In an anonymous alleyway near London's Euston Station, behind a blank door, lies the Centre for the Magic Arts. Marked only by a brass plaque bearing a circle of astrological symbols, the home of the Magic Circle is a private club where - away from the flapping ears of the public - magicians meet every Monday night to exchange notes on new tricks and illusions. My first attempt to gain access to this organization was (unsurprisingly) a failure, offering little more than a view through a half-opened doorway into a fantastic hallway filled with richly coloured theatre posters from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The way into to this élite enclave, I subsequently discovered, is via a waiting list for an evening event where members of the public are invited to 'Meet the Magic Circle'. Six months later, ticket in hand, I visited the centre again.
Back in 1905, when this fledgeling fraternity of showmen held its first meeting, magic was big business. In Britain the magicians David Devant and John Nevil Maskelyne had dominated the variety entertainment scene for decades, performing to packed audiences at the long-since demolished Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly, known as 'London's Home of Mystery'. These audiences came to see tricks such as the 'magic kettle', which would pour any liquid requested, a 'spirit orchestra', which played without the aid of live musicians, and theatrical sketches such as 'An Artist's Dream', in which Devant - playing a recently widowed painter - would make the ghost of his dead wife appear on stage. Then there was the spectacular illusionist Chung Ling Soo, who died in 1918 performing an act called 'Defying the Bullets' at the Wood Green Empire, prompting the public discovery of his finest illusion: the fact that he was not Chinese at all, but an American named William Robinson. That nobody had hitherto noticed this suggests that the early 20th-century public was perhaps less experienced in magic's bluffs and parries than its contemporary counterpart. All Soo had to do to maintain his deception, after all, was to travel everywhere with an interpreter.
The Magic Circle is something of a shrine to this 'golden age'. The purpose-built décor of the present building (its home since 1998, after a decade at the Victory Services Club in Marble Arch) would appear to be the product of a seemingly incongruous marriage of cultures - the gentlemanly splendour of the Edwardian drawing-room and the tarnished spangle of contemporary Las Vegas, where Vaudeville came to rest after its decline in the 1930s. A modern spiral staircase, which would not be out of place in one of the Nevada city's numerous hotel lobbies, dominates the central hallway, while upstairs in the Devant Room a life-size bust of David Devant himself (the Magic Circle's first president) slowly rotates on a plinth in a room lined with vitrines. Each of these cases is filled with the holy relics of the greats of yesteryear, such as the wax cylinder that emits the ghoulish and rather clipped tones of the most famous magician of them all, Harry Houdini. In the subterranean part of the building - past a series of locked doors marked with the words 'Private: Inner Sanctum' - is a small museum housing yet more magical paraphernalia and the Magic Circle's library, a repository of knowledge devoted to the preservation and study of such peculiar and anachronistic skills as mesmerism, mentalism and phantasmagoria. The library's clandestine air is a perfect reflection of the society's Latin motto, Indocilis Privata Loqui (Not Apt to Disclose Secrets), a phrase whose mock occultist feel is a satirical linguistic affectation left over from the days when stage magicians and spiritualists were in acrimonious competition.
During his illustrious career John Nevil Maskelyne - 'the father of modern magic' - was the scourge of false mediums, giving evidence against them in the courtroom and discrediting them through the newspapers. One of his most notable victims was Ann Eva Fay, an American medium whom he pursued to the point where she fled the country. Oddly (and somewhat controversially), she was later made the first female associate member of The Magic Circle, a title she received after successfully re-branding herself as a 'mentalist' - a sleight of hand in which she shed her problematic 'spiritualist' label while retaining the content of her act. As the Magic Circle's original rule forbidding full membership for women wasn't repealed until 1991, Fay is one of the very few women in the history of the society, leaving it with a membership profile that still largely resembles that of a fusty gentlemen's club. Today, 90 per cent of these members are weekend magicians rather than professionals, possessed of the hobbyist fervour necessary to pass the entrance exam.
In total it took four hours to 'Meet the Magic Circle'. Seated around small tables in the clubroom, I was initially treated, along with a large group of day-tripping Sussex pensioners, to a display of 'close-up magic', a familiar repertoire of card tricks, 'cups and balls' and coin manipulation. Following some larger-scale magic in the theatre upstairs - peppered with mother-in-law jokes and self-depreciating, Royal Variety Show-style humour - it became clear that most of these present-day performers owe more to TV magicians such as Tommy Cooper or Paul Daniels than to the great illusionists of the past. Then, during a coffee break, there was finally time to actually meet some of the circle's members. For the most part this was a strange and somewhat uncomfortable business, leaving me with the feeling that I'd mistakenly wandered into someone else's family gathering, albeit one where the elderly uncles have all adopted stage personas and arrived in sequined tuxedos. The one exception to the circle's avuncular conservatism was Romany, the evening's sole female magician, who wore a pair of shiny black high-heeled fetish shoes beneath her gypsy fortune-teller outfit - a tiny present-day incursion into the all too respectable realm of the retired hobbyist and children's entertainer. Nevertheless, when I eventually stumbled out of the building, I couldn't help but feel warm towards my hosts. As Dave Hickey commented when he met the veteran Las Vegas illusionists Siegfried and Roy: 'beneath all that phoney tinsel, there is real tinsel'.