ABERDEEN (FRIDAY 5TH OF JULY)
My Satnav takes me straight into the heart of Aberdeen City Centre which is a lot more built up and confusing than I’d anticipated. At 6pm the streets are not busy so I’m able to traverse the tight roads and follow the baffling street signs with only a couple of beeped horns from impatient taxi drivers in reply. I park outside the church in the Bon Accord area of Aberdeen and enter the small industrial looking building. I ensure I have a reserved ticket from an older woman at the entrance. She’s friendly enough in that gruff, Aberdonian way and passes me my ticket in a white envelope. On her recommendation I walk to a chip shop down road to get my tea and ignore the Chinese restaurant she slated for being dirty and expensive. Having an hour to spare, I walk around the neighbouring streets before sitting outside a high-rise block of flats to eat my disappointing fish supper. With still half an hour to spare I nip into a barber for a quick haircut then walk back into the Bon Accord Church of Spiritualism.
The church is a simple, small room of about 10 by 30 metres. The walls are bright yellow with the supporting beams painted light blue. 8 large, strip lights hang from the ceiling to illuminate the room and a deep, royal blue carpet covers the floor. On the walls are a painting of a fallen angel, what looks like a Dali picture, a drawing of a native American warrior and a purple tablet which lists the Seven principles of Spiritualism. Up front there is a wooden pulpit behind which are a couple of pot plants, an old CD player and a small bronze statue of another Native American chief. The room exudes a churchy feel but without the dowdiness of a Kirk or the pageantry of a chapel. There are around 10 rows of blue, metal chairs, so I choose one at the back of the room beside a man who’s loudly talking to his wife (after a couple of minutes, I notice he is wearing a hearing aid). There are a few women working the crowd and offering raffle tickets at £2 a strip so I buy 3 then then settle down. The room soon fills up and extra chairs are called for from the adjacent room then positioned in any available space down the aisle. There’s the usual mix of 90% woman, 70% of which are middle aged to elderly and 50% of them are like me overweight. There’s no fantastic, hairstyles tonight but many homemade dyed jobs of pink or peroxide. Overall, it’s a similar size and makeup of crowd to the previous Hotel events but without the booze. Despite this there is a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere with everybody excited and chatty.
The older woman from the reception addresses the audience with little pomp, stopping to playfully, scold one of the still chattering woman sitting in a front seat. Although there seems to be no obvious minister or pastor in this church, this woman is clearly the boss. She welcomes us all to the event then turns to introduce tonight’s performer who emerges from a wooden door in the corner of the room. Gordon Smith is a psychic/medium who used to be a hairdresser so is known as the ‘Psychic barber’. He achieved celebrity in 2005 after replacing the psychic fraud Dereck Acorah on the popular TV Programme ‘Most Haunted’, he’s also a regular guest on UK chat shows and comments in tabloid newspapers. He is wearing a light, blue shirt, dark, dress trousers and a purple suit jacket which alters its colour in the light. He looks a bit more bedraggled than his TV heyday, sporting a half a week’s salt and pepper stubble and short, grey hair. He informs the audience in a broad Glaswegian twang of his belief that ‘nobody dies but just passes on to the spirit world,’ and stresses that he ‘knows rather than thinks’ there is a spirit world full of friends and relatives ready to connect. Predictably, he asks the audience not to simply sit and nod their head but instead answer in a loud and clear voice. Then he jumps straight into his show first telling the audience that all day he has been hearing an old man sing ‘The Everly Brothers, All I Have To Do Is Dream’ (an old 60’a ballad that everybody knows) and that this is repeating in the room tonight. Nobody takes the bait and volunteers recognition contributing to a clumsy kick off. Luckily, the old receptionist steps in to smooth over the initial, bumpy proceedings claiming that her long, dead husband used to sing this tune. Smith then describes seeing this man with lots of children and grandchildren around him and tells the old receptionist that her husband is always looking over her.
Smith then concentrates upon the people at the front, probably because, like the layout of a school classroom, they are the keenest to participate and please their tutor. He uses the standard method of mediumship to an audience; peering into the spirit world, accepting messages from the spirits, then sharing these to the gathered loved ones. He informs the audience that legally he is not allowed to advise anybody about health matters which although understandable is not a caution that any of the other previous mediums advised. He identifies the name of Emma, present or in spirit, which surprisingly, being a common name, is not recognised nor seized upon. Smith then moves on to identify a child with Leukaemia which is offered to the room to which a woman raises her hand to accept. The medium uses considered questioning to gather information from the woman, adding his own related generalities then returning to more questions. There seems to be some genuine harmony in the exchange, but this soon dissipates when the woman admits that it was not her child that died of Leukaemia but in fact a neighbour’s. There’s a slew of following misses but as usual these are ignored by the pace of his delivery and regardless the audience is keen to communicate and fill in the many voids of comprehension. The wife of the deaf man sitting beside me also seems to be a keen Spiritualist. When Smith intimates that he is ‘feeling a link towards Hamilton’ she responds by informing him that she used to stay on Hamilton Road. Smith identifies the surname of Aitken coming through from beyond but again nobody claims recognition. He moves on to another spirit and offers the audience the number 19. A middle aged mystical looking woman with long, blonde hair sitting in the aisle recognises the number as her dead son’s ‘Spirit Birthday’ a term which means the day someone died rather than the day they were born. Naturally, she then helps to successfully manoeuvre the following conversation and connect the dots to all Smith’s guesses.
Then a younger woman in the middle of the room raises her hand and offers that she is Emma Aitken which ignites a choral gasp around the room. The medium acknowledges his bullseye with the nonchalance of a grandad solving a long-stuck crossword clue. The woman has pulled the two misses together straight to her name, without bias it appears to be simple coincidence but to this crowd it’s a clear example of the strength of Smith’s psychic powers. It’s a strong finish and Smith wraps up his show with the usual guff about remembering connections days or even weeks later. He gets an enthusiastic round of applause and leaves the room through the corner doorway he immerged from. My backside is aching and my legs are on the verge of falling into cramp, so I rise to leave but before I can sneak out the receptionist reminds everybody that Smith’s signed books can be bought at a special event price at the back of the room. Then of course there’s the raffle.
A plastic bin filled with the raffle ticket duplicates is passed around the audience and invited to pick a ticket out. The older, deaf man beside me picks out his own duplicate from the raffle bin of which on the face of it is very lucky in a crowd of hundred or so. However, as the tickets are divided into 5 different colours, and he of course picked his colour, the odds are slashed. At least 5 other people including couple of the raffle organisers are cognisant of this little cheat and pull their colour of ticket from the bin. If it wasn’t carried out in such a jovial manner, there would have been screams of ‘fix’ from the few losers. Suffice to say I win nothing. About 30 prizes ranging from bathroom and beauty products to living room ornaments and bottles of booze are passed around to ecstatic raffle winners. The total raffle prize sum must be over £200 which makes me think that this church isn’t as profit concerned as the previous events. The cost of engaging Smith for the night offset against the low admission price means that any profit must be very minimal if anything at all. Unlike the hard sell attitude of Williams and the Conon Doyle Centre there was no pressure to buy related events or courses and tonight’s raffle prizes are far better than Docherty’s or Lindsay’s paltry offerings. Although I haven’t believed one word coming from Gordon Smith’s mouth, for once I don’t feel like I’ve been totally scammed.
One of the main criticisms I have of these Spiritualism events is the repeated prohibition of any questions from the audience. At each show the medium asks a massive amount of questions to a chosen audience member but there is none received in return. Personally, if I believed that I could converse with a dead pal or once cherished relative I would have a long list of questions to ask. What’s it like over there? Where is over there? What’s the weather like? What’s the food like? These would the opening questions much like the queries you receive when you phone back home from a holiday. Then there would be the more existential questions like Do you age in the afterlife? What age are you? Who else is over there? Are you watching me all the time? I can only assume that there are never any questions asked because they are impossible to answer.
I’m down visiting a pal in Glasgow. He rents a bottom floor flat of a large Victorian townhouse and as I’m waiting for him in the shared hallway, I start to peruse the many books in the large bookshelf that spans the hallway’s wall. There’s many Barbara Cartland, Sven Hassel and Stephen King paperbacks jammed together with European city guidebooks, celebrity biographies and fishing handbooks. I’m about to open the front door when I can just make out the word ‘ghost’ on the spine of a thin paperback so as always, I pull it from its shelf for a look. I recognise the castle on the cover immediately. It’s the book my Uncle gave me all those years before. For years I had been searching for ‘Scottish Ghost Stories’ without any specific author whereas I should have been searching for ‘Gazetteer of Scottish Ghosts’ by Peter Underwood (Underwood, 1974). Flicking through the pages I instantly recognise the black and white photographs of eerie mansions and dilapidated castles plus the large section on Glamis Castle. I contemplate shoving the book in my pocket fearing I might never see the book again but during a rare moment of inspiration, I remember I can buy on Amazon through my phone. A quick search and there’s an exact match available for £1.49 including postage so I order the book and place the copy back in its position. Three days later and the book is waiting for me on my doormat. I rip open it’s wrapping and start to leaf through all the old stories instantly recalling the ‘Big Grey Man of Ben MacDui’, ‘The Empty house of Fettercairn’ and ‘The Wicked Earl of Ethie Castle’. However, when I reach the section on Glasgow there’s no mention of a woman being buried alive, a séance or even Glasgow University. I’m confused so rake through the remaining stories but I’m still unable find the story not even a similar plot or characters. This type of conundrum often bothers me till I find a solution, so I spend the next few hours down a google rabbit hole searching for an answer. It’s only when I abandon search queries related to Glasgow and Scotland that I finally find a tale with similar elements to my supernatural origin tale.
Rosa Spandoni was an Italian woman who died in town called Camerino in 1950’s Italy. She was not murdered by her husband but fell into a coma after an illness, was wrongly pronounced dead then buried alive. There was no Society of Parapsychology and no séance but a demonstration of mediumship to a psychology class in the Camerino University. A medium did channel the unsettled spirit of Rosa who complained about her cruel death which in turn inspired the exhumation of her coffin and when her coffin was opened there were scratches on the coffin lid and her fingers were thrust down her throat. These last two facets are the only parts I recalled correctly, the other differences were totally invented, by me.
The story was not collated in ‘The Gazetteer of Scottish Ghosts’ but described in half a page of a ghost story collection called ‘The World’s Greatest Ghosts’ by Roger Boar (Boar,1983). My mum bought me this cheap paperback to read when I was taking the bus to and from Glasgow during my first year at University. I did not attend the ancient and gothic looking Glasgow University, but I used to walk past the building daily, on the way to my lower status University down the street. As I read the story, I must have associated the Italian University with the more familiar Glasgow building, this false memory was then fossilised as I repeated the story to friends. As a teenager I truly believed in the supernatural or paranormal, so I was eager to connect the dots or even create the dots of the many dubious stories and strange tales.
There is no recorded proof of Rosa Spandoni’s death only a few apocryphal retellings and passed on tales. However, you don’t need hard evidence when you have the desire to believe and an overactive imagination. I, like the audience members of the four medium’s shows altered the facts to better suit my preferred reality. I reworked the storyline, bent the plot and even added characters to fit a more desirable narrative. I wanted the story to be more believable, so I created elements to make it sound true. I also misremembered my discovery of the story, relating it to a totally different reminiscence.
I don’t want to be a sceptic. I don’t want to be so cynical. I want to believe. But in general, there’s precious few concrete examples of the afterlife and spirits to believe in and there’s been even less evidence at any of the medium shows that have attended. In the end, I hoped to discover some sort of clever ruse or a method of deception, some planted audience actors, a hidden microphone or covert earpieces but the reality is far basic and prosaic. These mediums need only be amateur actors to convince their pliable audience of their abilities. It’s all show. And it’s a show that many want to believe in. Most of the time, that is all you need.