Nell Gifford: 1973-2019

Nell Gifford reading from her book Nell & the Circus of Dreams, illustrated by Briony May Smith. And

Nell Gifford reading from her book Nell & the Circus of Dreams, illustrated by Briony May Smith. Andrew Higgins/TWM - Credit: Andrew Higgins©Thousand Word Me

We were very sad to hear the news that Nell passed away on Sunday, December 8, but there’s no doubt that she has left a remarkable legacy. For our December issue, Katie Jarvis was lucky enough to chat to Nell about her beautiful new book, which documents the story of a little girl with an ill mother whose world is transformed when the circus rolls in.

Nell & the Circus of Dreams, by Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith, published by Oxford University Pr

Nell & the Circus of Dreams, by Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith, published by Oxford University Press - Credit: Oxford University Press

First there's a girl of tumbledown hair, in polka-dot-blue dress, curled up outside on a red-check rug. Her small hand is resting on a beautiful toy caravan: a gypsy caravan, green of roof and maroon of body; a circus caravan. A play-set horse and goose are trying their hardest (you can't help but feel) to spark an interest; but this little girl's heart is not in it.

Behind her, in the warm-stone farmhouse with its green shutters and twining wisteria, all is as silent as the drift of a passing spirit. This painted picture, with its pots of late-spring flowers, meandering garden path and splash of bright red wellies (for this is a picture¬book) is dream-like in its perfection. But this little girl - this little girl whose name is Nell - is framed by a child's sadness. "That summer Nell's mother was so ill that she did not get out of bed." On the next page (for, remember, this is a story-book) something is happening. A tiny, lost chick has wandered into the farmyard. And, somehow, we know that Nell and this lost chick - whom Nell will call Rosebud - will become friends.


Someone, somewhere, is hoovering; the backwards-and-forwards burr mixes with shouted greetings (it is the beginning of a working day) and the beep of a reversing truck here, at Fennells Farm, in the hills above Stroud. As I bed down on a sofa, a young lad - who turns out to be Harvey - brings me a steaming mug of coffee. In the expansive land outside and in the complex of offices within, the scene is a whirlwind; but its epicentre, Nell Gifford, is missing. Tessa Carnegie, Giffords Circus marketing manager, is trying to track her down. I feel terrible. Today is Tuesday; early Tuesday. Last Friday, Nell had another round of chemo; she's feeling rough; nauseous. And here I am, expecting an interview. Yet, let me say two things. The first is this. When she appears - even though she closes her eyes like a reluctant passenger on a pitching ship - she is as 'Nell' as ever: beautiful, serene, thoughtful. The second is this. Our meeting is as joyous as ever. I love Nell. I love the fact that, if ever I meet an interesting person, the chances are they'll know her. "Oh, Nell!" they'll say. "Yes, I know Nell!"

Nell Gifford introducing the acts in Xanadu, May 2019

Nell Gifford introducing the acts in Xanadu, May 2019 - Credit: Andrew Higgins©Thousand Word Media Ltd

"Look;" I say, "let's do this another time. Let's talk on the phone, when you're feeling better." For a second, I can see - as the ship pitches again - that she's tempted. But Nell thinks of her diary and shakes her head. No, it's fine for us to talk now. "Talking is like a show in itself, because you're kind of making sounds and movement to communicate something - which is what performing is basically," she thinks out loud, as we sit down. "Talking is a normalised performance that we all do... It's a really strange realisation." Oh! Three things, then. Let me say three things. The third is this: that Nell is no avoider of truths. That when something comes along that she doesn't understand (that the world doesn't understand and, generally, would prefer to avoid) - she turns it right round to face her. Chemo. Cancer. Life. All the world's a stage - a circus; a performance. And trying to understand the world is an act of creativity.


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Nell & the Circus of Dreams, the children's book that Nell has written - with classically beautiful illustrations by Briony May Smith - is the story of a girl with an ill mother, who loses a chick and finds a circus. (Rosebud disappears but - don't worry - there's a happy ending.) It's the story of a lonely little girl, Nell, who is mesmerised when a circus sets up in the village, with "laughing girls hanging scarlet velvets and gold cables and twinkling lights on silver ropes". As Nell travels through its pages of flower-strewn fields and clustered gypsy caravans, she is enveloped by a huge circus-family of strong-man father with golden arms, acrobat-mother with flowing bejewelled hair, and their seven children, who speak a language of musical tones that Nell can only recognise in its kindness and welcome. As the circus performance begins, Nell finds herself at the heart of it: for after the horses and the acrobats and the jugglers, Nell is lifted to the giddy apex of a human pyramid by her new-found family, as the audience laughs and cheers.

Nell & the Circus of Dreams, by Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith, published by Oxford University Pr

Nell & the Circus of Dreams, by Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith, published by Oxford University Press - Credit: Oxford University Press

It's not difficult to see the woman in front of me within its pages. In November 1991, as Nell was studying for an Oxford University interview, her mum, Charlotte, fell from a horse while out riding on Kemble Airfield, landing on concrete. In a flash, Nell's childhood of ponies and kittens - in a rambling house in Minety where grown-ups danced in the hall - was gone. Charlotte did not die… She did not die, as such; but she suffered devastating head injuries - living on for another 22 years - unable to do anything for herself or even to communicate.

There's no solace to be found from such a tragedy; so much is obvious. But when Nell took herself off to America for a month, pre her degree at Oxford,

it was an attempt to come to terms with the accident. And, there in America, she found something. Something important. Thanks to a distant family connection, she spent time with the Circus Flora in New York State and found a different way of existence. "One day," she wrote, in her autobiographical book, Josser, "I was instructed to ride one of the two broad-backed horses around the ring… I felt as if I was on a journey…round and round the ring on a journey where there is no distance to be covered."

Nell & the Circus of Dreams, by Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith, published by Oxford University Pr

Nell & the Circus of Dreams, by Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith, published by Oxford University Press - Credit: Oxford University Press

The rest, as they say, is history: she founded her own circus, Giffords, with her then-husband Toti, in 2000 - 20 years ago next year.…Except that history (to be tautological) has a history of repeating itself. For when Nell was diagnosed with breast cancer, back in 2015, her own children - nine-year-old twins Red and Cecil - also began to understand what it's like to have a mother who is unwell. "I feel like I've lived this horrible sandwich," Nell says. "Repeating through the mirror of having an ill parent and then being an ill parent; which is really difficult to come to terms with. And that's partly what the book is about. About trying to explore what it is for a child to have an ill parent. And for a parent to be ill: trying to be a mother to the child."

For Nell of the book; for Nell of real life - and for Red, too (anyone who saw this year's outstanding Giffords show Xanadu, will have seen the contained, mesmerising life-force that is Red) - the circus forms a magical, protective ring.

"The circus has always been an escape for me; a world I can go into. And it's a friendly world. It's a caring world. And it's somewhere I found support when I needed it most."


Nell Gifford. Photo: Andrew Higgins/TWM

Nell Gifford. Photo: Andrew Higgins/TWM - Credit: Andrew Higgins©Thousand Word Me

She's a magician, Nell Gifford. Someone who drags something out of nothing. Like when she invented her circus, as if it already existed, in answer to a question at a book festival in Hay-on-Wye years ago - and then had to make it happen. Like when she got out some paint and brushed aside the isolation of having chemotherapy. "Yeah… I drove the children to school one day and felt I couldn't speak to any of the other mums because of the chemo. I got back, sat down, and started painting. And it was just such a - well, it's just so absorbing. To absorb oneself - you lose yourself into creativity." ('Creativity' is a word that comes up multiple times. "A director once said to me, 'We're building cathedrals'. I think she meant: We're making something that's bigger than ourselves. We don't really know exactly what it is; we probably won't live to see it. It's outside of what one person can conceive of alone. And I really love that quote.")

As we sit, talking, we're surrounded by paintings Nell has done of Xanadu, the 2019 show that has just finished touring the hills and valleys of the Cotswolds (and beyond). The paintings are magnetic: full of colour (reds, blues, yellows, purples), movement, and a dream-like quality that leaves you unsure whether the figures are appearing or just about to go. "I always try to draw when I'm sitting in chemotherapy because it's such a different world from all the colour when you're drawing the circus: you're always drawing colourful people and animals and young people and very fit people and very lively people.

"In hospital, when I started drawing, I didn't realise until I came home how different the faces and the postures were." In many of the paintings, you'll see the Donnerts from this year's show: a Hungarian, old-style sixth-and-seventh-generation circus family, who are at one with the majestic horses which share their act. "I like to think their ancestors are Genghis Khan!" Nell says. "Nomadic horse-people. They live beside the horses 24 hours a day; they're attuned to them. They're like herdsmen and stockmen as well as artists. There isn't really a place for these heavy horses that were bred to do agricultural work, in a post-industrial age. Someone said to me that the circus finds a place for animals in a world where there isn't a wilderness."

Xanadu creatives' meeting. Photo: Gem Hall

Xanadu creatives' meeting. Photo: Gem Hall - Credit: Gem Hall

Our conversation is fascinating: peppered with talk of different sorts of people: performers from the world over, artists, fellow chemo patients. And, soon, the room is filling up, too. Joe Avery comes in - artist and teacher - who has been supporting Nell with her painting; advising on different techniques; giving her confidence. "It's more about trying to bring out the authentic version of Nell's visual, creative self," he explains. "It's that psychological thing, when you almost need permission to keep doing that same thing; and knowing that it's worth something to someone else."

Joe has encouraged her to go a bit crazy - dropping paper into a paddling pool of water, before covering it with inks that Nell swirls into vivid images. And then Harvey drops by: 16-year-old Harvey (thank you for the coffee, Harvey) Aylmer, who's just started an apprenticeship with Giffords. He's been a fan since he saw his first performance aged 18 months. "One of the best memories I have was when I was sat in the tent with my aunty and nan and we had a phone call that my sister had just been born. That was cool. Where else would I be in the world…!" One day, he wants his own circus.


Giffords Circus, 2018. Photo: Gem Hall

Giffords Circus, 2018. Photo: Gem Hall - Credit: Gem Hall

We talk about all sorts, Nell and I. (She's feeling better, thankfully, as the hour ticks on.) About her 'amazing' oncologist, Tim Crook, who researches into new methods of diagnosis and molecular-profiling for bespoke cancer drugs; and who, at a human level, understands and copes with the anger people feel on being told they are ill. "He is just such a good egg and I really, really adore him. I'm going to hopefully do some fundraising with him." Such as an upcycling sale of costumes and props next spring.

We talk about the fact that next year's show will be a massive celebration of the past two decades. (Celtic-themed, maybe? She's not giving too much away.) We talk about Toti, her ex-husband, and the immense gratitude she feels for the support he's given the circus. She smiles. "Sitting here now: nice office; sun coming through the window; someone doing the hoovering… It wasn't like that in the beginning. It was sitting in a caravan, trying to make the phone ring. Just me and Toti. There were many times in the early days when I felt like giving up. Toti would say, 'No; we're going to keep going!' He wrestled it into existence."

Toti is now focusing on his landscaping work, but there's still a strong network they're building together around their children, to provide continuity and stability. "So when I'm not here, they can reach out to that community. And key women for Red so that, when she starts to get her period and things like that, if I'm not here - and hopefully I will be - but, if I'm not, there are people that also know my medical history, because that's important for her."


So the book ends like this. With an empty circle of golden sawdust where a circus recently stood. With Nell and Rosebud, wending their way through dew-sprinkled fields, trailing ribbons and sequins. And then home… Where Nell's mother is waiting on a garden bench, arms outstretched to hug her two chickens in an embrace of pure love. So, I say (wanting and not-wanting to ask this). Nell in the picture-book gets the opposite of real Nell's life. The circus disappears. Her mum is back. "Well," Nell says, after a pause. "I'd rather have my mum than the circus, you know. But I don't have my mum and I do have the circus. And Red has me and the circus. "And I have to make sure that she has her mum and the circus."