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The jeers? No illusion

To Londoners, a magician is ripe for mockery, even if he is starving.

September 15, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

London — London

There's something about the man in the glass box that just gets under the English skin.

Not that Brooklyn magician David Blaine is doing much to provoke people, hanging 60 feet over the banks of London's River Thames in a cocoon of plexiglass slightly larger than a phone booth. In his latest and most ambitious endurance stunt, Blaine's aim is to survive on nothing but water and his wits until Oct. 19. No food, just one set of clothes, and a blanket. For 44 days.

In fact Blaine does little more than sit, or pace, or occasionally scribble his thoughts in a journal he's keeping on the whole bizarre stunt. Once in a while, he smiles and waves to the mystified crowd below. As his friend and documentary filmmaker Harmony Korine says with a shrug during a break in filming: "There's only so much to see up there. It's a guy in a box." (Korine has a lot of downtime.)

No, on this scruffy patch of parkland next to Tower Bridge, the action is all on the ground. Outside the box. Since the 30-year-old began his feat of deprivation on Sept. 5, Londoners have gathered to gape at the sight of a man willingly starving himself for no apparent reason. (Blaine insists the money he will earn from an accompanying British TV special will barely cover his post-stunt hospital costs.) Many wave. A few women have flashed their breasts at him. Just about everyone walks away shaking their head.

And then there are those who come to break him and bring him down. "Wake up, you lazy [so-and-so]," a man yells up at the magician shortly before midnight on Day 5, and a rowdy cheer goes up from the crowd of about 200.

Soon the eggs fly. At least two of them strike Blaine's booth, the yolks drizzling down the outside of the glass like prison bars.

It's been that way since the onetime New York street magician ate his last meal and began imposing himself on the London skyline, right across the river from the Tower of London. The initial curiosity about this strange show, which the illusionist calls "Above the Below," quickly gave way to a raucous form of "audience participation," a brutal demonstration of the English habit of mocking people who take themselves too seriously. "It bugs us because he acts so aloof," says Tom Constantine, watching late-night jeering. "Our attitude is, if he wants to be up there, fine. But we'll chuck eggs."

Egg assaults are now a staple at Blaine's act, although -- more dangerously -- bolts and screws have been thrown too. Some people come to shine laser pens into Blaine's eyes to prevent him from sleeping. He's been awoken in the middle of the night by off-duty soldiers singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and by a man banging an Indian drum.

One man even whacked golf balls at Blaine, using nearby Tower Bridge as a tee. By the time Blaine's security guards reached him, he was putting away his clubs unperturbed. The balls missed the glass.

"The place is worth a detour," Catherine Bennett wrote in a Guardian newspaper column headlined "The Blaine Bashers Make Me Proud to Be British." No one should go "to admire Blaine," she wrote, "but to participate in an exhilarating act of collective ridicule. If you can take some food with you, so much the better."

All this hostility has apparently come as a shock to Blaine and his entourage, who had anticipated greater reverence from their audience. "I am not only surprised, I'm angered," Uri Geller, Blaine's friend and fellow illusionist, said as he left the compound at the base of the box Wednesday night. "Not only is David having to deal with the medical effects of going without food, he's got to deal with the demoralization that comes from all the abuse he's getting, the ugly screams and shouts."

Geller's fury is matched by other friends of Blaine who gather to offer support. "The crowds were never like this in the States," says Korine, referring to Blaine's previous feats: 35 hours perched on a 10-story-high pillar in New York City's Bryant Park in 2002 and 62 hours entombed in a block of ice in 2000. "It's mayhem outside that fence. Yesterday, security got into a fistfight with a guy in a horse suit."

More seriously, Blaine's entourage warns that the crowds are endangering the magician's life. An egg striking the plexiglass sounds "like a bullet hitting him," says Geller, which sends Blaine's heart rate soaring.

His friends worry that he isn't getting any sleep. And they wonder why London police, who have not created a special Blaine beat, aren't doing more to protect him. One female friend asked a police officer to stop people from pointing laser pens at Blaine and was told there was nothing to be done about "a loony in a box."

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