IT’S not exactly your usual career path – going from circus performer in South Yorkshire to a soldier serving in Afghanistan.
But then Ben Fairfax isn’t your usual kind of guy.
As a trapeze artist, plate-spinner, unicyclist and tight-rope walker the 31-year-old would wow thousands of people with his routines of expertly executed stunts.
Then one day, he woke up, decided to trade it all in and instead signed up to a career which would see him living in the desert, trading close quarter gunfire with enemy insurgents and only juggling when he needed a party-piece to impress colleagues.
“I suppose it is a bizarre swap,” laughs the former Firth Park Secondary School pupil, from Frecheville. “They’re just two things I’m passionate about.”
And he’s about to let us in to a secret – he still reckons one of the most dangerous things he’s ever done came during his time, not in the army, but as a performer.
“I was rushed into hospital a few days before a show to have my appendix out,” he says. “It was so painful but we couldn’t cancel so I remember walking out of hospital after the op on my phone, saying ‘We need an emergency rehearsal’. I had to gaffer tape my body so the stitches wouldn’t come loose. It would have been pretty messy if they had. I remember completing one summersault, landing and just breathing a sigh of relief everything was still in place.”
He spent seven years with Sheffield’s Greentop Circus before, at 27, signing up for four years with the Royal Engineers.
“It had always something in my mind,” he says. “My dad served and I wanted to do it but I loved the circus. I suppose it got to a point where me and my then-girlfriend, now-wife Louisa were thinking about settling down, and I thought it’s now or never – so I signed up.”
He joined as a heavy plant operator and spent time in both Afghanistan and the Falklands. Basic duties in the former included building road-side check points and fortifying police stations, while in the latter his team had to build a water purification plant.
But, although Ben spent much of his time in a digger, danger was never far away.
“We were on patrol once when another group came under attack,” he recalls. “You rush to help and all that goes through your mind is to follow orders, get the job done, make sure your colleagues are safe.
“There’s adrenaline pumping but it never crosses your mind you won’t come back. Maybe later you realise how dangerous the situation was – but you know you’d do it again.”
But after serving his four years he decided to leave in January for the sake of Louisa. “It was hard to be away so often,” he said. “My marriage meant too much.”
And now? He’s back at the circus, of course.
“Greentop rang me a few days after I’d told them I was back,” he says. “They asked if I could do a show at a school the next day. I dusted my costume off and wondered ‘Can I still do this?’ But it was just like riding a unicycle – once you learn you don’t forget.”