Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Barry Jones, magician

Author: Interview by Jonathan Sale

I didn’t know them, but four people from my secondary school committed suicide. People thought that the cliffs of Old Portlethen, a fishing village near Aberdeen where I grew up, were haunted, and there was a place where people would jump off. It was fairly dangerous , and lots of fishermen got swept away by the waves. The atmosphere was very Wicker Man.

The village had about 60 inhabitants, and there weren’t many people of my age so it was quite solitary. I spent hours on the beach and climbing the rocks.

My primary school was in the town of Portlethen, about two miles away. At five years old, I got my first magic set, but I didn’t really get interested in magic until I was about 12.

I remember quite enjoying the fresh start at secondary school – but only at first. Bullying was rife at Portlethen Academy; that’s probably where my interest in magic came from. You want to escape to the hobby of magic. You’ve got a power that no one else has, and you’re a keeper of secrets.

I spent a lot of my time at school with a deck of cards, and other objects that I can’t tell you about, but that allowed something to look as if it was on fire or floating in the air. It was met with a mixture of, “That’s quite cool”, and, “Sad…”. Magic wasn’t thought cool because the only magician people were exposed to was Paul Daniels. I entered the school talent contest but never got placed. Singers tended to win: pretty girls singing a solo. When I got to a library, I’d look for books on magic, in the “Hobbies” section, near the books on bridge.

As a magician, you set yourself a goal and try to achieve it. This forced me to think about solving problems and following instructions – often poorly written – from the page. Quite a lot of memory is involved in card magic. You use “mind-mapping” and mnemonics: to remember a sequence of words, you create a surreal story using them. I did this for school work such as French vocabulary tests. I was near the top of the class, which is probably why I got bullied. I always enjoyed drama and performing, and never had a problem doing talks in class.

Typically, you did eight subjects at Standard Grade, the Scottish equivalent of GCSEs. I stayed on for a year to do five Highers, and another year to do some more, and a CSYS (Certificate of Sixth Year Studies).

I then did one year of the multimedia computing course at the University of Westminster, in London. I hated it. Computing wasn’t very creative and I had expected it to be the start of a new life, but again I didn’t fit in. I had met Stuart when I was about 13, at a club for magicians in Aberdeen, where we were by far the youngest members. He was finishing his studies at Aberdeen University, and we’d spend hours on the phone discussing tricks. He was almost my only friend. I then applied to study philosophy of religion at King’s College London.

My dream was always to earn a living from magic. I didn’t truly think that it was going to happen, but Stuart and I would film each other doing weird magic sketches, and somehow a video ended up in a television production company’s office. I decided not to pursue the philosophy of religion degree, but it would have been useful to have had it when we did TV specials replicating some of the miracles in the Bible.

At lunchtime today, we are doing a performance based on the launch of the Vauxhall Corsa, at the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End. There will be a life-or-death game show in which someone gets the chance to win a car, but the booby prize… well, that’s something that I’m not going to give away.

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