Newspaper Article on Gordon Bruce of Scotland

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Richard Kaufman
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Newspaper Article on Gordon Bruce of Scotland

Postby Richard Kaufman » December 7th, 2008, 7:54 pm

This appears in Scotland's Sunday Herald: ... _trick.php

And for his next trick...
...Gordon Bruce needs to find a home for the vast and highly valuable collection of books on magic that fills his house.

The house is a four-bedroom Victorian semi with no beds. Only books. They teeter in piles, bend bookcases, bury any surface and are boxed up in the loft. Grey filing cabinets proliferate, while the sweeping curves of at least six double basses appear conspicuous among all the right angles. The house's owner, Gordon Bruce, sleeps on a mattress in the second bedroom, being now unable to make his way into the main bedroom because it is so crammed full. There are coffee tables that have never seen a cup of coffee, only piles of yet more books. The kitchen is in disarray and the other day Bruce found a fox sitting in one of the rooms, near the window. How it got there is anyone's guess. "It's chaos," he says, with a rueful shake of his head.

Bruce's house, in a pleasant Glasgow suburb, is home to Scotland's Magic Archive, a collection of thousands of magic books which Bruce has accumulated over the last 50 years. The house itself is like a magic shop: a place of endless possibilities, which perhaps accounts for the fox. But endless possibilities aren't really conducive to cooking, sleeping and moving freely. Scotland's Magic Archive needs to be housed somewhere permanent and official, so that scholars can access its treasures and, perhaps more pressingly, so that Bruce can reclaim his home. He has begun to look around for serious offers, although he can't be too specific about the archive's size. The last time he counted the books was about 40 years ago. "One day as a kid I remember finding out I had 99 books of magic," he says. "I was so upset I went out and bought another to make it up to a hundred."

Since childhood Bruce, 55, has been passionate about magic, and it has taken over his life. When he's not playing the double bass in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), a job he has had for the past 34 years, Bruce is practising magic tricks, researching magic history, discussing magic with fellow magicians - and, of course, collecting books on the subject, as magicians like Harry Houdini have done before him. Bruce bought his first magic book for four and ninepence aged 12, and his collection now includes some volumes that are more than 300 years old. It's a sterling example of bibliomania, which the English journalist Holbrook Jackson once defined as "genial mania, less harmful than the sanity of the sane".

Bruce became particularly interested in magic books after being shown a card trick by a fellow pupil at the now-defunct Allan Glen's School in Glasgow; no explanation was forthcoming but Bruce learned that the trick could be purchased in a book from Tam Shepherd's trick shop on Queen Street, a Glaswegian institution that has now been around for more than a century. Bruce became a regular customer, spending his lunch money on satisfying his appetite for magic.

The owner of Tam Shepherd's, Roy Walton, used to say that if Bruce didn't understand anything in the books he could ask him, because Walton had "done some of this stuff before". Bruce took Walton up on his offer and thought, as he now recalls, "My God, this is the guy behind the counter. I wonder what real magic experts are like?" Years later, Bruce found out that Roy, now 76 and still working in the shop, is one of the top five close-up magicians in the world.

It was at Tam Shepherd's that Bruce met Duncan Johnstone, who shared a similar background and interests, and had accumulated one of Scotland's finest magic collections, which is now dispersed. Although collectors such as celebrity magician David Copperfield buy whole libraries with a languid wave of their credit cards, more impoverished enthusiasts rely on luck, dedication and generosity. They are also obsessive, a trait that Bruce may well have inherited from his father, a clerk in the shipyards who was brought up during the depression and became, as he puts it, "obsessed with education".

Bruce has never thought of himself as a collector, "Books come looking for you," he says. An elderly female magician, Alice Maclay, gave him a rare, battered first edition of The Secrets Of Conjuring by the great French magician Robert-Houdin while he was still a boy. Later finds seem to have reached Bruce with fatalistic inevitability. These include a 1584 edition of Reginald Scott's Discovery Of Witchcraft, the book credited with being the first in English to describe how tricks were done.

Bruce first heard about the first edition of Scott's Discovery 10 years ago, when a local bookseller and friend mentioned that an attic in Kilbarchan had yielded this rare and truly magical book. It was to be auctioned in Glasgow. On a RSNO salary Bruce didn't think he could afford it. Nevertheless, he considered possibilities: "I tried to remortgage the house and they said they could, but it would take weeks. I didn't sleep, I didn't eat. I grew a beard."

Luckily, a friend lent Bruce the money and he got what he was after. "I left in a daze," he says. "That is when you know you're obsessed. It's ridiculous." To celebrate, he bought champagne on credit, went to Glasgow Art Club and proceeded to delight and mystify other dealers by performing tricks from the book, although presumably not this one: "To cut of one's head, and to laie it in a platter," a trick graphically illustrated by a woodcut.

He then actually read the book. "These days there are lots of reprints and electronic reproductions on the internet," he says, "but sometimes the only way to get information is to get the first edition, so you almost become a collector by accident."

Bruce's preferred form of magic, intimate and deceptively simple, is some way from the decapitated torso style popular in the past, or the showy, camera-assisted magic on TV today. "For some reason, people think that the closer they are to you, the easier it is to see, but that's not the case. It's got a much stronger impact when you perform live. I don't think what we're trying to do is fool you. At least that's not what I'm trying to do. It's to try and reawaken that child we all once were, when everything is a completely different world."

Despite the closure of theatres and the decline of cabarets, close-up magic has survived. Tricks such as the "cups and balls" have been around for five centuries, and can still be seen performed al fresco on Buchanan Street or on Edinburgh's Royal Mile today. Another trick called "To seem to kill a horse and restore it again" from another book in Bruce's collection, called Hocus Pocus, has not quite made it through the ages. Even in the book's 18th-century heyday, an irate owner had written next to it, "damn'd nonsense" before castigating its author: "Henry Dean, damn'd villain."

This intriguingly annotated 18th-century edition of Hocus Pocus was another rare book that came looking for Bruce, after a typing error led to the book ending up with a Glasgow dealer called Hay instead of a collector called Jay.

The Glasgow bookseller parted with his newly acquired edition for a friendly amount, and Bruce has since paid back friends who lent him the funds for his collection "in dribs and drabs," living on Pot Noodles and neglecting his 200 cookery books.

Although Bruce is a mine of information about magic and magic history, one thing he will not be doing anytime soon is giving away trade secrets. "Some people ask, How did you do that trick?' and I always say, If I told you how it was done, I wouldn't be giving you anything. I would be taking something away.'"
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Matthew Field
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Re: Newspaper Article on Gordon Bruce of Scotland

Postby Matthew Field » December 8th, 2008, 4:44 am

Gordon is an immensely talented card man and lover of magic history, and a gifted musician as well. I was delighted to meet him when I moved over to England, and am proud to call him a friend.

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Re: Newspaper Article on Gordon Bruce of Scotland

Postby erdnasephile » May 3rd, 2019, 2:27 pm

In my search for the Gordon Bruce Okito material, I found this article from a couple of years later: ... s-1-476852

(It includes a grim joke from our own, Ian Kendall -- hopefully, things are a bit better for magicians in Scotland these days!)

Bill Mullins
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Re: Newspaper Article on Gordon Bruce of Scotland

Postby Bill Mullins » May 3rd, 2019, 3:38 pm

"a collector called Jay." - - I wonder who that could have been?

Bob Farmer
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Re: Newspaper Article on Gordon Bruce of Scotland

Postby Bob Farmer » May 3rd, 2019, 3:48 pm

My wife and I spent a lovely evening with Gordon in this very cool restaurant that Gordon took us to, a place frequented by artists, musicians, fashion models and intellectuals (the name escapes me but it's very close to Roy Walton's shop). Notwithstanding the snazzy surroundings, no one kicked us out as decks of cards despoiled the atmosphere.

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