Charles Dickens - Conjuror - Thursday 18th October - reviewed by Thomas Ballantine Dykes
To those who are very familiar with the works of Charles Dickens, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that in many of his books there are repeated references to the legal system – a system the anachronistic state of which gives rise to the expression ‘Dickensian – a pejorative description of anything that is out-dated, outmoded or just plainly cumbersome.
It came as no surprise therefore to your reviewer (and will not I imagine have surprised the audience) that Dickens was himself closely connected to the legal Profession – so much of what he wrote being critical of the social conditions of his time and the appalling conditions in which so many of his contemporaries lived.
Less well know of course is that as well as being inclined towards the legal profession (a course of action he decided against following, on the grounds that it seemed that his writings were attracting some interest) is that he was an accomplished amateur magician.
Ian Keable delighted us all with an excellent (and beautifully illustrated) resumé of Dickens’ interest in, and connections with, the magicians of his time and indeed a background to the performing art we know as conjuring.
He was – we learned – someone who never shied away from the limelight (quite literally, one might suggest, given the means by which performers were at that time illuminated when on stage) and as with so many performers in the area in which he was interested, social reformers, lawyers, actors singers and of course conjurors - he must have been well up among the greatest self publicists of all time. Never use one or two words of praise or self-advertisement when seventeen will suffice might have been his motto – but what was clear from our speaker was that Dickens was what is termed today a polymath – a man of wide learning and many talents.
Dickens was clearly a major driving force, through his writing, for social reform as well as for the reform of the legal system as well. Sadly he did not live to see the major reforms of 1875 – when major changes to the system were introduced of which he would surely have approved had he lived another five years.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle we know was interested in the occult and of course he was not alone. J M Barrie of Peter Pan fame was similarly inclined and one wonders to what extent these two great writers were influenced by Charles Dickens who himself advertised himself as a necromancer.
We learned of Dickens early interest in magic of course and also about some of those whose magic influenced him as he developed his own style.
Anyone researching the history of magic - and if you have not done so it is worth doing – cannot fail to note the influence of Oriental magicians on the great performers past and present.
I would hesitate to suggest that the husband of the late and great Victoria Wood - Geoffrey Durham - adopted a very far eastern pseudonym in 'the Great Soprendo' but Ching Ling Foo was the stage name of the Chinese magician Zhu Liankui and a variant of that was adopted by the magician James Robertson of Leeds, who performed as Chung Ling Foo (accompanied by his wife 'So-San') throughout England in the 1930s.
It was of interest to your reviewer to learn of the environment in which street magicians worked in Dickens’ time – not so very different in some ways to the way in which modern day magicians like to operate.
Close up slight of hand – thimble rigging - served well some of the less scrupulous performers as a means of making a fast buck at the expense of Derby Day race-goers who presumably – enjoying the 'amber nectar' or its equivalent - were not quick witted enough to spot the changes and switches which were happening before their very eyes.
Of course there was no way that Ian was going to be allowed out of the hall without showing us one or two of Dickens’ well publicised illusions – often somewhat grandiosely entitled.
Sadly we were not able to see the Christmas Pudding Illusion or, as Ian put it, 'the baking a cake in the hat routine' though fortunately the audience were well served with delicious cakes created (one imagines) in the rather more prosaic surroundings of several committee members’ domestic kitchens.
Nor – we were informed were we going to be treated to the illusion in which the performer stuffs large numbers of polished pebbles up his nose. (I can’t say that I was disappointed since I was not entirely sure whether the Insurance Policy in force would have covered the possibility that the trick went wrong.)
We did however get to see the Pyramid Trick in which an unsuspecting Polly Bradford (who was not herself made to vanish as indeed Dickens apparently did to assistants on a regular basis) was deprived of her jewellery (which was fortunately and magically restored to her) as well as various other things – Ian’s own money and wrist watch - disappearing in a black bag and then reappearing elsewhere in a total mysterious manner.
To your reviewer (who as a boy and teenager was himself fascinated by, and occasionally practised, the art) it was a delight to watch an accomplished amateur Member of the Magic Circle perform some well know illusions with a line of patter which would do credit to any professional.
I can say that I believe that I know how they were done but of course I could not possibly let on – I certainly do not want to die an unhappy and premature death which we were told can happen to those who ‘spill the beans’.
All in all an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable talk – and whilst we know that the audience had really gathered for the purposes of the AGM – though possibly with the prospect of some good cake in mind also - none will have gone away disappointed with what they had heard and seen.
I certainly didn’t’!
Thomas Ballantine Dykes
The Fascinating Lives of SpIders - Thursday 20th September - reviewed by Pauline McIldowie
Anyone who thinks of spiders just as creepy-crawly creatures, lurking in corners and apparently coming up from the plughole, was in for a revelation in our September general meeting talk. Simon Moore has worked for much of his career at the Natural History Museum, as an expert on the preservation of biological specimens (anything from minute sections of tissue to whole animals). But he has two great passions : spiders, and Georgian silver.
For us he gave a talk on the huge range of spiders that he has studied. This was accompanied by many beautiful photographs, and a display of preserved specimens - the most lethal ones being safely encased in little Perspex blocks, fortunately! These spiders, as you probably realise, are all exotic, since we have no poisonous spiders in the UK (yet).
The variety in the spider world is astonishing. We saw big fat furry spiders, and ones so flat that they can squeeze through a paper-thin hole in a rock; beautiful brightly coloured ones, and those camouflaged to be almost invisible on a leaf or some bark, or even disguised as an ant to infiltrate an ants’ nest; ones ranging in size from 30cm to 3mm; some with little legs and some with long elegant legs that enable them to run like a flash. Their webs are far more varied than I’d realized, exquisitely beautiful, and I imagine fascinating to a mathematician.
Although after this talk we now know how to tell a male spider from a female, we also realise that spiders would not be very edifying in a ‘birds-and-bees’ type sex education talk : a male may well ‘leg-cuff’ a female while he does his job with the knob-ended palps at the front of his body, and the female likes to eat the male after copulation, unless he makes a quick get-away. Sometimes the male appears actually to offer himself for consumption. Meanwhile, females are happy to be eaten by their children. Members of the U3A are advised not to learn from spiders!
Our thanks to Simon Moore for a very entertaining and beautifully presented talk.
The Fascinating Lives of SpIders - Thursday 20th September - reviewed by Matt Scott
The recent general meeting entitled ‘spiders’ was definitely not for those of a nervous disposition.
We were introduced to many of these delightful invertebrates which we might discover hiding in a bunch of South African grapes or West Indian bananas and all of them deadly! Best to keep a sharp eye out next time you are in a Supermarket.
I’m pleased to report though that our native species are far from deadly and do a very good on flies.
Sadly we had only a small turnout for this excellent talk and beautiful slides of these fascinating arachnids.
The Fascinating Lives of SpIders - Thursday 20th September - reviewed by Thomas Ballantine Dykes
Whatever your view of spiders – love them or hate them – no one who attended our most recent talk by Simon Moore on the Fascinating Lives of Spiders could fail to have been impressed not just by his huge knowledge of a species which many probably treat as a pest – but also by the wonderful presentation of photographs and electron microscope generated images which accompanied his talk.
Even the smallest parts of the smallest spiders were illustrated in graphic detail on the screen and some of the photographs of the many different kinds of web - creations that they construct solely to provide their next meal – hardly 'fast food' you might say, but stunningly beautiful when encrusted with frost or rain – would not have looked out of place in any gallery.
Simon spent much of his early professional life as Curator at the Natural History Museum but left there in the late 1990s and spends much of his time now talking most entertainingly about spiders – the great love of his life – as well of course about his own pet tarantula who was seen in his closing slide nestling up to his ear – an old lady who died eventually at the ripe old age of 21.
The many photographs which illustrated his talk bore testament to the phenomenal versatility and diversity of the spider – some 800 different species reside in the UK alone and the number of species identified worldwide runs to over 6000 - and is rising.
A number of facts – possible useful at the next pub quiz that you attend - stick in the mind. Firstly that male spiders get a hard time – usually ending up as lunch for the mates they have just impregnated. Secondly that some spiders are quite dangerous (or more accurately lethal) though fortunately not those that live in the UK, and that of those that do live in the UK only a very few are likely to bite you if you upset their equilibrium. Thirdly that as a species they are hugely industrious, adaptable and quite simply beautiful to look at. Fourthly that if you wish to avoid encountering a stranded spider at the bottom of your bathtub (and no - they don’t come up the waste pipe) try hanging a piece of loo roll over the side of the bath to provided a ladder out for the creature which will in return do its best to rid your house of flies and finally that the spider bridges what sometimes seem to be impossibly large gaps between the points that anchor the web to a fixed structure – by the use of air currents to float out two pilot lines which can then be used as scaffolding while the rest of the structure is created.
Now you didn’t know that did you?
For those of us who were lucky enough to hear Simon’s talk, this was a real and (for your author at least) a totally unexpected – treat.
If you see his talk advertised again anywhere – and you weren’t in the hall this afternoon – make sure you get to hear him. Not to be missed.
Thomas Ballantine Dykes
Mayﬁeld U3A General Meeting, on Thursday 19th July - reviewed by Anna Thompson
Music for a sunny afternoon……..
Aptly, whether by design or chance, the opening number of our musical meeting was 'Bring me Sunshine’, made memorable of course, by Morecambe and Wise.
Our duo, pianist Jane Spur and ﬂautist Diana Simmons were equally entertaining and just as talented. They are good friends as well as accomplished musicians, and the warmth of their musical relationship was obvious. Relaxed and full of anecdotes, they played Bach, Fauré, The Pink Panther - the list went on to cover a great variety of songs and styles.
I’m very surprised no-one got up and tap danced their way through Baby Face, nor did anyone join in with Annie’s Song, (or not very audibly) but by the end, and with the help of a word sheet we did all ﬁnish with aplomb, singing We’ll Meet Again.
And we will all meet again, but not until September, when the next meeting will be about eight-legged furry things…….
However, back to the music. Jane dealt with a sustaining pedal that squeaked and groaned loudly every time she pressed it and Diana good naturedly joined with the jokes that came thick and fast. Jane has a truly hilarious sense of fun, and one is never sure what is coming next.
The meeting was supposed to have been the AGM, but as it gave Jane and Diana more time in which to amuse us, it was a cloud with a very silver lining!
By the way, if you want to know why Bach had 20 (at the last count) children, you should have been there….
Rails to Road and Back AgainTalk - reviewed by Anna Thompson
The general meeting this month was called Rails to Road and Back Again, and was the history of freight.
As ever when a speaker is knowledgeable and passionate about a subject, it becomes interesting for everyone, and Keith Harcourt, (historical Model Railway Society and a co-founder of the Archives and Artifacts Study Network) cleverly used Mayfield as an example of the changes in our transport systems.
He took us from packhorses to modern day trucks and trains but it seems Mayfield lacked canals!
Obviously containers are the key to commercial success these days, and there were some fascinating photographs to illustrate the points Keith was making and to emphasise the vast scale of global freight traffic.
Hearthrobs - A History of Women and Desire" - reviewed by Anna Thompson.
Carol Dyhouse, a social historian and Professor Emeritus of the University of Sussex, came to our May general meeting and entranced us all.
Author of many books on a range of related subjects, Carol’s talk was based on the wide ranging research for her book of the same title.
Beginning with Byron (although the subject has been relevant through the centuries), and leaving us with boy bands, Carol showed us how the image, or style, of a hearthrob has changed with the times - as women have become more in control of their lives and have consequently more power, there is less need to find a ‘strong’ man to take us into the sunset, with or without the white charger!
There are many profound points to be made on this subject, as well as the more superficial and amusing ones, and Carol made what is actually a deeply interesting and pertinent topic extremely entertaining, and left us all discussing various aspects (and perhaps our own personal choice of hearthrob?) over our tea and biscuits.
A talk not to be missed, so take a moment and Google her book.......
Ightham Mote Talk - reviewed by Anna Thompson
Heather Woodward, one of our members and a well known local speaker, came to talk to us on April 19th on the subject of Ightham Mote.
The fact that Heather obviously knows and loves this ancient and rather romantic house shone through her talk.
We were given a blend of historical fact and architectural information, which was interspersed with domestic snippets by former staff members together with fascinating stories about the various families who have owned it over the centuries.
It’s no castle and it never had to defend itself - though it does have a moat! Perhaps its hidden location in the midst of small lanes and rather rolling farmland lends to a sense of secrecy and meant no-one could find it. It does seem to suddenly pop unexpectedly up from behind a hedge as one rounds a corner!
It was a beautifully balanced talk and gave enough of a feeling of the enchantment of the buildings to make you want to get in the car and drive straight there. Not only can you go and see it, but you can pack your pyjamas and several books and go and stay in one of the historic restored cottages lying within the grounds. Now that is tempting……
Before you go, whether for a day or several, if you are a lover of well researched historical fiction, I would recommend you read Green Darkness, by Anya Seyton who, like the last owner and indeed rescuer of this wonderful house, is an American with a love of England. I won’t give the story away, but houses of great age and mystery make many things seem plausible.
On the strength of Heather’s knowledge and enthusiasm alone, I will certainly be wending my way towards Sevenoaks and Ightham Mote before too long and I suggest you do too!
To find out more about Ightham Mote why not visit the National Trust website at: Ightham Mote|
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