IT’S fair to say that the career of James Stott – alias The Magic Marine – has gone with quite a bang since we last met.
In 2018, under the headline Flak magic, this column told how James had made the unlikely transition from Royal Marine Commando to professional magician, with tricks mastered in between military manoeuvres.
From witnessing the horrors in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, he was travelling the country from his home in Richmond, North Yorkshire, performing illusions under the stage name of Steel Johnson.
His new career as a magician – coupled with being a movie extra – had seen him rubbing shoulders with stars including Gerard Butler, Angelina Jolie, Orlando Bloom and Tom Hardy.
Then, in April, with the Covid-19 lockdown still in its early days, James took one of the heats of Britain’s Got Talent by storm. The finale of his performance involved five explosive devices, with one held between James’s teeth, and Simon Cowell being asked to detonate each device at random.
While Ant and Dec shuddered in the wings with every blast, suffice to say that James lived to see each judge give him a ‘yes’ along with a standing ovation.
“I was massively out of my comfort zone – in some ways, it was more nerve wracking than being back in Afghanistan,” says James, 36.
“I normally perform close-up magic and I’d never been on stage before. Suddenly, I was up there performing in front of Simon Cowell and the other judges, and it was terrifying.”
The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted the Britain’s Got Talent schedule since then, and James is waiting to hear whether he’s been selected for the semi-finals later in the year. However, he’s a man who likes to be prepared, so he’s working on a new routine that remains top secret.
“It’s suitably dangerous,” he says before adding with considerable understatement: “Twelve magicians have died performing it over the years.”
In the meantime – with the vast majority of bookings for his magic performances at weddings and corporate events being postponed until next year – James is focused on a new project aimed at making the most of his Marine training, and helping those who may be finding the pandemic stressful.
“Coronavirus is having a massive impact on mental health, and that’s only going to get worse, so I looked at my life, and started to wonder what I could offer,” he says.
The Royal Marines’ motto is “It’s a state of mind” and his objective, starting this Sunday, is to share that philosophy through a series of ten Instagram Live broadcasts that bring mental health and magic together. Called “Magic and Mentality”, he hopes to help people cope with the pressures of the crisis, with some magical entertainment thrown into each episode.
“I’ve had my own ups and downs during my time in the military,” he adds – and that’s another huge dose of understatement.
During his time fighting the Taliban in Helmand Province, a comrade in front of him lost a leg when he stepped on a mine during a night patrol. That was followed, during a day patrol, with a friend being hit by shrapnel and James applying a tourniquet and carrying him to safety despite being under fire. Having returned to battle, he then brought back the body of a Corporal on an improvised stretcher.
“I couldn’t talk about it for a couple of years because, in the Marines, you have to suppress your feelings,” he says. “But having been through all of that, and learning coping mechanisms, I feel I’m in a position to help others during these difficult times.
“The military is built on structure, and the opposite of that is chaos, so it’s important to apply order to what we do. If people are used to going to work, they have structure. But when they have to suddenly isolate, it can fall apart, and become easy to go into a downward spiral.”
So, here’s a summary of James’s guide to positive mental health, with more detail to come in his Instagram Live broadcasts:
• Win the morning. Have a consistent morning routine that includes some exercise, and something you don’t want to do, so that you get it out of the way early. For me, it’s four sets of 25 sit-ups, followed by a cold shower and some meditation.
• Be active but don’t punish yourself to the extent that it puts you off. An endorphin rush is the body’s natural way of rewarding us for the effort we’ve put in but it has to be sustainable.
• Fuel your body right. Be aware of what you’re eating and drinking.
• Be kind to yourself. Make a list of the things that make you happy and use them as rewards.
• Talk to your friends – check in with them, make sure they’re OK, and enjoy catching up.
“We may not have any personal control over the virus, but we can control our mindset if we do the right things,” he adds.
“It’s important to remember that the pandemic will pass – but we have to go through miserable days to make the sunny days feel better.”
James Stott doesn’t pretend to have a magic formula to positive mental health – but he’s determined to try to help.
• The first of ten weekly “Magic and Mentality” sessions starts this Sunday at 10.30am. Search Instagram for “The Magic Marine”.
PERHAPS 25 years or so ago, I was running a training course for young journalists at a hotel in Hastings, on the Sussex coast.
One morning, as we gathered for breakfast, there was a tall, familiar-looking man on the other side of the room, tucking in to his bacon and eggs.
The young journalists were excited to see that it was 1966 World Cup legend Jack Charlton, who’d had an after-dinner speaking engagement the night before.
When he noticed them staring across at him, Jack promptly lifted his plate, came over to sit at our table for a chinwag, and even helped to pour the tea.
I HAD the pleasure of Jack’s company again a few years later, when I sat next to him at a Butterwick Hospice dinner.
Again, he was friendly, funny and forthright.
He also proved himself to be an entertaining speaker, with one tale in particular that sticks in my mind about the time he was invited to a salmon fishing festival in the Guinness-drinking heartland of Ireland.
Raising a glass of the black stuff, he told the hospice audience: “I can tell you one thing for nowt – it had f*** all to do with salmon.”
Jack Charlton – 1935-2020 – rest in peace.