I know you think Vernon Kruger is a bit of a joke, but you’re wrong. Vernon Kruger is, if not a hero, at the very least an artist.
Vernon Kruger is the bloke in Dullstroom, sitting in a barrel on top of a pole. The pole is 25 metres high and Vernon made it from a blue gum that he cut down himself. Blue gums are an invasive species, so at the very least Vernon Kruger should have your respect for being water-wise. What have you done for the water table lately? Have you cut down a blue gum tree and used it to break a world record? No? Then stop sniggering at Vernon Kruger.
His pole has been struck by lightning and there are scorch marks on his barrel. When it rains he clips a Vernon-made plastic lid in place over his barrel. He has a special Vernonised “human waste drainage system”, into which I feel we should pry no further. He has no way to stretch out, can sit with only the greatest of discomfort, and doesn’t have much to look at, yet Vernon Kruger has been in his barrel for more than 67 days.
67 days is the previous world record for sitting in a barrel on a pole, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records. The record was 22 years old and here’s where it starts getting interesting: the previous record was set by Vernon Kruger.
Why is Vernon Kruger in a barrel on top of the pole? Is it because he seeks to emulate the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who to mark his disdain for worldly luxury lived in a barrel in the Athenian agora? Probably only Vernon Kruger can answer that, but I’ll tell you that the barrel has this advantage; it makes setting a world record easier. If there were no barrel on the pole, then the record wouldn’t be for sitting in a barrel on a pole, it would be for just sitting on a pole, and I’m afraid that despite what lazy local journalists who can’t be bothered to do the bare minimum of research have been telling you, 67 days is barely a blip on the pole-sitting graph.
The out-of-work silent-screen actor Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly was the first to popularize sitting on a flagpole. In 1924 he sat for 15 hours, hoping the publicity would make him a movie star. He returned in 1929, still unfamous, and lifted the mark to 49 days. The record fell the next year and numerous times since. A certain Richard Blandy raised it to 120-odd days and died doing what he loved, when his pole collapsed underneath him.
The greatest ever female pole-sitter was Peggy Townsend Clark, who pushed the record to 217 days in 1964; in the early 80s one David Werder perched on a pole for a year and a half to protest the price of petrol, discovering in the process, like Shipwreck Kelly before him, that pole-sitting is surprisingly ineffective in changing anything.
But save your most ardent applause for the godfather of elevated endurance, Simeon Stylites, the ascetic anchorite who spent 37 years in the 5th century CE, living atop a pillar near Aleppo in Syria. Sure, Vernon Kruger has tales to tell of lightning striking his pole, but even here Simeon wins – in 2016 the base of his pillar was struck by a Russian missile.
I have a particular interest in the finer points of world records because when I was small boy I read an article in the Sunday times magazine about Michel Lotito, “Monsieur Mangetout”, the Frenchman who set a world record for eating a bicycle, and then later eating an aeroplane. Like many a lonely kid before and since, it struck me that setting some sort of world record might be the way to be someone, to make my mark on the world, to leave behind some sort of trace that I lived and I mattered, the way Monsieur Mangetout still lives and weirdly matters for me. This is why I say Vernon is an artist. He holds up a mirror: he makes literal the inner landscape of a man aging.
Vernon was 30 when he set the previous record. He did it as a dare, and because it was fun, and because when you’re 30 there’s no real reason not to do anything. When you set a world record at 30, the world must feel like your oyster. Who can begin to imagine all the achievements still lying ahead?
Vernon is 52 now, and I’m not sure exactly how he chose Dullstroom as his field of dreams, but his home and family are down on the coast, and his wife and kids have chosen not to come to Dullstroom, or indeed to send any public words of encouragement. His wife, he says, is “not very supportive” of his barrel-living ambitions. It isn’t right to speculate about motives, but you have the sense that there might be more going on with Vernon, motivation-wise, than the love of sitting in a barrel.
He passed the record on Monday and admits it was an anti-climax. In 1997, when he set the previous record, there were crowds of well-wishers. Now he feels lonely and depressed but he’ll keep going, to make it harder for his record to be broken. In all the years since he first set it, no one has tried to break his record. Like all of us, really, he’s competing against himself.
Times, 21 January 2020 ** Update: Vernon finally came down. Just in time for lockdown.