COLD READING IN JUNE – Part 5 (ABERDEEN)

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.

QUESTIONS

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.

GHOSTS

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          

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.

Cold Reading in June – Part 2 (Dundee)

DUNDEE (FRIDAY 31ST of MAY 2019)

I arrive at the Queens Hotel around 6.30 pm with an hour to spare so I park up around the back. It’s a balmy night and the concrete buildings and tar of the road are drying in the evening sun. Pedestrians and commuters file up down the streets making their way home or into the few bars.  I leave my car and check its locked three times then I turn to recognise tonight’s main medium, Karen Docherty, step out of the back of a five-year-old Toyota Yaris (a small, boxy run-around favoured by old people and city dwellers). I’m surprised by the unostentatious choice of transport, I expected her to be transported in a new, BMW or top of the range 4×4. Her basic website and social media channels detail frequent tours of the United States and UK while fans leave gushing testimonials giving the impression of accomplishment in her trade.

The hotel lobby is clean and spacious with an art deco design. A plaque on the wall tells you that ‘Winston S Churchill stayed in this hotel on many occasions between 1908- 1922’, an historical piece of trivia which probably means nothing to most of its clientele. I order a pint of coke, take a seat in the bar and scan the room for an indication on possible show attendees. Strangely, there’s no music playing and the TV’S are off so I can easily lug into the surrounding conversations. A pair of Irish women are cheerily discussing their coming travel plans in the corner and there’s groups of office workers gossiping over their drinks near the bar. A couple of single men stare into their phones and sip at pints while an older couple pick at their fish teas. I try to interpret if the bar patrons are attending tonight’s show but every time I decide they are, they rise, leave the bar and pour into the street. At 7.15 I decide to go up to the events room upstairs. I stop in the toilet and click on my audio recorder and slot it into my chest pocket of my jacket. On every step up the wide, carpeted stairway the nerves jangle in my stomach, I’m not sure what to expect, or if I’ll be welcome as an outsider. I’d heard that some mediums and their devotees can be overly protective of their faith in Spiritualism. There’s a long queue for the foyer bar so I walk straight into an adjacent room that’s buzzing with chatting people. I realise that by switching my phone off I’ve hidden my e-ticket from use so have to hang around the reception table until a seated man ushers me into ‘any seat’ which means any seat up at the back, as the room is already three quarters full. The room’s walls are covered by plain, cream wallpaper and a trio of large chandeliers hang from the white ceiling. On two sides of the room are large Victorian windows which invite the evening sun into the room. It’s a big room, elegant and well-maintained, perfect for a large meeting but not grand enough for a wedding. There are six rows of around twenty comfortable chairs which are facing two further chairs and a table that form a makeshift stage. The first five rows are already crammed full of middle aged, round women who natter like birds and sip on their drinks. I feel like I’ve walked into an aviary. The remaining chairs are quickly filled so extra chairs are pulled from next door and positioned in any available space. I count around 200 people sitting with me tonight, of around ten are men and half of them seem to have been brought against their will.

A pair of excited women sit beside me and chatter like chipmunks. I overhear mentions of previous visits to Docherty’s shows. When one of the women leaves, I turn to her friend.

‘Excuse me, do you go to many of these things?’ I ask.

‘Oh aye, I’ve been to see Karen 5 or 6 times, she’s very good, has a good way with the audience,’ she answers.

‘This is my first time to any psychic event, I’m not sure what to expect’.

The woman mistakes my inquisitive question for apprehension and says ‘Ach, it’s not that bad’.

She then turns to her pal who’s returned.

‘This is this guy’s first time,’ she says with a chuckle.

Before I can ask another question, Karen Docherty rises from her chair and addresses the audience through a microphone which hushes the many nattering conversations to silence. Docherty is around 45, small and chunky. She has should length dirty blonde hair and is wearing a simple black blouse and pair of plain black trousers. She doesn’t look like a psychic, more like your typical Scottish Mum or Aunty. I immediately consider that she must be confident to stand up in front of 200 people and hold court. She welcomes everybody with a simple ‘Hello,’ pauses to let all the stragglers return from the bar then says:

‘We were supposed to be welcoming another medium from Denmark tonight but unfortunately, we just found out she has an illness which means she couldn’t fly, so instead we have David Francis, a fantastic medium from Ireland who’s based in Glasgow.’

Her local accent intrigues me as I’ve only ever heard the American or English accents of TV psychics. Foreigners would likely categorise her accent as broad while Scots would instantly recognise the Dundonian drawl. Docherty asks everybody to switch off their phones which ignites a chain reaction of rustling, murmuring and many beeps of handsets powering off. She then asks if this is anybody’s first time to a medium show. I reply by raising my hand and scan the room to see very few doing the same.

‘What you’re here for …’ she stops to acknowledge the noise of a busker well below who’s rendition of Wonderwall is seeping through the gap of an open window. She jokes that the wailing isn’t the sound of the spirits, but she would be delighted if it was. The audience laughs as she silences the intrusion by closing the window.

 ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time, doesn’t matter if you’re not sure, it doesn’t really matter if you decide this is not for you. Whatever happens, the spirits are her because they love you,’ she says.

‘Obviously, by the time you leave we have given you something to think about, if you’re on the fence about it, enjoy the experience, the spirits don’t want to come in and make us sad or upset. They don’t want to embarrass you. Don’t be sacred to talk back. Don’t be like a rabbit in the headlights. Nothing you don’t want mentioned in public will be said. As a medium I speak from the spirit world to you. They know you’re coming before you know you’re coming. It’s them that have brought you here. Keep an open mind no matter what. Some people are dragged long and get frightened, don’t be. If any chairs start floating about, if people start levitating don’t be jealous.’

I’m comforted by her local accent. It’s like listening to a local nurse or primary school teacher. She holds the microphone with her right hand but is very expressive with the left and she seems to be aware of the importance of hand and body gestures.

‘I’m going to get started now. I can feel the spirit world building up. When I come and talk to you please talk back and take the microphone. Don’t just hold the microphone like an ice cream, it’s important that you answer back in loud, clear voice. The spirits know your mind and your thoughts,’ she says.

Then she jumps right in.

‘Okay, I have an older lady and feel this lady had a bleed on the brain, or injury to the head or a brain tumour. I feel the symptoms. She was not elderly. 50, too young to pass into the spirit world, maybe a bit younger than that. Over this side, not entirely sure, I’m getting a three of a family connected to her or a three. Anyone up the back?’ she says.

An older woman sitting five seats along from me raises her hand.

‘Does that mean someone to you?’ asks Docherty.

 ‘My sister, and her mother’ answers the older woman while motioning to a younger woman sitting next to her.

‘So, brain tumour and three?’ She had symptoms, not instantaneous? Did I get the age correct?’ asks the psychic.

The woman next to me also puts her hand and identifies a brain tumour and mother but she is ignored in favour of the pair of women.

‘Okay, can we get the microphone along,’ orders Docherty to the man from reception table. The microphone is passed hand to hand like an athlete’s baton along our row.

‘Sometimes we get people with similar stories. Now, you would understand she wasn’t worrying about things, but she kept somethings to herself. Not make a big fuss or deal, does that make sense? asks Docherty.

The woman now holding the microphone nods.

‘She was quiet, private lady. With a great personality?’ asks Docherty.

‘Yes’ answers the woman.

I’m torn between watching Docherty and the reactions of the woman.

‘I feel that’s she’s very strong and she wants to boost you up. Very strong, confident. It’s okay if you disagree,’ says Docherty.

‘She was, but she was also quite shy at times,’ answers the older woman.

‘I am getting that she is confident, very strong but whether she’s giving you that to give you piece of mind. I mentioned there’s three of a family but there’s a boy she was really close to, one boy?’ asks Docherty.

‘No’ answers the woman.

‘But your saying there’s no three or there’s no boys? There are no boys, no grandchildren?’ presses the medium.

‘No. Oh yes, there’s a boy, a grandson,’ answers the woman.

‘I just feel she has to talk about a boy and there’s three of a family? She wants to be around her family, but she feels she hadn’t done everything she could of while she was alive. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, yes’ answers the woman.

Docherty then directs her attention to the nervy looking woman next to the older woman, so the microphone is passed on.  I quickly evaluate the situation: the spirit that Docherty is channelling is both the older woman’s sister and this younger woman’s mother, so these two women are aunty and niece. Before I can bathe in my outstanding method of deduction, I’m back into the spirit world.

‘Now she definitely wants to acknowledge you’re here. She didn’t say things or do things that she should’ve. I’m not saying that because she’s ashamed but feels she should say that just. Do you understand this?’ asks the medium.

‘Yes’ croaks the younger woman.

I also understand there’s alcohol connected to her. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘I can smell the alcohol now. Now she’s saying she is comfortable to talk about the alcohol now as a part of healing. She’s bringing an apology. She’s well aware that you’ve been very strong, and that you’ve been keeping the family together?’

The daughter nods her head in reply.

‘I know you have a couple bits of her jewellery. She’s also mentioning a butterfly and Christmas, or some birthday around Christmas?’

The daughter acknowledges the remarks although she is not assured.

‘She wishes things could’ve been better or she had been better. Don’t worry if I’m wrong, I’m getting a Christmas that was not good and she wishes things hadn’t gone so wrong?’

The daughter converses with her aunty then says, ‘Could’ve been just before she passed.’

‘She has really come through tonight to provide healing. She sees her child name linked. She sees that child?’

‘Yes.’

‘This isn’t about what she brought in. She is in peace where she is now. Did you miss her passing? Don’t worry about that. That last 5 minutes means nothing.’

Suddenly Docherty rises her intonation and calls out ‘I’m getting Jemma or Jenna or Jem or Jen. Does that mean anything?’

‘No, nothing’ replies the daughter.

‘Okay, let me hold it. Okay, I think the ladies gone but I leave you with her love,’ says Docherty.

The daughter squeaks ‘thank you,’ while snivelling back some tears. The audience sense an ending to the spirit connection and enthusiastic applause fills the room.

The massive ‘Jemma or Jenna or Jem or Jen’ guess has just fallen flat, like a boxer’s haymaker that misses completely and leaves the puncher clawing the air before tumbling to the ring canvas. Docherty, however, has expertly, dodged any embarrassment by ignoring the miss and continuing forward. I’m also struck by the amount of questions that come from the medium. It’s not so much inquisitorial as cross-examination by relentless bombardment of questions. After each enquiry there’s an acknowledgement of a positive or negative answer then a related question straight after. The audience member doesn’t have much time to think and must answer on the spot. This pressure must be multiplied tenfold when in front of a crowded room of 200 people that are watching intently and hanging on every word.

Docherty intimates that a new spirit is attempting to connect then crosses over to the other side of the room to involve that side of the audience.

‘I have a new man, a road traffic accident. A motorbike. And I still have John or Jem. He seems like quite a cheeky chap and impatient. He’s a younger man that has passed to the spirit world. Not a car but feels more like a bike but if you don’t recognise a John or Jem don’t worry about that part?’ asks Docherty to the room.

A woman at the at the far part of the room puts up her hand and acknowledges all the details. The microphone is passed along.

‘Has there been an anniversary or birthday recently? He feels people have been talking about him recently. He is bringing in a lady related to you. Its wasn’t a sudden passing. Somebody maternal but not necessarily your mother. Do you understand this sweetheart? The lady is well missed. She is talking about two children or two grandchildren. Problems in the abdomen? If it’s no I’m fine with that.’

‘No’ answers the new audience member.

‘I’m sensing a link down south. She is listening to this conversation. I think that there is a link to a man with body problems?’ asks Docherty.

‘No, not really,’ answers the woman.

The conversation peters out with a selection of missed queries until Docherty offers:

‘Okay, I’ll leave you with this lady’s love,’ which is the trigger for applause and the end of the connection.

I’m baffled by this last conversation and scan the room to gauge other people’s reactions. Everybody is transfixed by the medium’s display and staring at her captivated. Before I can properly process the scene Docherty quickly moves on to another spirit and possible connection with a waiting audience member. There are several of these types of conversations: questions to the room, which are answered by the flimsiest of associations. Any weak linkage is seized upon by the medium, relayed back to the audience member until the conversation pitters out to nothing.

‘I don’t know I’m getting a Grandad or Dad. I feel a strong sense of using hands. A mechanic or fixing engines or cars. John or James?’ asks Docherty to the audience.

I think to myself that my Grandad and was a mechanic, loved his cars and my Dad’s middle name is John although he is alive.

‘Anybody?’ asks Docherty to the room.

About twenty people put their hands up which brings a ripple of laughter around the audience. It’s not surprising that many recognise this plea as many people’s male relatives work with their hands and more specifically cars.  Psychologists call this ‘The Barnum effect’ which ‘is a common psychological phenomenon whereby individuals give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them, that are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.’ (Wikipedia, 2019). Docherty picks a young man at the back of the room. He seems overdressed for tonight with grey suit and purple tie and is sporting a black cockatiel style quiff. There’s a tattoo crawling up his neck and many studs and rings in his facial features. He looks like a pirate going to an office job interview. Docherty waits until the microphone is passed along the room like a church collection bag.

‘You were close to you Grandad, weren’t you? He was like a father?’ she asks.

‘Yes.’ replies the man.

‘Your Grandad didn’t like being in hospital but had a great sense of humour. He says he knew what he had but it kept coming back, is that right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Who was James?’

The young man pauses to think then answers, ‘He was my Grandad’s best friend.’

‘And has he passed onto the spirit world?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Oh, okay well we won’t send him there.’ (A joke is made to cover a big miss and the audience respond with a choral chortle) ‘He says he left some sort of writing. Also, I feel like he was the man that has shown you through life?’

‘Yes.’

‘He wants you to do the all the things you want and to do the things he didn’t get to do. He was worldly wise. Are you married? Are you getting married?’

‘No.’

‘He is talking about someone getting married.’

‘My sister was going to get married.’

‘Not anymore?’

‘I hope not,’ answers the man sparking another burst of collective laughter.

‘Now, I can sense someone in the family is having a baby?’ asks Docherty.

‘I don’t think so,’ answers the man.

‘Anne?’

‘Ehhm, Oh yes. My friend’s wife.’

‘I don’t know, I think it’s somebody closer.’

‘I was trying for a baby.’

The audience let out a collective ‘Awww,’ as if a big, furry kitten has entered the room.

‘Your Grandad knows all this. He is a funny man and a good man, and he is right by your side.’ With that Docherty accepts the rooms applause and hands her microphone to the next medium.

David Francis is a small man of about 30 and is nattily dressed in three-piece suit with tweed waistcoat. He’s been sitting on a chair out front, cross legged watching the audience intently until being introduced.

‘Good evening everybody,’ says Francis in a thick Irish accent which he jokes about.

‘I’ve got a lot of images tonight. In my mind’s eye, I’m getting an older lady maybe 60 or 70?’

There’s little response to this initial spirit connection so he jumps ages and gender.

‘And also, I’m feeling a connection to a young man. A man overwhelmed by life. He was brought down the wrong path by others. He is fully responsibly for his actions bringing his death. He damaged his physical body but had a beautiful soul. Taking his life by his own hand. Does anybody understand this?’

A middle-aged woman with long, blonde hair woman in the front row raises her hand and claims recognition.

 ‘He was in his low 20’s when he passed, and an older woman has brought this young man tonight. A lost child?’ asks the Irishman.

‘Yes,’ replies the woman while accepting the microphone.

‘I’m getting a patchwork blanket. He is a very loving guy who is sorry for the last years of his life. He wasn’t connected to his family in these last years?’

‘Yes, yeah’ replies the woman.

‘Now, he had a temper and would lose the rag easier than others?’

‘Sometimes, but not very often,’ replies the woman.

‘I’m also a getting dark haired man, not a track suited lad but wearing jeans and t-shirt. I’m getting problems with depression and anxiety. I don’t mean to be personal but he’s showing me these memories, mirroring them. Would you understand? I see a connection to divorce. Lifestyle habits led him to be the way he was. Interaction with the Police. Do understand this?’ asks the medium.

The medium seems to confuse the woman with his bizarre statements and relentless questioning. The conversation stumbles into an awkward finish but before anyone in the room can digest the strangeness of this connection, he immediately jumps on to another dead person in the spirit world. There’s no applause from audience. I trace the room and see many bemused and unimpressed faces. Francis is beginning to take the form of a man that’s walked into a swamp and while he may only be waist height in the mire, he’s sinking, fast with every awry pronouncement. He’s less skilled in judging the audience and lures audience members in before destroying the connection with needlessly, personal and negative statements. I also get the feeling that he doesn’t appreciate that many of his negative, personal assertions reflect badly not only upon the dead person but also relatives. The audience has become more hesitant and distrustful as a result.

‘Now I’ll open up the room,’ says Francis while making a screwed-up face of concentration. ‘I’m starting to see a hospital or red cross. Normally this means a nurse or carer. Also, a problem in the torso?’

 Francis seems to identify the ailments of the spirits by physically feeling them himself. This psychosomatic diagnosis is referred to as clairsentinence or clear feeling and is as scientifically verifiable as the tooth fairy. He rubs his chest and stomach in circular motion to highlight the area of pain, pinpointing every single vital human organ in the process.

‘It could be a nurse or a carer or somebody who was in hospital? I don’t want to say cancer outright. Margaret or Mary. Anybody? Asks the medium to the crowd.

There’s no response at all. It’s a big miss and quite startling considering he’s targeted a massive chunk of Scotland’s population in one singular sentence. People start exchanging bewildered looks and shakes of the head. A woman volunteers that her mother was a nurse, but the linkage soon dissolves into the wallpaper. He continues in this same way, criss-crossing the audience with general statements that everyone in the room can possibly identify with. However, there’s a no rapport, no humour and when a connection is made Francis gives little opportunity for audience members to interact properly. Unlike Docherty, he has no information to work on. He is saying too much. Sensing that he is struggling Docherty jumps in to give a half time break. She informs us that there is raffle at the desk at £5 a ticket which wins a personal reading from herself as the sole prize. It seems like an extortionate piece of business yet there is long queue to buy the tickets within seconds.

Everybody rises from their chairs and either begin to file out to the toilets, slope to the bar or crawl downstairs for a smoke.

‘What do you think, so far?’ asks the woman sitting next to me.

‘Yeah, it’s quite interesting, not as weird as I’d thought.  I think she was better than the Irish guy,’ I answer.

‘Oh, yeah, he’s terrible isn’t he. We’re not impressed by him at all.’

After twenty minutes and when everyone has settled back into their seats with fresh drinks, the second half of tonight’s show begins with Francis again who wastes no time in working the room.

‘Now, I’m drawn to a lady over here,’ says Francis while pointing towards a group of four women sitting in the middle of the second row.

‘Now, I’m getting a strong person, authoritative. In the forces, may I say the RAF?’

‘Yes, yes, that was my brother’ answers a woman in a thick, Texan accent. She is quite large, in her 60s and has a streak of dark purple running through a short, grey haircut.

 ‘I’m getting an aeroplane and maybe an ejector seat. He’s a very strong person, an energetic person but very stern. Do you understand being mean or stern?’

‘Well, not really’ answers the woman.

‘Okay, but he was in the RAF and he gives me the impression that he saw action, he wasn’t just flying over mountains?’

‘Yes, he was a rear gunner.’

‘Well, he’s very concerned about you and he knows you will be going on a long journey very soon’. (If she had turned around and asked me, I could have also predicted this and probably even the airport she was flying into).

The medium then scours the room for his next target until an older woman in front of me claims recognition of her mother.

‘I feel like this lady was lonely before she passed over. Had she recently lost someone close and felt alone, very alone?’ asks Francis.

The woman is offended by his guess and immediately cuts him off with a terse ‘No, nope, not her.’ Francis tries to rescue the faltering connection, but to her credit this woman is having none of it and waves off the conversation off with outstretched palm and shake of her head. It takes all my willpower not to roar in laughter. The Irishman has pushed his luck and annoyed someone with his brash, unrefined style and is now floundering. 

‘Now, I’m going to the back of the room and somebody in line with where I’m standing’ says Francis.

Francis stands directly in front of me only 5 rows down. I like to think as myself as unremarkable but at 6’4 and 19 stone, in this crowd I’m about as inconspicuous as Tony the Tiger at a panda party

 ‘I’m getting an old man with facial hair and I’m trying to be polite, but he has a receding hair line, not completely bald but short, short hair. I’m seeing a figure like this in my mind’s eye. A father or grandfather figure. I’m drawn to somebody that looks likes this man. A big man who’s a bit overweight?’ says the medium.

He is describing me: a big lump who’s long lost a battle to retain his once curly locks. Naturally, he’s assumed that I look like my long dead Grandad or my very much alive Father and tried his luck. I refuse to make eye contact or respond to his advances as I do not want to be badgered in front of a room full of strangers. Luckily, there’s one of the few men of the audience sitting directly in front of me and he accepts the connection as his father.

‘Now, do you recognise the description of this man?’ asks Francis.

‘Yes, although my father was always clean shaven,’ answers the man.

‘Ok, now did he have heart problems near the end?’

‘Well, not really. He died of an aneurism.’

‘Well, maybe I’m getting mixed messages from the spirits.’

The swamp water is now up to the medium’s nostrils, so he grasps for help and returns to the quartet of eager participants in the second row, he’s on safe ground with one of this crew.

‘Now, I’m getting drawn back to this part of the room and I’m getting an older woman coming through,’ says the medium while motioning to the four women in the second row. Every time either of tonight’s mediums have linked with a spirit at least one of this quartet has shot up their hand like a teacher’s pet. The woman who accepts the microphone is smaller than her chunkier pals, with greying black hair and appears timid and mousey. She squeaks an affirmative answer back to the Irish medium’s relentless questioning. The audience watch with a mix of deep, fascination and creeping, embarrassment as the medium goes about emotionally, dismantling the woman.

‘Yes’, replies the woman whimpering.

‘She is trying to highlight the things that are bothering you. Your mind is at a million miles per hour and you have hundreds of thoughts. Take a step back and stop worrying about others. You have no idea how you are affecting others. The lady is reiterating that. Be selfish,’ says the Irishman.

‘I cannot be selfish,’ squeals the woman.

‘Take time for you’

Her final humiliation is complete with the wail, ‘Why didn’t she tell me that she loved me when she was alive?’

‘That’s unfortunately something I can’t answer’ replies Francis.  ‘However, I do believe this lady has seen the ripple effect of her actions. I assure you of that. We have a beautiful journey to take in crossing over, but she realises how she acted. She has a hell of a lot of love in her heart’ continues the Irishman.

The wailing woman appears broken and is weeping into her hands. The audience however bursts into a round of applause in joyful appreciation of the medium’s public evisceration of the woman. This is what they’ve come to see. Francis has just dragged himself out of the quagmire at the very point of drowning and now takes his leave amid rapturous applause. I half expect him to take a bow before he takes his seat. Karen Docherty meanwhile has been sitting stony faced throughout Francis’s performance, and probably feeling upstaged by his finale, decides to jump back in and round up the night.

‘Now, I’m still getting the names or Jem, Jen or Jemma coming through but also Ellen or Helen, I’d like to offer this up to the whole room?’ says Docherty.

Another middle-aged woman at the far end of the room raises her hand and the microphone is passed along again.

‘Do these names mean anything to you?’ asks Docherty.

‘My best friend’s Aunty was called Helen, but she was like a grandmother to me,’ replies the woman with yet another tenuous link.

Probably sensing that she cannot top Francis’s performance ending she rounds up the night with advice on how to book her personal readings then thanks everybody for attending.

As I get up to the leave the room, the woman beside me asks me, ‘Well, what did you think?’

‘Aye, it was quite good, and he pulled it out of the bag in the end,’ I answer while trying to hide my disappointment.

It always takes me a day or two to process an event and I’m never able to properly evaluate something as it happens. Fortunately, as a gardener I’m afforded the opportunity of deep reflection especially during June when I’m trawling up and down lush lawns every day. Overall, I was underwhelmed by my first medium show. The mediums appear little more than comperes who coax and cajole their audience into believing that their general suppositions have more profound meaning. I was prepared to be astounded and expected much more than the disappointing exhibition of fluky conjecture combined with an audiences’ eager desire to link details and please the medium. I hoped to witness some sort of compelling evidence for spiritualism or mediumship but saw nothing. Despite this, apart from Francis’s cruel exposure of the emotionally vulnerable woman the event is also not as malign or malevolent as I’d previously assumed. By and large, the audience are enthusiastic participants and willing to be used as part of the performance. Also given they are only spending £20 on each ticket there doesn’t seem to be much greedy deception on display (apart from the raffle).  I hoped to witness some devious examples of underhand tactics or audience subterfuge, but the reality is far more banal and unsupernatural. However, with a bit of research I was able to untangle some of the methods and sly tricks used by mediums to deceive the impressionable.

COLD READING

Cold Reading is the ability to gather information from an audience member without that individual realizing that they are providing the information themselves. It is referred to as ‘cold’ as the medium needs no previous knowledge of the audience member. By carefully observing an audience member’s characteristics and behaviour through a series of deductive or general guesses together with the general ‘Barnum statements’ a medium can give the impression of having supernatural abilities. Everybody uses cold reading in their daily life, sometimes to build understanding, often to create prejudice. We judge people by their choice of clothing, the newspapers they read, cars they drive and even their race, sex or age. Mediums finetune this ability to a science, enabling them to identify characteristics and psychological hang ups from a few choice questions and reactions.

James Underdown from Centre for Inquiry and Independent Investigations Group says, ‘In the context of a studio audience full of people, cold reading is not very impressive.’ and explains cold reading from a mathematical perspective. ‘A typical audience (alike the Docherty event) consists of about 200 people and a conservative estimate assumes each attendee knows around 150 people’ (Wikipedia,2019). So, when Karen Docherty suddenly asks, ‘Who’s Jenna or Jemma?’ she is hoping there is a Jenna or Jemma related to the chosen audience member. However, when she reoffers this to the room the chances are multiplied by the 200 people in the audience and the 150 people known to them, creating a pool of 30,000. Would it be surprising for there to be a dozen Jenna’s or Jemma’s in such a large sample, especially both being a common name? The only surprise to me was, nobody took the bait.

One of the most crucial elements of a convincing cold reading is a subject eager to make connections or reinterpret vague statements in any way that will help the reader appear to make specific predictions or intuitions. While the reader will do most of the talking, it is the subject who provides the meaning.

SHOTGUNNING

Shotgunning is one of most used cold reading techniques and is named after the way a shotgun fires a wide spread of small missiles so that there is a better chance of finding a target. Docherty and Francis both depended on this ploy in choosing the general subject of health. Health can be expanded to mean hospitals or pharmacies and all the professions therein (the NHS for example is Scotland’s and the UK’s biggest workforce at over 1,500,000 people). Everybody has either worked for the NHS or is related or knows someone who is or has worked in the NHS or health industry. Also, this subject could also be expanded to a hospital or doctor visit, treatment received in a hospital or even an illness someone has suffered or even perished as a result of. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody that does not connect in some way to the universal subject of health. It’s neither supernatural nor scientific more common sense and simple maths.

PIGGYBACKING

When a psychic makes a pronouncement to an audience member and it’s a miss, they will sometimes claim the information was meant for someone else in the crowd and that the spirit messages are being muddled. This technique allows the medium/ psychic to fish the rest of the audience for a match. So, when Docherty insisted that she was still receiving messages from or about a ‘Jenna or Jemma’ near the end of show she is not only saving face from the previous miss but reinstating her apparent psychic abilities to the audience. You could say that she is feeling her way to the truth, even hedging her bets but in truth it’s straightforward cheating and about as supernatural as predicting the football pools two hours after the games have finished.

Where are all the Bees?

Where are all the Bees?

 

 

Monday

Monday morning in Highland Perthshire is as quiet as quiet can possibly be. The locals are still rising, no cars are on the streets, even the birds are still yawning. The rays of the morning sun begin to bank over the hills of the surrounding valley and creep along the green, undulating lumps of the putting green lawn which I must mow. It’s not a bad start to the working week as far as working weeks normally go.

I always stop the mower for Bumblebees or dodge them as they lie on the lawn. The slight change in direction ruins my tidy straight lines so I must go back and retrace my path. The fat, little insects are usually crawling along like drunks. Using every blade of grass to clamber and stagger to safety. Slowly staggering until the sun’s rays reach their shivering torsos. The late evening cold snap stuns the bumblers mid-air sending them tumbling from the skies like stricken Lancaster Bombers. This climatic difference is called the Chill Coma Temperature or the critical thermal minimum temperature (7 °C) that bumblebees need to avoid entering a reversible state where neuromuscular transmission and movement stop. Meaning their flight muscles are unable to be warmed up enough for them to flutter and fly. As a result, until the morning temperature increases, they are stranded, frozen and drowsy. Lying prone like old planes in a Mojave boneyard.

I read that you should feed them a sugar to replenish their energy. It isn’t practical to carry around vials of sugary water at work so I won’t continually interrupt my early morning mow with acts of kindness, but I will spare the majority the death of a thousand cuts, the equivalent of you being torn in the blades of a combine harvester. Inevitably, some of them will be sacrificed and their broken torsos thrown into the mowers grass box then dumped in grassy heaps. Because of the pace of the mower we can’t work in our clump, steel-toed boots but change into trainers. My Dad often chooses to do his mowing in bare feet which warms my heart to see. His big, paws thumping behind the mower, the only time his toes see the sun. It’s a commonly held belief that you can pick up a bumblebee without fear of being stung but this is only half true as only the females sting.

 

Tuesday

Ladybirds used to be a common sighting in the garden when I was a child. I can remember David Bellamy telling us that if a Ladybird was fifty times its size it would eat you. That goes for most insects. Of all the flying insects Ladybirds are probably the most impressive especially in the way their dotted red shells half into wings when they take off. Like a Transformer changing from a tank to helicopter in milliseconds. These days I hardly ever come across a Ladybird in the garden but if I do, I never flick them off my arm like an aphid, but gently push them on to a leaf or ease them back into the air.

 

Wednesday

Like Japanese Knotweed and the Himalayan Balsam weed the Buddleia is deemed to be an invasive species, (a difficult term which always sounds racist to me i.e. a foreign blight, coming over here strangling our plants). It particularly thrives in arid conditions and as a result commonly found beside railway tracks and around disused buildings. Despite being deemed invasive the Buddleia could merit the award of Britain’s most loved plant such has its popularity been with garden owners in recent decades. In late autumn the Buddleia can be hacked back to its woody spine and still return in spring with a full purple bloom of nectar rich flowers. Most of our customers will leave the bush unattended in their gardens until the weight of the petals pulls down the stalks which splits the roots down to the soil. Still even then the Buddleia will sprout new shoots and return in spring rejuvenated.

Insects flock to the bush’s bounty of nectar especially butterflies hence its common name: The Butterfly Bush. Their bountiful flowers hang over like grapes enticing flying insects to feast, load and return like greedy narcotrafficantes. Unlike other pollinators, Butterflies consume plants nectar primarily as a fuel for flight however during this process the butterflies also pollinate the Buddleia and many other plants.  Although their method of pollination is less efficient than Bumblebees or Honeybees, they still play an important part in the natural process of airborne insect pollination. Shake the bush or edge near it and a cloud of butterflies explode into the sky providing you with one of the most colourful and pleasant sights within a garden. Initially spooked and probably mistaking you for a predator they linger in the air until the danger has passed then are drawn back to their quarry to feast. In the recent years these throngs of butterflies have become increasingly rare in our customer’s garden.  If we are lucky, we will get one or two rogue Red Admirals or the odd moth. It’s generally believed that their numbers are rising across Scotland, but I haven’t noticed this at all.

 

 

Thursday

I’ve sacrificed a few days’ work because of clouds of midge swamping my eyes and ears. They particularly go for the bony areas of the skull and around the wrists and ankles. I’ve used all sorts of repellent, head nets and old traditional techniques but ultimately I ’ve always had to surrender and abandon work defeated. Legend has it that upon capturing Government Redcoat soldiers, Highland clansmen would stake their prisoners naked amongst the heathered glens, those being a rich breeding ground for midges. The midges would attack and feast sending the redcoat insane with the torture. I can appreciate how brutal the torture must have been.

 

 

 

 

Friday

Wasp stings are an acceptable hazard when you share gardens with these insects during the day. Gardens are their natural habitat and you are the interloping nuisance. They tolerate your presence but in the event of a slightest infraction they are quick to remind you of your place in the horticultural pecking order. Several years back I mistakenly buzzed strimmer into an underground wasp bike despite plenty of warnings from my co-workers. You tend to switch off when completing your daily tasks and slip into an almost meditative dream like state, able to complete the day to day while listening to podcasts and idly letting your imagination fly. But a seething cloud of truculent bastards soon snaps you out of this torpor. A strimmer makes a deep, growl from its two-stroke engine and a furious fizz from its spinning head. On first appearance a squadron of wasps could easily mistake you for a massive, more furious wasp or some type of predator. Not that they need much provocation. In my case the wasps scrambled in a furious storm, rallying in defence with a pre-emptive attack. I abandoned my strimmer and escaped to the other side of the garden, but they pursued me with dogged ferocity for many metres until I was stung three times on the stomach. The wasps then returned to base, no doubt ecstatic in victory while I searched for anti-histamines and balm in the work van, anything to sooth the pain and counter the swelling and inevitable itching.

Not long after this harsh attack, I edged open a customer’s garden shed door to satisfy my nosiness and was met by another cloud of nasties, this time bees defending their football sized hive. Like a homing missile, Red Leader flew into attack, targeted my top lip and drilled deep before falling away stricken. The initial confusion soon gave way to intense pain and unbelievable swelling. My top lip ballooned to around eight times its normal size giving me the look of one of those poor Z list celebrities who experiment with collagen. The injury, for such a small assailant, was baffling and when I shared my discomfort with my co-workers I mas met with extreme concern (Father) and hysterical laughter (Brother). It took a full afternoon for the inflated lip to deflate and a further two days for it to return to normal size.

Unlike bees, wasps can sting multiple times but alike bumblebees only the females can sting. Only honeybees sacrifice themselves in attack as their stinger remains in their victim and the resultant damage to their abdomen is too traumatic to survive. Most impressively, upon stinging all Bees and Wasps release pheromones which carry back to the nest warning their comrades of impending danger. This amazing combination of emergency flare and natural Bluetooth then inspires the attack scouts to scramble into action in the form of swarm. This pheromonal communication also maintains the normal social structure of the wasp/bee colony but in late summer this cohesion begins to break down as queen cells have been laid and the hormone is no longer produced. As a result, the workers become confused, go looking for sweet foods which puts them in conflict with humans. Fortunately, I’m not stung as frequently as in past years, this could be due to my growing wisdom, but I doubt this as this is not reflected in my general life. A common question from fellow gardeners and customers is increasingly: “Where are all the bees?”.

 

 

Saturday

One of the most laborious and soul-destroying parts of a gardener’s working week is weeding. Not only do you have to get finger deep into mud and whatever else has been discarded in a flower bed, but you also must contend with more stingers at bended down eye level. However, as there are no overheads involved with weeding or “tidying up” it is also the most time consuming and as a result most profitable.

The only other option to hand weeding is weed killer using a backpack sprayer which is cheaper for the customer but far more dangerous for all. Round Up is the most popular herbicidal weed killer in the world and for decades it has been used by gardeners to destroy bothersome weeds. Roundup is usually used with a carefree abandon being sprayed with a handheld device however its industrial use requires a strict adherence to safety precautions and mixing guidelines. The safety equipment of face mask, suit and rubber gloves makes you feel as if you are handling radioactive material rather than a popular herbicide. A cap full of Round Up is added to around 20 litres of water, mixed together then broadcast upon any visible weeds. Farmers multiply this same concoction 100-fold then spray it across fields using tractors or even planes. Millions of litres are used annually. After use all the equipment must be confined in a steel container which in turn must be locked in a secure premise and any industrial users should possess a recognised certificate for legal use. After the initial dousing a weed- or any other plant-will absorb the Glyphosate through its leaves where it attacks the enzymal structure of the plant, fatally infecting the plants life systems.

Round Up was the ’flagship’ product Monsanto until it was acquired by Bayer in 2018, in turn creating an all-encompassing super agricultural corporation. Their amalgamation is widely appreciated as an effort to avoid the growing number of multimillion negligence lawsuits that have arisen since Roundup’s main ingredient: Isopropylamine salt of Glyphosate, was recognised as the of cause of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in everyday users. However just as scientists are beginning to realise – or admit – how harmful this evil syrup is to humans the evidence is also building that Glyphosate is contributing to the dramatic reduction in numbers of airborne pollinators. Simply, the chemical is infecting the insects gut microbes leaving them increasingly susceptible to fatal diseases.

In effect Glyphosate together with other factors such as insecticides and destruction of habitat is decimating the insect numbers across the globe.  The insects which have taken millions of years to perfect evolutionary miracles such as pheromonal communication and pollination, are now threatened with extinction. Monsanto have managed to achieve this feat in a matter of decades.

Bayer/Monsanto cannot control natural pollinators, yet, but it increasingly looks like they are decimating their numbers to the brink of extinction or at least until consumers are completely dependent upon their products. Products which in turn are killing their customers through deadly Glyphosate contamination. These dreadful statistics tally with my own amateur observations at work. You tend to notice small things in the garden when you spend half your waking life there. And while I am no expert it doesn’t take a scientist to prognosticate how dreadful the future will be without any pollinating insects.