Diamond Jubilee Memories: Magic All The Way by Mark Raffles

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii June, 1997)

Mark Raffles is now in his 60th year in show business, and as might be surmised, he has a few stories to tell. The noted pickpocket and magician (and also dog trainer who, along with his wife, presented a magic act using trained dogs under the moniker of The Wychwoods for a time) has been telling some of those tales over the years in a column entitled Rich Pickings in the pages of Abracadabra, the weekly British magic journal. The author has now collected and expanded upon those writings, to compile this charming little memoir. While it's a little too episodic to be considered an autobiography, there is some family and childhood information included in the early pages, complete with photographs of the author's forbears, and of himself at an exceedingly young age in a charming staged photo with his parents, dating to the early 1920s.

The author had a supportive uncle who was an early influence, and helped to put together a first magic act which the author performed at church and school functions in the early 1930s. The act included "card in sand frame, the diebox, the eggbag, the ropes through coat, coil streamers from opera crush hat ending with goldfish bowl production, and concluding with a goodnight banner." A respectable start! The author made his professional debut in 1938, aping Cardini in an act that featured "cigar and clay pipe, card manipulations, billiard balls and silks," demonstrating both how influential that unique master was and how commonplace the practice, in the the pre-television vaudeville era, of copyists booking themselves into more territory than any single act could ever cover.

Readers interested in the history of variety performance, particularly in Great Britain's music halls, will find plenty here to invoke the intoxicating spell of time travel. Whether recounting his speechless encounter with the great Dante, or his friendship with Elroy, the Armless Artist, who did card tricks with his feet, or tales of wartime touring with the Entertainment National Service Association, the British equivalent of USO, the author is full of stories both memorable and meaningful. Especially moving are tales of performing for soldiers, "wet and mud-spattered, beneath helmets, faces ... scrawled with black and green make-up." Or of the night in Glasgow the author and his fellow performers were ferried by launch to a large ship, shrouded in darkness, to perform "three shows that night in state ballrooms to troops returning home after two years on active service." Unknown to the author at the time, "[t]he ship, in all its wartime camouflage, was the Queen Mary."

Eventually Mr. Raffles developed a pickpocket act, which he has performed extensively for many years and in dozens of television spots in Great Britain. He describes first seeing this type of act performed by the legendary Giovanni and explains that most performers who followed in the latter's footsteps—the author included—had to figure the techniques out for themselves, as precious little had been published on the subject at the time, other than a brief pamphlet by Eddie Joseph. Since that time, Mr. Raffles has produced his own well-received book and videotape on this specialty.

He also recounts a touching remembrance of an on-stage appearance at the 1995 Blackpool convention with Harry Blackstone Jr., all the more poignant given the latter's recent untimely passing, when each performer managed to pick the other's pocket on stage. The author offers the tale as "simple tribute to Harry Blackstone, one of magic's finest stars, who so unselfishly let me share his limelight for that magical moment for the entertainment of our fellow magicians. Thank you, Harry."

Mr. Raffles repeatedly conjures up the experience of both performing in and attending the great music halls of days gone by. It seems that time after time, after sweeping the reader up in the grand scale of these halcyon days in truly hallowed halls, the anecdotes are concluded with, on a note of melancholy, the dates of their razing.

Never self-aggrandizing or self-important, never name-dropping or inflated, never overly sentimental, the author is a generous storyteller who has seen a great deal, and readers will thank him for pausing to share a few stories along the way.

6" X 8-1/4" perfect bound; 128 pages; 16 photographs, 1997; Publisher:John Moore