Bob Read's Magical London: An Idler's Guide to the Magical Capital of the World by Bob Read
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2006)
As I write this, it is the 21st of November, 2005. Yesterday, as I began to write the preceding review by offering puzzled musings about the passage of time and our perception of it, I was blithely unaware how sadly appropriate those words would become at this moment, less than 24 hours later. Shortly after I concluded writing that piece, I received a call from Richard Kaufman, informing me that our cherished friend, Bob Read, had died not an hour before, in a hotel in Santa Barbara, while vacationing with his wife, Pauline.
Exactly eight days before, almost to the hour, Bob and Pauline and I, along with two other newly mutual friends, had had dinner together in L.A., the last night of the Conference on Magic History, where Bob had lectured. I had sat with Pauline during the talk, and we laughed together, along with the rest of the crowd, as Bob regaled the group with his lesson plan from the alleged Arthur Murray School of Magical Research whose motto basically is, "Two steps forward; three back!" during which time he managed to also squeeze in striking revelations about the mysterious historian Arthur Watson. Watson's work, Bob had discovered, was the basis for significant elements in Sidney Clarke's Annals of Magic, but Watson had never been properly credited. Several years ago Bob had set upon solving the mystery as he had alluded to in the Miracle Factory edition of the Annals and of course, in his inimitable fashion, had managed not only to uncover all the buried facts, but along the way had also developed an hilarious version of the story by which to recount them.
At the history conference, most speakers are given an allowance of 20 minutes, and most end up stretching to about 30. Bob Read not only an historical explorer and art expert, but a masterful performer, storyteller, and entertainer wasn't about to come all the way over from England for a measly 20 minutes. His time allotment had thus been doubled to 40. This means he did 70 which would be a surprise to no one who knew Bob. The virtual instant he came off the stage, he began telling me about all the jokes he'd left out. He continued to repeat more of them to me when we rendezvoused that evening for dinner. Today I found this in an old e-mail from Bob: "I plan what to say. Unfortunately, I never plan what I leave out." Readers may recall the piece I wrote about Bob Read for the April 2004 Genii, a portion of which is pertinent to the task now before me. Therein I recounted an adventure I'd had, in April of 2000, walking around London with him. As we wandered from place to place, Bob would stop and take the occasional photo. Then he began making strange requests: Could I stand in the street so he could shoot down the length of the avenue? Could I stand outside this pub and pause in the midst of doing a Charlier shift? Strange to be sure, but being with Bob, there was never anything strange about, well, things being strange.
As I described in Genii, "We strolled to what was once Maskelyne's Egyptian Hall; we stopped on St. James Place, about where Hogarth depicted the thimble rig; we stood outside the churchyard where Guy Fawkes is buried; we visited Covent Garden, where Sam Pepys reported the first record of Punch and Judy outside St. Paul's church ..." Then a few months later the mystery was solved, when a double-sided photo montage arrived in the mail. Every photo of me was now accompanied by a matching historical image from Bob's massive collection, along with a typed caption explaining the locale and its significance in the history of magic. Remember the photo outside the pub? That was the Roundhouse—formerly Bassets Hotel—where Charles Bertram was once the landlord, and where he reputedly first met, as Bob had now written, "the enigmatic Charlier and was instructed in the very same move on the very same spot." And in a corner of the montage, Bob wrote, "And isn't it wonderful," invoking Bertram's timeless catch phrase, "that this mystery play was enacted around Jamy without him being aware."
Wonderful indeed. As it turns out, that memorable day was a beta test of sorts for the masterwork that I am now tasked to discuss: Bob Read's Magical London. Last year Bob presented The Magic Circle with an extraordinary gift. He had gathered the results of his years of knowledge and amassed expertise and created no less than six guided historical walks around London, each one examined through the eye of magical history. He outlined these six walks on a map of London, identifying some 150 spots of interest. On one side of the sheet, each tour is lent its own individual map, along with about a page of commentary. And then, on the other side, each of the individual spots was provided with a small original caption accompanied by a tiny graphic image, much though not all of the source material having been drawn from Bob's personal collection.
The map of Bob's Magical London tours was, as it says on the cover panel, "produced for the centenary of the Magic Circle, 2005," and made its debut there this past July. On the day after the centenary convention, Sunday the 24th, I joined a number of attendees gathered at Hyde Park to be led personally by Bob Read on the first walk of the map, "Strolling St. James." In fact, this tour over-lapped with the one Bob had taken me on in 2000, and once again we strolled through Piccadilly, visiting the sights and sounds of some 24 locations, from where Isaac Fawkes had once performed, all the way to a site on which now rests a Virgin mega-store owned by an amateur magician, near where Charles Bertram had once performed. Along the way Bob tossed Three-Card Monte on the top of an umbrella, and hoped we wouldn't be rousted by the police, while he explained that this was how it could once be seen on the streets of London. It was just like any delightful day one would spend with Bob Read, but with a bit of a larger group of friends in tow—including the delightful Pauline, his companion of 32 years and his biggest fan—a day full of fun and facts, laughs and lore.
Each one of the tours described on the map includes items of note that range similarly across the centuries, from references to the publishers of Scot's* Discoverie of Witchcraft* to contemporary notices like the site of Christie's auction house, where in 2004 "they sold the oldest known painting of a magician (1470c) in private hands." (The owner of that painting joined us on the July 24 tour. One brute asked how much he'd paid for the canvas, but no surprise to the rest of us he declined to provide the details.) Along with all this, there is a list of the locations of no less than 30 one-time London magic shops, and a list of museums and galleries containing magic-related content And occasionally, if you read the fine print, you'll find bits and pieces of Bob's inevitable drollery. A mention of a pub includes the observation that "It is on the site of Sweeney Todd's barber shop and still serves pies." Elsewhere: "On the corner of Bridge Street is the site of the first traffic lights. Installed in 1868, thirty years before the combustion engine(,) how's that for forward thinking?" And, referring to the Canterbury public house which became a great music hall, the commentary offers that, "It was home to many magic acts before succumbing to enemy action in 1943—although the two events are not thought to be connected." Bob couldn't restrain himself from offering a slice of his own wry commentary along with heaping portions of the facts, and history is invariably the better for it.
There are, as mentioned, six such walks detailed on the map. In recent years I've had the delight of sharing in portions of four of them with the tour master himself. It is my sad duty to now have to describe this wonderful map to you, while at the same time knowing that no further tours will be shared with the extraordinary man who created it. But this map is in some ways fair, if still woefully inadequate, tribute to that man. It is filled with equal parts of knowledge and joy, with intellect and heart. Along with all his wacky eccentricity, his ingenious intellect, and his sparkling creativity, Bob Read was a generous, kind, loving man and friend. When we last talked about the map, he didn't want credit for his knowledge and expertise, his research, his work putting together the design and production, his generous gift of the entire project to The Magic Circle. He insisted only that The Circle get a pat on the back for putting it out as if they were doing Bob (and the world of magic) the favor, instead of the other way 'round. But The Circle does deserve our thanks for, among other things, presenting this living tribute living, because you have the chance, next time you're in London, to walk its streets and see it with new eyes, through the eyes of a great man, a great magician, and a great friend to countless many around the globe who miss him today, and cry today for our loss of him, as I do.
Bob and I were reminiscing over e-mail a while back, and he ticked off a few of our adventures and encounters that he recalled through the years. And then he added, in his ever smiling and understated voice, "There's been some fun and games, huh?" Yes, Bob, there certainly has. It's been a blast. Thanks.