IT HAD been a week of ill omens, what with black cats, broken mirrors, stubbed toes and a spider the size and shape of Muhammed Ali's hand lurking in the bathtub. So you might say I was in a susceptible state of mind when a local New Age parlour stuck a flier through my letterbox. “Nowadays,” simpered the leaflet, all friendly and concerned to start with, “we are all looking to better our lives and enhance our well-being.” How very true, I thought. And how unlike the old days, when people fervently wished for their lives to be unrelentingly miserable and grim.
“Are you unhappy, nervous or frustrated?” the blurb demanded in an accusing tone, and I found myself nodding guiltily. I had been feeling a bit out of sorts lately, for no apparent reason. The leaflet, really getting into its stride now, began to press upon me a barrel-load of alternative therapies. Dodgy chakras? Get them realigned, no problem. Aura a bit soiled? Come on down and bring your invisible rainbow.
It occurred to me: why not spend the next week testing psychic cures for what ailed me? I could try the lot, from old-fashioned palm reading and astrology to crystals on a string. Granted, the crystals did look a bit sharp. You could just as easily maim as heal yourself with one of those. But when I turned up at the shop, I was delighted to find a basket of harmless looking little blue jobs, promising to cure indecisiveness at 99p a pop. I bought a dozen. If one would make me decisive, then wearing twelve at once ought to render me positively totalitarian. By the end of the week I would be goose-stepping around Brighton, barking orders at strangers and kicking the headlights out of passing cars. I was all set for my voyage of discovery. The only question now: was the spirit world ready for me?
Off down the seafront to consult Prof Paul Hughes-Barlow, who counts palmistry among the many subjects he is apparently a Prof of. There's something encouragingly old school about the Prof's cubby-hole under the promenade, beside the Palace pier. Sadly, he does not request that I cross his palm with silver. He does, however, ask me for fifteen quid.
I sit, palms upward, as the Prof reassures me that I have a long, healthy lifeline. I'm due a good innings, it seems. Well, that's a start.
“You obviously worry too much,” says the Prof. “You think far too much. There's a lot of anger in you that you've repressed. You try and empathise with people too much. There's just no point in having that attitude 'cos most people just don't think or feel, do they? You've just got to think, to hell with it, and sod the lot of 'em.”
Sounds as if the Prof's got a bit of repressed anger to deal with himself.
“You've got to an age where you realise most of the things you've been told are a load of crap,” continues the Prof, whose style is nothing if not robust. “But if you're not a sheep you've got to be a shepherd.”
Um, what are the hours like?
“Shepherds tend to be a bit lonely. You're not quite sure if you're doing the right thing all the time, but the fact is that most people feel that way, if you think about it.” The Prof then asks me to turn my hands over, and examines my fingernails.
“Slight danger of backache,” he muses, which is a fair bet as more than half the population get it. “But otherwise you're pretty fit, aren't you?”
More than I've any right to be, I say. I ask the Prof if he gets people in looking for the winning lottery numbers.
“I just tell 'em, look, if I knew that, do you think I'd be sitting here?”
It's time to be inculcated into the mysteries of the Tarot. I like the Tarot. It looks properly spooky. It's just about the only thing that does look spooky down at Winfalcon's, another New Age shop where I've booked myself an appointment with Tarot reader Rosalie. The trouble with New Age is that it's all so cuddly and bloodless, full of waterfalls and pipe music and noble Red Indians and ancient wisdom that has nothing on modern dentistry. If I'm going to walk among spirits, I'd like to do it somewhere a bit more Hammer Horror. Either that or a distillery. With this in mind, I ask the proprietress if she can sell me a Ouija board.
“You should be careful,” she warns me. “You're dabbling in things you don't really understand.”
That's alright, I tell her. I do that for a living.
“We don't keep them in stock,” she replies. “They're too dangerous to sell to people straight off. We order them in specially.” It's like trying to buy a gun in Florida; you need a cooling off period.
Rosalie arrives, a sweet-natured woman from Switzerland. She instructs me to cut the Tarot pack and pick a card. I think I've seen this one before - she'll find the card behind my ear, or in a sealed envelope. But no; she simply offers vague advice. “Try and visualise your future a little more,” she suggests. “You are taking a new interest in spirituality,” she adds, a reasonable conclusion as this is my first Tarot reading. I choose some more cards. The Ace of Cups, the Magician and the Sun all look friendly enough, but the Seven of Swords is one scary arse bastard. “It's alright,” soothes Rosalie. “This is in the past. Joy and happiness will be back into your life.” So doom-laden and malignant is the card - a Death like figure gathering blades in eerie shadows - that I am genuinely relieved to hear it. That evil ghoul would have your balls, ears and thumbs off soon as look as you.
Back to Winfalcon to meet Bob Lyons, who conducts crystal ball readings. The ball is disappointingly small, but on the plus side it's a nice pinkish sort of colour. Bob isn't going to gaze into it; I have to hold it myself, in both hands. Bob asks me for my watch. Next, he pulls a handkerchief from his pocket. Aha! I've definitely seen this before. He's going to wrap up the watch, smash it to bits with a hammer, make the pieces vanish and then produce the watch, ticking like a happy bullfrog, from a top hat.
Bob blows his nose and puts the handkerchief away. Then he holds the watch, closes his eyes and begins to talk.
Where the Tarot was cryptic, Bob is alarmingly precise. For the next half-hour he reels out a string of predictions concerning my family, my lovelife, my alleged career, my as-yet-unborn children, my home, my health, all of it. Among other things, it would seem my guts are fated to pack up in 25 years time if I don't give them a bit of respect and regular mealtimes. Funny, the Prof never mentioned that. I will, I'm told, have three children: one male, one female and one “of indeterminate sex” - whether to Bob or to the world at large is unclear. Still, I suppose that's nicely balanced. And I'm never going to join the idle rich. No problem. As long as I can remain among the idle moderately well off, I'll be satisfied.
Bob's crystal ball reading is an unnerving and intense episode. Hearing your own prospects mapped out in such detail is enough to make you sell the cow and head off to Tahiti to be an oil painter. All credit to Bob for going out on a limb, though. While other psychics give you nebulous information at best, Bob supplies names, dates, places, the lot. If he hadn't been a clairvoyant he'd have made a damn good supergrass.
Today I visit Janet Augustin, formerly a newspaper astrologer, with 35 years stargazing experience. A broomstick made of twigs and branches rests in the corner of Janet's workroom, while three computers sit on the desk. One of these will be used to compile my astrological chart.
Working from the time, date and location of my birth, Janet informs me that I am Earth Ascendant and Earth Moon, making me extremely practical and financially organised. This will be news to my girlfriend, who screams when I so much as look at a spanner, ever since I emptied the entire central heating system onto the kitchen floor. It's certainly news to me. I need an astrologer just to explain my bank statement.
“With Virgo rising,” Janet predicts, “as you get older, you will not look your age. As you get past your forties it's as if time freezes you.” Having appeared to be in my forties since infancy, this is good to hear. “But when Jupiter rises it means you'll put on weight from the age of 45.” Oh great. I'm going to go into middle age looking like the fat one from Grange Hill.
Janet then plots my girlfriend's chart and discovers that we are extremely compatible, and may well have been together in a past life. Unfortunately, after I leave, I realise I gave Janet the wrong date for my girlfriend's birthday. The implications don't bear thinking about. Maybe I was her accountant in a past life instead, and lost all her money down the back of the filing cabinet. I wouldn't put it past me.
No bugger in the South East will dowse me. What's wrong with these people? Don't they want to work? I thought dowsing meant finding water with a cleft stick. A piece of piss, as I live by the seaside. But no. Turns out it's about using lumps of rock to answer life's pressing questions. All you have to do is lie back, dangle a crystal over your energy centres, which could be anywhere on your body, and see which way it spins. It's simple. So simple, in fact, that my friend Cleo agrees to dowse me. She knows about these things.
“Try asking it some yes-and-no questions,” she advises. “Let's say that the direction it's spinning in now means Yes.”
Okay. Um, I passed a black cat in the street the other day. Does this mean I'm doomed?
The crystal is still turning the same way.
“Apparently so,” says Cleo, with an unsportingly smug grin.
It had white paws, though, And a mark on its nose.
“Still doomed,” gloats Cleo.
Let's try something more complex. What is the source of this curious disaffection that's been plaguing me for the last few days and should I be concerned about it, or is it merely a moodswing brought on by too many afternoon gins?
The crystal wobbles to a halt.
Well, thanks for nothing.
“You confused it,” says Cleo. “Maybe it only knows about cats.&rdquo
It's Ouija night. Nobody wanted to use their own place. I'm in a borrowed flat; the owner's away, and I told him I'd feed his fish. Little does he know I'm about to call phantoms down upon his lino. Failing to find an authentic board, my fellow truth-seekers and I have written the letters of the alphabet and the numbers zero to nine on pieces of paper and arranged them in a circle on the table. A glass tumbler rests in the centre. Four of us crouch, each with a forefinger on the upended glass, poised to mess with That Which We Do Not Understand. An oil painting of a rather forbidding Victorian gentleman in a high collar hangs on the wall behind me, seemingly watching over my shoulder and, frankly, giving me the creeps. Dan tells me that the last time he tried this, his brother lobbed a bottle of wine at him after 20 minutes, called him the Antichrist and wore a silver crucifix for the next six months. “He's a little volatile,” admits Dan.
“Spirit of the spirit world,” intones Cath, who has previous Ouija experience, “fill this glass. . .”
“Mine's a double Scotch,” pipes up Jerry, the sceptic.
“Shut up!” snaps Cath. “Is anybody there? Is anybody there?”
We sit there like bumps on a log.
Then the glass starts to glide, slowly, across the surface of the table.
“Who's moving the glass?”
“I am,” says Jerry.
“Well stop it.”
“I have stopped.”
The glass is still moving.
Q - U - I - N - K, it spells
“It's the ink company. They're trying to tell us something.”
“It's not the ink company. How can you have a dead ink company?”
“That's just nonsense.”
“Maybe it's a dyslexic spirit,” says Dan. “We could be under the spell of Santa right now.”
G-E-O-R-G-E-D-E-A-C-O-N, spells the glass.
Who the hell is George Deacon?
“Do you have a message for us, George?” pleads Cath. But the glass is still and we can't coax it to move without actively pushing it. After a few minutes we give up.
It's only much later that I notice the little plaque on the frame of the Victorian oil. It reads: “Portrait of George Deacon.”
We burn the letters. We burn the numbers. We burn my notes. Someone tries to burn the tumbler but it won't catch alight and just sits there looking slightly scorched.
At the Mysteries shop in Covent Garden, I meet Alan, a clairvoyant and psychic medium. I figure that if a bunch of amateurs can contact the beyond on a coffee table, then a professional will probably own the spiritual equivalent of the Yellow Pages. I want to get in touch with my hero, the late stand-up comedian Bill Hicks. If anyone can make sense of all this, it's Bill. Failing that, he always made me laugh like a drain.
“You don't know who you're going to get,” Alan warns me from across his little desk. “It may be whoever's around you. Right now I'm seeing someone called George. Do you know a George?”<
Fuck! It's George Deacon. What does he want? Maybe if I ignore him he'll go away.
Erm, no, I fib. I can't think of a George. (I will later find out from the owner of the painting that George Deacon was a distant uncle on his mother's side; a devout Christian who sternly disapproved of spiritualism, and who was lost at sea on his way to visit a mission outpost in what is now Equatorial Guinea. No doubt he'd have told me himself, given the chance.)
After much concentration on Alan's part, Bill Hicks proves to be a no-show. Alan apologises, but reminds me that spirits only turn up if they want to. No doubt Bill has better things to do. And if he has better things to do, then so have I.
My psychic week is over. From now on, it's back to a strict diet of rationalism. Certainly, a number things have happened to me over the past few days that I can't explain. But then my entire life has consisted of things I can't explain, and there's nothing uncanny about that. My experiments in the supernatural haven't made it any easier. By rights I ought to be glowing with an almost radioactive mystic nimbus. Instead, I just feel like a drink.
By the entrance to the Tube station, a warty, squinting old gypsy woman hands me a sprig of bedraggled heather: “There you go dearie, it'll bring you good luck.” She's got a whole basketful, and from the look of things, it hasn't brought her much in the way of fine fortune. No thanks, I tell her, without a moment's hesitation. Her cursing follows me down the stairs, felling a pair of sailors in its path. Those little blue crystals really do make you decisive. I won't hear a word against them.
TEST YOUR PSYCHIC POTENTIAL
1. THE SPIRIT WORLD
Which do you more frequently receive messages from:
(a) your mother?
(b) contact magazines?
(c) The Other Side?
2. IN TUNE WITH GAIA
How do you see dolphins?
(a) As a hazard to tuna
(b) As an attraction at Sea World
(c) As your spirit guides
3. TEMPTING FATE
Would you say you are:
(a) Not in the least superstitious?
(b) Salt-throwingly, wood-touchingly superstitious?
(c) Very superstitious, writing's on the wall, thirteen month old baby, broke the looking glass, ba-da-de-doo-bomp-bomp-doo-da-dum-dum. . .
4. JOAN OF ARC
When you hear voices, is it usually:
(a) The neighbours?
(b) Your Walkman?
(c) The dear and near departed?
5. GHOSTIES AND GHOULIES
Have you ever seen a ghost?
(b) Once or twice
(c) They're packed in five to a room over at my place
6. I'D LIKE TO TEACH THE WORLD TO SING
How much empathy do you feel for others?
(a) What others?
(b) Live and let live, I say
(c) I have a permanent Vulcan mind meld with every living thing
7. GOOD GOD
Are you a practicing adherent of any major religion?
(O points for yes, 1 point for no.)
8. TRUE OR FALSE
Which of the following statements is correct
(a) I believe in the power of mind of matter
(b) I believe that David Icke is not a nutter
(c) I believe that aliens wish to make our world better
(c) I believe in the power of fish over batter
(score 3 for each true statement, 0 for each false)
9. VOCAB TEST
Do you know what the following words mean?
(score 2 for each word you understand. If you thought Shiatsu was a dog, deduct 2)
10. WRITTEN IN THE STARS
How seriously do you take your newspaper horoscope?
(a) Never read it
(b) I worry that all 400 million of us Capricorns are going to have a bad week.
(c) I won't leave the house unless it specifically tells me to
SCORING (except where indicated)
O for each (a)
1 for each (b)
3 for each (c)
0-15 You're no more psychic than a bowl of vegetable soup. You will never make a living cleansing auras.
15-30 You have an odd sense that there is a lot going on in the world that you just can't see. Consequently, you are very likely to give money to anyone who says they can.
31-40 You're so psychic you're positively humming. Stop what you're doing, buy some wind chimes and set up shop, before everybody else beats you to it.