Uri Geller: classroom magic and snake oil
I met Uri Geller once. You may know him as the Israeli illusionist and magic man who claims, among other things, that aliens visited him when he was a boy and gave him the world-changing ability to...bend spoons. No, I don’t know what the aliens were playing at either. Bending spoons doesn’t stand high on my wish list of superpowers, but I expect it’s jolly important to the fate of humanity. Anyway. Uri Geller makes a living bending spoons, and telling people he can bend spoons, which means he must hang out with a lot of fairly stupid people. He was a chum of Michael Jackson, you know. Isn’t that nice? The King of Crawl and Magneto, Master of Cutlery and Condiments. What a pair. Mankind’s only hope.
So I met him. I was running a restaurant (TGI Fridays, for my sins) in London, Piccadilly Circus, and Mr Geller was in town, on a tour bending spoons. (Jesus Christ, I feel like I’m writing this about the Victorian Music Halls – "Mr Geller the Israelite will bend metal paraphernalia to his will using electromagnetic mesmerism", etc) He was dining right in the centre of an already indiscreet restaurant, and we had clocked him the moment he walked in. There aren’t many spoon benders, to be fair.
At the end of the meal, he jumped up (I am not making this up – he leapt up like I was in a cutlery set. I feared for my belt buckle) and grabbed me by the wrist.
"Do you know who I am?" he said. He was staring at me like I had murdered his family. He had presence, I’ll give him that. "Of course, Mr Geller," I said like a smoothie. "You're very well known." It’s odd speaking to a famous person who demands to be recognised. More from pity than anything else, I wanted to put him at his celebrity ease. Plus, he frightened me.
"Do you know what I do?"
"What, apart from lie to people and hide bent spoons up your ar$e?" is what I wanted to say. But because I wanted to enjoy a continued career in the upper end of the casual dining market, I demurred and flattered his withered ego.
"I believe I do," I compromised.
"Would you like me to show your staff something amazing?" he said. In truth, I would have. Instead, I was worried it was going to involve a spoon. But I nodded.
"Gather them round," he said, "And get me a fork." Curve ball.
As my staff were all out-of-work showbiz types, the chance of a bit of spectacle was irresistible. Try and get them to sing happy birthday to a child and they vanished like rats in a spotlight. Now, they clumped like iron filings around a magnet.
Now the next bit is important. I went to the kitchen and fetched a fresh fork from the dishwasher. I got the fork. One of our forks. That bit is important.
I brought the fork to him and we crowded round like mobsters round Brando in Guys and Dolls. Geller took my fork in one hand and lightly placed two fingers in a benediction on to its throat. He rubbed them back and forth like a cautious DJ, everyone’s eyes trained on the unremarkable utensil, inches away.
And the fork started to bend.
Slowly, but visibly. And it – at least it seemed – to carry on bending after he took his fingers from it. Reader, he bent the fork. Looking pleased, he smiled a smile that nature never made, and passed the fork to me. Curved, the neck was as stiff as steel, not hot. I held it like it was made of Kryptonite, or moonbeams. "Thank you!" he said. "A souvenir!" He left. I gave the fork to a waiter, who wore it on his braces for years afterwards.
Of course you may not be amazed to learn that Geller was doing shows in London that week. Who better to amaze than waiters in one of the West End’s most fertile gardens of pre-theatre-goers and the easily entertained? I knew a cunning nightclub manager who would ride in taxis, talk up the club, tip big, and give free passes to the cabbie. These people are key advertisers, and, I suppose, so were we. I imagine many customers heard that Big Chief Uri had parked his wagon in town with much big medicine.
This story illustrates how we can be misled from reason and the experience of our senses. I do not for one second believe that aliens from space travelled light years across the cosmos to impart a lonely Israeli boy with absolute mastery over the architecture of the tines of tableware. I don’t believe that the fork bent, or appeared to bend in any way other than the perfectly rational. But in that one odd moment, the unavailability of a sensible explanation left one with the palpable sense that something mysterious and inexplicable had occurred. In short, in the absence of a concrete explanation, the mind raced to alternatives more fantastic.
Which is exactly how I feel whenever I read educational research that suggests something idiotic, like all children learn better in horseshoes or with hedgehogs or whatever. If someone tells you they can bend spoons in the classroom, ask them what other gifts the aliens gave them. And ask them what their evidence is. Otherwise we'll all be wearing forks on our braces like chumps.