A good magician is a keeper of secrets. Secrets are at the base of magic: it is only because the magician knows the secrets behind his tricks that he can fool you. A good magic trick contains many different layers of secrets: there may be the mechanical secret that operates a box; the hidden sleight of nimble fingers that causes cards to fly from the pack; the psychological secrets that cause the audience to look in a different place just when the “secret” maneuver happens. All these elements must be coordinated to ensure the magic trick is successful.
Magicians are not the only keepers of secrets: since antiquity the practice to hide information of knowledge from another party has been used by governments, groups of people and individual to both protect themselves and to get some kind of advantage over another party. Espionage is documented to ancient civilizations and what is not often known is that some spies had a public or, more often, private attraction to the Art of Magic. I have already mentioned Hieronimo Scoto as a spy for the Duke of Parma in the European courts of the XVI century, but only recently I acquired an unknown magic manuscript of a modern spy…
Magic manuscripts are rare: books, notes, that were once compiled by an individual, perhaps for his own use, less often for a successive publication in book form. If the manuscript was intended to become a book, the book may have never materialized. While collectors may not seek out manuscripts, when these are discovered and reported to magic historians, great excitement follows, in the hope of discovering forgotten secrets, stories about performers of times gone by or to push forward the date of when a trick was first described.
Of course, to find magic manuscripts from the XV, XVI or XVII century is almost impossible: all the surviving ones are already stored in libraries. Some libraries will not even know of the importance of these manuscript until a fortuitous discovery: this is what happened with a manuscript, estimated having between compiled between 1670 and 1730, that languished for years in the library of Asti, recently re-discovered and studied by my friend and colleague Aurelio Paviato.
Not long ago, I took the family to a seaside resort on the North Sea, for a touristic visit on a Summer weekend. You know: the usual stuff… a walk to the beach, a coffee on the Pier, a trip to the fun ride, a walk behind the wife through anonymous shops in search for the elusive trinket she could not possibly find at home… As a collector, I had to put my nose around antique shops and second-hand booksellers, looking for photos, prints and books on the subject of magic. No much luck there: magic books are hard to find and the few books one can find are usually either fairly common ones or beginner’s.
However, in a small shop crammed to the rafter with books on the most disparate subjects, after having spent some time browsing the various categories, I asked the owner if he had any “book on magic” and he directed me to a small shelf. Half of the books there were about magic and ventriloquism: all quite common, from Edward Victor‘s “Magic of the Hands” series, to the Louis Histed’s book published by Goodliffe, to the various books, catalogues and pamphlets published by Davenports. As the owner of a large library, I quickly found out that I already had a copy of every volume offered…
But… among these, a small notebook with a black cover. On looking at it, I discovered it was a manuscript on magic, from about the 1950s. Nothing too exciting, perhaps: certainly nothing too old. However, just to make sure my trip to the seaside resort was worth something, I had to acquire it. The manuscript is in a three-ring loose leaf black binder, with about 150 leaves, 87 of which are written. Some of the pages have blue lines, the last half are completely white.
The manuscript is about A5 format (148 × 210mm or 5.83 × 8.27 in.) and it is neatly written, in small handwriting. Many of the tricks are about cards, but there are a few tricks with coins, some children’s tricks, some tricks with ropes and a number of mental effects. On examining the manuscript, most tricks come from well-known sources: Greater Magic by J. N. Hilliard, Stanyon’s Magic; a magazine published in England at the beginning of the XX century; Prof. Hoffmann’s classical books, Modern Magic, More Magic and Later Magic; and from the periodical The Magic Wand, which ran for 47 years (and of which a full run is in my library). The name Annemann is the most used one, as evidently the author was fond of the mental tricks of this American genius.
If the manuscript were only a collection of tricks from other books, tricks that an amateur has found interesting, it would probably not be as interesting to warrant a post on this blog, or even as interesting as to read it, but for almost all tricks, the author adds his own personal variation, his own comment, his own notes. Sometimes, some of these notes, are quite interesting, as they enhance the trick and improve it.
The material has been compiled between the late 1940s and up the mid 1970s: there are references to performances (of the author, one assumes) in the 1950s, dated descriptions of the tricks (one in 1953), and the last trick (a number of technical details on the Centre Tear) refers to a 1973 book: The Complete Magician by Marvin Kaye. Among the tricks described is Out of this World, by Paul Curry, and A Chinese Classic, by Dai Vernon, as explained in the Dai Vernon’s Book of Magic, but with some finesses from the Slydini’s version.
A secret formula to produce roughing fluid, which I have never came across, comes with the instructions on how to apply it: we must not forget that in the 1950s many magicians were experimenting on a formula to allow them to create this product at home.
But what about the Spy in the title? For this, we have to investigate about the author. According to a note written in the manuscript, the author was one Gordon Philo. This name was completely unknown to me: a search in magic magazines of the period did not shed any light: an amateur? An anonymous amateur who did not participate in the events of magic societies? From notes in the manuscript, the author mentions some performances: some private parties and Christmas parties. As only very few performances are mentioned (in the context of tricks), one can safely assume the author was not a professional magician.
Who was Gordon Philo? The book seller gave me some information about him: apparently, Mr. Philo was a diplomat and an author of crime stories. On digging a bit more, this obituary from The Times (2009) surfaced. Gordon Charles George Philo was born on 8 January 1920, which means he was in his early to mid thirties when the manuscript was being compiled. He graduated at Oxford as a Methuen scholar in modern history. At the start of World War II, Philo was called to the army and joined the West African Frontier Force. He then trained as a parachutist and took part in the Normandy campaign. He was awarded the Military Cross in October 1944 following him leading the Field Ambulance troops, which had been parachuted around Varraville (France) and were dispersed, to safety through enemy lines. He then, with other four soldiers, captured 63 German soldiers and five vehicles, which allowed the evacuation of 64 allied wounded men.
At the end of the war, Philo returned to Oxford where he started teaching modern history. It was at this time, that he was recommended and then recruited into the Secret Intelligence Service, what is today commonly known as MI6. Compared to his fictional colleague James Bond – Agent 007 – Philo seemed to carry out a more back-office role than the spy created by Ian Fleming but apparently he was instrumental in the processing and circulation of the material revealed by Russian double agent Oleg Penkovsky, the person who revealed the presence of Russian missiles in Cuba: a move that prevented what could have been a catastrophic third World War.
After the Penkovsky affair, Philo spent the 1960s in Indochina, seconded to the Diplomatic Service, becoming Consul-General in Hanoi, Vietnam during the years of the Vietnam War. Who best than a spy to cover this role in such a critical time? During this phase in the Far East, his magic passion probably took a step back, as no notes from this period can be found in the manuscript. As often happens with amateur magicians, sometimes life and career take precedence over a passion, with Magic being shelved for a few years. Philo returned to England in 1970 and continued to work at MI6 headquarters until his retirement in 1978. On his return to England, Philo apparently picked magic up again as, as mentioned before, the last trick in the manuscript refers to a book published in 1973.
Gordon Philo was a scholar and a writer: he married Vicky Galsworthy in 1952 and with her wrote a number of crime novels under the pseudonym of Charles Forsyte. Some of these books relied on his experiences in his diplomatic career (Diplomatic Death and Murder with Minarets are set in Turkey, where Philo worked between 1954 and 1958). Most of his books are not literary achievements, for today’s standards, but one has survived to the XXI century: The Decoding of Edwin Drood, published in 1980, is an intelligent and plausible attempt to re-create Charles Dickens’ (another amateur conjurer!) conclusion to his unfinished last novel.
The magic manuscript in my collection is not the only unpublished work by Gordon Philo: in 1978 he was commissioned by the SIS to write the story of Her Majesty’s Secret Service since 1945. According to those who have seen the classified volume,
It is a work of formidable scale and scholarship, greatly valued by those officials who are cleared to read it. Philo chose the contributors, supervised the whole project and himself wrote the key chapters.
This work took him five years and it will probably not be released to the general public for other 50, if at all: MI6 released a few years ago a book detailing its history between 1909 and 1949 written by Professor Keith Jeffery who had access to the archives but, unlike Philo, did not have the day-to-day knowledge of the inside operation at SIS.
Gordon Philo was an intriguing man: like any real-life spy, he kept his profile low and I haven’t been able to find a photo of his features, which I would have liked to add to this post. What this man has left behind was an interest in magic, and a notebook with the tricks he found interesting, those he studied, learnt and performed. Did he use magic as a tool to gain access to information useful to Her Majesty’s Secret Service? We may never know. It is however exciting to learn the magic secrets of a keeper of secrets. Gordon Philo died at the age of 89 on 8 January 2009: his wife had passed away in 1986. His small magic collection was dispersed, with books ending up in a second-hand shop and bought by collectors and magicians not aware of their provenance. Until now.
Magic is a fascinating art, and an exciting pastime. For you, for me, and for spies!
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