I’ve been around in magic a while, and seen many changes. Let’s look at the instructions provided with a trick, for example. My first magic trick purchases were some time in the early 1950s. I was probably eight or nine at the time. Instructions then consisted mostly of a paragraph (or two, if you were lucky) badly duplicated on a tiny scrap of paper. They outlined the mechanics of the trick; told you how it worked, but not how to perform it. The skills of performance and presentation came largely from (sometimes painful) experience.

I’d long been an avid reader so pestered my local library for as many books on magic as they had or could obtain for me. They were a little more forthcoming on questions of magical performance rather than the demonstration of tricks. The emphasis still tended to be on fooling an audience rather than entertaining and involving them. But perhaps that’s a discussion for another time. (Early on I’d discovered in the playground that people didn’t necessarily want to be ‘fooled’ first and foremost…)

In my teens I began to buy copies of The Gen from my local theatrical shop (The Sign of Four in Nottingham) and discovered the writings of Lewis Ganson and the products of Harry Stanley’s Unique Magic. I was delighted to discover too that the occasional trick I was able to buy actually came with detailed instructions.

Times moved on and soon ‘proper’ instructions became the norm, probably reaching their height with the comprehensive written tutorials provided by the inimitable Ken Brooke.

For me, however, things have taken several backward steps since then, starting with the introduction of the DVD. Don’t get me wrong, videos and DVDs were, and still are, great for teaching magic; we’ve put out a few ourselves, often as book/DVD sets which I feel offers the best of both media.

Many dealers quickly discovered that DVD instructions were a lot easier (and often cheaper) to produce than good printed instructions. All you had to do was to sit someone in front of a camera (or two) and have them perform and explain the trick. No need to spend hours wrestling with the right words to produce something easy to read and understand. And then get a proper proofreader to check the ms before going to print. (Actually, ignore the last sentence; most dealers never bothered with that.)

Of course, for beginners in magic — and perhaps many magic hobbyists in general — the DVD was ideal. You didn’t need to think too much, or even worry about presentation. You just had to copy the guy on the screen. I mean, it’s fine to perform The Amazing So-and-So’s Cups and Balls or Four Ace routine. What is definitely not fine is to turn into a clone of Mr So-and-So while you perform. We probably all start like that, but purely DVD instructions don’t seem to encourage us to move beyond… to become magicians, mystery entertainers, whatever, rather than demonstrators of tricks. (You can see more than enough of that both sides of the stands at conventions.)

Then recently things have taken perhaps the final step backwards. More and more tricks you buy come, as in my youth, in a box or packet with a small scrap of paper, nicely printed, of course, rather than duplicated, and maybe even in full colour on card. But this time the nicely printed card doesn’t even have the most basic of instructions, just a link to an online video. Damn! Instead of being able to sit quietly and read through the instructions with the props in hand, I’ve got to get onto my computer and watch a video, often seemingly put together by a guy more in love with Adobe After Effects than magic.

I know you can watch videos on your phone but I feel you miss much on so small a screen.

This is easy, cheap and convenient for the dealer. But much less convenient for the poor magician. And what about (as has happened to me a couple of times) when you go back to rewatch the video to find it’s no longer there: the link has been deleted or moved? These days I download the video so it’s there for reference should I need it.

Again, DVDs, even online videos, may be great as an additional resource but I strongly believe that for the performing magician nothing can replace comprehensive, well-written, printed instructions.

What do you think? Perhaps next time we buy a trick we should ask, in what form are the instructions? Or maybe we should set up a new international organisation for magicians: the MFPI (Magicians For Proper Instructions.)

Rant over. Normal service will now be resumed.