Magicians in London :

A Recollection


Oswell Blakeston.

An Extract from The Uncertain Element :

An Anthology of Tales of Mystery
and Fantasy selected by Kay Dick.

Jarrolds Publishers (London) Limited.

One becomes conscious of a word or a number, and then one is haunted — everywhere people whisper the word (sometimes one only half hears it) or all theatre-ticket stubs, bus and lottery ticket bear the fatal number or some multiple of it.

So, when I learnt that there are magicians in London, I immediately discovered that both I and London were haunted by magicians.

It began at a private-view, which turned out to be an exhibition of mystic pictures. I was the first to arrive and the artist rushed at me. “Ah,” she said, amid the tinkle and clash of big beads and little beads, “you have come in for some warmth . . . some colour . . . some life.”

She took my hand. “Look at my pictures,” she said. “See, there are all sorts of things flying around. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life — just flying about. And see those caves. They mean the world today is undermined. Perhaps they lead somewhere.”

From that day onwards London was undermined all right.

First of all, one magic artist led to another.

I met a spirit-painter who fostered “unconscious guidance” by taking walks in the parks during dense fog. He said he never lost his way, and that when he had to turn it was as if a giant hand spun him round. He insisted he had recaptured the primitive instinct of the jungle — in a London park.

I met a man who was working on automatic drawings in white chalk of the whorls and vortices of his own brain. He spoke about “The White Brethren”. Gradually, he was using the whole of his inner anatomy as subject matter for his art. He said he became so aware of the pressures of his internal organs he was able, without medical knowledge or textbook, to draw them accurately.

I was introduced to an artist who painted under the influence of mescal — that extraordinary drug which produces associational disturbance when the lines in the telephone exchange of the mind get crossed and you hear colours and see sounds.

And then I found myself taking a young painter to a hypnotist. This was before the surrealists made trance-drawing a common occupation of the countryside. The trouble with my experiment was that I didn’t find the right hypnotist. My man was a corpse with saucer eyes. The zombie said: “I love people when they are hypnotized. They look so beautiful, their faces are like marble. I wish lovers would come to me for beauty treatment.”

Just at the time when I was indulging in magic art a novelist friend introduced me to the world of the séance.

We bought a psychic paper and looked up the nearest performance. And I remember, in that paper, there was an advertisement: “Give Your Guide A Treat. Buy X’s Incense”; and an announcement of a lecture, to be given at the British College of Psychic Science, by Dr. Nandor Fodor on Fairies — with lantern slides.

We found the room where the séance was being held, and tapped on the door. It was opened by a crone who blinked at us. With a gesture of caution, she motioned us to tip-toe in. Half-way to our seats she whispered in my ear, “The door is open.”

Thinking I had very rudely left the door open, I went quickly to shut it. But the door was locked. Too late I realized the lady was referring to the metaphorical door which leads to wider belief and experience.

The medium, who had been sitting with closed eyes, cried out, “The vibrations are broken — every single vibration is broken.”

After that, while we sat penitently trying to mend the vibrations, the room became very hot. My neighbour said it was wonderful because it was all due to an Indian Guide who brought his own climate with him.

But that was my first séance. There were others. . . .

My favourite medium, when in a trance, could make any desired perfume emanate from his body. It was not till later I read Daniel Mackenzie’s Aromatics of the Soul. Mackenzie suggests that St. Theresa was suffering from diabetic acetonaemia with suppurative conditions which would account for the sweet odours noticed in her presence, and which were really due to invasion of pus by bacillus pyocyancus. However that may be, I still think it’s good magic to control the bacilli!

Then a Yogi appeared in London. I’ watched him read “through” his hand (by eyeless sight, or paraoptic vision, as it is technically called) a proof copy of a new book by David Gascoyne. The Yogi kept his hand about two feet from the paper and used the cells in the skin which are sensitive to light, which are, in effect, rudimentary optic nerves.

Then, in London, I watched a fakir being buried alive.

For a demonstration interment, a fakir makes some preparations. He blocks his nose and ears with wax. Then he presses with his fingers on the arteries in the neck which take the blood to the head. He breathes deeply and rolls back his tongue. (The muscles of the tongue are specially loosened.) The deep breathing and the pressure on the main carotid arteries and pneumogastric nerves produce trance.

A man cannot come out of such a trance unless he is lifted into an upright position by assistants. This has to be done when the coffin is reopened. During the interment the wax in the nostrils and ears and the position of the tongue in the mouth, prevent oxygen from entering the body while it is in a state of suspended animation.

Some years after my fakir was buried in London he tried the same demonstration trick again in the East. Unfortunately a small worm got into the coffin and penetrated the wax in the nostril. When they came to dig the fakir from his grave they found that, as oxygen had entered the body, it had begun to putrefy. It was a nice question whether to bring the fakir out of his trance or rebury him.

But when the fakir tried in London the magic worked. It always does in London, for London is a city of magicians.

* * * * *

It was at my London “local” that I met my best white magician.

I had slipped in, with Max Chapman, to celebrate something with a pint of good old-time bitter. The white magician looked at us, and his eyes were full of tears. He gave the pin-table a shake and said “It’s a trick!”

Max was quick to guess : the magician had gambled his last penny for a packet of cigarettes and the machine had won. Max said something which made me say something which made him accept a drink.

I started talking sympathetically about how difficult life is, and how ordinary mortals can’t hope to control the complicated bits like pin-tables. But he didn’t like that. “Once,” he said, “I was a top-liner on the halls — an illusionist.”

So there he was, the conjuror who thought the pin-table a trick, the illusionist who had nothing left but his own illusion.

He said: “You should have seen me at the Palace. I shot a cannon across the stage. The ball smashed through a sheet of plate glass and my wife’s stomach. Then one of my attendants caught it in a net. Of course it’s all a question of showmanship. It wasn’t so much of a trick, really. You see — I only used a croquet ball.”

He paused and shook his head. “Things went wrong,” he said. “I had a booth at the Exhibition. There were a lot of French visitors in town, and I got a French horn player to stand outside my booth. But he didn’t seem to attract much attention.

“My last professional appearance was with a flea circus. You wouldn’t like that. You have to inoculate the fleas before you can let them feed off your arm.

“Bad luck? Why, only last night my wife was attacked in this bar. She’s an artiste, you know. She used to juggle a jet of water on the end of her nose for my fountain trick. . . . Well, I did some odd jobs in the garden for a bloke who gave me some of his old clothes. My wife used one of his ties to trim a hat. Then, when she was standing just where we are standing now, a young fellow comes up to her and tears the hat off her head. It was an old Etonian tie. . . .

“Perhaps . . . perhaps I’ll make a come-back one day. X did, and he’s older than I am. I went to see him. He didn’t make any mistakes, but he didn’t make any points. He brought the rabbit out of the hat all right, but he hadn’t shown the audience first that the hat was empty.”

Max slipped a penny in the pin-table before we left. The white magician had one more chance to win a small packet of fags.

Outside, Max said sorrowfully: “Do you remember the Adept who told us he had the power to destroy the world with a flick of his fingers? Isn’t it wonderful to think of some people’s patience?”

* * * * *

And it was in London, and not in Istanbul, that I met my best black magician.

People had told me about him. They said: “He’s an old man now, but his hair is still black and wild. He lives in a tenement. You’d never dream what a lot of magic is practised there. Why! he can remember when there was a cage of skinned live cats on exhibition in the street, and there was a boy who bit the heads off live rats for sixpence. It’s atmosphere, isn’t it?”

Well, there was a strange little card on his mantelpiece. I asked him about it. “That!” He shrugged his shoulders. “That’s nothing much. Just a sigil to make it hail tomorrow.”

I did the unforgivable thing. In spite of the atmosphere, I said, “Will it?”

“Umph!” he said reproachfully, “of course it does depend on ‘interferences’ by other black magicians.” His face brightened. “Once,” he said, “I put a card up to make it rain. I had to wait some days before my influence was sufficiently established to counteract the wishes of other magicians. But when it did rain, my card was so strong I could not get it to stop.

“I said, `That’s all right, I’ve proved my point.’ I burnt my card and willed the rain to cease. But I had underrated my own power. I had to will for days before the rain actually stopped. Think of that!”

I thought about it, and he watched me with burning eyes to see if I was impressed.

He said: “Have you a match? I used to light cigarettes without matches, but I found it wasted so much power. I must keep my power for the really big things. For instance, I made the mistake of trifling with horses.

“I once drew a special pack of cards to tell me the winner. A magic pack of cards. If there were a dozen horses in the race, I laid out thirty cards and concentrated to make the pack tell me the thirtieth horse. That forced my conscious mind to give up, and brought my unconscious into play.

“Well, for a bit I couldn’t understand what was wrong. I didn’t seem to be making any money. Then it came to me. My magic was right but — the judges were wrong.

“Judges are fallible human beings, you know, and they make errors about the horses at the tape. My magic could only tell me the horse which really won, not the horse which deceived the judges. Of course, this was in the days before the photo-finish.

“But, you see . . . it doesn’t do to trifle.”

He leapt to his feet. “I’ll show you something,” he cried wildly, “I’ll show you something.”

He picked up a rusty biscuit tin. I wondered if he was going to produce a dried toad or a dead baby. He took out a piece of cheese. Then, with a pocket knife, he delicately removed some parings.

“For D.P.’s lunch,” he said, as he dropped the shavings outside a mousehole. “I call him D.P.,” he added; “it’s short for Death Posture.”

“Is he your familiar?” I suggested.

“He is,” the black magician boasted, “the most amazing mouse in London.”

We sat watching the hole. I didn’t know whether I was expected to will anything, so I tried to fill my mind with cheese.

Presently a mouse peered, sniffed, darted forward, gobbled the cheese, retreated.

“There!” shouted the black magician in triumph, “that was D.P. You see I keep a tame mouse instead of a cat. He relies on the lunch I give him, and he’s so jealous of his food he won’t allow another mouse near the place.”

“Yes,” I conceded, “that certainly is magic. But,” I went on as a doubt occurred to me, “would you call it black?”

He despaired of me. “I’ll have to ask you to go,” he said crossly. “There’s an inner rite I must perform. But, before you go, I wonder if you’d mind giving me a hand to rig up this box camera?

“Elementals, you know, walk in straight lines. You must know that — the Chinese knew it millions of years ago. Well, there’s a demon due to haunt my room tonight. But no elemental can bear to have his photograph taken. That only happens under the pentagram of compulsion. When my haunt sees the camera he’ll automatically turn round. Then he’ll have to walk in a straight line all round the earth before he can get back to my room. It ought to keep him quiet for a bit.”

I did my best to help with the camera, and as I was about to leave the black magician relented.

“Come back one day,” he invited, “and I’ll show you all you future in a vision on the wall. You’ll like that, won’t you? All your future spread out like a map before you. . . . Yes, do come back. I think D.P. has taken a fancy to you.”

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