Over at The Expvlsion of The Blatant Beast, (invitation only, I’m afraid – you’ll get challenged at the door) Bo describes his first ever trip to Blackpool the other week, where he attended a Spiritualist gathering:
‘…we headed upstairs, paid our fivers, and sat down expectantly awaiting our messages from the Beyond. As a religious ceremony, I found a Spiritualist service to be an event of such arse-aching vacuity that it made even the most cack-handed druid ritual I ever attended seem like the Liturgy of St John Chrystostom in comparison. A stout, pleasant young woman who looked like the regional director of an upholstery firm introduced the five mediums and announced the opening 'worship song', which turned out to Boyzone's hit ditty, 'No Matter What', sung by the assembled people as it were in choro. My eyes glazed.’
The Boyzone lyric in question is:
No matter what they do
No matter what they teach us
What we believe is true.
An anthem for closed minds if ever there was one.
What a let-down. Things are obviously slipping in Blackpool and northern necrophilia is not what it was. The Em Cee should have been a heavily rouged and pinkly-powdered matron of black-sequined embonpoint, her voice tempered by sixty Rothmans a day over as many years, and a cough like somebody shoveling clinker. What’s all this nonsense about Boyzone? The proceedings should properly have opened with a rendition of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, heavy on the vibrato, to the accompaniment of a theatre organ. Did plastic foliage, illuminated by barely-concealed green bulbs, adorn the stage? If not, why not?
‘The actual messages- of which there were two hours' worth- were manifest examples of cold-reading and self-delusion.’Fair enough, this is as it should be. I do hope, though, that the messages demonstrated what they are expected to: the continuing concern of the departed for the sitters’ tumors, sciatica, marital infidelity, nasty rashes and all those little things that are so important, don’t you think?
‘Now, ‘ow many pairs o’ shoes did you try on wi that outfit before you come out tonight, love?’
‘Ooo, well, I don't…’
‘Umpteen, your usband’s telling me now! ‘She cunt never mek ‘er mind up about shoes', ‘e sez!'
‘Oh, aye, e’d ave a laugh at me for that, I suppose…’
For about seven months in 1990 I regularly attended Spiritualist churches in Cambridge and up North, hoping to find someone who really did have a direct line to the Next World, into which on May 19th of that year a car accident had catapulted a beautiful young man I had hoped to form a relationship with. The first medium I saw was Una Pierce, who died earlier this month, and she is the lady I called Mona in this post from a while ago. Una was different from almost every medium I saw over that period, because she did not fish for leads or deliver vacuous messages about spirit people sending you blessings, roses and rainbows. Instead, she moved around the crowded function room with her eyes shut, never falling over a chair or bumping into a sitter, and appeared to be relaying messages from an invisible cell phone.
‘Are you Lisa’s sister?’ she asked one flabbergasted young woman, who was indeed the dead Lisa's sister. ‘She give you them earrings, din’t she?’
‘You’ve a right rash come out on that knee, am’t yer?’ she said to a bloke who was attending for the first time, and unsure what to make of all this. Una stayed with him quite a while, talking about his departed father.
‘Can I speak, love?’ Pause. ‘E were a bit… a bit of a…’
‘E were a bugger,’ the sitter said.
‘E were doin a bit too much o this, love, weren’t ‘e? Una said, miming draughts from a pint glass.
‘You can say that again.’
The spirits could never get so personal at the Cambridge Spiritualist Church, which had a much more formal style, chairs set out in rows facing a stage from which the medium scanned the audience for the recipient of the message. One lady was the image of Dame Hylda Bracket. ‘Yes… yes, there is someone here’ she promised us, as she waited for the apparition to emerge from the mists. ‘Now, who is it? Ah, yes!’ she said delightedly. ‘It’s Leonard Sachs, from ‘The Good Old Days’!’
I saw a lot of deluded people, both mediums and sitters, but there was no deliberate fraud, an open, accepting and undogmatic atmosphere, and no money ever changed hands. What you need in order to go down well at such a gathering is a talent for cold reading, the ability to assess the sitter’s age and hence most likely candidate for her departed loved one, her social class and likely concerns about health, children, offspring and money, astute interpretation of body language, and above all the sincere belief that these insights are conferred on you from the Beyond. Then, of course, you need a receptive and uncritical audience, unhinged by grief.
But… but… If you spend a fair chunk of time observing mediums in action, you will see just a few little incidents that really do make you think 'how the hell did she come up with that one, if it’s all just cold reading?' Una was particularly talented in that direction, and the fact that I saw her first spoiled me. Nor are all audiences composed of uncritical people whose grief predisposes them to clutch at any straw. Far from it. Spiritualists in my experience are a remarkably cheerful bunch, and most services elicit a good deal of of laughter, unlike those of many other persuasions. I have seen several naff mediums die on their feet when none of their leads was taken up by a disgruntled and embarrassed crowd, for Una’s regulars did not impress easily.
I no longer go to spiritualist meetings, but I still entertain a very faint hope that death will be an adventure, a transition to a new state rather than to oblivion. Once I was utterly convinced of it, but I’m no longer utterly convinced of anything, except that Blackpool doesn’t seem to be doing glorious trashiness with anything like the style it used to.