Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Who is Pablo Fanque?

Of course you've heard the name before. Born in 1796, Pablo Fanque was born with the more prosaic name William Darby (that wouldn't have fit the lyrics) No one really knows a great deal about his early life (the eighteenth century was a long time ago) but his father was brought over from Africa and trained to be a domestic servant or butler. The young William was early on apprenticed to a traveling circus. There he learned a variety of circus acts, from knife throwing to trapeze artistry. His forte was equestrian acts and he was lauded as a particularly keen horse trainer. After changing his name, Pablo became the first black circus owner, possibly while he was still in his twenties. His circus toured Britain and was successful indeed. Fanque married a young woman named Susannah Marlaw and together they had two sons. While true Beatlefiles will know that Mr. Kite and his companions were real performers in a real troupe, few realize that they were associates of what was probably the most successful, and almost certainly the most beloved, "fair" to tour Britain in the mid-Victorian period.

But in 1848, when the circus was performing in Leeds on the Headrow, there was a huge disaster. During a performance, when their son was performing in a tightrope act, the gallery collapsed. There were six hundred people seated upon the scaffolding, all of whom fell to the ground. Astonishingly, Susannah was the only one killed. The accident was widely reported in the newspapers and, when she was buried in Leeds, over ten thousand people lined the streets as her cortege passed by.

Those who know a bit about the history of the circus in its mid-Victorian heyday – before the coming of the music halls and the cinema stole its audience, at a time when a traveling show could set up in a mid-size town and play for two or three months without exhausting demand – will recognize that Lennon got his vocabulary right when he wrote those lyrics. "Garters" are banners stretched between poles aloft held by two men; the "trampoline," in those days, was simply a springboard, and the "somersets" Mr. Henderson undertakes to "throw on solid ground" were somersaults. And, as everyone knows, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.