Feature on Psychics, Woman’s Journal, 1994

When you spend any time in the company of clairvoyants, you realise there are certain things it is wise not to mention. For example, it is tactless to do the psychic “knock-knock” joke (“Who’s there?” “Knock, knock”), despite this splendid little reversal’s perennial appeal. Psychics also get tired of clever-dicks asking why there needs to be a newspaper called Psychic News (“Don’t you know the news already?”) and they certainly get defensive when you ask why spirit guides invariably sport such exotic old-soul monickers as Silver Birch, Mister Ming and Omar. Jokes at the expense of spiritualism have always amused me, I’m afraid, no disrespect intended. One of my favourite Thurber cartoons runs, “I can’t get in touch with your uncle, but there’s a horse here that wants to say hello”.

In May, I visited three psychics. I went with no intention of poking ridicule. It is worth mentioning, I think, that I grew up in a working-class household where the vocabulary of spiritualism was quite commonplace, because my live-in grandmother attended spiritualist meetings, received healing, and was often given “messages” which she passed on to the rest of us. None of this was in the least bit spooky. A framed pastel portrait of a handsome tea-towelled Arab hung on her bedroom wall — Abdul, one of her spirit guides — and he looked nice, if haughty. The only drawback to her spiritualism, as far as I could see, was that she once received a message saying that, when she passed on, she would not be at home. Rather than double-check this message, or even pause to examine its provenance, she promptly stopped going out, for about 10 years. (The spirits were right, though: she died in an old people’s home.)

Did I have something I wanted to know, when I went to see these psychics? Yes, I did. Within a couple of weeks, my first novel was due to be published, and naturally I was arm-gnawingly desperate to know its fate. From day to day I thought of nothing else, I was a first-novel bore, and no praise from friends soared vertiginously high enough to reassure me. The first time I saw my book in Smith’s, I found it had been awarded a space on a very low shelf (eye-level only for those comparatively rare people who visit bookshops lying chest-down on skateboards), and I was so emotionally jangled that I had to struggle with the impulse to call the manager and make a scene.

So it is safe to say I was obsessed. On a lighter note (if you will), there were dead people who might contact me: my father who had died suddenly nearly three years before, my maternal grandmother (the spiritualist), and my paternal grandmother whom I’d met only twice. To be honest, I had been so little affected by the second grandmother’s death that I had completely forgotten about it. As for anything else the psychics might pick up on, I was single, sometimes lonely, recently moved to Brighton, no children, two cats, TV critic for The Times, and mad keen on Thurber cartoons, especially the one about the horse.

* * * *

Lee Lacy is 60, and calls himself a medium. He offers clairvoyance at his modest home in Hove, charges £20 for an hour, and has been a professional for 20 years. Prior to that, he was a compositor in the print, who sat in “development circles” for 13 years, training how to control his psychic gift and shut it out when necessary. He comes across as a kind person, facially crinkly like the actor Michael Williams, and he is relaxed when talking about his profession. He made me two cups of coffee, enjoyed a laugh, and in common with the other two people I met, didn’t appear to have anything to prove. He said he worked through a spirit guide who looks like a Mandarin Chinaman (he showed me a crude pencil portrait in his upstairs consulting room), but in defence of the Fu Manchu cliche said that advanced entities can select their own form of appearance, and besides he calls him Fred.

Having a spirit guide called Fred was very much in keeping with the general homeliness of Lee’s approach. He explained that he receives a mixture of verbal messages, symbolic images and physical impressions, and that his overall concern in interpreting and sifting this information was to reassure people, not to worry them. “If you’re going under a bus in the morning,” he says cheerfully, “Why give you a sleepless night?” If he can’t give them anything, he will sometimes send clients away without taking the fee (“I’d rather they said I was rubbish than that I was dishonest”). Once, with a female sitter, he got a picture of green fields that he couldn’t work out. Did it mean she lived in the country? Was she Irish? It turned out — rather disappointingly — that Green was just her name. On another occasion, he told a woman that her holiday home in Tenerife was shaking. She said she didn’t think so. Then she rang him two weeks later to say he was literally right: at the time of their conversation, roadbuilders had been detonating explosives right outside her villa.

The trouble with consulting anybody with intuitive gifts is that you are torn between wanting to test them (pursing your lips, folding your arms), and wanting to get the best out of them, by blurting, “Well actually I’ve got this novel coming out and please please tell me what my Dad thinks”. Similarly you listen to the interpretations and messages with a combination of cool intelligent scepticism and mounting narcissistic excitement. When Lee told me, for example, that I had a good sense of humour and was a “trusting soul” (he was practising psychometry on my wristwatch, at the time), I was torn between thinking, “Mmm, but we have been laughing for the last half hour, and I did just hand over my watch,” and being pleased to bits that he was getting such a rounded picture.

“What’s been the trouble with one of your feet?” he asks suddenly, out of the blue. Feet? Nothing. What do you mean, feet? He says he can feel something wrong with his foot. No, it’s not you (he says), not your feet, it’s an elderly relative, female, proud woman, something wrong with her feet, possibly toes missing. We decide this is my paternal grandmother, since I don’t know much about her (I check out the feet with my Mum later, and she says yes, there was some rather brutal chiropody that had upset my grandmother, but no missing toes). Then he starts telling me about my Dad — “He’d have been much happier if he’d had his own business”, “Some people might have thought he was a lazy man”, “He wasn’t a social animal”, “When he decided to go, he didn’t waste his time” — and it all makes perfect sense, it’s definitely my Dad we are talking about, without me feeding Lee any information at all.

He didn’t mention the novel, so he certainly was not reading my mind, where “NOVEL” was written in letters of fire, with sparklers. His message from my Dad was that I will get “settled” eventually, which I pictured as snuggling down for a kip on a fluffy pillow, but I now realise probably meant marriage. Lee finished the session by giving me a hug (“They all get a hug”) and seeing me to the door. Afterwards I felt good about my Dad, it was reassuring to talk about him non-judgmentally, just as it was liberating to imagine him not being judgmental about me. I experienced a brief shiver outside only when I realised that if I were destined shortly to be dealt a fatal blow by a double-decker, Lee would probably have chosen not to mention it.

* * * *

Terry Stronmayer is 32 and she looks nothing like I thought she would, mainly because I received the erroneous impression on the phone that she was black. Terry is a big woman, well-centred, self-possessed, with a deep thrilling voice and large eyes, and she sweeps through Groucho’s in Dean Sreet as though she’s just won the freehold in a bet (in fact, she’s never been there before). Clairvoyance is not her profession, she is a media promotions manager for a famous ticket agency. At present she mainly attends a spiritualist church and sits in “circles”, so she doesn’t charge for a sitting. But she agrees to talk with me because she wants other clairvoyant people to know about spiritualist churches. Before she found out about them, her ability from the age of seven to hear psychic messages and to “see spirit” was frightening. She is worried that other gifted people likewise are worrying they are mad.

It is quite exhausting, being here with Terry. Unlike Lee, who made firm clear statements, take it or leave it, Terry’s normal speech rate accelerates virtually to racing-commentary speed when she starts closing her eyes to concentrate on her “light clairvoyance” (the rest of us might do “light dusting”), and she punctuates her thoughts repeatedly with “Can you relate to what I’m saying?” which puts you on the spot a bit, because you don’t want to interrupt the flow with quibbles, you want to encourage her. After telling me that she felt an immediate massy heaviness behind her eyes (precisely my usual physical condition, from staring at TV screen or word-processor for many hours a day), she told me several things that were incorrect, actually — that I had been thinking about having children, that I had an emotional upset last October (“Can you relate to that?”), that I had a close friend called Maggie or Meg who has a little boy, “this big”. More promisingly, she said that a blonde woman was shortly going to be important in my career, which was quite amazing as it turned out because the following week, Deirdre Vine (blonde) offered me a column in Woman’s Journal. Spooky, eh?

Clairvoyants are full of stories about difficult sitters who say, “No, no, unto three times no” and then phone up a week later saying, “Blimey, you were right”. Such reactions are an occupational hazard, clearly. “There is an item of jewellery that was a gift from your grandmother,” Terry told such an awkward sitter. No, there isn’t, said the woman. “I can see your bedroom,” Terry persisted, “There’s a chest of drawers, isn’t there?” “Yes, but there’s definitely no jewellery in it.” “In the third drawer down, at the back, in a little black box, there is an item of your grandmother’s jewellery.” At which point the woman finally caved in. “You’re right,” she said. (Whether she also said “Sorry” was not recorded.)

I asked about Terry’s spirit guide, hoping for another Fred, but hers is Egyptian and his name is Simeon. At the circles where she trains for mediumship, spirits talk through her, in their own voices, but she wouldn’t attempt that with me, not in this quiet teatime corner of Groucho’s deserted restaurant, and I can’t honestly say I minded. I wondered vaguely afterwards whether Simeon knew all about my novel, and just didn’t want to give me the bad news. What Terry likes to receive from her guides and pass on to sitters, she says, is “upliftment”, and she sees it as a huge responsibility. “People always say, “Tell me, I can take it”. But believe me, people cannot take negative things”.

* * * *

Nella Jones, at 62, is quite another kettle of fish. A pure psychic rather than a spiritualist, Nella does not use a spirit guide, she just tells people things she picks up, and gives it to them straight. She does healing, which she doesn’t charge for, and clairvoyance, for which she charges £35. Like Terry, she has been aware of her psychic abilities since the age of seven. I have a strong suspicion that if I ask her about the novel, she will tell me for goodness’ sake to pull myself together, so I decide not to risk it. Nella is tiny, funny, forceful, and refers to me as “Poppet” and “Sweetie”. Weary from work, coughing from a chest infection, and roundly fatalistic at the blows that life has served her, she couldn’t more accurately embody the words “Hard Life” if they were stamped on her forehead in ink.

“I’ve seen you before,” she declares the moment I walk in, but it seems unlikely. I have seen her, though: I saw her once on television, on a preposterous Granada show called James Randi: Psychic Investigator, in which mediums were publicly humiliated by a zealous man with a short white beard. Why this man felt so strongly about mediums was a mystery (“Silly old sod”, she calls him), but at least he called to mind another Thurber cartoon, this time the one of the sombre husband sitting aloof from a party, while his wife whispers, “He doesn’t know anything except facts”.

Why Randi chose Nella for his show was not such a mystery, however, because for the past 20 years Nella has famously lent her skills to the Metropolitan Police. She helped them initially with a Vermeer painting stolen from Kenwood House, and has now worked on murders and robberies of all sorts. Her evidence is not admissible in court, obviously, nor is she paid for it, but recently she received a treasured letter from a Scotland Yard Commander acknowledging their debt. Famously, she also helped in the case of Julie Ward, when John Ward arrived at Nella’s house in Bexleyheath with a stack of photos of Kenyan suspects. “I picked out the murderer for him,” she says, as though it were like choosing a cake from a trolley. “The nearest way I can describe what I do is that there’s part of me that walks in the other realm.” Thus, when she is asked by stumped detectives where the loot is stashed, or the body buried, she just skips over the line and has a look around.

For me, she told me to go to a doctor about a stomach pain (I did have one; the doctor said it was probably stress). She said I “should have been married”, but that on the other hand I should shut the door on the past, because I was carrying the hurt and “cocooning” myself off from the world (true). She said I’d been thinking of changing my job (true) but that I should stay put (oh? all right). She said I would be engaged in two years, possibly to a foreigner (lumme). When I pressed her for something more concrete and gobsmacking (“Tell me my Dad had a peg leg or something”), the result was discouraging. She said I would change my car shortly, and drive around in a little red one. Which naturally leaves me in a quandary about whether to buy one, just to fulfil the prophecy.

To be fair, she was suffering from bronchitis, had had a gruelling week investigating a haunted motorway in Sheffield (for the Sun), and the phone rang every ten minutes, so circumstances were not ideal. Nella spreads herself thin, but she helps people. Half the phone calls were from genuine people wanting quick answers. But even without all these distractions, I suspect she would not be so bothered about “upliftment” or “reassurance” as Terry or Lee. “No, I tell people the truth,” she said, flatly; “Whatever that truth might be”.

* * * *

Guess what? I am reminded of another Thurber cartoon. In it, a married couple are walking across a field, the woman looking cowed and unhappy, and just above them in the sky a thunderous avenging god is swooping down at immense speed. The caption reads, “You and your premonitions!”.

Do these psychics get spiritual guidance for themselves? Do their spirit guides warn, “Careful on the third step” then they open the door on a rainy day? Do they ever consult other psychics? Nella laughs a lot when I ask this last question; she went with her sister once to a real old fraud, who got everything wrong — telling her she was happily married, born in another country, five children, tiptop health and so on. But when she denounced this as rubbish, he was completely unabashed. “Do you know what he said?” she chuckles, wheezing; “He said, I must have been picking up on one of your previous lives!” She doesn’t attend a church, although she is “religious”. “Shouldn’t such abilities be shared?” I ask. Nella says no. “Whatever I’ve got, dear, it’s quite enough to be going on with, thank you”.

Terry gets personal messages all the time. Her guide is with her in such a concrete sense that he moves objects, turns up the heating in her car (she sees the knob move), tells her to take the next left at the traffic lights. He told her that Robert Maxwell was going to die, and she didn’t believe it (which is fair enough, some of us still don’t). Along with Simeon, she has a Sister of Mercy called Angelica, and previously had native Americans, including a young squaw. She does receive messages from other mediums, she enjoys it, but tries to prevent herself finding out too much. “On my grave will be the word “Impatient”, because I always want to know more. But if they were to tell you everything, what would be the point of being alive?”

Lee feels he gets general protection from his guides, if not daily warnings about slippery floors. “If you look at mediums, you’ll find that most of them have had a hard life, and perhaps that’s how it’s meant to be. If you are dealing with other people’s pain, perhaps you need to know what it feels like.” He does visit a medium once a year, around the anniversary of his parents’ deaths; “It’s my way of laying flowers on the grave”. But day to day, he doesn’t want to know what’s around the corner. “I know it sounds crazy for someone in my position, but I personally think things are preordained, so I don’t really see the point.”

* * * *

No silver trumpets? No tables bucking beneath one’s hands? No velvet drapes or crystal balls? No Irving Berlin singing “Always”? Only when the consultations were over did I realise how utterly unspooky these conversations were, despite two possible connections with my much-grieved Dad (who in fact didn’t have a peg leg, if you were wondering). No doubt there are plenty of mediums, psychic channellers and outright charlatans willing to put on a show — psychic sittings are becoming big business — but somehow it is much more convincing and reassuring to meet such genuine people to whom the other-worldly coexists so comfortably with the ordinary.

I asked Lee how he tuned in to his psychic side, and he said it was like a television set. “You switch it on and give it time to warm up” he said, clearly forgetting that since the demise of the valve, televisions don’t do that any more. Perhaps that’s why he’s so comforting. A remark like that can transport you straight back to a long-ago place of safety, listening for the hum and flicker on the old black-and-white. I like to think that when Lee escorts his clients to the door, he sees the picture diminish again but not vanish, remaining for a long time as a white dot, lingering.

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