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Don England's Paradox by Kevin Kelly

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2002)


Despite the fac that this is Don England's third book of magic, he seems to have retained his long-running status as something of an underground legend. Perhaps this is because he rarely lectures or appears at conventions, so few magicians have seen him work. Perhaps it's because his second book, Gaffed to the Hilt is one of the most unusual books in magic. Perhaps it's because he has an underground reputation for superb sleight-of-hand, while his "over-ground" reputation is for creating some of the most extra-ordinary gaffs in the history of card magic. By virtue of all or some or even none of these things, whatever you think Don England's reputation might be, it's probably well deserved.

Mr. England's name first surfaced in 1981 with the publication of Don England's TKO 'S (Technical Knock-Outs) by John Mendoza (which, word has it, is slated for reprinting). Although perhaps not widely known today, the book had a lasting effect in some circles; the trick entitled "Phase 51" (revisited in this new volume) climaxed a "Repeat Card to Pocket" routine with the vanish of the deck, a now popular effect for which Mr. England's contribution is often overlooked.

The aforementioned Gaffed to the Hilt, written by Jon Racherbaumer and published by Kaufman and Greenberg in 1985, was a remarkable limited edition of 125 copies, printed on red paper in a custom foil-stamped ring binder, with each trick including a gaff handmade by Mr. England, each enclosed in a glassine envelope that was individually tipped in with the appropriate entry. The book sold for $100 upon release and copies have since sold in the $500 range. The book was lacer reprinted in hardcover, without the gaffs; several of the gaffs are now commercially available.

Which brings us to Don England's Paradox. The book consists of 39 entries divided among five segments. Some items use props, some rely on pure sleight of hand, and a substantial segment introduces new and remarkable card gaffs (and occasionally new uses for older gaffs) devised by Mr. England. The book opens with several coin items; a copper/silver routine uses standard gaffs in interesting ways and is accompanied by a fine and original script; the next two items elaborate upon Paul Harris once popular "Twilight" effect.

The next segment, "Unplugged," includes nine sleight-of-hand routines. All of this material is interesting and thoughtful, often providing smart applications of Marlo tools and ideas that are not widely known, many of which having been introduced in the Marlo Magazines. While such groundwork will be familiar to Marlophiles, the applications are invariably thoughtful, and the less well read will learn valuable techniques for the first time, like the Unit Upjog Addition, the Direct Bottom Palm, to which Mr. England sometimes adds an excellent finesse, as for example in his touch for strip-ping outjogged cards From the deck.

The next section, bearing the delightful title "The Roadless Travellers," consists of two versions of the "Invisible Palm Aces," (aka. "Open Travelers") a plot which Mr. England was the first to publish a method using the Ace through Four instead of the four Aces (the trick's creator, Larry Jennings, had also worked our methods using the Ace through Four during the 1960s). The first of these two routines is designed to fool magicians, complete with kicker ending (a change of the cards), a sucker Olram Subtlety, and a packet of six cards. If your goal is to fool magicians with unfamiliar approaches to familiar effects then this routine will serve that need admirably; however, such material is generally not to my taste, as I am invariably troubled by the fact that the original effect as well as already extant handlings suffer greatly by such meddling. That said, the second handling, using the Ace through Four approach along with a clever gaff, produces a much purer approach that is well worth your attention.

The real fun starts in the next section, with eight routines using miniature cards and jumbo cards in various combinations, including new takes on Brother John Hamman's neo-classic "Micro-Macro," shrinking decks, "Card Warp," and other shrinking and growing cards. The gaffs here are generally pretty simple to make, although one is reminded of the old joke about the instructions to any John Cornelius effect beginning with the words, "Step one: Go to the hardware store." In Mr. England's case, you are more likely to be directed to the stationary or art supply store, but get used to it, there will be more of this in the pages to come. That said, the gaff here for the shrinking deck will surely produce a stunning effect, yet is quite easy to make.

The final section includes 17 card items that are, as the saying goes, gaffed to the hilt. The first entry, "Christine II," uses a clever gaff to produce a dazzling multi-phase "twisting" effect. "The Geiger Gaff" improves upon "The Geiger Counter Card" from Gaffed to the Hilt to provide a truly ingenious gaff for the purposes of an utterly impenetrable force and vanish of a selected card. This is the only gaff not fully explained, not for reasons of secrecy (it uses dental dam) but because of the difficulty of manufacturing it, and it can be readily obtained from Mr. England.

Mr. England revisits the combination of a torn-and-gradually-restored card during an assembly of the torn pieces; a clever gaff provides a more visual and indeed practical solution than the version published as "Restoration Assembly" by Derek Dingle—the originator of the plot is Piet Fotton, and the gradual restoration of a card as it assembles formed part of one of his FISM-winning routines many years ago (and which may have eventually inspired Guy Hollingworth's "Reformation"). The Collectors plot is revisited, using four cards with different backs, yielding a clean and simple effect for an admittedly contrived plot. (Mr. England's previous Collectors gaff, from Gaffed to the Hilt, has become one of the most popular items from that book, and deservedly so. If you've never seen it, it is guaranteed to fool you upon first view.) There's an amazing "Oil & Water" routine here, based upon an item of David Solomon's, with the addition of an extremely effective gaff.

The real value of this book lies in the material. The production gets points for effort; while not disastrous it's far from beautiful, but there are some interesting design elements sincerely attempted if not fully realized. As to the writing, Mr. Kelly could have benefited from far more aggressive editing, and the reasons abound. He appears to be unable to express emphasis by any means other than the repeated use of exclamation points; he leaves out descriptions of some sleights that could have been very briefly described with just a bit of effort that some readers would have greatly appreciated. One of the real challenges that faces a writer describing this kind of work is attempting to bring effects achieved by these unusual gaffs to life for the reader who cannot instantly try the effect to see what it looks like; unfortunately, Mr. Kelly is rarely up to this task. Some descriptions lack illustrations to a frustrating extent; how a reader is supposed to understand the Bloom Escorial gaff without accompanying photos is beyond my imagination. Crediting is generally very good, and occasional lapses (I believe the "Card Through Table" should be credited to John Benzais as originally described in Lorayne's Close-Up Card Magic, 1962) seem to stem simply from the fact that the author and/or creator possess deep expertise with the Marlo record but are not as expert else-where; nevertheless, I believe their efforts are responsible.

And so, what about this abundance of gaffs and gimmicks? On the one hand, there are those who say (and have even committed to print) that when given the choice, always use the gaff; I suppose the thinking here, such as it is, would be that the gaff is always easier to use. When Al Baker said that "magicians stop thinking too soon," perhaps he was referring to ill-formed thoughts such as these, since such a claim presupposes that the use of a gaff never comes with a cost, when in fact such use is invariably accompanied by the risk of discovery, a serious cost indeed that will disastrously undermine an entire performance.

My own first justification for the use of a gaff is if it accomplish-es an effect that either cannot be duplicated, or cannot be duplicated as effectively, by other means. "Card Warp" simply cannot be duplicated by means other than some kind of gaff (the torn card or extra piece both essentially qualify as such); on the other hand, while "Wild Card" can be accomplished by pure sleight of hand, such solutions are invariably vastly inferior to the effect achieved by gaffed cards.

Indeed, some of the greatest minds (and hands!) in the annals of card magic have frequently resorted to the use of gaffs, including Hofzinser to Vernon to Dingle to Jennings to Elmsley to Brother John Hamman (who penned an introduction to this book prior to his death). As is pointed out in the "Author's Remarks" section (a segment penned by the author, Mr. Kelly, and not by Mr. England), "Gaffs, discreetly used, create illusions that are simple, uncluttered and stunning in effect. J.N. Hofzinser recognized this more than a century ago, and very few have recognized it since then." Mr. England's emphasis appears to be upon the simplicity that can be achieved by way of a gaff, that can often result in "(a straight line, from intro to climax," when it comes to achieving a given effect. It is interesting to note, in considering such material, the differences between relying upon a gaff to entertain the public as opposed to fooling other magicians. The so-called "McDonald Aces" and "Wild Card" routines have become staples of the commercial repertoire, both relying upon double-faced cards, a gaff first creatively used by Hofzinser for performance purposes (but which doubtless must have taken in magicians of the era). Meanwhile, Vernon used a gaff to fool Houdini, and many 20th century masters have done similarly, up to and including Don England. Every "name" cardician mentioned here would be included among the finest sleight-of-hand technicians of all time, yet each was known to resort to gaffs. Don England is no exception, and experts eagerly await his rumored book on the Shift and other sleight-of-hand mastery for which he is known.

So there may be any number of reasons to explore the clever "gaffage" to be found within these pages, but the best reason may simply be for the sheer fun of it. So play with all of it, it'll be fun for the whole family (if you can lure them into helping you with the glue and tape and razor knives), fool yourself, and then commit to really mastering the use of one or two, and thoroughly fool your magician friends. This book entertained the heck our of me, and it's likely to delight and fascinate you as well.

Don England's Paradox • by Kevin Kelly • 8.5" x 11" hardbound with dustjacket • 152 pages illustrated with 217 photographs, several snapshots, and additional artworks by Don England