be the most basic and accessible of flying trapeze tricks. Still, I’ve got to start my circus career somewhere, and upside down 25ft in the air seems as good a place as any.

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As I climb the long, unsteady ladder to the platform, I can hear faint strains of ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ drifting across the fields. The view from the top is magnificent. On one side, I can just about make out Kylie on the big screens beside the Pyramid Stage. To the other, I can see down towards the madness of Block 9 and Shangri-La in the south-east corner, where in the early hours of this morning I was still rhythmically twitching to some sort of aggressive dance music. The foggy memories come roaring back into horrible clarity. Was that really only a few hours ago? Is it wise to launch myself off this platform in this sort of state? It’s nice up here. Will this be the end of me?

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I grasp the fly bar in both hands. I hear the instructor’s voice say: “Ready?” and then: “Hup!” I jump up and the bar carries me forward, out into the clear blue sky. At the height of the first swing I somehow, impossibly, manage to curl myself up and hook my legs over the bar. As it swings back I let go and hang in the air upside down. I’m flying, Jack!

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After a couple more swings I pull myself back the right way around and drop into the net. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, I might need to learn how to do more than just one knee hang before I can run away to join the circus. Yet as I dismount from the net I can feel that look of joy Ben the Juggler told me about spreading across my face. I saw a lot of great bands at Glastonbury this year, hugged a lot of friends, and did a lot of dancing, but what’s really special about this festival are the opportunities to do something totally new. Like learning to fly.

Originally published by NME.

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