“I didn’t know, during this happy summer of 1914, what life had in store for me. I didn’t know that this little circus clown was to be caught up in great events he couldn’t understand”.
Nicolai Poliakoff, better known as Coco the Clown, lived a preposterously eventful life.
Born in Dvinsk, a small town in what is now Latvia, young Nicolai remembers his father going off to fight the Japanese in the 1905-6 war, singing and tumbling for cakes in an officer’s club as a 5 1/2 year old, and was determined to be an artiste from the moment he could think.
A childhood of repeatedly running away led to stints with organ grinders and helping out at local cafes and theatres. But the big top was calling to him.
Eventually, after travelling 300 miles from home and spending a night in a shed, hugging a piece of sack and pretending it was his mother, Nicolai begged and charmed his way in to a performance at a circus in Vitebsk. And there, he saw the great Lazerenko.
“Suddenly he appeared on top of the bandstand. With a shout he dived headlong down into the ring. He was followed by a seemingly endless stream of pots and pans, which made an ear-splitting clatter as they crashed into the ring.
“Lazerenko sat amongst these with such a pained impression on his comical face, that the circus rocked with laughter. But I didn’t laugh. I was wondering how he managed to fall so far without hurting himself.”
From that moment on, he knew he must be a clown.
As you might expect for a poor kid growing up in Tsarist Russia, the journey wasn’t going to be easy. There are to be beatings by notorious Moscow police chiefs, and occasional imprisonments and exiles to Siberia.
You could say Coco had a splendid knack for turning up at the wrong place at the wrong time, but then again you could say that for anyone Russia was the wrong place and 1914 very much the wrong time. It was a miracle he survived the next few years; millions didn’t.
His experience of the war was evidently traumatic; he deals with his time at the front in a few short paragraphs.
“I was barely fifteen, and at that age a medal seemed to me to be worth everything. But within six months I was crouching at the bottom of a trench, crying, while all around me the very earth was dissolving into smoke and fire. This was a war I did not know. The game had changed”.
Poliakoff survived by getting injured enough to be admitted to military hospital. From there he imagined the German armies coming closer and closer, worrying for the future of his beloved Russia.
Eventually, his hospital in Petrograd ran out of food. He tried to make his way to the station to make his way back to his parents in Riga. Instead – classic Coco – he accidentally got swept up into the Revolution. Surrounded by Cossacks, long-haired students, and striking workers, he witnessed the blood, pandemonium, and howling, impassioned mob. He decided this was “no kind of circus for me”.
“I pressed on to the station. A circus clown in a revolution! There is something comic to the idea. But just then I didn’t feel very comic.”
Coco spent the next few years in the White Army, avoiding the red firing squad due to a friendly railwayman who vouched for him as more clown than counter-revolutionary soldier. His older brother – who had encouraged him to sign up – was not so lucky, and was executed. Suffice to say, this clown was no fan of the Revolution.
The autobiography understandably loses its intensity after the tumultuous early events and chapters, but Coco still finds time to injure himself extremely badly on numerous occasions, most memorably when the samovar he was balancing above him breaks, covering him in boiling water. The children laugh; the show must go on. Afterwards, he removes his costume, and the skin off his back with it. He then makes one of his many trips to hospital.
But Coco gets married, continues to work his way up to greater and ever less regional fame, and eventually makes his way to Weimar-era Germany, where he is shocked that labour laws mean he can’t perform with his “nearly” nine year old daughter.
From here, he makes it to Britain, where he is amazed by the modernity and efficiency of the great circus organisations. As he repeats more than once, his travelling fair even had its own fire engine.
With starvation, imprisonment and destitution all fading to unlikelihoods rather than distinct possibilities, Poliakoff relaxes and his prose becomes less hurried, more discursive. He even manages some fairly purple passages about his adopted homeland:
“Your England, which I hope is now my England too, can be so beautiful in all her moods. And on the tenting trail there are always plenty of adventures, and comedy too.
“I remember one unplanned comedy – It concerned Rolly the midget clown and myself…”
If you had “accidental whistle swallowing incident” in mind, please give yourself a pat on the back.
On page 190, we learn that actually he’s not a clown. Technically he is an auguste. You can forgive him for not mentioning this earlier, as so much other stuff was going on.
“In spite of all their queer devices, their electric eyes, false ears, exploding hats, enormous safety pins and watches, boomerang hats, and strange wigs, augustes still keep one important part of their original character. They are still the butts and foils. They are always wrong. Everything they do is wrong.
“If the white clown is doing some conjuring trick the auguste joins in and spoils them. If there is anything to trip over, the auguste trips. He must be a skilled tumbler, and he must not mind cold water, for he will have plenty of falls, and many buckets will be tipped over him.
“Often, too, he must be a musician – enough of a musician to play the wrong notes at the right moments.”
Like the Great Gonzo.
By his tenth summer tenting-tour with the Bertram Mills circus, alongside performing horses and tigers, elephants and lions, acrobats and daredevils, strong men and escapologists, alongside Australian, French, Indian, Polish, Czechoslovak, Greek, Italian, German performers, to name a few, Coco was as content as a clown – or auguste – could be. Internationally famous, and keen to play tribute to the skill and professionalism of his fellow artistes, he seems almost apologetic to mention that another world war breaks out a month later, and Poliakoff hurries off to join yet another army.
The first edition, published in 1941, ends there, with a cheery “on with the show” and the expressed hope that Coco the Clown will return to the ring one day, “if Nicolai survives his third war.”
And, in a hastily added epilogue, we find out that he does. Even out of his grease paint, Nicolai is too famous. He spends the war putting on shows for his fellow Tommys, and our clown author rattles through 1939-45 via a series of camps and variety revues.
It is a strange, tacked on coda. We learn of Coco’s post-war road safety campaigning, which while charming and can be viewed in this excellent Pathe newsreel, is something of an underwhelming finale after all the fumbles and tumbles and major historical events.
But through chaos and routine, from Riga to the fairground outside Luton, Coco is phlegmatic to the end. “Perhaps a Clown learns to be something of a philosopher”, Nicolai ponders. Because Nicolai is not Coco, and Coco is not Nicolai. But Coco was always in there, waiting to jump out, and to fall, fall, and fall again, somehow always managing to land on his feet.
As he had been practicing to do, his entire life.
– Poliakoff’s son, Michael, also dedicated his life to clowning. He performed in America – as Coco – for Billy Smart’s circus, and revamped Ronald McDonald for the burger themed restaurant chain in 1966. The Ronald we know today was his invention, in terms of make up and costume.
– Harry Hill’s TV show featured a Coco the clown of the far future, with a broad Russian accent, enormous shoes and constant run-ins with the Clown Union.