‘In An Upstairs Room in Blackpool’

Blackpool Tower

Had Graham Nash not penned the words ‘In an upstairs room in Blackpool ‘ as the opening line to the song ‘Military Madness’ , immortalised on his solo album, Songs for Beginners  way back in 1971, I’m pretty sure I would never have heard of the town of Blackpool. As much as Nash put Blackpool on the map, Blackpool put him on the map also, because had he been born in nearby Luton Town or a bit further down the west coast of England in Manchester, I’m pretty sure that the meter in the opening line using Luton Town or Manchester could have changed the song and the subject matter completely. For me this is an example of being in the perfect place at the perfect time and like Nash did, using the truth of where he was born to make the most of an interesting life. 
The next time I ever heard the name Blackpool mentioned was when Jodie told me about the Blackpool Magicians’ Club holding their 60th Annual Convention there on the 17-19th February 2012. She thought it would be a good opportunity to look at what other children’s show performers across the globe are currently doing and think about ideas to refresh and ‘brand’ our show for when we return home. I wasn’t that keen to go to Blackpool. I mean if it was Liverpool it would have been different (think The Beatles) or somewhere with a heated swimming pool I would have jumped at it. But Blackpool wasn’t exactly flashing any lights for me. So Jo booked her tickets and I decided to stay home. 

Interesting street lights in Blackpool
Then one morning the idea came strongly to me that I should go. It wasn’t just the thought of hanging out with creative, arty people for three days. Or the fact that I would be in a country where I could have continuous conversations about nothing and anything all day. Or I could eat a pie, fish and chips, drink a flat white while reading a paper with someones name in it that I had actually heard of. No it was much stronger than that. I think it was just not to miss out on an opportunity to do something really awesome with Jo that would be useful in the next story book that we write together. And you know what? That turned out to be the whole truth of it all. We had another one of those amazing adventure weekends that get sent along to us from time to time. 
Many people might think of magic as fun or entertaining, lots of big tricks, smoke and mirrors and then trying to work out how they do all that amazing stuff. But I like to strip magic right back to its core quality and I think that quality is purity. It is the purity of that ten year old child in us all, of that wonder and imagination we are all born with, that other people and the societies we live in devote a lot of time into trying to take away.

Last Saturday night Jo and I are in the Blackpool Opera House which is a part of an amazing indoor entertainment complex built on six acres in the centre of old Blackpool in 1878. There were three thousand other people in the room, magicians and wizards, performers and entertainers, families and children from all around the world, gathered for a weekend of lectures, workshops and three gala performances of magic and skill. We were at the Gala Show in the Opera House - The Americans and Canadians. The last act for the evening was unavailable at short notice and by special request of the president of the Blackpool Magicians’ Club one of the Korean magicians who performed on Friday night was announced as a replacement. A hushed whisper, ‘Yu Ho Jin’, lifted to that of a freight train before the red velvet stage curtains are plunged into darkness. 
Recorded music opened the scene to a single spotlight beam and Yu Ho Jin. He began his act, the same routine as he had done the night before. The full house was silent. His performance builds with simplicity and grace, the music driving the emotion with a spell-bound mixture of artistry, movement, theatre and more playing cards than one would have thought possible to be expelled from an army of magicians let alone the hands of a solitary man. Ten minutes later the music stopped. The house lights came on and three thousand people rose from their seats and provided a young performer with one of the most amazing examples of peer approval I have ever witnessed. Yu Ho Jin was so overwhelmed by the acclamation that tears flowed visibly down his cheeks before he disappeared off stage. Many of the acts we saw were amazing but all the Korean performances were special. Their culture gave their routines a very different edge. And just for you lovers of magic who weren’t at Blackpool at the weekend I’ve added a perfect recent youtube recording of Yu Ho Jin doing that very routine.
When we got on board the train from Manchester airport to go to Blackpool a couple of likely looking lads with Spanish accents sat at a table across the aisle from us. They rattled  on in a bit in their native language until an elderly English couple sat down opposite them at Manchester station. Than the older of the two men pulled a pack of cards out of his pocket and began shuffling, flipping and sorting them across the table that was between them. He invited the lady to take a card and it was game on. Within a minute or so it was obvious the guy was a magician and within five minutes our whole end of the carriage was in on the act. Would have to have been one of the most entertaining hours Jo and I have ever spent on a train going anywhere. After the couple got off at their station Jo and I introduced ourselves to the two card and scarf tricksters and we ended up walking to the convention venue with them at Blackpool. ‘Majo’ Oliver, was a full-time professional magician (www.magooliver.com) from Bilbao and David, also from Bilbao, who was aiming towards making a living from the business.

Sunset over The Irish Sea

Not sure what they were doing but it took five of them to do it.
Hull Road - both sides

If you ever happen to find yourself in Blackpool, The Laurels B and B in Reads Avenue  ( www.thelaurelsblackpool.co.uk ) run by Colin and Sue comes highly recommended by Jo and I. Just like the Graham Nash song, we found ourselves sleeping ‘In an upstairs room in Blackpool’.  When I asked Colin if this was the house where Graham Nash was born in he said couldn’t say if it was but then again he couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t. Now Colin was from Northern Island so that probably explained his answer. The room was cosy and warm, the big English breakfasts that Sue whipped up were in the super yummm category (not that there’s anything wrong with a dry croissant dipped in coffee), the service was sparkling and we laughed more over breakfast in two days than we have in Switzerland in two years. Now it wasn’t because there was a Faulty Towers style about the place, but one of the other guests, a magician called Johnny Fantastica (www.johnnyfantastica.co.uk), could most certainly get a part on any remakes they ever decide to do of the show.
The Laurels B & B
Jodie and Johnny Fantastica on the corner of Coronation Street
Waiting for the best fish and chips in the world
Johnny has been a magician and clown all his life. At seventy eight years of age he still does shows every week and would be one of the funniest people Jo and I have come across. Johnny has one of those goon show type voices and one word would start him off on a joke or series of jokes, involving one or several people in the room. He was continually looking for ways to get a discount on his accommodation and had Colin on the back foot if not the ropes a few times. If Johnny is an example of what doing kid’s magic shows does to you I’m definitely here for the long haul.
We only saw our Spanish friends Oliver and David briefly over the three days of the convention. When we arrived back at Blackpool station they appeared out of another street at the same time we did. We had lunch with them at the station then shared a table on the train back to Manchester airport. Within a few minutes the cards, coins and silk scarves came out again and the carriage was all eyes on these two men. It was a great opportunity for Oliver to share what he has so finely crafted and David to try out some of his new tricks. David really impressed a a young girl called Jessica as well as her father with his skill. A guy called Joe was so blown away by the show that he threw ten pound on the table before he got off the train.

David plying his trade on the train
David with Jessica
The best photo I took all weekend - Jessica with her dad ... and her special card
To finish the weekend off the customs guys at Manchester airport made David do a trick for them to prove he was a real magician. And he passed the test to cheers and claps all round. I loved Oliver’s philosophy on magic. He doesn’t do magic for money. He does it because he believes in it, that sense of imagination that everyone possesses that has the power to change lives.

So there it is folks. Never judge a town or city by what you hear about it or see on TV. Blackpool has some history and interesting architecture. The people who live there are very welcoming. The Blackpool Magicians’ Club is the biggest one in England. It does get a bit breezy and cool in winter in the late afternoon. But I recommend you go and try it out for yourself sometime and share the magic that you find there with your friends and others.


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