For some months following the death of a young man I knew carnally but otherwise hardly at all, I carried a feeling of permanent outrage at the waste: his death felt like the loss of a fortune. I had been given a whisp of evidence that death is a change of state rather than annihilation, and it was evidence I wanted to pursue.
If you are open to the possibility that consciousness might be independent of matter and that therefore human personality might survive the death of the body, you soon come into contact with a great many people who are not just open, but totally convinced. I can’t get on with the totally convinced of any persuasion. In religion I’m a lifelong fence-sitter and commitment phobic. Look what belief does to people: Fred Phelps and clan, Sun Myung Moon, Tom Cruise…
I was attending services at a spiritualist church every Sunday because mediumship intrigued me. I had read enough of the 19th century psychic investigators to believe that the phenomenon was worth observing, but observing it in a church setting was a pain in the arse. There was the Christian twaddle to endure; the prayers, the hymns, the platitudinous ‘philosophy’ that each visiting medium was required to spiel before getting down to business. You could never know if the guest medium was going to be a flake. I wanted to get one in private and watch and listen as she did her thing. I saw a flyer for a ‘Psychic Fair’ at a hotel in Cambridge some time around July 1990, and went to see if I could get a private sitting.
It looked like an arts and crafts fair, with dozens of stalls selling bells, buddhas, incense burners and similar odds and sods of uncovetable gymcrackery. You could buy feathery dangly things to hang above your bed which apparently would ensure that you remembered your dreams. There was piped music of the New Age genre: noodling on the shakuhachi over flabby face-flannels of synthesizer chords, interlarded with trickling water and squealing dolphins. This was available on cassette and CD.
I found a stall with rows and rows of small cubic bottles with cylindrical silver stoppers, each bottle filled half with water of one colour and half with oil of a contrasting colour. Sparkling under halogen bulbs, they were as fascinating as sweetie jars are to a toddler. I asked the lady in charge of the stall what they were for.
'Which colour attracts you most?' she asked.
I picked up a red and yellow one.
'Now that means you are an introverted and intuitive night-person and have an enneagram reading of four and a half. People who go for the purple and green are better dressed and will take a trip in the near future. If you touch the bottle again you will have imbued it with your energy and I shall have to ask you to buy it and they are ten pounds each.'
Remembering that this was 1990 and ten pounds were worth a lot more than they are now, I put the bottle down at once. Why was I so obedient? The silly mare could not have required me to buy any item I did not want, after all. If I see her again I shall shake up every bottle on her stall. (I still don’t know what they were for.)
Mediums had their stalls around the edges of the room, and each stall had a pile of fliers detailing the owner’s credentials. There is no Royal College of Mediums, so credentials tend to be on the order of ‘consulted by the stars of Coronation Street’ or ‘descended from a long line of clairvoyants traceable to the 15th century’. One was the reincarnation of John the Baptist. The former John the Baptist had gone out for a fag, and in any case he was forty five pounds a pop, so I booked myself in for twelve quid’s worth of a sixty-something lady called Betty. She wore a black sequined jacket and looked like a rather severe pub landlady.
The first thing Betty did was have a go at me for using one of her fliers on which to make notes. They cost so much a gross, she said, and were not for scribbling on. As with the sharp lady with the twinkly bottles, I was not quick enough. My annotated one would probably be the only one of her bloody fliers that would not end up in the bin by the end of the afternoon. Anyway.
‘Has there been a death of a young person around you in the last five years?’
BONG! You fucking idiot! Ask her to tell you what the ‘usual way’ is! Car? Bike? Heroin? Leukemia? Suicide?
‘Now one thing I need to tell you is that you must have more confidence in yourself. Have confidence in your sexuality, for example.’
Well, Betty has reasonable gaydar, if nothing else.
‘There’s a lot of intuition there, it needs developing.’
You have talents you never suspected, my dear! And Betty ran a development circle at which you can bet attendance was not free.
Now up here in 2008 I can’t believe I went away from that fair in 1990 feeling ten feet tall, feeling that I had had real contact with my dead almost-lover, feeling I had joined the in-crowd of psychics. Everything about the event was as tawdry as Christmas in Woollies, but I had fallen for it. I was going to carry on falling for quite a few years to come.
How it all ended.