When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by party entertainers and magicians. Not because they were conjuring all sorts of mysteries, but rather I admired their skills of illusion. Every trick made me wonder where the ball had disappeared to or where the glamorous assistant had come from. I rarely worked it out but enjoyed the challenge nonetheless. It’s why I grew up to adore the genius acts of the likes of Derren Brown and more recently Dynamo and Criss Angel in the US. As impressive as the tricks were, they were always just that: tricks. Brilliant and indecipherable tricks but I never remember simply thinking “wow, that was magic.” I think most kids are them same. They’re impressed, often amazed by the trick. Then the age old question comes quickly after: “how do you do it?”. They want to be able to trick their friends too. It’s why magic sets make such popular gifts for kids. I’d regularly perform magic shows for my family, convinced they had fallen for my slick tricks and couldn’t work out from where the extra ball had come. I didn’t keep it up though, and pretty soon my go to tricks were demoted to the back of the cupboard.
A couple of years ago, I entered I performed a cheap trick once more and what followed was one of the best experiences of my life so far. Myself and a few other volunteers were sat on a minibus outside King’s Cross Station in London waiting for our paediatrician to arrive. With us were a small group of children and teenagers, excitedly anticipating our departure as we were on our way to Over The Wall camp, one of the many worldwide SeriousFun camps co-founded by Paul Newman. For five days they would overcome the barriers built up by their various illness by meeting other kids affected by serious illness, and together doing all sorts of challenging activities designed to be of therapeutic benefit. Although until our paediatrician arrived, we were stuck with only the assorted Top Trumps and other ‘go to’ games that Over The Wall have at their disposal for passing the time.
I asked the kids if they wanted a drink from the McDonald’s next to the bus. They all asked for a coke with the exception of Mark (I’ve changed his name). Mark said, resolutely, “I’d like a glass of milk please. Not in a bottle from McDonald’s, but in a glass.” Now, Mark knew I couldn’t get him a glass of milk in the middle of King’s Cross. He was winding me up, as he does every year, asking for more and more ridiculous things to see what my reaction would be. This time however, I didn’t react. Instead, I went and collected the drinks order from McDonald’s, including the bottle of milk for Mark, but on the way back to the bus I went and borrowed a glass tumbler from a neighbouring Costa (who were more than happy to help out in my quest). When I boarded the bus and presented Mark with his milk in a glass I was met with a stunned silence. He didn’t ask where it was from or how I had managed it, he just sat and drank his milk from his glass in silence. He couldn’t believe it. Within five minutes of arriving at camp, he had told everyone about how I had conjured a glass from nowhere, in the middle of central London. (By the way, I secretly had the bus driver return the glass before we left once the milk had been drunk).
That week at camp something very special happened for Mark. It started on day one, when he had come to spend time with me, as the Arts & Crafts leader. He hadn’t wanted to go on the ghost walk that the rest of the group were doing that afternoon. At camp, whilst we encourage participation in all activities, everything we do is absolutely a challenge by choice. Nothing is forced and a child is never pushed into their panic zone. So Mark was with me and another volunteer for the afternoon. The ghost walk was happening in the woods, so we decided to go with Mark on a nature walk, during which we collected piles of twigs and sticks to take back to the craft room. When we got back, his friend Mike had left the ghost walk too (it sounded terrifying!) and wanted to make something with us. I left the boys to it and got on with preparing the room for the next group to arrive. When I came to check how the were getting on, they had used the sticks and some bronze paint to make every child and adult in the group a magic wand (15 in total!), as well as two full-size brooms complete with metallic paint and a gold inscription reading “OTW 2011”.
For the rest of the week, every waking minute of every single day, the kids had their wands in hand ready to zap a spell at any passer by or one of the volunteers (who also kept their wands close to hand at all times). They had painted lightning scars on their foreheads and used the paper cutting machine to make round spectacles to transform them all into Harry Potter. The list of spells they used was exhaustive, and every volunteer was expected to react to each spell in the correct manner, be it freezing still or flying through the air. For one whole week, Mark and his new friends lived in a completely magical world. The flew everywhere on their brooms and even summoned food onto their plates with a little help from the imaginative and accommodating kitchen staff. At the end of the week, Mark went to bed on the last night to find that he’d had a delivery of ‘owl mail’ (in an envelope we found in Arts & Crafts covered in owl drawing), within which was a comprehensive list of every Harry Potter spell and what it did (thank goodness for wikipedia!) that one of the volunteers had spent her break writing out by hand earlier that day.
For that week, Mark believed in magic. He was magic and so was everyone around him. The barriers created by his illness had come crumbling down and in an instant he had cast away all of the social issues often met by kids who have spent long periods of their childhood in hospital.
As clever and mysterious the illusions performed by Derren Brown and Dynamo are, they will never match the pure, real magic I saw at Over The Wall camp that year and every year. In April I will attempt to conquer my fear of heights and abseil down the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth. I’m not sure I’ll succeed without at least a minor panic attack, but I can be sure as hell that my wand given to me by Mark will be in my pocket all the way down.