If you only learn one thing...
When I was in my late teens, in the equally late 1980s, a performer for perhaps only a matter of weeks, I went to a juggling convention. A weekend in a South London sports centre, filled with jugglers, unicyclists and all the other expected varieties of circus monkey, who had travelled from all over the country to meet, share skills, and basically show off at each other.
I found it equally terrifying and intoxicating. Every so often I'd gather my nerves, steel myself, and get out some props and juggle, but mostly I just skulked around nervously gawping at those far more skilled or successful than me. I'd chat to people, stutteringly, and share some tricks with the late, great Pearse Halfpenny, and just quietly enjoy being in the company of people whose talents, and lives, I aspired to having.
And then, on the final day, what I can only describe as an old geezer was introduced to me. An old acrobat from the glory days of post-war variety and light entertainment. Important in his industry, largely forgotten in the wider world perhaps, but a legend in this sports hall, among the new generation of keen, hungry circus kids. His name was Johnny Hutch, and you've probably seen his work. Perhaps you saw his legendary acrobatic comedy troupe as a kid on TV, or perhaps you remember him having his head slapped in the Benny Hill show. Yep. That's the guy.
I was encouraged to show him some tricks, and as I did, he nodded approvingly. Probably just being polite. And we chatted for a little while. I forget everything he said, except for one thing, which has stuck with me through the near three decades since he said it: ‘If you can pull a backflip, you'll always make enough for a sandwich.’
I'm sure that in the years since, my repeated, deliberate remembering of this phrase has ascribed more Yoda-like properties to it than perhaps he intended. I'm not even sure exactly what he meant by it - maybe he was just hungry and hinting - but here's what I took from it: Whatever your chosen artform, you need one thing that people will pay to see. Just one. Something that's yours. Something that you made, and that people want to see. If you have that, you'll probably be OK.
At the time, the teenage me didn't have that. I had no idea what my thing might be, and it took me years and years before I slowly found it. Trips to Westminster library where I trawled through old archives of The Strand Magazine – the Victorian version of Time Out, where I first learned of the gentleman jugglers of a century ago. Doing my first £100 street show, and celebrating by buying a suit jacket on a whim… and finding that I liked it. Being encouraged by my friends to take the dry wit that I very occasionally exhibited offstage, and put it onstage, instead of trying to be something I wasn't. All these things and more helped create the way I work now. But I still didn't have my backflip.
I'd been ending my show by pulling a tablecloth, and one day was at home, practicing it. I lived in a tiny bedsit in North London. When I opened up the folding wallpaper table I used to use, there was barely any room around it, my room was so small. Back then, keeping the high production values that street performers are known for, I used to use two big fake Hermes scarves taped together as my tablecloth. I had a spare, and while playing around – letting my hands just doodle – I tried to slide it under a plate. It mostly worked, and I immediately giggled, thinking how cool it might be to learn to do that with a whole table full of things. Then I stopped giggling and wondered if that might actually be possible. It took ten years from that moment, to get to the point at which it works every single time, with a real tablecloth, on a full-size dining table, but even back then I knew that if I could nail it, then I'd have found my backflip. The one unique thing you do, that people will want to see.
Now there's plenty more to what I do than the tablecloth trick – I've done three one-man shows, full of material from choreographed movement pieces, to circus style technical displays, to slapstick idiocy – but when I'm booked to do a tight 20, the last thing the audience sees is the cloth going back on the table, and I'm pretty proud of it.
So you'd think that a few weeks ago, when I was sent video footage of another performer doing it, I'd be angry. And you'd be damn right. But mostly I was sad. Three people have stolen it now, and they all do it on smaller tables, and without the showmanship it needs, so it gets pretty lost, and their audiences don't really care.
That makes me sad – if you're going to steal my signature trick, at least treat it right, sell it hard, and give it the response it deserves! Don't add insult to injury by taking something of mine and then half-assing it!
I'm also sad because I remember the fucking frisson of electricity that shivered through me the first time I did it perfectly – still months away from doing it in front of an audience – but it was the first time the juggling gods let me know that yeah, it was possible. Holy crap, that's a good feeling. But you don't get that feeling if you don't create something new.
The way I see it, the deal with this job is: you take the heartbreak and the backbreak. You take the failures, and the long road of paying dues and not getting paid in return, of honing and hoping, but in return, once you're in front of an audience, or in front of your notebook, you get to create whatever you like. The reward is that you can make what you do personal and different and new and whatever you want it to be. It's an amazing gift, so why would you not do any of that and just do something that somebody else is already doing instead? Maybe I'm naive, or just dumb, but I really don't get it.
So – take what you like from my act, but don't just copy it – improve it, twist it, monkey with it, take it as a starting point and then go crazy in another direction with it. Culture is remix, not repetition. That's where the fun is. Find your backflip.
Published: 3 Oct 2016