MY late father, who as I described here was once lowered down a long-drop lavatory to rescue a cat, was also a talented amateur conjuror. Specialising in card tricks, he was an enthusiastic member of the Magic Circle.
As a treat for my 12th birthday in June 1967, Dad took me and a school friend named Richard to the Blackpool Magic Convention, held at the Winter Gardens and attended by sorcerors from far and wide.
Our first port of call was a hall full of dealers demonstrating tricks for sale. Richard’s attention was immediately drawn to a chap with a pair of ‘magic paddles’. These were small flat rectangles about three inches long which apparently had the propensity to change appearance at will. As he swiftly turned them to and fro, they would in one split-second have dots on them, then none, then several, or so it seemed. ‘Can I have a go?’ asked Richard. ‘Sorry, son, there are no free trials.’ ‘How much are they then?’ ‘To you, a special price, thirty bob.’ This, the pre-decimal equivalent of £1.50, represented several weeks’ pocket money back then and was Richard’s entire budget for the day but he had to have them and handed over the dosh, receiving a small cardboard box in return.
Opening it over a cup of tea in the refreshments section, Richard found two pieces of black plastic, both with one side blank and the other with either one or two dots (or so I remember, I could well be wrong at a distance of 56 years). There were no secret buttons to change their appearance and, worse, no instructions on how to perform the trick, which obviously depended solely on sleight of hand. He was devastated.
Matters improved, however, when there was a prize draw involving the numbers on tickets to the event. Richard’s came up. He was delighted to receive 20 half-crowns fastened together with sellotape – a whole fifty shillings’ worth. These he swiftly pocketed, to Dad’s evident distaste. ‘Since it’s Alan’s birthday, and we brought you here at our expense, and bought your ticket, don’t you think you should share your winnings with him?’ he asked, making it clear an answer in the negative was not an option. Richard blustered something about ‘winning fair and square’ but then realised that he was in severe danger of having to find his own way the 40 miles home and handed over half the cash. (Incidentally, he left Nelson Grammar soon afterwards for a private school and went on to become a successful architect with his own practice in Manchester).
The highlight of the day was a magic show in a large ballroom. I don’t recall the support acts but top of the bill was the great performer Robert Harbin, famous not only for conjuring but also for origami, the Japanese art of paper-folding.
The climax of his act featured two ordinary upright stacking chairs supporting a board balanced between the backs of them. He asked for a volunteer from the audience and a small, quite chubby woman appeared on stage. Some steps were supplied and she lay down on the board, head above one chair and feet above the other. Amid great ceremony, Harbin removed the chair beneath her feet, leaving the board still horizontal with no visible means of support. Then he removed the board. The woman was lying flat on her back, in mid-air, with her neck resting on top of the remaining chair, apparently defying gravity. Cue ecstatic applause.
I later asked my Dad how Harbin did it, and he claimed not to have a clue. Many years later, when a magician was entertaining our children at a birthday party, I described the act to him and he said he knew how it was done but would not tell me, while adding mysteriously that the woman ‘volunteer’ was no member of the audience.
I cannot find footage of the precise trick, but Harbin performed something similar on David Nixon’s TV show in the 1970s.
And here is his most celebrated illusion, The Zigzag Lady, as performed in the 1960s on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
He wrote many books, including his first origami manual Paper Magic, illustrated by a young Australian art student by the name of Rolf Harris. Wonder what happened to him?
Robert Harbin died in 1978, aged 69. Here is a commemorative plaque at Golders Green Crematorium.
I am pretty sure that the Blackpool Convention we attended was a one-day affair but these days it extends over a full weekend in the winter, when there are plenty of hotel and guest-house rooms available. The next one runs from February 16 to 18, 2024. There’ll probably still be a bloke there selling magic paddles. And at least one young lad gullible enough to buy them.
Old jokes’ home
Another from the late Barry Cryer: ‘I ran over a cockerel the other day. I told the farmer’s wife how sorry I was and asked if I could replace him. “Well,” she said, “You can try. The hens are round the back”.’
A PS from PG
My Aunt Dahlia has a carrying voice. If all other sources of income failed, she could make a good living calling the cattle home across the Sands of Dee.
PG Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves