EDINBURGH (FRIDAY 21ST OF JUNE)
The spirits must have known I was coming to Edinburgh tonight as they sabotaged my Sat-Nav and got me hopelessly lost after the Forth Road Bridge. Added to this a brake cover rusted off its bracket making my front left wheel squeal and squeak with every revolution. This noise was magnified ten-fold in the echo chamber of the multi-storey carpark, so any possible prospect of stealth was destroyed.
Tonight’s venue is a Unitarian Church which is an actual church although it looks like a simple, Georgian townhouse from the outside. Inside, there are several, banks of wooden pews arranged in the usual semi-circle around the pulpit and stage. There are Unitarian Church and Conan Doyle flyers on the wooden pew tables but no bibles, no crosses on the walls or stain glassed windows, the overall effect is still churchy but without the usual painful iconography. I’m confused by this meeting of Spiritualism and Christianity, not so long-ago mediums would have been ostracised by all churches, further back they were tying similar heretics in sacks then throwing them into rivers. Tonight’s event has been organised by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre. Arthur Conan Doyle is famed for creating the famous Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes who championed reason and scientific method. However, Conan Doyle was also a committed Spiritualist who claimed to frequently converse with the dead and who was fooled into believing that fairies were dancing at the bottom of a garden by two mischievous schoolgirls.
I take a seat four rows from the front then scan the room seeing many mystic looking crones of which around 20% are male. There are many retirees, a surprising amount with either blue or pink tinted hair. I’m pleased to recognise the blonde Elvira from the Perth event while Karen Docherty is several rows behind, stony faced and studying everyone intently. A youngish couple are sitting in front of me looking worried and tired, I decide that they have probably lost a child and maybe hope to contact him or her tonight.
The room has slowly filled to around three quarters full when an older woman grabs the mic and addresses the audience introducing herself as the Conan Doyle Centre Chairperson. She starts rambling on about all the various courses, seminars and workshops that the centre provides then finally introduces tonight’s medium. Lisa Williams is a bone fide ‘Celebrity Medium’ having presented a popular US TV series and made many chat show appearances across the globe. Although born in Birmingham she now resides in the United States: the epicentre of all thing’s spiritualism and evangelical. It’s fair to say she’s achieved the kind of success that all mediums aspire to. According to the flyer provided she claims to communicate with the dead, investigates haunted houses, conducts other spirit-seeking activities and is descended from a long line of English mediums and spiritualists.
Williams struts onto the small stage and is greeted with an enthusiastic burst of applause and a couple of woops of delight. She looks a little more frayed than her photoshopped website pictures and a touch heavier around the torso. She’s wearing a stylish, white blouse with blue, floral patterning and black trousers giving her an overall ‘soccer mom’ appearance rather than celebrity.
‘Can you hear me okay? I wasn’t sure if my microphone is working,’ she says. ‘It’s so lovely to be here. How many people have never seen this type of thing before?’
She identifies two people raising their hands and thanks them especially for attending.
‘How many here are practicing mediums?’ asks Williams. A mass of eager hands reaches for the sky like clubbers at a rave. There must be about 30 mediums, all sitting in the front pews. I turn back and notice that Karen Docherty isn’t raising her hand in solidarity.
‘Own It, own it,’ calls Williams. ‘How many people are here to do Forensics? We’ll be working on real life cases.’ Again, the front two rows all raise their hands.
Forensic mediumship is the following day’s workshop taught by Williams in the Conan Doyle Centre. The course claims to show how to breakdown evidence supplied from spirits and extra sensory perception which aids police in solving important cases. This type of claim demonstrates mediumship at its most opportunistic and callous. Every highly, publicised missing person or abduction case attracts mediums like flies to a rotting carcass. Mediums are always keen to draw attention to their involvement in these high, profile cases while the Police rarely acknowledge any of their involvement.
I’m struck by William’s confidence in front of a large crowd, she’s clearly at ease in front of an audience and instantly builds a rapport.
‘I’m going to explain how I work,’ says the medium. ‘I personally like to blend English mediumship with American mediumship which I have a love hate relationship with, in that’s very message based. Of course, my English accent isn’t put on, so I try to connect more with my English mediumship abilities. I like feedback, so If you relate to anything please let me know. I never get offended by “No”. I delve into that “No”. If something resonates with you after the event come back to me later Facebook. Also, I’m very, very much spirit based and spirit centred. I want to make friends with the spirit’.
‘Now, I need you to hold the microphone like an ice cream and make sure I hear you as I am partially deaf and I don’t have my glasses to see you, so help me with the microphone. If I give you a name and it’s close, think outside the box, involve all the audience. Let’s communicate. And basically, that’s it. I wander around and give people messages. I like to have fun. For everyone to be relaxed’.
She goes on to joke about the American sense of humour and Donald Trump, then describes her recent visit to Mary’s Close, a haunted alleyway used in Edinburgh’s many ghost walks. She stresses the importance of accepting any sort of link with the messages she receives no matter how tenuous, explaining that her spirit connections can often get muddled.
‘Ok, are we good?’ asks Williams to the audience.
‘YES’ bellow the audience like a pantomime crowd.
‘Ok, let’s talk to some Dead people. Now, I have a young girl that is coming through. Actually, she’s not a young girl, she’s a teenager, she’s 16. She’s showing me a car accident, or she got hit by a car. A friend of yours?’ Asks Williams to the overall audience. ‘I’m getting a school friendship link also s giving me, I might be wrong so don’t take a definite, I’ve got Amanda or Mandy and I’m being drawn directly in front of me.’
Two people in the front pews raise their hands to signify recognition. A woman recognises the girl but not the names so is discarded in favour of a middle aged, bald man in a blue checked shirt.
‘You recognise the name?’ asks Williams to the man.
‘Yes, the name and she was the daughter of my school friend, my old neighbour,’ replies the man.
‘And she passed in a car accident?’
‘She walked in front of a car.’
‘Perfect, got it. Sometimes we get double messages. I know the name is very strong. She makes me aware that you were like an Uncle?’
‘The name is very strong. She’s very noisy. So, what does Alan mean?’
‘Oh, ehm, Yes.’
‘Don’t worry about that, I’ll leave it with you. Now I’m getting felt pens, remember that smell? It’s giving me a bit of a headache. And I’m getting a connection to a letter in purple writing that may be smelly?’
‘Thank you darling’ answers Williams to the spirit. Unlike the other medium’s Williams chats with the spirits as if they are standing on the stage, she then relays these messages to the sitting audience member.
‘She just told me there’s also a Birthday coming that is significant?’ asks Williams to the man.
‘That’s my Mum’s,’ replies the man.
‘But she’s not crossed, she’s still with us, yes? She wants to say Happy Birthday. I’m assuming that she knew your Mum?’
‘Well my Grandma was like a Mum to her.’
‘Ok, I understand love,’ says Williams to the spirit of the child before turning to the man.
‘She’s drawing my attention to her shoes, asking me do you like my shoes? Her shoes are important. And her clothes are very connected and important to her?’
‘Yes,’ replies the man. ‘Her mother still has as the clothes that she was knocked down in.’
‘Thank you,’ says Williams to the spirit. ‘Ok, so you understand there’s an elderly woman with her and that must be your Grandma?’
‘Now she’s telling me that she realises that your Mum may not believe in the woo woo world but it’s important that you do. In fact, you work in the mediumship world, don’t you? And you took her through and crossed back over, yes?’ asks Williams.
‘Yes.’ replies the man while chuckling.
‘She’s bringing me a gin and tonic, I’m not sure why and I’m not sure if it’s you that drinks the gin and tonic or your mum. She’s letting me know that she’s having a great time, and everything is okay. She’s saying your car needs cleaning and there’s lots of seeing chocolate wrappers inside. Somebody is supposed to be on a diet but there’s chocolate wrappers in the car?’
A woman next to man laughs and admits, ‘That’s me.’
‘Well, all I can say is, BUSTED’ replies Williams sparking the whole audience into laughter. ‘Is your father in spirit?’
‘Now he’s just come in and put his arm around your grandmother and I’m getting the sense that you were close to him?’
‘Yes, very close.’
‘He was a quiet man? He used to shuffle around but a gorgeous guy. I’m seeing tobacco on his fingers as if he was a heavy smoker and I’m getting a strong, strong smell of smoke.’
Clairalience or clear smelling is the supposed ability to smell a spirit or characteristics associated with them.
‘He just wants everybody to know that he is okay and that he has got her. So, I’ll leave that with you.’
‘Yes, yes, thank you.’
‘Now, just one more question I have a fire fighter in spirit, does that mean anything?’
‘No, not really’, answers the man.
‘Ok, I must be switching over to the next spirit, so I’ll leave that with you darling.’
A spontaneous round of applause fills the room to signify a change, so I join in.
‘I want you to clap as it cuts the energy,’ instructs Williams to the audience. ‘It’s very hard getting the message but sometimes a clap raises vibrations and changes the energy. I don’t care if you clap for me or not. is that okay?’
‘YES’ bellows the audience.
‘Ok, so all this is a bit strange to me as they usually kick me out of churches. I’m seeing those Cadbury’s chocolate eggs and somebody here tonight was eating them on the way here tonight. I’m a Vegan so not allowed to eat them and it’s one of those things that I miss the most. I’m still connected to a fire fighter or somebodies Dad who was in the forces or the military or in uniform.’
I resist the urge not to scream ‘Cadbury’s cream eggs are only sold in Easter months’ and instead sit back and admire the William’s deft combination of both Piggybacking and Shotgunning.
‘Ok, my love’ says the medium to a spirit before returning to the audience with, ‘I’m getting pulled to the back of the room this time’.
A woman at the very back of the church raises her hand and the microphone is passed along.
‘Ok, so this is your Father?’
‘Grandfather,’ answers the woman
‘And your grandfather was in the forces? And you like Cadbury’s eggs or he used to give you these eggs for Easter?’
‘He’s is a funny guy and he lost weight by the end. He was quite a stocky chap. Do you understand a tattoo on the arm?’
‘No, that is somebody else.’
‘That person with a tattoo is still with us?’
Williams stops to listen to the spirit then returns to the woman.
‘Did he have a brother?
‘Was he in the service?’
‘Now, I’m getting a tattoo of someone in spirit, maybe somebody with your Grandfather maybe called Fred?’
‘Ok, I think I’m getting messages mixed up, let’s get back to your Grandparents. Now your Gran is in spirit too?’
‘She’s a character, a great laugh but also a bit of a busybody. I love her, I call these nosey people curtain twitchers.’
Williams has got a far more evolved stage presence and appears far more experienced and refined in her interactions with the audience. She keeps the performance upbeat and interesting, interjecting jokes and humorous comments despite often wandering off her chosen subject and person.
‘Ok I hear you darling,’ says Williams to the spirit before returning to address the woman.
‘Now, she’s saying that something in your life means you need a pick me up. And she wants you to know that it’s all going to be okay and when you look up to the sky at night and you see the stars twinkling that’s her winking down to you. Now you can’t see (to the audience) but she’s getting a little bit emotional at the back but it’s good to have a cry. Now she’s mentioning a ring that is very important and she’s warning you not to lose it,’
‘Yes.’ answers the woman snivelling.
‘And she’s referencing a boy. Do you have a son?’
‘They want you to know he’s a credit to you and you’ve done a fabulous job of being a Mum to your boy. They’re both proud of you. And do you have a dog in spirit?’
‘Well, the dog has just come through to say hello.’
‘And with that I think that we’ll leave it with that, okay.’
As recommended applause meets the end of the connection. I’m baffled by the mix of spirit, medium and audience member in the conversation. It’s impressive to witness William’s ability to measure and captivate a crowd but there’s little psychokinesis to be marvelled at.
‘So, I’ve got a feeling this new gentleman was a medic or a nurse? Oh, come on darling. I’ve got a woman now, pushing her way into place. So, I’ve got two people. He was a medic in the army but had an awful bedside manner and she was also a medic. Does this make sense to you?’ says Williams to a middle-aged woman with her hand raised.
‘Yes. I worked with him,’ answers the woman.
Williams admits that she knows this audience member and that she is one of the following day’s students and an aspiring medium. Unsurprisingly, the woman is perfectly accommodating and goes on to answer every question with gusto. Everybody in the front three rows are gobbling up William’s performance like teenagers watching a boyband. At one point a woman in the corner seat turns around and faces the audience, I’m struck by her Bambi eyed look of satisfaction as if she is watching a guru master at work. I begin to ignore the medium and become entranced by the acolytes collected faces in the first row only being snapped out of my interest by another round of applause. Williams goes on to link with other spirits with waiting audience members, she highlights more subjects such as shoes, medical ailments, pets and household ornaments. Each pontification seized upon like ducks eating bread.
‘So, I’ve got a younger guy and believe he rode a motorbike, or he died suddenly on a motorbike?’ asks Williams to the audience.
A tubby middle-aged man in a middle row raises his hand to claim the connection. Everybody waits as the microphone is passed from one side of the congregation all the way to the other side.
‘Yes.’ proclaims the man in a deep voice.
‘Now, he became very excited when you took the microphone and he’s saying, “He’s your boy”.’
‘Well, he was like a son to me, I used to take him fishing.’
‘And he’s been through from the spirit world to meet you before? This isn’t the first time?’
‘I’m not sure, but I’m getting a birthday soon?’
‘That would be the wives.’
‘Now, he’s so grateful to you both for all you did for him.’
‘He’s telling me that he knew he wasn’t going to be long on Earth. Now, he’s also telling me he knows that there was something wrong with the bike that caused the crash?’
‘Well, he was riding a bike that his Father bought him, but it went off the road and hit a lamppost and he was killed instantly.’
‘Now, I’m getting another dog coming through, and she’s Pitbull or a mastiff, one of those lockjaw dogs. She used to jump on your lap and slabber all over you?’
‘She just put her paw up to say hello.’
This latest connection seems completely ridiculous. Not only can Williams speak to the dead but also dead pets. I ponder if Williams understands barking or if the dog is speaking English to her. Any of my deep consideration however is obliterated by profound sense of stupidity for attending such a farce and for parting with my hard-earned cash then driving two hours down the road. I get the impression that Lisa Williams could say anything to this crowd, and they’d suck it up, I however have had enough, and I begin to zone out. The last thing I recall is a cat spirit being invited on stage and a woman who accepted a connection with the claim: ‘My Aunty Mary’s Dad was a lorry driver and his friend lost a leg’.
Again, I’m totally unimpressed and unconvinced despite this medium being one of the most celebrated and famous in the field. William’s has an amiable style and she builds a convincing rapport with her audience, but all her intuition is achieved through wide guesses and a cooperative audience. She simply inundates her audience with questions then picks through the reactions. There’s no supernatural ability bar the capacity to talk, talk, talk then roll with the answers. She reminds me of one of those butchers working out of a caravan at a market or a salesman hawking knife sets, egg slicers or miracle cleaning fluids. ‘A Yap’ as the locals say.
On the way home My Sat Nav refuses to update its signal in time, so I miss important turn offs and end up in the south of the city, extremely lost. It’s well past midnight until I finally pull into my driveway, shattered.
The following Friday and I have the night off but I’m attending ‘An audience with Ally McCoist,’ a charity event where a famous, old footballer entertains a large, drunken crowd about his career. On the journey down to Dundee I mention to my co-passengers that I have been attending the medium events in the previous weeks and so far, I’ve been unimpressed with the results.
My friend in the back of the car is as sceptical as me but the driver (another pal’s father) is far more believing in the subject. He tells us that he thinks there are a certain amount of people who have genuine psychic gifts and possess the ability to speak to spirits of the dead. He then describes how he and his close family (sisters and mother) used to get regular readings from a local mystic called Madame Rosa. In these readings the gypsy styled medium revealed deeply personal details that the sitter had never previously shared to anyone and passed on insightful messages from long, dead relatives. I try to appear ambiguous while explaining the methods the mediums use and the psychology of piecing this altogether, but he is still convinced of the Madame’s powers. The conversation tails off with some daft remarks and shared laughs so that nobody is offended by the differing set of beliefs and we return to reminiscing about Ally McCoist.
This is an opinion that I have met regularly i.e. ‘I don’t believe in any of that rubbish, but there was one time my mum/sister/aunty/uncle went to a medium and ….’ Every time I have shared my attendance of these events people are initially scathing in response however eventually, there is always a caveat of a personal, supernatural anecdote or passed on tale. It’s easy to shoot holes in any of these shared stories and douse the embers of supernaturalism with the cold, wet logic of science but this in turn also ruins the imaginative entertainment of storytelling.
As a gardener you often have cut down many types of trees, one of these being the Rowan. The Rowan is a very beautiful tree with its feather like leaves, silver branches and bright red berries but for whatever daft reason there’s a lot of superstition around them. Last century, Scottish householders would often plant a pair of Rowans at each side of the entrance of a garden to protect both the house and its’s inhabitants from evil spirits and malevolent entities. Whenever a customer chooses to have a Rowan felled my Dad (who is also my boss) suddenly becomes very superstitious despite normally being a very practical man. By his reckoning a relative once cut down a Rowan tree in his garden and was dead within days due to some sort of curse or the removal of the tree’s spiritual protection. As a result, the Rowan tree remains standing and left for another less scrupulous gardener to come and cut it to the ground. Its wild nonsense of course, total hokum yet there’s always a little squabble over this clash of superstition and reason. If my Dad is not around the tree will be cut down and nothing will ever happen but if he’s in that garden we let him rule the day not because of any respect for superstition but rather that its less hassle and squabbling slows the day down and makes the workday exponentially harder. This is how superstition and the supernatural become generally accepted, not because the belief holds any credibility but it’s easier to feign tolerance and carry on with your day.