The Giffords Circus impresario reveals bittersweet memories of her Oxford years.
This web version is slightly more expansive than the printed version found on page 66 of the Trinity Term print issue.
Why did you apply to Oxford?
I grew up in Oxford, my father went to University College, I just always expected to go to the University. Actually, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I wouldn’t. My father came from a large family in the East End of London and he met my mum in Oxford and his experiences there just opened up his whole life. He came from a working class background, from a very clever, successful family, but it was still a great opportunity for him.
What did you study?
I read English, it was my passion, I loved everything – drama, fiction, poetry – the whole world of words.
What was your experience of Oxford?
While I was at Oxford my mum had a serious horse riding accident, resulting in a major brain injury that left her in a coma. She remains in a complete vegetative state today. Looking back it’s hard to remember much about those years apart from spending a lot of time sitting in the intensive care ward at Frenchay Hospital. I didn’t exactly have the dream student experience because it was such a traumatic time, but Oxford did become something of an escape and a sanctuary for me.
What was your social life like?
I loved mixing with students reading other subjects, I had lots of friends who were scientists and my boyfriend at the time was a microbiologist. There was a lot of interest in Quantum Theory in those years and the cross-pollination of ideas between the different disciplines was really exciting.
Did you get involved in drama at Oxford?
I did do a bit of theatre design while I was there, although in some ways it was a lesson in how not to do theatre design. But there’s a sense that Oxford isn’t ‘real life’ so you can try things out and take a few risks. I remember the production meetings in the King’s Arms, with everyone sitting around reading the papers and looking really bored. Giffords Circus is the complete opposite of that, there’s no place for cynicism, our show is all about enthusiasm and total commitment.
What eventually led you to a career in the circus?
I fell in love with the circus life before I came up to Oxford, when I spent my gap year working at David Balding’s circus in America. After I graduated I did all kinds of jobs in the circus, from washing elephants to being a ringmaster, but my lifelong passion for riding led me to explore the possibilities of performing on horses. In 2000, my husband Toti and I set up Giffords Circus. It wasn’t a rebellion against my background or anything like that, it’s a form of artistic expression and my family has been very supportive and love coming to the shows.
Has what you learnt at Oxford helped in your career?
It helps my work every single day. From knowing how to do research to articulating an argument, these skills have an impact on your life. Just being able to write properly has proved very useful, as knowing how to spell and use grammar correctly is becoming an increasingly rare ability. It’s common to underestimate how accomplished circus people are, but I work with very talented performers who have all reached a high standard in something, whether that is music, dance or horse training– but when I have days when I feel I’m not particularly skilled at anything, I remind myself that I am trained in words and I can write great copy for a new programme or contract.
What do you treasure most about your student experiences?
Some students find Oxford a culture shock, but for me it was so familiar that I was haunted by memories of growing up in the city and happier times with mum. It was quite painful just to walk the streets at times. I did love my years at the University though and am hugely proud of having been there and having been part of an important, and completely unique, tradition.
If you could go back and do it all again, would you?
Yes. It’s not the college or my tutors’ fault but I didn’t get as much out of my course as I had expected, mainly because of our family tragedy and feeling completely adrift while I was there. I really enjoyed the 20th century American literature course, and I would love to go back and study English again, but this time with much more emphasis on theatre.
What does Oxford mean to you now?
I would be very happy to live in Oxford, I love the textures and patterns of the streets and architecture, but my husband isn’t an urban person and our work means we have to be based in the countryside. I enjoy taking my young twins Red and Cecil to the Pitt Rivers Museum, they absolutely love the dinosaurs. I’m also thrilled because we’re bringing the circus to the University Parks this summer, it’s such a fantastic opportunity for us and it’s wonderful that the University has accepted our application. I don’t believe Oxford is at all stuffy, it’s a really open, progressive, exciting place.