Box of Tricks

International Magic on Clerkenwell Road is a compact shop with a big history in the art of illusion and sleight of hand. Andre Paine visits one of London’s last remaining specialists and learns a few tricks.

To visit International Magic is to enter an Aladdin’s Cave that’s an essential destination for the aspiring prestidigitator or the experienced illusionist. The walls and window are full of fun tricks – the classic squirting flower, a pack of snapping chewing gum and a box of ‘brain floss’ – and photographs of famous magicians with connections to the shop in Clerkenwell Road. One of these significant conjurors is the late Ron MacMillan, the man who set up International Magic almost 60 years ago. “He was very important to the magic world,” says his son, Martin MacMillan. “He was incredibly helpful to other magicians.”

Ron Macmillan opened the shop in Saffron Hill in 1957, then moved to Leather Lane and soon settled in the Clerkenwell Road location a few years later. “He started as an amateur, went professional and then opened the shop,” says Martin. “He was very highly placed in magic competitions and travelled the world. He was known as the Man with the Golden Hands – he used to have golden coloured gloves. He did manipulation involving coins and billiard balls, and he became quite famous because he had his own method, which meant he could produce 14 billiard balls from – apparently – nowhere.”

Ron’s tricks are still being attempted today – his books Symphony of the Spheres and Modern Art of Coin Manipulation are on sale in the store. After almost six decades, International Magic hasn’t changed a great deal. It remains a thriving family business, now run by Martin, his partner Liz and sister Georgia. “We’ve kept the frontage of the shop,” says Martin. “I was born into this place, I don’t know anything different.”

On a Saturday afternoon, the last magic shop at street level in London is busy with customers Above International Magic’s Martin MacMillan young and old. As well as regulars, there are tourists marvelling at the quirky store and parents with teenagers hoping to be the next Dynamo. While Liz is giving mind-reading tips to an aspiring magician, Martin’s busy going up and down the stairs to retrieve specialist items.

“The atmosphere is important, people do like to come and talk – you can never get that on the internet,” says Martin. “The one thing we do have is the expertise to give people advice. On the internet, it’s hard to be able to see something and know if it’s right for you. Magic is so specific, it’s better to see it – and it’s entertaining too because we will run people through it. The instructions are never that easy.”

Martin can’t resist showing off his own skills at sleight of hand and card tricks. As he shuffles a deck of blank cards in front of me, Martin starts talking about modern printing techniques; it’s an attempt at distraction, cards begins to materialise from what appeared to be a blank set. It’s a trick known as Mental Photography. Martin’s advice is to “start simple” with in-built tricks that build confidence as a performer. They stock books and DVDs to help the would-be conjuror and run a course at the nearby Italian Social Club. “You would have to go up in steps,” he explains.

“It’s not just doing the tricks – it’s the performance as well. If you go for something too complicated it won’t look good. Some people are more natural than others, their minds are working more on that wavelength.” While many of the specialist shops have gone, there are always new magicians driving interest. Street magic star Dynamo is obviously popular with the younger clientele. “It goes in spells – maybe phases is a better word – it’s more popular now because it’s more accessible, people can look on YouTube,” says Martin.

He admits to a certain nostalgia for the era when you could “walk around and go to magic shops all day long”. For a time, the family also had a stall in Gamages department store, nearby at Holborn Circus. International Magic was popular with big stars, such as Paul Daniels, David Copperfield and Tommy Cooper. “Tommy Cooper spent a lot of time in here,” says Martin. “He was great fun, a lovely guy. He would then go to the pub across the road – The Duke of York, as it was then [now the Clerk & Well] – and the landlady would look after him and make him a dinner.

He would sign some autographs, but people were used to seeing him around here.” In more recent years, Derren Brown and Dynamo called in when they were starting out. “Derren’s an incredibly talented magician, we were one of the first places he came to,” says Martin. “Dynamo was incredibly enthusiastic as a youngster.”

As well as the shop, Ron MacMillan also established the International Magic Convention in 1972, although that’s taking a break after 44 years. “The magic conventions were great fun, the magicians would be sharing tricks to enjoy themselves not to show off,” says Martin. “But
it was a tremendous amount of work and it was taking up more and more of my time. It was not done for profit.”

While he’s stepping back from the convention, Martin promises there are no plans for the magic shop to disappear. “I like the area and I like the shop and its tradition,” he says. “I don’t know what the future is for the high street, but I’ll carry on as long as I can.”