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The Skeptic, 8.4

Every day, like many people, I take a daily newspaper. Mine is The Guardian, that liberal snuggley organ where the design changes so frequently you may begin an article in Times and end up in Helvetica. But on Thursdays, I take two more newspapers. The first is The Orcadian, published weekly from Kirkwall in Orkney. It's an encapsulation of the slightly skewed version of 20th century life they live up there, in an enchanting archipelago with enough ancient monuments to send your dowsing sticks into a frenzy. And home of the true drink of the Gods - Highland Park whisky.

My other Thursday newspaper is Psychic News. After taking it for years in the eighties, I grew weary of the tightly focused coverage: although the belief in an afterlife, and the ability of select individuals to eavesdrop, was taken as given, articles with headlines like `More proof of survival this week in Ashton-Under-Lyme' appeared with depressing regularity. The scene was going nowhere, and not fast, so Psychic News and I parted company.

Out of the blue, a few weeks ago, I re-subscribed, and when the first issue arrived, I was astonished. First, there was, as they say, `an imaginative use of typeface' - if not quite The Face, then certainly the tabloid section of The Guardian. The Psychic News I remembered was a dusty, almost audibly creaking newspaper that was prone to rapid yellowing, with one foot in 1880 and the other in 1980. The paper I rediscovered was itchily, and rather self-consciously, `nineties'.

As I write, Psychic News is up to issue 3,250, and at one issue per week, that's a lot of years - a testament to the longevity of the spiritualist community in the United Kingdom. But it is a slim publication. If you remove the 4-page `Psychic Press' advertising supplement, you are left with 8 pages of the week's `psychic news', of which more than two and a half are advertisements. In contrast, the modest 974 square kilometres of Orkney manage to provide a packed 36 pages of terrestrial news every week.

I cannot help but be skeptical of the Psychic News world. The constantly detectable underlying current of sadness, the aching to cross the Great Divide, the spirit communications offered through `Lone Bear', `Red Feather' and the rest of the Sioux or Apache crowd. I'm as afraid of dying as much as the next person, but God help me if I end up in a fragrant foggy world in a white suit trying to make a connection to a `psychic' on a chilly stage somewhere north of Manchester.

But, Psychic News has changed. In this week's issue, there are two pieces that would not be out of place in The Skeptic. The first is by Tom Haigh, in his column `In Touch'. In an article gravely entitled `No faces are seen', he describes a visit to a meeting at the International Spiritual Awareness Centre (in Harrow) at which Swindon's Graham Bishop `gave what purported to be a demonstration of experimental transfiguration'. Skeptical stuff? You bet. Mr Haigh was not impressed with Mr Bishop's performance/experiment/demonstration: `His guide, a Prussian Doctor' - it certainly makes a refreshing change from Red Eagle and Black Moose-Catcher - `told those present ... that he and his team would attempt to build “the mask” '. This refers to a process where the medium's face is covered by a mask of ectoplasm which is then used by those on the Other Side as a sort of paranormal Plasticine, in which they can create an impression of their own faces. You'd think the dead could build a bridge between this world and the next without resorting to psychic Play-Doh, but apparently not. Mr Haigh reports: `Mr Bishop sat in a specially constructed cabinet motionless, face impassive, with absolutely no sign of a transfiguration taking place'. But several people in the audience were sure they saw something happen, shouting: `His face is getting thinner, he's got a moustache, I can see an old man, I can see a young man, I've just seen Clement Atlee/Stephen O'Brien/Margaret Thatcher [sic]'. However, Mr Haigh himself saw no such manifestations, and was not impressed by subsequent attempts by Mr Bishop's spirit guide to heal him of complaints he did not have. He concludes: `On the strength of last Saturday night, audiences be aware this might lead to evenings where psychic phenomena are conspicuous by their absence.' This is Psychic News, don't forget. And there's more: the back page of the same issue features an article on noted parapsychologist and skeptic Susan Blackmore, Skeptic contributor and member of the UK Skeptics. It's a sympathetic piece, and charts Sue's experiments and interests over the years.

So what has happened to Psychic News? I remembered it as a bastion of nonsense. Now that they seem to be taking a more `balanced' view of the scene, I found myself rather disappointed, and almost considered unsubscribing. But not quite. Thursdays wouldn't be the same without The Guardian, The Orcadian, and Psychic News, three unlikely bedfellows that go together rather well.


©Toby Howard 1995

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