Saturday, 28 November 2009


I'd never thought of the relation between magic and politics before. Perhaps that's because I still have an idealistic notion of politics. I believe it's the shared responsibility of everyone, not just a way in which professional politicians (horrible phrase) can achieve power, fame and personal advancement.

By a series of lucky coincidences, I found myself at the preview opening of the touring Magic Show exhibition whcih has just opened at Derby's QUAD Gallery. Gallery openings can be a bit dull. There's often free wine but there are also speeches and sometimes crowds so dense it's hard to see any of the work.

This was a bit different. There were still crowds, free wine and speeches but, after the necessary thanks - and people should be thanked - the speakers were so enthusiastic about the exhibition that even the children in the audience gazed in awed fascination.

The exhibition isn't aimed at children but there was sufficient for children to enjoy: posters, magically moving exhibits, a 3-D display that looked as if it were performed by miniature humans in a Lilliputian theatre. We gazed at the two plain sheets of A4 paper that danced together on a low wooden table.

Other exhibits reminded viewers of more sinister uses of magic. There was John Mulholland's booklet on magic for CIA operatives in a cabinet which also held Tommy Cooper's duck, as well as and pro- and anti-Hitler magic tricks. There was reference to the way the techniques of stage magicians had been used for one of George W. Bush's appearances at a Republican Convention. I was suddenly reminded of Tony Blair's words, "Trust me." "I'm a pretty straight sort of guy." This was disconcertingly like the magician's display of the empty box, the empty hat and the empty hands before handkerchiefs knot and separate, money vanishes and multiplies, and rabbits jump. The connection between magic and politics was perhaps clearest in Annika Lundgren's slide-show, though I never managed to watch it straight through from the beginning - I'll have to go back and see it all.

It set me reflecting about the way we see politicians now: the way journalists praise them for clever use of spin, a convincing image and successful stage management of party conferences. It's as though smoke and mirrors matter more than justice, truth, equality, liberty or any of the big abstractions I care about. There's a moment in one of Jasper fforde's Thursday Next books when she attends the live broadcast of a popular TV programme called Evade the Question Time, in which politicians win points for their success in spouting meaningless platitudes in response to questions from the public. Sometimes this seems so close to the truth that it is barely satire.

The evening also included a performance by Ian Saville, socialist magician and ventriloquist. The connection between politics and magic was overt, funny and self-mocking. The small children in the audience may not have understood jokes about hegemony and alienated labour, but they knew a good trick when they saw one and watched with wide eyes and delighted smiles.

Note: I was half-way through this post - just commenting on Tony Blair's words and looking for useful links - when a virus invaded my laptop. It felt like a particularly malevolent brand of political magic. I'm finishing the post on a borrowed computer.

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