Thursday, 5 October 2006

White Magic

Rather quiet in the shop today - autumn setting in - so I had a chance to finish reading White Magic, the early autobiography of stage magician Jasper Maskelyne. As you can see from the Channel 4 microsite, Magic at War, Maskelyne's name resurfaced in recent years for the interesting accounts of his WWII exploits in the field of camouflage (notably his vanishing the Suez Canal and hiding Alexandria harbour by creating a duplicate).
      White Magic precedes all of this, and covers the broader story of Maskelyne's family, from the Royal Astronomer Nevil Maskelyne via Jasper's grandfather and father (both stage magicians, the former also having been the inventor of a range of coin-operated slot machines and an early variable-spacing typewriter). Most of the book, however, is devoted to Maskelyne's own recollections of his pre-War career.
      It's interesting stuff - but, as is often the case with with showpersons' memoirs, some of it grades well into the fanciful ("Devil Worship in London" - "I attend a Witches' Sabbath" - child sacrifice in France, and so on). This is a bit of a problem with most Maskelyne accounts. Military historian and magician Richard Stokes maintains a website, Jasper Maskelyne, Master of Make-Believe, for a meticulous critique of the Maskelyne story, originally a 21-article series written for the Australian magic magazine Geniis Magic Journal. His research shows that the general view of Maskelyne comes largely from David Fisher's 1983 book The War Magician, which reworked, with additional material, Maskelyne's own ghost-written 1949 memoirs, Magic - Top Secret.
      Stokes documents the many chronological errors and unsubstantiated elements, concluding that Maskelyne's wartime role has been highly embroidered, both by chroniclers and by Maskelyne himself. In Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, Stokes furthermore presents solid evidence for the identity of the ghost-writer, a Frank S Stuart who specialised in sensational reportage. Nevertheless, it all makes good reading: The Scotsman wrote of White Magic, "This book is almost as fascinating as an actual display of skilful conjuring". Perhaps the telling of a good yarn should be viewed as a performance in itself - as long as it's not taken as reliable history.

- Ray

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