Death of Alistair Maskelyne

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Richard Stokes
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Joined: September 11th, 2008, 8:18 pm

Death of Alistair Maskelyne

Postby Richard Stokes » March 3rd, 2019, 5:51 pm

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light".

Obituaries: Brisbane Courier-Mail, Australia 2019:
Alistair Jasper MASKELYNE, 

Ex Papua New Guinea aviator and New Zealand Merchant Mariner, departed this life 22nd February, 6 weeks shy of 92. A family service was held on the 27th February at the Centenary Memorial Crematorium, Brisbane.
Vale Jasper

Alistair was Jasper Maskelyne's son.
Alistair's wife Bettina said that the funeral was as he wanted it – simple and low-key. Frank Sinatra’s My Way was played as everyone walked into the Chapel. Alistair's daughter Susan read out his favourite poem – Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night". His son Douglas gave the Eulogy.

I will add my personal tribute very soon.

Richard Stokes
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Re: Death of Alistair Maskelyne

Postby Richard Stokes » March 9th, 2019, 8:44 am

Apologies. I've been sidetracked by a browser hijacker which infected my iMac. Finally got rid of it by deleting my hard disk and reinstalling Mojave. I'll post my 'In Memoriam' tribute to Alistair by end of next week.

Richard Stokes
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Re: Death of Alistair Maskelyne

Postby Richard Stokes » March 17th, 2019, 4:51 pm

Alistair Maskelyne obituary
April 15, 1927 – Feb 22, 2019

Part One

Alistair Maskelyne was the rebellious son of the famous British stage magician Jasper Maskelyne.
As a child Alistair witnessed the inner workings of the Maskelyne magical dynasty at St. George's Hall in London: “I well recall the fascination of watching from a privileged stage side box my various aunts and uncles demonstrating impossible feats of levitation, escape or transformation. Behind the scenes it was equally engrossing to see how some of the illusions were prepared."

Alistair’s upbringing was a strange mixture of class privilege and cash shortage: "my earliest recollections give memories of both financial hardship together with a gift for lavish living: two rather impracticably combined ways of life..."

Jasper had quit St. George's Hall in 1933 after an argument with his brothers. His solo career won acclaim but was losing momentum. Jasper did not own any property and had minimal assets. Financial pressures mounted: "My father continued his music hall tours. The money was not good, and I recall being quite incredulous, as a small boy, that he should get so much financial respect from British firms acquainted only with his family reputation, and not with his real situation, which often meant that my mother had no funds to pay the grocery bill at the end of the month.”

Alistair in our 1993 correspondence admitted that his father’s two volumes of published memoirs were unreliable and semi-fictional: "Father was keen to get additional money by any reasonable means, and an opportunity was presented when a "ghost writer" offered to write an "autobiography" of Jasper Maskelyne. This was accomplished, and published as ''White Magic' in about 1936. I read, as an interested party, but found little there that was related to truth, because the ghost writer had happily invented whole sequences outside of the essential history. My father seemed not to mind these fictitious events. This book was the precursor of ''Magic–Top Secret' by the same author in 1946."
This concoction of daring wartime exploits would later bedazzle gullible journalists, magicians, historians and film makers.
"Magic–Top Secret: This was a ghost written largely fictional account of my father's western desert experiences. When I was given a preliminary draft to read, my comment to father was "there is so much overdramatised fiction here that it is obviously untrue. Can we get it rewritten to present your wartime feats on the lines of a serving officer?"
The ghost writer's reply: "there were thousands such. It would never sell".
This was the book stumbled upon by David Fisher some thirty years later and made up as the 'War Magician', with the aid of my father's diaries he borrowed but never returned from my Uncle Noel.
"It follows that this book is not 'Maskelyne's own account', merely the ghost writer's endeavours to boost my father's recollections."
(At the time of writing in 1993 Alistair did not know the name of the ghost writer. It took me another ten years to track down the identity of this hidden ghost.)

In the years leading up to the war, Alistair attended the exclusive Gibbs School off Sloane Square, “I rubbed shoulders with Peter Ustinov and young Bobby Kennedy. In fact more than rubbed shoulders with Kennedy; we had a mutual dislike and took it out in fisticuffs.”
I asked him for more details about this encounter:
"The Kennedy family had arrived in London upon the appointment of Joseph Kennedy as Ambassador in 1938.
Young Bobby, although older, and much bigger than me, was installed in my form at Gibbs.
We had English class sessions prior to putting on a performance of "As You Like It", and Kennedy had been allocated to read the part of Orlando. His inability to read coherently, coupled with his accent, caused me to laugh at him.
During morning tea break he set on me in good Kennedy fashion and was bashing my head on the wooden classroom floor, when the form master, attracted by my howls, appeared to stop the brawl.
Being British, he settled matters in typical fashion: he directed us both to the gym, where we donned boxing gloves, and Kennedy proceeded to beat the bejesus out of me again."

As the war in Europe spread and intensified, Jasper arranged for his wife, Evelyn and both children to be evacuated to New Zealand while he stayed in England to seek an army position.
To fund this perilous journey on the vintage SS "Rotorua", they sold off the two family cars and various furnishings.
Evelyn, Alistair and Jasmine reached Auckland, NZ in May 1940, the same month that Britain’s army faced catastrophe at Dunkirk. NZ would be their refuge for the next three years. The same passenger cargo boat on a return trip to the U.K. was torpedoed and sunk by a U-Boat in December 1940.

Unfortunately, their stay in the southern hemisphere was far from idyllic. Relationships with their Kiwi relatives and friends became strained; to compound matters, Alistair's mother became increasingly ill. To seek out the best medical treatment she returned to England with Alistair and Jasmine in 1943 even though the U-Boat threat was at its height. Evelyn's condition was then properly diagnosed as ovarian cancer and she began radium treatment at a London hospital.

Meantime, Alistair studied for his marine licence in Earl’s Court. After qualifying, he found work at the New Zealand shipping company. His first voyage in 1944, when only 17, took him from Liverpool to New York where his cargo ship was supposed to pick up munitions. In fact, it was diverted to Nova Scotia and ended up carrying vital oil and a huge consignment of bacon!
His final outward wartime voyage would lead Alistair back to Sydney in time for VJ day (Victory over Japan, August 15 1945). This was a moment of massive celebration and romantic Hokey Kokey.
He became entangled in an affair with Esme Levante, the daughter of Australian showman Les Levante. Alistair was only 18. Esme was six years older, married, but separated from her husband. “It was at a party thrown by George Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift (famous Australian authors) that I acted indignantly upon George making advances towards Esme. “You have a very attractive wife”, I said. “Leave Esme alone.”
This act of gallantry won over Esme.

In 1946 Alistair Maskelyne completed his final return voyage on his NZCo cargo ship and met up with his father in London “The hall of our house in Kensington was crowded with three or four large war department boxes, containing all manner of things such are described in the various books about evasion and escape. There were almost bales of silk maps, pocket sized radios, long before the advent of the transistor : these things had miniature valves, the type only seen by me before in our radar installation at sea. There were small arms, I remember Beretta hand guns, and cameras, upon which I gloated.”

In Part 2, I will document Alistair's involvement in his father's post-war shows and his own flight from the world of magic.

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Q. Kumber
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Re: Death of Alistair Maskelyne

Postby Q. Kumber » March 17th, 2019, 6:39 pm

That's very interesting. I look forward to part two.
Thank you.

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Zig Zagger
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Re: Death of Alistair Maskelyne

Postby Zig Zagger » March 18th, 2019, 2:54 pm

Thank you Richard, I enjoyed this and look forward to read more about Alistair and Jasper Maskelyne (and, hopefully, who that ghost writer was)!
Tricks, tips, news, interviews, musings and fun stuff: Have a look at our English-German magic blog!
Advancing the art in magic one post at a time (yeah, right!)

Richard Stokes
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Re: Death of Alistair Maskelyne

Postby Richard Stokes » March 19th, 2019, 3:31 am

After the war Alistair Maskelyne resigned from the NZ Co and was determined to remain in London and see his mother’s illness through to the end.
“My father revived his pre-war magic show. I assisted for a short time as stage manager. There was plenty of money and not much entertainment in those days, and for two years my father's shows did well and he was able to live in good style. My father took the show on the road as a vaudeville performance travelling the music hall circuit for Lew and Leslie Grade, both of whom I met. My own function was very peripheral: preparing props, drapes, illusions and scene changing. Just a stage hand. My reason for being there at all was that I wished to be near my mother during her final illness. My mother died in 1947 (March 24th) after a long and painful illness. I found the time rather traumatic.”

Alistair has fond memories of a magician who worked with his father in these shows: “Robert Harbin I remember especially well, a charming and practical man, with very interesting and puzzling illusions: quick and dramatic. He had a great sense of humour and probably helped me to get through that time, with his good nature and commonsense.”
“He had a very clever supposed act of mind reading, in which he gave out copies of the London telephone directory to the audience and called for page numbers from the book, after which he went on to recall the names and phone numbers at the head of each page that had been selected at random.”

If families are conflict-ridden pathological systems bound together by love and hate, then the painful premature death of the biological mother will test the resilience of even the strongest of structures. Introduce a femme fatale to the psychodynamics and the system is likely to collapse:
“Father quickly found a lady in a small night club whose name was Mary. I honestly cannot remember her second name. She had links with Kenya, and a liking for the bottle. They married in 1948.”
Alistair lost respect for his father because he felt the new partner Mary was unbefitting and her existence betrayed the memory of his recently deceased mother.

The Salisse/Davenport collection of Maskelyne memorabilia has a copy of the marriage certificate. The second wife’s full name was Evelyne Mary Scotcher. This similarity in names probably explains why Fisher in the epilogue of The War Magician confused the second wife with the first wife (whose full name was Evelyn Enid Mary Maskelyne).

Was Alistair over-reacting to his father’s new partner? Was his character assessment too harsh?
I do not think so. Two reliable female witnesses, Maisie Wright and Gil Vaughan have independently confirmed to me that the second wife was quite a difficult disruptive person and had drinking issues.

“After my father’s remarriage I left England for good and virtually severed my connections with him. In 1950 he was in the position of owing more tax than he could pay, and left England with his second wife. He tried touring in South Africa with his magic show, but without much success.
He retained a fondness for army accoutrement and guns, and came into his own during the Mau Mau campaign in Kenya, when he commanded a mobile squad of police. When the troubles were concluded he continued his affair with cars by founding a very successful driving school in Nairobi.

After leaving his father’s magic show, Alistair initially worked as a sound recordist at Elstree studios where he met Jean Simmons, an up and coming star.
Unable to progress his career in London due to the restrictions of the Cine Technicians’ closed-shop, Alistair gambled on returning to Sydney and getting work as a sound recordist on the new film production of Long John Silver.
He wangled a £10 passage and headed down under with his Norton motorbike.
He would never see his father again.
Alistair arrived at Pagewood Studios, Sydney, only to find that there was no position available.
“One of the amplifiers in the studio at Pagewood had a technical fault which caused the chassis to make a 1,000-cycle tone when touched. While wistfully discussing the slim chances of employment with my former mates from Elstree, I started to idly tap Morse symbols on the side of the amplifier. One of the Australian technicians looked up and said " what the hell are you doing wasting your time here? Go to the airport, they are crying out for communication blokes".
Alistair rode his Norton to Mascot airport and was accepted on the spot!

Strangely enough, there was a tracking station near Canberra called ‘Wee Jasper’ and when the call sign came through to Sydney airport, Alistair stood up and shouted “that’s my second name”. From thereon he was always called ‘Jasper’ by workmates and friends.
For consistency and to avoid confusion I will call him Alistair throughout this article.

This was around 1950 when the authorities were launching the myxomatosis campaign to counter the rabbit plague.
Alistair after further training was transferred to Lord Howe Island where he was in charge of the arrival and departure of magnificent flying boats plying their trade between Australia and New Zealand.

Alistair became romantically linked to a young nurse from a posh Sydney family. This love affair came to an abrupt end when the girl’s mother sent her on a world cruise. The young woman met and married the ship’s doctor!
Devastated, Alistair requested a transfer to Darwin – which is located at the far north of the Northern Territory. This was a quiet backwater. True, it had been bombed by the Japanese in WW2, but nothing really ever happened in peacetime Darwin.
So, in April 1954 it must have been astonishing for Alistair to report for routine duty and then witness the Petrov incident where the world focussed on the uncertain fate of Mrs Petrov at the hands of her KGB abductors.

In Darwin Alistair continued working as an air traffic controller (ATC) but also learned how to fly on a Tiger Moth.
He moved to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the late 1950s working in ATC while also working as a flying instructor at Port Moresby Aero Club, which was nicknamed the Temple of the Aeros.
He flew with Air Niugini (the national airline of PNG), Talair and Flight West.
Alistair would have flown the Douglas DC-3 in his early career.
He then flew the Fokker F27 turboprop for Air Niugini, followed by the Fokker F28 jet airliner. In fact, he trained PNG pilots who wanted to move up to the F28.
At Talair he flew the Dash 8-100 turboprop.
(When I first contacted Alistair in 1993, he had already retired from commercial flying.)

Vale, Alistair Jasper Maskelyne who has departed on his final flight to the great Celestial Temple of Aeros…

Special thanks to Bob Fulton, his flying chum, and to the wonderful Bettina, Alistair’s wife, who counter-balanced his life.
Alistair and Bettina had three children – Angela, Douglas and Susan.
Perhaps one day the Maskelyne name will return to the living world of magic?
After all, Alistair has great-grandchildren waiting in the wings…

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Re: Death of Alistair Maskelyne

Postby Diego » March 19th, 2019, 2:35 pm

Richard, Thank you for your very insightful/candid account of Alistair's life and his thoughts from his perspective, of his family's
lives and careers.

Kent Blackmore
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Location: Sydney Australia

Re: Death of Alistair Maskelyne

Postby Kent Blackmore » March 20th, 2019, 8:02 pm

Yes, thanks Richard, it was a great read.

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