On the face of it, watching David Blaine is like watching a gorilla in the zoo. But there's a vital difference. We all wish the gorilla well; but what keeps us watching Blaine is the inadmissible hope that he'll die before our eyes.
Only motor-racing offers the same mix of boredom, denial and fascination. Just as with Blaine, the official action is indescribably dull.
But it's hard to tear yourself away. Because the moment you choose to leave the stand or turn off the television will inevitably be that moment, the moment everyone's waiting for, when Montoya or one of the Schumachers spins off the track and bursts into flames. The death and resurrection show: what we're all waiting for. In our (comparatively) polite society, it's considered bad form to actually say this in so many words.
But even in 21st-century Europe there are places where overt, explicit death-dicing is still a spectator sport. Gladiators live, only now they're on wheels. They're called cascadeurs, and you can enjoy the spectacle in provincial France.
These are shows for which no arena is required. All that's needed is a complaisant mairie and a stretch of straight road easily visible from a nearby field and quiet enough that no one will be inconvenienced if it's shut off for an afternoon. (La France profonde has plenty of both.) Then the posters go up, in lurid colours, filled with images of shattered cars and screaming drivers.
On the advertised date, the village assembles in the field. Under a tree at one end of the roped-off stretch of road are singular vehicles, ancient Citroen DSs, beat-up vans with petrol-cans lashed to their front bumpers, the tractor half of an enormous articulated truck, fitted with two engines so when you brake sharply it will rise up and you can waltz it on its back wheels. The show begins.
What cascadeurs do is stage potentially lethal car accidents. For a living, if that's the correct phrase in the circumstances. No tricks, no special effects.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are the real thing. When that chap climbs into his van and his mate sets fire to the petrol-can on the bumper, that's a real flaming van he's driving along that half-mile stretch. When those two Renault 5s set off to meet in the middle, that's what they do, with an almighty crash. And when that little round man climbs into his DS and drives it to that wire they've stretched across the road at bonnet-height.
That was the one I really couldn't believe. There he went, hell for leather, engine gunning to get off to a 60 mph-in-six-seconds start, so by the time the car reached the wire it was like driving it into a saw-blade, at the level of the driver's neck. The top sliced clean off the DS in one piece.
And there was the driver, waving from his now open-top Citroen. He'd simply ducked at the last minute, then bobbed up again as though this was the kind of thing he did every day. The crowd clapped, just as if they were at a football match. Or a public execution.
Afterwards, the cascadeurs came round with a hat, for contributions against possible death or injury. They're finding it awfully difficult, these days, to get insurance.
Ruth Brandon's 'Auto Mobile, How the car changed life', is published by MacmillanReuse content