(Café Insomniac by Mark Capell)
When I was a child I was fascinated by trips to the circus. It wasn't the clowns or the exotic animals that demanded my attention — it was the trapeze artists and high wire walkers. I'd watch them through the gaps between my fingers, convinced they would fall; not wanting it to happen, but unable to look away in case it did.
They were performing with a safety net, but my young mind's imagination didn't believe that flimsy-looking device could catch a fly, never mind a human being.
I still find myself absorbed by these acts of derring-do. One of my favourite films is Man on Wire, a documentary about the perilous exploits of high wire artist Philippe Petit, who in the 1970's slung a cable between the two buildings of the World Trade Center, then the world's tallest buildings. There is little video footage of him carrying out this feat, but the viewer's imagination can't help but fill in the blanks.
Naturally, he had to carry out this feat without a safety net.
In recent years, I had lost interest in the high wire, and I put it down to the ever-present safety net. Like much of modern life, the high wire act has been sanitised. It's difficult to get permission to carry out a performance without taking the necessary safety measures.
Don't get me wrong, I think that's a good thing. But it's a curious aspect of human nature that our admiration of a high wire artist increases if there's nothing between him and the ground. If you want to guarantee a large crowd, take away the net.
But do the crowd want to see somebody die? If you ask them, they'll wave you away, furiously denying that's their motivation. But does it reaffirm our own sense of being alive if somebody else falls to his death? Is there something in our collective psyche that needs that, even if we can't admit to it? Is it related to the way that public executions drew huge crowds in Elizabethan England?
I hope not. I hope there isn't a sadistic psychological undercurrent. I hope it's as simple as admiration for heroic endeavours. But the mind can be a devious, nefarious organ. Don't underestimate its sly ways.
I prefer to believe the expressions of wonderment in people's faces when they watch such feats. I need to believe them. Face creams often claim to make a person look ten years younger. But watch a person's face, looking up at a high wire, and they're back to being a five-year-old. Their eyes bulge, their mouths gape. It's magic they can believe in.
One thing's for sure, as human beings we feel a need to witness these crazy acts of bravery. Maybe, in the end, it's because most people lead relatively quiet lives. Maybe these performers are taunting death on our behalf. And for that we give thanks.
"Life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge - and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope." (Phillippe Petit, Man on Wire)