The Scrimstone Circus Gospel :: part two

This is part two of a short piece which came out in book form earlier this year. Part one is here – you should read it first!

To read more about this piece, have a look at this post, which has links to all manner of things about it, and the book of which it is part… The illustration at the head of the page is a detail from Rima‘s accompanying pencil drawings, to which the previous post also has links.

Part two: A Circus is a Church

“Ladies and gentlemen! Lay-dees and gent-el-men! Roll up, roll up, roll up . . . ”

I look out at them there in the grey rain and the candy-floss night and my eyelids flicker with the dismalness of it all. Look at them. Content with so little and yet . . . and yet . . . Content with so much discontent in themselves. I cannot fathom it. Cannot, will not. So much could be theirs. So much wonder, so much passion, so much life. They accept a thin wafer of it, a bowl of gruel, with a tip of their hats in thanks. Why not bow too, or curtsy? Kiss their masters’ feet? Their lives could be a feast. I hate them for it, for their acquiescence to such a shallow plot of happiness. For this, what do they receive? They are used by governments, by business, by bankers and money-men to play their parts in the machine of it all. They enter into such one-sided bargains and I cannot, will not, let it go unsaid. It leaves me with despair and a curse for him who left me here among them. Whether he hears my curse or not, I don’t know. Do not mis-cast me as a villain, friend. My curse is, I admit, no more than the curse of the rejected lover to the beloved. Do not tell anyone – there may be A Scene.

Before, I was young. I was a blade of grass, a hawthorn leaf, a wide-eyed sprite. Gladness dripped from me, soaked the air. Now? Time ’s fruit is a bitter apple for a man who dreams of grandeur. Such greatness that comes is not enough and true greatness is never known by those it touches. I have had both grandeur and greatness – one, I grew out of; the other sneaked up on me. I should have heard it coming and stamped on the little bastard’s face.

A highwayman or a robber simply steals: he robs and gives nothing back. I aspired to do better and was inspired in my turn. This great, bas­­tard performance that is Life, was going to be a show. The Greatest Show on Earth, you might well say. Yes. I founded a circus with a bag of gold and inherited the Earth for my investment. What happened next?

My circus travelled the four kingdoms and the thrice-nine lands, bringing joy to those whose lives were so tarnished as to be polished by such a meagre smear of laughter as the pathetic clowns could offer or the
dubious wonder of acrobats who were, to be honest, more flexible with the truth than with their bodies. Our circus was not, I should add, anything more than a cover for nefarious dealings, brazen housebreakings and petty cons. This in itself, nothing new. Circuses have been thus since time immemorial. But these thefts and scams were themselves nothing more than an excuse for my true business and my One and Only Calling.


What just God would leave you here alone?

What righteous God would be neither Just, nor Seen To Be Just?

He has abandoned you!

Does he still prove himself to be worthy of your praise?


God exists! But he has wearied of you!

This God is both FAITHLESS and ABSENT!

We are on our own.

I can still remember the faces of my first congregation in a river-meadow at dusk. Drawn by bribes of mead and cigars, they came in their ones and twos, Bruegel-esque peasants like Brussels sprouts on a thin string, drunk-eyed and up for a show. The next day, they came in dribs and drabs. Word spread – the next day, a trickle, then a stream.

My sermons, whilst not works of true art, roused rabbles and fuelled fires from one end of the land to another. My purpose was not art itself – I wished only to inflame and impassion. I was that most dangerous of men: a charismatic orator without morals. An anarchist without a cause.

A little child asks me:

“Is it true that God does not love us?”

What can I say? I look at the tiny boy, swaddled inrags and only the thinnest scrap of a life. Snot has trailed through the soot on his face and he has a knob of bread in his little fist. Life could be anything for him, but he will die in the factory that opens here in ten years’ time.

What can I say?

“God does not love you. God loves the angels and the music of the spheres. Here, look, there ’s a coin behind your ear! How did that get there?”

“God put it there?”

“No, no! I put it there. God has left you here. Alone. Who will you turn to?”

“You, sir?”


Tempting as it is to take such simply-offered allegiance, there are greater prizes that require the sacrifice of lesser satisfactions. Remember this, when you yourself judge me. When I was offered Power Over Men, I did not take it.

“Do not turn to me. Turn towards Wonder, child…”

See, not so terrible after all…

We travelled, dazzling one day with the tawdry delights of the ragged Big Top and an arthritic elephant or two, stealing by night what we could not during daylight, preaching the next day to the baffled folk of the roads and towns we came to. Repeat and repeat and repeat. Not ad infinitum. I’m too old for infinitum. There’s only nauseam left. Where we went, chaos trailed behind. Glorious usurpations of authority, incandescent upturnings. Life blossomed; institutions withered. Farmworkers ate of their harvest; factory-workers partook of the goods they made. Landowners spluttered and tax-men barked. Everywhere, there was a great tumult. It was a wonder to behold. I smiled and the circus moved on and my church of the open meadow and the tree-shaded congregation swelled while the stone-built temples of authority stood empty.

I don’t know what I expected. Worse than I got, or better? Believe me, child, when you’ve been around the block a few times, adoration is a lesser currency than some kind of soul satisfaction, whether the adoration is that of the little children or of the Magi, the red-top tabloids or the pretty girls and boys or the great unwashed mass of life that teems on Earth in all its dirty, wonderful glory. I did not need adoration, nor devotion. Some tried, though more tried murder. Have you ever listened to the radio in the middle of the night and heard grown men screaming for your death? It is a strange (though not unfamiliar) sensation. I would say, ‘like footsteps on your own grave,’ but I know little of that.

The first time a man tried to kill me, I was nine years old. I am no stranger to murder. But, the first time a village turned out and tried to lynch me, I felt a thrill that is difficult to describe. I remember thinking: Now we’re talking! THIS is the life… I have made an Impression! Life on the road…

So, the squawkings of the radio hate-men and the occasional spittings upon us in the denizen-dark streets didn’t surprise or worry a hair on my head, nor fist attacks of drunken, broken men in the night. I laughed. I loved it, yes. When the church-men turned their spittle-flecked fury on my church, I was delighted. Progress.

I was – and here is the sin – caught up in the music of my own mythology. I loved the sound my dance in the world was making, the clatter of my cane on the cobbles of life. The skitter and scrape of hoof and metal on time-worn stone. The roar of flame, the sputter of authority shrivelling and bursting, like crackling on a fatty pig. I roared at the radio when cardinals railed against me and when apocalyptics with their grey faces gathered outside our meetings, we sang to them and we gave them cake; we laughed at their fury, their madness. Should I have known better? Yes. My sin was the first and most terrible – I was in love with myself. Vicars, archbishops, curates and priests spoke against me daily and I only heard their words of fury and politics. What I didn’t hear was the warning to look beyond the myth I was making.

By the time I came back to myself, it was almost upon us.

What was ‘it’? It was This:

One night while the full moon watched and the stars hid their eyes, a bishop-raised mob burned the circus to the ground and killed every man, woman and child in the camp. They cried ‘For the Love of God’ as they did so. Ouch. I wouldn’t like to be in their souls when the chips are down or the next day dawned as sober and thin-lipped as a magistrate’s muse.

I was not there when it happened. Fate or His Humour meant that I was away when they came, returning from my ministry. I watched it from a hill a mile away and, yes, I wept.

I met a man once who others had told me was wise, though he laughed when I described him thus. He told me that time was the endless struggle between an eagle and a bull. He seemed to think that this would clear things up. When I raised my eyebrows, he laughed again and said that Time was the eternal dynamic between Heaven and Earth. I didn’t understand at the time, but I was too proud to say so. He saw it and nodded and smiled while he let me pick his pocket and I hated him for it.

That moment beneath the full moon, I felt the eagle pull up and the bull pull down and time stretched to breaking point in me as they pulled. The stars and entropy each grabbed a corner of me and I thought I would tear in two as I howled at the sky and wondered where home might be in this desolate universe.

A man’s life comes to a point and shatters. The commonplace dissolves in the eternal and everything is begun again. It is not Innocence – it occurs in the depths of disaster, the extremity of cataclysm. Something gives way and surrenders. It is the other side of Experience; it is the place where the whole damned circle begins again on another level. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just wait another twenty years and a burial or two, a breakdown, a divorce or disaster or the tidal wave of humiliation. We all come to it. Everyone has a time when everything falls away. This was mine.

I came back to myself as the music of all my glorious Play scratched to a halt in the burning and the screams and I looked towards Heaven and, through my tears, I saw the bull and the eagle pulling life towards Earth and towards Heaven and I wondered what the wise man had to say about Hell.

I opened the palm of my hand and watched my life scatter in the wind like sparks from a great fire.

When a man stands as tall as he really is, this world should shake. We are giants on the Earth, cowed by the forces of darkness and the belief that we are dwarves.

Perhaps this is a metaphor.

In the night, with all my life unravelling about me, I stood to my height and walked down the hill to face the mob. I unfolded my wings and unsheathed the sword that I was given when the world was very young. Yes, the Earth shook. Yes, there was blood. I cried for the maddening wretchedness of the world and then I let it all go. I walked away and no, I didn’t look back.

I buried my sword beneath a thorny tree and spent fifteen years slouching from one silent place to another with my eyes on the ground. I imagined that I had cut out my tongue. I drew a hood over my face and joined the penitents walking from temple to temple, cathedral to cathedral. Whilst the Faithful flocked as only Faithful can, I kept walking, for silence suited me better. I dwelt in darkness and darkness dwelt in me and my blood boiled. Every footstep I took was haunted.

The Scrimstone Circus Gospel (1) - (c) Rima Staines
The Scrimstone Circus Gospel (2) by Rima Staines

2 thoughts on “The Scrimstone Circus Gospel :: part two

  1. Loved the part two very, very much. Quite a nice doze of nihilism in there (or so it appears to me. Made me bring to mind Lermontov’s character Pechorin in ‘ A Hero of Our Time’). Roll out the part three… the show must go on!

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