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?