The dead are all around us
- Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches by Malcolm Gaskill
Fourth Estate, 402 pp, £15.99, April 2001, ISBN 1 84115 109 2
April 1944. Winston Churchill sent a memo to Herbert Morrison at the Home Office:
Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost of this trial to the State, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London, for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery, to the detriment of necessary work in the Courts?
The person tried and convicted at the war-damaged Old Bailey was a stout and ailing Scotswoman called Helen Duncan, whom few people loved and many exploited. She was not a witch in any popular sense of the word; she did not fly, wear a pointed hat or have congress with the devil, and neither she nor her followers imagined that she did. She was a witch only in the sense that she was convicted under an old statute, as a convenience to the court. If the attention-grabbing title can be excused, it is because the author has a strange and pitiful tale to tell.
Rumours of Churchill’s indignation, and of his own spiritualist leanings, have been enough to make the case bob back into public consciousness every few years. As Malcolm Gaskill says, ‘we inherit ancestral tales reworked by each generation to make their truth powerful rather than precise, moral rather than empirical.’ Among the majority today, reverence for Churchill survives surprisingly intact; it is a folk-tale Churchill who intervenes in the case, incisive and on the side of the underdog. In fact, as Gaskill shows, Churchill took no further part in either vilifying or vindicating Helen Duncan. If he was superstitious, that made him like many soldiers and ex-soldiers. If, as a young man, he had consulted an astrologer, then he was a natural leader for a nation that employed state stargazers to track the forecasts of their Nazi counterparts.
Helen’s trial lasted eight days, and ended with a jail sentence of ten months, which (less remission) she served in Holloway. Prosecuted psychics often elicited public sympathy, especially when the police were suspected of entrapment. Helen’s tabloid image henceforth was as the ‘St Joan of Spiritualism’. The charges against her arose from a police raid on a séance in Portsmouth, where informers were planted in the audience. Though Helen was a well-known medium who commanded a troop of followers, her deceptions on this occasion were no more florid, distasteful or ludicrous than the tricks she had been getting away with for years. Fortune-tellers were usually dealt with summarily under the Vagrancy Act of 1824: not hauled before judge and jury, flattered by the attentions of King’s Counsel and the national press. So why was the silencing of Mrs Duncan considered so vital by the state?
Her partisans, and conspiracy theorists in general, looked back to 1941, when at an earlier séance in Portsmouth Helen had raised the spirit of a young sailor. In life, he had served in HMS Barham. News of his materialisation soon spread among the families in the port. This was a source of dismay to the Admiralty, who had not yet admitted that the warship had gone down. Malcolm Gaskill explores this legend, which is central to the strange life of Helen Duncan. There is a question-mark over how specific Helen’s identification was, and whether its precision increased in the retelling. Did Helen actually name the ship, or did she extract the name from an anxious audience member, and produce an apparition to suit? Had there been some security leak which had brought her the knowledge by ordinary means? However it may be, it does seem that MI5 was involved in building the case against her, and it is clear that she was seen as a security risk – damaging to morale, at least. However she got her peculiar knowledge, it was best to lock her up and teach her a lesson.
Malcolm Gaskill has undertaken to tell the life-story of Helen Duncan, placing her in the context of her time and class. The book is also in a wider sense an enquiry into ‘how we know the things we know’ and how what we can know or choose to know is circumscribed by our culture. As far as Helen and her trade is concerned, he will try for a position of observant neutrality: ‘I do not seek to exonerate her, any more than I am committed to a rationalist crusade against superstition.’ A Cambridge historian, he is generally a prosaic and stable guide through what Freud called ‘the black tide of mud of occultism’. Sometimes his material tempts him into a tweedy sarcasm, and sometimes he strays into twopenny-coloured mode; the people who queued to see Helen’s trial were ‘curious citizens, successors to the Londoners of Hogarth’s day who had gathered there to follow the condemned to Tyburn, jeering and sharing the latest from the Grub Street presses’. Anyone who explores the issue of the paranormal is vulnerable, both to accusations of crankiness and to a sort of self-disgust about the sensationalism involved; and it is hard to sift out an acceptable truth, given the human tendency to confabulate, the fallibility of memory, the wide scope for interpretation, and the prejudice which invests the whole subject. As a good historian should, he insists, he is going to try to vanish in the presence of his subject. He would not like to think that, like some spirit guide made of papier-mâché, he is now Helen’s announcer, her mouthpiece, and that his dematerialisation amounts to crouching in the half-light behind a torn curtain on a rickety rail.
He writes very well about Helen’s background and her upbringing in the small Scottish town of Callander. Like much else about her, the date of her birth is uncertain. She was the fourth of eight children in the family of a skilled man, a slate-worker and builder. The family were not very poor, but their circumstances were modest and their outlook austere. At the age of seven or so Helen began to report clairvoyant experiences, which her mother warned her not to speak about outside the family. It was a part of the country where folk belief in second sight, omens and ghosts had simply slid underground, and her mother’s warning was perhaps designed to protect her less against scepticism than unhealthy interest. The name of Hellish Nell, however, had nothing to do with preternatural abilities: she got it because she was a noisy, boisterous tomboy.
But as she grew up, she developed what Gaskill describes as a ‘crippling diffidence, timidity and passivity, punctuated by sudden outbursts of hysterical rage’. It was a passivity which allowed her to be strip-searched before her séances, tied to her chair, enveloped in sacks, sewn into shroud-like cocoons intended to prevent fraudulent limbs from emerging; which made her agree to swallow dye for test-séances, and allow her body cavities to be probed by doctors appointed by those who had an interest in proving that she was a cheat. One could argue, too, that it was this passivity which made her choose her trade in the first place, made her earn her living as the mouthpiece of dead people: travelling the roads of Britain, sustained by tea and endless cigarettes, her parasitic husband in tow, her paying public always fresh and expectant, the thought of her needy children ever in mind, and her heavy body always sicker, and apt to take on the sicknesses of other people. It is no wonder that the rage burst out from time to time, causing her to curse out loud, and lunge at sitters who upset her, and try to knock sceptics down with chairs. In the early 1930s, one witness described her as ‘by no means a magnetic personality . . . rather a repellent one that aroused one’s critical faculties’. There was nothing other-worldly about her coarse features and plain speech, and yet perhaps she was not so unattractive as the self-righteous and brutal busybodies who tried persistently to expose her. If there was money to be made from raising the dead, there was also a profit to be shown from proving the dead to be made of old newsprint and cheesecloth. With credulity on the one hand, bigotry on the other, and greed everywhere, the history of spiritualism shows humanity in an unedifying light.
The town where Helen grew up was a poor community, with low wages and high unemployment. The average age at which women married was 26, which attests to the difficulty of setting up a separate household; the choice for many men was between migration and emigration. When the Great War broke out, the boys queued down the street to join up. But Hellish Nell, 16 years old, pregnant and disgraced, had already been banished to Dundee, and would seldom return to Callander. In Dundee she lived in a working-woman’s hostel and worked in a jute mill. She applied for munitions work, but was found to have TB, and sent to a sanatorium. Discharged, she took a post as an auxiliary at Dundee Royal Infirmary, where the sights and sounds of the psychiatric wing worked on what was already, no doubt, a morbid imagination. Her baby was a girl, and would be the first of eight children. Helen’s pregnancies were perilous, and some of her children had birth defects. She suffered from a complex of conditions which exacerbated each other: she was hypertensive and diabetic, had kidney damage, and suffered from pleurisy and abdominal pains, which cannot have been helped by her self-punishing habit of ingesting carpet tacks and cigarette ends; it was not just her audience who swallowed rubbish.
Her husband, Henry Duncan, was a Dundee boy who enlisted at 16. His very poor family had a history of hauntings, and Henry seems to have been superstitious, sensitive and intelligent. Later, he would become the theroretician, while Helen attended to the practical business of raising spooks. Most mediums were women, and the men – with revered exceptions like the great Victorian D.D. Home – were seedy after-thoughts with inferior talents. There was perhaps something degradingly feminine in the pursuit, in the helplessness, the physical indignity of being the plaything of the deceased; gifted men preferred to be impresarios, and manage their talented wives. Henry Duncan emerges from Gaskill’s account as a manipulator and a liar, but his early life was sad beyond bearing. Invalided out of the Army with rheumatic fever, he would never regain good health. He met Helen through his sister, who was a workmate of hers, and they had no doubt that they were soul mates. They married in 1916, and their early years together were wretched, with one or other of them too sick to work, though Henry took on casual labouring where it was offered and Nell would turn her hand to anything. Henry started a furniture business which failed, seemingly not through his own fault; he had a heart attack, and Helen engaged herself to crippling work in the bleach-fields to feed them, at the same time taking in washing and mending, and organising the sale of stock to pay the creditors. In the end Henry became too ill to work, and spent his time reading spiritualist books; though Helen was widely known to be psychic, she had not yet embraced – if she ever did – the corpus of cult belief.
Spiritualism thrived on disaster, and on poverty. The comfort of ‘proved survival’ was superior to the airy assurances, given over the years by the orthodox churches, that the deficits of this life would be repaired in the next. For the working classes it had this advantage: it did not operate de haut en bas. A practising and proficient medium was likely to arise in any stratum of society, and if you lived in one of Britain’s cities you were likely to find one a few streets away. Spiritualism was a neighbourly, engrossing business, offering a particular and home-grown comfort. It thrived in the Mechanics Institutes and the philanthropic and self-improvement societies of the industrial towns. The Great War gave it impetus: all kinds of occult belief flourished, among the fighting forces and among civilians. In the trenches, among men facing death minute by minute, chance incidents were blown up and acquired a magical dimension. When death is dealt out so randomly, the notion of cause and effect is lost. Phenomena like the ‘Angel of Mons’, invented by a popular writer, were subsequently ‘seen’ by thousands of soldiers.
Peace brought little respite to the bereaved imagination. It was as if there was a widespread feeling that somewhere, just out of reach, the young men were still alive. Returning spirits were always in favour of world peace and brotherhood; they were never bellicose or revengeful. Trite though their messages were, one can hear in them the voices of the living, battered by disaster, pitchforked into quarrels of their masters’ making. Where did the revolutionary impulse go, in British society? In the 18th century it went to sing hymns at Methodist meetings; in 1917, to bawl spiritualist anthems and sit tight, once again, in the hope of a fair deal in the hereafter. A great strength of Gaskill’s book is that it provides, by the way, a piece of working-class history: he makes spiritualism comprehensible in the context of the utter bleakness of the lives he describes. The night Henry Duncan’s mother died – a diabetic, worn out, an old woman at 40 – Henry and Nell saw her disembodied hand tapping at their window; they recognised it by the marks of her trade, the scars across her palm made by her herring-gutter’s knife. The bitterness of imagination that could give rise to such an image, the poverty that bred it, the pity it inspires: all these are part of Helen Duncan’s story, and part of a common story which suggests a hunger for consolation which only a new religion could assuage.
If the context is tragic, however, the daily practice of spiritualism was a theatrical spectacle that, as Gaskill says, drew on ‘farce, burlesque and vaudeville’. Spiritualism, in its modern form, began in 1848 in upstate New York, where the teenage Fox sisters heard rapping noises in their farmhouse, found human bones in their cellar, and soon afterwards struck a deal with the showman Phineas T. Barnum. Gaskill has a whole catalogue of comic and grotesque manifestations which could only have fooled the most suggestible of sitters, or those determined to get value for money. Performing mediums were hated by magicians and illusionists who, having laboriously copied their feats, would expose them as frauds; some of these illusionists, like Houdini, were disaffected believers for whom the spirits had declined to perform. It would be natural to assume that the spiritualist movement was a branch of the music-hall, a low-class amusement, reactive even: washed in on a tide of irrationality, lapping against the stony convictions of Victorian science. But, as Gaskill describes, the opposite case is true: the rise of spiritualism coincided with the high point of scientific materialism, and the assumptions of one creed fed the other.
If you attended a séance, you were not asked to open the eye of faith, but to trust your direct experience; all the senses were to be gratified and convinced. You did not have to accept the truth of the Bible or swallow sermons about the existence of a spirit world: all you had to do was turn up and pay your money, and you would see and hear for yourself. Immortality was sold as a fact, not a pious hope; it was not just the soul that went on after death, but the body and the hands and the feet. Dead fingers stretched out to touch and pat the cheeks of the living, or chalked their messages on slates, or plucked at spirit harps. Discarnate lungs puffed at wind instruments. Bouquets of roses – thornless – were ‘apported’ into the séance room, and dogs, cats, rabbits and parrots attested to the fact that the inhabitants of Victorian pet cemeteries would rise too. Sequestered behind a curtain, protected by the half-dark, the medium would pass into a trance state and soon the voices of the dead would come through, wanting to be recognised. Masks, wigs, wires, beards and rubber gloves were the props the mediums employed, and for the voices they used their native histrionic ability; a daughter of Nell’s once remarked bitterly that if all her mother’s manifestations were self-engendered, she was a loss to the acting profession. It was, and is, extremely difficult to reconcile the evidence of witnesses of psychic phenomena. Many séances were becalmed, with long stretches of non-event, so that when a sudden dramatic event did occur the sitters were not sufficiently focused to report on its nature. The same ‘manifestations’ could leave an audience divided, half of them sneering and half of them moved to tears.
Helen Duncan was a classic ‘materialisation medium’, and central to her act was the production of ectoplasm, a substance for which there is no recipe, and which now has vanished from the world. Ectoplasm was a milky emission which gave life to spirit forms. It emanated from the medium’s nose and mouth and from the area of darkness within her clothes, and took on semi-solid form, with features that the willing onlooker could recognise. One witness to a performance by Hellish Nell described it as ‘a liquid spurting from the nipples of her breasts’. In giving birth to the dead, the medium is both male and female; ectoplasm is both semen and breast-milk. From time to time sitters attempted to snip or wrench or tug pieces of it away, in order to submit it to laboratory analysis. Tests were often inconclusive: it was cloth, or paper fibres bound with egg-white – or it was a substance unknown. In its most detectable form it consisted of yards of fine muslin packed within the medium’s capacious undergarments, or possibly within the medium’s capacious body cavities. It was often suggested that the muslin was regurgitated, and it was seriously maintained that some mediums had two stomachs. Ectoplasm smelled like old cloth; or, some said, like death.
Another feature of a medium’s performance was a ‘spirit guide’, in whose voice the medium would often speak. Nell’s guide was called Albert. He was tall, and rather superior, and his favourite song was ‘South of the Border’. He spoke in a strangulated drawl, his accent veering between RP and Strine. When photographed, he looked like a rolled-up newspaper. He often ridiculed Henry Duncan and showed a degree of contempt for the audience. Helen had a second guide, Peggy, who was a mischievous child-spirit made out of a stockinette vest. Her party-piece was ‘Baa-Baa Black Sheep’, though she could also produce a verse of ‘Loch Lomond’.
This was the practice of mediumship, as carried out by Helen Duncan in a career which spanned some twenty years, and engrossed thousands; it was a joke, a fiction that a child could see through. But the body of theory that Henry assimilated during his long sickly days was created by some of the finest minds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 by a selection of eminent Victorians. It seems strange to us now that some of the best scientific brains of an era could have been employed on ghost hunts. But these men were not fools. They were asking reasonable questions about the natural world, and trying to establish an investigative framework for a new branch of science. They tried to maintain a healthy scepticism while not rejecting evidence because it came in unorthodox ways, and to formulate an experimental protocol which would be equal in rigour to that employed by practitioners in the more established branches of scientific knowledge. Their intellectual efforts were constantly sabotaged by the antics of some of the mediums themselves: so that spiritualism began to seem shoddy, trivial and childish. And if the showmen made problems for the scientists, so did the scientists make problems for the toiling medium, tied perspiring to her chair, tussling with the outrageous demands of her own unconscious. The events with which parapsychology concerns itself are irregular, spontaneous and ambivalent, but in order to prove that parapsychology was a science, researchers needed to analyse and quantify events which were repeatable, regular and unequivocal. The business of cheating is therefore not hard to understand. Once a medium had achieved results among her family and friends, the pressure was on to perform in public, and then obtain credentials by performing before investigative bodies. Mediums resorted to magicians’ tricks, often as much out of a desire to please as a desire to make money; their suggestible personalities and sometimes low status made them vulnerable to flattery and afraid of losing their reputations if they did not get consistent results. Exposure might be shaming, but was not necessarily, or even usually, the end of a career. True believers hit back hard at anyone who challenged them; and there was always a small percentage of phenomena that no one could explain away without resorting to mental contortions that were greater than those required to accept, simply, that the dead were walking nightly through the land.
When Duncan began to practise as a medium, some of her early ‘manifestations’ were terrifying in their violence and hostility. Her first séances brought her no profit, but around 1930 she began to glimpse commercial possibilities. Soon afterwards she agreed to her first London season, making a contract for sittings with the London Spiritualist Alliance, and decamping to a rented house in Thornton Heath. These sittings attracted genteel society, but they were also test séances, and proved a challenge for Henry Duncan when he had to explain why his wife extruded surgical gauze and fragments of a sanitary towel. Henry, more in sorrow than in anger, admitted that an hour or two before her sittings Helen would pass into a dissociated state in which she would secrete various articles about her person, not knowing what she did. Helen was, then, out of his control: and out of her own. If she cheated, she couldn’t help it. Accused of theatrical feats of regurgitation, Helen said ingenuously: ‘they give me credit for more than I can do.’
Her great mistake was her involvement with Harry Price, a ghost hunter, professional journalist and professional sceptic. Price liked to present himself as in pursuit of knowledge but was really, like so many in the spirit game, in pursuit of profit. In 1923 he had split off from the Society for Psychical Research – ghost-hunters are sectarian and quarrel a lot – and founded the National Laboratory of Psychical Research. The first time Helen saw him, at the headquarters of the LSA, she sensed ‘malevolent vibrations’. Nevertheless she agreed to give sittings for him. It was easy to get her into his power, because she always wanted money; her trade was anything but secure. Gaskill does not try to work out how much money Duncan made, but is certain that the various bodies and societies who exhibited her took a much greater share of the proceeds of her work. By the evidence he gives of changes in her family’s circumstances, she made enough to lift them out of poverty; this was achieved by a tough schedule and constant travelling, and by submitting herself to physical indignities at which a prostitute might baulk.
Harry Price set about Duncan’s humiliation with sadistic relish. He drafted in two doctors to examine her. ‘They brought a bag of tools with them,’ he wrote, ‘took off their coats to the job and really got down to it. But they found nothing. Every orifice and crack where an instrument or hand would go was thoroughly explored; every nook and cranny was examined; but at each fresh place they drew a blank.’ This blankness did not exonerate Helen. At her next séance the doctors pounced on her ‘ectoplasm’ with surgical scissors, and roused her from a trance by shouting into her face. She was in such bad physical shape that she was admitted to St Thomas’s, where she swigged a bottle of disinfectant and had her stomach pumped. When she recovered, the LSA packed her off home. In 1933, at a séance in Scotland, she was surprised by a sitter who made a grab at her, turned on the lights and found her rapidly concealing ‘Peggy’ under her clothes. ‘I’ll brain you, you bloody bugger,’ Helen shouted; she was prosecuted for fraud and fined ten pounds. But this setback, and Price’s debunking report, hardly affected the esteem in which she was held in the world of spiritualist churches and societies. She flourished, especially when World War Two brought new separations and griefs to which she could cater. Once again, belief was not confined to the uneducated, but was widespread among dons, clergymen and officers in the Armed Forces; bereavement affected all classes. Gaskill estimates that the creed had a million adherents by 1944; there were a thousand churches and some fifty thousand home circles. In 1941 the Royal Navy recognised spiritualism as a religion and sailors were allowed to hold spiritualist services at sea. Helen pulled in huge audiences – until she attracted the attention of the authorities, and her antics at the Master Temple Psychic Centre in Portsmouth brought her to court under the Witchcraft Act.
Gaskill leaves it till rather late in the book to ask what might have been going on in Duncan’s head through her many years as empress and chief freak of the psychic world. As a historian of popular beliefs, he is more interested in her audiences than in Duncan herself, and his description of the heartless tricks practised by her colleagues and forbears is thorough to the point of tedium. This is not his fault; most books about spiritualism are more or less dull, because once the gross, unsophisticated nature of the frauds has been laid bare, there is no entertainment value in multiplying examples. The ‘inner’ history of mediumship is far more interesting, but it would necessarily comprehend a history of ‘hysteria’, in its various incarnations through the centuries: for since the end of the 19th century mediumship has been viewed as a ritualised form of hysteria, which converts weakness to strength and empowers the powerless. (To say this is to adopt the term, neutrally, for the purpose of discussion, and to leave aside the question of whether hysteria exists, or ever did exist, as a definable disease entity; the term may change, but the complex of behaviour once described as ‘hysterical’ can still be observed.) Gaskill recognises that, when shares in Helen’s body are allocated, feminist and also psychoanalytical theories have a claim, but it is beyond the scope of his book to map their territory and patrol the borders. As he observes, it is not difficult to see how mediumship liberated its more genteel female practitioners. They could flirt with their audience and mock them; in deep trance, they could behave aggressively and with an overt sexuality.
With Hellish Nell, the case is rather different. One senses a powerful personality trapped in a sick and disabled body which others despised for its ugliness. Swoons and faints were not the least of it for Nell; her flesh was marked with circular burns from ‘returning ectoplasm’ (or her own cigarettes) and she often ended sessions as if she had been in a fight, ‘dazed in the corner, blood and slime dripping from her chin’. In the world in which she grew up, there was a vast and perhaps damaging disjunction between middle-class ideals of femininity and the reality of working women’s lives. Hysteria is empowering but it is also a punishable offence. For Helen, such fame and prosperity as she attained came at a high cost in physical and mental degradation: she was a performer in the pornography of her age. One of Harry Price’s allies, a woman who examined Helen, told him she possessed ‘enormous depths of pelvis’, and assured him that ‘pelvic concealment of articles is one of the commonest acts of insane females, especially if there is any taint of immorality in them. One, two and three large bath towels, secreted in the pelvis, is of common occurrence in any Female Lunatic Asylum.’
This is the late-night gossip of ward orderlies, redolent of cocoa and gaslight; it is the chatter of the freak-show, from that Hogarthian London which Gaskill evokes early in the book; it is at the frontier of what one can say of a human being, without confiscating their humanity entirely. It would have been good to find Gaskill a little keener to nail it as myth-making and stigmatisation. But of course, it is not his job to defend Nell or pity her, slumped and bleeding in her corner, the corpses of the Western Front packed into her knickers, the drowned mariners of the Barham leaking from her ears. Sympathy is left to Nell herself, who like an infant can only speak of herself in the third person, and speak through the disdainful Albert: ‘Thank goodness I love her, she is a poor beggar.’
Gaskill gives a detailed account of the trial of Hellish Nell, but her subsequent history, and the history of her profession, can be summarised briefly. Emerging from Holloway, she was soon back at work, but she had to dodge the spiritualist authorities, and never quite recovered her former glory. In 1956 a séance in Nottingham was raided by the police; subsequently she was taken ill, and died five weeks later, aged 59. By then, the statute which had trapped her at the Old Bailey had been superseded. The Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 stated that no prosecutions were to be undertaken without the involvement of the DPP; where money had changed hands, spiritualists could be fined or imprisoned for fraud, but there was an exemption for ‘anything done solely for the purposes of entertainment’. This Act, friendly to the trade, drew its teeth. The occult was degraded to an amusement; and television soon offered a better one. During the 1950s, interest in spiritualism fell away; communities fractured; credulity invested itself in flying saucers, and later in crop circles, reincarnation, alien pregnancies, millennial cults. Simple death – except to the rawly bereaved – was no longer interesting enough.
Helen Duncan has successors, though she might despise them. Every weekend – in the South-East of England, at least – the newspapers advertise a selection of ‘Psychic Fayres’, as an alternative to the usual pursuits of DIY and out-of-town shopping. They are held in the banqueting annexes of steak-houses and the hospitality suites of non-league football clubs, and the mediums – who often themselves practise a variety of psychic arts – are mixed promiscuously with the tarot card readers and the palmists. Here they sit on fringed cushions behind trestle tables draped in sleazy silks and nylon velvets, stacked with an array of crystals and charms: carefully conforming to stereotype, just as if they were in a film about themselves. They have name cards which identify them as ‘Tanya’ or ‘Lilia’; there are no Nells these days. There are male fortune tellers, but it’s hard to see how they make a living: unsavoury, sallow, they slump in their chairs and watch the milling customers with dead eyes; if you touch palms with them, they feel damp and desperate. But the female psychics are smart, sharp-eyed, avid, hungry to work; they buzz with goodwill. If anything, they are too busy; they smudge their lipstick by snatching burgers between clients. They are all of Russian descent, they say, mixed with Romany; in psychic terms, Russian is the new Irish. It is true their accents often suggest an eastern derivation: Essex.
Sometimes mediums give solo demonstrations, to audiences of a hundred or more. They operate in daylight, or in the glare of spotlights; there is no ectoplasm, no materialisation, nothing in the way of apports, no music, and no dogma. True professionals, they know how to work a room; they are unnaturally sharp, intuitive and knowing, expert in making the trivial seem profound, or the general particular. Finger hovering over a group of middle-aged women, they will diagnose headaches, or a need to see the optician; they are not above fixing a row with their gaze, and declaring ‘someone here needs to see the dentist,’ zooming in without error on the traces of childish guilt they have elicited. These observations come to them courtesy of your dead relatives, and it is impossible not to shudder at the banal concerns of the spirits. ‘Your Mum likes your new kitchen units,’ they will tell some hapless woman, who will shift and bleat on her stacking chair, and often shed a tear.
Their reasoning is this: if Mum gave messages of an ethereal nature, pronouncing on the harmony of the spheres, we’d be no further forward, would we? But if she says, that’s a very nice double sink, and your mixer tap is beyond reproach, and if she compliments you on your choice of dishwasher, we’re in business: it’s simple enough – have you a new kitchen, or haven’t you?
The suburbanisation of the psychic world was underway before Hellish Nell ceased her trade. Fitted kitchens aside, it has not moved on from the 1950s; to judge by accounts of what the dead get up to, the other world is still observing a British Sunday, old-style, with birdsong, and a picnic in the park. The weather is always fine; no one is in pain; no one ever dies, they ‘pass’. In ‘spirit world’, everyone is at their own ‘best age’. The concept of being ‘differently abled’ has not been introduced there. Torn-off limbs are restored, and amputated breasts. No one is blind or lame. Miscarried babies, of whatever gestation, are thriving in the arms of their great-grandmothers. Those who were aborted are never mentioned.
The psychics draw out information as skilfully as the mediums of Nell’s day, and they coax assent from their public by a sort of sweet bullying. It is fair to say that most members of their audience are scared witless; they have paid their money for prophecy and supernatural advice, but if fingered they sit staring like demented cod, struck speechless, and probably unable to take in what is being said to them, let alone process it and make a sensible reply. It looks like the most naked, risible form of public exploitation: but it is possible, even now, to feel pity for the practitioners of this desperate art. It is a sad thing to see a medium hyperventilating, trembling, running with sweat, gasping out messages from the ancestors to the gormless deracinated teenagers of the Thames Valley, who are too ignorant to know their grandparents’ names or where they came from. The dead are all around us, they insist, hovering, taking care, taking an interest; but brokering them to the living is a wretched trade. What is the use of the dead talking, if no one has the skill to listen?