Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Carmina Burana and The X-Factor

The X-Factor occasionally uses a piece of classical music named Carmina Burana composed by Carl Orff. The lyrics are from a medieval poem Oh, Fortuna. However, some talented Smart Alec's on the Internet have created a game called misheard lyrics. Below I've embedded a video of some one's misheard lyrics of Carmina Burana. [This was brought to my attention by Tweets regarding Richard Wiseman playing the video at a comedy venue.]


Friday, 11 December 2009

Drag Me to Hell and the Lamia

This week, one of my birthday presents from my wife was the DVD of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. I have always liked Raimi’s films and so I enjoyed watching it. There were two good aspects to this film. One was that is was a modern reinterpretation of the basis of the plot of the classic 1950s film Night of the Demon (in itself based on a ghost story by M. R. James). The other was how the story was told and the dénouement. Of those things, I should not write of them here because it is unfair to anyone who has not seen the film yet.

My only criticism of the film is Raimi’s holding onto little visual touches that go back to his early films and may even be an injoke reference to them. There are only a few but their timing produces a comical rather than chilling effect. If they had not been included I would regard the film as a modern horror classic; as it is, those brief moments ruined the chilling, on edge, hairs tingling on the back of your neck type atmosphere that the plot works so carefully to create.

The evil in the film is a fictional one made up by Sam and Ivan Raimi; in giving it a name they chose the word Lamia, which is from ancient Greek mythology and bears no resemblance to what appears in the film.

The precise nature of the ancient Greek Lamia is somewhat fuzzy. Its incorporation into the literature of later civilizations involves them moulding its qualities to the ideas of their own time. A near modern example is John Keats’ poem Lamia, where the creature is hinted at being somewhat vampire like. Unfortunately, during the nineteenth century the vampire was becoming a popular image in literature and just about every mythological being that had very little information to suggest its nature was being pigeon-holed under the label of vampire.

In the myth, there was only one Lamia (rather than a generic species of vampire) – a beautiful mortal woman who was one of Zeus’ lovers. The story goes that Zeus’ wife, Hera, was prone to dishing out harsh punishments on her husband’s lovers and their children; in this case Hera would murder each child that Lamia bore. It eventually drove Lamia mad. She became insanely jealous of women who enjoyed motherhood and she began murdering and devouring their small children. Somehow, and mythology seldom goes into details, this activity changed Lamia into an immortal monster who preyed upon children. Later use of that story was to present Lamia as a bogey-woman, a means to scare naughty children with the threat of her coming to devour them if they did not behave.

[The above image is copyright by the film-makers]

Monday, 30 November 2009

Telephone Land Line Now Fixed!

Just to let all concerned know that my telephone land line has now been repaired. My apologies to anyone who was inconvenienced over the weekend.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Landline Problems

Our telephone land line is not working properly and our service provider states it could be next week before an engineer will be available to repair it. The delay is understandable, considering the amount of engineers that must be busy reparing the damage that the storms caused in the UK recently.

So if anyone has been trying to reach Jill or myself by our land line telephone number and not getting through, then please phone my mobile number instead.

Friday, 13 November 2009

3D Magic Spectacular on Television

Next Monday, the 16th of November, at 10pm, Channel 4 will be broadcasting Derren Brown Presents The 3D Magic Spectacular. One of the guests will be Pete Firman. To obtain the necessary 3D glasses, you will find that they are being given away free in Sainsburys. For more details, including on other 3D television programs next week, go to Channel 4. I am hoping that the program will be as spectacular as the title claims. If you cannot see the program on Monday then you have a second opportunity on Sunday the 22nd of November at 10pm.

[The above image is copyright by Channel 4.]

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Bright Star


I took Jill to see the film Bright Star yesterday. I generally have concerns about biopics due to how sometimes writers feel the need to pointlessly beef up the plot. One example of that is the BBC drama about the Pre-Raphaelites which for some reason was misnamed as Desperate Romantics (as Germaine Greer pointed out The Romantics, such as Keats, had been dead for some time before the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood evolved).

I need not have worried. Jane Campion’s film about John Keats and his relationship with Fanny Brawne is told in a subtle, gentle way that gets under your skin and pulls at your heart strings. The photography is beautiful and creates a variety of moods throughout the film. The leading actors, Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, have a fair physical resemblance to John Keats and Fanny Brawne (pictures of whom can be found in Andrew Motion’s excellent biography of Keats) and their portrayal of the young lovers, the uneasy beginning of their relationship and how it was frustrated by the cruelty of circumstance, is believable and deeply moving.

The house where the story is set (although it was not filmed there) is now a museum dedicated to Keats. Keats House in Hampstead is still open during the winter and costumes from the film are, for the moment, on display there.

If you have seen the film and have been inspired to find out more about Keats and Brawne then a good place to start is Motion’s biography of Keats, any edition of the published letters of Keats (they include his letters to Fanny Brawne) and any of the paperback editions of Keats’ poetry – where you will find the sonnet Bright Star! which he wrote especially for Brawne.

[The image above is from the website for the film, is copyright by them and is one of their free wallpapers.]

Monday, 9 November 2009

Mystery Magazine


Today I received a copy of the first issue of a new British magic magazine, Mystery Magazine. The editor is Walt Lees - magician, author and editor of well earned renown - and it is published by Magic Books By Post.

There are a number of things that I like about Mystery Magazine. I guess each of us will discover our own individual reasons for liking it. Mine include its quality of not clashing with or competing with other non-magic club periodicals. It is different enough from Magicseen and The LaBaL to justify my subscription to all three and not once have an overlap of articles, views or magic tricks. I am not going to go into depth about this issue's contents; you will just have to buy a copy and at a price of £2.50 that will hardly break the bank.

The magazine is monthly. It's full colour throughout and contains tricks, articles, reviews and news. Its format and contents is the result of Walt talking to people in the magic community and listening to what they would like. Walt's editorial clearly justifies the final result and so does reading the magazine.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Updates on Projects

The question that I have received most is ‘Why have you stopped uploading videos of your work?’ I have not stopped making the videos, they simply have not been uploaded yet. The reason for the delay is that I have been using different methods of filming other than time lapse photography and the results require more time in editing them into short videos. The reason for the change was to obtain a better quality of picture in the videos. The camera and software being used had a setback of a low resolution when in time lapse mode. It is a bit of an oddity considering all the other modes have a high resolution.

I have tried editing together a series of photographs for several oil paint portraits and the results are okay. Because the paintings take more than one day, it is a reasonable method to use but it is of no use when concentrating on a drawing or ink sketch which can be finished in an hour or two. It is too much trouble to get the right amount of photos, it interrupts my concentration and prolongs the task in an unacceptable way.

For these reasons, the time from the picture being completed and the video of the work being uploaded is now much greater.

Another reason, as far the project The Dead is concerned, is that the videos have been held back until after this year’s Remembrance Day. Although it was explained that the project is for Remembrance Day 2010, based on only one video from the project being made available there has been continual questioning from people regarding its use this year. Therefore, as stated above, no more videos from that project will be uploaded until sometime in November.

The only other piece of news is that the project Magicians has been given a longer time scale for completion due to the list of portraits required being lengthened.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

LATE MAIL

LATE MAIL
by John Helvin
(with apologies to W. H. Auden and his poem Night Mail)

This is the mail train not crossing the border,
Not bringing the cheque nor delivering mail order,

No letters for the rich, no letters for the poor,
The Royal Mail is on strike and what is it for?

Streamlining and cutbacks are to be had;
Most of the workers regard this as bad.

Computerisation and potential less hours;
Management and union relationship sours.

I’d rather my mail was hand sorted whatnot,
Than expertly bungled by the new ‘I, Robot.’

But are these the issues? Is this the debate?
The news simply repeats that our mail will be late.

There’s no documentary. What are the details?
Will Christmas post consist only of emails?

Will the news be the same old tales of yore,
That the Royal Mail is failing – we’ve heard it before.

The postal worker’s story is yet to be told;
Will any film-maker make as so bold?

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Georgian House in Bristol

About a week ago I took Jill to visit the Georgian House Museum on Great George Street, just off Park Street in Bristol. Jill is avid about all things Georgian, especially if related to Jane Austen or gives an insight to the period in which Austen lived. She said she preferred this house to the one in Bath - No 1 Royal Crescent. There are differences, such as the museum in Bristol is free whereas No 1 Royal Crescent has an admission fee. I think both are excellent. I can see some differences due to a fee being charged for the Georgian house in Bath. They can afford to finance a shop, guides and so on. The lower amount of funding for the house in Bristol is apparent if you know what to look for, or rather to look for what is missing in terms of staff, brochures, a shop and so on. Even so, a lot of care has gone into making the Georgian House in Bristol well worth a visit (or more than one).

One point to mention is how easy it is to miss the correct street. On a prior visit to Bristol, Jill and I were directed to the wrong George Street. This time, before setting off, I made a point of using Google Earth to be absolutely sure of finding the place when we arrived in Bristol.

The man who had the house built was John Pinney. Here is a portrait of him in one of the rooms. Pinney was a wealthy slave plantation owner and the house has a room dedicated to the subject of slavery during the Georgian period and its connection to Bristol. It is not often that I see a house museum highlight, in any way whatsoever, the human cost that made the original owner wealthy enough to afford such a house. Even when a house was built by someone who had no direct connection with slavery, it was still a period when William Blake justifiably wrote of some working conditions in Britain as being within ‘Dark Satanic Mills.’


The house has on the walls, besides portraits of Pinney, paintings from the Georgian period including one by a relation of Sir Joshua Reynolds. In the dining area is one that has a detail that may be of interest to magic historians. It is of three children and one is building a house of cards. Look carefully at the cards and you will see that the backs of the cards are blank and the corners are square and not rounded. Similar cards are on display on a card table in another room. Packs of cards which are reproductions of those from around that period can be bought from The Card Collection. I bought a deck for Jill last year. What is interesting from a conjuring point of view is how very different the physical quality of the cards are from modern day ones and how much that affects using sleight of hand.

I could find no information as to who the artist was; the style reminds me of Gainsborough but if it was him the museum would have had a note somewhere stating that detail. If anyone can let me know who the artist is I would appreciate it.

The museum has four floors to explore and overall it is very atmospheric, informative and enjoyable.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Stupid Gifts

Well, Christmas hit the shops last month. The local supermarket has Halloween items on display next to all the Christmas items (and the growing amount of toys). Christmas won’t get a mention in my bookshops until the 1st of December. Even so, it is present buying time for me from now until Christmas because of anniversaries and birthdays. Looking for sensible presents that people might actually want to receive is a tiring business and so I tend to have break and check out the weird gifts for a while.

I assume the manufacturer obtained permission for this one, the Maggie Thatcher Nutcracker. Says it all about the politics of yesteryear.










For anyone who wants a large tattoo but does not want the pain of getting it done, you can now buy tattoo sleeves. Just slip them onto your arms and pray that no one will notice the fabric.

















For any film buffs who are a bit, or quite a bit, of a 'lack of taste' nature you can buy the blood bath shower curtains in homage to Hitchcock's Psycho.











There is lots of weird stuff out there in internet land so I won’t go on and on. There are just three more that, as opposed to the above three, I would actually consider buying.

The first is carpet skates. Yes, that is right, carpet skates. I am getting too sedentary and need the exercise. Their plain stupidity appeals to me; nevertheless, I will fend off temptation and not buy a pair.














I am more likely to buy one of these watches. The Einstein Relativity watch or the Dali watch. I need a new one and these are in my top ten choices. On the Relativity watch the numbers move round. On the Dali watch, Dali's moustache is the watch hands and the ant moves round marking the seconds. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Duck Egg Meccano and David Copperfield: ancient theatre and modern magic.

Duck Egg Meccano, that is how I have heard the latin phrase deus ex machina pronounced by someone. More properly the classical Greek should be used theos apo mechanes. Both mean the ‘god from the machine.’ That is a phrase which has taken on a whole range of subtleties during the last two and a half thousand years but in Athens of the fifth century BC it was, quite simply, a wooden crane that held an actor, usually playing a god, aloft in the air above the performance area as if floating or flying.

It could be described as a very basic, crude and simple version of ‘stage levitation’ with little in common with the more sophisticated and mystifying methods of a magician who performs levitation or flying on stage. It also seems that there was no attempt to hide the method used from the audience and the extent of its use in ancient Greek drama is debatable. It is supposed that the audience’s attitude may have quickly become somewhat jaded towards its use or possible overuse and Aristophanes made fun of the device in his comedy Peace as a reference to its use in Euripides’ play Bellerophon.

It is interesting to note that in its early phase of use the mechane was a novelty. Its use was mostly at the end of a play as part of the denouement to the story. Some modern commentators view its use as a means of resolving matters when the writer had put a character in a sticky situation and did not know how to extricate him from it. However another view by Oliver Taplin, which reads the texts more carefully, shows that the main issues raised in the plays are concluded prior to the appearance of any use of the theos apo mechanes. It is therefore possible that for its early use, it provided a spectacle as a grand finale to a play.

This possibility has not been given as much discussion as perhaps it deserves. The reason is that mentions of the mechane in near or post contemporary writings are negative but we should bear in mind that they were written when its use and function had lost its popularity and it had become a theatrical cliché.

Modern performers face a similar dilemma regarding stage effects or even magic effects. Way back in 1994 David Copperfield performed at Earl’s Court in London and part of the act was him ‘flying.’ This might not sound a big deal because most magicians can perform levitation tricks of one sort or another. The thinktank behind Copperfield’s act added a bit extra. In an age when most audiences can speculate as to how a levitation trick might be done, Copperfield got into a large clear Perspex cabinet, had the lid put on and then floated inside the cabinet.

It was a touch used to confound those who thought they had correctly surmised the method behind it all. It was an important touch in an age when audiences know quite a bit about the workings of magical performances - because without a moment of that feeling of ‘okay, I’m not sure how that was done’ an illusion is not only not much of an illusion but the word magic loses its lustre in connection with it. If the method was made obvious or explained during the performance then a great deal of the entertainment value would be diminished or more probably simply cease to exist. It would be no more entertaining than watching someone swing across the stage on a thick rope like Tarzan and daring to call it magic or interesting. Who would go to see the next performance? That is a question that is to be asked of the ancient Greek mechane.

When the mechane was first used at the end of a tragedy, despite all its workings being on display, it was probably a surprise and a wonder for the audience. The same might not be able to be said after the same ancient Athenian audience had seen a whole load of plays end with the same spectacle over a few days during the annual dramatic festival. Oliver Taplin suggests that in the early use of the mechane most of the device was in plain view of the audience because a skene (a background building used as scenery) may not yet have been built. The moment the audience saw what we would call stagehands start to work the mechane, they would know what was coming. It would be as enjoyable as going to a three or four day dramatic festival of whodunits where in every single play ‘the butler did it.’

If it had been possible to add some mystery to how the mechane worked, rather like in modern magical acts which also continually reinvent the presentation of levitation, it may have maintained a better reputation for longer in relation to ancient Greek drama. It was impossible to do so however. The Greek dramatic festivals were a sort of community project. There were no professional actors. Each year, ordinary Athenian citizens were chosen to participate in staging the plays. There was no opportunity for professional secrets and there was no attempt to hide the mechane or its workings.

While the mechane was no mystery to ancient Athenians, it has provided a mystery for modern scholars. Apart from the debate on when and if the mechane was actually used in this or that play, a bigger puzzle is the design of the mechane itself. Modern works on the subject describe it as a wooden crane with a system of pulleys. It is not entirely a satisfactory suggestion (based on details from writers from after the period in question). I have not read of any modern engineering recreation which achieves the feats the mechane may have been used for in some plays – such as lifting a chorus of twelve to fifteen people into the air (a weight of about one ton) and swinging them onto the performance area, a horse being presented as the flying Pegasus, a chariot with riders, Medea in a chariot pulled by two dragons and so on.

I do not know for sure, but the puzzle of how the mechane would achieve such feats without breaking could be what inspires scholars to prefer interpretations of the ancient Greek theatre that do not involve the use of the mechane – hence the debate on when and if the mechane was actually used in this or that play. For me, that shows the mechane had potential for use in mystifying an audience. After all, consider the position that modern scholars are in; they have had the end effect described to them, the performance, but are at a loss to be specific about the method and the mechanism used. Saying a wooden crane with pulleys was involved is as vague as saying that you can build a cabinet by sawing wood or saying that a card trick is done by sleight of hand. It does not really tell you how it is done.

We are therefore not in a position to truly gauge its limitations in a useful way. We cannot, based on our present day designs of a wooden crane with pulleys as interpretations of a mechane, believe that a mechane could lift and move over a ton in weight (a chorus of fifteen people). However, I am not aware of the suggestion having been put forward of three mechane lifting five people each. Or five mechane lifting three people each. Or that the modern designs put forward for the mechane may not have any resemblance to the ancient mechane, which may have been able to lift and move a tad more weight than ours. It is one levitation trick where the real secret, the design of the mechane, was and remains known only to ancient Greek theatres and their audiences.

[Here are the books which helped inspire the above discussion: The Greek Theater and its Drama by Roy C. Flickinger, The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens by A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens by A. Pickard-Cambridge, Greek Scenic Conventions in the Fifth Century BC by Peter Arnott, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus by Oliver Taplin.]

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The Museum of Bath at Work

On Saturday Jill and I visited The Museum of Bath at Work. The main exhibition is of a Victorian business named J. B. Bowler & Sons. The business was a curious mix of an engineering works and a soft drinks factory. At first, that may seem a strange combination but the enjoyable and informative exhibition (using audio commentary) explained the sense of it all. Once we had seen the Bowler exhibits there was more to peruse regarding the history of work in Bath.


The entrance fee is probably the lowest of all the fee on entry type museums and exhibits in Bath, the staff are friendly and informative, the refreshments area is quiet and cool (which was appreciated on a hot day) and near the refreshments area is some amusement for young and old alike. An assortment of Victorian costumes, along with false moustaches, etc, are available for those who wish to try them on and even photograph each other in costume. The costumes easily fit over your clothes. Above is a photo of Jill in one of the costumes she tried on; I’ve given the picture a sepia tone.

If you want to visit the museum then consult their website (and even a Google map) to be sure you know how to get there. It isn’t that far from The Circle or The Costume Museum but can be easily missed because the entrance is not on a main road.

A FOOTNOTE to my previous blog entry The Old Masters: In reply to the most popular question on anatomy, I recommend Anatomy For The Artist by Jeno Barcsay. Having said that, there are alternatives and this book is not for the beginner. If you do choose to use this book, be sure to avoid the small sized publication. Get the large version (24.5cm x 32.7cm x 3.2cm); if you buy the small one you will need a very large magnifying glass or bionic eyes to appreciate any of the detail that you will be trying to learn from the book.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Old Masters

I received an unexpected present from my wife yesterday. Jill bought me the anniversary edition of How To Paint Like The Old Masters written by Joseph Sheppard. This is an unusual and yet popular book. It has been around for thirty years and is in no way intended for beginners. If you cannot already paint a portrait there is no point buying this book (the publishers might tell you different). Even then, the book has a value more for Art History than practical application.

For in this book, Joseph Sheppard takes the reader through a detailed process of describing how paintings were done in previous centuries. His example artists are Dürer (1461-1528), Titian (c.1488-1576), Veronese (1528-1588), Caravaggio (1571-1610), Rubens (1577-1640), Hals (1580-1666), Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vermeer (1632-1675). Instead of taking the usual route of other art books, where a painting of the artist is shown and then a less than helpful whistle-stop tour of technique is given, Sheppard paints a portrait from scratch and gives photographs of each stage. That may seem simple enough but the techniques and styles of painting have changed so much that the methods given in Sheppard’s book may astonish the young modern artist.

Most modern artists use the alla prima method. Alla prima means ‘all at once’ and describes how the artist begins and finishes a painting in one sitting. It is a loose term because sometimes two or three sittings may actually be needed. In alla prima what is central is that the colour and tone is built up all at once and not in layers, usually varnished layers.

That is how the old masters did it: in layers. Paint a layer. Wait a few days while it dried. Varnish/glaze it. Wait a few days for that to dry. Paint the next layer. Wait some more days for that to dry. And so on. A single painting may take weeks to complete and along the way the look of the painting might perturb a viewer. The flesh colour appears in a portrait during the latter half of the painting as a translucent wash; before that, the subject may appear very grey or silver in one method because those are the colours used in the primary layers. The final result is worth it if you have the patience, or rather, if your client has the patience.

Another set back for the novice with this book is the necessity of making your own paints and preparing your own linseed oil. The painting methods can be done with paint from a tube and bought artists linseed oil but the end result can be hit or miss. Sheppard is somewhat upbeat on the point and encourages the reader to make up his/her own mind. However, way back when, many years ago when I received training from Ed Howard, I spent a lot of boring hours preparing oil paint from scratch. I also did what is called ‘washing’ the linseed oil to take out any colour from it that ruins the delicate colour of a thin translucent layer of paint. Even the artists’ linseed oil bought from art shops does not match this and tends to have the colour of honey rather than having a clearer look about it. The home made DIY method is troublesome and boring but produces a better quality of paint and final picture. However, the difference is hardly visible in a photograph or print and so the modern, quicker methods prevail and with some sense when art is now more commonly seen by the public in printed mediums.

Even if you cannot paint, have no intention of learning to do so but have an appreciation of 16th and 17th century art then Sheppard’s book could be useful to you in deepening your understanding of the trouble that Titian, Rembrandt and others went to in order to paint a single portrait

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Weird Book Room

Due to illness there was no main blog post last Friday. Please accept my apologies. I am still not recovered and so this will be a brief blog entry; what energy I have is being used on meeting deadlines.

I am looking forward to seeing Derren Brown’s The Event. There is not enough magic on the main TV channels in the UK (if you have gone digital in the UK then you have more opportunity to see magic programmes - but not much more).

There is only a matter of days left in The LaBaL competition, so if any of The LaBaL’s readers want to make a last minute entry then now is the time. The winner will be announced in the next issue of The LaBaL.

And finally, in this brief entry, I leave you with a novelty I enjoyed yesterday. It is the Weird Book Room on Abebooks. Here is a list of some of the non-fiction titles of real books featured on that web page:

Doga: Yoga for Dogs
Bombproof Your Horse
The Great Pantyhose Crafts Book
The Lost Art of Towel Origami
(I’ve ordered my copy)
The Thermodynamics of Pizza
Do-It-Yourself Coffins
How to Survive a Robot Uprising

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Results of Oil Painting Poll

Some weeks back I put a Poll on my blog asking people to vote for the next magician to have their portrait painted in oil paints. The Poll ended this week and I now have the results:

David Devant - 54%
J. N. Maskelyne - 23%
Harry Blackstone senior - 15%
Houdini - 8%

So, at the end of the week, I shall begin a portrait of David Devant. A video of the final picture will be posted on You Tube near the end of September. However, you will not have to wait that long for new videos of other artwork to appear on my You Tube Channel. Next week, I will be posting some videos of my new project The Dead.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Update on The Sherlock Holmes Museum in London

Back in February of this year I wrote a review of The Sherlock Holmes Museum in London (You can read it in this blog by clicking this link). I gave reasons why it was a very good place to visit; I did, however, add a few criticisms. Well, recently, John Aidiniantz of the museum added this comment to my blog entry: "This is a good and well-balanced review of the museum and the criticisms have been accepted and addressed by the museum." Because the blog was so many months ago and therefore people may not read Mr. Aidiniantz's recent comment, I thought it was only fair to include it in a new blog entry highlighting that the museum has replied. After all, if one of the people involved in the running of the museum can take the time to reply, providing an update on the points made in the blog, then it should get a mention.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Snippets of News

Well, last week the mysterious white box that controls my access to the internet died in a puff of smoke and so my access to my own website and work has been limited. All was fixed yesterday thanks to the speedy response of my internet provider. You might think that a week was a long time to achieve that but with some internet providers people can end up waiting months. I am grateful it was only a week.

That, of course, means the work on my website is a week behind. Apologies to those waiting for the two remaining sections to completed.

Anyway, the news that should have been in my blog last week (if I was able to connect to the internet) is that there is an interview of me regarding my artwork in the latest issue of Magicseen. The article includes some samples of my portraits. A better reason to buy the magazine is the other articles; there are some really interesting ones. There is an interview with magical inventor Ben Harris, Craig Petty writing about gaffed coins and a feature on David Copperfield – which is something we do not see often in British Magic Magazines.

Those of you who have visited my updated website have asked questions on my new art project The Dead. Here are the answers to the two most frequently asked questions. Firstly, no, it does not mean that the Magicians project is finished; that will continue along side this new project. Secondly, The Dead is timed for Remembrance Day next year, not this year.

A piece of news regarding the Magicians project is that the client, after reflecting on the matter for some time, decided that the portrait of Noel Britten should not be included in the project. The basis of his decision is that Britten’s public image is connected more to comedy than it is to magic. Various arguments against the decision could not counter two points on which the client remains firm. Firstly, although the magic which forms an integral part of The Bizarre Bath Comedy Walk has been performed for eighteen years or so now (by Noel Britten and JJ) and has a world wide reputation, the outward image is still focused on comedy. Secondly, while Britten is respected for his work by the magic community, the general public see him as a comedian and not a magician. For that reason, the portrait is offered for sale to the general public in a ‘sealed’ or ‘blind’ bid auction. The full details are on my website in the art section.

One final piece of news is that the paperback A Briefe And Pleasaunt Treatise, Entituled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions by Thomas Hill, the text of 1581, is now on sale. You can buy a copy on my website (using the link on the Home page) or from my Ebay shop John Helvin's Books.

Friday, 14 August 2009

The Essential Dai Vernon and other things

My copy of this book arrived today; nice, new and shrink-wrapped. It is a very commendable asset to any magician or researcher in that it gathers together many of Vernon’s books into one handy volume. However, there are some disappointments as a book collector. Considering the large amount of photographs in this book, those of Vernon illustrating how sleights are done and the section of extra photographs, the paper chosen should have been of a better quality than that used. Mike Caveney’s Magic Words got it very right in the quality of paper for Revelation by Dai Vernon. Because of that, the photographs reproduced in that book have fantastic tonal quality and detail. Comparing my first edition of The Dai Vernon Book of Magic published by Harry Stanley in 1957 with its counterpart in L&L Publishing’s Essential Dai Vernon, the printed quality of photographs is better in the Harry Stanley edition simply through a better choice of paper. Oh well, we cannot have everything and the fact that The Essential Dai Vernon even exists is a boon not to be overshadowed by nitpicking.

Another worthy book that arrived today is The Notebook edited by Will Houstoun. It is a bit of a must for anyone interested in the history of magic and collecting or researching old magic books. Houstoun, a member of the Magic Circle, was shown a handwritten notebook in the Magic Circle’s library by the Executive Librarian Peter Lane. The notebook dates to the early nineteenth century. The unknown author of the notebook collects together eighty conjuring tricks, some by well known magicians of that period. Houston has provided a facsimile of the notebook with a transcription of the text, along with some helpful notes. I have read only one negative review of The Notebook and the author of that completely missed the point of the book as a social text and historical document. The book is not without flaws but no book exists that does not. If Houstoun reprints the book then, as with all books, the errors will be expunged.

On a completely different subject, my main website is still in the process of being overhauled. One hurdle not yet successfully leapt is programming a shopping cart and checkout for the site. This will make it possible for people to buy books directly on the site instead of going to one of my other three internet outlets. The advantage to this is mostly for UK customers. I have become dissatisfied with the increase in cost of postage and packaging being charged to UK customers by a company that I was going to use for mail order distribution. They want to charge customers a flat rate of £4.75 to deliver a single copy of A Briefe And Pleasaunt Treatise, Entituled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions by Thomas Hill anywhere in the UK. I have therefore decided that I will handle distribution in the UK and the postage and packaging for the book will be free to UK customers. While I get the checkout sorted on my main website, I have put some copies of Thomas Hill’s book for sale on my Ebay shop. The price is £10 and postage and packaging is, as stated above, free within the UK.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Vote For The Next Portrait Of A Magician To Be Painted

The project of portraits of magicians continues (not all the portraits are available to see on the internet). Not all the portraits will be oil paint on canvas and I thought I would give people a chance to vote as to who will be the next magician to be painted in that medium.

So, below is a poll with four historical magicians. Vote for the one you think should be the next subject for an oil painting. Voting ends on the evening of the 31st of August. In the meantime, I will be painting some watercolour portraits of modern magicians and a pen and wash of Egyptian Hall during the Maskelyne period.



The above poll is in javascript and may not appear in some internet browsers if javascript is not enabled.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Argy-Bargy Week

For those who do not know, and here I must remember that this is read beyond the shores of the UK, ‘argy-bargy’ means a heated argument. I have been caught in the middle of such debates recently on two different topics and, to my surprise, did well. I say surprise because normally I just cannot be bothered to even get involved where someone simply wants an argument. A discussion is worthwhile, lots can be learned from a discussion, but an argument is a waste of time where the only thing gained from it is negative feelings.

One topic, not discussed here, was on The Trojan War and the other was regarding the blog of Paul Gordon. Gordon is a card magician who has written many magic books. He performs magic for a living and so his books are based on years of experience. One of his blog posts made the point that his books should be read all the way through and not simply skimmed through to pick out a few tricks.

I left a comment on that blog agreeing and saying that any magic book should be read from cover to cover. Just because some books are divided into sections, sometimes trick by trick, is not an invitation to merely dip into a book instead of reading it. Gordon replied that his method of discouraging that was not to divide his books into such sections.

I thought that was that; an exchange of views in agreement and then onto the next thing of interest. I had no idea that I was inviting people's ire by writing that a magic book should be read all the way through. And so I have had a number of unwelcome arguments from people I do not personally know – but that did not stop them raising the subject with me.

Sense began to prevail when I was able to change the argument to a discussion. I put various questions to them, asking them to consider their own judgement on the matter based on those questions. Thankfully, the result was being told that they then saw my point of view or occasionally even agreed that I was right.

I am unable to give every detail but here are samples of what questions I put to them and some of the replies.

“Are the magic books you own expensive?” - "Yes.”
“Does each one cost more than an action film on a DVD?” - “Yes. A lot more.”
“Would you buy a film on a DVD and only ever watch the car chase scenes and not watch the whole film?” - “No, that would be stupid wouldn’t it? It would be a waste of money. Oh, right.”
“How much money are you wasting by not getting everything you can out of each magic book?” - “I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“Do the magic books you own give tips on performance?” - “Yes.”
“Are those tips given all together in one section or are they given bit by bit with each trick?” - “Bit by bit.”
“So, in buying a magic book written by someone you thought was worth learning from, those tips are important?” - “Yes.”
“But by not reading the whole book you are not getting to read all of those tips, are you?” – “No.”
“And you paid quite a bit of money to learn from that person through their book?” - “Okay, I get the point.”

Gordon made his point his own way as described in his blog. More than once people have told Gordon they own a particular book he authored, he then showed them a card trick, they were impressed and ask from which of his books they could learn how to perform it and Gordon’s reply was that they had already said they own a copy.

I made my point in a similar (but non-performance) way a few times by simply pointing out what someone has missed in a book. One example is that after having won over someone to the view that the whole of a magic book should be read, the discussion turned to the subject of MacDonald’s Aces and where could he read any similar four ace trick. I pointed out he had already named a book he owned that has a four ace trick with a similar presentation, And a Pack of Cards by Jack Merlin (under the heading “My Favourite Four Ace Trick”). He then admitted that he only read the sections on card sleights to learn them but did not read any of the cards tricks in the latter half of the book.

There is another aspect to be mentioned and it can be summed up by something that Walt Lees said to me in an email back in May of this year. At the Bristol Day of Magic I bought a copy of Revelation by Dai Vernon (thank you to Paul Cooke of Magic Books By Post). I emailed Walt and said I had a copy but had not begun to ‘read it’ due to illness. Walt, very correctly, was quick to chide my poor choice of words. Revelation was not a book simply to be read, it was to be worked through. And there we have a statement that highlights an important ambiguity of the word ‘read’. Someone can say they are reading a book on origami but what they mean is that they are working their way through the book, making the paper models. The same goes for any book on the subject of how to do something, including magic tricks.

Reading a magic book from cover to cover involves going through each magic trick step by step with the props/cards/coins in hand, learning each and every trick. At the end of that the reader will know enough about the book to judge which tricks suit him/her and whether or not the book is a good or bad magic book. Can you imagine a modern author of fiction being told that the plot of their latest novel is not any good based on reading only ten pages of it and not the whole book?

Every now and then I buy a magic book at a very cheap price. The person selling it made the price low because they thought the book was not very good, despite the good reputation of the author or title. They usually say something like they “tried reading it but didn’t get much out of it.” I have yet to buy a magic book on this basis (and read it and work though it) that did not turn out to be a gem.

I have been described as an omnifarious bibliophile and so to me the idea of someone buying a book and not reading it cover to cover is just plain sacrilege. Perhaps, due to that, you might choose to ignore my view but on the view of Paul Gordon and Walt Lees consider this notion. Their career is magic. Full time. It is their day job and not their hobby. Both are successful. Walt probably has more experience and knowledge on magic than ten or twenty randomly chosen magicians put together. Based on that ask yourself this: Would it be smart to take their advice on how to read a magic book and dumb to ignore it?

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Film of J. N. Maskelyne Performing Plate Spinning

If you know anything about the history of magic in the UK then you will have heard of J. N. Maskelyne. Amongst all the wonders that he performed in magic shows, he performed plate spinning. No, not the spinning a plate on a stick sort of thing. This is something else altogether.

In the book The Modern Conjurer by C. Lang Neil (1903 edition), two of the pages have film like strips printed down the edges. The blurb explains that they pictures taken using the technology of the cinematograph. I decided to see if I could make a video from the images of Maskelyne in action. I scanned the pages, edited the individual pictures into separate files and edited a very brief film using them. I have no idea what became of the original film. The book states the pictures were taken especially for the book, so it was probably never publicly used.

Well, here is the video.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

A Quick Update

Just a footnote to my rant in my blog of July 10th about the media and the recession. Yesterday in The Times Patrick Hosking’s article My 20 reasons to be cheerful about the economy is a breathe of fresh air. He looks at the other side of the coin pointing out that ‘economic gloom can be overdone’. The article is now online.

It’s not just the UK taking this view. The American Newsweek published its own story entitled The Recession is Over. Again, the article is now available online.

Both articles sensibly discuss matters from a point of view that being in recovery from recession is not the same as being back to how things were before the recession. A lot of media writers erroneously give the impression that recovery is an overnight process where everything does indeed suddenly and magically go back to how things were. And then the economic fairy godmother goes back to the magic castle.

I'm hoping that this kind of realistic reporting on the economy begins to grow. It is so infrequent that readers can immediately be unsympathetic and critical towards the reporter. Patrick Hosking takes a tongue lashing in the reader's comments section but one reader, Colin Grant, rebuts 'The reader comments are predictably from the Armageddon tendency but Patrick is spot on.'

Friday, 24 July 2009

A Bit Busy

I’ve been more than a bit busy recently and so I haven’t much to report in terms of travel or entertainment. In fact, I’ve been so busy I haven’t kept up with my correspondence and so I publicly apologise to those who haven’t heard from me in a while. Hopefully, August will bring some ease to my schedule and I can relax a bit.

I am able to relate a few titbits of interest.

In reply to those who have asked, yes I will be uploading another video of artwork soon - an oil painting of an iconic magician of yesteryear. There will be no more pen drawings for quite a while. The project has more than enough of them. There will be some pencil drawings but mostly, from now on, the portraits will be in paint of one kind or another. The bad news is that client has told me that the UK is not going to be one of the exhibition's venues. Not entirely unexpected considering he lives in Italy. Once again, I would like to remind everyone that the videos of the artwork will be removed from the internet once the exhibition begins. The portraits are to be published in a book. I will give more details on that when I know them.

Dr. Richard Wiseman’s latest book seems to be doing well. You can learn more at http://59seconds.wordpress.com/
I’ve ordered my copy. I enjoy reading myth busting books. I can recommend an out of print book by another psychologist, R. D. Rosen, called Psychobabble (not to be confused with a new religious book using the same title). Rosen coined the phrase psychobabble when studying the trend for new psychotherapies that swept the western world during the Sixties and Seventies. Another psychologist who took a practical look at things that do and don’t work was Robert Cialdini, whose book was simply called Influence. Both are very interesting books.

R. Paul Wilson, of BBC3's The Real Hustle, now has blog you can follow.
http://rpaulwilson.wordpress.com/beijing-bound/
You can also read a good interview of Wilson in the recent issue of Magicseen. For more details on that:
http://www.magicseen.co.uk/

I recently received the first issue of Gambit published by Benjamin Earl. It’s always difficult to judge the quality of a magazine from its first issue because there has been no reader response to guide the editor. It’s good but considering its high price and the promise made regarding the magazine’s proposed content I hope that the second issue, which will be on sale soon, has fewer gags filling dead space and more articles on card magic.

Don’t forget The LaBaL Competition is still running and the closing date is not until the 15th September so there is plenty of time to get a copy of the latest issue of The LaBaL from its editor and publisher, Al Smith, and enter the competition. For details on ordering a copy look for the advertisement on the left hand side of this page.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Unsung Hero, Unsung Villain?


Thomas Hill lived and wrote during the Sixteenth Century. Other than the titbits he mentions about himself in his books, we know very little about him. He is, it could be argued, an unsung hero. He was the first writer to include in a book published in the English language some conjuring tricks that his readers could try for themselves. ‘So what?’ some might say. ‘What’s the big deal with a few parlour tricks?’ Well, Hill was not living in the most politically or religiously tranquil of times. Hill lived to see the Royal Crown pass from Henry VIII to Edward VI to Mary I to Elizabeth I; all of which was a period of turmoil, sometimes bloody, regarding Britain’s official religion. It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that Hill published A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise, Entituled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions (In his excellent book Old Conjuring Books, Trevor Hall dates the earliest known edition as being published in 1567).

So, during a century where the topic of religion had more than a tinge of danger to it, Hill had the nerve to include in his book what must have been two controversial items amongst the tricks. They were easily recognisable as being two of the miracles of Christ - changing water to wine and walking on water – and practical, workable methods were given for both. Usually, we the modern public associate the name of James I, the successor to Elizabeth I, with the ‘witch craze’ where just about anyone could be accused and executed as a witch; in fact, it was Elizabeth I who brought in the legislation regarding witchcraft. And so by 1584, during the reign of Elizabeth, a Justice of the Peace named Reginald Scot wrote and published a book called The Discoverie of Witchcraft. Scot not only casts doubt on the power of witches but also laments how innocent people, including conjurors performing the likes of the cups and balls, had been tried and condemned for witchcraft. Imagine being tried and condemned as a witch for performing a few card tricks! So what would the public’s reaction be to Hill’s two marvels that, through practical methods, imitate the power of Christ?

Hill’s courage to publish such items might be associated with the downside to the argument regarding his character. Courage usually has a motivation and in Hill’s case it may simply have been money and the quest for fame through notoriety. We can judge this by looking at some of the other items in his book. Along with some tricks he gives experiments on subjects ranging from husbandry to metallurgy to the plain weird – such as supposedly getting an egg to climb up to the top of an upright spear by filling it with morning dew and then waiting for the sunrise. Yep, Hill decided to put a good amount of outlandish claims in the book in order to help it sell. Because then, just as now, such books sell and sell well. The evidence of that can be seen in two ways. Firstly, that Hill’s book continued to be reprinted for a number of centuries; secondly, in how Hill’s book was mercilessly plagiarised by other writers for the next two to three centuries and the bits they stole were the conjuring tricks and the whacky experiments that sounded great but could not possibly work.

So Hill was, sort of, a bit of a hero for being the first person to have the courage to publish conjuring tricks in English at a time when it was not wise to do so – even copies of Reginald Scots’ book were later burned by Royal edict – and Hill was also a bit of a villain in that his intentions were probably grossly selfish and part of some attempt to gain fame or to be noticed by his contemporaries. He was certainly noticed by Reginald Scot, who wrote of one of Hill’s later books as being of ‘follie and vanitie’.

I have edited Hill’s book for publication as a paperback and it is being released in August. The details are below. You can reserve a copy or ask about payment options by sending an email to sales@johnhelvin.net


A Briefe And Pleasaunt Treatise, Entitutled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions by Thomas Hill, the text of 1581, with the original illustrations.

The text given in this book uses the original spelling.

Contents:
Editor's Preface
The text of A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise, Entituled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions
Notes by the Editor
Bibliography
Acknowledgements
Size: 9 inches (height) by 6 inches (width)
Pages: 88
Illustrations: reproduces five illustrations from the edition of 1581 and a portrait of Thomas Hill from the frontispiece of one of his other books.
Price: £10.00
ISBN: 978-1-872175-05-8

Friday, 10 July 2009

The Media and the Recession

Television programs go on and on about the recession. Sometimes I wonder if one of the many reasons that the recovery from it is slow is because the media will not let go of it as a story. Every day in every newspaper, magazine, on the radio and on the television are the words recession, recovery, credit crunch, etc. The recession, as a topic, is pervading every genre. Even dramas are being made about it. (Please bear in mind I am talking about in the UK; I sometimes forget that my blog is read outside the UK.)

So where is the relief? I do not mean money; I mean emotional relief from a harsh reality. When do we get a break from being constantly reminded that we should be miserable and worried? In the past, during hard times, parts of the media industry (film, television, radio, books) aimed its efforts at raising the morale of a nation. There seems to be no such effort at present.

However, the need for such a change is becoming apparent. The doom-mongers on the television have highlighted how much the general public have turned to bargain shops for their shopping. I know this to be true. My parents were penny-pinching tight fists and thus so am I. Long before the recession I was buying whatever was needed from bargain shops rather than high street shops. When I would visit a bargain shop I saw the usual faces or I would be one of a few lone people in a quiet shop. Now when I visit one, it is as busy as a Tube Station in London. What I have noticed most of all is that the stock of such shops has changed. The majority of it used to be household goods. Now, an equal amount of space is given to leisure items.

A further change is in the choice in those leisure items. I would always glance at the books, videos and DVDs in case, by some miracle, there was one that did not have a storyline that was a complete turkey and a waste of the very cheap price it would cost to buy (that is how bad they could be and why they were on sale in a bargain shop). Now it is getting difficult to find a bad, unpopular film or book in such shops. Customer demand for leisure items, including alternatives to scheduled programs on television and radio (CDs, videos, DVDs and books), has funded a better quality range of stock in bargain shops. Is this not a sign of people spending money during a recession?

People are spending money on leisure items, just not as often in the familiar high street names. They have gone elsewhere. The recovery from the recession does not necessarily mean that all the famous shop names we know now will survive. Nor is the possible demise of some of them a sign that the recession is getting worse. Quite simply, other types of shops, some of the underdogs, are slowly rising to be the ‘top dogs’ in retail. It has happened before. We easily forget that some of the famous names that the news stories fixate about started out as bargain shops during hard times. Those famous names now have competitors who are giving them serious competition.

Going back to my underlying point about the media, CDs, videos, DVDs and books - if people are listening, watching or reading these, then how much less are they watching scheduled programs on television and radio? And why? If someone is trying to save money during a recession and since it uses more electricity to watch a DVD than it does to watch yet another television program reiterating financial doom and gloom, what motivates them to watch a DVD instead of the television program?

Perhaps it is what is on television that is the motivation. Even some of the comedy programs, which should lift our spirits and give us a break from whatever troubles we have in our daily lives, include so much about the recession as a topic that they might as well change their program name to Doomwatch. The recent series of Bremner, Bird & Fortune lost its lustre somewhat in being an overly long and laboured ‘I told you so’.

On the other hand, The One Show on BBC1 has been highlighting positive stories regarding the recession but regrettably only as a novelty and their presentation can be slightly tongue in cheek.

The questions to ask about programs that seem to merely exist for the subject of the recession are ‘What do these programs achieve?’ and ‘Do we really need them?’ It has become difficult to imagine watching just one news program that does not find some way to include the recession as a topic. If the recession were to officially end on Monday, the media would still be peddling it as a story on the following Friday and the next week and the next week and so on. Why? Some stories, some topics, are a news editors wet dream because they make his or her life so much easier. War, the death of celebrities, scandals, and the recession can be mercilessly milked to fill empty spaces on newspaper pages or dead minutes in a news program. And there are always empty spaces to be filled in newspapers every day, just as there are dead minutes to be filled in every news program.

One problem is that there is little left that is actually ‘news’ about the recession. When there is something that is actually ‘news’, another problem comes into play which is that the media seem to only consider the negative topics of the recession as newsworthy. They will highlight famous shops or brands as doing badly due to the recession, they will suggest that people are not spending money; what they will not do is mention that one of the reasons that famous shops or brands are doing badly is because other shops and brands are stealing their customers by being more competitive in these hard times – and therefore people are spending money. Perhaps not enough to speed up a recovery but the image of the general public holding onto an ever increasing pile of cash in their bank accounts is a false one. If we all had those kinds of savings in our accounts then the banks would have nothing to worry about in regards to the recession.

So when will people start spending money in amounts that will help the recovery from the recession? Well, it is unlikely to be while the media indulge in exploiting the subject as a lazy way of filling news space in print or on the television. Let us not underestimate the influence of the media on the economy of anything.

Remember Gerald Ratner and his jewellery shops? He made a light hearted joke about his products being ‘crap’ and the media made that into a story and milked it for all they could. The result was that sales and share prices plummeted, 300 shops closed, hundreds of people were made unemployed and the company nearly went bankrupt. Not simply because Ratner said his products were ‘crap’, he said that in a humorous speech at a business gathering where he joked that some of his jewellery was ‘cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but wouldn’t last as long’, but because of how the media reported the story in order to fill empty news space, in print and in broadcasting. The how contributed to the motivation of people to stop spending and investing in Ratners.

Some business people say that the worst of the recession is over in the UK but the media, still peddling the pessimist angle and choosing to confuse the words ‘worst of’ and ‘over’ with ‘recovery’, give their statistical reasons why the ‘recovery’ has not begun (read the story). Others in the media, who are not putting up much of a fight against the idea of the recovery having begun, are simply finding something else to be gloomy about: the recovery itself (read the story).

As unflattering as it sounds, we the British public might only go back to spending significant sums of money when the media encourages or tells us to do so. It will probably be out of step with the actual economic situation because the decision may be made by an editor somewhere whose reasoning is that pessimism and recession are ‘old hat’ as far as news stories go, the new angle is to be optimism and recession.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

In Search of the Paul Daniels of the Ancient World

That is the title of my article which appears in the latest issue of Classical Association News. Before anyone makes any jokes about the subject being on the early career of Paul Daniels, I should make clear that it is about magicians in the ancient Greek and Roman world.

The latest issue of Classical Association News is significant because it is the last one to be edited by Dr. Jenny March. She has been its editor for the last twenty years and has now chosen to retire from that role. Dr. March has been a kind and wise editor (kind enough to allow even my work to occasionally be published in the pages of Classical Association News), who has the talent of shaping the content of Classical Association News to fit neatly into each issue and yet modestly never letting her presence to be felt on any page except in the brief editorial. Even in what is her final issue as editor, she modestly kept tributes by contributors to a minimum (any less and there would have been none) and the emphasis of her farewell editorial was more about others than herself. I wish Dr. March a happy retirement.

The new editor is to be Dr. Tony Keen. He is a Blogger and and can be found at tonykeen.blogspot.com

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The LaBaL Competition Is Now Open!

July is here and for those of us who subscribe to The LaBaL, the July issue will be arriving on our doorsteps very soon. That, of course, means that The LaBaL competition is up and running as of this month. The competition is very easy and the winner will be the owner of their very own paperback copy of A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise, Entituled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions by Thomas Hill, the text of 1581.

If you do not subscribe to The LaBaL then it is not too late. You can buy a single issue or take out a subscription directly from the publisher, Al Smith. He can be contacted by writing to A. Smith, 17 Osbert Road, Rotherham, South Yorkshire, S60 3LD, UK.

There is plenty of time because The LaBaL is a quarterly periodical and the competition does not close until the 15th of September 2009.

For some more details about The LaBaL read the advertisement on my website. The details of the competition will only appear in the pages of The LaBaL.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The LaBaL Competition

In the July issue of the The LaBaL I am sponsoring a competition where one of the readers can win a paperback copy of A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise Entituled Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions by Thomas Hill, the text of 1581. For those who do not know, The LaBaL is one of a handful of British magic magazines which are independent of any magic club. With the demise of Abra in March of this year and The Magician Magazine last year, we are left with only four such magazines in the UK (I would be glad to hear from anyone that can name more British based magic magazines which are independent of any magic club). They are Jerry Sadowitz’s The Crimp, Mark Leveridge’s Magicseen, Benjamin Earl’s Gambit Magazine and Al Smith’s The LaBaL.

Each magazine is very different. Magicseen deals with the subject of magic in a general way touching on all or any news items, interviews, reviews, etc. Gambit’s sole concern is card magic. Both Magicseen and Gambit have their own websites where copies can be bought. The Crimp is filled with Sadowitz’s caustic humour. It is only for sale to people whom Sadowitz considers to be trusted magicians. The LaBaL is the creation of magician Al Smith.

Al Smith was the editor and publisher of Abacus, a magic magazine that went out monthly for ten years. After finishing his time with Abacus he wanted to edit a less demanding periodical and so he created what he calls a “now and then quarterly”, The LaBaL, which is now in its sixth year. He calls The LaBaL a ‘Magzine’; note that it is not a magazine with an ‘a’ but a ‘Magzine’ with the letter ‘a’ missing. Al Smith has taken the words magazine and fanzine and crushed them into one word: Magzine. It is a good description for The LaBaL. It has some of the qualities of a fanzine, a no frills spiral bound A4 periodical published for and contributed to by those who share a love of a particular interest; at the same time it has the editorial standards and number of pages of a magazine, along with the fact that some of the contributors are professional practitioners of that shared interest. Each issue contains news, reviews, tricks, etc.

If you are a subscriber to The LaBal then be sure to look for the competition in the July issue. If you are not a subscriber but are interested in The LaBaL, then you can buy a single issue or take out a subscription directly from Al Smith. He can be contacted by writing to A. Smith, 17 Osbert Road, Rotherham, South Yorkshire, S60 3LD, UK.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Tying Together Loose Ends

It has been a busy number of weeks for me; however, some of the main tasks have been completed or are near completion. One task was redesigning my main website to give it a few extra sections which would bring together various items on the web related to me. There are now sections on art, photos and videos. They do not contain everything that is on the web to do with me, just a reasonable selection making it easier to view things without going to the trouble of visiting a list of sites to see what is new. There is a new section on books. This is not been fully added yet and only lists some of the books available from one of my internet bookshops. When it is complete, there will be books listed there which are not available in my other shops and which can only be purchased through the main site. I am being encouraged to do the same with some artwork but I am against the idea at present.

I have received some questions asking why I have not posted any more videos of art on YouTube since last month. I have reached the stage on the Magicians project where I am now working on paintings as well as drawings. I am not making time lapse videos of the paintings and so there is nothing to post on YouTube or my main site. I still have a list of drawings to do and videos of those will be posted on the net as usual as and when they are done. Something that should be kept in mind is that all the videos pertaining to the Magicians project will be removed from my YouTube channel and my main site shortly after the project is completed. Once again I would to thank the people that have been kind enough to contact me and write nice things about my art. It is very much appreciated.

Another task which is nearly complete is the corrections to text and cover of A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise of Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions by Thomas Hill, the text of 1581. The proof copy of this book highlighted errors which had been missed at the editing stage and so I have been glad of the opportunity to deal with them and finally get ready to put the book on sale.

Thomas Hill was a compiler of books on various matters such as dreams, gardening and almanacs. One book stands out however and that is his Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions. It was, as far as we know at present, the first book in English to include some conjuring tricks. Aha, some of you might be saying, is not Reginald Scots’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft the book that has claim to that accolade? It was, until someone pointed to Hill’s book as having an earlier date of publication. Trevor Hall, a magician and bibliographer, researched the matter carefully and showed that Hill’s text predates Scot’s not merely by a few years but by several decades (for more on that, read Hall’s book Old Conjuring Books).

For some people, however, magic is not the sole interest of Hill’s book. The book includes items in many fields of interest amongst which are metallurgy, chemistry, botany, biology, and crackpotology. Yes, that is right, crackpotology. Hill includes a number of crackpot items that even he probably did not believe and some he certainly knew could not possibly be true. The book has relevance to the history of all these areas and even to the history of religion in the United Kingdom. Hill’s book was published during the turbulent century of the beginnings of the English Reformation and two of the items in his book may therefore have been very controversial: how to walk on water and how to change water into wine. Both are literal attempts at each task, showing that each can be done by non-miraculous means.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Being Awkward About Exhibitions

The Youtube videos of my pen sketches of magicians and the few details about the exhibition to feature them has led to my receiving various communications, most frequently involving four types; therefore, I thought it best to address them here.

The first is from the people being very kind and paying me compliments about my art. I have tried to answer the emails of as many of you as I can but the point has been reached where all I can sensibly do is say thank you to everyone by using this blog and apologise for not being able to directly contact all of you.

The second is that many people have asked if they can buy some of the portraits featured in the Youtube videos. The answer is a polite no; they have been commissioned and therefore unavailable.

The third is regarding those asking to host an exhibition of my work. These inquiries have been of the kind where someone wishes to host an exhibition of my work on the premise that I only receive any form of payment if any of the artwork sells. The answer to all and any inquiries of that sort is a polite no. My artwork for others is done on a commissioned basis only. I am commissioned to do a project, I complete the project and I get paid. Whether or not someone exhibits the final project is up to them. I will not be involved by that stage. That is what is happening with the Magicians project. I will not be attending any of the venues of the exhibition. Should a client make a profit in selling any of the artwork commissioned then that is fine with me; that is what happens in the art world anyway. (Anyone wishing to commission art work is welcome to contact me but I advise them to be sitting down when they hear the price.)

My reasons for working this way are many but here is one of them which is self-explanatory. Take a look at this picture:

It is a study in pencil of a bronze by Rodin. This was one of thirty such studies of sculptures by Rodin. Note the word ‘was’. I have three left; the other twenty-seven were stolen in an exhibition. Or so I was told by the person hosting the exhibition. It was the only time I said yes to a gallery that exhibits art with a view to selling it on behalf of the artist. After much effort, I made no profit and lost twenty-seven items of financial value. It will remain the only time that I have said yes to a gallery that exhibits art with a view to selling it on behalf of the artist.

Now we move on to the crackpots, the conspiracy theorists, etc. It has reached the stage that I delete all emails and messages of this type without reading them. For those of you wondering what sort of lunacy these emails contain, I can say that the small number that I read when I first started to receive them were of a very imbecilic nature. The subsequent ones that followed were no different. It is very sad that some people have gone to the trouble to learn to read and write and yet have not bothered to learn to think, making the whole process a waste of time.

I hope that covers most people’s inquiries. Sane and sensible people are still welcome to contact me. I cannot guarantee a reply but will try my best in most cases.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Bristol Day of Magic 2009


I seldom go to magic conventions and have never been to an event held by The Bristol Society of Magicians; so I had no idea what to expect when I attended The Bristol Day of Magic on the 10th of May.

Usually, any review of anything has its overall conclusions and recommendations at the end of the article but here I feel it is best to say these things at the beginning: It was a great day, worth every penny, and I completely recommend that if you have never attended before, then you should definitely think about doing so next year.

The venue was
The Winter Gardens in Weston-super-Mare. There were plenty of rooms for all the various events and a small restaurant area too.

The day was opened by the president of The Bristol Society of Magicians, Steve Lawrence, followed by a short speech by the president of the British Ring of
The International Brotherhood of Magicians, Trevor Lewis.

This was then followed by about six hours of lectures, close up magic sessions, and a one man show. Jill and I attended the lecture by David Tomkins, the one man show of John Archer and the close up sessions of Steve Beam, Nick Einhorn and Shawn Farquhar. While all this was going on there was a dealer’s showcase in another part of the building where all sorts of magic equipment and supplies were on sale. In order to take advantage of the opportunity to buy things I needed (thank you to
The Card Collection, Magic Books by Post and others) and to take time out for lunch, we missed a few of the lectures. It seems odd that the schedule for the day did not have a set lunch break, meaning that people could either go hungry or miss out on one of the events, but there was so much to pack into one day I am really not sure how a break could have been provided without compromising the variety and quality that The Bristol Society of Magic provided that day.

There was a two hour break in the evening and then everyone met at the
The Playhouse for the gala show, Spellbound, which was absolutely fantastic.

The people who made the biggest impression on me on the day were
John Archer, Nick Einhorn, Steve Beam, Shawn Farquhar and Michael Pearse. Pearse’s act in the gala show was one that received a lot of appreciation from the audience. In his seventies, Pearse juggled various items whilst firing out joke after joke after joke. In one of the close up magic sessions Shawn Farquhar presented an original take on the cups and balls that left the audience somewhat speechless at times. During the gala show he performed several tricks, one of which can be seen being performed by him on Youtube at another venue. John Archer has a channel on Youtube but nearly all the videos are from the television program Undercover Magic and in no way represent the very funny comedy magic act we saw at the convention.

Next year will be the fiftieth Bristol Day of Magic and it was hinted that this will be an extra special event.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Sketch of Penn Jillette



I might not film many more of these portraits being drawn. Setting up the camera and the fact that the camera is in the way as I draw are slowly me down somewhat. Therefore, I might simply get on with drawing and painting the remaining portraits without the nuisance of filming them. I am about half way through the agreed list and I want to get ahead of schedule so I can get on with editing projects that are in danger of being neglected. I have not fully decided yet.

I have received an email regarding the client's original idea that the videos would be played at an exhibition when the portraits were on display. Although the client is keen, the management of the venues are not. If no venues are interested then I will not bother with any more of these type of videos and just get on with completing the project.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Not Taking a Photograph of Wayne Dobson

We went to Weston-super-Mare to attend the Bristol Day of Magic and nearly did not attend. What does that mean you ask? Well, Jill and I decided to have a long weekend at Weston. On Saturday and Monday we would relax and enjoy Weston. On Sunday we would enjoy the Bristol Day of Magic. I felt great on Saturday. I did not feel so great when I woke up Sunday morning. No, not a hangover, I do not drink alcohol. It was going to be one of those days when my body was going to be as disobliging as possible. The tinnitus in my left ear was ringing particularly badly and my right ear, which is actually the weaker one, was making everything sound like I was under water. Great timing for an ear infection, I thought (an ear infection, gum infection or tooth abscess can make mild tinnitus not so mild for the time that the infection lasts). It was when I tried to get out of bed that I found out the full extent of my dilemma. I have had bone and muscle problems for many years. My knees, my back and my neck were working in unison to thwart my aim of going to the magic convention.

Okay I thought, when I walk, every time I take a step, it is like someone is hitting each knee in turn with a hammer; my back is refusing to straighten leaving me hunched like Quasimodo; my neck is arching backwards worse than ever. I do not care, I thought, I am a tight fisted Celt who paid to attend the convention and I am not going to let that money go to waste. So, I said to myself, I am going.

I have to admit I spent most of the day trying to avoid conversation with people because I could not hear most of what they were saying. When Jill would speak to me I would, at times, get her to speak directly into in my ear so I could hear what she was saying. I could hardly ask people I had just met to be so intimate as to talk directly into my ear, so when I did speak to anyone it consisted of me politely nodding and probably saying things that had very little to do with what was being discussed. I am sure I confused more than one person by saying the completely wrong thing in reply to something I misheard them say.

Fortunately, the lectures involved either microphones or the lecturers projecting their voice across a silent and attentive room of listeners; so I did not miss out on those events and can write about them another time. I did not take many photographs because I was concentrating more on how I was going to get through the day rather than thinking there’s a photo opportunity, and another, and another. In hindsight, I could and should have taken a lot more photographs. There is one photograph I definitely should have taken but did not; at the time I was too moved and personally inspired by the moment to think about using a camera.

Sometimes, conveying an experience in writing is not easy, especially when that experience is particular to our own personal circumstances. What is a big deal to us as an individual can easily mean very little to someone else. Well, here goes … at the Bristol Day of Magic I had got through the morning telling myself that after each next lecture, or whatever, that the pain was too much and I should throw in the towel and just go back to the hotel and skip the rest of the convention, including the gala event at the theatre in the evening. Jill and I ate lunch and I thought we would take a look in the hall where the dealers in magical goods had set up their stalls. Magic Books By Post had a stall there and I wanted to check for one particular book as well as be nosy about the stalls. Then I would throw in the towel and go back to the hotel.

In initially wandering around the hall we saw the stall for DTrik, the business owned by Wayne Dobson. As I walked past the stall, to my left was a man in a wheelchair. It was Wayne Dobson. I said hello. He replied and because all I could hear at that moment was a sort of under water version of the murmuring of all the people talking in the hall in one ear and monotonous whistling in the other ear I had no idea what he said. Therefore, trying to escape embarrassment at being cloth-eared by avoiding a conversation with someone that I did actually want a conversation with, I introduced Jill hoping she would do better. I have no idea what they talked about and we quickly moved on.

It does not seem much of moment does it? Nevertheless, for me, it involved a shift of perception that has helped me a great deal. I had known for years that Wayne Dobson has Multiple Sclerosis. I had also been aware that MS has taken its toll physically and he uses a wheelchair. Over the years magic magazines have included photographs and details of Wayne Dobson, so in meeting him he looked just as I expected him to look. But in that moment I realised that prior to it, whenever I had reason to read about or discuss Wayne Dobson, the Wayne Dobson in my mind was the Wayne Dobson of the very early 1990s - an animated, dynamic and versatile person full of energy and drive.

At this point you might be thinking that it only really just registered with me that he had MS; seeing is finally believing and all that. No, that was not it. As I have written above, I knew he had MS but I could not shake off the image of him from his time on television. Because I could not hear what Wayne Dobson said, I was paying attention to the other details we sometimes overlook. As Jill and I moved on, I looked back a few times to see him meeting other people, I noted the same things again and I knew I was not wrong. Prior to meeting him, I had unintentionally been right. He still is that animated, dynamic and versatile person full of energy and drive. The difference is that he appears to have found the courage or wisdom, or both, to stay being that person within himself despite a body made disobliging by MS. I have seen others fail in that. I doubt that I would be able to succeed if it were me.

And so, waddling along with my arthritic knees going click-ka-tee-clack, I was inspired to go the distance and attend the whole convention. Much later I realised I missed an opportunity to take a photograph of Wayne Dobson. I need some up-to-date photos for a second portrait of him for the project.

The next day, my back and neck were not so bad and my right ear had cleared. My knees were still giving me grief and I was fed up with the single note tune in my left ear. Even so, Jill and I had a nice day and we were home by late afternoon. It was at home that I thought of another reason why I should have taken a photograph of Wayne Dobson. Because - at home - are my neck brace, my neck stretcher, my back stretcher, an exercise gizmo, my crutches and more; I have learned to do without the crutches through sheer bloody-mindedness - which is not a good attitude to have to deal with such things. There are plenty of days when I feel my age of forty-five and have no trouble going about my business doing the things a forty-five year old man is supposed to be able to do. It is on the bad days when I feel about ninety-five that it would be good to have a photograph of when I met Wayne Dobson - as a visual reminder of the moment when I experienced a different, better attitude to my own long term illnesses.