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Book Review: Derren Brown ‘Confessions of a Conjuror’
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Derren Brown, Confessions of a ConjurorConfessions of a Conjuror
Written by Derren Brown
Channel 4
U.S. Edition | UK Edition

Derren Brown is a relative celebrity in the UK, but not one to be found in the weekly glossy trash mags, no. That’s because he’s far too intelligent for those depths. Trouble is, America may not have heard of him, save for certain worldwide controversy.

He’s known famously in the UK as a Mentalist, [a real-life and better-than Simon Baker by far] using magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection, and showmanship as well as old school theatrics to rival Mesmer, Houdini, Penn and Teller, and even that lazy David Blaine. Derren honed his skills at Bristol University, testing students and none another than Ricky Gervais’s sidekick Stephen Merchant [famous for now] as well as working part-time in a restaurant in Bristol as a table hovering close-up magician. Someone in Channel 4 Television noticed him in 1999 and produced a few TV specials Derren Brown: Mind Control and following series – approaching the general public with mind-bending psychic feats and illusion.

And then in 2003, one TV special changed everything. Called mysteriously Russian Roulette, it caused international controversy when Brown managed to persuade a member of the public to load a real bullet into one of the six chambers of a pistol. And then on live television, using only his abilities, he pointed the gun to his head and managed to dodge all 5 empty chambers and fire the one bullet into a sandbag. Made for compelling viewing, tense and potentially fatal – you’ll find this on YouTube no doubt.

Many other shows followed [in no particular order]: The Séance with 12 students stuck in a derelict building testing fraudulent Victorian techniques and became one of the most-complained about programmes in history [mainly because the British are kings on complaining]; further shows such as Heist – hypnotizing a middle-management type into robbing a Cash Transit security van and bringing in some Psychological Theory such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment, of which I personally remember studying in my Degree studies; Messiah, where he masqueraded as a psychic in Las Vegas, allowing his anonymity in the U.S. to utilize his cold-reading and NLP [Neuro-Linguistic Programming] to unwitting mourning participants seeking to learn what happened to their recent past loved ones, telling them what they wanted to hear…

Derren Brown

After releasing a book called Tricks of the Mind in 2007, which we’ll go into more depths with shortly, Brown came out with a series of shows called The Events showcasing his skills in other fields, and a stunt that involved correctly predicting the UK’s National Lottery result on Channel 4 parallel to the BBC transmission (but unfortunately he was forbade from actually winning any money).

Following his TV success, Brown went on many a theater tour, with shows titled Enigma, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and An Evening of Wonders harking back to the original Victorian [and possibly prior] stage performances since seen in such films as The Illusionist and The Prestige, where he could, for example, mind read the audience in the Oracle act, listening only to the vocal nuances in their voices…blindfolded. A further tour in 2012 called Svengali is in production, something I can’t wait to see.

After watching a TV special behind-the-scenes, called Behind the Mischief, I learned more on the enigmatic man, and his quirks and interests. Some of those, carnivalesque in aspect, is his extensive collection of taxidermied animals, stuffed dogs and other anomalies that we all secretly want not unlike Gary Darwin [Las Vegas Legend – I’ve not heard of him either, but Bizarre mag has the right connections], we find out that one of his first shows was in front of British icon Stephen Fry. No higher accolade than that quite frankly.

Hero at 30,000 feet was one of his more audacious stunts that involved a shy, ordinary, stuck-in-a-rut participant, who, over the course of a few weeks, Brown coerced, persuaded, and trained the guy into building confidence to, in the event of a perceived emergency, pilot a commercial airplane to land safely. This was a success, which I implore to discover more on.

And so, with excitement I purchased the book Tricks of the Mind, in which Brown divulged his secrets (ironically this book finds itself in the Card Tricks and Hobbies section of the bookstore) where you can teach yourself basic magic, memory systems, hypnosis, and unconscious communication. If, like me, you want to warp the minds of those around you, this is a great start, with further required reading in the bibliography (such as Richard Dawkins The God Delusion – another controversial book, but essential nonetheless]) It enlightens and entertains.

His other sideline is painting, caricature portraits of famous people, that is certainly something different to most mainstream art, and if you are interested head over to, but that’s not what I’m here for, and neither are you.

Derren Brown portraitNo. This is [is this?] now a diatribe on the book Confessions of a Conjuror. An autobiography. Or so I thought. The book itself, with its design based on a Bicycle deck of cards, with red-edged leaves and pasteboard patterns, makes for a refreshing application of a book.

Where Tricks of the Mind had given the insights, with some allusion to his past, like any self-penned book, you’d expect for them to dish the dirt and demystify the legend so that you could at least intimate with your chosen icon.

The basis of this book, however, is a sleight of hand card trick and the trials and tribulations that Brown recounts as we venture through the book and the mechanics of the trick, which is played out with a small cast of characters in a small restaurant in Bristol during his younger adult years, remembered back from his days as the close-up magician. Part of the problem, I suppose, come from watching the behind-the-scenes special in January 2011. It is what lead me to restart writing this review, because once I had purchased the book and read through, I expected more. Which is what the TV show gave.

But what did I expect to gain from the book? Insight? Hardship? Insider knowledge? Nope. Perhaps it was the ultimate in NLP that his book is chock full of hidden words and meanings that I have to seek, not unlike the David Blaine book with its competition to interpret the symbols and hieroglyphs for a healthy cash prize…

Even some history of magic, psychology, or the people who inspired him to move into this field, to do what he does or what he will do, with the benefit of added danger elements, mystery, tragedy… We do get some lovely tables enlightening us to the things we otherwise glaze over, or don’t understand, that unless you are a nihilist are explanations for things that we attribute to paranormal/unknown:

Useful and fascinating fact: Sometimes during REM sleep, our eyes open and our brains wake up, but we remain paralysed and prone to hallucinations.

Less useful and fascinating phenomena which they explain: We think we have been visited be ghosts/aliens.

Useful: We do our best to make patterns, especially human patterns, out of randomness.

Less Useful: Hearing ghosts talk on tape/Roulette systems for gamblers.

Well that’s solved. I knew that all along.

What follows is what can be best described as a summary, or in conclusion, that I will attempt to review the book like the back page blurb in one simple stilted grammatically simple paragraph…

Book starts with trick, and explanation of the minutiae of the deck, surroundings, etc. Through course of trick Brown goes off tangent with subjects that allude to interesting stuff, but ultimately become footnotes that begin to overtake pages unnecessarily. Talks about losing a pen and his bastard house-cleaner, breaking a shoelace, the panic of ordering from Amazon [copyright], his fixation with inanimate objects that have no bearing on the story, and the annoying footnote about a lift [elevator] that begins page 269 and ends page 279 by which time lost interest a third of way in. Figures that Christianity was not for him and held no answers, so idles his time with other interests/subjects. Returns to trick, and the irritating characters I care little for.

Or…welcome to Brown’s life filled with obsessive compulsions, neuroses that plague his existence so he needed this book as catharsis to tell the world [UK] what makes him tick. Like his micro-nod. A compulsive nodding he does without realizing [albeit he recognizes he does do it] to create a compliant state in the suggestive participant in his mind games. I can’t help but watch for it when he’s on the TV. To quote the reasoning behind the book, his interests, and the link to and possible answer to utter Geekdom:

“I have retained a belief that it is the popular sporty kids at school who grow up to have the least interesting lives and the unhappy young souls who develop into the most extraordinary adults. Whoever heard of a creative genius being understood as a child and well loved by his classmates? …Hold on, misfits, your day will come.”

You must understand that although similar in the USA, most book/DVDs in the UK these days come with the cover filled with positive [paid for] reviews taken usually out of context from tabloid newspapers, unrelated magazines, and the ilk. Which means that when I read the words hilarious on the cover, I couldn’t wait to laugh-out-loud. Perhaps it’s my cynicism that got the better of me. Perhaps he did want to follow convention and go for the alternative approach, something that is becoming increasingly popular if your book isn’t ghostwritten.

I wouldn’t not read this book. If that’s not NLP in action, then I don’t know what. But only read after watching all the specials, series, and read Tricks of the Mind and have a basic interest in conjuring, psychology, or mentalism otherwise as an outsider to this British-based book, you would struggle to understand what the book set out to achieve.

So come on Brown, what are you trying to tell me? You have inspired me to further my forays into the esoteric, to search and research the more arcane aspects of life, but in this book you told me nothing…or did you?

Thinking about it now – why did I want to write this review? You’re a bastard Derren Brown and you know it. That’s why we, the British, love you.

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