Archive for the ‘magic’ Category

Crafting Confidence in a Challenging World

On the eve of the Prime Minister sending the letter that invokes Article 50 to the Council of the European Union, I had the good fortune of spending time in the City of London with current students, alumni, and staff of the University of Nottingham for a networking event. Entitled ‘Nottingham in the City’ we welcomed over 100 guests to the magnificent offices of Berenberg for an evening of talks and mutually beneficial introductions.

My own role was to welcome our guests on behalf of the University and to deliver a short lecture on leadership and ‘knowing people’. I was delighted to revisit many of the themes that I have developed in the past on ‘crafting confidence’ in young people and using analytical frameworks developed at Glowinkowski International.

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I talked primarily about how all organisations are characterised by the complex interactions between people’s underlying predispositions, behaviours, and styles of leadership and engagement, which in turn relate to the climate of the organisation and ultimately its performance. These insights were illustrated through my own version of ‘cerebral prestidigitation’ (or mind magic) working with members of the audience. I predicted a choice of one guest simply by knowing her name (Darinka), her place of birth (Macedonia) and what she had for breakfast (an omelette). I then asked four volunteers to imagine in their minds the four different types of leadership engagement that we had been discussing and I divined their thoughts with 100% accuracy.

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But for me, the real exciting part of the evening was learning how these young people, full of enthusiasm, are embracing the change that they see all around them. I met graduates of law, economics, business, politics, psychology and sociology, all of whom valued not only the core content of what they studied, but the many soft skills that have made them adaptable to the challenging work environments in which they find themselves. Many had started out in one direction and then learned where their real interests were and changed course accordingly.

There evening also included an inspiring talk from business entrepreneur Claire Bicknell from Catena Business Networking, who presented a compelling vision of how company to company and person to person networking benefits all that engage in such interactions. She is growing her business from its base in Nottingham to the whole of the UK with an ever increasing network of companies, organisations, individuals and events.

The deep history of the City was with is last night (Berenberg dates from 1590), but it was combined with youthful and hopeful vigour, which I hope will carry us through the uncharted waters of BREXIT and that real opportunities will be seized in these turbulent times.

SUBVERSION: Politics, Magic and Jazz

 

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This week has seen a fascinating array of my own public engagement. My week began with my lecture on Race, Rights and Justice in the Age of Brexit for the national Being Human Fetsival. Held in the fabulous Galleries of Justice in Notttingham, I set out my thoughts and reflections on the many challenges during the age of what I have called BREXITRUMP. My remarks urged us all to remain mindful of our common humanity and the shared values of dignity, respect, non-discrimination, equality, and inclusion.

The current turn in politics is undermining years of struggle for rights and justice, the legal codification of these struggles, and the many advances that have been achieved in the popular understandings of identity and difference. The rhetoric of Farage and Trump shares many of the same features: a simplification and dichotomisation of society into ‘us’ and ‘them’ in ways that have proved highly divisive, hurtful, and regressive. It has also invited arguments online and offline that appear more vitriolic than ever before.

With these developments at the forefront of our minds, the staging this week of my show SUBVERSION seemed more fitting than first imagined when I conceived of it. The show celebrates the common thread that joins the disparate worlds of politics, magic and jazz; worlds that have been my world since the early 1970s. Each in their own way has moments that have challenged the status quo and moved history forward. I explore these connections through the medium of performance magic, mind reading, and mentalism. Our topics have covered the ideas and achievements of over 50 of my favourite ‘subversives’; our understanding of the notion of free will; Hobbesian thought as expressed in Leviathan; the philosophy and art of surrealism; Said’s notion of Orientalism; the ‘veil of ignorance’; the value of predictions; and my own blend of psychic perfect pitch.

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The show has been well received and well-reviewed, while the proceeds are being used for the Life Cycle Campaign to raise funds for research into the early detection of breast cancer, something that has touched my family and I am certain many other families here and abroad. The Djanogly Theatre at Lakeside Arts provided the perfect setting, while the sound and light crew could not be more professional and supportive.

In the middle of this performance schedule, I had the honour and pleasure of performing to a group of students from the University of Nottingham for a new film project on Academic Magic. They were from all over the world and studying degree courses in chemistry, maths, biology, business, law, finance, psychology, and medicine. After the filming they were full of questions and theories about how I managed to know what they had chosen, thought, or wrote down. It was a wonderful afternoon with the youth of today.

2016 has indeed been an extraordinary year with the death of so many icons of my youth, and significant political developments that will have huge and long lasting consequences. All eyes are on the election in France with the surge in support for Marine Le Pen, the election in Germany, as Angela Merkel seeks an historic 4th term as Chancellor, and in the UK, the Government’s plan for Brexit; the phasing, contours and consequences of which still remain shrouded in uncertainty.

I for one, will remain vigilant, continue to engage, and work hard to defend what I think are the many important principles and rights that have been secured through so many years of struggle.

Orientalism, Magic, and Subversion

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Western performance magic has long had an historical fascination with the Middle and Far East. The most ancient magic demonstration is arguably the ‘cups and balls’, which some have argued had its origins in Egypt in 2500 BC. The famous Lo Shu Square, which lies at the heart of modern demonstrations of the ‘mathmagical’ powers of mentalists is based on a pattern of dots seen on the back of a turtle in Ancient China.  Many tales of the magical arts (and the accompanying artefacts) speak of magic making its way West to Europe, where early practitioners brought unique forms of entertainment and wonder to audiences across the continent.

Across Europe, but in particular in the UK, as magic moved from the street to the theatre in the Victorian period, there was a competitive market for entertainment and magicians had to craft their performance personas and identities in ways that made them deeply mysterious, superhuman, and exotic. Some magicians turned their gaze Eastward to find inspiration in the Fakirs of India, the alleged secrets of the Pharaohs, and of course the natural appeal of ancient Chinese culture.

Famous London theatres, such as The Egyptian Hall, would be adorned with decorations, hieroglyphs, and images of pyramids to allure their paying guests inside for an evening of magic, wonder, and in many cases, demonstrations of spiritualism. Famous magicians Maskelyne and Cooke ran a successful show there for 31 years and the hall became known as England’s Home of Mystery. Sadly, the site is now home to a Starbucks.

Psychics and mentalists such as Alexander (‘The Man Who Knows’) would often dress as the famous ‘Swami’ and engage in feats of mind reading and divination complete with crystal balls on stage or large glass bowls filled with sealed envelopes containing questions from the audience for which the performer would provide inexplicably accurate and uncanny answers.

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The most famous example of a socially constructed ‘Eastern’ identity for entertainment purposes is arguably that of the magician Chung Ling Soo. Inspired and in competition with magician Chung Ling Foo, Chung Ling Soo toured Europe and the US at the turn of the 20th Century, appearing on a full Chinese stage set, in a Chinese costume, and a long black pony tail, and performed a wide range of effects with Chinese props and apparatus. His act is even featured in the popular film The Prestige. He was in fact, an American by the name of William Robinson from upstate New York.

These uses of Eastern culture, constructed for Western audiences are examples of what Edward Said has called ‘Orientalism’; or the appropriation, celebration, and depiction of peoples and cultures of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. For Said, this practice was both patronising and fictional, which taken to its extreme represented an imperialist project underpinned by Western power to the detriment of ‘real’ Oriental culture. His book has inspired many studies that have sought to deconstruct this misuse of the Orient across popular culture, society, and politics.

Whether magicians were wittingly part of this project, or whether Said is actually correct, remain open questions, but the use of such Orientalist practices continues to this day. Indeed, magicians across the world remain fascinated with Eastern history, artefacts, stories, clothes, and myths that provide countless opportunities to fashion shows that appeal to many different audiences.

In his show An Evening of Wonders, celebrated mentalist Derren Brown performed an extraordinary Swami act, which I had the pleasure of witnessing at The Regent Theatre in Ipswich. He appeared in formal attire, complete with white bow tie, starched shirt, and black tails, as well as a full head turban, along with a glass bowl and sealed questions from the audience. His performance was tongue and cheek, but enough ambiguity remained about how he was achieving direct mind reading that many in the audience exclaimed after the show that he was ‘the real deal’.

Eastern magicians also play to the audience through their own culture in ways that are selective, popularised, and much like their Western counterparts. Magic is hugely popular in China, which hosted the 2009 meeting of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques (FISM), while its 2018 meeting will take place in Seoul, South Korea. Famed magicienne Juliana Chen, originally a foot juggler from China who emigrated to the United States adorns her set with large Chinese umbrellas, silks, and other trappings as a backdrop to her extraordinary displays of ‘cardistry’.

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My own travels to China, Japan, and Mongolia have taught me much about the appreciation of magic in the Far East. I have performed in a street market in Shanghai, private dining rooms in Beijing, a dinner hosted by the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the most amazing whiskey bar in Fukuoka, Japan.

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Beyond magic, I have also noticed that Asian popular culture is vibrant and in many ways subverts its own history in playful and inventive ways. In China, tourists are free to purchase ‘the little red book’ Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and a variety of gifts that are adorned with pictures of Mao and other symbols of the Chinese Revolution. I have a collection of matchboxes, notebooks, and playing cards in this genre, where there remains an ambiguity about the true meaning and purpose of such artefacts.

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In return, much of western culture is appropriated in the East, such that processes of globalisation since the publication of Said’s book in 1979 may have challenged his view of the imperialist and hegemonic western project. Rather, the world has seen remarkable cultural miscegenation and a melange of symbols, images, customs, music, and ways of being that are inventive and in my view, healthy.

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I thus will continue to celebrate this ambiguity and vibrancy of multi-culturalism, and its subversive potential. I have featured Oriental inspired demonstrations in my stage shows over the years, and my new show SUBVERSION will continue to use magic as a means to communicate and frame these larger cultural questions, making us stop and think, while being baffled and entertained.

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Magic Professor: magicians tap into what it means to be human

Todd Landman, University of Nottingham

British magician Paul Daniels, who died this week aged 77, is most famously known for his extraordinary cup and ball routine, where a simple ball appears, disappears, and reappears inside a small cup.

The magical effect one experiences in watching this routine is not possible without a person having a fully developed sense of what Jean Piaget calls “object permanence”. During their first years of life children develop an understanding that objects exist and events occur in the world that are independent of their actions. Close a door on a cat and you probably know that it’s still in the next room. For Daniels’ trick to work, a person needs to know that the ball itself ought to be in the cup even though it cannot be seen. The magic occurs when the cup is lifted and the ball is no longer there.

I know this all too well, because I am also a magician. Fortunately, like Daniels, I perform for audiences that are a touch older than two, the age after which most children have developed the sense of object permanence. Magic depends on understanding an audience’s psychology. I tend to limit my shows to people over the age of eight, since the kind of magic I really like is mentalism, or the art of using the tools of the conjurer combined with many other fields of knowledge to create the illusion of mind reading, telepathy, clairvoyance, uncanny synchronicity and other inexplicable phenomena.

Famous mentalists have included Maurice Fogel, Chan Canasta, David Berglas, Kreskin, Banachek, and Derren Brown – all of whom in one way or another create a wonderful sense of ambiguity about whether they posses true psychic ability or not.

Over the years this type of magic has attracted a lot of interest, tending to be couched in psychological terms. But I like to explore its possibilities in philosophical terms. Magic taps into the most fundamental questions of what it is to be human: questions philosophers have been asking for millenia.

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After a period of solitary rumination and extreme doubt, the French philosopher René Descartes famously declared “cogito ergo sum”; or “I think therefore I am”. The mere act of thinking, Descartes argued, establishes proof of our existence. This small utterance led to a revolution in our thinking about the separation between the mind and the body (known as dualism), the power of empirical observation and the notion that we have control over the material world in ways that are separate from our minds.

As an academic magician, such considerations naturally inform my performance. I like to use magic to explore and break down this Cartesian proposition and other philosophical notions, thereby disrupting my audience’s sense of reality.

For me, Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, becomes cogito ergo decipio, or “I think therefore I deceive”. I dedicate a large amount of thinking to how I might deceive my audiences into thinking I have a set of powers that lie outside the realm of scientific rational explanation, while at the same time addressing some of our more fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge, language, mathematics, politics and even human rights.

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Todd Landman, Author provided

For example, Plato’s thought experiment The Ring of Gyges asks us to consider that if we were given the opportunity to wear a ring that makes us invisible, would we engage in “unjust acts”? With this premise in play, my participants join me on stage and are given a choice (unknown to me, as my back is turned) to either take a gold ring from a box, put it on their finger and hide it from view; or to leave the ring in the box. The taking of the ring is symbolic of Plato’s notion of an unjust act, where the moral choice of the participant is theirs and theirs alone. Turning to face the participant, I divine their choice and allow the experiment to be repeated. Regardless of their choice, it is always known to me (no, I’m not going to explain how).

This kind of effect demonstrates the essence of my approach to academic magic: there’s the demonstration of me inexplicably knowing their choice but it also raises a larger set of questions around our own temptations to commit “unjust acts”. Would you take the ring? It moves magic beyond a clever puzzle to a thought-provoking proposition that lasts beyond the moment of amazement.

And telepathy?

How people attempt to explain magical feats also provides philosophical insight. In one revealing experiment with a selection of drama students at the University of Huddersfield, I gave a series of magical performances and then compared their reactions to what they experienced. Their explanations were highly varied, ranging from ideas around trust, subliminal suggestion and religious identification – all of which were incorrect technically, but fascinating from a larger philosophical point of view.

Plausible explanations for magic and mind-reading feats raise larger epistemological questions about the world (“how we know what we know”) – questions that philosophers of science have been asking for centuries. Do we know what we know through observation? Through intuition? Through reason and rational deduction? How do we know if we are wrong in making statements about the world we perceive?

While the history and philosophy of science have debated these kinds of questions for centuries, magicians continue to disrupt our sense of reality, question the certainty of our knowledge, and in my own case, let us ponder the very rules by which we may live what Aristotle referred to as the good life; understood not as material wealth or superficial happiness, but the holistic and fulsome happiness that derives from doing the right thing under the right circumstances.

The Conversation

Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Social Sciences, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the

Reflections at 50

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Today is a remarkable day. I am 50 and very pleased with it as well. I have my health, three beautiful children and my lovely wife. I live in a civilised country with a deep history, a well-tended countryside, a great sense of humour, and a health system that works most of the time.

I was only supposed to come here for a year back in 1993 … oh well…

Turning 50 is a moment to pause and take stock. Five decades. Born into the Cold War at a time when an LED calculator created intense joy and curiosity, and now writing this short blog on a laptop connected to the Internet through eduroam wifi. And as I get older, the simpler my tastes become: a comfortable place to sit, really good coffee, and the fastest broadband in the world.

Despite my birth year, I was not a child of the 60s, but a child of the 70s. Long hair, bell-bottom jeans, blue suede Puma sneakers, a silk shirt with horses on it, a jean coat, and a beat up trombone. I loved our family home in Hemlock Hollow and when not outside running through the woods or swimming in the pond, I was in my room learning and practicing magic; a life-long pursuit that continues to fascinate and enchant me.

The Nixon resignation and our extraction from the Vietnam War were my earliest memories of a decade that saw some of the best rock music ever recorded (although I did not quite appreciate that at the time).

We huddled in my brother’s bedroom listening to Queen (an imported vinyl LP my dad brought back from Amsterdam), Bachman Turner Overdrive, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, the Doobie Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

All that changed in the late 1970s when I discovered punk and New Wave music from the UK. Gone were the self-indulgent dirges; replaced by quick tempo tunes with cockney accents, the ‘nutty’ sound, and political lyrics that spoke of a rebellious generation taking on the establishment.

My brother’s bedroom was replaced by my friend’s back room den with 100s of imported LPs from bands like the Angelic Upstarts, the Cure, U2, the Specials, Madness, the Selector, the Sex Pistols, Joe Jackson, and the Stranglers, which were complemented by surf punk from California like the Dead Kennedys, Agent Orange, and so many others. We learned to slam dance and survive the mosh pit. We wore vintage clothes, pointy shoes, and pork pie hats.

Throughout these years, I was also seduced by jazz, from traditional to hard bop, to jazz rock fusion. The house was full of great music from Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Blood Sweat and Tears, the Modern Jazz Quartet and countless others. I had a long battle learning to play the trombone and a continuing passion to learn how to play jazz, as well as many stints with many different bands: concert band, big band, pit orchestras, marching band, blues bands, and small jazz combos.

The 1980s were a time of deep learning and reacting against Reagan’s America. High School (studies, band, and swimming) in Central Pennsylvania gave way to University life at Penn in the middle of the end of the Cold War. I read the New York Times daily and followed all the foreign policy stories from the Iran-Contra scandal to democratic transitions in Latin America, to the Falklands/Malvinas, to anti-apartheid protests around the world. I wrote my final year dissertation on US Foreign Policy in Chile during the Allende period, abandoned my plans to go to law school, and followed my dream to study Latin America.

Three years in the late 80s in Georgetown included intense study of Latin America, exposure to liberation theology, time in Brazil to hone my Portuguese and follow the first democratic presidential election since 1961, and a short stint at the World Bank before setting off west to pursue a PhD in political science.

The 1990s saw me for a short spell in Boulder, Colorado, where the long hair made a brief return and where I met an English Professor, who, over a glass of single malt invited me to come to the UK. With visions of ivy-covered halls and greens full of students debating philosophy, I landed at the University of Essex (cough); itself an intellectually stimulating place with a radical past. One project turned into another until I found myself traveling the world to over 39 countries working on human rights projects, teaching students from places that were forbidden in my youth like Tajikistan to people who were part of Reagan’s Evil Empire. The Cold War was over, but new forms of tyranny, oppression and conflict were upon us.

Y2K never happened, but 9/11 did, which like the Kennedy Assassination for the generation before me, has been etched on my mind since that fateful day. En route to an appointment in town, I heard an early news report about the attack, while later in the day I found myself standing very still in front of a TV in a clothing store In Colchester UK watching the towers come down; towers I visited as kid on a special trip to New York with my father to pick up my Dutch grandfather who had arrived at JFK airport.

The ‘noughties’ were spent teaching, writing, traveling, playing jazz and performing magic. My three real passions in life remain politics, magic and jazz. In their own way, these passions all share a subversive streak, where big disruptions come from those who foment new ideas (we can change history), question orthodoxy (why not flatten the fifth note in a diatonic scale?), and unsettle our sense of reality (is it deduction, deception, or something more?).

50 seemed a long way away as a kid, where I often yearned to be older, but as Ferris says, life moves pretty fast. I agree, but it also moves slow enough to savour the journey, and this journey thus far has been fantastic.

So, as I savour this particular day, happy birthday to me, and many thanks to all my friends and family who have made the journey thus far unforgettable.

In honour of this day, I share with you a new poem that I call The Pond. I hope you like it.

The Pond

Duckweed. 
Kelp carpet of the hollow’s waters.
Warm, spongy soft, pungent.
A fecund sprawl, a natural feast.
But not for us, at least.
 
Snappers float, the surface barely broken.
Eyeing prey with patient contemplation.
Noses out, dangling legs, tails but a token.
Hard rake at the ready.
Just in case we get too close.
Jaws clenched, set and steady.
 
The drain runs warm and constant.
Mesh snags unwanted detritus.
Muskrats poke their way,
like miners in a vein.
But once, up my arm,
a scurrying one came.
 
Foam floats made pink by the sun,
like crabs in a Chesapeake bucket.
Boards bolted on, rope and brick,
an anchor for our dock.
Jumping, splashing, flying.
Hours disappear, no need for a clock.
 
Sunfish caught with simple grass.
Tadpoles dance with excitement.
Fires in winter, while we skate.
Making the figure eight.
Puck, crack, chair, slide.
A bauble hat, mittens with fur inside. 
Warmth, security, a father’s embrace.
 
Plunge in summer. 
His arms hold tight; we struggle.
Spluttering, flailing, panicking.
Face down, bubbles out.
Sink or swim, you decide.
I swam.
 © 2016 Todd Landman all rights reserved.

An Evening of Mindful Magic

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I am absolutely delighted to have crafted a new show entitled An Evening of Mindful Magic.

As an Academic Magician, I see magic as useful medium and means of communication for us to contemplate life’s bigger questions.

I have spent my entire life studying people and books, and have had the opportunity to travel around the world to discover new insights, lesser-known subjects, and in some cases, arcane secrets about the world.

I think of mindfulness in three ways.

First, I am keen that we all remain mindful of what we say and how that might affect those with whom we interact. It is often quite extraordinary how we remain unaware of the impact of what we say to people. Remaining mindful and developing empathy for those with whom we interact is a great first step to wisdom. I hope through the show that this notion is evident.

Second, my own demonstrations on display during the show are ‘of the mind’, which is to say that which you will perceive I am doing is a function of all five of your senses, but some of what you experience may actually feel like a sixth sense. Everything we experience is processed in our minds, and if we imagine we are all part of the ‘shared community of human minds’ as renowned neuroscientist Raymond Tallis believes we are, then perhaps we can enter that community together at least for the passing moments of the show.

Third, there is much in the press and public domain these days about ‘mindfulness’ or that state of the mind that allows us to live in the ‘present moment’; to not stand in the middle of the ‘rush hour’ of life, but rather to take a position on the pavement, detach ourselves from the distraction of the traffic in our lives, and find that inner calm. Being ‘ever present’ is something that holds great surprise across many moments in the show.

We will explore many themes together that touch on many topics currently at the forefront of the public’s mind. I rather like to see these topics as questions rather than anything approaching solid answers.

  • How much do we know, and how confident are we in knowing it?
  • What is hidden in plain sight?
  • Why do we use the words we use and how do we know what they mean?
  • Is there a mathematical world ‘out there’ waiting o be discovered?
  • How do we make deductions and why does that process matter?
  • How do we know what is right and what is wrong?
  • What memories from your life are important and do your remember them accurately?

These and other questions are explored in a highly interactive, dynamic and energetic show with many surprises and many inexplicable demonstrations that will certainly leave you agog!

The show has its debut at the Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts at the University of Nottingham on 20 and 21 January 2016. For this show, all the proceeds will be donated to alzheimer’s research; an issue area that is very close to my heart.

So, prepare to be mesmerised, mindfully, of course!

Full details can be found here:

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An Evening of Mindful Magic

The Magic of Wales

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For my transition from my 22 years at the University of Essex to my new role at the University of Nottingham, I spent a much-needed week in Wales with family. I have been coming to Wales since the mid-1990s and it never fails to impress me; however, this visit to mid-Wales, where I have been many times before, gripped me in ways I had not experienced hitherto.

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We started our week with a home cooked dinner on the deck prepared by our dear family friend with a stunning view of the surrounding trees and mountain. The buddleia were in full bloom, the pine air was fresh, and the mountain had its typical immovable permanence coupled with the changeable contours, grazing sheep, and mesmerizing colours.

We had few plans for the week and allowed the weather to be our guide. As it happened, there was little rain and mild, partly sunny days that afforded us ample time for long walks with the dogs, an afternoon on the beach, a great ride on a restored steam train, a long walk inside a disused mine, and yes a Mexican breakfast in a small mining village just off the A487 called Corris.

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We began our week with a mooch about Machynlleth, which is a gateway to the delights of mid Wales with Aberystwyth to the South, Aberdyfi (Aberdovey) to the South West and Dogellau to the North. The serpentine roads take you through the valleys and bring surprises at every turn. Our foray into Mach included a great visit to Ian Snow, a wonderful shop with a mélange of worldly goods ranging from beautiful quilts and throws to incense and small wooden boxes (my magical mind races every time I see all the boxes).

We visited the antique shops, charity shops, and a great bookshop with a careful selection of volumes on politics, poetry, literary fiction, art, photography and philosophy.  I picked up a copy of Adam Ford’s The Art of Mindful Walking, which seemed hugely apt given our daily walks in the valley near our cottage. I also acquired a copy of Philip Ball’s The Devil’s Doctor, which is a great biography of Paracelsus and most suitable for my interest in scholar magicians.

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Our days in the cottage involved gentle mornings of coffee, games and reading (I started the amazing Luminaries by Eleanor Catton). We struck out every morning with our dogs Phoebe and Derek, our beloved rescue dogs from Romania using the back road between Ceinws and Corris with gentle slopes, a canopy of pine trees, and the sound of the rushing river. Ford’s essays about mindful walking remind us to ‘be’ present and to be ‘in’ the present, fully aware of all that we are experiencing in the here and now. The view across the Corris valley is spectacular, with sheep dotting the pastures below, the mountains ever watchful, and the village with its slate dwelling tendrils reaching into the foothills; providing a warm invitation for weary walkers and thirsty dogs.

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Corris is a fascinating place. It is nestled in the valley and site of the 19th century slate trade. The houses are a mix of small slate cottages to more grand affairs, situated along the mountain stream. The Institute is a social meeting place with a post office, second hand bookrack, wainscoted walls, a good sized hall, and photos from the history of Corris. For us, the real gem was Andy and Adam’s Café and Shop. Smallholders and proprietors, Andy and Adam offer a superb café with strong coffee, home made food, and a wide range of foods. The café has transformed Corris and has become the main feature of the village. All the residents and visitors were so friendly and laid back. We enjoyed several mornings there and on our day of departure, we savoured the Mexican breakfast, complete with a dish of baked eggs, mixed vegetables, potatoes, Chorizo, jalapeños, and sour crème and coriander.

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Corris also has a full working steam train, restored through the dedicated efforts of a network of volunteers.   We took it a few years ago and it was delight to ride the rails again. The volunteers were excellent, and the dogs had a blast. The short seven-minute journey takes you through the valley and then to a new car barn and old engine shed. The team has aspirations to reinstall the track all the way to Machynlleth and operate a new passenger service. We learned about gravity trains and horse drawn trains, as well as the new diesel engine shipped from Germany that is now being made ready for travel.

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The Dyfi Valley is extraordinarily beautiful and we made our way to Aberdyfi beach one afternoon. The built up area is great for supplies (and fish and chips), but further along the estuary, you can park, cross the tracks and golf course, and then get to a wonderful wide expanse of sparsely populated beach. It allows dogs and it stretches on for miles. The sea is blue green, and the sand dunes mark out an undulating coastline with the mountains in the distance. The wind blows quite forcefully, but we enjoyed lounging in the sun, making a sand castle and collecting stones and shells. There is a great virtue in slowing down, resting, and contemplating the natural beauty that surrounds us, and this beach did not disappoint. It brought back fond memories of lazy summers at Broadkill Beach Delaware as a child, with its rustic setting, natural surroundings, and hours of fun. We came back to the beach the next day with our dogs and those of our friend, for a brisk walk late in the day, which was magnificent. The contrast between our afternoon of sun and sea, and this rather colder affair was quite marked.

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Towards the end of the week, we ventured to Llanidloes, which is a fascinating town 19 miles inland from Machynlleth. The journey is steep, treacherous, but simply beautiful. The weather afforded us great views as we traversed the heights of the local landscape. The town itself is buried deep in a valley, as it suddenly springs upon you after what seems quite a long time climbing up steep inclines and then hurtling down through bendy valleys. I felt like this is town that time forgot. The storefronts, facades, and architecture are largely untouched from the middle of the 19th Century. There are great shops, cafes, antique collections, and a wonderful bookshop with whole barn full of second hand books.

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We topped off the week with home made lasagna in the conservatory with tea lights, beer and wine, and of course, a little mindful magic. For the more pensive and contemplative of us, Wales offers such a magical escape from the bustle of daily working life. The run from January to August had been a brisk one with many challenges and successes at Essex; however, the promise of this magical place kept me focused on completing my tasks and then letting go. The sights and sounds of this little corner of planet earth are simply fantastic. It draws us back each year and always serves up something new. This week was very special as it is a transitional period full of hopes, dreams and new (and as yet unknown) opportunities. It is also a period for reflection on that has been, taking stock of achievements and wonderful experiences. I remain ever so grateful for all the life offers and hugely optimistic for the future.

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Moving on from Essex

After 22 years at the University of Essex, I have decided to move on to pastures anew. I am excited to have been appointed the new Pro Vice Chancellor for Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham from 1 September 2015.

This opportunity would not have been possible without the many and incredible opportunities that I have had at the University of Essex. I came to Essex to work as a senior research officer on a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on the comparative analysis of social movements and citizenship rights in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Spain.

Armed with a large duffle bag, a trombone, and a few magic tricks, I arrived at Heathrow in September 1993 and began a journey that I never dreamed would have been possible. I was originally invited to stay in the UK for one year and what transpired was a full academic and professional career, family life, and an adventure that has seen me travel to over 35 countries around the world working on development, democracy and human rights.

The original project yielded a book with Oxford University Press and a journal article in the British Journal of Political Science, a comparative textbook with Routledge (three editions, a Spanish edition, and a 4th edition on the way), and a career path that has focused on the measurement and analysis of human rights. Since these early years at Essex I have continued to publish books, articles, and reports, as well as engage in a wide range of international consultancy projects and commissioned research.

The intellectual environment at Essex combines attention to the rigorous analysis of the social and political world with larger normative concerns over the good life and human well being. Before becoming the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Essex in August 2013, I worked for years in the internationally renowned Human Rights Centre, directed the Centre for Democratic Governance, and directed the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution.

I had incredible mentors and colleagues who helped me develop my thinking and writing in ways that allowed me to produce scholarly and practical work that addresses real world problems that continue to confront the world today. From advanced statistical analysis to the finer points of international law, colleagues at Essex have been generous with their time and sharing of their spirit for advancing cutting edge research that really matters.

In addition to the fantastic research pursuits at Essex, I have also had the opportunity and privilege to teach and work with so many students who have gone on to successful careers in academia, government, IGOs, NGOs and private corporations. The alumni community is huge and globally dispersed in ways that never cease to amaze me. I arrive in a country and there always seems to be an Essex graduate there doing something amazing. I have taught ex Soviet military officers, activists from Chiapas, government officials from Thailand, and NGO staff from Mongolia, among many others too numerous to count.

Since August 2013 when I took up my role as the Executive Dean, I have witnessed and taken part in an extraordinary transformation of Essex. Embracing the vision and values set out by our founding Vice Chancellor Albert Sloman, our new Strategic Plan crafts a new direction for the University that combines growth with excellence in research and education. Our colleagues are working at a level that it is hugely impressive with superb REF 2014 results that have placed us in the top 20 in the UK for research intensity (4th in the UK for the social sciences), a growing number of Fellows of the Higher Education Academy, great student satisfaction and the construction of fabulous new buildings for our staff and students. Essex is really going places, and I have been proud to have contributed to its recent success and renewed vigour.

Without this latter experience of working with academic and professional services in the Faculty and the wider university community, I could not have developed the knowledge and skills to take on the role at Nottingham. Partnership working and drawing down expertise from the academic staff and professional services lets us plan and grow for the future in ways that should be a model for other universities in these challenging times of change.

Essex also gave me the space to be The Academic Magician with many opportunities to share my approach to magic, which sees it as an apt performance medium to engage our minds in life’s fundamental questions. The pinnacle of my magic at Essex came in this academic year, our 50th year, with my celebratory show Then and Now, which I performed for over 450 people in the wonderful Lakeside Theatre in the autumn term of 2014. From its radical past to its amazing future, the University and its departments provided the perfect substance for an engaging evening of coincidence, synchronicity, mind reading and inexplicable predictions, all couched in my own transatlantic mirthful sense of irreverence.

I now join a university that has a remarkable number of fundamentals in place, campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia, and an array of intellectual capacities that are aligned with my own interests. The schools in the faculty include politics and international relations, sociology and social policy, geography, law (with a human rights law centre), economics, Chinese studies, education, and business. I have made the UK my home and I am excited to move to the heart of England to work at a truly global university, whose aspirations are exciting and motivating.

I would like to extend a very warm and heartfelt THANK YOU to all at Essex and to all who have passed through Essex with whom I have engaged in some way. It has been truly life changing.

Keep on challenging convention…

Magic Menagerie

I am really excited for my new show, which draws on my lifelong love of magic and my deep appreciation of historical mysteries, the unexplained, and the unknown.

Coming in 2015, The Magic Menagerie is a parlour show steeped in mysteries from a bygone era, where lives crossed paths, people disappeared from social life, and deception was commonplace.

The show will have its debut on 7 February 2015 at the Milton Theatre in Huddersfield, a perfect venue housed in a converted Victorian church with an intimate seating arrangement for full participation.

 

The Emotive Power of Magic

During a performance this past Sunday, I sat with a guest during an interval and discussed her interest in magic. She told me that her father used to teach her card tricks and would sit with her for hours talking about magic. As she recounted this time in her life with me I could sense the real emotional impact of this experience. A young girl being taught the protected secrets of the magician. It clearly had a long lasting effect on her as she was reliving much of it while watching me perform and taking part in one of my demonstrations of the uncanny, inexplicable and ‘acausal’ connections between two events.

My life in magic has been similarly emotional and for similar reasons. My father sat with me and as we devoured a collection of magical tomes and worked out how to do the hundreds of tricks contained within. He made little close up magic tricks for me, a vanishing and production box, as well as converted an old gramophone cabinet into a magic stand for my budding magical career.

I have become quite interested in the origins of magic in people’s lives among magicians as well as non-magicians who have had an early exposure to the wonders of magic. In my book project The Magiculum, where I asked a group of magicians to address precisely this point, I saw a common theme around the influence of fathers in the formation of a magical interest and the development of a magical identity. Fathers often had a few tricks and stories that they would share with their children at special times, and these create such strong emotional memories. We see the hands, the objects, the effects. We remember the thrill of the tale and its climax, even if we have heard it a hundred times.

Any re-enchantment of the self comes from memories such as these that allow us to continue to have an open mind; to allow us to speculate and believe in that which others say is impossible. Her story was a mixture of fondness with a touch of sadness, but the emotive power of magic is something I keep seeing and I am glad that in my own small way I am one who continues to evoke it.