Breaking the spell: How did a quiet anthropologist infiltrate Paris's secretive Magic Circle?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

With sleight of hand and lots of luck, Graham Jones tells Mark Piesing

Graham Jones might not have been able to pull a rabbit out of a hat at a kids' party, but he was going to have to make a pain au chocolat appear from nowhere for the Magic Circle of Paris. For five months, the softly spoken anthropologist from MIT, who hadn't performed a magic trick since he was a child, worked hard to master the techniques needed to predict, Derren Brown-style, the pastry someone would choose and to build the props to make the chosen pastry appear on command in front of some of France's greatest magicians.

At stake was an attempt to infiltrate the secret world of magic in Paris, the birthplace of modern magic and the only place in the world where magicians are subsidised by the state.

"I had originally imagined that I could just go up and ask the magicians questions," he says. "But they weren't willing to talk to me because – I realised – magicians form relationships by exchanging secrets and knowledge, and I had none of my own. So I had to become someone who had something to give as well. And it was a big struggle for me as I didn't have that desire to stay up all night working on a single sleight-of-hand movement – I just wanted to use it as my passport into their world."

Now his book Trade of the Tricks: Inside the Magician's Craft seeks to explain what he uncovered behind the magic curtain during the almost two years he spent in Paris. By following some of the world's leading magicians and fully participating in the scene as a kind of sorcerer's apprentice, he shines a light on a male-dominated community that is often trivialised in mainstream culture and yet whose members, he believes, display "a level of specialised knowledge comparable to the James Dysons and Steve Jobses of this world" in a "complex community" of "frenemies" whose sense of a shared identity is built rather perversely on the keeping, sharing and betraying – and destroying – of each other's secrets.

For Jones, the publication of the book marked an end to a journey that had started 10 years before in the rubble of 9/11. "After seeing the towers collapse from Washington State Park and the American war machine gear up, I became really pessimistic about human nature," he says. "And suddenly it seemed important to me to write about something fun and life-affirming and a little bit escapist, too. It was at that moment that I discovered magic."

And for the multilingual anthropologist, Paris was the place to study magic from the inside, as the history and traditions of its scene set it apart from the famous Magic Circle in London, the innovative scene in Madrid and even the big shows in Las Vegas – as did the monthly subsidy paid by the French government in recognition of the magician's role as an artist rather than just an entertainer.

In the end, Jones feels that "he got fairly deep" into the secret world of magicians despite the fact that "anthropologists don't go undercover but try and blend in" and that he hadn't performed a trick of any kind since he was six or seven. But blending in was a trick in its own right in a factional scene that one magician described as "a little world, with its stars, leaders and groups, along with little 'wars' between them".

Jones says: "I told everyone that I was writing a dissertation about magic, but very few people had a realistic idea of what this meant. I think most people saw me as a novice magician who also happened to be a student writing a dissertation about magic. And that was a comfortable role for me because it meant I didn't stand out much or, if I did, only because of my poor magic skills."

He admits that in some ways he only just scratched the surface of the community. "The ability to really appreciate their expertise takes years of study, six to eight hours a day. And even then, only when you have lived and breathed it for decades can you really understand it."

David Stone only realised just what a "perfect spy for a secret world" Graham had been when he read the book. Stone, one of France's youngest and most popular magicians who has two best-selling videos to his name, says: "We did more or less know he was working on what we call un mémoire for a university, but because he got to know everyone we quickly forgot the fact he wasn't a magician. And as most magicians are pretty self-centred and Graham is a good listener, you can understand why most magicians also forgot after a while that he was here to study them."

For Philippe Day, another regular professional magician on the Paris scene, Jones became a sort of magic psychoanalyst to the community and was able, in the end, to dig quite deep.

"It was a pleasure to have long conversations with him as he was the kind of guy who could teach you a lot by asking you questions and making you tell him answers that you didn't know you had in your mind," Day says. "He got to know some of the greatest theorists we have and had access to any secret as every door was open to him." At least, he adds somewhat mysteriously, "the doors most useful for his research".

Jones, though, is only the latest writer since Alciphron in the second century to be fascinated by magic and, on one level, it is not hard to understand why. After all, the same cup-and-balls trick that Alciphron wrote about almost 2,000 years ago can still be seen on our streets today.

Beyond that, Alfred Binet, the French psychologist and inventor of the IQ test, in the 19th century put our fascination with magic down to the need "to be fooled, to experience surprise, that slight mental fluster that comes from seeing a violation of natural law", whereas the magician Paul Curry a few decades later thought it was due to the need to satisfy man's constant curiosity. More modern writers, such as Jones, suggest that it is the the need to find a place for enchantment and wonder in our cynical age, or even just the desire to experience unmediated entertainment in the age of The X Factor.

Whatever the reasons, while in the past many famous names from Thomas Mann to Roland Barthes have written about magic and magicians almost in passing, a new wave of historians and social scientists have been stumbling towards a kind of "ology" of magic, where it is seen as a form of entertainment, or even art, to be analysed in its own right, rather than an extension of occult belief.

Yet despite being poked and prodded by the outside world for millennia, magicians have largely ignored what the outside world has had to say about them and have carried on researching and documenting the history of magic to an almost obsessive extent – whether the development of a particular technique or the biography of a long-dead magician. And the outside world has, in turn, largely ignored what magicians have to say for themselves.

Some of the magicians featured in Trade of the Tricks hope that this book might break down the barriers between the two worlds.

Up on the stage, the trick went well and in the applause Jones felt that he had "gone native", crossing the line between layman and magician, outsider and insider. Later he found himself even playing with concealment and revelation by teaching new magicians the technique of his trick, but not the handling that actually makes it work.

Yet at that moment of his personal triumph, the magic scene is a community in crisis. "The future is uncertain because the magic shops have been devastated by the web and, as you can buy professional props online, you can become a magician without having to participate in this shared community that is so vital for the profession, but which can be so intimidating to outsiders," he says. "For a community based on the sharing of secrets and the shared identity that goes along with it, this potential atomisation is troubling to many magicians. As is the inability to keep secrets and control who to share them with."

But this great leveling may mean that magic can start to move away from its "boys' toys" reputation to make the Magic Circle an ever-more inclusive one.

'Trade of The Tricks' by Graham Jones is out on October 28 (University of California Press)

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat