I WORK from the heart, says Norman Barrett, and this is what he means: for seven months a year he travels all over the country, living and working from a caravan and a tent. Last week: Wallasey. This week: Kilmarnock. Next week: Glasgow. His costume comes with him of course: red coat, white waistcoat and gloves, and top hat. And all his buddies come too: Peppi, Maurice, Albert, Freddie Halfpennny, Luleau, TJ, and Herbert. In other words, what Norman means when he says he works from the heart is that his heart is in the circus.

And here is where it has taken him: for some 76 years now, Norman Barrett has been one of the most successful and recognised circus performers and entertainers in the country. He started out when he was just 10 years old and has been a clown, juggler, acrobat, and, for the last 52 years, a ringmaster. But what he really wanted to be, he tells me, was a lion trainer. In the end, though, he followed the advice of his father, who was also in the circus. “Son,” said his dad, “lion trainers get the most money, but ringmasters live longer.”

It may have taken Norman a while to follow that advice – he started out as a ringmaster relatively late when he was in his thirties – but, five decades on, he still loves what he does. When we talk, he’s just finished tending to his star performers – the budgies that go wherever he goes: Peppi and all the rest of them. In the show they do together, the birds scale ladders and slide down little shoots and pose on Norman’s hand. It’s a funny and charming act and if you’re in Glasgow over the next couple of weeks you can see it for yourself at Zippos Circus.

Norman’s latest tour with Zippos is the 21st year he’s worked with them and he still appreciates the life. When the motorcade pulls into a different venue each week, they organise themselves into a community; they have their own generators and water supplies and in a way their own government and police (everyone keeps an eye on everyone else).

And here’s something else: circuses may be known as a place to run away to, as something a bit risky and exotic, but it’s actually pretty traditional, with lots of family groups and generations living together, with Uncle Norman, as he’s known, as the village elder. It’s a good place to bring up children, he says.

“Everybody watches out for everybody’s else’ kids,” he says. “We have a lot of children on the show this year – if you saw a kid running about, you would go and have a look or call their mum and dad. Everybody watches for the kids all the time. One of the girls has a seven-month-old girl and she does an aerial act and while she’s in the ring, everybody looks after the baby. It’s like an open house. I’ve done this all my life and we have everything we need.”

The 83-year-old entertainer was first introduced to this way of life when he was growing up on his father’s farm in Yorkshire. “My father went into farming,” he says, “and used to train all the animals - horses, dogs, sheep - to do circus tricks, as a hobby. The circus then heard about this crazy farmer who could do all these things and they came to see him and offered him a job.”

The young Norman absolutely loved what his father did. “I loved moving all the time,” he says. “I also loved horses and my father had a lot of horses and taught me all about them. I was also made a clown at one time but I was a very bad one. I moved on to other circuses, I did a juggling act, and then one day, in about 1951, Kitty Roberts from Robert Brothers said ‘Norman, you’re a terrible clown but you would make a good ringmaster’ and that was the first time I ever put on the red coat. Since then, thankfully, it has taken me around the world.”

Norman’s style as ringmaster is traditional – always top hat and tails – and he takes the job extremely seriously. Part of it is making sure the props go in and out of the tent at the right time, part of it is making sure everyone is safe, and part of it is also being an old-style showman. As Norman himself puts it: it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. “I like to keep things traditional,” he says. “Sometimes people modernise for the sake of modernising – it doesn’t always mean it’s better. I just believe traditional circus is very important.”

Norman is not resistant to some change though – far from it: he says the circus as an art form will not survive unless it changes. The big top now, he says, has much better heating, lighting and seating; he also thinks shows like Britain’s Got Talent and the film The Greatest Showman, about the celebrated circus man PT Barnum, have helped attract a new young audience. “You get kids coming in and saying ‘are you the greatest showman?’,” he says. “And there are younger, interesting guys coming along and I admire what they do. I’m not the last by a long way.”

Norman is also convinced the ebbs and flows in the popularity of circuses is perfectly natural. “I’m very proud of what I do,” he says. “We’re an art form and last year we celebrated 250 years of the circus. But life is a wheel. In the 20s, the circus was at the top then the talkies came in and the wheel turned, the circus went a bit to the bottom , then it came up again. And there are a lot of circuses going around still, medium-sized shows. The whole thing changes and I’m confident about the future.”

Of course, part of the explanation for the decline in popularity of circus among some people is the role of animals. Two years ago, Scotland became the first country in the UK to ban the use of wild animals in circuses and last month the Environment Secretary Michael Gove introduced a bill to do the same in England. Norman accepts, albeit a little reluctantly, that this is the way things are going.

“The days of wild animals are gone forever and they won’t return,” he says. “I think it was inevitable, but I miss them being around, and I know people in Germany with wild animals and they are so well looked after.”

However, he does still strongly believe in using domesticated animals in the circus, including his beloved budgies. “I’ve had to go through lots of paperwork for the budgies,” he says. “Happily, I’ve passed everything. If you’ve any form of animal, you’ve got them 24/7 and you’ve got them because you want them. Cruelty has happened but in recent years not at all – everything has improved. We’re inspected all the time and we’re open to inspection any time anyone wants to come. You and I could go out of here today and find someone who doesn’t look after his dog properly but all the people I’ve ever worked with at Zippos, the animal husbandry has been first class – it has to be and we’re all for the rules.”

Which only leaves one difficult question for the 83-year-old ringmaster: would he ever consider retirement? “Retirement is a dirty word,” he says. “As long as you can do the job and as long as you enjoy doing the job, why not? I’m working from my heart. I would like to have my 99th birthday and go into the ring and say ‘my lords, ladies and gentlemen’.”

Zippos is at Glasgow Queen’s Park from tomorrow until Sunday and Glasgow Victoria Park from June 18-23. Thereafter, it is on tour around Scotland until the end of July. For more information, see Zippos.co.uk