The Thing Is with Steve Canavan - May 14, 2015

Ashrita Furman

Ashrita Furman

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I find myself strangely attracted to books about weird things.

It means that rather than spend my days leafing through something worthy like Shakespeare, Dickens or Christopher Biggins’ autobiography – the chapter about his spell at Butlins is dynamite – I instead read things like ‘Dashrath Manjhi – the man who carved through a mountain for his dead wife’ (well, come on, who wouldn’t want to buy a book with a title like that?)

Mr Manjhi, as I now feel obliged to tell you – and because I can sense from the look on your faces that you’re keen to know more – was a 
labourer in India, born in the 1930s.

He lived in a village at the foot of a mountain and, in 1959, watched his beloved wife die due to a lack of medical care, because the nearest town with a doctor was 70km away, along a road which wound around the mountain.

What Mr Manjhi did next was quite astonishing. Working day and night for 22 years (that’s more than 8,000 days) and using only a hammer and a chisel, Mr Manjhi carved a 360-foot long, 30-foot wide hole through the mountain to form a road. Mind-boggling.

When he first began his quest, fellow villagers used to ridicule him – as one probably would if one spied a middle-aged chap chipping away at a mountain. I mean, imagine if I turned up at Helvellyn with a hammer and announced I was building a through-road; the locals would think I was a nutter and the National Trust would play merry hell (and, no doubt, immediately cancel my membership, which is a blow as it would mean I’d have to pay full price at Skipton Castle). But, undeterred, Mr Manjhi continued on his lone mission and when, 22 years later, the road opened, he had shortened the distance between his village and the next town to 15km. Given the nickname Mountain Man, he became a national hero; was given a state funeral when he died at the age of 73 a decade ago; has had roads and hospitals named after him; and is the subject of a film (on his deathbed, he put his thumb impression on an agreement giving away exclusive rights to make a movie of his life).

Reading about all this made me feel quite ashamed. This fella single-handedly chiselled his way through a mountain; I can’t even grout the bathroom.

Mr Manjhi’s story reminds me of another amazing/bonkers chap that I recently read about, Ashrita Furman (his first name used to be slightly less exotic – Keith; we’ll come to that in a moment).

As a child growing up in New York, Furman was obsessed by the Guinness Book of World Records but completely disinterested in anything remotely athletic.

Then, as a teenager, he started following an Indian spiritual leader (there must have been nothing on TV at the time), who, as well as persuading him to change his name (well, he was called Keith), encouraged him to get active and suggested he enter a 24-hour cycle race in Central Park.

Despite less than two weeks training, Furman finished third. Interviewed afterwards, he said: “By using meditation I was able to connect with an inexhaustible energy … as I climbed off the bicycle I realised that it wasn’t my body that had cycled for 24 hours, but my inner Spirit.” Presumably it was at this stage that the interviewer edged away with a concerned look on his face, while quietly suggesting to race organisers that they may want to drug test the fella who finished third.

But maybe there is something in what Mr Furman said, because, as it stands, he now holds nearly 200 world records, all – and this is what I like about the chap – totally and utterly pointless.

His first record, in 1979, for instance, was for doing 27,000 star jumps. Blimey, he must have had serious thigh cramps afterwards. His other records include: underwater pogo stick jumping; doing forward rolls for 12-and-a-quarter miles; and fastest time to run a mile while balancing a milk bottle on your head.

And he’s still going strong. Last year, for instance, at the age of 59, he set the record for the longest time balancing a running electric lawnmower on his chin (three minutes and 34 seconds in case you fancy a crack at breaking it).

Mr Manjhi embarked on his epic feat of endurance because of love and grief, Mr Furman because he’s most probably a little bit mad.

But, whatever, these kind of folk don’t half make the world a more interesting place.

Let’s have miracle worker Ollie back

Lee Clark’s departure as Blackpool manager is, I think, for the best.

He was clearly not going to push chairman Karl Oyston for funds and had alienated many fans with some careless comments (combined with terrible results) during the season. Handily there is a chap called Ian Holloway out of work and desperate for a return to football.

You may remember Holloway. Spoke in a slightly funny accent but guided the Seasiders to the Premier League, where the supporters enjoyed the season of their lives.

It would be great to see him return (he’s the only man who has the strength of character to get some money out of the Oystons, for starters), though whether he could work the same miracles again is a big ask.

When he first arrived at the club, in 2009, he had the nucleus of the team in place.

This time he has barely a player in place and has to build from scratch. Is he capable of doing that? Personally I’m not so sure – but it wouldn’t half be fun watching him try.