WHAT is the world coming to? Can’t a man sit quietly in a glass box suspended from a crane over the Thames and starve himself close to death, with only a few nappies for company, without being taunted by members of the public and pelted with hamburgers? It would appear not. It says a lot for David Blaine’s fan base that Steven Berkoff, the stage-chewing luvvie, will be mounting a vigil this weekend in support of the American illusionist’s "right to express himself".
But what "expression" would that be? While in the US, Mr Blaine is perceived as a visionary prepared to push mind and body to the limits of human endurance, the very epitome of the human will to succeed. On this side of the pond, he’s simply the buffoon in the box. Editorials in both the New York and Los Angeles Times have attempted to analyse our innate disrespect for the bold adventurer who emerged from previous feats - 35 hours atop a flag-pole, three days in a block of ice, seven days in a watery coffin - to the rapturous applause of an astounded nation. When he is finally carried out after 44 days it may well be to a solitary raspberry.
Part of the problem is the tedium of his latest task. Viewed over five minutes using a time-lapse camera, it may well be riveting to watch the weight melt off, but only in the last few days will the tension truly mount. Then we will be waiting to see if a) he quits b) he emerges brain-damaged or c) he dies. The latter is the possibility that has attracted spectators to escapologists and advocates of the death defying down through the decades. There is little doubt it is what fascinates David Blaine. This, after all, is a 30-year-old who seems to welcome an early death, has Primo Levi’s Auschwitz number tattooed on his arm and fantasises about how many people will weep at his funeral.
Yet for all the MTV-style hype that surrounds Blaine’s activities, there is something remarkably ancient about the concept of a man pushing himself to the limits in the pursuit of enlightenment. Jesus had his 40 days in the desert, the Buddha sat for years under a tree. Blaine often quotes Einstein to explain the state he seeks: "Einstein said there’s a handful of people that know everything, and those people go around in complete astonishment. They see the leaves, they look at the clouds, they smell the air when it’s been raining."
The facts about David Blaine’s early life are fluid. "You should never be accurate, you should be entertaining. Houdini, Chaplin; they always told conflicting stories," explained Blaine. Or is it really David White? He was born on 4 April, 1973 to Patrice White, who may or may not have been a gypsy, but was certainly a Russian Jew living in Brooklyn. His father, from whom he obtained his looks, was half Italian, half Puerto Rican. He returned from Vietnam and abandoned his family when Blaine was three or four. Prior to his departure, according to received wisdom or a Blaine press release, he encouraged his young son to crawl across a plank of wood that straddled two buildings.
For the next few years, Patrice, who worked as a teacher, held down two other jobs to help raise her son, who was already displaying an affinity with card tricks and magic. He was introduced to the idea of magic by a busking magician on a subway platform, who pressed a ring into his hand and then made it "disappear". Another version has his mother buy him a magic trick to keep him entertained, yet another involves his grandmother and tarot cards. What is evident was Blaine’s preternatural intelligence and confidence - he was regularly beating adults at chess while still in short trousers.
In the winter he would keep on his shorts while walking to school to demonstrate his endurance and in the classroom he cultivated his first fans. "He had great balance and no fear of heights. He would walk on the ledges of bridges beside a 100ft drop and he could hold his breath longer in the pool than any of us," remembered one friend.
He was travelling in France when he received a call that his mother was dying of cancer. Patrice White had remarried a banker, John Bukalo, when David was nine, and although diagnosed with ovarian cancer when David was 17, she fought it off, but when he returned from France, she was close to death.
As he wrote later in Mysterious Stranger, his biography: "It was like walking into a room blindfolded and getting smacked in the face with a baseball bat. It was hard for me to fathom that she was dying. By the end she could hardly even speak."
In an attempt to take her mind off the pain, he would entertain her with card tricks and will the radio to play her favourite songs. After she died in his arms, he decided that "death was a beautiful thing". Yet while this sentiment may be shared by hospice nurses and bereaved relatives who feel inspired to utilise their life, Blaine developed an obsession with death.
Yet it was first necessary to construct a live career. A veritable orphan at 19, he moved to Manhattan, dabbled with drama classes, while expanding his audience for magic tricks to include the city’s celebrities. Adam Gibgot, a friend at the time, explained: "We’d sneak into these clubs, where I’d walk up to some star like he was my best friend and then call David over. Before you knew it, the entire room was hovering around as he performed magic. The celebrity would become his friend for life; he turned them into children again - Tony Curtis, Christopher Walken, De Niro."
Leonardo DiCaprio introduced Blaine’s first TV special while Robert De Niro was anxious to produce a film of Blaine’s life.
The success of Blaine’s career in America was its street smart edge. The camp glitz of Las Vegas magicians such as David Copperfield was replaced by an intense man in a black T-shirt and combat trousers. The only thing over-the-top was the reaction of passers-by as they squealed, screamed and even ran off, so startled were they by Blaine’s "magic".
But it was his feats of endurance that earned him the soubriquet the hip-hop Houdini.
The dilemma David Blaine now faces is that, as he successfully completes each new task - and few believe he will fail this one - the bar is inched ever higher. As yobs unwrap their Big Macs and bacon rolls ready to lob at his Plexiglass prison, they may ponder what David Blaine is thinking about all day, the answer is his next big trick.