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We Risk Death, But We Live: Interview with James Manx

June 2, 2011
Picture: David Caird

Picture: David Caird

The first time I see James Manx he is threading his entire body through two stringless tennis rackets, which involves dislocating both shoulders. He’s a startling figure in a punkishly ripped white t-shirt and with false pupils drawn on his eyelids. Later in the evening he’ll swallow a 70cm sword, having first sharpened it on the concrete floor, and do a handstand on a small table.

This is not a trick. This is actually happening. If he makes one false move, the sword will puncture his vital organs and kill him. And all for an audience of about twenty-five people in a Northcote bar on a Thursday night.
What drives someone to make this their life’s work?
‘Mostly it’s about play,’ he tells me a few days later at a Brunswick café. He looks inconspicuous today in a black sweatshirt and jeans. ‘I’ll go for the things that I enjoy and then share it with the audience.’

Manx’s fascination with feats of endurance began early in life. His father, a martial arts trainer and former gymnast, enrolled his son (and two daughters) in jujitsu classes at the age of four. By the time Manx was fourteen he’d mastered the entire syllabus. While he continued to practice jujitsu and tai kwon do, other risky activities beckoned. Growing up in country towns meant access to cars in which to learn fish-tails and doughnuts. At fifteen he took up fire-twirling and trained briefly with Circus Oz before the logistics of commuting from Sale to Melbourne proved impossible.

At seventeen he moved to Melbourne and trained with youth circus Trick before graduating to another circus school, but was already developing an interest in more alternative side of performing arts.
‘I went to a cabaret where a man was doing an act where he hammered teaspoons into his skull. I was blown away. It looked wrong, he should have died, nothing about that made sense. And I wanted to do it! So I spent three or four weeks looking at books on human anatomy and fooling around with a teaspoon and going, “Ow, my face!” until I eventually got it.’
Manx parted ways with circus school after the head coach caught him swallowing swords on the premises. ‘[He said] “This is freak show, this is not circus, you don’t do this here. Get out.’ And I was thrown out of the building.’ Since then he has been a self-employed ‘street rat’, busking and working in nightclubs and corporate events.

He has taught himself to walk on broken glass, to swing from shark hooks, to swallow swords and neon tubes. His unique trademark act is swallowing two neon tubes simultaneously.
‘One day an old sideshow guy gave me a bit of shit, “What have you got that we haven’t seen before?” and I went, Well, I need to come up with something new. It needs to be big. The biggest thing we can do is swallow a 2000-volt glass tube, I’m going to swallow two of them! If you fight it, your gag reflex will go hard. With the tubes going down, if I gag hard, the tubes will shatter. And that’s terrifying every single time. But it also has one of the hugest rushes to it, when you actually get them out of your throat and you go, “There was 4000 volts right behind my heart, inside my body. I so nearly died. But I did it. And hi, you were here to see it.’

Does the ability to do these things give him a sense of immortality?

‘If I can only live to be twenty-five,’ says the twenty-four-year-old, dragging on a cigarette, ‘and I do everything that I want to do and am completely fulfilled, I won’t end up forty years old, a father of three, having not done anything in my life that I wanted to do. Which I have seen so much of. We risk death, but we live. A lot of people don’t risk death, and don’t live.’
When Manx was seventeen, he learned that his father once got the chance to train in Los Angeles as a stuntman, but had had to decline because his wife was pregnant with Manx’s older sister. ‘He never really dealt with it.’ His parents have recently divorced. Manx is very conscious of embodying his father’s unfulfilled dreams: ‘I’m living what he should have done.’

He is preparing to take his career to the next level, possibly joining acrobatic troupe The Hectic Brothers, and planning a solo show for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. ‘I’m afraid of legitimisation, probably more because I’m afraid of failure. But I’ve got to take those chances.’ He lights another cigarette. ‘I can gamble with my life quite easily, but not necessarily with my money, or my heart.’

He refers several times to his ‘attitude problem’ and clearly relishes rebellion.   He was all set to quit smoking before the Federal government introduced its recent 25% tax hike on cigarettes: “I see irresponsible drinking as far more hazardous. We will quit given the opportunity, but I can’t quit because I’m too busy saying fuck you government! You can’t tell me how to live my life.’

When asked if he tailors his act to different audiences he responds, ‘If it’s people in business suits there’s a fairly good chance that they won’t be responsive, because they’re in suits, they’re better than everyone. People in suits take a moment to hear so you’ve got to hit them with attitude.’

Despite this, he doesn’t come across as arrogant, but self-deprecating and a little uncertain. Until recently he has chosen relative obscurity while developing original material, and says he’s uncomfortable with the self-promotion side of entertainment.

‘I really struggle to sell my own acts. If someone else was to do it, then I can go, “What they’re about to do is amazing.” But when you yourself are standing there going, ‘I’m going to swallow a sword and while it’s inside me do a handstand,” you just feel like a big-headed dick if you move into “If it goes wrong I’m gonna die, I’m the only fucker crazy enough to do this.” I don’t know how to make them respect all the effort that goes into these things without sounding and feeling like I’ve got my head up my arse.’
Still, he takes obvious pleasure in the work for its own sake; when he talks about shark hook suspension, his eyes glow with enthusiasm. He shows me the scars from a recent show; four neat puncture wounds in his shoulders which resemble the teeth-marks of an actual shark. The practice of suspending the body by hooks, he says, has a long history in many cultures, particularly the Native American Sioux who used it as a male initiation rite. They interpreted the endorphins and adrenalin released by pain as a spiritual experience.
Manx aims to communicate this with his audience. ‘I like to get rigged so that my feet are just touching the ground and try to dance while on the hooks, and swing and spin.’ He leans forward in his seat. ‘If I can get [the audience] to forget for one moment that there are shark hooks through my back and that there is blood on the stage and just for a second make them go “That’s beautiful” or try to give them a moment of joy, I think that’s what it’s really about to me.’

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