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Friday, 18 April 2014

Carlisle cannonball Marnie is still fired up for the circus

Did you ever hear the tale of Marnie Dock, the little girl who grew up in the circus? Trapeze and tightrope walking were all very well but her ultimate dream was to perform as a human cannonball.

Her parents were against the idea at first but her steely determination was unstoppable. At 16 she became the youngest-ever female human cannonball, astonishing crowds around the world with an act that involved being fired into the air at up to 45mph from a machine designed by her prop-building father.

It sounds like something out of the pages of a children’s book but this isn’t the stuff of fantasy. It happened, and it all began in Carlisle.

The hotel on Botchergate where we are meeting is disappointingly plain – at least there are no lions and tigers wandering around, no high-wire acts or sparkly costumes to be seen.

When Marnie Dock – back in Carlisle as company tour manager with the visiting Chinese State Circus – appears, clutching a mobile phone to her ear, she’s dressed in all-black and sadly not a white leather jumpsuit with tassels... perhaps not surprising since she retired from performing six years ago.

But there’s a glint in her almond-shaped blue eyes as she recalls life in the circus, conjuring up plenty of stories that transport you to a bright, far off land and away from this grey, soggy January day.

Life was always going to be a bit different for Marnie: that much was clear when her dad, also called Marnie, came to pick her and mum Geraldine up from Carlisle Maternity Hospital on Fusehill Street towing a trailer with four lions in the back.

He was from a circus family and had met Geraldine, who grew up in Botchergate, while on a break in Carlisle.

They planned to stay here as a family and Marnie snr went through dozens of jobs but settling in one place just wasn’t in his blood. Running away with the circus was the only option.

Perhaps because she was born into it young Marnie took to the lifestyle instantly and remembers being captivated from the start.

“Growing up in the circus was wonderful, I went to so many different places. There were a lot of animals – baby lions and tigers in our trailer as pets instead of cats and dogs!

“There were horses, zebras and polar bears. My auntie was a trapeze artist and I first went on a trapeze when I was two-years-old. Health and safety would have a heart attack now but then it was just what you did.

“I remember I just wanted to go up high, I loved the freedom of flying around up there and relying on yourself and your own strength.”

When Marnie was very young she would go to different schools as they travelled round, until a law was passed which meant the government had to supply circus families with schooling.

“So then a teacher would travel round with us. We didn’t like it at first because it meant boring lessons, but it meant we got a good education.

“We were all very close-knit, everyone watched out for everyone’s kids. It was often hard work but it was such an adventure.”

Marnie’s dad was a trained welder and worked backstage as a technician and her mum did the catering. They would have longer-term contracts than performers, working for circus companies including Chipperfield, Gerry Cottle and the Austen Brothers.

Marnie, however, knew she wanted to perform.

By the age of nine she was assisting a father’s friend doing a hand balancing act and at 15 was performing on the trapeze.

“I did the flying trapeze and the double trapeze with my brother Ingo for a short while. We were good together but he was more fearless than I am. He went on to do aerial acts for nine years.”

Meanwhile, something else had captured Marnie’s attention. She saw a human cannonball act at a stunt show and knew she had to try it.

Her parents were deeply against it at first but she eventually got her way – on the condition her dad built the 25-foot long machine and operated it.

Marnie says this meant she was as safe as possible, if being blasted into the air at great speed with zero protection could ever be described as safe.

“There are always risks, I suppose that’s part of the appeal. You are released using elastics so the speed differs between hot and cold weather, but it’s between 30 and 45 mph and I had to wear specially made biker leathers, because you’ll land and could go skidding across the net.

“You are being pushed and pulled at the same time and you feel like your stomach is going into your feet. Your legs have to be so strong so you have to do weight training for your legs and back, an hour a day, and I did a lot of diving into water to practice landing. You have to land exactly right.

“A friend of my dad’s was a professional stuntman so he gave me advice. You also need determination. If you are at all unsure there is a risk of injury.”

So how did Marnie feel that very first time?

“Petrified!” she says with a throaty laugh. “And when I landed pure relief! I was over the moon.

“You always have nerves, if you don’t you’re not normal. I remember I always had the driest mouth. And no matter how many times you do it you never stop learning. If you do you relax and that’s when accidents happen.

“But the adrenaline after is incredible. There is such a feeling of self-triumph.”

Marnie performed in the UK and Portugal for three years, then one day she landed feet first and broke her ankle.

She did it a few more times but, understandably, the accident had made her more cautious so she decided to move on.

Acts included sitting in a glass box with boa constrictors, which were six and a half metres long and needed four men to handle them.

Marnie says it wasn’t dangerous as such, more that it had the fear factor because so many people would hate the idea of being in her place.

Then there was a double act with a German strongwoman, who would balance a metre-long glass globe on a spindle on her head, and Marnie would climb inside and roll it around.

Is there anything she wouldn’t do?

“The knife board. I’ve got friends who do it but no way. Never.”

Her favourite and most enduring act was performing with lions and tigers.

“The Chipperfield family were looking for somebody to work with lions and tigers and I travelled all over Europe, they were like my babies.

“At first we’d let them loose in a large cage and watch what each did for months, to see what they would do, jumping or rolling over, and we’d lay trails of meat in the tunnel to encourage them to walk down. A five minute act took 10 months’ training.”

They performed in the USA and across Europe, but not in the UK.

“My auntie had horses and animal activists set her tent on fire one night. You never know what they are going to do so I never performed here.”

Marnie is vocal in her defence and you get the impression she’s had to argue her case more than once.

“I’ve got a fully qualified trainer’s licence, it’s not taken lightly. I talked to my animals non stop and they never had big fights. There were no beatings and I treated them well.

“When we got to a place we’d have a big enclosure we could build up in 15 minutes so they could go in and out and get plenty of exercise.

“The thing about owning animals is if you hear of one person mistreating them people start saying everyone treats them badly, but that’s not the case. I spent all my time with mine and wanted the best for them.

“These are wild animals and I was never attacked, so that tells you something.”

Marnie travelled with the act for six years then decided to quit the circus.

“I’d just had enough of performing. I loved being around the animals but you know in your heart of hearts when it’s time to move on.”

She met her husband Artur at a circus in Spain – he is a rigger – and they have a three-year-old daughter, Tya.

Marnie, now 37, joined The Entertainment Corporation, a company started by the Austen family which now promotes the Chinese State Circus, a human-only show .

Marnie has worked as front of house manager and catering manager, and on Boxing Day last year took on the role as company tour manager.

“It was a bit like being thrown in at the deep it but my experience means I don’t just know the paper, managerial side of it, I can rig some of the stuff, I know what the performers are up against. I can look at it from more than one perspective.

“It’s a brand new show and has been a great success in London, Leeds and Gateshead. The thing about the circus is you have to rely on yourself, it’s all completely live, and these acts are amazing.”

The company is based in Swindon but Marnie is always on the road, something that suits her.

“If I don’t travel I get itchy feel and I still love going to new places. My daughter loves the circus at the moment and I hope she grows up loving it.

“Who knows if she’ll do the performing side but I hope she never misses out on the travelling side and seeing different places. Getting to know somewhere is so different to going somewhere for a two week holiday.

“I loved staying in places not on the tourist trail in the south of France and Spain. It’s so beautiful and I’ve met some great people.”

When she sees the Chinese troupe perform does she ever feel inspired to get back on stage? She chuckles. “No! I’ve had my time. Anyway it’s for younger people. You’re braver when you’re younger.

“When I look back now I think I must have been an idiot for doing the cannonball. But I’m happy with my life and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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