The big top was full, the band started to play and the ringmaster in his shiny top hat turned to the audience to start the show.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the circus! We will begin with the Clown and the Donkey…”
The clown and the donkey ambled on and then stood together in the centre. Nothing happened. The crowd stopped clapping, leaning forward, bustling to see what was going on, talking amongst themselves.
“Jump! Play tricks” called the ringmaster, cracking his whip.
The crowd quietened and then the clown said ‘NO’.
“What are you up to?” asked the ringmaster, as the crowd fell silent.
“I don’t want to play the fool for others any more. I want to tell stories” declared the clown.
“And you?” The ringmaster flew at the donkey, arm raised, whip in hand. “Do you want to tell stories too?”
“No, I just want to listen to my friend telling his stories” answered the donkey patiently.
The clown and the donkey were ushered off by the ringmaster, but each of the following acts, the dancing horse, the giraffe, the lion and the dog followed suit and refused to go on.
“I am not going on with this show – it is a silly exhibition and I am not proud of it” said Ferdinand, the dancing horse.
Sacked straight after the show, with no back pay, the six performers left the circus, and decided to form a freelancer co-operative.
They travelled a long distance together. When they arrived in a small town, the clown painted posters which read “Circus Co-op – for Children and Poets only”.
Three days later, the show began. There were crowds of children and a lot of grownups as well – evidently there were a lot of poets living in this town.
The clown told his stories, the animals listened in and joined in when they felt like it. The children were enchanted. The adults had never seen anything like it. By the close, it had broken all the records for TripAdviser reviews. The circus was magnificent because the clown and his friends could be themselves and play as they had longed to do for years.
Everyone was happy now. The children, the adults and the performers were all happy. And at the end of the show, the clown said ‘YES’.
This is a re-telling of a story by Dimitrije Sidjanski, who escaped to Switzerland as a prisoner of war in 1945. Sidjanski and his wife Brigitte started a children’s publishing company Nord-Sud Verlag. Under a pseudonym drawn from the names of their first three children, Mischa Damjan, he wrote the book, The Clown Said No, with illustrations by the distinguished glass painter Gian Casty. My brother, Bob, gave me the book recently, out of his own exploration with writing on the adventures of Pierrot the clown.
Freelancer and worker co-operatives are a growing way in which people can work together without a ringmaster or whip.
The publishing house founded by Sidjanski went on to global fame as the publishers of the Rainbow Fish by Swiss writer and illustrator Marcus Pfister. The Rainbow Fish tells the story of a vain and beautiful fish, who learns from a wise octopus that by sharing with friends, he will discover how to be happy.
The best children’s stories, it turns out, can be wise and wonderful fables of co-operative education.