Play mystic for me
Is there anybody out there? Yes, swarms of trainee psychics. Katie Glass finds out how to get in touch with the other side
Katie Glass summons up her psychic powers (Muir Vidler)
Iam sitting in front of a woman I’ll call Avril and I am about to read her mind. In Stansted, the least mystical place in the world, I am training to become a professional psychic. I know what you’re thinking — I would, that’s part of the course…
These days being a psychic, or medium, as they are more accurately called, is a gift in more ways than one. Psychics are building business empires from speaking to the dead. Glossy psychic magazines sell at £3 a pop. There are psychic shows on prime-time television, dedicated psychic satellite channels, psychic cruises, psychic hotlines (£2.50 a minute). Psychic celebrities such as Sally Morgan, Colin Fry, Derek Acorah and TJ Higgs sell out 1,000-plus seater venues for £30 a head, 40-plus nights a year. I fancy being supernaturally rich, so I’ve decided to learn how to become a psychic, too.
The Arthur Findlay College — “the World’s Foremost College for the Advancement of Spiritualism and Psychic Sciences”, run by the Spiritualists’ National Union — claims to be able to teach psychic skills to anybody. “It’s like playing football: anyone can learn to kick a ball, but not everyone’s very good.” Since psychics went celebrity, AFC’s headmaster, Andrew Hadley, has seen growing demand for his courses. And new branches have opened in Stafford and Edinburgh. I enrol on the Professional Mediumship Course, £440 for a week. They run week in, week out.
It’s night-time when I arrive at a towering Hogwarts-like mansion, situated in a field with orange Easyjet flights growling overhead. Inside it’s a spooky boutique hotel, a warren of dark wood panelling, chintz wallpaper, creepy portraits and school rules such as: “Do not take the College cats into your bedroom. The cats are not pets, but valuable members of College Staff.”
The next day, in the Sanctuary, a stone chapel with stained-glass windows, we gather in a semi-circle of peach velvet chairs. My fellow trainees look pretty normal, bar the odd chakra necklace. Our teacher, Simone Key, has thick eyeliner and Goth-red hair. A poster behind her crashes off the wall. “Ooooh!” my group delights in unison. Simone, who has taught at AFC for two decades, rolls her eyes: “I think the spirit can do better than that.”
The 15 in my group have some psychic experience, ranging from “wildly inconsistent” to “usually understood”. Some get feelings, some smells, some images — you don’t get ghosts materialising in front of you unless you’re really good. They include a Red Cross employee, a housewife from Glasgow, a retired American man, a secretary, a psychotherapist and a person who runs a hippie shop. Everyone hopes that this course will turn them pro.
For our first lesson we’re going to read each others’ minds. My partner, Avril, is a woman in her thirties with straight dark hair, a no-nonsense manner and maths-teacher clothes. She sits down in front of me and looks into my soul. None of the students knows I’m a journalist (although I am wearing glasses and making notes). Avril tells me she sees writing and that I am someone who weighs up the pros and cons. “And I’m getting a name: Iain Banks.” She’s good! He’s one of my favourite authors. Next it’s my turn to read. Simone tells me to “direct my energy forward” using my psychic power. “Just say the first thing you think of,” she chuckles, “At first it might feel as if you’re making it up!”
I try to tap into Avril’s energy. But I can’t. Instead, I take in her mumsy manner and guess: “Children,” I say. “No,” says Avril, “although I want some.” “That’s probably why you’re getting that,” encourages Simone, asking me to describe Avril’s house. I close my eyes and see nothing. Again I guess: “It’s quiet, smart, organised, with a straight-back chair.” “Yes!” says Avril. “What’s the carpet like?” prompts Simone. “Thick or thin?” “It’s different in different places,” I shrug. “You’re right,” says Avril, “and do you know, that’s something that’s really been bothering me!” Perhaps I have the gift, after all.
At lunch I’m sandwiched between the psychotherapist and a girl with a haunted expression; she’s spoken to spirits since she was young. “I never wanted to do this but things just keep coming to me,” she mutters. “Oh! Did you feel the table just move?” “Sorry,” says the woman opposite, “that was me.”
I tell her: ‘I’m getting sand.’ She jumps up: ‘That’s the colour I carpeted my hall!’
We take a lesson in reading each other’s auras. Magenta means creativity, blue means truth, red means confidence, silver means money. I tell the handsome retired American he’s royal blue because he is wise and a knowledge seeker. He says I am orange, and about to start a relationship with an older man. I tell a woman wearing pink cashmere that she likes to express her feeling in clothes. I tell a girl in yellow, “You prefer to be in the sunshine.” I tell a middle-aged woman: “I’m getting sand.” She jumps up: “That’s the colour I just carpeted my hall.” Simone is pleased with my progress. “I think you’re very clairsentient,” she says, meaning I’m in touch with people’s energy.
The next day Simone encourages me to use my newly discovered psychic aptitude. Instead, I get by with a mix of clues, clichés and pot shots, like playing psychic battleships. I tell a woman who is wearing her wedding ring on her right hand that I can see trouble in her relationship. She admits that she and her husband might be about to split up. I tell an overconfident woman she has secret insecurities. She quietly nods. I tell the psychologist — for no reason at all — I see travel, trees and her work taking her abroad. Oddly, it turns out she is about to relocate to a jungle for work.
Then it’s time to speak to the dead. Simone advises me to “take my energy to the back of my head”. “At first it will be like feeling into fog, but it will become clearer,” she soothes. The modus operandi for mediums is to make psychic contact with their sitter, then use that as a springboard into the spirit world, where someone deceased will be waiting to chat. I’m ready to give it a go.
Stella Upton, our quirky middle-aged teacher whose favourite film is Ghost — “although there’s a lot of misconceptions in it” — pairs me with Robert, the retired American. Stella prompts: “What do you see, a man or a woman?” I look into Robert’s eager blue eyes. “A man.” “A family member?” Stella encourages. “Yes,” I say, adding randomly, “an uncle.” “I think a dad,” Stella decides. “It’s my dad!” says Robert, excited. “How did he die?” Stella asks me. “Um, a heart attack,” I say. “No,” Robert shakes his head, “but he had a tooth problem that went to his heart.” “So,” snaps Stella, “it was his heart in the end.” She asks what Robert’s dad is like. I don’t like to admit that I’m making this up. “Kind? Emotional? Social? Creative?” Stella looks pleased with me, as does Robert, who’s thrilled to hear from his dad. “You’re going to go back to your room,” grins Stella, “and wonder where that came from.” I go back to my room and wonder how people believe this ghost nonsense. I go to bed. And leave the light on.
After several days of reading my fellow psychics’ minds and talking to their dead relatives, I come to know them well. I discover that, on the whole, they’re not callous frauds. They’re kind, open-minded and funny. “Can you move off the old dead lady,” one teases as I walk down the hall. They all believe in their gift. “I used to be sceptical,” says a soft-faced Glasgow mother, “but I’ve always had these feelings. I ignored them for a long time. Now I want to learn to use them to help other people.” They’ve all experienced a lot of death. Andrew Hadley, the headmaster, discovered mediums at the age of 26, when he lost his father, sister and nephew in the space of six weeks. Seeing a medium “was joyous”, he says. “I’d blamed myself for my father’s death. To have him say, ‘Don’t worry, son, the heart attack was coming — there was nothing you could do’ was a release.”