The Golden (New) Age

The Skeptic, 5.4

Things, as they say, are not what they used to be. Trains don't run on time, dogs are no longer our best friends, the English have forgotten how to play cricket, and the days when drivers remembered to switch off the alarm before opening the car door at 6 a.m., are long gone.

But far, far worse for scrutineers of the paranormal is the sad truth that these days the psychic world is positively mundane compared with the high jinks of the past. Take spiritualism, for example. In its noisy heyday, spirits rapped and blew trumpets, were regularly summoned and photographed, and could even perform miracles unheard of today, such as exerting control over architects (see illustration). However, a visit to an exhibition of mediumship today will reveal not so much glimpse into the Great Unknown, as a complex structure of social interactions, with a shared vocabulary and conventions of behaviour. As a cooperating attendee, you do not, for example, ever tell the mediums that they are wrong. If they say that your late uncle was a leprechaun with a glass eye and a penchant for unicycles, you had better believe it. If you disagree, you'll be told to go away and think about it until you do agree. Nice set-up. Faced with mind-numbingly tedious scenes of modern mediums doling out trivia about lost earrings and money troubles to people selected from that elite list of `hits' - the Ethels, Hildas, Joneses, Arthurs - one would positively welcome a stream of ectoplasm to come creeping out of an unexpected orifice.

It matters that things don't look quite as spectacular as they used to. The paranormal scene has mellowed out, has become less transparently laughable, and transmuted itself into the all-encompassing `New Age'. The dotty, stupid and sometimes dangerous ideas have been stripped of their jaw-dropping showbiz elements, and assimilated into to the lovely, warm, reassuring, soothing and profitable New Age pudding. From the rationalist's point of view, absurd tactile demonstrations of paranormal powers may give you the possibility of having an opportunity to check the evidence. We can at least decide whether the ectoplasm is cheesecloth or muslin. What, on the other hand, can you easily and quickly do about the well-meaning New Ager who takes a deep breath and intones seriously `I can feel your energy lines are out of alignment, my darling'?

On the other hand, it's boring as hell. After all, it is the silly season, and I'd love to be able to tell you about new sightings of fairies in a Yorkshire garden, a levitating medium in a gentlemen's club, or someone stopping Big Ben just by thinking about it. The most entertaining character on the UK scene at the moment is probably Mr Icke, but even he's been quiet of late. (Have you, like me, surreptitiously flicked through his strangely-coloured book in the bookshop? I haven't the nerve to take it to the till.) Even the golden age of spoonbending has all but gone, leaving only fond memories of watching the growing amazement of David Dimbleby and his flapping flares.

Without the over-the-top ludicrous elements, the New Age slips more easily and quietly into our society. The paranormal world may have shed most of its razzamatazz, but there remains an alarming quantity of rubbish, delusion, stupidity and ignorance around, and it is just as important today as it has ever been that people should say, and be heard to say, prove it.


©Toby Howard 1995

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