Swallowing the goldfish


His name was Stevie Starr and he was a professional regurgitator. A few of us went to see his show in a local town hall outside of Melbourne one night. When he asked for a volunteer and looked right at me, I knew there would be nothing voluntary about who would end up on stage. Sure enough.

Firstly, he swallowed and regurgitated the gold ring I was wearing. He’d already regurgitated a lightbulb and a billiard ball, so to step it up a notch he told the audience that for his next trick he would swallow a live goldfish, regurgitate it into the mouth of his “willing assistant, Debbie”, who would reswallow the fish. Finally he would help her regurgitate it back into its bowl of fresh water. To do all of this, he would hypnotise her for the safety of the fish…

While he was giving the instructions, positioning me on the stage, explaining the process, I was in panic mode. Was I awake and was this real? Could this person really control my mind? What about the poor little fish? What about me? Was eating and swallowing the same thing – I'm vegetarian! Then there were the thoughts about Stevie regurgitating into my mouth : O=

I thought that if I could just send signals to Stevie (glare at him and shake my head, plead even) he’d realise I was not onboard and divert to a different tactic. But he proceeded with the first stage of the act: gulped the fish, sucked in the air, whooped, coughed and thumped his chest several times to get it past his oesophagus and finally rolled his belly muscles to move it safely into the gut chamber.

By now my face was burning red and I was sweating through my clothes. He just swallowed a live fish! Licking his lips, Stevie said, “Now for the next phase of this trick.”

As it turned out he was only joking. Oh, but it was oh-so entertaining! After I returned to my seat amid laughter and applause, Stevie proceeded to reverse manoeuvre the little goldfish back into the light of day. Roll, thump, cough, whoop, flick and spit. Goldy landed safely in his bowl where he swam happily around, instantly forgetting where he'd been just moments before. Yay for short goldfishy memories!

Master illusionist David Blaine challenges his audience’s perception of reality in a different way. One time, he tells celebrity Ricky Gervais that he will teach him a new trick. He will make people believe that he has pushed a real needle through his upper arm.

In just over 60 seconds, the stainless steel needle he presses against the inside of his right bicep (just above the top of the humerus bone) appears to form a teepee of skin on the other side of the muscle. Finally, the tip of it looks like it’s protruding through the last dermal layer.

All the while, Blaine is saying things like: “See how believable it looks, Ricky? It looks pretty real, right?”

Gervais is in a world of horrified confusion, questioning his own judgement. Is it real or is it a trick?

It’s a mind bender. Blaine (magician) is expected by us (audience) to perform tricks that look real but are not. It’s our job to work out how he did them, much like the old saw-the-girl-in-half trick. Yet Blaine uses our expectations to turn magic on it’s head. He tricks people into thinking something’s an illusion when in actual fact it’s real (yes, he really does push the needle through his arm). People are tricked into disbelieving reality or at least being unsure of the truth.

I can see the art in that. What troubles me is when people set things up in real life to look real, but they're not.

We've seen lies and coverups from powerful people, governments, institutions, news, and people in our everyday lives. If they can't convince us with their tricks, they make us believe the truth is a lie. This does a number on our psyches. It makes us lose faith in people. We turn on each other. It makes us angry and mean.

I admit, I'm a bit sensitive about all of this. Because my worklife is online, I see it all the time. Fake news is the evil phantom we fear but can't see clearly; social media is not always that friendly; meaningless, faithless words are clogging the internet like hair in your shower drain.

But now I’m trying to regather my optimism. There are plenty of people who still care about the truth and it's up to us to speak fairness and decency back into the internet, into the world. Truth is not as 'relative' as some might have us think, and it's certainly not just something someone else decides to say. Despite what some might have us believe, we don't have to swallow the goldfish.

**You can Youtube Stevie Starr in Britain's Got Talent (2010) or swallowing a goldfish (2008), and David Blaine pushing a needle through his arm (2014).

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