The Wizard of New Zealand, also known as Ian Brackenbury Channell, casts a “spell” during a television interview in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2011. His contract with the city will end in December after more than two decades.
Mark Baker/Associated Press
Mark Baker/Associated Press
Christchurch, New Zealand, is parting ways with its official city wizard after more than two decades. His offensive remarks about women and the local government’s new tourism strategy reportedly spelled his doom.
Ian Brackenbury Channell is known as The Wizard of New Zealand, apparently even on official documents like his passport. He’s been on the Christchurch City Council’s payroll since 1998, receiving an annual salary of $16,000 NZ (more than $11,000 in current USD) to “provide acts of wizardry and other wizard-like-services – as part of promotional work for the city of Christchurch,” according to the New Zealand news site Stuff.
But that job title will soon become — like many wizards before him — a thing of legend.
“The council has met with The Wizard and sent him a letter thanking him for his services to Christchurch over the past decades, and informing him that we are bringing our formal contractual arrangement to a close,” said Lynn McClelland, the council’s assistant chief executive. She said the final payment will be made in December.
The decision was a difficult one, according to McClelland. She explained that Christchurch’s promotional landscape is changing to “increasingly reflect our diverse communities and showcase a vibrant, diverse, modern city that is attractive to residents, domestic and international visitors, new businesses, and skilled migrant workers.”
That may not have been the only reason, The Guardian reports, citing controversial comments Channell made back in April.
“I love women, I forgive them all the time, I’ve never struck one yet. Never strike a woman because they bruise too easily is the first thing, and they’ll tell the neighbors and their friends … and then you’re in big trouble,” he said at a screening of the current affairs show New Zealand Today.
Channell told Stuff that the council had waved him off because he didn’t fit with the city’s modern image, calling them “a bunch of bureaucrats who have no imagination” and are “not thinking of ways to promote Christchurch overseas.”
Despite his disappointment, Channell promised to keep visiting Christchurch’s Arts Centre to chat with tourists and locals.
“It makes no difference. I will still keep going,” he said. “They will have to kill me to stop me.”
Channell’s life and work are actually the subject of a current exhibit at the ongoing Christchurch Heritage Festival (which is, ironically, sponsored by the city council).
The event description notes that Christchurch is the only city in the world to have had its own official wizard since 1982. By that time, it adds, Channell had already become the world’s first art-gallery-appointed Living Work of Art.
“For forty years neither title and accompanying roles has been granted to anyone else anywhere in the world,” organizers wrote. “He not only created his own social identity which includes living in an alchemical marriage but, as an ex-academic cultural theorist and experimentalist, he designed the existential universe he has been living in since 1972.”
You can read more about the wizard in his own words on his website.
Channell was born in London in 1932, according to a biography from the Christchurch City Council Libraries. Before getting into wizardry, he spent time as a Royal Air Force navigator, studied psychology and sociality, traveled in the Middle East and taught in both Tehran and Australia.
He was appointed “Wizard of the University of New South Wales” by the school’s vice chancellor and students’ union in 1969.
He moved to Christchurch in 1974 and soon became a recognizable performer and public speaker in the city’s Cathedral Square, where he would stand atop a ladder dressed in a long cloak and pointed hat.
New Zealand’s government calls Channell notable for “reviving the ancient art of rhetoric” and says he was “most often seen in The Square in Christchurch synthesising the ideas of famous philosophers.”
The police tried to arrest him at one point, according to the BBC, but members of the public protested and the square was ultimately designated an area for public speaking. The wizard became recognized as a tourist attraction, and his accolades grew from there.
He was appointed the official Archwizard of Canterbury in 1980, and designated a living work of art by the New Zealand Art Gallery Directors Association in 1982.
In 1990, then-Prime Minister Mike Moore appointed him the Wizard of New Zealand. A photo on Channell’s website shows a letter from the prime minister, urging him to consider taking up such a role.
“It occurs to me that you are currently the Wizard of Christchurch exclusively,” Moore wrote. “As a loyal Christchurch MP I am pleased about that, but as Prime Minister I am concerned that your wizardry is not officially at the disposal of the entire nation.”
He noted that this would likely carry implications “in the area of spells, blessings, curses and other supernatural matters that are beyond the competence of mere Prime Minister.”
Some of the career highlights chronicled on the wizard’s website include: performing rain dances in New Zealand and Australia during droughts, participating in protests against the demolition of heritage buildings after the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes and famously battling the company Telecom over the changing color of the city’s telephone boxes in 1988.
He went around repainting the new blue boxes to their original red, according to one biography, in a battle that “raged for twelve days” and at one point even involved the city council.
The ongoing exhibition about his life says it includes major sections on”his miraculous rain dances, ingenious avoidance of the Census, the hilarious war with Telecom over the change of colour of their phone boxes, the spells cast for the Canterbury Crusaders, the unusual candidates who between 1972 and 1990, stood for the Imperial British Conservative Party in Australia and NZ, the Wizard’s part in the narrowly won battle to save the earthquake damaged Cathedral from being bulldozed, the mythical implications of the Queens Service Medal awarded to a Wizard.”
NPR reported last August that the Wizard of New Zealand was retiring and searching for a successor, though it’s unclear what came of that effort.
Sightings of the wizard have become more rare in recent years, according to The Guardian, which he says is because the council has “made him invisible” and ignored his suggestions for improving tourism.
When asked by the newspaper whether he would curse the council over its decision, the wizard said he preferred blessings:
“I give children happy dreams, general good health, and I want to make bureaucrats become more human.”