The only magic on show was in the audience as tearful Blaine emerges

Londoners turned out in their thousands last night to mark the end of David Blaine's 44-day fast. Packed around the plastic box in which the erstwhile magician has dangled, drinking only water, and draped along the length of Tower Bridge, the crowd did their best to add meaning to an event that is compelling only for its tasteless vacuity.

When the great moment came, and Blaine was hoisted down from his confinement, he emerged looking remarkably sprightly. Clearly moved by the presence of the crowds, he took the microphone in his hands, only to dissolve into ragged tears.

If he expected sympathy from his fans, he might have been surprised to realise it was in short supply. While some in the audience were moved by Blaine's show of emotion, an equal number of spectators greeted his histrionics with toots of weary laughter.

No surprise there perhaps, as the whole event has been touted as bringing out the worst in the cynical British, with egg-throwing, sabotage, noise generation, and flesh-flashing cited as daily and nightly threats to the already questionable sanity of the chap who wants to be "the greatest showman ever".

A few words of slushy emotionalism and rabble-rousing crowd-tribute, and Blaine was whisked off in an ambulance for a re-feeding programme that most people in his position can only pray for. At hospital too, he his vital signs will be tested, and the world will soon be told whether the silly man has managed to mess his body up permanently with his strange little wheeze.

In truth, though, it's not about David Blaine. Until the very end this odd little spectacle belonged entirely to the crowd, who have supplied the only magic discernable in the entire daft stunt by transforming nothing into something.

Tony Appleton, resplendent in a red-frock coat and ringing a brass bell, is flamboyant yet typical among spectators who have turned up to show Blaine a gentler, more hospitable kind of Briton than the late-night drunk who comes over from the City when the pubs have shut.

A town crier from Essex, Mr Appleton has been coming twice a week to give Blaine an early morning greeting, and to show him that "after all the bad publicity ­ particularly that Paul McCartney ­ the British aren't just vulgar yobs. "Mr Blaine knows me now," he explains, "and stands up in salute when I come to ring my bell for him at 9am".

As the days have worn on, the management of the site has become professional and systematic, while vendors of all manner of food, drink and makeshift tat have come to sell their wares to the largely bemused spectators.

By the event's climax, the initially dusty and empty site sported lavatories, a first aid stand, a disabled viewing area, a couple of large television screens ­ and an impressive array of red-jacketed minders, standing like bollards among the crowd and forming a pretty pattern for the overhead cameras. As is traditional in such events, relying as they on staged-managed spontaneity for the cameras, a master of ceremonies had arrived on the final day, urging the hordes to count themselves down to the moment when they were all to "go wild" for live transmission.

It suits Blaine and his minders to project this strangely eventful non-event as having been dogged by controversy and ill-mannered aggression. In truth, though, Blaine's latest stunt has been dogged only by massive publicity and mildly bewildering success. The hordes who have come to gawp have all sorts of reasons for turning out. Rarely though, are their reasons very far from benign, although they are often certainly laced with eccentricity or scepticism.

Jake Binnington, of Kingston, turned up with a banner, asking: "Dave, I've heard there's a job going as the second coming. You interested?" He took a firm line against Blaine's little stunt. "He's a bit of a nutter, isn't he? He just wants to be the next Jesus. This isn't entertainment at all. It's bad taste ­ Bobby Sands and all that."

In striking contrast, Christine Pietschman, a tourist from Germany, found the whole thing redolent with spiritual significance. "He's like a god up there, I think."

Oddly enough, there is a markedly hippy charge about this idiotic media event. A food cart carries a poster which poses and answers the question "Why vegetarianism", and a bunch of old-timers offer chalk to the audience requesting that they scrawl on the pavement a message of peace. Blaine's own explanations for his actions rely heavily on cod-mysticism and ideas about God, death, suffering and love. A decent course of cognitive therapy is what Blaine needs. What he wants and gets, however, is worldwide attention.

Many people, like the O'Shea family, talk of the Blaine stunt being "a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We came so that the kids can see it and tell their grandchildren".

Their children, Zoe and Max, they admit, don't appear to show any sign of being touched by the weight of history. Anyway, Mr O'Shea adds, "I'm absolutely certain it's a trick. He's definitely getting food."

Plenty of people have turned out to see Blaine. But hardly anyone is remotely willing, it seems, to believe that what they see is what they get. No wonder, because all they see is each other.

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