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
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.
You can also read a good interview of Wilson in the recent issue of Magicseen. For more details on that:

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

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.

Editor's Preface
The text of A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise, Entituled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions
Notes by the Editor
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

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.