When I look back at all of the huge opportunities I’ve completely fallen into so far, it’s releasing a DVD for magicians that’s had the most ongoing impact to my life. In June 2009 my two DVD set ‘Supercharged Classics’ was released by RSVP magic and it seemed to change everything overnight. I started getting invited to perform and lecture at magic clubs and conventions all over the UK and had friend requests on Facebook from all over the world.
Performing for magicians is a strange experience. It’s like performing for a regular audience playing the ‘opposites game’. When performing sleight of hand correctly, a regular audience has no idea anything is happening. Magicians do, and so when they don’t see it, they often laugh or nod with approval. They don’t react with huge laughs and applause at the same things that regular crowds do (if at all) and your best performance can often be met with complete silence. Until you get to the bar.
Once the show is over and you’re hanging out, if they liked you they are the warmest most effusively praiseful audience you’d meet. You find the silence actually meant they were listening, remembering, comparing to stuff they already knew, back referencing your choices and silently smiling at your original touches. Magician audiences appreciate what you’re doing on multiple levels. If you can ‘keep calm and carry on’ you’ll get by just fine. They might hate you, they might love you but either way, you won’t find out until an hour afterwards.
One of my favourite lecture experiences came early on. I got a call from a chap named Pieras. He was the president of the Cyprus Magic Society and they wanted to invite me over to lecture.
In February 2010 I flew to Cyprus with Sarah (now my wife but at the time, my girlfriend) and we spend a marvellous week doing jigsaw puzzles. It turns out that in February, most of Cyprus is closed. Out of season there was only one restaurant open in a 5 mile radius.
We’d accidentally booked to stay on the opposite side of the island from the lecture and to say we were ‘out in the sticks’ is an understatement. One the first evening we went to THE restaurant. The woman who ran the place was so shocked to see customers that she laid on a tour de force of customer service and practically cut up the food and did aeroplane noise as she placed it into our mouths. She joined us at the table for conversation so often during the meal that I thought I was now dating two women.
The lecture went really well and having no magic shop on the island the members bought absolutely every product I had to sell including my own personal stuff. They then insisted on taking us for late dinner and splitting our portion of the bill between them. I doubt I’ve experience hospitality like it and our memories of Cyprus are nothing but positive.
That year I continued to perform and lecture for magicians, making friends and contacts who consistently put me forward for new and exciting opportunities.
I started getting recommended for work overseas that included everything from Brittany Ferries to ‘fly out’ shows for Thomson Holidays (now TUI). You can read about those in another blog I wrote ’48 Hours: Holiday Village Turkey‘ .
Towards the end of 2010 I was sitting in my living room with Andrew Green when his phone rang. An agent he’d worked for wanted him to do a cruise ship but he wasn’t available. He covered the microphone and asked if I wanted to do it instead. Of course I answered YES! I had no idea that decision would lead to what I now frequently describe as ‘the worst week of my life’.
What I’m about to tell you is not just ‘inspired by real events’. It is as it happened and without alteration. We begin just five days before the cruise.
The agent knew it was my first cruise and was keen to make sure I had all my information in order. Unfortunately throughout all this close up inspection of details, we’d negated to get one in order, namely, where the cruise actually was.
It was his understanding that I’d sail from Tobago to Barbados and be onboard for 26 days as part of a world cruise. Both of these places are in the Caribbean and so it made perfect sense.
When he sent me the flight details five days prior, I noticed that whilst the flight home was indeed from Barbados, the flight out was to Togo rather than Tobago. A quick google told me that Togo in is West Africa. I suddenly became quite excited. I’d be ticking off continents like a well seasoned traveller and experiencing a transatlantic crossing, all in my first ever cruise.
As a precaution I also googled ‘travel requirements for visiting Togo’ and was presented with this –
Visa: No problem. You can get it on arrival in the country, provided you don’t intend to stay for more than 7 days. I was staying for only 1 day then sailing.
UK Emergency Travel Documents: Irrelevant, they’re just for if you lose your passport.
Yellow Fever Certificate: WHAT THE HELL IS YELLOW FEVER?!
I google the yellow fever certificate and find it’s a small booklet given when you have a yellow fever injection. I call the doctor and ask where if they can fit me in. They also tell me that the certificate isn’t valid until 10 days after the injection. BIG problem.
I found a private clinic in Manchester, called them and explained my situation. They told me to arrive later than day and bring cash. Promising but scary.
At the reception desk I was given the yellow fever injection before they’d even confirmed my full name. I paid cash (£75) and left grasping my certificate with the date written as a week earlier than it really was. I now had everything I needed. I stocked up on ‘Jungle Formula’ and made a note to self of trying to not be bitten by mosquitos.
A few days later I boarded a plane from Manchester to Amsterdam then Amsterdam to Togo via a short stop in Ghana where almost everybody got off the plane leaving just me and 6 other passengers for the remaining leg of the flight. I’ve not seen this ‘pit stop’ happen before or since.
Upon landing in Togo and exiting the plane at around 2am I was struck by the dry air and heat. It was 1 degree back home and almost 35 here. The half dozen passengers and I walked across a dilapidated airfield into a small office where we each filled in various forms and showed passports. The office had a framed picture of the just then re-elected president on its wall. I think all the information you need about the governmental structure of this place is that the previous president was his father who handed over the reigns via his death.
I left the office to collect my bags and was aware of a large hand upon my shoulder accompanied by a voice that said ‘come this way.’
Two airport police officers then ushered me quickly into a small room and immediately opened my suitcases using a biro pen (thus foregoing the padlock but allowing them to be re-zipped) then unloading the contents onto the table.
As a magician there are of course all manner of unusual objects in my case but these were of little interest. They asked my about something entirely innocent (a phone charger I think) and then when I moved to explain threw me quite forcefully against the wall. Loud voices and guns pointed, my mind flailed wildly and my main concern was to avoid wetting myself. I was as afraid as I had ever been in my adult life and had absolutely no idea what I had done to be singled out for this treatment.
Apparently my actions gave warrant to search me and my pockets were also turned out onto the table.
It was at this point things became clear. My cases were hurriedly repacked, zipped and placed by the door. My phone, keys and passport were shoved back into my hands. Those nice officers were even kind enough to lighten my load by removing the $300 I had in cash before handing me back my wallet.
I was then spirited out of the room and into the arms of ‘the port agent’.
The port agent is a job designation that most cruise acts will be familiar with. They’re a local company in every port who are paid to look after visitors from foreign countries. They greatly lighten the load of finding hotels, arranging travel and generally giving information about the place you’re temporarily staying before dropping you off at the ship when required. Not in Togo.
In any place where the economy so viciously separates the rich from the poor, corruption is inevitable. Some people (though not all) will find ways to work that system for their benefit. Either via entirely legal if not morally dubious enterprise or via completely illegal means. I’m not sure which category my port agent fit into, but I doubt that the hotel he left me at was the one the cruise company had paid for. My assumption is that the company paid for a nice place but the agent brought me here and pocketed the difference.
The cruise was for the very distinguished and upmarket ‘SAGA Cruises’. The passengers are typically 50 plus (at one point this was a requirement) and usually come from fairly salubrious backgrounds. The dinner menu will usually have lobster and caviar on it daily and the cabins are among the nicest I’ve been in.
The are so very far away from the hotel at which the port agent dropped me at 4am that morning. I was already a little unnerved on the drive as we loaded onto a windowless pickup truck and made our weary way through potholed streets in the stifling heat. Despite the darkness, the streets were full of people. Adults and children milled around and my presence in one small town created such a buzz that the vehicle was almost surrounded with people thrusting their hands through the non existent windows to touch me.
When we eventually arrived outside of the ‘hotel’, similar to something you might see in an underfunded horror movie. The driver took my cases inside and arranged to meet at 10am the next morning to complete my transfer to the ship. At this point the receptionist offered to carry my cases up to the room but, aware I now had no money with which to offer a tip, I insisted that I carry them myself. I then trudged slowly behind while we ascended 10 flights of cockroach covered stairs with me carrying 46kg of recently ransacked luggage.
In the room, the man (who I now found out was ‘night manager’) offered me bottled water and asked if I’d like ‘some company for the night’ in the shape of a local girl he knew. Apparently she’d be more than willing to come and play Monopoly with me for a few hours in exchange for $50. (Those airport policeman had now ruined two peoples evenings)
Once alone I moved the dresser against the door and covered both myself and the bed in Jungle Formula. The streets outside were noisy, the room was dirty and unwelcoming. I showered, being careful not to get any of the water in my mouth and sat wide awake on the bed until morning.
At 7am, the phone rang. I was told to come downstairs by a man who claimed he was ready to take me to the ship. I was in a state of hyper-awareness and being 3 hours earlier than arranged I declined, asking him to please come back when arranged. When I arrived in the lobby at 10am, I asked the guy why he’d sent someone at 7am. He said that he hadn’t and a shiver went firmly down my spine.
The drive to the port was no fun either. At several police checkpoints I was asked for money without reason. I said that I’d been robbed the previous evening but neglected to mention it was likely by their tennis partner and was let go. Once on the ship I went immediately to the cruise directors office. They are in charge of all event and entertainment based activities onboard and answer only to the captain.
I told the whole story above with rapidly escalating tempo and at its conclusion found that I had been crying. The cruise director said something to me that I will never forget.
‘Cheer up, you’re on tonight’.
At 12pm I attended soundcheck and mumbled my way through the technical instructions for my show. I hadn’t slept in a couple of days, taken 3 flights, been robbed by the police and avoided more cockroaches than a contestant on ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here’.
I slumped back to the cabin and locked the door. To my delight the cabin had a bathtub which I dutifully filled and climbed inside. Within minutes I was asleep and thanks only to some good fortune at last I woke up almost 8 hours later. I checked my watch to find that I was due on stage in 45 minutes!
Perhaps superfluously I jumped into the shower and got quickly dressed. Now more wrinkled than the octogenarian I headed up to the backstage area and peeked through the curtain to find the venue full. Without any time for nerves I was introduced and walked out to begin my show.
For the next 45 minutes I bombed. Every joke struggled, two of my tricks failed and my personality evaporated along with all memory of ever having been good at this. Though looking back at video of how I was dressed, I’m not sure that at the time I was…
After the show, the cruise director asked me how I thought it went! I explained that it was of course horrible and considering what I’d been through I’m surprised it wasn’t a lot worse. She expressed no sympathy, only stopping to tell me that had I said I thought it’d gone well, she’d have sent me home.
I immediately I regretted not saying I thought it was great…
Thankfully though, a few days later almost all of the passengers changed and so did the cruise director. The replacement was a lovely man called Jonathan Neal and his arrival signalled a fresh start. He immediately put me at ease and was charming company.
I had myself together and had thought significantly about my poor performance. I wasn’t entirely blaming my death on the circumstances and had made changes to the show which I thought would bring it more inline with the passenger expectations.
They worked. My next show was a hit and it was literal plain sailing to Barbados. I disembarked and flew home, a little bruised and battered but with one hell of a story to tell.
You may be wondering if this experience put me off cruising, or if it put cruises off me! The answer is no in both cases. I was to have many more adventures at sea over the next few years but one stands out above all others.
The time an audience member died DURING my show.
FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT IN PART FIVE (coming soon)