Ox-strong, with an uneasy machismo that sits on the shoulders like a tenacious bull-rider that buck as he might, he can’t shrug off, and bristling with an insecure aggression that drags our hero to his tragi-comic fate – now that’s a Hemmingway hero, if ever there was one. But the Hemmingway hero is not a man who lives in the pages of a book alone, but walks the dark recesses of every man’s mind. But in some men, this part heroic, part demonic beast refuses to dwell only in the unlit alleys of the soul and breaks into the light, wresting control of our lives, our thoughts and are actions… that’s when you get to be Charlie Bronson – a man deemed so dangerous that he has been confined to a solitary cell for most part of the last three decades. Poor Charlie, within the crowded confines of modern civil society, is like the proverbial bull in a china store, who can’t walk two steps without breaking something – a rule here, a safe there, and a face every now and then.
But to prison with the bruisin’ Bronson, for that’s where half of him believes he belongs, and since it’s evidently his stronger half, who are you and I to argue with that. But prison is the subject of all I have to say this week, for while it was born as a system designed to break the spirit of the hardest nuts society could cough up, it seems to have the exact opposite effect on a chosen few.
As my study of the subject begins to gather momentum, I realise that like those two other great cradles of super human strength – the legendary Naval base at Coronado, play ground for the elite special operations unit of the world’s greatest army - the Navy Seals, and then there’s that temple in the forest on Mount Shao, where fly super monks in saffron robes – prisons too, across time have inspired men to acquire the strength of gods.
Long long ago, in that great tale spun by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, the protagonist, Jean Valjean is recognised for his great strength that the hard prison life bestowed on his limbs. In fact strength, of both body and spirit, runs like a river, all along the length of that great story.
Two hundred years later, during World War I, a Russian soldier is captured by the Austrians while trying to escape. His progress through the snow was slowed down by the weight of his injured horse on his back… he didn’t want to leave the bleeding beast behind. But what good is astrong will against stronger chains and so he remained shackled to the wall of an Austrian prison for days weeks and months.
Zass had been a circus strongman and so, was no weakling when captured but in prison his strength exploded beyond the imagination of his captors. He built his strength while in chains in his cell, by pitting his muscles and his mind against all that bound him. His solitude gave him the kind of focus that hermits perhaps sought on mountain tops and forests, and like the holy sutras say, wherever the mind goes, and truly goes, the body surely follows. Egged on by his will, Zass’ by-now-mighty arms snapped their shackles, bent the bars of his cell and helped climb over what the Austrians thought was an unscalable wall, to freedom and a future as an invincible strongman.
Body weight strength and conditioning guru Paul ‘Coach’ Wade found his way into prison for possessing drugs. There, he met a 70 year old inmate who possessed astonishing strength for a man of any age who took him under his wing and taught him all he knew. In his book, Convict Conditioning, Paul mentions that fear and physical insecurity pushed him to train hard with this septuagenarian master. Prisons all over the world are hard cold places where the days are long and lonely and the nights intimidating and endless. Inmates usually crumble and breakdown because of the constant exploitative bullying by prison gangs and the guards or they descend into a cesspool of violence and depravity in their efforts to belong and be accepted.
But a few treat their years of forced incarceration as monks in a monastery might treat their time in solitude – as a time to reflect and focus…
Amongst those few are Alexander Zass and Paul Wade who meditated on their physical self with the laser sharp focus that solitude confers on those that embrace it. And those who reflected on their thoughts during their internment found that their imagination had grown new wings, that helped them fly further than the distractions of freedom had ever let them.
Marco Polo’s traveller’s tales, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament and Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World were all penned in the monastic environs of a prison chamber.
And how dare I forget, the Marquis de Sade, Charlie Bronson’s on the edge, literary spirit brother, who wrote his most notorious works while shuttling for 30 years (much like Charlie) between prisons and lunatic asylums in the 18th century.
Speaking of Charlie Bronson, it is not enough to know that he is an intensely violent man who has little control over his impulses. His friends insist that he is a delightful chap who has the deepest sense of integrity who would never let his buddies down. And yet Charlie would be the first to confess that he is ashamed of himself for having let his family, especially his mother, down and for having broken the hearts all who wished good things for him on the outside. He always wanted to be good and walk the straight and narrow, but his demons were always too strong for him.
But let that not take away from the fact that Charlie did not let his incarceration drive him even further over the edge. All through his solitary confinement, Charlie found sanity in his workouts –workouts that have made him arguably one of the strongest and fittest people in Britain, while pushing sixty. He holds multiple nationally recognised push-up records and is strong enough to hurl washing machines and knock half a dozen baton wielding guards out before being overpowered.
The point of all my rambling is that sustained solitude, voluntary or not, just like what our parents insisted on while we were studying for exams in school, coupled with, and this is the more important bit, complete mind body focus, is a great recipe for achieving the greatest possible greatness that lies dormant in our cells. But beware, extreme solitude could make one socially dysfunctional, and what good is a gift that can’t be shared.
Secondly, people like Zass, Wade and Charlie Bronson prove that modern gymnasiums and supplements are a rip-off. Not one of you reading this would have ever met a man half as strong as these titans and they built their Herculean strength without machines or free-weights, special diets and programmes or supplements. All you need to be fit and strong is the will to fight your weakness, a dash of creativity and common sense and the fortitude to stick with a plan, come rain or shine or the blues… so get on with it.
But before I go, I hear the sneaky question in your head. Prisons and monasteries have another thing in common, beside solitude – inmates in both institutions have to forego the pleasures of the second most important three letter word in the language. And haven’t we all heard of the accepted notions about the relationship between celibacy and athletic performance, intellectual expression and spiritual evolution?
How does that fit into the mix? Is that the secret missing ingredient or just an incidental accidental fact? Well, that’s a story for another week…