Juggler's World: Vol. 39, No. 2


Street Juggling in London

I'm a juggler, but I don't know if that's the right term for some people call conjurers jugglers, but that's wrong. When I was in Ireland they called me a manualist. The difference I makes between conjuring and juggling is, one's deceiving to the eye and the other's pleasing to the eye. Yes, that's it, it's dexterity.

I dare say I've been at juggling 40 years now, for I was between 14 and 15 when I begun and I'm 56 now. I suppose I'm the oldest juggler alive.

One night I went to the theatre and there I see Ramo Samee doing his juggling. I only wanted to do as he did. Directly I got home and I got two of the plates and went into a back room and began practicing at making it turn on the top of a stick. I broke nearly all the plates in the house doing this. That is what I didn't break, I cracked. I broke the entire set of a dozen plates, and yet couldn't do it.

I got enough money to have a tin plate made with a deep rim, and with this plate I learnt it, so that I could afterwards do it with a crockery one. I got a set of wooden balls turned, and stuck coffin nails all over them so that they looked like metal when they was up, and I began teaching myself to chuck them.

It took a long time learning it, but I was fond of it, and determined to do it. Then I got some tin knives made and learnt to throw them and I bought some iron rings and bound them with red and blue tape to make them look handsome. And I learnt to toss them the same as the balls. I dare say I was a twelvemonth before I could juggle well. When I could throw the three balls middling tidy I used to do them on stilts, and that was more than ever a man attempted in them days. And yet I was only 16 or 17 years of age. I was the first man seed in Ireland either juggling or on the stilts. I'd balance pipes, straws, peacock's feathers and the twirling plate.

I'm well known in London, and the police knows me so well they very seldom interfere with me. Sometimes they say, "That's not allowed you know, old man!" and I'd say, "I shan't be above two or three minutes" and go on with the performance.

Juggling is the same now as ever it was, for there ain't no improvements on the old style as ever I heerd on. And I suppose the balls and knives and rings will last for a hundred years to come yet.

I should say there ain't above 20 jugglers in all of England - indeed I'm sure there ain't - such as goes about pitching in the streets and towns. I know of only four others besides myself in London, unless some new ones have sprung up very lately.

From vol. 3 of Henry Mayhew's "London Labour and the London Poor," 1861.

Rastelli Erzahlt

by Walter Benjamin

Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1972

(reprinted from "Diacritics, 1975," courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University Press and edited by Bill Giduz.)

The exorbitant path of the ball defies the laws of nature, giving the illusion of a virtuosity not to be comprehended by the human intellect. How is it to be interpreted? Rastelli ends his story here. Could it be that the juggler is juggled. For the dwarf is a joker!

The incomparable, unforgotten juggler Rastelli told this story one evening in his dressing room to me:

In ancient times, he began, there was a great juggler whose fame had spread with the caravans and merchant ships far over the globe. One day the ruler of the Turks, Mohammed Ali Bei, learned of him and sent his messengers to the directions of the wind to seek the master and invite him to Constantinople. Mohammed Ali Bei was a dictatorial, even inhumane, prince. A singer who had not found approval before him was thrown in the dungeon. But his generosity was also well known. An artist who pleased him could count on a high reward!

The master was found and after several months arrived in Constantinople for his audience.

However, he didn't alone. He made very little fuss about his companion - a boy dwarf. To be sure, such an exceptionally fine, graceful and swift little creature had never been seen at Sultan Mohammed Ali Bei's court.

The master and the dwarf never lived under the same roof during their travels. He had good reason to keep the dwarf hidden. The two of them, as is well known, went to the Chinese school and became acquainted with a single simple prop. It was a ball. There was nothing to equal the wonders of this ball.

It seemed as though the master were dealing with a living property. Now docile, now obstinate, affectionate, scoffing, he dealt with his prop as a comrade. No one knew about the secret of the ball. The the nimble dwarf sat inside, playing on compression springs as easily as on the strings of a guitar.

The day commanded by the sultan had arrived. The Hall of the Half-Moon was filled with dignitaries and the ruler as the master bowed toward the throne. He brought a flute to his lips and blew a staccato beat. Suddenly, the ball approached from the soffits and fawned around its master, then jumped on his shoulders! Just as the earth turns around the sun the ball turned around the dancer. There was no spot from head to foot where it did not play. It was just the way the master's concealed helper had done it for years. Now the finale took place. The master took his flute and the flute seized command for itself. The flute breathed new life into the ball and it began to hop. It hopped gradually higher while the master raised his arm. He stretched out his little finger and the ball, obeying a last, long trill, settled on it with a single bound.

As a murmur of admiration went through the crowd, the sultan himself began the applause. The master caught a heavy, ducat-filled purse flung to him and flew from the hall.

He stepped out of the palace to await the loyal dwarf at a remote exit. On the way, a messenger pushed his way through the guards to hand him a note. The letter bore the dwarf's handwriting:

"Dear Master, you must not be annoyed with me. Today you can't show yourself to the sultan. I am sick and cannot leave my bed."

As Rastelli was in his dressing room that evening, he said, "You see that our profession wasn't born yesterday and that we have our own story - or our stories."

Fiction / Index, Vol. 39, No. 2 / jis@juggling.org
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