Fourth of July and British Magic


“Mind the gap!” Lessons on magic from London, England.



On this July 4th, I am a loyal American and happy that we are free. I thought I would take a look at a trip Cindy and I took looking for the “Magic” in England.

 Our 747-400 with the Virgin Atlantic “Jersey Girl” logo broke out below the low lying clouds on the final approach to Gatwick Airport a little before 7AM.  Looking down at the southern English countryside, 4,000 feet below, the first recognizable image was a pair of Golden Arches.  I was in no mood for an American Egg McMuffin.  I wanted to experience the English life-style and magic for the next six days.  My London experience would include a trip to Davenport’s Magic Shop, a Magic Marvin demonstrator at Hamley’s Toy store and several street magicians at Covent Garden Market. . More on these later…

 Gatwick is an old RAF airbase about 30 miles south of London. Waves of B-17s and B-24s used it to bomb the Nazis into oblivion during World War Two.  In the 70s Gatwick was expanded and opened up to international flights.  Public transportation is outstanding in the UK. For 14 pounds (about 24 dollars) clean, fast and comfortable express trains will wisk you in 30 minutes to Victoria Station in Westminster, London.  Along the route and into Victoria Station I got the distinct feeling that I was experiencing America in the 1950s.  It was the use of trains, the architecture, the vibrant main streets in little towns and the socio-economic de facto segregation. Although there are no ghettos, you either see working class row houses or large upper class houses. England has an automatic two-class society, the nobility and the commoners.

 There are almost no suburban strip malls or tract housing developments; there are very few “big box” Wal-Marts or Home Depot type stores.  In fact, a UK food store chain called Tescos is expanding into the United States with a unique merchandising formula. Even though successful in the UK, it is criticized there as being impersonal and not a locally owned shop in each town, so they are expanding into the United States where their formula will be much more accepted.

 Victoria Station is one of a half dozen rail terminals in greater London. It is in Westminster and not far from Parliament, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abby.

Let me explain that London is just one small town in greater London. Greater London is a collection of towns that all grew together. Think of London as a kind of Downtown Orlando. If you live in Winter Park you still say that you live in Orlando even though the political structure is a different town.  London is that way. Westminster is the “Winter Park” of greater London. It is its own town. As the border changes towns, all that visually changes are that the lamppost logos no longer have the curly “W” of Westminster and the building’s corners begin to have the City of London’s dragon logo on them.

 We stayed in a small Bed and Breakfast in a row house about 4 blocks from Victoria Station.  The owner, Jayesh Patel, came to London 30 years ago from India. He has a sister that owns a house in Oviedo, Florida and works in Tuskawilla as a pharmacist.  Jay was a big help in filling me in on London and he loved magic!  I would do the French Drop, with a one pound coin, over and over for him and he could not understand where the coin was going.

 The weather never got above 37 degrees. Frequently it would rain with a cold mist. The BBC TV News said they had snowfalls in the midlands and Scotland.

My wife, Cindy, never warmed up to the London weather. She drank lots of hot tea and American style coffee.

 The London Yellow Pages had four pages of magicians and variety entertainers!  The British love magic, but mostly in the form of either standup adult comedy (think Terry Seabrook) or children’s entertainment (Ian Adair). The adults enjoy watching magic but only if presented as comedy or as light kiddy’s amusement.  Paul Daniels is still remembered but mostly as a comedian. His magic was just a part of his total entertainment package.    Apparently, David Blaine’s handlers never researched the English mindset (Weltanschauung). Blaine utterly failed to impress the English and became the object of ridicule when he was hung from a crane in a glass box over the Thames River to starve for 40 days. They ridiculed him by throwing MacDonald’s cheeseburgers at the presumptuous Yank. 

 If you think back a bit, even Robert Harbin did not do an American style illusion act.  Harbin’s magic, like his Zig Zag, was always as a puzzle.  Before Supreme Magic folded, they were beloved as a great source for small children’s show magic. In the late 30s Dante was a success here and mostly due to the comedic style of his illusions. The same could be said for Levante, an Aussie, in the 50s.

 I always wondered why British magic is mostly “packs small-plays big” items. Working class British homes are very small; the cars are also on the small side. They need to be with 3.71 pounds for a gallon of gas (90 pence a liter). Now, convert pounds to dollars and gas is $6.52 cents a gallon!  It is not practical to truck around a sub trunk and half dozen illusion boxes. First of all, no one is interested in seeing you do them and secondly you could not afford the lorie fees. The British call trucks, “lories”. The hood is called the “bonnet” and gasoline is called “petrol.” 

 Step one for me was to counteract the jet lag. UK time, (Greenwich Mean Time) is 5 hours ahead of us, so it meant my night had vanished in the jet travel and I had very little sleep.  A trip to Davenport’s magic shop, established over a hundred years ago, should wake me up. It is located in the underground arcade at Charring Cross Subway station.  The Subway is called either the “Tube” or the “Underground”. 

 The rails are mostly through “tubes” bored through the subterranean chalk.  A one-day unlimited pass is a little less than 5 pounds. They give you a paper card with a magnetic strip on it to pop through the turnstiles.  Davenport’s is rather dark and hidden away in the white-tiled subway station. Brits are not into a lot of props so much of what was in Davenport’s was books and videos. There on the counter was a current issue of Magic Magazine and my cover story on David and Dania! That led to an interesting acceptance by the young fellow behind the counter. He reminded me of a mature Harry Potter. Typically there were a few made-in-India effects and some Mak Magic and Morrissey. In the storeroom next door I could see a piles of props. I believe I saw a human size Screen Production illusion that said “Levante” on it. There was a crude Thin Type Sawing in the pile.

 In most cases the London underground station platforms are curved and the train cars are straight. This means that the doors on the cars can be about a foot or more away from the platform ramp. It is not usually that difficult to just step over the gap. Sometimes it is almost a jump!  In nearly every station a recorded voice plays when the subway car door opens. A dignified British voice using the King’s English says, “Mind the Gap!” It is the British Rail system’s ubiquitous reminder to watch out for that sometimes-daunting space.  In Americanese that means, “Watch your step so you don’t fall into the abyss between the train car and the platform.”

 Maybe that was my big learning experience in London. No, not watching my step in the Underground but being aware of gaps in cultures, worldviews and economics, politics and religion.  Most Americans simply believe the rest of the world thinks and lives like we do and if they don’t, then we should force them!

 I saw many friendly smiling and helpful “community service” security people. They were not London Bobbies but what we would call “helpers”. The British government had no barricades around Parliament or any other government building.  The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, lives at 10 Downing Street, which is on a side alley in part of the government complex of buildings near Parliament. The street had a tall but simple black Iron Gate with a Bobby standing by to admit anyone with a pass. Mind the gap.

 On the guided bus tour we passed the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.  It is a large modern building that faces into a square park with statues of Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt.  The American Embassy is an armed camp! It is surrounded by two layers of concrete barricades, a hurricane fence, several other fence cubes and barricades. Certain side areas had razor wire strands. Though not easily noticed, there were Marines hidden in upright concrete pill boxes designed to blend in with the architecture. It would have been easy to imagine a banner over the entrance saying, “Bring it on!”  Maybe this is the way Americans cope with threats to us. It is not the British way. London has always been subjected to terrorism. For years the Irish IRA would detonate bombs around central London and kill people.  I asked one dignified England businessman about this difference and he said, “Dear fellow, we have been he-ah for over a thousand yee-ahs. We have no fee-ah of these people. We shall prevail!”

 Tony Blair is a very Conservative “Labor” leader. In fact, while we were there he used the help of the Tories (Conservatives) to get his education bill passed.

Blair practices the Dick Morris technique of “triangulation” that powered Bill Clinton’s political career.   Blair broke from his own party on the issue of campaign funding and accepted campaign loans from big business contributors in exchange for giving them “peerage”. The Peerage is a system of titles of nobility that exists in the United Kingdom.  Peers are of five ranks: duke, marquees, earl, viscount and baron.  In other words, Blair was selling titles in exchange for campaign loans!

He got on the BBC, “the telly”, and talked about how awful it was and how wrong it was and how it needed to be changed but he said he did it because he did not want to have to take massive contributions from the left wing and the unions!  I marveled at his political genius. Labor could not be angry because they now get political power through Blair without having to contribute one pence! He always supports labor. The Tories get their titles and feelings that they can out maneuver labor. Blair keeps power!   Maybe there is absolutely no “gap” between American and British politics!

 In reality, you hear the same old complaints there as here. Education is lousy and under funded, the health care system is going broke, pension funds are failing, growth is out of control, big business is taking over small business, real estate is over inflated, immigration is out of control…just look the Orlando Sentinel and add, “I say, old chap!” in front of every article on the Editorial Page and you have current British hot political issues.

 While there is no official “freedom of speech” in the UK, they seem to be a lot freer and have a far more interesting press than we do. They continue to sell newspapers while the circulation of every major American Daily is dropping like a rock. London has the London Morning Times and the Evening Standard and at least 5 daily tabloids.  Imagine a daily newspaper that turns every issue into a sensationalistic style story!  We only have one daily newspaper in Orlando.  New York, home to a million more people than London, has only three dailies if you don’t count the Wall Street Journal. What you don’t have in the UK is an AM radio dial filled with angry Talk Show commentators. The Far Right as well as the Far Left does get heard in the newspapers. It seems the British are far more literate than we are and prefer reading. Also there are probably not enough people in cars to make a yakking AM talk show work and the British don’t respond to that type of parody.

 The London Theater district is between Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus (means “traffic circle”) Most of the theaters are on or near Shaftsbury Street.

We saw “Mamma Mia” and “Les Miserables”.  Covent Garden’s is a covered roof urban open-air market with boutique shops. At one time it was a vegetable market. Around the streets of the square it is a kind of all day “sunset” in Key West with many variety street performers. There were jugglers, tightrope walkers, Punch and Judy and several magicians. One fellow with a strong cockney accent was doing the Keller Rope Tie using a Blackstone style routine. Another was doing a pretty good Cups and Balls.

The Magic Circle is only open to non-members twice a month and I was not in London on any of those times.

Regent Street had a giant super toy store called Hamleys. It was on the ground floor I saw the Marvin’s Magic demonstrator and their area of the store of about 200 square feet. Marvin’s Magic is very similar to Tenyo’s style props.

 The English Pub is not a beer joint or saloon but an important part of English life. Pubs are mostly open at 11AM and close at 11PM. They serve limited food such as Fish and Chips.  (A half fillet of cod or haddock covered with Tempura batter and deep fat fried along with French fries-“chips”- and a half cup of English green peas- tarter sauce for the fish and vinegar for the fries).  Also available are Bangers and Mash (mild tube sausage and mashed potatoes with boiled cabbage on the side).  The preferred beverage is Pub Ale.  I am not given to drinking beer here in the States.   Pub Ale is something much more to my taste and liking. Pub Ale is not really an alcoholic beverage but more of a foodstuff.  Fuller’s “London Pride” is hand drawn from the keg and has a deep foamy and creamy head. The serving temperature is not cold but cool. It has a bit of a tart, creamy taste with a touch of bitterness. I would call it “liquid bread” since it has the taste of grain and is probably loaded with cereal nutrition.  I tried to learn the alcohol content and Fuller claims it can be 4%, which is in the category of the old American 3.2 beer (most American beer now is 8%, carbonated and not very nutritious). At any rate, I believe it to be less alcohol because a person of my body mass can consume several 2 pint glasses without any fear of even mild intoxication. In times past the “Gin Mill” with its cheap gin was where people went to drown their sorrows. The idea behind the Pub is not to get drunk but to socialize. A dartboard was handy and soccer was on the BBC. Everyone goes to the pub. English homes have no large family room. The Pub is the community recreation center.

 Cindy and I did take a day trip by double decker bus to Oxford. It is 45 miles northwest of central London. There are no “suburbs” in England. Once you leave the urban area it is instantly farmland. M-40, the “Interstate” had no billboards.  Oxford is an old Middle Ages medium size town with a collection of a couple of dozen colleges, each with their houses and compounds. The University is the governing authority over all the colleges.  No one goes to just “Oxford”. They go to a college at Oxford.  In the shadow of the Covered Market at Oxford was a small costume and novelty shop. They also had a magic counter with no one behind it.  I talked with the owner’s niece. After doing my Professor’s Nightmare routine, she said it was too bad that I did not have a work visa or I could have a job. They have no competition from Party City and Halloween Stores!  Small business is alive and well in the UK, at least for now.

 A public school teacher in the UK makes about 21,000 pounds starting pay and rises to 40 and 50,000 pounds. In terms of total purchasing power, this is better than an American schoolteacher. There is a great deal more social status as a teacher in England. Mind the gap.

The British taxation system is mostly what American radio talk show host Neil Boortz dreams of! Maybe he just doesn’t know it. They have a “flat tax” with 3 steps with few exemptions and then a massive VAT sales tax (17.5%).  In other words, consumption is what is mostly taxed. This is what the American Right has dreamed of for years!  There are no caps. You pay tax on all your income. In the United States, certain types of income are exempted. 

 Several things to note: You are unlikely to be sued in the UK and you will find it harder to sue, so that saves on insurance costs. Medical Care is covered in your taxes so no one is ever “uninsured” as 45 million Americans are.   I always have wondered why the working class Brits are here at Disney in big numbers on “holiday” (as they call “vacation”) and buying houses in Kissimmee and Oviedo and not a lot of Americans can afford to have that life style. I suspect that a few are “on the fiddle” meaning that they do side work off the books and for cash-only to avoid most income taxes.  The VAT (Value Added Tax) is levied on all stages of production of goods and materials so it is hard to completely cheat it. I believe in order for a Boortz style sales tax to work here, it would have to be a VAT tax. No single business should be trusted to collect the 17% sales tax!  Now that I think about it that may be why there are so many magicians working in the UK! It seems easier to make a living as a self-employed magician in the UK. You won’t be doing big illusions but a lot of small gatherings.

 Things are not better or worse in England, they are different.  So…..”Mind the Gap”  ….

 They have a Welfare State. But that is understandable. People that live in cold climates are much more socialistic. They have to be to survive the weather. As Americans moved out of the cold North into the sunny and warm Southern states we became more individualistic and less interested in techniques all civilizations use to survive the cold.

 Americans in the warm South (Red States) detest any thought of a Welfare State. They also tend to be individualistic. Some of that also came from the American Southern Tradition of  Agrarian Independence and resentment and fear of a strong central government. The Plantation mentality was blunted by the Civil War. In the late 1960s the Republicans, who had lost their national political control to the New Deal during The Depression sought a new base of power in the Southern United States among the Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) who resented Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. Kevin Phillips engineered this for Richard Nixon. A new political Civil War began and continues to this day.

 Americans, by and large, follow the Puritan work ethic: If you are poor it is because you are lazy and stupid because the great Calvinist God has not given you the virtues of Salvation and elected you to Eternal Glory and wealth!  Poverty equals sin. This is evident because in America poor people always resent and look down on those poorer than they are!  Even the poorest Americans always believe that they are more holy than those poorer than them! To paraphrase Newt Gingrich, “We can’t get into helping the poor or we will be helping to destroy their virtue. They must learn to make it on their own.”  I don’t think that John Calvin was anywhere near that much of a Calvinist but Americans seem to have bought into our own cultural Puritan distortion of his theology.  H.L. Menken once described American Puritanism as, “the nagging belief that someone, somewhere is having more fun than you are”. In the UK since the turn of the 20th century the “rich nobility” believe that they have a responsibility to care for their workers.  Wealth means nothing if it accompanies anarchy and social chaos. Americans have a much more individualistic frontier attitude that says, “I got mine, you get yours”.

 London is a combination of New York and Washington, D.C.; an old city loaded with monuments. It is both a center of finance like Wall Street and the seat of government like Washington.  The Monarchy is, in fact, politically powerless in England. They may own everything but they can’t do anything with it. Even the Queen pays taxes.

 The English Monarchy is, in the final analysis, a mere tourist attraction! My wife and I visited the Tower Of London. For 15 pounds you can go into the Tower (Fort) and among other things see the huge vault with the crown jewels. There are row after row of crowns, scepters, precious jewels that have to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in just the metallic and jewel value. They all belong to the queen but their only real use is as a tourist attraction.

 The Queen isn’t even invited to attend the sessions in the House of Commons but they cannot open a session without her permission! She opens the meeting and then leaves.  Tony Blair is the British version of Bill Clinton (Clinton was educated at Oxford also). But Blair apparently has far less fondness for young female interns. His wife, Cherie Booth Blair is also a lawyer, like Hillary Clinton, but seems to have no personal ambitions beyond being a supportive wife. Cherie is a very warm and likeable person and that may be why Blair does not respond to snapping thongs on interns.

 The British love sex scandals. I jokingly had said that after the Archbishop of Canterbury I most wanted to meet Christine Keeler. She and Mandy Rice-Davies were early 1960’s party girls. Keeler had concurrent affairs with British Defense Minister John Profumo and a Soviet General stationed in London. This led to a sensational scandal, photos of Keeler in various sensual clothes in every newspaper in the world in 1963, the resignation of Profumo and eventually a fall of the regime of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. After resigning in disgrace, Profumo and his long-term actress wife stayed together and began a career of helping the poor. Recently the Queen gave him all kind of honors.  He died the day I arrived in London. What a twist of fate!

 The American Monarchy consists of our sports and entertainment stars, long-term politicians and CEOs of major corporations and maybe a couple of self-help gurus and preachers. They are the symbols of American identity and worship. But they are only royalty as long as they are making money and popular.  Brittany and Madonna are our “Queens for a Day”. Nobility is far more entrenched in British Society.  This does not mean that a commoner cannot become loved and famous.  Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Records and the Virgin Airline Empire is a self-made billionaire. Who says that you cannot rise up in Britain and there are no economic opportunities for the common person? It seemed to me that like Paul Daniels, with a hilarious Chop Cup routine and Pound Note-“Dollar Bill”- in Walnut trick you could make a very good living. There are probably more magicians making more money with fewer props there than there are here in the United States. The self-employed do not have to fear the lack of affordable healthcare or massive competition from big entertainment monopolies and there is ample welfare support. Capitalism is alive and well in the UK, after all Adam Smith, a Brit, defined Capitalism and supported a progressive tax structure.

 There are theme parks in the UK. They are more like the old American amusement park. I believe it is because the outdoor season is short and the weather is poor. The American theme park was Walt Disney’s attempt to recreate the mythical past of American history. History is all around you and on every street in England. They would find no interest in any form of “Six Flag over England”.

 If you jet off to England be sure to “Mind the Gap” in religious views.  Over here we are trying to forbid mentioning any discussion of Charles Darwin’s theory in schools. In England his picture is on the back of the Ten Pound Note! He is beloved as a biologist but not as a social thinker.  Most fundamentalist religious Americans embrace him as only a social thinker and make a political religion out of economic and social Darwinism but utterly reject biologic Darwinism. Mind the gap!

 Henry the 8th retained much of the theology and worship of the Roman Catholics but formed his own denomination (without a Pope) during the Reformation in the 16th Century. Thus England has an official state religion, The Church of England, and in spite of criticism from American Religious Fundamentalists, personal piety is high in many Englishmen and no one is trying to expunge the name “God” or “Prayer” from public mention.  There is no official “freedom of religion” in England and because they have an official state religion you are “free” to practice any other religion or non-religion that you want!

I seriously doubt that anyone would ever accuse you of being in league with the Devil if you performed a few tricks in England.  Many American magicians have experienced hostility to our magic shows from American Religious Fundamentalists when appearing in rural Florida.

 Mind the Gap?  There are religious gaps as well as magic gaps between our two cultures.

 Thankfully the sting of the American Revolution has faded. After all it was a personal argument with King George the Third which led to a tax rebellion against the British. Americans are still arguing over taxes. A hatred of taxes is a part of the political DNA of Americans. And now, we have our own Tory and Labor Party here.  But the majority of Americans feel reassured knowing that the UK is our strongest world ally and dying along side us in Iraq.

Most of us today would say, “God Save the Queen” in the same breath that we say, “God Bless America”.

 I hope that you can take a magical journey to London. Just be sure to “Mind the gap”.

 Dennis Phillips

March 2006



About blueridgemagiciansring320

Secretary of Ring 320 of the International Brotherhood of Magicians located in the Western Virginia.
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