My idea of physical exercise is to walk up the stairs - puffing and wheezing - rather than take the escalator. At the top I feel a little glow of pride, pause for a while to catch my breath, and then stagger heroically onwards. So, not surprisingly, reading about a man who could lift a piano without breaking a sweat made me feel somewhat ashamed of myself.
Eugen Sandow was the grandfather of modern bodybuilding: diligent and inventive in his training techniques; focused with regard to what he wanted; popular with the ladies (and the men) and able to hold an audience in the palm of his hand (metaphorically, although possibly also literally) with his showmanship and craft. Reading this book it's impossible not to like him - even allowing for the occasional bit of shabby behaviour (little statuettes given out as prizes in competitions he put his name to usually turned out to be made of bronze, rather than the advertised gold). Sandow comes across as rather straight-forward and charming, untainted by the celebrity he achieved and genuinely passionate about his craft and his desire to put together work-out routines suited to the people who came to him asking for help in improving their puny physiques. He made money, he achieved fame, he travelled the world but one senses that at the end of it all he remained much the same person as he had been when he first arrived in England. It's to David Waller's immense credit that Sandow the man remains centre stage throughout, rather than Sandow the artificial stage persona.
Having something of a weakness for all things Victorian what particularly appealed to me about this book was the way in which Sandow is placed firmly within the age in which he lived. Achieving fame during the Victorian fin de siecle Sandow, with his manly muscles and heroic strength, stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing belief that humankind was slumping into a degenerate state of feeble weediness. Similarly as the Boer war began to go badly for the British questions were raised about the general level of fitness displayed by young British men. Step forward Sandow, once again, as an example of what a man could be if only he looked after himself and followed a sensible programme of physical excercise - a programme Sandow himself was happy to provide. All of this is outlined as a background to tales of dazzling exploits on the stage - of lions being wrestled (although admittedly the lion in question was somewhat reluctant and had to be prodded into belated action) and pianos being hefted onto the shoulders - and this grounding in the history and thought of the time makes the book remarkably engaging.
All in all I loved this book. I enjoyed the way Sandow's own personality was allowed to take centre stage and given depth by the addition of telling quirky little anecdotes - for example Sandow recommended two cold baths a day, the benefits of which were much enhanced if one dressed immediately afterwards without taking the trouble to dry oneself first - and the way in which the practicalities of his training routines were set side-by-side with his exploits for the Victorian public on the theatrical stage. Sandow comes across as a fascinating man, and this book serves as a fitting account of his achievements, his charm and his lasting influence on anyone who has ever lifted a pair of weights in the pursuit of a finer physique. Fabulous.
on 29 November 2011
This is the biography of Eugen Sandow, Victorian strongman. Now largely - and, as David Waller persuasively argues, undeservedly - forgotten, he was also about as big a celebrity as they come. A music hall hit who toured the world, it was Sandow's enviable physique on which the Mr Universe statuettes are based.
What came across most clearly was the fact that celebrity at the end of the Victorian period functioned in very much the same way as it does today. After Sandow turned up at a music hall performance of the strongman Sampson and comprehensively beating him in a challenge, Sandow became an overnight sensation. As his career developed he also made judicious use of publicity, with stories about his love life being planted in the press, alongside reports of his feats and, later, his Physical Culture schools and products. Indeed, I was constantly reminded of today's crop of rappers who occasionally turn up suited and booted and representing themselves as businessmen with a commodity (books; clothing lines; computer games) to sell. Sandow most certainly got there first.
The Perfect Man is an excellent read, and genuinely fascinating. It doesn't matter if you're not necessarily in fitness or bodybuilding (one despairing look at my own waistline proves that) - if you've even a passing interesting in Victorian/Edwardian cultural history then this is highly recommended.
on 13 December 2011
As a former FT journalist David Waller's sharp, observant, visual, insightful and often witty style was used to profile people and businesses: there are many he could strip naked whereas here the man Sandow struggled to keep his kit on. Was it glue or a piece of wire that held the fig leaf in place? As well as answering a set of course-like questions in the appendix perhaps this could be proposed as an activity. For appropriate use of the word 'splendiferous' in a sentence this book makes a valuable read, whereas Will Self uses words that require a dictionary that you'd never use yourself I find myself eager to incorporate some of David's language into daily conversation. More than a biography this book offers ample historical context, what is more its vaudeville roots are seen as the longtail that brings us to Saturday night TV and the likes of 'Briain's got talent', or in this case Belgium (or was he Prussian). A hardback coffee table version with all the photos would be welcome, or a pop-up version with inflatable muscles. A fun, informed read by someone who could just as easily be profiling George Osborne or Fred Goodwin.
on 8 August 2012
For over half a century, Eugen Sandow was familiar throughout the world. He taught rough, pale, poverty stricken boys that if they merely followed his exercise regime they would soon have the body of a god. He was no fraud - many did achieve the seemingly impossible. Indeed, as a young lad growing up in Germany, Sandow had done it himself. Today there is no shortage of individuals and companies offering to work the same magic, but none have the conviction and sincerity of the pioneering Sandow.
David Waller, a highly acclaimed biographer, has satisfied the need for an objective, scholarly and amusing biography of this great figure with characteristic eye for the telling detail. Through his muscular prose, the reader is transported to a world of grimy music halls, lonely gymnasiums and plenty of thwarted love affairs ('I should have known I was wasting my time when he refused my champagne and asked for a glass of milk', wrote one of the many beauties to fall in love with the inscrutable Sandow).
By the end of the book, complete with fascinating photos of Sandow in his prime, even this puny reader wondered if he might give the Sandow method a try...