At International Magic
Anyone searching for prestidigitation in East London need look no further than International Magic in the Clerkenwell Rd, where Martin MacMillan presides today over the tiny shop opened by his father Ron Macmillan – a conjurer known as “The Man With The Golden Hands” – in 1961, exactly fifty years ago.
Just by pressing upon the old brass door catch and stepping into the red carpeted interior, where tricks both old and new line the walls and hang from the ceiling, you can sense magic in the air, as if you have entered in the vestibule of an old theatre – which in a sense you have because, at almost any time of the week, you will find a throng gathered around the counter, where Martin and his customers amuse themselves by performing conjuring tricks for each other. International Magic is recognised as the prime destination for professional and amateur magicians, where they all come and go, learn what is new, socialise, spar and compete in a friendly way, showing off and having fun, just between themselves.
You do not even need to buy anything, only arrive wide-eyed and open-hearted, bring your credulity and your innocence, and be sure to wish Martin, “Good Day!” and shake his hand, and know you will be assured of a genuine welcome and a breathtaking impromptu magic show. People always want to go behind the scenes in the theatre, they want to know what is the secret behind a magic trick, and behind International Magic lies an extraordinary story – it is a true romance.
Ron MacMillan was a French Polisher from Canning Town who was also a successful footballer, and in 1950 when he was admitted to outpatients, he caught the eye of Teresa, a young nurse from rural County Mayo who was new to London and the post-war world of bomb sites and food shortages. Teresa was fascinated by the handsome young man turning coins in his fingers with such eye-catching dexterity and they went on a date together. When Ron’s diagnosis was confirmed as TB, Teresa nursed him through the operation which involved the removal of a lung and some ribs. To give Ron something to concentrate upon, Teresa bought him a book, “It’s Easier Than You Think,” by Geoffrey Buckingham. And it saved his life, because Ron was fortunate enough to recover from TB, and discovering he was a natural at conjuring, he spent his recuperation practising magic tricks and amusing the other patients – thereby giving him his future career .
Unable to return to physical work, Ron managed to secure some employment in the docks where he entertained his fellow dockers and did magic shows on ships, - performing as “The Man With The Golden Hands” – quickly acquiring a reputation by winning competitions and playing in clubs. On one occasion, while performing in front of the Krays and Diana Dors, tossing pennies in the air and catching them behind his back, Ron dropped some into the front row where the twins were, but, understandably, although his act won approval from these hard-nosed types, he did not go to retrieve his coins. Ron’s tour-de-force was to produce sixteen billiard balls out of the air – more than any conjurer had done before or since – and while it was in greater part testimony to his extraordinary talent at legerdemain and, while I should not wish to give the game away, I think we may applaud him for making such ingenious use of the cavity in his chest that was the legacy of his illness.
Teresa and Ron married and had three children, and Ron enjoyed a successful stage career until the late fifties, when the touring became too much for him. So, in 1957, he opened International Magic in Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell, moving to the current site in 1961. “It’s the cheaper end of the West End,” explained Martin, “And this area has history of magic. There was a lot more around then, with Gamages’ magic department in Leather Lane and Elisdon’s in Holborn.”
“If you are born into it and grow up with magic, then you don’t know anything else, until you meet non-magicians,” Martin revealed to me in amused reminiscence,”When you tell them that you’re a magician and everyone you know is a magician, then you realise it is special. Before that, I thought everyone had a magician for a father. As early as I can remember, I was involved in magic. I can’t put a date to it because as I was learning to read and write, I was picking up magic tricks, and at fifteen I came to work here.” Martin claims that he never performs professionally but the truth is that he performs all day. Tall and with a generous smile, he is the perfect master of ceremonies here at the epicentre of the magic world, where you can come for all your magic needs, including lectures, weekly classes and tickets for the annual International Magic convention which celebrates it fortieth anniversary this year.
Let me admit to you that my grandfather was a conjurer in music hall, and it was a visit to International Magic that first brought me to Clerkenwell as a child. I cherish this shop for many reasons – because it has never been modernised, because you don’t need much money to buy a few tricks, because it displays the old tricks of dead conjurers alongside new tricks for sale, because everyone is treated as equal here, because it is all about celebrating the triumph of quick-wittedness and extraordinary talent, and because this is true culture handed down through generations solely for the authentic pleasure of idle entertainment.
Listen to Teresa MacMillan’s story of International Magic by clicking here.
Ron MacMillan, The Man With The Golden Hands
Ron Macmillan and Tommy Cooper with magicians Henk Meesters, Bobby Barnard and Graham Desmond skylarking at International Magic in the nineteen sixties.
Martin MacMillan will demonstrate any trick you may wish to purchase.
International Magic in the nineteen sixties.
Spitalfields Life will be reporting to you from the fortieth International Magic Convention in November.