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PERSPECTIVE: Mirror, mirror on your wall; Sid Langley suggests a lifestyle exercise in a meditation on mirrors.

Byline: Sid Langley

I drop in to see my old mate Clint. He's standing looking at himself in a full length mirror. Posing pouch is snugly in place, and he glows with the other-worldy tan of St Tropez under a light burnish of oil. He looks ready for the oven.

No surprise there, then.

He's a bodybuilder, you see. He wants to know what I think of the current state of his calves - by which he doesn't mean young Friesians in a pen behind the gym (although they're fattening up nicely as well - boom, boom).

I've been through similar moments before with Clint. Any personal interaction is totally one-way. He's a bodybuilder, you see. A universe (preferably a Mr Universe) unto himself.

So I study his calves. No, I don't look at his lower legs as he stands before me. I look in the mirror. It's the convention. Just as you speak to your hairdresser's reflection, you study the body beautiful in the glass.

The mirror image is the reality as far as bodybuilders are concerned. Out here in the world of sagging jowls, drooping shoulders and eye-to-eye contact it seems straight-ahead, no arguments bonkers. But the reality of New Street station, the supermarket check-out and the office coffee break falls away when you enter the alternative universe that is the hardcore, pumping iron gym.

Just before a contest they'll be dehydrated, taking drugs to make their veins stand out, and virtually passing out with hunger. But as long as they look good in that mirror, everything's fine.

Bodybuilding is one of the few corners of the 21st century where the age old superstition about the mirror and what it reflects is still strong. For Clint, the image he sees in the mirror is the real him, somehow that bit more ideal, a touch more Wagnerian, a hyperreality.

From predynastic Egypt to China's Shang dynasty, from the temples of Aztec diviners to the stone towers of medieval alchemists, mirror lore has been whispered about, written into ancient grimoires, handed down through the folk beliefs of generations, and stitched into the fabric of fairy tales and myths worldwide. Think of the common belief of seven years' bad luck associated with broken mirrors.

Down through the ages, mirrors (and lakes, shields, armour and other reflective surfaces) have been gateways to other worlds, they have protected us from evil, they have told us the future and they have told us the truth. They have reflected back to the viewer a glimpse of the human soul.

It is no coincidence that vampires have no reflection - for the undead have no souls.

We have seen the ancient magic reflected in our multiplexes recently as Galadriel, the Elfin Princess of Lord of the Rings, scanned her pool and her crystals. We feel the indefinable power of the mirror in the Snow White story - and the one in the current Mac Christmas show.

Think how everyone laughs at the distortions of those bent fairground mirrors.

My grandmother, a Victorian by birth, had two mirrors I was aware of, one in her hall and the other in her kitchen. Whenever we went out, to the corner shop, say, she would put her customary hat on in the kitchen by looking in the mirror with its distinctive silver glass and fastening the hat pin (do they still exist?) in place.

But she always checked what she looked like in the hall mirror on the way out. It had a green cast and even my childish eyes could see it made her look different. Her face was somehow thinner, her eyes a few watts brighter.

All to do with the way the silver backing was applied to the glass, I suppose. Do contemporary mirrors with their lightweight plastic reflective surfaces vary like that? The heavyweight mirror manufactured from real glass is probably available only in antique shops these days, each with a unique reflection, an unrepeatable take on our reality. My grandmother was, literally, looking at herself in a different light.

I recall Robert de Niro, Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman in separate interviews over the past few years all saying pretty much the same thing - they don't like to watch themselves on screen any more because the person they see up there doesn't seem to be the person they feel they are.

What they are saying - something I empathise with entirely - is that they see an old man while inside they still feel young, in their prime, looking ahead rather than back. What they see is the opposite of the bodybuilding reality. Appearances can, indeed, be deceptive. The snap you see at the top of this column may look like an old geezer, but that's not my perception.

Look, New Year is coming - resolutions and all that stupid stuff, fresh start etc. So off you go, dear readers, that's your exercise for today: find a mirror - and reflect.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 17, 2004
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