CIRCUS DIARIES: Big Top Typewriter

In Books, Cabaret, Circus, Opinion, Reviews by Katharine KavanaghLeave a Comment

Here is a book that hits all my buttons: It’s a book about circus; it’s a book about writing; most importantly, it’s a book about writing about circus!

David Lewis Hammarstrom wrote his first circus review at the age of 14, frustrated then – as I often am still now – about the lack of critical appraisal in a mainstream media that doesn’t know its circus onions, or in fan press that accentuates only positives and gives little sense of relative perspective. More than 60 years later, he is still pursuing his love for both circus and wordery, and Big Top Typewriter chattily guides us through the meeting points of these loves over the course of his life and career, from local newspaper print to press agent to academic presses.

There is a charisma to Hammarstrom’s writing that keeps me with him through meandering reminiscences that, at times, must be more clearly connected in his mind than on the page. It strikes me that this may be a book for the blog-reading generation, doing away with traditional autobiographical conventions of structure and direction for personality and flavour, as the author discusses his journalistic forays and publishing paths.

Having spent decades immersed in the classical circus universe – including trips to Russia and China, which each spawned chapters of their own – Hammarstrom is never short on knowledge or opinion. As he freely admits, however, spelling, grammar, and the finer points of detailed fact-checking often let him down. Although broadly trustworthy, Big Top Typewriter lets well-known dates and names go awry, which would make me dubious about quoting from it without further research.

A recurring theme in the catalogue of Hammarstrom’s book-publishing adventures is that of poor copy editors. And poor marketing teams. And poor business partners. And poor commissioning editors. Bringing these negative experiences to the fore gives some drama to Hammarstrom’s story of literary ambition and passion, but also lends a whiff of blame-passing. Nevertheless, Big Top Typewriter provides an eye-opening account of the various processes required to get a book into print.

Illustrations include ticket stubs and posters, while photographs from the author’s private collection of memories move from childhood sepia to contemporary colour. Other images have been donated; Hammarstrom has moved in the American circus world for a long time and has interviewed many of the top names in 20th Century production and performance.

Big Top Typewriter is a unique take on the circus autobiography. Not great literature, but a highly enjoyable read, even if your buttons aren’t as finely tuned to the topic as mine.

Hammarstrom, David Lewis, Big Top Typewriter: My inside adventures through the world of circus. (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 10th Apr 2017) ISBN: 978-1542975612

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Katharine Kavanagh
Katharine is a circus writer based in the Midlands, a handy travel hub for getting out and about to new and smaller-scale work. From a background as a performer, theatre-maker and circus volunteer, Katharine took part in the EU-funded 'Unpack the Arts' circus residency, set up The Circus Diaries website, and now dedicates herself to sharing the intricacies of circus art with the world.

She says: "Circus is an area of performing arts where few people have the vocabulary and understanding to write balanced critical appraisal. This tends to result in wishy-washy 'reviews' that all sound the same and say very little about the relative quality of the show.

"As the circus arts grow in popularity and engagement across the UK, it's important for critical voices to reflect this to increasingly discerning audiences. That's where I come in."
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Katharine Kavanagh on FacebookKatharine Kavanagh on InstagramKatharine Kavanagh on RssKatharine Kavanagh on TwitterKatharine Kavanagh on Youtube
Katharine Kavanagh
Katharine is a circus writer based in the Midlands, a handy travel hub for getting out and about to new and smaller-scale work. From a background as a performer, theatre-maker and circus volunteer, Katharine took part in the EU-funded 'Unpack the Arts' circus residency, set up The Circus Diaries website, and now dedicates herself to sharing the intricacies of circus art with the world.

She says: "Circus is an area of performing arts where few people have the vocabulary and understanding to write balanced critical appraisal. This tends to result in wishy-washy 'reviews' that all sound the same and say very little about the relative quality of the show.

"As the circus arts grow in popularity and engagement across the UK, it's important for critical voices to reflect this to increasingly discerning audiences. That's where I come in."

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