Martinka & Co. catalogue, 1899

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More conjuring. The Internet Archive has a number of catalogues published by suppliers to stage magicians but I’ve yet to see one as large or as heavily illustrated as this. Martinka and Co. was a magic supplier whose premises in New York distributed tricks and illusions manufactured in Germany. To judge by the size of their catalogue they must have been one of the largest (maybe the largest) distributors of conjuring props in the entire USA. If you’re interested in stage magic then reading these pages is like being shown the menu of a banquet you never got to attend. I’d love to see some of their hand-made items, which range from pocket-size tricks to a life-size chess-playing automaton. The catalogue runs to over 200 pages, and is illustrated on almost every page with vignettes of just the type that Ricky Jay liked to use in his books. According to the uploader, the scans were originally intended for a crowd-funded reprint but the present owners of the Martinka name objected. Browse a world of magic here.

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Learned Pigs and other moveables of wonder

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All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here—Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters.

William Wordsworth, The Prelude/Book VII

In the post this week, a book I’d missed buying in a charity shop a while ago which I spotted on eBay for a lot less than the usual asking price. Outside the USA the late Ricky Jay is probably known more for his occasional acting roles in film and TV than for his magic performances, although it was on British television that Jay established world records with his card-throwing act. Jay’s real business was stage magic, past and present, both performing it—sleight-of-hand and card tricks were his speciality—and operating as a historian of the art. His voluminous knowledge of conjuring and unusual stage acts was condensed into a self-published magazine, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, and a number of books, not all of which concerned magic. Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women was published in 1986, being an account of favourite Jay anomalies from the theatres and circuses of the past. The US edition of the book was popular enough to inspire a related CBS TV film. I’d not seen this before but it reminded me about another TV film directed by Rex Bloomstein for the BBC’s Tx strand in 1996, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters and Ricky Jay. As the title suggests, Jay himself is the subject of the latter documentary which includes contributions from friends Steve Martin (who also appears in Learned Pigs) and David Mamet. Bloomstein’s film contains two sequences that show Jay’s exceptional skill with a pack of playing cards. I have a vague idea how the trick in the second sequence might be performed but I’ve no idea at all how the wordless opening sequence is possible, where Jay unwraps a fresh pack of cards then proceeds to cut and shuffle them continually, after which all the cards are somehow still in perfect order.

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Ricky Jay is the kind of character I would have idolised when I was a magic-obsessed 13-year-old, not only for his skill as a performer but for his interest in the offbeat, the eccentric and the esoteric. We also share a taste for antique illustrations, Jay’s books and journals are littered with old playbills and engraved vignettes. In Britain in the 1970s little attention was given to conjuring on television beyond the perennial David Nixon, a decent enough magician but with a genial persona that was very English and consequently rather dull. (In Nixon’s defence, he did help finance the development of the Mellotron. Strange but true.) Jay’s character had an edge of menace and a touch of the mountebank or con artist, a quality exploited in David Mamet’s excellent directorial debut, House of Games (1987), for which Jay also acted as consultant. Jay’s most popular book after Learned Pigs is probably Cards as Weapons (1977), a typically humorous guide to the art of throwing playing cards. As with magic tricks, it’s very easy to show someone how to do the thing, but doing it well requires skill and a great deal of practice. In the Hustlers film we see Jay break a pencil in half with a thrown card.

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Cover of the 1988 reprint.

The popularity of Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, together with Ricky Jay’s prominence as a historian of magic, has given us The Learned Pig Project, a single-volume collection of 47 books about magic and related matters by some of the celebrated magicians of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is an unwieldy document of over 5000 pages but it’s a treat if you’re interested in the history of conjuring. Stage magic has a peculiar sibling relationship with ritual magic; both are dependent on texts for the recording and transmission of their workings, and both have traditionally required that those texts be kept secret, to guard against persecution on the one hand, and unwanted revelation on the other. So too with covens, cabals and, in the case of stage performers, “Magic Circles”. Serious stage magicians are often serious book collectors, mining the past for new ways to startle the present; Ricky Jay was an exemplar in this regard, as we see in the Hustlers film which shows him browsing his personal library. I don’t know what he would have made of so much knowledge being made so easily accessible via the The Learned Pig Project—the whole purpose of Magic Circles is to keep the secrets inside the profession—but there have always been books about magic tricks, and young magicians have to start somewhere. As with card throwing, anyone can be shown the secret of a magic trick but that doesn’t mean that those who learn the secret can master the performance. Talented magicians, like sapient pigs, are rare creatures.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Magicians
Hodgson versus Houdini
A London Street Scene

Weekend links 541

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Virgil Finlay illustrates Hallowe’en in a Suburb by HP Lovecraft for Weird Tales, September 1952.

• Literary Hub does Halloween with an abundance with Draculas, a lazy option but the pieces are good ones nonetheless: Olivia Rutigliano attempts to rank the 50 best (screen) Draculas, and also recalls the Broadway production designed by Edward Gorey. At the same site, Katie Yee discovers that The Addams Family (1991) is really about the importance of books.

• The inevitable film lists: the always reliable Anne Billson selects the scariest ghosts in cinema; at Dennis Cooper’s, TheNeanderthalSkull curates…DC’s Weirdo Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, a list featuring a couple of oddities which have appeared in previous weekend links.

• More books bound with human skin: Megan Rosenbloom, author of Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin discusses the subject with S. Elizabeth.

Beyond all this, however, readers are most likely to read De Quincey for his compellingly strange writing on opium and its effect on the mind. For it is opium, rather than the opium-eater, he writes in Confessions, who “is the true hero of the tale”. He explains the drug cannot of itself create imaginative visions—the man “whose talk is of oxen” will probably dream about oxen. But for De Quincey, with his love for reverie, it gives “an inner eye and power of intuition for the vision and the mysteries of our human nature”. Wine “robs a man of his self-possession: opium greatly invigorates it”. It “gives an expansion to the heart and the benevolent affections”. “This”, he claims, “is the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium: of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member.”

“Thomas De Quincey’s revelatory writing deserves greater attention,” says Jane Darcy

• New music: Weeping Ghost by John Carpenter is a preview of the forthcoming Lost Themes III; Moments Of Clarity is a new album of psychedelic(ish) songs from Professor Yaffle.

• “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!” Sean Connery (RIP) was often playing kings in later life but he started early with this performance as Macbeth in 1961. (Ta to TjZ for the link!)

• Mixes of the week: a (non-Halloween) guest mix by Paul Schütze for Toneshift, and the by-now traditional Samhain Séance Mix from The Ephemeral Man.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ big new adventure: an illustrated “reinvention” of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

Drew McDowall (of Coil, et al) talks Musick, magick and sacred materiality.

• “No one loves the smell of a Kindle,” says Thomas O’Dwyer.

Brüder des Schattens (1979) by Popol Vuh | Nosferatu (1988) by Art Zoyd | Vampires At Large (2012) by John Zorn

Weekend links 536

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Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. An illustration by Mervyn Peake, 1949.

• “Since it was 1967 when I became a teenager, I suspected that the Now would stir together rock ’n’ roll bands and mod girls and cigarettes and bearded poets and sunglasses and Italian movie stars and pointy shoes and spies.” Luc Sante on hs youthful search for The Now.

• “…in response to listener requests to play ‘more music like This Heat’, [John] Peel responded that he couldn’t because ‘nobody else sounds like them’.” Alexis Petridis on the mighty This Heat, the band who tried to change everything.

• “While I hesitate to deploy the overused and near-devalued word shamanic here, it does smell right. Or rite.” Ian Penman on the polychromatic delirium of Parliament and Funkadelic in 1970.

Anyway, we knew this new culture was there, we knew this phenomenon was occurring, centered in the Haight-Ashbury, so after this event, we dramaturges sat together and tried to think it out. What is this, in terms of breaking down the fourth wall? How is this a historical follow-through for Antonin Artaud on one hand and Bertrolt Brecht on the other? How did these two come together in this? What do you call this, when you provoke riots and use the audience as members of the cast? When you can stage events that brings the audience on the stage—but there is no formal stage? But it’s a theatricalized event…? It’s all new. So I called it ‘guerrilla theater.’ And Ronnie heard that phrase, and wrote an essay about doing Left provocative theater. That wasn’t what I saw. I saw it as being deeper than that. And I began writing plays that now were for sure plays except that a lot of the dialogue was spontaneously derived from the performers—we had some really great performers at the Mime Troupe at the time, I’d say there were at least a dozen good performers, and a couple who were really brilliant. Anyways, put these people together, I gave them a context, and we began improvising dialogue.

Peter Berg of the San Francisco Diggers talking to Jay Babcock for the sixth installment of Jay’s verbal history of the hippie anarchists

• “I love improvisation. I still do. For me it’s the way I like to be acting, you see.” RIP Michael Lonsdale, talking in 2015 about Jacques Rivette’s Out 1.

• “Would you find this bookstore beautiful or terrifying? Or both,” asks Jonny Diamond.

Yukino Ohmura uses stationery store stickers to create dazzling nightscapes.

• At Spine: Penguin Books celebrates 85 years with original artworks.

Strange Selectors by Various Artists on Werra Foxma Records.

Daisy Dunn on the gentle genius of Mervyn Peake.

• This Heat: Rimp Ramp Romp (1977) | Repeat (1979) | Makeshift Swahili (1981)

The Blake Video

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More from the website update. One of the pages buried in the site is an appendix to my design for Angel Passage, a William Blake-themed CD by Alan Moore and Tim Perkins that was released on Steven Severin’s Re: label in 2001. In addition to designing the CD I also created a video accompaniment for the sole performance of the piece at the Purcell Room in London in February of that year. The old web page showed screen shots of the video, and very small ones at that, so as well as updating the page itself I’ve replaced the thumbnails with the original shots.

The video was created in a rush five days before the performance, and only finished the night before I departed for London, so was rather lazily done in places. I’d just taken delivery of a new G4 Power Mac without which I wouldn’t have been able to do any video editing at all. Raw material was artwork scanned from books plus a stack of VHS tapes, including a TV documentary about Blake that provided a few relevant shots of contemporary London. Another essential component was a borrowed video player that could play both VHS and MiniDV cassettes, as well as connect to the computer. The assembled footage was recorded to a MiniDV master cassette which I still have somewhere although I’ve no idea whether it’s still viewable, and have no way to watch it in any case. Those MiniDV players had a tendency to mysteriously render their tapes unplayable which I think may have happened to my tape when I came to try and archive it after the performance. This is fitting in a way, Alan was always adamant that the music-based readings he was doing at this time were one-off events, and the video was only intended to augment the reading, not be watched away from the performance. Copies of the CD still circulate so the work hasn’t vanished altogether. Alan and Tim collaborated on three readings in this series, together with two earlier outings, The Birth Caul and (with David J) The Moon And Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre Of Marvels. We’re overdue a reissue of the entire Moon and Serpent discography.

Previously on { feuilleton }
William Blake in Manchester