On the one hand my credentials for writing about magic would appear to be good: I come from Scotland, a country which promotes itself as a land of mystery, magic and legend. On the other hand Scotland’s claim to be some sort of home to ancient magic is based on big marketing budgets rather than reality, as Scotland’s witches were burned and drowned and our legends were suppressed for generations. Many Scots would blame this (as well as their other problems) on the English, but who are we to complain considering that it was us who destroyed the Celts and totally eradicated the Picts.
Like all British kids I was brought up on a diet of adventure books and films, some of which were based on magic; the other themes of the seventies were WW2, cowboys and Indians, and science fiction. I remember the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe being foisted on me by over enthusiastic adults, but I had a perverse reaction when I was told I “should” read books; the more I was urged to read certain books the less I would feel like doing so. I never did read the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and it is only now that I actually feel like doing so.
The one magic book that I really did get into was The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein, a writer who did a lot of interesting research into ancient British languages and legends (he even invented an Elfish language for his novels). This was the only book that I remember my Dad reading to us; he would read a few pages a night, by the log fire, and it took months. I’m not sure if we ever finished it. But I am sure it was good for us. I’m sure that reading about adventures in fantasy land helped us to cope with reality, gave us hope and made us realise that the impossible can be achieved.
These events took place in the dim and distant past, in the 1970s, now remembered as a grim and depressed period that was close in spirit to Britain’s spartan post-war years. But the reading habits of my youth are surprisingly relevant today: both the The Lord of the Rings and the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe have been made into Hollywood blockbusters and my kids have seen these films at the Bucharest Movieplex.
It seems to me that magic has occupied two main functions throughout history: as a practical means of curing sick people and as a form of escapism. Literature is full of tales of good witches who were basically herbalists and therapists who would play a useful role in society which lacked any kind of health service. This service is still performed all over Africa by witch doctors. Anyone who has read the Da Vinci Code will know what happened to European witches: according to Dan Brown they were massacred in their millions by the Catholic Church as part of a conspiracy to undermine the leading role of women.
The escapism side of magic has always been with us. In all eras magicians would perform in front of people of every class, in every culture, doing tricks that seemed impossible, helping people forget their daily grind and enjoy a moment of pure entertainment. The profession of magician as entertainer must be as old as prostitution itself, supposedly the “world’s oldest profession”. Today, the business of magic has been diversified and can be found in the worlds of entertainment, publishing and film; magic is a useful source of income for writers, actors, directors and publishers. If we look at Harry Potter as an example, it has made hundreds of millions for a Scottish author, a London based publisher, and scores of people in the film industry. Magic is one of Hollywood’s secrets of eternal life.
When I was a teenager in Edinburgh my big brother and I went to see a famous hypnotist called Robert Halpern, and the theatre in which he was performing was packed. He asked for some volunteers to come on the stage, one of whom was my brother, all of whom were put under his spell. My brother and a few others were put to sleep at the side of the stage – they were the lucky ones – and the others got sent back to their seats or given roles to perform.
One guy was told, when he was under hypnosis, that when he heard the key word (I think it was “Egypt”) he would feel that his chair had become white hot. He was then brought out of hypnosis and sent back to sit with his girlfriend, where he blended into the crowd. Some time later, when the magic word was spoken, the volunteer leapt into the air with the speed of someone being ejected from a jet plane. He screamed so loudly, with such pain, and cursed so convincingly, that it was impossible to believe that it had been staged.
Another two volunteers (“victims” would be a better word) were each given a large onion when they were under hypnosis. They were told that they were holding delicious green apples and they should eat them, which they both did with gusto. We were falling about the aisles with laughter, as there is nothing funnier than seeing someone being made a fool of. Our amusement didn’t seem to bother the two volunteers in the slightest and they were behaving as if they were at home, really enjoying themselves, not being humiliated in front of hundreds of people.
Looking back at my childhood in Scotland the most magical thing about it wasn’t the myths and legends, about which we knew nothing, but the way my mother brought up four wild sons, managed a big house in the country, an author-husband who would take 10 years to produce a novel, and run a publishing company. The fact that she established a publishing company with no money, experience or training was magical in that it would be considered impossible if looked at rationally. No bank or investor would have loaned money for such an adventure.
But Canongate Publishing not only survived, it thrived and went on to lead a renaissance in Scottish publishing. Before the seventies Scotland had been considered a minor province for London based publishers and much of Scotland’s classic literature was out of print. Canongate Publishing also brought to light some great new authors, including Alasdair Gray, whose magnum opus Lanark is now available in Romanian, as well as scores of classic Scottish books which had been out of print for a generation. Since Canongate was taken over by its former PR volunteer, Jamie Byng, it went on to win a Booker Prize for the Life of Pi and was recently in the papers for having got the UK rights for Barack Obama’s memoirs.
My mother also published a series of Scottish kids books called The Kelpies. Most of these books were based on ancient myths and legends, many were historical classics that had gone out of print, and magic was a theme in many of them. Because it was expected of me, I never did read these books and so I never found out the meaning of the work Kelpie – until two weeks ago. We were on holiday in the magical Turkish nature reserve called Olympos (I say magical because it is the only beach resort in Turkey where construction is forbidden) and we watched a film called The Water Horse. Although this film was produced in Hollywood and shot in New Zealand it is based on a Scottish legend – the story of the Loch Ness monster.
While my family slept I watched the “extra features” on the DVD and listened to the director’s narrative about the Loch Ness legend. American’s are popular in Scotland because of their rather naïve enthusiasm for all things Scottish; they love anything to do with myths, legends and magic (there is even a Scooby Doo film set at Loch Ness) and I found this American director’s enthusiasm compelling. What I found particularly interesting was the reference to the legend of The Kelpie, which was quoted as one of the inspirations for the film. I had always assumed that The Kelpie was some sort of cuddly creature, or a harmless fairy, a girlie fantasy, and I never wanted to read about it. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; The Kelpie legend is terrifying.
According to the creepy expert who was speaking on the Water Horse DVD, the Kelpie was an ancient sea monster which would transform into a horse and stand on remote country roads, waiting for lone travellers. If the traveller would touch or stroke the friendly horse his hand would be stuck fast – to a terrifying monster – and he would be hauled off to the depths and eaten. Apparently the Kelpie managed to keep its identity secret for a long time, until one traveller cut off his own hand, escaped, and made it to Inverness. After that, according to legend, the people of Scotland “knew to be afraid”.
My final recollection of magic is, like my Scottish experiences, rather tenuous but it happened in a location which, like Scotland, is often associated with magic: Tibet. After finishing university in Liverpool I decided to hitch hike to Shanghai, a journey that brought me through eastern Europe and Romania in 1986. My overland route took me through India and once I arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, I decided this was the place for me, I decided this is where I am going to live. I found a job as an English teacher and managed to stay for about a year.
Like most people, I have never actually believed in magic but something happened in Tibet that almost made me into a true believer. I was sitting in my room when a young monk in modern clothes walked in and predicted the future. Most monks in Tibet are humble and shy but this one behaved as if we were old friends. He was really friendly without being at all arrogant or presumptuous. He said there was going to be trouble in Lhasa and I should take this small gift which would protect me; he handed me a small cotton packet which contained some tiny white stones, which he explained were the remains of a Lama (a Tibetan Buddhist priest), and if I kept this packet “on your body, in a life” I would be okay. Lhasa was a small town back then I was sure I would see him again, but I never did. He just disappeared.
Soon after this visit a double rainbow appeared above Lhasa and I was told that this was a bad omen for Tibetans. A few days later there was an earthquake and again I was told this was an omen, but a really bad one this time, and that the statues in the monasteries had been awoken. And then the real trouble started; a full scale riot against the Chinese occupation took place right in the centre of Lhasa, about two minutes from where I lived. I saw a police station in flames and a boy get shot dead right in front of me. A week after that I was expelled because my flat was searched and I was found to be in possession of some Dalai Lama photos.
In 1990, three years later, I was a journalist in Bucharest having dinner with a smooth talking Romanian Army officer. For some reason I told him about this encounter with the Tibetan monk who had appeared from nowhere, who seemed to know me, and who predicted the future. The army officer then told me about a Romanian travel writer who had travelled extensively in Tibet during the 1980s and described a parallel world which existed under the Earth’s surface.
He explained that the citizens of this other magical world could come in and out of our world whenever they liked, but very few of us were allowed to go into their underground world. I was intrigued, especially by the fact that I had never heard this story from any of the hundreds of Tibet experts I had met there, most of whom seemed to know scores of myths and legends. And then the army officer, who had an expression of bright enthusiasm that reminded me of the mysterious Tibetan monk, said “I think you are one of the inhabitants of that parallel underground world.”
This article was first published by the Romanian art and fashion magazine Omagiu, whose January 2009 edition was based on the theme of magic.