Ellie Harrison: In memory of Nell Gifford

An affectionate letter to ringmistress Nell Gifford – her creativity, energy and optimism by Countryfile Presenter Ellie Harrison.

Woman on horse in circus ring

Ellie Harrison column was first published in the August 2019 issue of BBC Countryfile Magazine. Since print publication, the talented ringmaster Nell Gifford has sadly died. 

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In her final weeks, after travelling to Cuba then Switzerland to buy horses and announcing the 20th anniversary show – after so much life and worlds created: living entities here for us all to see – when Nell died on 8th December, I couldn’t really believe that she ever would.  I am so grateful she saw this piece and especially thankful for her affectionate reply.  I’m appreciative too that she stays with us through the loveliest children you could meet, Red and Cecil, through her circus of wonder and through the many things she taught us.  My favourite: do something creative everyday.

Dear Nell,

The world is in a speed-wobble. Like the yawoscillation of a caravan in tow, we the people are swaying unnervingly out of sync with political leaders, who are audaciously driving the 4×4 up front while absent-mindedly checking their reflection in the rearview mirror. The longer it goes on, the greater the wobble in its trail. One caravan wheel lurches to another and soon the people begin to blame each other for their edgy leanings.

But in Giffords Circus, you have created a reprieve, an antidote to this disaffection. For two hours, we forget our differences and once more remember being citizens of the planet, to wonder at our collective human experience. In the world within your big top, adventurous souls from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, America – indeed every continent – come to present extraordinary and thrilling performances, miracles and enchantment. In this place, we see each other with our hearts open.

These are artists unsullied by a need for fame and its pathology of fear: every cast member clears up, restocks and mucks in ready for the next show. Here, it is imagination, leaps of faith and gritty hard work that are celebrated. Our obsession with recording every moment for the Cloud in hope that it will one day reassure us of a life well-lived in a torrential downpour of memories, just isn’t here. Our time together in the tent is for this moment only, art un-ownable by a wealthy collector to lock away out of view.

Every year, I shuffle along the benches, watch with exuberance and laugh so hard that my face aches. But the introverted Brit in me means that I can’t say all this to you in person. Especially not at school pick-up among the scrum of small talk, where I’ve watched your wonderful children growing and evolving alongside mine.

Your Red and my Red in the same class (while there were only three Reds born that year in the whole country). When she emerges at your side into the centre of the show, on horseback with matching white dresses and flowers in your hair, tears fall all around you. Your message to the universe via The Kink’s Thank You For the Days is unspoken and resounding. And yet none of it came easy. After 20 years of work to create the circus as it is now, at a time when you could have been enjoying the fruits of your labours, the most recent times may have been the toughest, following an accident, family difficulty and ill health.

The show must go on

There can be very few people on earth who can justifiably use the phrase and hashtag “let’s get this show on the road”, but you offer it with vibrant energy, in spite of and because of a life with cancer. As you say, it’s not a fight, it’s a life. And it seems to me one of the very richest, fully dimensional: knowing trauma and creating beauty in its wake. This magnificent legacy.

After the children dance, the crowd’s ovation blending claps with roars of appreciation, we push back the canvas doors and emerge blinking into the day’s light. Within the curtilage of the circus we’re safe. We walk out to the car park past handsome maroon and cream-painted caravans that house your circus family from Ethiopia, Russia, Italy and beyond. All pitched steadily alongside each other. Then each of us moves beyond the boundary of this place, out to a future we don’t yet know.

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Yours sincerely and in deepest admiration now, not later, Ellie.