Sunday, January 13, 2013

The London Aquarium Part 1 - Zazel and The Great Farini

To understand, to properly appreciate what this 13 year old girl actually did, one needs to find a regulation size football field, and on a clear spring day just stand under one of the goalposts. It’s not enough to just envision this - one night be able to get the gist of what 300 linear feet might look like, he or she can easily enough intellectualize the distance from goalpost to goalpost. You can imagine, or put the right hemisphere of your brain to good use and mathematically postulate the height required for a mass of 90 lbs of screaming, bent for oblivion, human tissue and hair and bones to sail from end to end in a single pass – but nobody of sound mind can equivocate the arithmetic involved with the sheer blind terror that begins to boil in the base of the genitalia and diffuses through the guts and into the bone marrow at the prospect of such a hell trip until you actually meditate on the distance with your eyeballs. And that distance you’re looking at, that’s just blank space. If you fail to hit that dismayingly small safety net on the other side, there’s nothing but grass. When Zazel made her first jump in 1878, it was over a sweaty, filthy mosh pit of gamblers and drunks and prostitutes, over a couple of elephants and a brackish tank wherein floated the bloated corpse of a dead whale.

And maybe, just maybe, she sailed in a perfect single arc over His Satanic Majesty himself, Jack the Motherfucking Ripper, as the voices began to set in on him, whispering.

The London Royal Aquarium opened on January 22nd, 1876 among much fanfare and the absolute noblest of intensions. A massive, lushly appointed hall capped with a multifaceted crystal dome that dazzled on a sunny day like a jewel visible from space, it sat immediately to the west of Westminster Abbey with the intended purpose of being a gathering mecca for the highest minds of the Free World, a sort of cognoscenti mecca for the Pre-Mensa world. Displays of fine art and exhibits of the latest developments in modern science were to stand hand in hand like none had ever seen since the very height of Athens itself, heralding a New Golden Age.

Only, nobody really gave a shit. They’d tried this sort of thing earlier in London at the Crystal Palace Assembly in 1851, and even with the urgency of the 6-month expiration date that had been attached to it, the thing barely broke even. The Royal Aquarium had been built as a sort of permanent structure, and yet within the first few months, it was already hemorrhaging money like a big fleshy sieve.
Part of the problem was that it tried to be too many things to too many people. Imagine if the biggest frigging Wal-Mart you ever saw suddenly sprouted caterpillar legs, high-tailed it to Las Vegas and grudgefucked the Circus-Circus. The demon baby that would result from such an act would no doubt resemble the Royal Aquarium, which boasted among other things, 16 massive fish tanks, a skating rink, symphony hall, art gallery, hair-dressers shop and never you bloody mind the cacophonous myriad of kiosks, each with a different set of wares to hawk, many of them competing side by side, with the mindset of whoever could shout just a little bit louder would edge out their competition.

How on earth anybody thought that the Arts and Sciences might have a chance of flourishing under such conditions is a mystery, and yet some of the most successful minds in Victorian England were backing this endeavor, folks like Henry Labouchere and Arthur Sullivan (he of the Gilbert and Sullivan composing duo) were on the goddamn board of directors.

An expensive system of moving and filtering fresh and sea water through the massive tanks built into the floors had been completed, and yet none of them ever became the teeming houses of sea life that had been the LRA’s original intent. The dead whale, however was on full display by the spring of 1877, floating in a brackish hell of ichor and eels that were ever feasting and gorging and fattening themselves on the great hulking pile of rotten flesh, as an endless looping circle of carrion flies lit and took off from the bubbling surface.

Enter William Leonard Hunt, A.K.A. the Great Farini. Hunt was born in 1938 in New York to a pair of 2nd generation working class parents. From an early age, he knew he was born to be a circus performer. Against all odds, he put together street performances. As early as the age of 8 years old, Hunt began staging impromptu street performances in his transplanted hometown of Bowmanville, Canada. More often than not, these acts would end up with Hunt’s father breaking the show up and literally chasing young William down the street and lashing the shit out of his back as they ran with a beefy leather belt.

The man who would become The Great Farini took these public beatings in stride, going on to become an accomplished swimmer, diver and gymnast. He moved on to weightlifting and kettle bells and began staging much larger strongman acts later on as a teenager. In 1859, he performed his first high-wire act, tiptoeing his way across a tight rope suspended above the Ganaraska River in Port Hope. He called himself “Signor Farini.” Less than a year later, he would cement his reputation as a major player in the Circus business when he took his tightrope act to a slightly larger venue, that being Niagara Falls. Yes, that Niagara Falls.

Not only is Niagara Falls the tallest waterfall in all of North America, the vertical drop being over 165 feet from the top of the Horseshoe Falls into the basin, but its combined flow, dumping the water from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario via the Niagara River, it is the largest and most powerful in the world. It will kill the fuck out of you.

And yet in 1860, Hunt not only crossed the thing on a tightrope, but did so while wearing a hand-cranked washing machine strapped to his fucking back. This became a weekly performance for the man who would become The Great Farini, and then twice a week, upping the ante on his stunts by performing somersaults and flips on the tightrope, or wearing a blindfold, or even carrying the occasional volunteer across the gulf. In 1864, as Hunt/Farini was attempting to cross the tightrope while wearing a pair of stilts, the Law of Averages decided it had just about enough of his antics and flicked him into the white foaming abyss.

Somehow the Great Farini survived. Once he recovered from getting his ass kicked by Poseidon, he decided to travel the world. He took his act to Europe and then the Middle East. According to some sources, he may have also crossed the Kalahari Desert on foot. In 1866, he moved to London and quickly gained fame as being one of the greatest circus performers in Europe.

However, kicking the Grim Reaper in the balls and stealing his lunch money is a young man’s game, and by 1869 The Great Farini moved from being the performer to training and managing circus talent. Farini has been credited with inventing the trick known as the “Human Cannonball,” but it was a 14 year old girl named Rossa Matilda Richter who took that 1st flight across the London Royal Aquarium.


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