Different Look at Pick Pocketing

I t's quite early in the morning now as I type and were it any later I would probably not admit to what I am about to. But I have not as yet bathed, and my Morning Earl Grey in the traditional Morning Smiley Mug is as yet unsipped. I am barely myself.

At University, oh dear Christ, and I make it very clear now that that was many years ago and it doesn't go on any more, but at University, before I was even twenty, I was what I can only describe as one of the top ten student-level Latin American Ballroom Dancers in the country. Up and down this sweet, clean, green England I could be seen in my faux-silk black shirt with the big open front split to the navel, an embarrassing 'V' lined with pink and silver sequins and which, for some reason known only to Beelzebub and his filthy henchmen, sported a sodding butterfly picked out in more sec~uins across the chest. I did not choose this item, it was designated mine by Di, our dancing instructrix - a charming old lady who ran her own abattoir.

Having donned this shirt and its accessories, making to the world of strict-tempo dance a fairly clear fashion statement (which roughly translated into "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WILL SOMEBODY HELP ME"), I would then whisk Donna, my enthusiastic but rather heavy partner onto the floor with ten other surprisingly unattractive couples and await the music. Donna was also unusually tall and at times I would find myself striking the required Latin pose with the tip of my nose near-inserted into her substantial inter-mammary cleft. Our speciality was the Cha-ChaCha (or simply the 'Cha-Cha,' as those of us in the business refer to it with weary familiarity). After standing in Clenched Position trying not to fart for .a minute or so while somebody put on the correct CD, the floor would erupt to the Latino sounds of Ross Mitchell And His Singers' strict-tempo version of TV-theme classics, and your author would proudly shake his booty across forty square feet of temporary dance-floor in the Belvedere Suite of the Wolvei-hampton Corporate Leisure CentTe and Bingo Hall.

As my fight twin peaches swung and thrusted to bad music, and as I kept the required expression on my face throughout for three dancing minutes at a time (men are taught to exude an expression somewhere between chewing gum and suffering from painful constipation. Women have it easy: they need only look as if they think they might iust be able to smell something unpleasant quite far away), I had little opportunity to question my presence in this room that contained enough sequins to supply a score of Vegas belly- dancers who have been told to wear extra sequins for a special sequin extravaganza. There I was, collecting plastic trophies by pricking around like a big cocking poof, and no one was telling me to stop.

It was hard to explain to Donna, my partner that I had joined the Bristol University Ballroom Dancing Team in irtnzy. She cried if we didn't win our prizes, weeping salty dance-tears at being one half of a trophy-less fourth-best, When we did win, I would grab her and strut across the floor to collect our prize, whisking her flamboyantly around me like a dancing cane, except a dancing cane that was a girl. Donna took it very seriously. Donna was Donna of the Dance. I could not take Donna seriously at all.

Then I went to live in Germany for a while, a country fond of ballroom-dancing amongst its youth. These square-set, crazy dudes enjoy the cha-cha almost as much as they enjoy wearing silly spectacles and drinking calcium-rich milk straight from the udder while their cheeks and kneecaps visibly grow. I had a few offers of dance-partnership, but I do not easily find myself drawn to the company of German women. Most appear to have been sterilised for thirty minutes in art autoclave and should be handled with rubber gloves. So I let my youth as the Latin King die, and danced instead the intricate ballet of the Teutonic bureaucratic system as I attempted to live as an official resident.

Southern Germany shimmers and swirls with the arabesques of its religious ornamentation: a façade of caprice and delicacy brought into ironic relief by what must be the least whimsical race on Earth. But I am straying from my point. When I left behind the unpleasant clothes and ludicrous mannerisms of bad dancing, I ended a period of my life that had been an odd and intense excursion into a strange skill, which is most probably never to serve me again. Having been whisked straight from novice into intense Cha-cha lessons, I did not even learn the only worthwhile thing one might hope to glean from such tuition: how to passably waltz with an attractive stranger. I had become adept at something that was to be useless.

Studying Law was a similar experience. I graduated as a law student but never pursued that career of chewing pieces of paper chewed a thousand times before. (Kafka, paraphrase, italics mine.) At the time of writing this, the celebrated cardician and Casanova Guy Hollingworth is undertaking the opposite journey: moving from an exclusive magical career into Law. Clearly this is a sign that I have a finer mind, which is a source of great pride.

But it is neither dancing nor Law of which I really wish to speak, but instead the third seemingly-wasted skill area to which our discussions so far have been merely amusing and engaging preludes. The third area, and the subject of what remains of this chapter, is Pick-pocketing.

Here are my essential thoughts on the subject. I was attracted to pick-pocketing after some years performing as a magician, and while I cannot remember exactly how my interest started, I imagine there are few magicians who are not attracted to the idea of a deft watch- steal. I studied the techniques and even bought myself a tailor's dummy, practising with which appeared to be the most flamboyant and authentic way to learn. I became adept at stealing watches, ties and wallets, and have even taken a few belts in my time. For those who have learnt these skills they are wonderfully addictive. Leather watch-straps visibly glow on the exposed wrists of those we meet. An exposed wallet calls out to us in a clear, high-pitched voice, begging to be stolen.

The problem, as I saw it at the time, was that in order to extensively pick-pocket one or more individuals in this theatrical sense, it seemed necessary to have a certain overly-tactile and rather fussy persona. This bothered me, for my performance character could not be any more different. The appearance of clumsiness varies from one performer to another, but there is often a sense of invasion of body- space and over-familiarity that did not appeal.

Similarly, when the subject of extensive steals is obviously aware of the pickpocket's actions, the performance is embarrassing to watch. Yet when the steals are clearly being missed by the victim, and the routine a good one, the result is usually enormously entertaining theatre. I could not settle my dilemma for a long time: I wanted to perform what I saw as very strong and unusual material, yet I did not want to compromise my performance character.

Eventually, I saw that the skills I had learnt in that area, like the embarrassing episode of the Chacha-cha, should probably be left, or in the case of the pick-pocketing, at most designated to fallback talents for nasty, noisy corporate functions where resonant magic was near impossible to achieve, It was a shame to let it go, but equally it was ridiculous to launch into a pick-pocketing routine in the middle of a mind-reading set. It took a while for me to adapt it to my tastes, and see where it might go.

I had heard of Gentleman Jack, who would perform pick-pocketing with the most charming arid detached manner and never be seen to be intruding upon his subjects. That struck me as an ideal to be worked for.

The question persisted: what relationship could pick-pocketing have to the model of magic that I was developing? A cheeky wave of a wallet behind a spectator's head hardly seemed the stuff of strong and unnerving magic. How could it be done without compromising our vision? I shall set out my answers, for I believe we can do wonders with this tool if we approach the art of pickpocketing in an unusual way~

I shall begin with three points. Firstly, there is no doubt that pick- pocketing has the capacity to capture the imaginations of an audience. It is in essence so unnerving, so intrusive, that it is difficult for a spectator to brush it aside in the way he might an assembly of the four Aces. To find that one's tie has been removed over the course of conversation is a very disturbing thing, and not likely to be forgotten.

Secondly, and quite surprisingly, very little attention is given in the literature to the misdirection needed to secure the steals invisibly. Reading instructions in most of the books on, say, how to remove a belt or tie, one imagines that the spectator is standing there just watching you. Generally the methods br removing items are simply efficient and straightforward, whereas the misdirection (where the actual skill lies) is, as a rule, absent from these texts.

Thirdly, the literature assumes that the aim of stealing items is to provide amusement for the spectators as stolen objects are displayed to the group out of sight of the victim. Where this seems to make absolute sense for an act that is primarily about pick-pocketing, I believe that a more subtle use of the skill may be employed, to different ends. Rather then being a clever and entertaining display of skill (and I do absolutely love watching it done well in this way) I feel it can also be used with a very different aesthetic in mind. Like, for example, mind-blowing psychokinesis and unbelievably direct telepathic stunts.

Let me begin with this final possibility, to set the scene. Some time ago I was performing mind-reading for a group of people and was aware that one lady in particular was immensely impressed. She came up to me at the bar and asked some questions about what she had seen. We chatted for a while, and I spoke about the psychological techniques that I was (honestly and apparently) using. Then I offered to show her something. I asked if she wore a watch. She replied that she didn't wear one. Did she have one at home? Yes, she did. I asked her to describe it in as much detail as she could, and to tell me exactly where at home she kept it. It was in her bedroom on her dressing table across the room from the bed. I spoke about experiments and investigations that had taken place into teleportation. where an object had, apparently, moved from one place to another. I explained it in terms of suggestion and hallucination: of the mind fooling itself. I geared her into a state of fascination as regards the possibility of hallucination and spoke a lot about my own experiments with powerful visual suggestion.

I asked her if she was happy to try this with her watch, or whether she would like to choose something else from her room which she could imagine as clearly. I offered her the choice, but she decided to stick with the watch. I held out my hand, empty and palm up, in front of her, and asked her to see the watch there. I told her to build the image of it slowly in her mind. I kept my hand motionless throughout. I asked further questions about it to intensify her imagining of the watch, such as what time she imagined it to say, and I used various hypnotic techniques until I knew that she would mildly start to hallucinate it there. I told her to pick. it up and feel it in her fingers, arid kept her absolutely focussed. I was not sure how clearly she was seeing it, but she was genuinely entering into the experience of it, which was what I wanted. I explained that the experience of the watch may only be in her mind, but that some people would mistake these mind-pictures for the real thing. Suddenly it became clear that she could see it with complete clarity on my palm. She could pick it up, feel it and so on. She was seeing it at exactly the hour that she imagined. I have never had a reaction from a spectator that expressed such profound bewilderment as at that time. She sat there with a completely convincing hallucination of her watch, and her mind was telling her it was real, which she knew to be an impossibility. I told her that if she thought it to be real, then in a sense it became real. I said that I could by now see it myself, though I described it slightly differently to how she imagined it.

If anyone has had a true experience of magic while taking part in my performances, this lady certainly did.

As you may have gathered, I stole the watch earlier and just struck gold. Clearly her wearing the watch was an extremely rare occurrence, and her presumption was that she did not have it on. She genuinely believed it to be at home. When she came to get a drink and we had our initial discussion about psychological techniques, my pian was simply to let her see that her watch was missing, and then hand it to her. Because I had stolen it long before but had not been asked for it back, I knew that she had not noticed its absence, and would believe that I had stolen it impossibly during our conversation at the bar. She would have been very impressed, but when she said that she didn't wear one, I saw the opportunity for something extraordinary.

By making her visualise it very clearly in exactly the spot she knew it to occupy at home, I was reinforcing tenfold the belief that it was indeed there. The more clearly she imagined it, the more it became impressed in her mind, and the more she invested in the proceedings. I knew that she wouldn't then change her mind and choose to imagine something else in its place when I offered her the chance of working with another item. The watch was just too clear in her mind. Of course, when it was done, I could say, "it's interesting that you chose to do that with your watch. Recently I tried it and a lady decided to do it with her keys, which she knew she had left at home. When I asked you to choose something. did you see some weird animal-shaped china thing? What was that?" I asked this in the knowledge that when I offered her the chance to change her mind, she would have scanned her dressing table in her mind and seen a few other objects, but disregarded them. By mentioning a common dressing-table object at this point, I not only score a bonus point for a bit of mind-reading, but suddenly she remembers having a choice as to which item to use.

That was a lucky day, but these things happen if you have the flexibility to allow them to. Let me briefly describe a more reliable idea, which I use whenever I can, to further illustrate this notion of using pick-pocketing for more imaginative uses.

How about this? You ask a friend if he has a wallet. If he does, you ask him to remove any card from it — such as a credit card, a drivers' licence, a membership card or some such. As he removes it, you look away. You tell him to place his hand over the back of the card so that you are unable to see it. I should point out that you are genuinely unable to see the card. You then ask him to concentrate on any sequence of numbers or similar thing that the card may contain. We shall imagine that he is looking at his credit card number. Taking a scrap of paper, you ask him to think of one ol the numbers towards the beginning or end of the sequence. You tell him that number. Then, starting with that number in your mind, you impossibly, beautifully, start to call out the string of numbers, writing them down as you say them. Perhaps you get one wrong at the start, but your accuracy is enviable. You do nothing other than what I have said, and you can repeat it with a different card should you wish. You may thus read the number on any card without going anywhere near the wallet.

This I performed for a friend a while back, a friend who has seen many of my shows. This he remembers as the best thing he has ever seen.

if Joe reads this he will be very disappointed. Given the premise of this chapter, the essential working of the effect should be clear. It's easiest with friends. Only acting skill is required. I had access to his wallet at an earlier date (perhaps he'll remember now as he reads this that he once left it at my house by mistake?) and noted down all the card numbers, together with a brief description of what each card looked like from the back. I then put this piece of paper in my wallet and allowed myself to forget about it. A month later, I found it again, and chose the best moment. I caught a glimpse of the back of the card as he removed it from his wallet, and the rest was just creating a miracle. I realise that this wasn't exactly pick-pocketing in this instance, but I shall describe below how to perform this as a piece with a stranger.

The strength of this effect was so powerful that some time later, Joe took my own wallet and pulled out my credit card. He challenged me to tell him the number. I feigned reluctance, but indirectly encouraged him to persist. My main excuse for not trying was that he might thin.k that I had memorised my own card number. His reply was, and I remember these beautiful words to this day, "No, come on, 1 think I can safely assume that you don't sit around learning your own credit card numbers. Now, come on."

I resigned to his persistence and slowly told him my Visa number, memorised through years of ordering magic props by telephone.

The main issue as regards stealing an item for this type of effect is that the pick-pocketing is never revealed. Nobody should know that you even have the skill, unless you can clearly and convincingly separate these effects from any earlier steals you may have performed. In fact, you would like that one possible method (he would have had to have stolen my watch earlier from my wrist when I didn't notice and then counted on me being mistaken about not wearing it. Or, he must have stolen my wallet, noted down all the numbers, then put it back again before we started...) to sound so ridiculous that it is simply dismissed. In other words, you are dealing with pick-pocketing as a means to an end. If you are not letting the group know that we are stealing, certain issues arise. Essentially, you cannot be seen to be doing anything. That may sound obvious, but most pick-pocket steals are designed to be seen by the group, if not by the subject. Hiding this is primarily a mailer of physical blocking and misdirection. Nor can you be seen to be fumbling or over-familiar, because there will be no reason for it offered. You will just seem nervous or rude.

Let us now look at the issue of technique. The steals I use are essentially standard, but here I shall concentrate on the misdirection involved. Plenty of videotapes and books offer the student the work on watch-stealing, so I shall not go into enormous detail. Later I will discuss the vital area of returning the goods (which takes on extra importance if the audience does not realise that anything has been stolen).

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