Excerpts from ‘A Day in the Life of a Magician’. First published by Vigyan Prasar, India
Years ago I gave up hanging up a stocking on Christmas Eve. One reason is that I have no stockings to hang, because I almost always wear trousers, and even when I wear shorts I wear socks with them so as to make my calves brown. And I don’t think Father Christmas would find room in a sock for all the things I want. So when I woke up on Christmas morning I was rather surprised to see one of my socks hanging on the bottom of the bed, and much more so when it got up and walked along the counterpane towards me.
When it was over my chest it bowed deeply, and emptied out a letter sealed with sealing wax, a turkey’s egg, a tie pin with an emerald in it, a fruit which I afterwards found out was a custard apple, and a pocket diary. I guessed at once that the presents were from Mr Leakey, because none of my other friends would have been able to send me things in that way.
And when I opened the letter I found that it was an invitation to spend the day after Boxing Day with him. Besides this he told me what the egg and fruit were, and that the tie pin and diary had been bewitched so that I could not lose them, which is what I generally do with pins and diaries..
Mr Leakey greeted me warmly when I went into his room. So did Pompey the dragon, who was sitting on the fire. He started flapping his wings when I came in, which made the fire smoke, but Mr Leakey had only to pick up a magic wand which was lying on the table, and Pompey at once lay down quietly with his head between his paws.
…He handed me a black cap with a peak to it, about the shape of the paper hats you get out of a Christmas cracker. It was the blackest thing I have ever seen, not a bit the colour of ordinary black cloth or paper, but like the colour of a black hole. You could not see what it was made of, or whether it was smooth or rough. It didn’t feel like cloth or anything ordinary, but like very soft warm india-rubber. I put it on, and at once my arm disappeared. Everything looked slightly odd, and at first I couldn’t think why. Then I saw that the two ghostly noses which I always see without noticing them were gone. I shut one of my eyes, as one does if one wants to see one’s nose more clearly. I felt my eye shut, but it made no difference. Of course now that I was invisible my eyelids and nose were quite transparent! Then I looked to where my body and legs ought to have been, but of course I saw nothing. I got a horrid giddy feeling and had to catch hold of the table with an invisible hand. However I steadied myself and looked straight in front of me, and quite soon I was able to walk round the room easily enough.
‘Put the cap in your pocket when we go out,’ said my host. ‘Then when you want to be invisible, put it on under your hat. It will make that invisible all right, just like it does your clothes.’…
…Now we’re going to visit a moneylender who calls himself Mr Macstewart. Of course that isn’t his real name. His real name’s quite horrid, full of Z’s. You can’t touch people with some sorts of magic unless you know their real names. That’s why moneylenders have false names, to protect themselves against good magicians who would like to turn them into sausages or door handles or foot-scrapers or armchairs or something useful. It’s very important to hide your real name if you have anything to do with magic, and of course compound interest is one of the very blackest sorts of magic. No one knows my real name, any more than they know the real name of London. It has a secret name which only the Lord Mayor knows, and he tells it to the new Lort Mayor each year. If a bad magician found out its real name he would be able to turn it into Stow-on-the-Wold or Ballybunnion or Timbuctoo or Omborombonga, which would be very awkward.
‘Princes and kings have such a lot of names because it makes it harder to bewitch them. Of course if you enchant anyone you generally have to say their full name, pronouncing all the bits of it properly, and you have to get that and the spell into one breath. That’s why kings and emperors have names like Augustus Benhadad Charlemagne Dagobert Ethelwulf Frederick Genseric Hardicanute Ixtlilcochitl Jehoiakim Kamehameha Leonidas Maximilian Napoleon Obadiah Polycrates Quirinus Rehoboam Subiluliuma Tarassicodissa Umsilikazi Valentinian Wenceslaus Xerxes Yoshihito Zedekiah the hundred and seventeenth (By the way, you mayn’t know some of these kings’ names. Dagobert was king of France. He was a good king, but he wore his trousers back to front. Ixtlilcochitl was king of Texcuca in Mexico, and an ally of Cortez. Several Kamehamehas were kings of Hawaii. Subiluliuma was king of the Hittites. Tarassicodissa became emperor of Constantinople, but they made him change his name, which was Isaurian, so he called himself Zeno. Umsilikazi was king of the Matabeles in South Africa. Some people called him Moselikatze, and others Silkaats. All the rest come in history books or the Bible). You haven’t much breath left for a spell when you’ve said that, especially if you pronounce Ixtlilcochitl and the First X in Xerxes properly.
John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892 – 1964) spent the last five years of his life in India and became an Indian citizen. A polymath in a real sense, Haldane’s best contributions are in the mathematical theory of evolution and he is one of the founders of population genetics.