Urban Illusion

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Leapfrogging kids beat David Blaine‘s vigil every time.

David Blaine is no Harry Houdini after all!

Houdini was a publicity-wise escapologist and illusionist who made his name and a good deal of money in America. He was fond of immersing himself in a water tank while strapped into a straitjacket. But his most famous trick was to jump from the Detroit Bridge while strapped and handcuffed and bob up a minute or two later untied and uncuffed. With time and a bit of help from the media, the story was retold and embellished - in the film of his life starring Tony Curtis, he‘d jumped through a hole in the ice in the freezing river and got lost, until the voice of his dead mother guided him to safety.

The origin of many of these tricks is religious. The Hindu fakir would sit for days without food or water, or bury himself alive as a kind of spiritual observance, a separation of mind from body. There was Simon Stylites who reputedly sat on a pole for many years, or the orthodox religious of Mount Athos who bricked themselves for life into isolated mountain caves. They were always fed and nurtured by local people who saw in their abandonment of the material world a kind of higher, purer existence.

You could never accuse David Blaine of a higher purpose. Whether sitting on his pole in New York, buried at the centre of a block of ice, or hanging as he is now in a perspex cube in central London, his purposes are strictly commercial. In fact, it‘s hard to know what his purposes are, apart from becoming a sort of temporary decoration on the London skyline. If he were a fakir we‘d assume that his stillness, his enforced immobility, concealed some invisible activity - thought, meditation, the active removal of soul from body. Without that, there‘s nothing there but a very dull show - a sort of endless ’being there‘.

It seems that Londoners find the whole thing ridiculous, pelting him with eggs and fish and chip wrappers until the very burly minders on the ground shove the offending iconoclasts away. Now whoever heard of anyone chucking things at a Hindu holy man?

The funny thing is that Blaine‘s first appearances in Britain - his ’street magic‘ shows - were fantastically good. They were full of wit and energy, and they were always about the beautiful wonder on the face of some street kid or a woman hurrying to work with half a dozen bags or a bunch of teenage girls flirting with this strange being in black and not noticing the trick he was about to play. These were genuine moments of joy and excitement in the middle of the urban rush. As much as anything else, it was the way everything stopped, paused for a moment or two, to give a glimpse of a moment that was magical because it did seem to suggest another dimension - the inexplicable in the heartland of technological certainty.

Trouble is, young Blaine took himself too seriously by far. He began to see himself not as a charming trickster but as a being apart. In a word he got religion, and asked the urban population to admire and adore him. And nobody did. So he now has a clear option - martyrdom, as the one religious act that has an equivalent in a non-religious world, or to own up to being a conjuror and get back to the cards.

Everything that he now lacks in joy and imagination, on the other hand, is there in abundance in the beautiful pirouettes and breathtaking acrobatics of the Free Runners.

Last year the BBC produced a marvellous advert showing a lithe young man hurtling over the roofs of London, sliding down walls and shinning up drainpipes to get to his telly as quickly as possible. No ropes, no safety nets, no bodyguards - just the spring in his heels and the iron in his fingertips. I didn‘t know it then, but this was my first glimpse of the Free Runners.

It was breathtaking because of its speed and athleticism - and my fear of anything much higher than a ladder made it especially hypnotic. But it was also beautiful and creative. The recent documentary on Channel 4, Jump London, just confirmed and reinforced that sense of excitement. Choosing a dozen or so of London’s monuments, these three young Frenchmen leapt and somersaulted their way over walls and balconies, roofs and skylights, over gaps and around chimneys.

They were just kids - dressed like the guys who skateboard up and down every slope and stairway in the world. It was obvious that they had come from the street (their biographies confirmed it) and that this dancing in the air began as an act of defiance, a way over locked gates and across forbidden passageways. Now, it was an art form (the commentary said) but it still conserved a sense of risk and challenge. Blaine’s danger was contrived and artificial - like leaping over 29 oil barrels on a motorbike or standing on one leg on a pile of bricks for the longest time (you ask yourself, why?). But for the Free Runners, their running and jumping was a kind of possession, a way of taking over the city, where it had seemed most impregnable, up high, and for a few moments transforming it, shaping it, defying its rules and forms and suggesting something new and tantalising.

That really was magic!