‘The wind made juggling virtually impossible’: the day I took circus skills to new heights

Jem Hulbert struggles to stay on his unicycle in Ulverston, December 1992

In 1986, aged 22, I left Durham University with a degree in psychology and started my own business – as a juggler. I never thought anything would come of it. Looking back, it was just a way to avoid getting a proper job for a year. Yet, to my surprise, it became a success. I toured festivals and worked with theatre groups. I performed everywhere from prisons to palaces. I spent a summer in Derry helping run workshops for Catholic and Protestant children: the Troubles were ongoing, and some days the place felt like a warzone, but the kids still turned up for juggling.

I knew quickly it was what I wanted to do with my life, which is how I ended up being photographed on a unicycle at the top of a Lake District hill one freezing December. Being a street entertainer isn’t a career famous for its job security; work dries up in winter. So, in 1992, my then partner, Fleur Laverack, and I started one of the country’s first night-school courses in circus skills. Students signed up for 12 weeks of juggling, stilt-walking and fire-eating at Kendal College.

Back then, this was pretty unique. Such arts were still considered countercultural: I had to buy my first juggling clubs from a guy in a squat in London, because nowhere else sold them. So when a writer from the Guardian, Tom Sharratt, asked if he could write a story about the course, we were delighted, but also worried a photo in a classroom would be dull. We suggested doing it on Hoad Hill near our home in Ulverston, thinking that having us against this huge winter sky would look arty. We never considered the impracticality of the 30-minute hike, carrying a unicycle and a dozen clubs while dressed in summer costumes.

We also didn’t consider how fierce the wind would be. It made juggling virtually impossible. Just staying on the unicycle was a task. In fact, I’m about to drop a club as the picture is taken, although only other jugglers have realised I’m struggling a bit.

That’s credit to the photographer, Denis Thorpe. I’d expected him to turn up with tripods and a range of lenses, but all he brought was one camera. He looked like a sightseer. As we walked up, Fleur and I kept saying we might have to do a few takes and that he’d need to be quick because the wind would make catching the clubs difficult. He just listened and nodded politely. We had no idea he was one of the era’s finest newspaper photographers.

When I got on the unicycle, Denis got the shots pretty much instantly; we were on the hill for 10 minutes, no more. We walked back down and he took us for a pub lunch. I always remember that: we were struggling performers and eating out was a real treat.

The picture was published in the Guardian, and around the world in its international editions, and our classes were fully booked. Our students were a terrific range of people: unemployed, professionals, older people. One guy wanted to learn so he could surprise his grandchildren.

I’ve been working as a street theatre performer ever since, yet this picture remains special. It was featured in the Guardian’s 2009 series, 100 years of great press photographs. For me, it’s a moment of optimism and youthful enthusiasm at the start of my career, but perhaps it’s more than that, too: it captures circus skills for what people in the 90s were starting to see them as – a genuine art form.

• Are you in a notable photograph? Email thatsme@theguardian.com


Colin Drury

The GuardianTramp

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