It’s the pubs that make Britain what it is. Without these convivial centers for refreshment, banter and information exchange the country is basically a small island with too many people and a robustly inflated idea of itself.

Throughout my adult life I’ve found the greatest pleasure of British life to be its pubs. My own local, The Huntsman, is an especially fine example of the tradition. It’s so enjoyable and civilized. The chat, though generally friendly, can often get brutally pointed thanks to the sharpness of some good natured wit that gets me doubled up with laughter. There’s a spirit of gentle informality and general acceptance, lubricated with at least a modicum of alcohol (but these people aren’t football hooligans, I rarely see anyone staggeringly drunk in there) and it lifts my spirit in a way that nothing else does. Often I’ll go in as a solitary human and leave having become absorbed into a company of like-minded souls. And so I wonder, “Why are so many pubs closing?”

I just don’t get it. There are often hundreds of people living in the immediate vicinity of these pubs and most of them rarely if ever go in one. I’ve heard all the reasons for why not: such as cost and drink/driving laws but I still don’t get it.

And then I went to church. I’ve never been a church goer but my mum is and on Easter Sunday I decided to go along with her. I came away from the experience feeling not completely unlike how I feel when leaving the pub. It was a little different of course; the small village congregation moved me with their own quiet tradition and the fact that so much work; from writing the sermon, to printing the programs, to flower arrangements, had gone into putting on the service for such a small but dedicated following. I also enjoyed the music and the ceremonial aspects.

There were a couple of comic glitches, such as the ensuing fumble when the Easter candle was decorated with silver baubles which started falling off. Once that was sorted they then forgot to light the candle so the vicar was seen hurriedly whipping a lighter out from under his cassock in order to do the honours.

The drama reminded me that the ceremony is essentially a form of staging created in order to help people reunite with the great mystery of life and, like a show, it was both entertaining and moving. As I left the church and saw cars and people going by and the nearby houses I thought, “Why don’t more people take the time to experience this?”

So I encourage you. Perhaps find a local church to join in with. Ideally a small congregation, for they are possibly the most sincere of all. And/or go to the pub. For it’s only by socializing in person that you understand how substantially empty the so called online Social Media really is.

Anyway, the other evening I was sitting at home watching telly… when a stage show featuring Derren Brown came on. He is a famous mentalist and illusionist and what he does onstage is incredible. It seems this is where the craft of stage magic has gone in recent years. No longer does it suffice to saw sequined ladies in half, produce rabbits from hats and send doves flying from scarves. These days the art of the magician involves completely blowing the minds of the audience.

He does this by using illusion, psychology, hypnotism and, who know what else, to debunk things in society that appear to be magic but aren’t.

As an example he took random words and sentences from people in the audience and then showed that those words all appeared on a single page in a newspaper printed several weeks earlier and which had been on the lap of an audience member inside a sealed envelope for the entirety of the show.

He also did a session of “healing” in that evangelical style where people in the audience suddenly feel their ailments have been “cured” and then step onstage to have their foreheads touched causing them to fall over backwards into the arms of a waiting assistant. By emulating what the faith healers do Brown showed that evangelical style “healing” done in certain churches is all a trick of the mind. In fact most of his illusions involve exposing something or other as fake and then using that same technique to do something even more incredible so you come away feeling, curiously, no better off.

The whole show is delivered with flair, humour and wit. No stuttering, no gaffs, no mishaps or missteps. It all seems somehow beyond human capability. And I found myself thinking, He is truly amazing. But would I want to be him?

He repeatedly mentioned that his work helps people and I’m sure he has seen lots of proof of this but to me this statement felt a little forced. As if he had created a show and then gone on to create a justification for it as an afterthought.

As the credits rolled I tried to imagine being him and doing all that he does. I decided I couldn’t, but that I probably wouldn’t want to even if I could. What puts me off is that his show is extremely intellect dependent, which is something that music is able to bypass. In fact no form of art or entertainment penetrates our being the way music can. Music goes from our ears and into that part of ourselves that makes us us, without needing to be processed and catalogued by our mental faculties.

When someone is at the end the end of life and about to pass on you don’t hear of the family bringing in a conjurer or a comedian or a contortionist to the bedside in order to ease the loved one’s slide into the great hereafter. It’s always music, usually a harp, but it could just as easily be a sweetly played uke.

I do love the workings of the mind and all the games it can play to create wonder but in my order of priorities the intellect is vastly trumped by feeling. That’s the part that really connects us to ourselves, as well as to others, and that’s why I’m glad to be someone who plays music.
© Ralph Shaw 2017