DIVERSION / All in the mind's eye: Emma Forrest enters the realms of the Paradox Box, a collection of optical illusions. Is it more than just a bag of tricks?

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The Independent Culture
All mind games, other than those conducted with people, make me want to cry. I hate playing cards, I loathe chess and I detest Scrabble for turning the English language into a terrifying equation. I'm just glad I've never been confined to bed long enough to have to fill in a crossword. At junior school we learnt something called verbal reasoning, alleged by the teachers to be a creative subject, but they didn't fool me. It consisted of puzzles and jigsaws and was just another form of mind accountancy. And now that I'm attempting to condition my mind to A-levels, I've learnt that people are either 'left-brained' or 'right-brained' (good at either scientific, mathematical activities or artistic and imaginative). This often comforts me as I stomp on a game of dominoes.

I didn't want to like The Paradox Box. I told myself it was just another aggressive bag of joke-shop tricks with pretensions. Alas it's not and all my theories about being only left-brained or right-brained are dashed. Here is a series of mind games that are truly imaginative and artistic. William Morris told us to own nothing that is not 'useful or beautiful'. Well, the Paradox Box makes a very poor cooking utensil, so I guess it's the latter.

A box of optical illusions published by Redstone Press and introduced by Jonathan Miller, The Paradox Box does include the old 'which line is longer/ how many cubes do you see' teaser, but is mostly more sophisticated than that. Nearly all the illusions pass muster as art in their own right and the box contains rare and little known material, visual jokes and enigmatic images, mostly from the last century. As in the current television adaptation of Scarlet and Black, Napoleon pops up frequently, the Tony Slattery of the 19th century: there is, if you hold the card up to the light, the ghostly figure of Napoleon leaning against his tomb; also the face of Napoleon composed of 'the corpses of his folly and ambition' (I'm sure we could update that one); Napoleon's profile is concealed in a bunch of violets, and Napoleon stars with Clive Anderson in a Hat Trick production.

There is an illusion where you keep your eye on a black ink pill and draw it slowly to your face until the monk swallows it. This turns out to be an advertisement for Whelpton pills, although the England football team may be interested in developing a similar illusion that makes it look like the ball goes in the net.

The 1905 postcard, 'L'Amour de Pierrot', shows a clownish couple happily drinking champagne at a table, but when you look again, their outline makes up a skull (particularly relevant in the light of recent date rape cases where courtship is exposed as an illusion, a game of double meanings and hidden intent).

Illusion is a hot seller these days. Walk down any high street and holograms, 3-D glasses and virtual reality beckon. But whereas these techno-tricks, with their lack of any real depth, are little more than metaphors for pop culture, the engaging multi-layered puzzles in The Paradox Box make you wonder if you shouldn't try a little harder to enjoy the complexities of life.

'The Paradox Box' collection published by Redstone Press, pounds 14.95, available through booksellers, or by writing to Redstone Press, 7a St Lawrence Terrace, London W10 5SU. 1993 catalogue also available.

(Photographs omitted)

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