The Numbers Game

by Brian Lead

Being a rather sad individual with nothing better to do, I was recently reflecting upon the significance of the number 52 in the world of magic.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, a full deck of playing cards has comprised 52 pasteboard without the jokers, and for this reason a magician is sometimes said to have 52 assistants -although Chung Ling Soo held up his fingers and reckoned he only had 10.

The figure 52 also has a rather more sombre note to it, however.

Although not strictly a necromancer, William Shakespeare was a weaver of spells through his words, creating the witches of Macbeth to chime with Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, transforming Bottom into an ass, bringing the statue of Hermione to life and inventing the magic island of Prospero along with the ghost illusion of Hamlet. He passed away on 23rd April, 1616, at the then respectably old age of 52. With the impeccable timing of a true dramatist he died upon what was believed to be his birthday -which also by happy coincidence happened to be St. George's Day. We have records to prove that he was baptised on 26th April, and this traditionally occurred three days after birth.

Alexander Herrmann, the archetypal conjuror who inspired Soo (William Robinson), among others, died in December 1896; even in those days at the comparatively early age of 52.

Harry Houdini, whose name is still synonymous with magic, died on hallowe'en in 1926; again at the age of 52.

The innovative Canadian sorcerer Doug Henning also died at the, by now, young age of 52.

Since then, sadly, we have learned of the dead of Tommy Wonder; again at the age of 52.

Just how weird is that?

I suppose, on the brighter side, there are thousands of magicians who have not passed on at 52, but it does make you think . . .

In 1959, a character called Wink Martindale (and what sort of a name is that when it's at home?) recorded The Deck of Cards; recalled from my youth as a perennial hit with listeners to Housewives' Choice and Family Favourites on the radio. In this cleverly-constructed ditty-cum-monologue, Wink adopts the persona of a soldier boy, attempting to justify having a pack of cards in church and thereby risking court martial. He explains that the ace stands for the one God, while the two reminds him of the two Testaments of the Bible. The three symbolises the Holy Trinity, while the four represents the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the five the wise virgins and the six the number of days taken to create the world, with the seven as the Sunday. The eight is for the righteous people (Noah and his family) who were saved in the flood, nine the number of ungrateful lepers, ten the commandments (what else!), Jack the Devil and the Queen the Virgin Mary, with the King bringing us back to God again. All a bit random, but there you go.

He also explains that the deck of cards serves as his almanac, depicting the 52 weeks of the year, with the four suits as the seasons having 13 cards each - the number of weeks in a quarter. He then goes on to say (and I've just been checking this on my original 45 r.p.m. vinyl, so this is a direct transcript) : "When I count the number of spots on the pack of cards I find 365; the number of days in a year."

Hang on a minute, Wink my old pal. Each suit adds up to 91, and four of those make 364. They don't even make a leap year of 366. It sounds better your way, but it ain't necessarily so. In fact, I reckon your whole tale was just a cover-up for gambling on the back pew during a boring sermon, but it was a good try.

Hearing of my deliberations, a magic friend called recently with another stunner on the 52 theme. Not only does the word 'fruit' appear 52 times in the Bible (what?!) but, getting back to the immortal Bard, if you add Shakespeare's birthday to his deathday you get 46 (23+23). Turn to Psalm 46 (the Bible again), count 46 words and you will come to 'shake'. Count another 46, from the end this time, ignoring the final 'selah' or 'amen', and you will find 'spear'. Join them together to make Shakespeare!! Although it's a bit fiddly, there could be a patter story there .. . but what really gets me i who on earth thought of trying this out in the first place? IDS

***** - outstanding/exceptional


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