Monday, October 12, 2015

Philippe Petit Sydney Harbour Bridge 1973 # 1

Philippe Petit Sydney Harbour Bridge 1973

These two towers give me an idea. Not to you?”  read the note from Philippe Petit, in Jan 1974. On the flip side of the post card was a photo of the New York World Trade Centre - a blue line drawn between the twin towers.  8 months later Philippe made his historic walk. 

The year beforehand, in 1973, on a crisp winter’s morning, Philippe had walked on a wire strung between the northern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge - a serendipitous adventure I was intimately involved with and one that had its conception in Nimbin during the Aquarius Festival. 

It began with a rumour. I had just arrived in Nimbin with my good friend Phillip Broughton in the 1949 Mark V Jaguar I had bought recently for $300. A gas guzzler, yes, but , wow, what a beautiful car - with running boards, a sliding sun roof, leather upholstery and polished teak dashboard. 

Philippe, juggling and walking his slack rope at the festival (whose genius idea was it to invite him?), wanted, so the rumour went, to perform a high wire walk in Sydney similar to the one he had done a year or so previously at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I sought Philippe out, chatted with him, asked if the rumour was true. He laughed, told me that it was something he dreamt of but that it would not be possible in the short time he had left in Australia. To organize such a walk, he said, would take many weeks, a lot of people and a lot of money. “I think it is not possible,” said Philippe with a wistful smile and a shrug of his shoulders. The upward inflection in his voice at the end of ‘possible’ and the glint in his eye suggested that this was a question, not a statement. A challenge, perhaps? We agreed to meet up when we both got back to Sydney and talk about it.

Experience has taught me, over the years, of the malleability of memory. I take with a grain of salt the veracity of even my most vivid and treasured memories, some of which, decades after the event, have proved to be wrong in certain  (and sometimes important) details. Others remember shared experiences differently and, upon hearing their version I realize that my recollections may be flawed; that I may have unwittingly, unconsciously, selectively edited my memories. Perhaps we all do this, editing out unpleasant memories if we are optimists at heart, editing out the pleasant ones if we are pessimists. Philippe definitely fell into the optimist camp. So did I. A marriage made in heaven, perhaps!

Bearing the malleability of memory in mind, here is my recollection of the extraordinary adrenalin-fueled and sleep deprived week I shared with Philippe and others as we sought to pull off what seemed to be an impossible feat - breaking into the Harbour Bridge pylons, acquiring and then smuggling more than a ton of equipment into them, hiding it from the Bridge painters and workers who used the pylons as their base, finding a way to stretch a heavy wire between them - all in less than a week and with no budget. The impossibility of pulling it off was one of the adventure’s attractions, though perhaps denial of the reality  of the multiple challenges confronting us had a lot to do with it. Denial is a much maligned character trait - of great value when up against seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Amidst a throng of naked and semi-naked festival goers in Nimbin and with music and the smell of patchouli oil and marijuana in the air, Philippe showed me his scrap book. It was filled with photos of himself performing all over the world - as a mime, a street juggler and magician, walking a slack rope and performing stunts on his beloved high wire. Philippe’s face lit up with boyish enthusiasm as he told me that whenever he saw two towers, two pylons, two spires, his thoughts turned to walking between them. This was his obsession, and what a beautiful obsession it was.  

It was the photos of Philippe walking between two spires of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris that captivated me most. In one he stands, balancing pole resting on his thigh after a crossing, looking out over the rooftops of Paris. There is an expression on his beautiful pale young face that speaks of Philippe’s focus, his sense of purpose, his tranquil experience of being in the moment. As Philippe would later tell me, when he is on the wire there is no room in his mind for any other thought at all than the wire. There is only the wire. A popular book at the time, probably in the backpack of many a Nimbin festival goer, was BE HERE NOW. Philippe was the living embodiment of the philosophy espoused in Ram Dass’ seminal book. 

As I looked at the photos I could visualize Philippe replicating such a walk in Sydney and without even thinking about the practicalities involved, asked what the shortest time was in which such a walk could be organized if he had all the support and money he needed. Five or six days, Philippe replied. During the day we would have to find all the equipment we needed (with no budget), test it all, do a dummy run and then spend the nights inside the pylons finding and then implementing ways to secure the wire. There were so many things that could go wrong. All we needed was one of them to go wrong and Philippe’s dream, which became my dream and that of the rest of our small team, would turn to dust. Philippe and I were the same age and in many ways kindred spirits. Neither of us believed that there was much in life that was impossible if you are determined and put your mind to it or, to put it another way, we were both attracted to giving the impossible a run for its money. In the battle between Denial and Common Sense, it seemed already that Denial was going to win!

By the time Philippe and I met up again in Sydney, after the festival, I had run the idea of by a few friends and all were keen to help - especially my good friend  Phillip Broughton, with whom I shared a house at Whale Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches. And there was Paul Frame - Phillip’s friend and fellow architecture student, Rob Tunstall (from whom I had bought the Mark V Jag), his girlfriend Linda. On the last night Terry Stanton joined the team (and maybe saved Philippe’s life) and Mark Lewis joined us also. As a result, Mark went on to help Philippe the following year with his World Trade Centre walk. I don’t believe in ‘Fate’ but if Serendipity were a god, I would probably be a devotee! There were others involved also but I cannot, at this far remove (40 years! Merde!) remember their names. 

With little thought for what we were letting ourselves in for and with no concern about the number of laws we would have to break (lots!), our little gang, with Philippe as our intrepid leader, set about the many tasks we needed to perform to make Philippe’s Sydney highwire dream a reality. We were all students in the fine art of Denial: we would not even contemplate the possibility that maybe we had bitten off more than we could chew. We would make Philippe’s dream a reality. All obstacles would be overcome. No worries!

To be continued...

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