Granadillas and living statues

I wasn’t intending to go into a bar, but when I saw the living statue sitting there, checking his phone, I didn’t have a choice.

It was the siesta hours in Granada this week, when a lot of the restaurants and cafés close or haven’t opened yet. Tourists and visitors still drift through the streets and plazas or climb the hill to the fountains of the Alhambra or wander in the opposite direction to the cathedral or Federico Garcia Lorca’s house, but self-respecting Granadillas take a break from their labours and either go home to doze in shaded rooms or take refuge in dark bars to drink a beer and catch up on their texting and prepare body and mind for the late-afternoon session of work.

The living statue was the classical kind: shiny gold suit and top hat, gold shoes, gold bodypaint the precise colour of the suit. Some aficionados of the living statue prefer the silver version, and in recent years I’ve noticed a surge in popularity for a kind of bronze hue, like a new five-cent coin, which I do confess appeals to me, but ultimately I think you want your living statues to strive for excellence and go for gold.

Living statues haven’t really taken off in South Africa the way you might have expected. I’ve seen one in Government Avenue in the Company Gardens in Cape Town, but he’s a sad shadow of the real thing. His eyes follow you around when you approach and he sometimes scratches himself and shifts to a more comfortable position, and if you pause for a moment to inspect his work, he’ll turn towards you and make some sort of gesture indicating that the reason he’s doing this is so that you will give him some money. This is a violation of the ethos of the living statue.

The living statue should not move at all, not a muscle, not an eyelash, not a pulsing vein. If a wind blows, their clothes should not flap. Successful human statues should remain at all times magnificently immobile, in as remarkable and dynamic a pose as they can manage, as though cast from pure metal or chiseled – eternal and immune to the tawdry world of money or the flesh – from the marble of Mount Parnassus. They should be a perfect unity of artwork and creator, a still point of focus and faith amid the bustle and hubbub and restlessness of the city. In the midst of a terror attack or an outbreak of civil war, at the still centre of the screaming and fear and hatred and fleeing, my ideal living statue will not break character, will be the last human being on the deserted public square, still gamely leaning into an imaginary wind or tying a perpetually undone lace. The human spirit, my living statue proclaims, shall endure.

I’ve always been interested in living statues but in recent years I’ve been studying extra closely, wherever I encounter them, because who knows but that I may not one day join their number?

I’m serious. A man must have some sort of long-term plan for when his productive working years are done, and I haven’t done much of the traditional planning – pensions, investments and so on and so forth. I make my money in a precarious manner, entirely dependent on the whims and tastes and sometimes political considerations of people who aren’t me, and no sooner have I made it that I instantly spend it sloping around the world in a contradictory quest for both quietness and experience, so it is fair to say that financial cataclysm is always just around the corner. When it happens, what will I do?

When it comes to thinking about the future, I’m not really a rational planner. My strategy is to imagine the worst outcome and decide whether I could survive that. If the answer is yes, I stop worrying. So here is my current worst outcome: if I’m an old man with no other resources, I could always become a street performer.

I think it might be quite fun, in its way: you spend healthy time outdoors, encountering new people; you’d have time to think. My first plan was to be a busker. I would learn to play some simple musical instrument to a level of basic competence, and dress with quiet dignity in my old wedding suit and neatly trimmed hair, and set myself up in some shady, sheltered place in a friendly locale. I would learn a very few tunes that older people would recognize and that would bring a smile to their face – old TV themes, perhaps. Dallas! Magnum P.I.! Game of Thrones! Perhaps people would reward me for the smile, and perhaps add an extra couple of coins out of respect for my age and earnestness. All in all, it doesn’t sound too bad.

But musical instruments are tricky. I’m not musical, for one thing, and I’ll need to get practicing soon if I hope to make my tunes recognizable. Plus, what about arthritis? I don’t want to dedicate my best years to mastering the viola or something, and then be frozen-jointed just when I’ll need my fiddling skills to survive. What about accidental digital amputation? What about absent-mindedly leaving my tuba behind on a tram? There is too much that can go wrong. So then I thought about being a human statue.

People would make some allowances for an elderly human statue, surely? I could sit on a simple wooden chair, also sprayed the same metallic gold or bronze. If there’s one thing I’m confident I can do to a high level of proficiency, it’s sit still and ignore people. Perhaps it would even be some sort of artistic statement about aging and creativity.  That would be good. It would be slightly humorous, even poignant. More lucratively, I would remind people of their grandfathers. If I make sure to situate myself somewhere people have respect and even affection for the elderly, I could be in business. And then one day when I’d had enough of it all I could just coat my entire body in gold paint, leaving no open space for respiration, like Shirley Eaton in the movie of Goldfinger, and slip away in my sleep in a manner of passing both peaceful and artistically pleasing.

I was thinking all of this when I went into the bar on Calle Elvira this week and sidled up to the living statue enjoying his siesta. I wanted to introduce myself to him as a future practitioner of his art, and perhaps negotiate some sort of casual apprenticeship. At the very least, I would pump him for his work secrets, tips of the trade.

I watched him count out his euros for a second beer and a plate of fried squid. He seemed to have made a good haul in the morning session. But then he sat back in his seat and sighed and rolled his neck and stretched his arms, and I couldn’t bring myself to bother him. He’s an artist taking a break. He’s a working man like the rest of us. I didn’t want to intrude on his quiet time. Even statues have to breathe.

Times, 2 May 2019