It would be lovely to think that our time on this mortal coil was followed by an eternity of amorphous wafting about in a sea of euphoric bliss, untroubled by council tax, wasps or Noel Edmonds.
We don’t like to think of the end as the end. We always want a sequel, despite Sharknado 2. However, the fact is, when it’s over, it’s over. We’re not going to be able to hold or taste a pint again (or, I suppose, gaze on our loved ones).
Not that any version of heaven has ever sounded appealing. A place filled with the righteous and holy? Harps and Gregorian chants? Virgins? Who wants to be surrounded by dozens of people on clouds who are shit in bed?
As Britain has become more secular and less superstitious, fewer people believe in an afterlife. But there was a time, just after the First World War, when spiritualism gripped the nation. Some people had lost whole families and were desperate to be able to say their goodbyes or at least find out where the brandy was hidden.
And one South London soul was at the centre of attempts to prove or disprove contact with the beyond.
Harry Price (1881-1948)
Raised in New Cross, Britain’s go-to ghost guy was an accomplished conjuror before he became a global celebrity exposing fraudulent mediums. His skepticism brought him the friendship of Harry Houdini, while a later volte-face attracted afterlife-believer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By 2015, he landed an ITV Christmas drama, Harry Price: Ghost Hunter.
Any alleged haunting, practising medium or spirit photographer could expect a pseudo-scientific examination from Price and subsequent national exposure. The dead were all the rage. The Daily Sketch published a photo of what it claimed were genuine spirits at the Cenotaph, for example, until someone pointed out that some were actually players from the England football team. As Price’s excellent biographer, Richard Morris said: ‘They were a little slow in defence and torpid in attack, but they were still breathing.’
While he gained fame exposing the tricks of the spiritualist trade, Price had a finger in every psychical research pie going. He performed a black magic attempt to transform a goat into a man, which involved rubbing shoe polish onto the breasts of a beautiful actress. History didn’t record Gloria Gordon’s reaction, but the goat remained unmoved.
One of his investigations concluded that there was insufficient evidence of the existence of Gef, a multi-lingual talking mongoose who lived on the Isle of Man and was partial to cream buns. Gef was quoted as saying he did not like Price in the slightest, so we’ll call that one a draw.
He witnessed mediums claiming to make telepathic contact with people on Mars, including a civilised giant, a bushman and a Martian very upset that his pet donkey had died. Yet every mad incident only served to make him more famous.
While Price made his name uncovering hoaxers, he was prepared to play both sides, being a skeptic when it suited and the opposite when he wanted to be mates with Sherlock Holmes or achieve some other advantage. As Morris put it: ‘It is hilarious that this man who did not seem to have a clue about what he was doing, duped the majority of his colleagues, the public, journalists and some of the greatest minds of the day with his po-faced seriousness.’ Hats off, Harry. It beat working.
Victorian Séance Parlours
The first wave of spiritualism in Britain came in Victorian times, imported from America, where, in New York, the Fox sisters were able to convince people that the sound of knocking was that of a long dead spirit. Plenty were willing to believe in ghosts making noises, shaking tables and throwing objects about, like all death did was make you invisible, but clumsy.
Alan Williams’ skilful 2013 Gothic novel, The Blackheath Séance Parlour reflects the fascination and revulsion with psychic phenomena in the 1840s as well as capturing the occasionally eerie nature of the heath. Should it merit a literary tour in the future though, frequent mentions of the Hare & Billet (where some of it was written), The Crown and the Princess of Wales will make it worthwhile, along with the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich and the Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden, all of which still serve the living. My favourite boozey scene though was in Nunhead Cemetery, where the main characters, Maggie, Judy and Netta, managed to get locked in after hours, so they could get loose on absinthe and watch the ghosts come out. It’s an idea that deserves official sanction.
Even in 2016 you can find psychics and mediums in South London who claim to be able to read your aura, predict your future and communicate with the ‘other side’ (and I don’t think they mean North London). However, the Deserter clairvoyant budget was wiped out by the hospitality overspend, so we had to rely on Half-life to provide someone that he met in the pub who ‘had the gift’, and would conduct a séance in return for some stolen prosciutto. This is a vague transcript of that night.
Present: Me, Roxy, Half-life and a Man Called Alice.
Amid candlelight and funny smells, Alice closes his eyes and concentrates. After about five minutes of eyebrow play and disturbing pouting, Alice speaks: ‘I’m seeing a house. A house with a door. Does anyone here know someone who lives in a house with a door?’ I don’t even need to look at Roxy to know she is rolling her eyes and swearing inside. It’s like I’m the fucking psychic. Then Alice’s voice becomes altered. ‘It’s round,’ he says.
‘A round door?’ Half-life asks, incredulously.
‘You are round,’ says Alice, his voice becoming less like his own. Hardly, I think. I’ve seen more fat on a butcher’s pencil. ‘You’re round,’ bellows Alice.
My mind picks up Roxy thinking, ‘Waste of fucking drinking time.’
Then in a broad Lancastrian accent Alice shouts: ‘It’s your focking round, Half-life!’
‘Cousin Jimmy!’ says Half-life excitedly.
Alice’s own voice returns as he addresses Half-life. ‘Is there anything you’d like to ask Jimmy?’
‘Fuck, yeah. This is the chance of a lifetime,’ says Half-life. ‘Here, Jimmy. Who’s going to win the 2.30 at Southwell on Thursday?’
‘I’m on My Tringaling,’ says Jimmy via Alice.
‘Wait,’ says Roxy. ‘You’ve got bookies over there?’
‘Not even bookies live forever,’ says Alice, by now tucking into his ham.
Which, as Half-life pointed out as I bought him a pint to calm his paranormally upset nerves, is worth noting. If we are expected to continue our occupation in the hereafter, we had all better get on with retiring.
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