The first rapper may have been a New Yorker, but he wasn’t from Harlem, and he couldn’t sing. Our own witchfinder general, Gareth Mason, investigates…
‘I sense there’s a lot of red tape in your life which needs to be sorted out.’
I hadn’t expected her to be that accurate. After all, I’d spent the last ten minutes aiming my mini tape-recorder in her direction while trying to cover up the red record light. But let’s start at the beginning...
The psychic fair season not yet underway, I was deflected from my quest of exploring the weirder worlds inhabited by some of society’s more ‘inquiring minds’. Spiritualism caught my interest with the idea of communicating with the spirit world, enlightened Christian thinking and embracing of other religions. Spiritualism also preaches personal responsibility, divine judgment and immortality of the soul. It rejects Jesus as the son of god, but reveres him as a healer.
Christianity, meanwhile, warns of demons answering the medium’s call and sees its methods as heresy. If historically, the Christian churches can be blamed for profiteering from its customers, little evidence exists that the 400 churches of the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU) are accumulating vast stores of wealth from its 20,000 UK members. Nonetheless, charlatans of the clairvoyancy world have inevitably fuelled scepticism that have made the bereaved ripe targets for abuse.
When my copy of Psychic News popped onto my doorstep, I thought the surrealism which peppered its pages could sit happily alongside the editorial of any rural English local paper. Fundraisers for church roofs and local hospices were spliced with historical pieces and nostalgic readers’ letters. The parish-pump tone doesn’t change on closer inspection – just the nuances of the treatment. No death notices – people instead pass to the spirit realm while letters don’t bemoan cell-phone thefts – they complain that the frequencies are jamming our contact with the other side. The adverts give most away. Psychic artists offer to paint your spirit guide, regression therapy rewinds beyond the cradle to previous lives, and telephone readings can be paid for by Amex.
The movement began in 1848 at the cottage of the Fox family in the hamlet of Hydesville, New York State following a strange persistent rapping was heard. The wiliest Fox proved to be 12-year-old Kate, who forged a literal rapport with the spirit, after challenging it to rap in time to her clicking fingers. The phenomenon impressed sufficiently to attract a crowd of several hundred neighbours presumably not all there for cups of sugar. Using an alphabet system, the spirit claimed to be a pedlar murdered for his money five years earlier. It guided them to human remains buried in the cellar. A complete skeleton was later found in the walls. A religion was born.
My first visit was to a spiritualist church in north London – one of a score or so in the capital. I figured its weekly healing service was most likely to deliver some spiritual fireworks. The pews faced a flower-strewn altar and among the pamphlets sat a serenely smiling receptionist. No bibles and no pulpit for a right, most or even vaguely reverent-type of minister. As I was not consciously ill, the receptionist suggested a general physical check-up – a kind of corporeal 10,000-mile service. I was put on a waiting list to see one of three healers plying their trade on couches at the rear end of a hall notable only for its protestant simplicity.
Ten minutes later, I was lying back to the gentle sounds of Enya-esque music accompanied by light touch to my head, hip or foot. The gentle, silent demeanour of my healer contrasted with the cheerful, gossiping manner of his Irish female counterpart a few feet away. After half an hour, I was blessed and approved without any worrying damage to report. I felt indulged, but my world didn’t move nor were walls to others broached.
My next stop was the plush quarters of an organisation operating outside the SNU. It was suggested by a medium, but more for the questions it raised than answered. She laughed when she told me about it – clearly feeling it exemplified the less reputable end of the market. Around ten of us handed over £4 and settled in a room more closely resembling a business seminar than a church.
The medium bore a passing resemblance to the one featured in the movie Poltergeist. She wasted no time launching into a stream of messages from the other side. The flow filled the allotted hour before sweeping to a graceful, perfectly-paced finale. Each of us was called upon, which was fortunate, as spirits are only meant to speak when it suits them. The crowd, a mix of men and women, young and old, seemed convinced that the quick-fire names, situations and questions we were bombarded with were words from loved ones.
Many references were vague, others more pertinent. Many could have been applied to myself. The eyes of one girl widened in disbelief when told that her beloved Alsatian was sitting next to her. Her invisible dead Alsatian. I couldn’t help feeling that in England this immortal-pet angle could gain the movement a new generation of followers. A trio sat in front of me exchanged knowing, impressed glances as they sheepishly admitted: ‘Yes, I AM stubborn... I HAVE been worried... I AM going on a journey.’ The over-riding theme was that everything was going to get better and soon. I was told that ‘happiness would soon come back into my life’. It was passed by ‘a young man, a cheeky chappy with a word for everyone, late 20s, early 30s... does the name Vincent mean anything?’
Apart from winter, there’s been little wrong in my recent life. And I know no Vincents, dead or alive. Another guy, asked if he knew a George, had a different problem: ’Yes, I know several.’
But I do remember my Grandad. For it was he, she alleged, developing the reference to my red tape that was saying my paperwork problems would soon be over. With a fistful of unpaid invoices, I had indeed been banking on this. ‘He’s standing behind you,’ she added, ‘a little taller than yourself.’ I was more convinced when she looked towards me once more and asked if I was learning a foreign language. I remembered with genuine surprise the oft-carried Spanish phrasebook I’d been thumbing through on the tube. ‘Yes, I AM learning Spanish!’ But the voice was not mine. It was the turn of the girl sitting next to me.
They used to kill those accused of speaking with the dead. But since the repeal of the 1951 Witchcraft Act, working conditions for those engaged with the spirit world have improved immeasurably. Yet while the charlatans can practice with impunity, a large bunch of people also exist who believe we can speak with the dead and should be considerably nicer to each other. While my brief experiences brought no epiphany, the underlying message evoked more comfort than harm.