I was in the library of the Magic Circle, looking at the first magic book published in the English language, which is titled Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). I was also looking at another early magic book, Hocus Pocus Junior (1634). It’s hard to describe the feeling, just looking at those first editions. The librarians keep them behind a locked glass case. When they bring them out, they treat them gingerly, as if they were sacred texts. In the strictest sense, they are.
What I’m getting at is the feeling I had looking at this artifact.
Okay, try it this way. That same feeling can be seen in a photograph I had taken of my mother a couple days before. We had been visiting the Roman ruins in Bath, which date from the time before 410 AD when the Romans ruled the Celts. My mother was marveling at the antiquity of those ruins. You could see my mother’s soul in the picture.
I’m touching brick that the ancient Romans touched, she was thinking.
You could see her imagination cast back, trying to visualize it, what it must have been like to live back then, to walk in a toga in the baths.
Or try it this way. That same feeling can be seen in photographs I had taken of both my mother and my girlfriend Claire nine days earlier. We had been visiting a 12th-century castle in Carlingford, Ireland, an old Viking town. The castle was commissioned in 1186, and then named after King John in 1210, when he visited it. King John was portrayed as rather an imbecile in the movie The Lion in Winter (with Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, and Anthony Hopkins). In the history books, we are told that his father, King Henry II, sent him to Ireland to make peace with the various clan leaders, but he repeatedly antagonized them, pulling the long beards that were the Irish custom in those days.
You could see my mother’s and Claire’s imaginations try to cast back and visualize what it was like.
I’m touching stone that the ancient Celts touched.
In the same way, while standing in the library of the Magic Circle, I was trying to cast back to 1584, when Reginald Scot first wrote this book. There were people performing magic and passing themselves off as real. You can gain an advantage if other people believe you have spiritual powers. People will fear you. They will do what you say. Unfortunately, they will sometimes accuse you of cavorting with the devil and try to burn you at the stake. In fact, that’s why Discoverie was originally written. He saw the proliferation of witchcraft trials, primarily in rural courts, and thought it a travesty. Thus, he studied magical methods, many of them from Latin sources, and set them down in print. Only a decade or more later, Shakespeare used Discoverie as a source for the witches in Macbeth. His work helped illuminate the ignorant Puritans, although it didn’t stop the buffoons in Salem Village to go on a rampage more than a century later, in 1692.
Look more closely at this page and you will see a trick that I have used in my shows, Knife Through Arm. In fact, I used it yesterday. It got big laughs.
To be honest, just walking around in the Magic Circle was a complete and total treat. It’s not a prominent landmark, as is its counterpart in Los Angeles, the Magic Castle. Instead, it’s set down a lonely, ancient street near Euston Station, more like an alley that nobody ever drives down, and has a nondescript door. Step inside, however, and worlds will open up to you—if you have permission to enter, that is.
I gained entry through my acquaintance with Matthew Field, a prominent figure in modern magic. For years, Field has reviewed instructional videos for Genii, the most prominent magazine for magicians. Unbeknownst to me, however, he has edited some of the most influential books in the magic field. These are just a smattering of selections from his resume:
The Uncanny Scot, by Ron Wilson, a book from the 1960s that contained numerous cutting-edge magical methods from a Scottish magician who wore a kilt when he performed. See Ron Wilson’s performance video here.
Williamson’s Wonders, by David Williamson, a late 1980s book that contained many brilliant methods from an up-and-coming mage. Gambling books by such luminaries as Darwin Ortiz, Gary Kurtz, and Martin Nash. See Williamson’s performance video here.
The Secrets of Brother John Hamman, the life’s work of the wheelchair-bound clergyman who loved magic.
Books by Phil Goldstein, Martin Gardner, JK Hartman, Paul Cummins, Jon Racherbaumer, Eugene Berger, Dai Vernon, Michael Vincent, Patrick Page, Paul Curry, and so many others, all edited by Matthew. This may not mean much to non-magicians, but to a magician, it’s like discovering that someone was a kind of magical Zelig—that is, was present at dozens of historical moments.
“Yes, I do have some stories to tell,” he admitted with humility.
Matt seems to have the personality of a critic—that is, he has strict standards for the execution of magic. There is no excuse in his mind for inferior methods. Matt sees all of a magician’s assets, but also, all of his shortcomings. Because of that, I was sad that I didn’t bring my best magic with me, so that I could show him all the magical advances I’d been making recently. I was thinking in particular of a gambling routine that I’ve added to my repertoire that blows lots of boats out of the water, a plot that most of the magic world has given up on because it’s too difficult. But I’ve been waking up every morning for months now, placing a closeup pad in front of me, and while television plays in the background, perfecting it. That’s a really great way of improving your magic, just practicing all the time.
Matt’s high standards also led him to introduce me to Chris Wood. For two hours, Chris dazzled me with magic of the highest quality, as you can see here. The kind of magician whom I most admire is the sort whose way with people is as advanced as his sleights. If he can’t make eye contact, can’t show his audience the twinkle in his eye, can’t let the audience know that he likes them, then all the best sleights in the world can’t help him.
That’s why I liked Chris Wood. So I countered with a few tricks of my own, and Chris was delighted with those, too. Eventually, Chris handed me his business card.
I’m going to call him, I thought. This guy is top notch.
I was also delighted to meet a 95-year-old legend in the Circle, Henry Lewis, who still performs shows every Monday morning at the Circle.
“If you play your cards right,” he told me, “I’ll invite you to my funeral.”
The Magic Circle is an amazing place, I must say. Just like the Magic Castle, you have to prove yourself a proficient student of magic just to be admitted, and the English standard for excellence is high indeed. The Circle was founded in 1905 by a circle of famous magicians, and for the first few years, they met in a pub in Soho. Later, they moved into their current location, which is down a kind of nondescript alley near Euston Station. Step inside and you’ll discover four stories of rooms filled with magic and magicians.
“I thought the cabbie was taking us down an alley to mug us,” my mother later told me. “Then we saw the sign on the door: Magic Circle.”
It was a very small sign. Very understated and very English.
The Circle’s members include all the best English magicians, including Charles, Prince of Wales, who performed the Cups & Balls for his audition. It is packed with photos, memorabilia, fabulous old books, and the best magicians in the British Isles.
I would have loved to spend more time at the Circle, but they closed at 10 pm. So we straggled down the street, accompanied by three lady magicians, including the famed Fay Presto. She tried to coax us to an after-hours magic session, but my flu was threatening to return, so we begged off. But I was still high from the experience. You could tell it from the look on my face.
I can’t believe I was considered a peer with these excellent conjurors. What a fine tradition!
A few days later, while walking through Heathrow Airport on my way back home, I suddenly grabbed my waist. My fanny pack was gone. In it were my wallet, $400 in cash, my debit card, my driver’s license, 50 pounds sterling, and my cell phone. I panicked for a couple hours, then finally realized I would have to return home immediately or miss my flight and have to buy a whole new airplane ticket.
Back home in L.A., I worked the phone for three hours until I located the fanny pack–in the Aer Lingus Lost & Found. Yes, somebody had turned it in, cash and all, so there are good people in the world.
“But we can’t just send it back to you,” the Aer Lingus rep said. “You need to send someone down here to pick it up and put it in the mail back to you.”
But I didn’t really have good friends who lived in London. Matthew lives in Hastings in the south. So I called Chris Wood, the only person I knew in London proper, talking to him for a full half-hour about his fabulous magic. I was blown away by it, and was interested in all the little details of his performance, especially his patience with pacing, which is all too uncommon in magic. Honestly. I wasn’t just buttering him up.
Then I gingerly broached the subject of Heathrow.
“I promise I was going to call you anyway,” I said, “but I’m looking for somebody to go down to Heathrow and pick up my fanny pack….”
He laughed wholeheartedly.
“I’ll do it,” he said easily.
Turned out that his daughter was arriving at Heathrow on a flight the next evening, so he wouldn’t even have to make two trips. It was so synchronous that I felt it was meant to be. I worried that it was too perfect, and held my breath for the next 25 years. Nevertheless, everything went like clockwork, and as we speak, the wallet is on its way back to me, thanks to Chris. He’s a prince (although not of Wales).
Through my association with the brotherhood magicians, it turns out I had friends in London, after all. Who would have known?