Some years ago I had a book containing some of the strangest problems ever submitted to agony aunts and advice columnists, and one of them, I remember, was from a bus driver who wanted pointers on how to become a shepherd.
I thought of this interesting career move the other day when I met Mark Townsend, the 40-year-old former vicar of Leominster, who a couple of months ago resigned from the clergy to become a full-time magician. Actually, ministering and magic have more in common than buses and sheep. There are some who reckon that Jesus himself must have been a nifty illusionist, among other things, and if that seems blasphemous, there is no doubt that some of the tricks used by magicians through the ages have also been used by the more evangelical preachers. When I lived in Atlanta, Georgia in the mid-1980s I went a few times to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King had been ordained and where his funeral took place. The then-pastor, Joseph Roberts, was a remarkably dynamic speaker with hypnotic powers; it was not unusual to see visitors to Ebenezer Baptist rising from the pews and walking forward, as if in a trance, to receive his blessing.
Moreover, Mark himself used to deploy sleight of hand during wedding ceremonies, taking two pieces of rope, representing the bride and groom, and making them one. I'd love to have seen that. When I think of some of the marriage ceremonies I have sat through, a little bit of magic would have come as a blessed relief.
Mark also conducted a harvest festival service for my children's primary school at the village hall a few years ago, and when he opened his Bible, lots of paper butterflies flew out. The kids were agog, indeed our friend Jane was moved to tears to see their little faces aglow with wonder.
Clearly, Mark never exactly matched the prototype of the country vicar: an earring and the short, wiry frame of an ex-footballer instead of pince-nez and comfortable pink rotundity. Nor did some people approve of his interest in magic; even now he occasionally gets cranky anonymous letters from someone accusing him of satanism, and only last week there was a letter in the Leominster Journal, denouncing him as a heretic.
To make up my own mind I invited him round to my house, and it took me all of a minute to conclude that he is full of the milk of human kindness, to use a biblical expression. He is also, to use a non-biblical expression, one hell of a spoon-bender. I once had a private spoon-bending demonstration from the doyen of that profession, Uri Geller (outside whose home in Berkshire there is a sign saying 'Bend in Road' on which some wag once scrawled 'nice one Uri'), and I can report that Mark does it just as well.
Anyway, he is still a committed Christian, but left the Church because he wanted to convey "what I feel about life to a bigger audience". As well as doing standard magic shows he will be going to Christian retreats with his unique combination of spiritualism and conjuring, and insists that they are perfectly in harmony. "I see life as a total mystery, full of magic and wonder," he told me. His website is called magicofsoul.com.
I called one of his former parishioners at Leominster Priory, a man called David Russell, who regretted Mark's departure very much. "As a vicar he was very inclusive, very open-minded, always saw the good in people," Mr Russell told me. Apparently, he used magic sparingly in sermons, but did once recruit Mr Russell to help him with an illusion involving a laundry-basket and some fishing-wire, which required crouching out of sight behind the pulpit. Mr Russell therefore had to hide himself well before the service began, and was spotted only by the choir, who, used to a certain lack of convention, showed few signs of surprise at the spectacle of a man in an overcoat crawling up the pulpit steps.
I suppose there were those in the congregation - including the poison pen letter-writer, perhaps - who thought that such tricks had no place in church. On the other hand, Leominster Priory also houses the last ducking-stool used in England, which might be considered similarly irreligious.
Whatever, I can't help feeling that magic's gain is the Church of England's loss.
Foul play on the footpath
This column is in danger of becoming one not to be read at mealtimes. Last time I wrote about my nine-year-old son tearing open his scrotum in an accident and I didn't realise how incompatible that was with eating until I was telling the story to a friend as we ambled towards a Chinese restaurant for lunch, and only later realised that he had left all his dim sum.
Anyway, last week we were walking up to Croft Ambrey, one of our favourite picnic spots hereabouts, when the same son declared that he desperately needed – there is no polite way of telling this story – a poo. He did his business discreetly, well off the beaten track behind a tree, with his mother in attendance, and she was just helping him wipe his bottom when she realised, to her absolute horror, that our golden retriever Fergus had, in a couple of gulps, eaten the whole lot, and indeed appeared to be licking his lips with pleasure. It at least solved the problem of what to do with the mess, but it was some time before any of the kids gave their beloved retriever a kiss.