Posts Tagged ‘Psycrets’

2013: An Intense Year

kiev-2Last year in December I was in Kiev working with a citizen group wishing to improve the quality of democracy in Ukraine. The members of the group were very motivated, energetic, and excited about the prospects of making a difference in the future of their country, as well as the prospects of Ukraine making closer ties with the European Union. This December, the Government of Ukraine has turned its back on Europe, which has provoked popular outcry and unrest from pro-European groups. Many see any gains from the Orange Revolution as being finally extinguished.

The trip to Kiev was part of my work as the Director of the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution at the University of Essex, which I maintained until 1 August when I became the new Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. The new role has meant an expanded set of responsibilities, deeper engagement with campus life across all aspects of the academic endeavour: education, research, finance and people. I work with superb team in the Faculty and other colleagues who make the job exciting, engaging and rewarding.

The higher education sector is going through profound and unprecedented change at the moment here in the UK. The government rolled out a liberalization process that has culminated in expanding the student market during this recruitment cycle by 30,000 and then by opening up the market completely from 2015.

fss-1My work involves creating the kind of value proposition for our students that is attractive, competitive and meaningful. Our strategies are geared toward achieving excellence in education (‘a transformational educational experience’) and excellence in research (maximise our performance in the research excellence framework 2014 and beyond). The Faculty of Social Sciences features top social science departments in the United Kingdom with a critical mass of academic staff carrying out cutting edge research that is data rich, methodologically rigorous, and practically applicable across many different policy sectors.

The early part of the year involved work on The Westminster Consortium for Strengthening Parliaments and Democracy, and other projects associated with the IDCR, including the wonderful joint project with the Mackman Group, Thomson Reuters Foundation, The Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO-Mexico), Human Rights Centre and ESRC: The Human Rights Atlas. The Atlas work involved a wonderful visit to FLACSO-Mexico for a workshop on measuring human rights, as well as a visit to the Circle of Mexican Magicians!

After Mexico, I found myself in Brussels for a series of meetings with the EU’s External Action Service with some of my colleagues from Kiev. I also had the opportunity of a lifetime to finally go visit Christian Chelman, one of the world’s most foremost bizarre magicians at his famous Surnateum.


In April I went to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the International Studies Association and spent a great day with Christian Cagigal, a bay area bizarre magician who showed me the Mission area and the Castro. I saw my friend and colleague Edzia Carvalho marry Sam Mansell in Sheffield. I also had the honour of lecturing to the MA in Sustainable Leadership at the University of Cambridge.


In May I got the new job and started with the preparations almost immediately. I also made my annual sojourn to Whitby for the Doomsday bizarre magic convention where I had the honour of performing in the Gala show and running a workshop on the final day. June and July were spent getting up to speed on all matters in the faculty.


After a lovely visit from my amazing mother, I had the pleasure of presenting a full day workshop on democracy for staff at the EU’s External Action Service in Brussels, where we looked at stylised facts, concepts and definitions, theories and explanations, and implications for EU policies in the area of democracy building.

On 22 July, I was delighted to host an evening of mentalism at the prestigious Magic Circle in London, which featured many of the talented members of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers. We had mind reading, memory stunts, tests of suggestibility, and a packed house with over 70 people.

In September I was delighted to publish my new book Human Rights and Democracy: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals with Bloomsbury. The book charts developments in democracy and human rights over the last 60 years, and reflects on my last 20 years working with democracy assessment, human rights measurement, and capacity building around the world.

The month also saw the roll out of an experiment run in our Essex Lab, which tested over 150 respondents on their attitudes to transitional justice through direct reference to the trial of Rios Montt in Guatemala. The results are promising and will be written up in 2014, and preliminary results presented in a talk at the University of Dundee in February.

This year saw the debut of my new stage show ‘Lifting Veil of Ignorance’, which is a show inspired by John Rawls and includes an exploration of deep philosophical questions through the medium of mind reading. I did parts of the show in Whitby in May, and then the whole show in Bath in September, Wivenhoe House and University of Huddersfield in October, and Southend in December.

lifting the veil-1

At the November Tabula Mentis meeting of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers I was presented with the Chancellor of Mystery award by the membership for service to organisation as one of its founders and the main organiser for 14 Tabula Mentae meetings since 2007.

In research terms, I was awarded two new grants, one from the Economic and Social Research Council for the extension of our Human Rights Atlas project and one from the Technology Strategy Board for a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Glowinkowski International.

As an exciting year closes out, I am really looking forward to 2014. My academic work continues at Essex with the Faculty and with new research endeavours on authoritarianism and human rights, while in the magical world, I am pleased to announce the forthcoming book The Magiculum, which will be published by EyeCorner Press. The book is a wonderful collection of essays from lifelong magicians reflecting on the different ways in which magic has been part of their lives.

Finally, I wish to thank my lovely family Melissa, Sophia, Oliver, Briony, and all our furry friends for making home life so wonderful, full of love, and never short of surprises. This is where the true magic lies.



The New Magic is the Old Magic

In a recent article in Prospect Magazine (May Issue 194, pp. 79-82), Laura Marsh argues that the world is witnessing a new kind of magic that is ‘far removed from the circus-style trickery of sawing women in half’, where the cutting edge performers (of which I am pleased to be one) seek to use the methods of magic and mentalism to address larger issues and deeper meanings in people’s lives. This ‘new magic’ is contrasted to the stage and TV magic that features ‘sparkly shirts’ and ‘rabbits being pulled from hats’.

While it is highly flattering to be included in this new category alongside such performers as Derren Brown, David Blaine, and Luke Jermay, I wonder if what I (and a few of my selected magical colleagues) are trying to achieve actually harks back to a much earlier period in the history of magic.

A little over a week ago, on his Radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’, Melyvn Bragg featured a number of academics talking about the neo-Platonists who sought to rescue Platonic thought of the kind found in Timaeus, where he built a complete theory of humankind, the world, and the universe, with all its correspondences and underlying mathematical foundations.

The neo-Platonists spanned a huge period in history but had great influence on Renaissance magic, as well as the ‘scholar magicians’ of the time, such as Pico de Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa and John Dee. These great minds engaged in ‘metaphysical plurality’ as they embraced scientific inquiry, philosophical reflection, and esoteric explorations.

Their work sought to address the working of nature and the world, as well as explore the human psyche as it relates to larger ‘unseen’ forces. Their tradition was to be carried forward by other such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton, who in the latter years after he formulated his Principia Mathematica engaged in alchemical explorations and experimented with the idea of ether; and Jung who developed a large portion of work on psychoanalysis through the study of alchemy (physical and spiritual).

Throughout this period, magicians in many ways were displaced either by science or religion, and were cast out as evil, unacceptable, heretical or irrational. Magicians, witches, cunning folk, and ‘popular magi’ were ostracised, persecuted and even put to death.

In the middle of the 19th Century, a lawyer named Angelo Lewis published a book under his pseudonym Professor Hoffmann called Modern Magic. This book provided encyclopaedic coverage of all manner of magic tricks and led to the creation of the ‘gentleman magician’ who donned a top hat and tail coat, performed in respectable urban theatres, and made sanitized allusions to ‘darker forces’ in their stage shows.

Many have celebrated the advent of the gentleman magician, since it rescued magic from its ridiculed form and made it a respectable art. As stage magic, and its counterparts of close-up and street magic, have evolved, however, less savoury features have developed that culminated in the  very trappings of the ‘Old Magic’ to which the Prospect article refers. Gone were the top hats and tuxedos, dinner suits and bow ties. Sparkly tops, glamorous assistants, and cheesy patter took over.

The ‘New Magic’ to which Prospect refers seeks to recapture meaning, substance and mystery. But in my view, it is tapping into the much older tradition of the Renaissance scholar magicians. It is an axiom of the New Magic (or my own sense of the real Old Magic) that audiences are concerned with themselves that they want to learn about things that affect them, and want to explore deep questions and concerns that they have at the forefront of their minds.

There is a wonderfully creative and inspirational set of magical practitioners that are part of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers doing the kind of performances that achieve this kind of depth. Through the use of simple objects and a variety of different means, they engage their audiences in ways that go deep into perennial concerns such as nostalgia, fear, memory, childhood, travel, love, health, among many others.

They have a huge variety of substantive interests beyond mentalism, including philosophy, social constructivism, social science methodology, psychology, law, history of the book, Russian, drama studies, acting, horror, design, computer programning, motivational speaking, coaching, among many others. The intellectual and practical formation of such people means that they engage with their audiences in completely different ways than the mainstream magicians popular on television programmes of the kind referenced in the Prospect article.

And through their performances they are returning magic to its former self: an experience that is crafted to bring about transformation in an audience. Such a transformation can be unsettling and disruptive, but for the audience member (or participant as we prefer to call them) it is guaranteed to be magic with meaning.