Independent - 11th December 1994
DOWN A LONG, winding country lane, a mere ouija board's throw from Stansted airport, the Arthur Findlay Spiritualist College is doing good business. There, at Stansted Hall, a suitably spooky mock-Tudor manor, a hundred students are gathered toget her inone place to develop their ethereal skills. Apprentice mediums can choose from a wide range of unworldy classes on these weekly residential courses - Trance and Physical Phenomena, Astrological Studies, Physical Mediumship and Spiritual Healing. B ut aspiring psychics have to book early, because spiritualism is now a growth industry.
"We can hardly keep up with demand," says the college's director, Alan Reynolds, wearily. "Attendance here has gone up by 60 per cent in the past two years alone. There's enormous interest in it now."
Like all practising mediums Mr Reynolds is at pains to point out that there's more to spiritualism than linking fingers and waiting for the lights to go out. "Spiritualism is a proper, organised religion," he says emphatically. "It has a broad philosophy, consisting of seven principles, the most important of which is that life continues after death. We mediums provide that link between the physical and the spirit world."
"Where are all the ouija boards?" I asked his colleague, Mavis Pitilla. "Oh, we don't use those," she said contemptuously. "They're silly toys, that's what teenagers use at parties. Communication with the dead is a natural thing," she added seriously. "It takes place through the mind. And don't use the word `seance' either," she admonished me gently; "we say `private sitting' when we want to contact the spirit world."
"Don't you think it's rather sinister and profane to call up the dead?" I asked Libby Parks, a part-time tutor at the college, as she prepared for her afternoon workshop.
"No, because they're not reallv dead are they?" she replied triumphantly. "As far as we're concerned they've just gone into another room. But they can be contacted," she continued with a beatific smile. "Just like on the telephone. We mediums are merely the switchboard. We put them through to their loved ones."
In the old library the reception wasn't too good. There, in the Mediumship Awareness workshop, 28-year-old Richard Smith was being put through his paces by his tutor Simon James, a Sergeant Pepper look-alike in a red embroidered shirt. Smith stood nervously on the rostrum beneath a huge portrait of the college's founder, the spiritualist Arthur Findlay. He then started speaking in a measured but rapid tone, and claimed that he was in communication with a tall, upright man of about 35.
"He's a military sort of man," said Smith, "and I think he's connected with that lady at the back there, in the cream leggings. Can you understand this description so far?"
"Er, no. Not at the moment," she replied.
"And he has a side-parting in his hair, which is light brown and cut very short. Does that mean anything to you?"
"No. No it doesn't ... I'm sorry." She twiddled her crystal pendant nervously.
"And I'm picking up a very dry sense of humour too," he continued. She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
His tutor swiftly intervened. "Now, that's put you on the spot, but don't worry, Richard. What we'll try to do here is build the link, and deepen that contact with the spirit world. Talk to the gentleman a bit more and get some more details from him." Richard's eyes narrowed in concentration. A bead of perspiration glistened on his brow.
"Well, as I'm seeing him now, and as I'm hearing him, he has a slight cockney accent," he persisted. "Does that mean anything to you now?"
"No," said the woman in a distressed tone. "No it doesn't. I'm really sorry." Indeed no one in the group claimed to know this upright visitor from beyond the grave, and Richard returned to his seat with a somewhat defeated air.
I glanced at the bookshelves behind me, which were groaning with leather-bound esoterica - Psychic Phenomena and the History of the Supernatural, A Scientific Demonstration of the Future Life, and The Encyclopaedia of Biblical Spiritualism. The college staff stress that not just anyone can become a medium; they first have to have the gift of clairvoyance which the tutors will help to develop.
Richard Smith realised that he had the gift when his best friend was killed in a car crash two years ago. For several months afterwards, he claims, his friend came and visited him. "I thought I was going round the twist," he said during the coffee break afterwards. "He kept coming and sitting on my bed and talking to me. But then my mum told me that the gift of clairvoyance was in the family, so I decided to look into it. Then I started coming here, and now I hope to become a full-time plat form medium."
Richard is one of a growing number of younger people who are being drawn into spiritualism. My expectation that the students would be mostly Doris Stokes look-alikes was proved quite wrong; about 20 per cent were under 30, and a surprisingly large numberwere male. "I've had it with orthodox religion," said one man in his late thirties contemptuously. "All that stuff about a vindictive God and heaven and hell and the angels and all of that just seems a bit, you know, ridiculous. Spiritualism is much more real."
For those at a more advanced stage of their studies, there are the Physical Mediumship classes. During physical mediumship the actual bodies of the dearly departed can apparently appear. "It's the most wonderful experience," said Libby Parks. "It's like being wrapped in a little bit of heaven. I once saw this fully grown man appear. And he just materialised before our eyes, building out of ectoplasm, and he went up to his wife and took her by the hand and told her that he loved her."
"That's fantastic," I said.
"Yes," she breathed. "It was absolutely fabulous."
This rather whetted my appetite for the spiritualist service that was to be held in the chapel later that evening. There are now over 450 spiritualist churches all over Britain. At their services mediums contact the spirit world and communicate their thoughts to members of the congregation in a sort of jolly `Club Dead'.
The service started conventionally enough with a prayer and one or two hymns; then one by one the four chosen mediums took to the rostrum. I glanced round the room, which was full to overflowing; everyone was sitting forward on their seats with rapt and eager expressions.
"I've got a chap here, in his mid fifties, and he died of a chest condition," said the first medium Sue Bretheton, pacing up and down the rostrum. She furrowed her brows in concentration. "And he came from the North-east, he was about 5 foot ten and he was a pigeon-fancier." There was a gasp from the left-hand side of the chapel.
"That's my father-in-law," shouted a woman in her late forties. "He was a pigeon-fancier. He died of emphysema. That's him all right."
After the service was over I approached the woman and asked her how convinced she'd been. "Totally," she said. "The medium gave me absolute proof of survival. My father-in-law was a pigeon-fancier, he came from Newcastle, and all the details she gave me about him were absolutely accurate. It was very authentic. Spiritualism does work, you know."
I decided to put it to the test myself there and then, in a private sitting with Mavis Pitilla. We sat in small darkened room, in a quiet part of the house.
"I'm getting a James," she said suddenly. "There was a James wasn't there, on your father's side of the family." I shook my head.
"And your father's father had two brothers didn't he?" "No, I'm afraid he didn't." "Well, there's a Norman here. I've definitely got a Norman. On your father's side again." I looked at her blankly.
"And there's an overseas connection. I don't know which country. But there's definitely been some contact with abroad in your family hasn't there?" "Well, yes, that's quite true," I said.
"And your grandmother," she went on "I think I've got your grandmother here. Your mother's mother. Now, she was an expert on art wasn't she." "No, not really," I said, unhelpfully.
Suddenly Mrs Pitilla took her glasses off with a slightly disappointed air.
"Look, I'm awfully sorry about this," she said. "But I've really had a very long day.''