Mr Smith goes to . . . the circus

Trapeze artists amidst the dung-reeking gloom

''Here with our poodle parade, will you please welcome Miss Kitty Roberts!" At the ringmaster's cry, a woman in a Lurex pants suit runs out from behind a curtain leading five small dogs and kicking up sawdust with her high heels. The animals mount a silver dais, the dog furthest on the left yawning ostentatiously. As the woman's charges shiver and scratch themselves, you see that the backdrop of their podium is a lattice that spells out K-I-T-T-Y. One of the stars of the parade gets up on its hind legs and pedals a child's scooter. The wonder of it is that the dog could do it at all, as Dr Johnson would have said if he'd had a ringside seat at Bobby Roberts's Circus.

In the dung-reeking gloom, rain comes through a hole in the big top and children laugh when a Shetland pony refuses to jump a bar. These are difficult days for circus folk. It's a Saturday evening, but only about a third of the seats are occupied. Small children watch raptly enough but, in a reversal of the old saw about teenage rebellion, their older brothers and sisters have run away from the circus. In the ring, the disobedient pony fails to faze his groom, none other than Bobby Roberts himself, in his own way the most accomplished equestrian in these islands. There is not even a suggestion of a wobble in Roberts's unfortunate Les Patterson rictus. In the intermission, members of the audience pay to have their pictures taken with Bobby and Anna the elephant. The circus travels all over the country, says Bobby, quartering in Peterborough for the winter.

"Are you from there?"

"I'm from everywhere," he says, cementing my fond ideas of circus turns born in trunks.

Behind the hot dog counter, and a necklace that says "Bitch", is a familiar face. "Weren't you the lady with the poodle parade?" Kitty confirms that she is one and the same. She is tenth-generation circus people, she says, her children are eleventh. Whichever school is nearest to the big top, that's where they have their lessons. I say something modish about how difficult this must be for them.

"No, they like it. We've even got school kids coming here," she says. Kitty indicates the girl who's standing beside her flipping burgers, and says that she's on work experience.

"Oh, you live locally," I say to the girl.

"No, I'm from Nantwich," she says, referring to a town last glimpsed from a wing mirror a fortnight earlier.

"That's great! So you're living in a caravan. Are you in with the fire-eater or the lion-tamer?"

"Behave! She's 15," says Kitty. "She's with her nan." The burger-flipper's grandmother is a useful dancer, it seems. Kitty says that the circus doesn't make a profit. "We only break even, but what else are we going to do? I've got to go," she says suddenly, abandoning a finger roll. "I'm back on in a minute."

"What are you doing?"

"Oh, I'm helping my husband. He walks downstairs on his hands."