In extremis Deo

There are those for whom golf is a sport: A stroll with your friends across the green in the late afternoon sun, followed by a little something at the club, hardly even counts in my book as exercise. However, since these are the same people who would consider a gentle game of billiards after dinner as exercise, golf most likely looms dangerously close to the extreme end of their sporting spectrum. So what do they make, I wonder, of cloud surfing, free-fall parachuting, bare-back trail-riding or free-style escalade? These are sports that would make a rugby full-back blench, and rightly so. Because rugby is for men (including women’s rugby), while extreme sports are for maniacs: a breed apart.

Bouncing into the record books

And these are not even the most extreme occupations (one could hardly call snake-baiting a sport). There exists a particularly exclusive coterie of maniacs whose extreme occupation consists of insulting west-end bouncers until they snap and punch your face inside out. You need to be three to get this right. One of you baits the bouncer (the bigger he is, the more points you score for a successful baiting). You insult his mother, calls him a jessie and a pooftah (a word, by the way which originally meant obsolescent) suggest how good he might look in a tutu etc., while the second guy plays the voice of reason: “leave ‘im alone, Kevin, he can’t help the way he is, it’s not his fault his Granny made him wear dresses”, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile the third man patiently pretends to be phoning a friend, ready to get the inevitable outburst down on disc and up onto YouTube. These are the same kind of sportsmen who do extreme party crashing (you not only crash the party, but also trash the house) and will even disrupt a funeral if the wager is high enough.

But not all extreme occupations are team-sports. One of the features that can lift a “mundane” sport like caving or potholing into the extreme category is when you do it alone, without equipment or communications devices and without even telling mummy where you’re going. Gosh, there’s nothing more extreme than dying alone and forgotten at the bottom of a long and winding hole. The world loses a few dozen maniacs each year this way. Equally extreme is the “one man against nature” paradigm, such as was so brilliantly brought to the screen in Sean Penn’s film “Into the Wild”. There is a scene near the bitter end, when our anti-hero suddenly comes face to face with a seven-foot tall grizzly. The bear takes a long look at the emaciated boy, sniffs and lurches back into the landscape. Why was I the only person in the cinema who laughed to see a bear turn its nose up at a free meal, however meagre?  I doubt whether the film’s protagonist, long on philosophy but short on humour, mentions this event as amusing in the last few pages of his diary. It takes a truly extreme maniac to laugh on the edge of the abyss, or even crack a joke while falling (“so far so good?”) like Butch and the Kid.

Bare-knuckle forbears

In the 19th century, which is not so long ago, before the rules of boxing were laid down by a lot of sissies in a back-room, the noble sport of bare-knuckle fisticuffs or prize-fighting involved unlimited rounds of unlimited length, each of which could only be ended with a knock-down. If both fighters then came back to the mark within 30 seconds, the next round would begin. Extreme? We’ve forgotten what the word means … fortunately. But those of us who are not even up to the modern-day extremities of filming bats in Venezuela, living for a year in the cloud canopy of Brazil, dune sailing in the Sahara or a springtime ice-leap off the coast of Newfoundland, might perhaps be ready to try some other sort of slightly-less-than-extreme occupation. White-water phoning is one I saw recently: a lone man in thigh-high rubber waders, in the midst of a rushing torrent peacefully phoning home (“sorry, darling, didn’t catch that bit about Tammy and the meter reader, rather too much white noise”). Can free-fall macramé be far behind?

Molecular cuisine and the chemical marriage

For devotees of extremity, new avenues are opening up all the time and in the least expected places. Now that Bunsen burners, oxy-acetylene torches and alembics have been introduced into the kitchen, the world of molecular cookery brings us a whole new range of possibilities, not only for culinary, but also domestic, social, even structural disaster … after all, why just wreck your marriage, when you can take the entire neighbourhood with you? For the milder-mannered and less scientific, those of us who do not need to know the chemical constitution of shrimp – as we are unlikely either to need it in conversation, or to find ourselves making shrimp foam on a nest of spinach tagliatelle, garnished with cayenne cream and anchovy spray – other kinds of culinary extremity are still open to us, such as extreme paraphernalia worship.

What, you may well ask, is extreme paraphernalia worship? It is that attitude of prayerful awe that enshrines the hi-fi system, the electric train set, the food blender or the photo appliance within an aura of sanctity only comprehensible to the initiated and having less and less to do with the stuff of music, play, meal-times, or snapshots the deeper you intrude upon its sacred precincts. My cousin Fiona, who really ought to know better, being related to a bevy of practical Pankhursts, recently gave me a chopping board: made of ash-wood, just the right size, sensible handle, little hole to hang it up with … you know the kind of thing. So, imagine my surprise, when speaking to her on the phone and mentioning how much I was enjoying chopping onions on my new board, to hear her draw her breath in sharply (as if onions were too plebeian and only shallots would do) and then say: “I hope you’re taking proper care of it, Edwin.”  What am I meant to do to “take care” of a piece of wood? Read it Peter Rabbit and tuck it up at night? Anoint it with oil of balsam? It’s a plank, good grief!

The reason for almost all this extreme behaviour is sadly and blindingly simple. As the author Marzieh Gail says in one of the excellent essays in her collection “Dawn over Mount Hira”:

Man desires a complex and obscure solution to existence; he would rather go bare-foot, subsist entirely on carrots or listen to the voice of his departed uncle issuing at midnight from an aluminium horn, than prefer his neighbour to himself or confine his business activities to honest ones.

I rest my case. In extremis Deo? Probably not.

Edwin Drood

One Comment

  • The last bit on “paraphernalia worship” reminds me of a tiny cast-iron skillet i lovingly lather in olive oil before putting it to sleep in a warm oven after every gentle wash…

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