Just Like Magic - by Alex Willmott, Chief Features Writer
Professional magician Max Somerset is doing what he loves, but his journey hasn’t been conventional. Sorted magazine caught up with him to hear his journey of adoption, loss and faith.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in the village of Bampton in Devon with my adopted parents, Mervyn Priddle, who was a milkman, and Shirley, who looked after the house of Edward and Molly Somerset, my biological grandparents. I had been brought to the West Country from Italy by my biological father, Ed Somerset junior, who found it difficult to deal with my Italian mother’s mental health issues and so they parted ways when I was two years old. Father left mother in Italy and took me to be with his ageing parents while he and two others set up a tiling design company in London called Fired Earth. Shirley had undergone a hysterectomy and therefore could have no children.
A twist of fate occurred a year later when my biological father contracted a brain tumour and it was mutually agreed that the best thing to do was to give me to Shirley and Mervyn Priddle.
I had a very happy childhood in Bampton and the loss of my biological father in 1981. He was 36 and I was seven. It didn’t affect me greatly because I never really saw much of him. But I was to suffer the loss of Uncle John (my adopted mother’s uncle) in 1983, which was my first bitter encounter with death. I was very fond of him and we would spend many hours doing woodwork in his garage and going on walks. Prior to John’s death he had responded to an ad in the local supermarket selling a Hammond organ because he thought I was musical.
A few years later at Bampton Middle School, I got chatting to Paul Bucknell, who was to become one of my dearest friends and still is to this day. It transpired that he had this thing called a Yamaha Electone at home. His mum and dad invited me to come over at the weekend. After lunch, Paul jumped onto the organ stool and began to play. I was riveted. I had never heard such sounds come out of an instrument.
My adopted mum and dad were incredibly supportive and took me to Exeter for organ lessons. Taking their cue from Mr and Mrs Bucknell, they went to the music shop and purchased one of these Electones, which were digital and gave you the possibility of choosing all manner of different instrumental sounds. That, in turn, gave you the potential to have a whole orchestra at your fingertips, depending on your skill level.
My childhood was not really typified by a lot of social engagement with peers. I was, due to the adoption, an only child and spent hours either working on the organ or creating magic tricks inspired by watching Paul Daniels on TV on Saturday nights. Bampton Primary School and Middle School had strict teachers and a headmaster called Michael Truman who really supported my organ playing, creating opportunities for me to play in school. As a lover of magic, I always wanted first and foremost to be a magician, but my parents told me “magicians don’t make any money” – well, many years on, that’s how I now earn my main income.
Tell us about your teens and what life looked like for you.
My teenage years saw me perform on the organ at many private and charity events. Mervyn had a Nissan Prairie and would lug this organ from venue to venue, pubs, clubs, charity days – you name it, we did it. At that time I was going to Kingsmead Wiveliscombe community school where I was to meet my English teacher, David Clark who introduced me to the idea of a personal connection with God through Jesus. I had gone may times to the Anglican church in Bampton with Shirley, who was I would describe as a ‘God-fearing’ mother with a good spattering of superstition. However, Jesus had never been presented as real and alive. There was an old organist there who nodded like a turtle every time he played some dreary and meandering thing like the Nunc Dimittis; there were more people in the choir than the congregation on the cold, hard pews and a vicar who glided about the place speaking monosyllabic prose. I think I could have gone in and out of there for years and sadly not really known what was going on. Ironically, after I gave my life to Christ at the age of 14 the words in the Anglican services all made sense and came alive. Prior to that experience, reading a Bible was like attempting to chew a brick.
I was predicted very low grades in all my GCSEs but there was something about the encounter with Christ that grounded what I think was a very troubled soul whose talents and energy were not reined in. To their surprise I surpassed school expectations and got to go to Richard Huish College, Taunton for my A levels. During that time I suffered the loss of my adopted mother. She was 56 and I was 17. Though painful, I had now reframed the way I understood death and so the grieving process was enfolded within a greater hope. From there I went on to gain a scholarship to Trinity College of music, London, an achievement which, sadly, mother was never to see realised.
After five years at TCM and the first person to achieve a Master’s Degree in performance and related studies on an Electone, I wrote syllabi for the TCM external board, gave concerts and taught privately as well as heading up a worship band at Willesden Green Baptist Church, a lively multicultural congregation in north London. Shortly after this, my adopted father passed away in the same year as my biological grandmother, followed by Uncle John’s wife – Auntie Dulcie. I was left with no family and far too many funerals to arrange and attend, and I began to understand how older people feel when their shared memories die with their loved ones. I was told by my grandmother that my biological mother was a sick woman and had died years previously, so as an unmarried man with no children I was forced to ask the question: “Who will bury me?” It saddens me today that I can’t ask, “Mum, Dad, what was I really like as a kid growing up, how did you handle all my mad energy?”
When did the idea of ‘faith’ become part of your thinking and how did this begin to affect your life?
If it wasn’t for my faith in Christ, which has been the glue and the strength to deal with a very fragmented past fraught with so much loss, I don’t think I would be as centred as I am, or even have coped at all. People say, “Christianity is a crutch for the weak.” To me that’s as dumb as saying, “Food is a crutch for the hungry.” We are all broken in one way or another; some are less or more aware of it and only Jesus is the one who is completely whole, so I think it’s a no-brainer to be as close to him as we can. In John’s Gospel, chapter 15, he said he is the vine and we are the branches. Apart from him we will never know what it is to be connected to an unconditional, wholehearted and continual love. That has been my experience of him. Loving me in spite of who I am at times and for who I am at other times (probably in that order).
Faith in Christ helps me to frame my entire life. When my adopted dad passed away, I got the call from the nurse to say he had gone while I was furiously trying to driving down to the hospital in time. I immediately stopped the car in a lay-by, took a moment, got out of the car, went down on my knees and said, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, thank you, God, for every blessing.” I don’t take anything for granted. Everything is a bonus, including the very ontology of my own existence. I didn’t have to be here; I have some pretty harsh letters from my grandfather telling my mother what to do with her pregnancy. But by the grace of God, I am here.
Paul the apostle said in Romans 14:8: “if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” (ESV). God had a few surprises up his sleeve for me as well.
In 2007 I visited my grandfather’s 103-year-old sister, Merva, in New Zealand. I was able to share my faith and hear stories about my grandfather’s childhood growing up in NZ. She also provided me with family history on Grandfather’s side and, despite her bad eyesight, was totally compos mentis. In 2008, I decided to do some research into my biological mother. I discovered my biological mother alive and well in Switzerland and we were reunited after 32 years! I’ll never forget the reunion; she walked in wearing a puffer jacket, pink leggings, smoking a cigar and wearing fluorescent bangles – such a 70s hipster. She asked me if I had met my half-brother and sister to which I replied that I wasn’t aware I had a half-brother and sister! Amazingly within three months they also found me and my mother; we were all searching at the same time and are now reunited. I have wonderful cousins, aunts, uncles across the globe. An aunty in LA, family in Switzerland, Maui, New York. “God sets the lonely in families…” (Psalm 68:6, NIV).
Why and when did you come to a point where you wanted to begin your own Christian faith?
“Wanted to begin” is a curious kind of question. Did I find out that Jesus was the Son of God and then say to myself, “Right, I had better do something about this”? No. I like what psychologist Jordan Peterson says when they ask him, “Do you believe in God?” He answers simply with: “I live as if God exists.” I think people say a lot of things about what they believe but their actions don’t match up. I mean, we are a mystery to ourselves, that’s why we have psychiatrists and psychologists … To know if we believe something, it will affect our lives. People get all angry and upset with Jesus’ brother, James (who, incidentally, I think is closest to Jesus in his thinking of all the New Testament writers) when he says faith without works is a dead faith. It’s not complicated to understand. It doesn’t mean that we need to be checking ourselves to see if we are doing a good job of being Christians in order to convince ourselves we have faith. It means exactly what Paul says when he expresses the truth that we are saved through faith, by grace, for good works which God prepared in advance for us (see Ephesians 2:8-10). When we come to Christ, we don’t ‘decide’ to live a Christian life any more than a freshly born baby now ‘decides’ to live and breathe. As night follows day, one follows the other. All James is saying is, if the switch won’t turn it on then it’s probably just not plugged in. I didn’t kind of ‘want to begin’ being a Christian any more than I wanted to fall in love with Jesus.
I believe that when anyone truly sees Jesus – who he is – he is irresistible, he is everything anyone could wish for. Yes, love is also a decision, but primarily you do that because you value the other person. It’s easy for Christians to look at other Christians and have this deep-down feeling of inferiority and feel that perhaps they aren’t making enough decisions for Christ, or the right decisions for Christ. We need to remember that each relationship is individual, Paul the apostle said in 2 Corinthians 10:12 that when we compare ourselves to others we are unwise. We would all do well to breathe a sigh of relief, stop doing that, and tell Jesus how we are really feeling about everything and anything – he’s got your back.
Why should UK men look at the teachings of Jesus?
UK men can confidently look to Jesus in his attitudes, actions and teachings. Paul says that the same Spirit that raised him from the dead is at work in us to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and so on (see Romans 8:11; Galatians 5:22-23). It’s not to think of men as a picture of strength and women as a picture of emotional awareness. Those attributes of the fruit of the Holy Spirit equally apply to both. Again, being a man or being a woman is not something you try to do; if you do try to do that, you will become a caricature of yourself. That’s why it’s important to remember that in Christ the delineations are broken down. The external (race, gender, class) doesn’t need to define or compromise your internal identity.
I think that the crisis we see in masculinity in our society and general confusion about gender come from thinking that what we are on the inside is unrealised unless it has the correct label or is externally affirmed and identified.
I think any roles that the New Testament sets out for men and women, especially married couples, have to do with models for ways that love can function. The important thing is that love functions, not so much how it functions. In Ephesians 5 Paul draws on a picture of Christ and the Church. This doesn’t mean that men represent Christ and that women represent the Church, that is a trite understanding of the analogy. Christ is a picture of a lover who gives himself up for his bride – the Church – and similarly the Church is the picture of the beloved who will give all she has for her husband. It simply shows that a functioning relationship is not defined by drawing lines in the sand and clinging on to rights. Both parties enter to serve one another. If in a relationship you are worried as a man about who ‘wears the trousers’, then I would jovially suggest you remember that Jesus wore a tunic. As men, our strength is our willingness to set aside any need to use our strength to control, but rather to undergird and, like any good tennis player, improve our serve.
What advice would you give UK men today?
As a man who has taken a slightly unusual path in life – now a professional magician and a performer – I am very comfortable with the feelings of vulnerability every time I get up in front of an audience. Is it going to work? Will they like me? Will it bomb? Sometimes after a show I just wanted to hide under a rock, it all went wrong, and other times shows were so good that I won awards from the Magic Circle. My advice here would be that vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. Look at the cross. Worse than putting yourself out there to be vulnerable to experience rejection or success is not putting yourself out there at all.
As a man who has suffered a lot of loss and a lot of blessing from God, I am very comfortable with what may or may not happen in my life. I am 44 and as yet unmarried with no children. However, I have many wonderful friends and family members and two rabbits. I am prepared not to make decisions just for the sake of feeling that I need to fit into moulds. You are unique, don’t take your tack from peer pressure, go to Jesus and talk it out with him and those who you trust that genuinely care about what’s best for you – not what’s best for what they think you should be doing. And remember, people know you better than you think they know you, but not as much as they think they know you. Jesus knows you better than you know yourself.