Paradise and Circuses

A couple of weeks ago, I heard that Paradise Circus, an area of about seventeen acres between Centenary and Chamberlain Squares in Birmingham, is being redeveloped. This started on January 5th, 2015.

I’m not against modernisation in general – despite being an errant Medievalist, I don’t necessarily believe we should keep things just because. And Birmingham is a modern city, constantly modernising and changing: it has been, if you think about it, ever since the Industrial Revolution, though of course it has a much older history. The new Library is, in my opinion, a stunning piece of work, and whilst I will be sad to see the familiar old inverse tesseract of the Old-New Library go the way of all things, I think it has been replaced with something rather wonderful, despite what I say below.*

What has struck me about the redevelopment, though, is a semantic issue. The area, it seems, will no longer be called Paradise Circus – the last word will be dropped, and the area known simply as Paradise, as the Queensway in that area is going to be pedestrianised.

Names are important, and I think this change reflects a couple of things – a change in the public perception of a city, a change in a city’s attitude towards itself – and also has the potential to fundamentally change the way the area is. To think about this in more depth, we have to consider why this area has its current name, and the history of that naming, and consider the etymologies and connotations of the individual words, ‘paradise’ and ‘circus’.

Early maps of the area show the name ‘Paradise Close’ used in the same general location, well before Birmingham developed into the city it is today. There could be a number of reasons for this naming: the land may have been of high quality, or the area could once have been a pleasure garden. Either way, the name stuck around – the area of ‘Paradise Close’ became the end of Paradise Street when the city was laid out in the late eighteenth century. It was only in the 1960s, when the roundabout was added, that the area became known as Paradise Circus. The ‘circus’ element is a relative newcomer; why, then, am I sad about it’s loss?

I’m sad, I think, because the words themselves have very particular connotations which I think work together in interesting ways. Paradise intimates perfection, order, calm; circus suggests something that, whilst controlled, is perhaps more flamboyant and anarchic – some have interpreted the circus to be related to the carnivalesque, though Stoddart, in Rings of Desire, claims that it is far more controlled than that (2000: 5). Yet, to me, Paradise and Circuses are markedly different – different enough to make the name ‘Paradise Circus’ ambiguous, and fascinating.

The etymologies of both are quite revealling. ‘Paradise’ descends from an Iranian root, ‘pairi-daeza’, which means ‘walled enclosure’. In Akkadian and Elamile, the words ‘pardesu’ and ‘partetas’ mean ‘domain’. The related Greek word, ‘paradeisos’, means ‘park for animals’.

There are two ways in which we can interpret this, of course: 1.) That Paradise is an exclusive venue, set aside for a specifically chosen group** or, 2.) that Paradise is a prison – a ‘have’ for controlled and numbed animals to live our eternity – a designed pasture. Either way, Paradise is surrounded by walls.

The term ‘circus’, on the other hand, comes from the Greek ‘kirkos’, meaning ‘circle/ring’. Already, we are echoing the shape of more equable situations – the circle is all-encompassing, the line it draws constant and infinite, without beginning or end – no eschatology, no assumed improvement, a permanent Now. Round tables, too, are traditionally used to remove hierarchy at dinners and meetings.

It is also related to the name of the goddess whom, it was claimed by Tertullian, held the first circus in honour of her father. He was Helios, the Sun God; She was Circe, who ruled over an island of excess, and, whilst a relatively minor figure overall in Greek myth, is ambiguous, reflective of her times and, according to Yarnell (1994: 1), has remarkable staying power. She is an inbetween deity – remaining otherworldly whilst living amongst – and having relationships with – mortals. Like the circus which echoes her name, she is both chaotic and controlled; not quite of this earth, but living within it.

Paradise is a product of cosmological thinking – a world beyond our own, located in some indefinable Empyrean Sphere. But the circus is earthbound – since its (contested) Classical/Roman origins, it has been consistently a physical, tangible phenomenon – wither of prowess or of ‘oddity’. Set against the abstraction of Paradise, the Circus – like Circe and her feasting – is a celebration of the flesh. In this, it is related to the carnival, for, like the grostesquery of Rabelais, they flatten our a hierarchical cosmology of Heaven above, Earth below, into Earth, Here, Now (Bakhtin, 166). Though there is hierarchy in the Circus, as their is in Rabelais, it is a hierarchy of the corporeal, the terrestrial – not of spirit or the value of an individual’s soul. The Circus – the ‘people’s art form’ – is a joy of the present, Paradise, one which might never be fulfilled.

This is why I am sad at the demise of the Circus in Birmingham’s Paradise. Paradise reflects the perfection and the entrapped exclusivity – of some of the city’s recent gentrification, which, however well intentioned, has pushed local residents out of Gas Street and Eastside, for the benefit of commerce and artists. And, beautiful as the New Library is, until its copper becomes burnished and oxidised, and its plants wilt, it will smack more of Eden than of Erdington. To some, the Old-New Library was an eyesore. But to me, its Brutalism spoke of a grounded ideology, and a building of human nature – Gargantua in concrete.

Dropping the ‘Circus’ drops something of the anarchic, terrestrial, corporeal nature of Brum – and perhaps reflects a city concerned more with perceptions of itself from outside, rather than its own living guts. Paradise Circus, as a name, reflected two contradictory, but not mutually exclusive aspirations: to be a city for the past, future, and the present. Now ‘Paradise’ has only one temporal connotation: one which promises, but does not provide. All I can hope is that this Paradise does not lock people out – or in.


Bakhtin, M.M., ‘Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel’, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, (Austin: University of Texas, 1981), pp.84-258

Stoddart, H., Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation, (Manchester Manchester University Press, 2000)

Yarnell, J., Transformations of Circe, (Illinois, University of Illinois, 1994)

*I am sad, though, to hear about cuts to Library staffing and opening hours. This is a genuine tragedy, and should not be overlooked.

** This took a disturbing and extreme form in the Calvinist doctrine on predestination, where the ‘elect’, no matter their sins, would be saved.