Previously: Part One, Desperately seeking escapism

My first foray into entrepreneurship was at age 15 when I began importing magic tricks and other stage props from America to sell, by mail order, in the UK.

At the peak of my garage empire I had maybe a thousand customers, most of whom would send long letters with their cheques (almost always cheques, this being a million years ago), explaining how they planned to use their new props, and sometimes asking my advice on what they should buy next.

My favourite notes, though, came from the non-professional magicians: Those for whom magic was a hobby, not a job. The teacher who used close-up magic in his high school history classes, the doctor who entertained young cancer patients with bedside illusions, the well-known musician who would hide away on his tour bus, practicing false cuts and complicated coin manipulations while his bandmates partied with groupies.

And then there was Mr O’Doyle. Mr O’Doyle (not his real name, but near enough) was an enigma – which, in a customer base made entirely of magicians, was really saying something. Mr O’Doyle didn’t pay by cheque. Rather, he would send large brown envelopes, stuffed with banknotes. Hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds at a time — sent through regular, unregistered, uninsured mail. And tucked inside this pile of cash was always a handwritten wish list — a list which usually bore no relation to items I had actually advertised for sale. Mr O’Doyle , it seemed, had absolute faith in a) the British postal system b) my ability to obtain the various decks of cards, little wooden boxes and obscure instructional books he required and c) his own ability to estimate the cost of those items.

Given the amount Mr O’Doyle spent every month, I assumed he was a very successful professional performer: Perhaps even a celebrity TV illusionist, buying under a pseudonym. How else to explain his seemingly unlimited budget, and his insatiable hunger for new miracles?

Finally, after about six months of having Mr O’Doyle as a customer I plucked up the courage to call him on the telephone — partly out of curiosity and partly because my bank manager had insisted I find out more about the mysterious Irishman who paid only in cash (again, these were different times.) After about a thousand rings, the phone was answered by a character straight out of Samuel Beckett who, for the next half hour or so, told me the story of his life in magic.

Mr O’Doyle, it turned out, was retired and lived alone in a house miles from anywhere. For him, magic was a way to escape even further from the realities of the world and a way to occupy and challenge his mind, in the same ways others read books or complete crossword puzzles. The more complicated the sleight of hand required, the better. And, like most readers or puzzlers, Mr O’Doyle could see no benefit in performing his hobby on stage. He had literally never performed for an audience.

At the time, I found this revelation astounding: My biggest customer – a man who spent more on magic tricks each week than most other magicians did in a year and who, it became clear, practiced morning noon and night, did so only for the mental challenge. Only for himself.

I lost touch with Mr O’Doyle after I closed my business and went to law school. In the intervening years, I haven’t thought much about him, except when pondering some similar example of obsession: A writer with no ambitions to be published, a gifted singer who performs only in the shower, a comedian who refuses to use Twitter.

But then, this past week, Mr O’Doyle popped back into my brain during my trip to Magic LIVE in Las Vegas.  On Sunday night, I attended a screening of “Gambler’s Balad”, a new short documentary by Penn Jillette and Johnny Thompson. You’ll recognize Penn Jillette’s name, of course, but Johnny Thompson is less well known — a magician’s magician. Although a accomplished performer in his own right, Thompson spends most of his time working as an inventor of tricks and illusions for other magicians (including, of course, Penn and Teller.)

Gambler’s Balad is, essentially, a very long card trick, set to a poem about gambling. The poem was written in 1971 by Milan Bulovic with Thompson fitting the trick to the story after the fact.  I don’t mean to diminish the skill required to perform Gambler’s Ballad when I say it’s not a particularly exciting thing to watch. In fact, if you’re not a magician – and so don’t recognize the incredible sleight of hand employed – you might even find it (gasp) boring. In many ways it’s the card equivalent of Penn and Teller’s famous Principles of Sleight of Hand routine…

Still, the film I watched on Sunday night wasn’t really about the Gambler’s Ballad trick. Rather it was about Penn Jillette’s attempts to learn it, so he could perform it side by side – live on stage – with his dear friend Thompson.

As Jillette explains:

“Johnny Thompson is a guiding force in my professional and personal life. For 40 years he has inspired, conspired, corrected, inflected, improved footnoted, fixed up, calmed down, pumped up, inspected, protected, pushed, culled and validated my attempts in showbiz. In my personal life he’s a role model of integrity, power, strength, joy, loyalty and love. Johnny is always there for me. Johnny helps me get closer to the me I want to be

A couple of years ago I wanted to learn more about Johnny than all I’ve learned from being his friends and coworker. It was time for me to learn something that was pure Johnny.”

Jillette goes on to explain that he’s not a great sleight of hand artist (“Johnny has said I’ve gotten further with three simple magic moves than anyone in showbiz history.”) He knew that learning Gambler’s Ballad would likely take him a long time, and for very little public reward (he can hardly add it to his stage show alongside the bullet catch.) But none of that was the reason Jillette wanted to spend almost a year mastering a not very exciting card trick. He wanted to master it as a tribute to Johnny Thompson; and he wanted to learn it because it was going to be a real challenge.

In my first dispatch from Magic LIVE, I explained that I’d come to the convention to try to find some escape from the craziness of Trump World and the Silicon Valley swamp. It’s hard to imagine a sharper contrast to those worlds than Penn Jillette learning the Gamber’s Ballad: Someone who can (and does) make millions on a public stage deciding instead to sit down and shut up, to look inwards, to challenge himself to do something incredibly difficult, and all in tribute to the loyal friend who taught him lessons in integrity and love. Compare that to a know-nothing reality TV star, screaming his ignorance and hate on Twitter. Or to the Silicon Valley bro willing to sacrifice loyalty, friendship and any semblance of decency in pursuit of a multi-billion dollar payday.

(The fact that Jillette, like so many of those tech bros, is a proud libertarian serves only to underscore the contrast. Ideology doesn’t always have to be an excuse for acting like a selfish asshole.)

What Mr O’Doyle already had figured out by the early 90s has taken me slightly longer to understand: There’s no escapism like learning something new and difficult, just for the satisfaction of mastering it. Moreover, in Trump’s America, the acquisition of knowledge as a way to bring yourself closer to your fellow man isn’t just an act of love, but of resistance.