Sarah Lyall grew up in New York City and is now London correspondent for the New York Times. She lives there with her husband, the writer Robert McCrum, and their two daughters. Her first book was entitled The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British.
Lyall: “David Blaine’s plan was to spend 44 days in a see-through Plexiglass box dangling from a crane near London Bridge subsisting on nothing but water. He called the endeavor “Above the Below,” which some observers considered a bit much.
The British were not impressed. They were not impressed when Blaine pronounced this venture as the most extreme exercise in isolation and physical deprivation ever attempted or when he said “I’m a great artist, nothing more, nothing less.” They were not impressed by the multi million pound deal he struck with Sky Television, and they were not impressed that he had decided to confine himself to a glass prison and voluntarily starve when so many people are actually incarcerated in real prisons and actually starving. The mayor of London said it was disrespectful to the IRA members who died on hunger strikes in the 1980s.
Blaine duly took his place in his box, but the stunt totally backfired. It was as if it were the 18th century and Blaine was in the stocks. Crowds of cynical Londoners gathered underneath his box and laughed at him. They pelted him with bananas, French fries and eggs. They made such a mess that his girlfriend, the unusually named German model Manon Von Gerkan, had to be cranked up on a crane to wash the food, the [IB] off the box with a cloth. “We never had anything like this in New York,” she said. Blaine’s helpers raised the box so it would not be within egg throwing distance. A group of men positioned themselves on Tower Bridge and tried to hit it with golf balls. A hamburger van pulled up below and began ostentatiously frying onions and other foods. Its enticing aroma was designed to upset Blaine, starving as he was. A man tried to cut off his water supply. Some youths [frightened] him by shining laser [bands] into his eyes. A homeless person sat nearby behind the sign saying “Please give generously. I’m attempting 44 days on continuous alcohol abuse.” Women took off their tops and flashed their breasts at Blaine. Men pulled down their pants and mooned him. People stayed up all night playing the drums, so as to disturb the tranquility of anyone who might be trying to sleep in an overhead box. A radio station urges listeners to stand in the cold chanting “ding, ding, ding” in an obnoxious fashion. Someone blasted the song “Living In A Box” by the British pop [funk] group Living In A Box. A remote controlled helicopter buzzed by, dangling a juicy looking cheeseburger on a string.
There was unpleasant speculation about Blaine’s bathroom arrangements, in keeping with Britons’ well known lavatorial obsessions. Blaine’s explanation of his plans for his liquid waste, that it would be expelled via tube leading out of the box, had left the solid waste situation deliberately vague. Adult diapers were mentioned. A radio host took to calling Blaine “Nappy man”. Newspaper columnists speculated that the illusionist had been eating on the sly, saying that he actually looked kind of fat, considering. In The Sun, Jane Moore referred to him as “that total twerp currently dangling in a glass box above the Thames.” In The Guardian, Catherine Bennett said that the satirical response to Blaine illustrated the temperamental gulf between Britain and America, because Britons know how to tell the difference between a huckster and a hero. She urged Londoners to engage in a mass public ridicule by taunting Blaine with food. “Even a blob of oily ice cream taste exquisite when consumed in the suspend company of the preposterous, faux-starving Blaine,” she said.
True, he did have supporters, including American tourists, regular visitors, who believed they had telepathic communication with him and that he was sending them special signals from the box, people who felt sorry for him, and the paranormalist Uri Geller, who announced “He has the quality of Rasputin.”
When Blaine finally came down, thin and weak and with his major organs on the verge of collapse, or so he said, the general feeling was that “Above the Below” had been beyond the absurd. A huge pretentious failure. But what was it that made ordinary Britons tease and recent him so much? Because he was making such a big deal about it. Because he’d revealed himself to be a puffed up self promoter rather than the friendly kind of eccentric who does what he does for himself rather than for public acclaim. He was capable of going to the pub and laughing at himself over a few pints because he did not know when enough was enough.