THE INCOMPETENT CONJUROR
When I stage a magic show, I’ll usually challenge my audience to work out how I do the tricks. When they do, I know I’m not doing them well enough. Sometimes I’ll ask someone in the audience to make a wish, then try to make it come true with magic. Once, I made a wish myself. I wished I was better at performing convincing magic.
My portrayal of an incompetent conjurer, a parody of myself, is popular at children’s parties, but I aspire to a higher level, where I can look adults in the eye and perform close-up magic, rather than an audience at waist level. The granting of my wish came at some sort of performing half-way house, a teenage birthday party in a village hall.
This rung on the short stepladder of my magician’s career was provided by a friend of mine, whose son’s 14th birthday it was. I’d never been too keen on Alexander. He had a habit of pushing smaller kids around in the playground, knowing everything, and eating chips. Much as I tried, I couldn’t find a single redeeming feature in this scruffy, fat, blonde kid who seemingly fed on himself. But I was friends with his dad.
Jeff had hired the hall for about 20 of Alexander’s friends. He’d laid on a disco, with all the fit-inducing flashing lights attached, and a smoke machine, which was key to my act at the end of the evening.
The night itself was a social observation experiment, as I sat at the edge of the room watching the kids. There were about a dozen girls and the same number of boys, with others coming and going. They danced, they talked, and they’d disappear outside from time to time.
I didn’t talk to many of the young people, even though they kept pestering to see a trick. But I noted a wide spectrum of personalities, from a sweet girl called Siân, who simply thought to introduce herself, to the odious Alexander, who was as repellent on the dance floor as in the school playground, popping over every now and then to tell me he knew how all my tricks worked.
With the slow dances over, it was time for the magic act. This was where the audience were free to ask if I did a trick in a certain way, and I’d tell them if they were right. There was no jeopardy if they were wrong, and if they did see through my act, they might be future magicians themselves. The Magic Circle forbids members from divulging the magician’s code directly, but it encourages enquiring and speculative minds.
I started with card tricks: coin through a deck, turning every card in the pack into a queen, that sort of thing. For the most part, I drew the kind of gasps you’d expect from a young audience who’d never seen such misdirection and tricks of the trade before. Apart from Alexander, who shouted, “I know how you do that,” after every trick. When invited to take the stage and demonstrate, he told me I was the magician and not him. “Do some proper magic,” he spurted between chips, “make someone disappear.” I wondered if such a large target might register on radar.
“Have you heard of the Indian Rope Trick?” Most of them just nodded. Except Alexander, who knew how it was done, of course.
Magic which is more a spectacle than an act is illusion, and the Indian Rope Trick is probably the most famous. Surrounded by myth and legend, its origins are disputed, but the performance is the same: A rope is laid on the ground, or in a wicker basket, then the conjurer levitates the rope. In the classic version, the rope will ascend into a cloud. In the village hall, we had the smoke machine, obscuring a loft door in the ceiling, with the end of the rope attached to fishing line. Jeff was in the attic and he’d pull the rope up, then tie it around a roof beam.
Back on the ground in the classic version, a small child would climb up the rope and disappear into the cloud. In some traditional accounts, the child would then be judged in the heavens. If they were found to be pure, they’d descend back down the rope. If not, they’d be cut into pieces and thrown back to Earth. In our version, Jeff had some prime Waitrose 28-day aged steak chopped up in the loft of the village hall.
“Who will climb the rope?” I asked as it rose into the roof.
Two hands went up, from opposite ends of the spectrum: Siân’s fingers held barely at shoulder level, and Alexander’s fat sausages in a Nazi salute. I wasn’t sure the roof would support his weight, so Siân went up the rope. She disappeared into the smoke descending into the room, and everyone looked around at each other. Except Alexander, who ran over to the rope, squinting to look up Siân’s skirt for as long as possible. I knew she’d be fine.
Jeff would tie the rope to the roof beam, and tell her “Shhhh” as she climbed into the attic. Then he’d whisper, “Scream, like you’ve never screamed before,” and that’s when he’d drop the chopped steak down through the trapdoor.
Siân returned downstairs to smiles, gasps, silence, and a small applause.
“I know how it’s done,” Alexander drooled into her ear, “tell me if I’m right.”
“You tell me how you think it’s done,” Siân replied, “and I’ll tell you if you’re right.”
“Tell you what,” I said, “I’ll take you upstairs, into the magic circle. I’ll show you behind the scenes, then you can see if you’re right about how the Indian Rope Trick works.”
Jeff paid me well for that gig, the going rate for an adult close-up show. The steak was fantastic, more like veal, with some British broad beans and a nice Pino Noir.
© Steve Laker, 2019