‘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

Contributor

Colin Drury

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘The audience gasped when Princess Diana appeared’
Wayne Sleep remembers a remarkable dance duet at the Royal Opera House in December 1985

Interview: Hannah Booth

14, Jul, 2017 @1:00 PM

Article image
‘It took four hours and the soup was cold’: being the face of Cup-a-Soup
Derek Lamden recalls how he came to embody beef and tomato in the 1970s

Hannah Booth

03, Feb, 2017 @3:59 PM

Article image
‘A policeman took a full swipe at my head’: Lesley Boulton at the Battle of Orgreave, 1984
I don’t take this image personally. It’s not about me; it’s about something much bigger: an expression of arbitrary power

Adrian Tempany

16, Dec, 2016 @4:00 PM

Article image
‘We made that day like a rock concert’: the launch of the Apple IIc
John Sculley, 78, remembers the early days of Apple, 24 April 1984

Colin Drury

06, Oct, 2017 @1:00 PM

Article image
‘Yoko made two films for me’: at the cinema with John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Avant garde film-maker Jonas Mekas in New York, December 1970

Deborah Linton

13, Oct, 2017 @12:59 PM

Article image
‘I took his hand and got down on one knee’: a policeman proposes at Pride
PC Philip Adlem proposes to his boyfriend in London, June 2016

Candice Pires

04, Nov, 2016 @4:00 PM

Article image
‘We had silver suits specially made’: performing at the Beatles Christmas shows
John Beecham on appearing with the Fab Four at Hammersmith Odeon, London, December 1964

Hannah Booth

23, Dec, 2016 @4:00 PM

Article image
‘I made a one-person picket’: Fran De’Ath protests at Greenham Common
My aim was to talk to the men constructing the silos for the American cruise missiles stationed there, to help them understand the seriousness of what they were doing

Hannah Booth

12, Aug, 2016 @2:59 PM

Article image
‘I drove the car into the fountain’: causing mayhem at Essex University, 1969
Brian Caldwell on the sideshow he and his friends created during the university’s ‘revolutionary festival’

Hannah Booth

19, May, 2017 @3:29 PM

Article image
‘It was ridiculous that 16-year-olds didn't get a vote’: teens protest after Brexit result
Amy Gibbs and schoolmates head for Downing Street on 24 June 2016

Hannah Booth

21, Apr, 2017 @3:00 PM