Zippo tells all about life under the big top

9th July 1999 at 01:00
Nadene Ghouri reports on a man who said goodbye to the classroom and hello to the circus.

RUNNING away to join the circus is the ultimate fantasy - but when Zippo swapped the classroom for the big top he didn't leave his zeal for teaching behind.

Zippo (real name Mr Zippo), the proprietor of Zippo's travelling circus, used to be Martin Burton, a middle school teacher. And, with funding from British Telecom, he is using his teaching skills to help circus children improve their literacy skills.

He and school publisher David Jamieson are writing a book about the circus as part of literacy hour for key stage 1. The book aims to help circus children learn, but more importantly instil a sense of pride in their culture.

The pair also wanted to help "private" children, as circus children call those in the outside world, to understand the travelling way of life.

Mr Jamieson believes the artistry, lighting, smells, equipment and posters of the circus provide a rich learning resource for teachers, and one children love.

He said: "It's still the main form of entertainment for ordinary families." When his wife, a primary teacher, asked her pupils who had seen a circus all but one said yes. Only two had visited the theatre.

Zippo also insists it is vital the eight children in his "circus village" receive a decent education. "You can be the best juggler in the world but you still have to fill out tax returns and write to agents," he says.

The clown believes growing up in the circus is a fantastic education in itself. He said: "Circus children are extraordinary. Our children can speak Russian, Danish and English mixed up in one sentence. It's a fantastic life for children. They form close relationships with adults from all over the world who adore them, they do all the things performers do - trapeze, acrobatics - but for play. It's a dream childhood."

One of his missions is to dispel prejudice against circus children. "People still see them as thieves, ogres and thick," he says.

The circus has strong community links, such as Laughtercare, a hospital visiting service by clowns, a health promotion programme run with the National Childbirth Trust. In addition, for anyone who dreams of running away with the circus, there is also one of the circus world's most respected training organisations, Zippo's Academy of circus skills.

Although competition is fierce, the circus offers a wealth of well-paid jobs, from performance to carpentry, he says. "Everyone wants to run away with the circus - they either stay forever or they quit within two weeks."

He even goes so far as to suggest it's a perfect career change for dissatisfied teachers, like himself. "What was I doing standing up in front of a class of 30 children if not being a clown?" * Zippo's Book of the Circus will be published by Aardvark in September, price pound;2.50.

Schools are invited to take part in a painting and writing competition about the circus, the winning entry of which will appear in the book. The winning school will receive pound;200 of book tokens and the winning child a family ticket to Zippo's circus. The closing date is July 26. For details call Aardvark on 01763 289543.

For touring details of Zippo's circus call 07050 121416

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