On the Today programme last Thursday, Billy Bragg was interviewed about his play (or, as he describes it, ‘part play, part gig, part installation’) Pressure Drop, a collaboration with the playwright Mick Gordon. It’s about being white and working-class in modern Britain, and was inspired by the conspicuous success of the British National Party in Bragg’s home patch, Barking in Essex. While Bragg’s contempt for the BNP is unwavering – he had a stand-up row with their candidate in Barking and Dagenham on Monday – he says that ‘immigration, the ability of people to move where the work is now, has changed the face of the borough.’ He himself has moved to the noticeably more homogeneous locale of south Dorset, but members of his family, including his mother, still live in Barking. One of the characters in Pressure Drop, a grandmother in her seventies, has the following lines: ‘Do you know what came through the door yesterday? Something from a witchdoctor. A witchdoctor? I just don’t know any more. I’m starting not to recognise the place.’ Bragg glossed: ‘That actually happened to my mum’ – someone had posted a flyer offering to cast spells to improve her love life and make her richer.
Hearing it put like that – witchdoctors putting stuff through the door! – many people, especially in Dorset, would, I imagine, be surprised and perhaps uneasy: whatever other magical abilities they may or may not possess, witchdoctors have the power to erase all traces of rational thought. (See Adam Kuper’s piece in the LRB on the case of ‘Adam’, the African child whose headless, limbless torso was found in the Thames in 2001 – his murder confidently attributed by the Metropolitan police to ‘muti’ rituals on the basis of no evidence whatsoever; and Kuper’s more recent blog post on the BBC’s uncritical embrace of stories of murderous Ugandan witchdoctors.) But round our way – in Hackney, a few miles west of Barking – what is surprising is that anybody in these parts would be surprised: I’ve come to see flyers from witchdoctors as one of the minor perks of modern life.
‘Witchdoctors’ was the term Bragg used, and it’s how I think of them, but the flyers are more likely to claim the status of ‘African medium’ or ‘African spiritual healer’ or even, more grandly, ‘international healer and spiritualist’. They commonly use the title ‘professor’, I guess in much the same spirit as Punch and Judy men; but some stick to the simple dignity of Mr, and we have had one Sheikh. Sometimes the name is preceded by an encouraging slogan: ‘There are no problem without a solution’ or ‘Let me destroy your problems before it destroys you.’ Often, the healer emphasises the hereditary nature of his gifts: ‘Born from a strong family of religious Sheikh with over a century of family history in helping, guiding and solving people’s problems of all the nations.’ Most are vague about the means by which they will solve these problems, but some explicitly mention talismans or ‘the OCCULT SCIENCES and the MOST POWERFUL SPELL’.
The list of areas in which the healer can be of assistance is extensive: ‘For example, business and financial problems, career, depression, separated from the person you love, domestic problems regarding husband wife or children, health exams, studies or any other problem’. The return of a loved one is always mentioned (‘If your loved one, Wife or Husband has walked out of our life, I can reunite you and give Love and Fidelity between you forever’); so is ‘unwanted union’ or ‘break of unwanted marriage’; sexual problems – impotency and infertility – are treated as a separate category. Success in business or legal cases is included, but only in passing. And then comes the really distinctive bit, the promise to ‘break Curses and protect you, and Destroy the powers of Witchcraft, Black Magic, and Bad Luck’: ‘If you or any of your family members’ life is affected in any way by Black Magic, Voodoo or any Evil Spirits consult RAZAK because he will remove all kinds of Black Magic, Voodoo and Evil Spirits by extraordinary powers’; ‘He can also come to your house to see if there are evil spirits.’ Swift results are guaranteed.
Placing curses, taking revenge – these are never mentioned. The services advertised are entirely beneficent. I started keeping these flyers a while back mainly because I thought they were quaint, but now I’m struck by their testimony to the universal nature of anxiety: if they’re a con, it’s a con with a human face. If nothing else, they promise the possibility of having someone listen to your problems. As Professor Sani and Mr Yadaly both urge: ‘DON’T SUFFER IN SILENCE.’