Monday, February 22, 2010

Ghosts from the past. And rabbit photo.

When I see emails in my inbox that I can't identify, they often get deleted unread.

I hate spam.

But yesterday I got an email that made me do a double-take, and I'm glad I opened it. It was from a young fellow in Poland who was a pupil of mine when I taught English in Warsaw in 1994-1995. Ten years old at the time, he's now finishing his MSc, has travelled across half the world, has lived in two foreign countries and teaches sailing on the side.

He had found his school notebooks and wanted to get in touch with his old teacher. Not sure that he'd found the right Malcolm Russell, he described his teacher, saying, 'He liked doing some crazy tricks, singing "little silly rabbit" songs and drawing hilarious cartoons with English grammar.'

Hmmm. I suppose that's a fair enough description, though I have absolutely no recollection of ever singing silly rabbit songs.

We've emailed back and forth a couple of times, though I'm still waiting for an explanation of the photo he sent of him during his Trans-Siberian railway / Vietnam / South East Asia travels: a picture of him sporting a handful of bandages on various appendages, looking like a wounded veteran and posing with a Vietnamese doctor. 'After my small accident', he writes cryptically.

I suspect the water-buffalo, myself.

*N.B. The Jellybaby photo... just because. No reason. None necessary.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Wolves stalk fat Canadian shoppers

I was booked for a gig earlier this week at a big new shopping mall just north of Calgary. Family Day - the only stat holiday in February. I travelled up with Matts Zoumer, a cowboy caricaturist (ie cowboy + caricaturist, not a caricaturist who does pictures of cowboys. Though he does that, too), and as we arrived early we took a wander around.

Ended up in Bass Pro Shop. I think it was developed by conjoined twins who were obsessed with hunting/fishing/generally killing stuff, and museum curation, respectively. It's like the Natural History Museum surrounded by stuff you can buy.


Stuff including, but not limited to, giant shotgun shell shaped mailboxes, 1.5 litre beer mugs and camouflage negligees. I suppose for some women that's the only time their man is likely to buy them ANY lingerie, but it takes a certain type to want his half-naked partner to blend in with woodlands.

Every square inch of the substantial wall-space was covered in outdoor-scene murals that must have taken a team of painters months to complete, and I'd swear half the mammal population of Kananaskis provincial park has ended up stuffed and mounted in astonishing dioramas. Half a dozen bears, a dozen deer, twenty caribou (being chased by most of Alberta's wolf population), three amorous moose, two big-horn sheep and a partridge in a pear tree.

Here's a snap of the staircase between the upper and lower floors...

I titled this one "Wolves Hunting Fat Canadian Shoppers", but my friend Steve calls it, "Beaver Shags Float-plane".

The gig was good (out in the mall itself, not in the shop) - no shortage of people eager for free entertainment. Best moments - doing a multiple-selection card routine (ten cards selected and found in odd ways); I always remember the names of the people picking the cards. Not hard on its own, but a challenge with names you've never heard before. In one go I had a Japanese woman, two Africans, a Nepalese guy, two South Asians, an English family, a Spaniard and a young Chinese boy who kept correcting my pronunciation because I couldn't get the tone right. My Chinese sucks. I tried, but was probably inadvertently calling him something rather rude.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Putting it in perspective

The other day I heard an interview on BBC Radio 4 with an elderly Londoner called Fergus Anckorn. I ordered his book which arrived in the post yesterday - a thin, self-published volume whose shipping cost more than the book itself; a dense wee thing mostly about the horrors of his wartime experiences, being captured in Singapore and forced to work building the Bridge on the River Kwai in Thailand.

But here's the kicker: he was a lifelong member of the Magic Circle and used his performing skills in the POW camps to earn extra food that kept him alive at a time when malnutrition-related disease was killing others.

See? Magic can save your life.

Ok, at its worst it can also fill up your spare room, annoy strangers, waste money and dominate your attention when you ought to be doing a proper job, but I'm willing to live with that.

Having cheated death (bombed, shot, starved, beaten, overlooked during a massacre, chemically burned...) several times, the back cover goes on to say,

"Not surprisingly, Fergus has since regarded the rest of his life as a bonus, but he still thinks every day of the friends who weren't so lucky."

The next time I have a rough gig I will think of Fergus Anckorn, and the gig will not seem so rough.

I should also point out that Mr Anckorn spent the better part of two years barefoot and clad only in a dark blue loin cloth. Style: it runs in our blood.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Attention all campers

Once more into the breech dear friends, once more, this time in Red Deer teaching a three-day circus-skills camp for 9-12 year olds. Just got back last night. Instructors - the usual brilliant suspects, a bunch of multi-talented professionals who take over a corner of the gym each and for the most part try to keep the weans upright: Flyin' Bob was doing tightwire and rola bola, Sand was on unicycles, Randall as usual teaching stilt-walking, Annie on aerials (hoop and silks; no flying trapeze this year) and yours truly taking care of the juggling skills. (Short camp this time, so no room for teaching magic on the schedule.)

As always, the camp leads the kids through all the skills in preparation for a one-hour choreographed performance on the final day in front of family and friends. The kids learn not only the physical skills for the show but also presentation - entrances, exits, how to bow, some clowning, musical cues etc.

That's Flyin' Bob lying under the tightwire. We don't make the kids do that. Often.

With perhaps the small exception of an incident involving a public payphone and the numbers 9,1 and 1, the kids were well-behaved and enthusiastic.

And now it's time to unpack.