It's become the destination of choice for everyone in London from oiks to intellectuals on these warm September evenings. Forget the late-night curry, the after-show dinner or post-prandial brandy in a Soho media hangout, because, up goes the cry, let's go and check out the David Blaine show.
The daily freak show on the south bank of the Thames near Tower Bridge has become the must-see attraction of the autumn over the past two weeks. Up there, dangling 30 feet or so in the air in his clear plastic box is Blaine - conman, illusionist, conceptual artist, existentialist genius or sex god, depending on whom you talk to - while down below is a 24-hourcarnival of madness. So mad, in fact, that even a man as celebrated for his niceness as Sir Paul McCartney could be driven to tell a photographer to "fuck off", sack his publicist and storm off in a huff.
By day, there's an ever-changing crowd of curious office workers - at lunchtime it clearly beats sitting at your desk with a tuna mayo - bands of tourists and day-tripping schoolchildren, random busk-ers, winos and, well, journalists and television crews waiting for something to happen. But the night is when things really start kicking off. That's when the drunks and random nutters arrive to hurl abuse and, occasionally, eggs, stones, beer cans, water bottles and golf balls at the box. One man attempted to cut through the tube supplying Blaine with his water - his only sustenance - and was arrested. One tabloid staged a barbecue near by, just to taunt his rumbling stomach (the agony will continue tomorrow with an organised picnic within Blaine's horizon). At the same time, couples in from the suburbs stroll past arm in arm, perhaps having just been to the nearby National or the Globe, but now ready to see some real theatre.
The latest - and most bizarre - sideshow to all this came late on Thursday night when Sir Paul, who had reportedly been for a meal in Soho with some friends and his long-term publicist Geoff Baker, strolled over the river for a look at Blaine. Mr Baker, who later admitted a temporary mental aberration possibly caused by earlier consumption of alcohol, then invited a photographer over to snap Macca in front of the Man in the Box. Sir Paul objected to the photographer - who was from the London Evening Standard, which has practically taken up residence on the site - and there was something of a fracas between the two parties. Words were exchanged, some of them four- letter and some of them by Sir Paul, and the photographer complained that Sir Paul's companions had physically stopped him from taking a picture. Sir Paul then promptly sacked Baker, who has been his adviser for at least 14 years, had another robust confrontation with a member of the public who attempted to shake his hand and exited the scene, angry.
A contrite Mr Baker was reinstated yesterday by Sir Paul, presumably after reflecting that publicists are supposed to get publicity. Which, of course, he got all over page one of the Standard: "Sir Paul and the amazing punch-up". Still, it's nice to know there's still a bit of spark inside the man who wrote "Mull of Kintyre".
Yesterday, life returned to normal below Blaine. People gazed upwards, ate their sandwiches, drank their coffees, took endless photographs and speculated on his lavatorial arrangements. (They involve a tube and an incontinence pad. Readers can work the rest out for themselves.) On the river, the tourist boats cruised past, honking their horns in greeting, their occupants waving frantically. Blaine's inner compound is now lined with signs and messages of support: "You Make People Talk and Question," "Hang on in there David" and, almost inevitably, "Jesus Loves You." A fenced outer compound has been created into which people can only enter after submitting to a body-and-bag search, to prevent any more missile attacks. But nobody has yet found a way to stop some women flashing their breasts at him.
Quite clearly, Blaine creates a certain frisson for some young women and there are certainly a very high proportion of them present in groups and alone: "He's so sexy, he's incredible,'' sighed a somewhat breathless Amelia, who said she was "in PR". "I think what he has done is fantastic. I've been here a lot and I walk past every day on my way from the Tube. He's made people look at him and he's looking back, like the Mona Lisa. He's entertaining. And he's got great pecs."
For the men, the questions are different: "It's just all so weird,'' said Joe Poljski, 28, a City worker. "I'm not sure whether it should be in the Tate Modern or whether it's simply a stunt. Either way, I think it's working.''
But it's the overheard comments that are the most priceless: "Look, he's doing exactly the same as he did last week.'' "He hasn't shaved, has he?'' and this exchange: "Not a bad old bridge over there is that dear,'' "Er, yeah, never mind that, I think he's going to take a piss...'' And finally: "Who is this guy?"
But Blaine has attracted some unlikely defenders against all the missile throwers. The Daily Mail has fulminated against the yobbery and hooliganism he has attracted, pointing out that during his various stunts in the United States - such as standing on a 90ft-high platform in a New York park for 35 hours - he has provoked only either respect or indifference. From the other end of the spectrum, the writer Will Self has applauded something that, whether it be pure exhibitionism or art, has simply become part of the great freewheeling circus that can be life on the streets in London, binding together both performer and audience. Others simply see Blaine as being part of a great tradition that encompasses the escapologist Houdini, men who go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and the Frenchman who climbs tall buildings with nothing but his hands and feet.
Meanwhile, the subject of all this is unable to shed any further light on his method or his motive. Apparently languid, unshaven, unwashed, without food for 14 days, he lies down or sits up. Sometimes he peers down at the show below - watching us while we are watching him - sometimes he waves, sometimes he seems indifferent or asleep.
Below, the carnival continues. Later today he will, it is said, face a mass assault from a barrage of chipolata sausages - aerodynamically better than fatter ones, apparently - thrown by a party of gay men and women. And there are only 29 days to go.
ONE OF THE CROWD? CELEBRITIES FOR AND AGAINST A DIFFICULT AUDIENCE
I went down with my kids, who are 11 and 13, because my wife thought they'd get a kick. I wanted to take them because I reckon it's one of those things you'll remember later in life, going with your dad to see this freakish bloke in a Perspex box.
But I was interested to see it myself too, and I'm a big fan of all the action - from Blaine's shameless attention-seeking to the guys pinging golf balls at his box or trying to cut his water supply. It's street theatre, which is integral to London and always has been, whether it's serious, like the condemned man addressing the mob from the scaffold, or the trivial and fantastical like this. I suppose the crowd at the weekend was fairly sedate, reality TV people, you know, largely young. It's a timeless example of London's curiously theatrical self-awareness. I find it hilarious to see the press in uproar at the crowd reaction, about how women flashing their tits are shaming the nation. What are they talking about? This is the British personality! I can't wait to see more so I'm going back, hopefully at night when there's more crowd activity.
I was there when David performed in New York and the reaction was nothing like this. It's very surprising to see people so hostile to him, and David found it very demoralising for the first couple of days. But he's learnt how to navigate through that.
I go down to Tower Bridge every day and usually bring my two kids, because I want to show David support and let him see my face in the crowd.
I was so angry, so shocked, when I saw people throwing eggs and bananas. There's a mindless vandalism, and for some reason this is something we have more in Britain. There's an element of him being a foreigner, people seem to have some problem with that. I know that David hoped for a better reaction. Now that he's entering a harder stage where he's going to stop thinking properly, the belief system has to kick in and work for him. He has to stay positive and motivated and that's where we come in. But for those who say this is silly, how can it be? It's admirable. If Houdini had the internet and TV this is what he'd have done.
Oliver DuffReuse content