Children who have seen an electronic dinosaur wheel across the sky are not much amazed when a man with his sleeves rolled up takes the rabbit out of the hat. Manual illusions have been overtaken by the digital kind, and traditional conjuring is mostly for the nostalgia market. But it finds its niches; Michael Bailey, a former chairman of the Magic Circle (the illusionists’ upmarket trade union) who has written its centennial history, modestly describes himself as ‘the leading British corporate magician’. Far from restoring the fortunes of companies that someone has sawn in half, he helps senior managers with the arcane business of bonding.
Conjuring has gone respectable. For much of its long history it was anything but that. Promoters of dodgy cults used its tricks to lure the credulous, table-turners and
spirit-rappers enlisted it to snare their customers. It got less sinister when it became part of showbusiness, in the theatres and music-halls of the late 19th century. The practitioners were men of obscure antecedents, their female assistants ladies of doubtful virtue. But they were well paid for the oohs and aahs they elicited, and bit by bit they gained respect.
The Magic Circle’s members never pretended they were anything but tricky entertainers. They even set up an Occult Committee which debunked mystical nonsense like the reputed Indian Rope Trick and the fashionable spirit-mediums promoted by that credulous Irishman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Like the Freemasons, with whom they share a tradition of business-friendly mumbo-jumbo, they operate now under royal patronage. Bailey is inordinately proud to number Prince Charles among his members, assuring his readers that the Prince passed his magical entry exam with a creditable performance of the time-honoured cup-and-balls, a trick that has separated many a race-going mug from his money.