“Keep an open mind.”
Ever heard that before? The nugget of sagacity frequently proffered up by apologists/excusers/devotees of (practitioners of) activities which tend to provoke quizzical attitude in those not completely devoid of sceptical bones.
I’ve been following with interest the recent adverse publicity surrounding (so-called) ‘Psychic’ Sally Morgan’s familial faux pas. Which led me to ‘the official website of britain’s best-loved psychic’. Consider the overlap in the interests of those who believe Sally Morgan is a psychic medium who can commune with the dead. Is it mere coincidence that belief in another human being’s privileged possession of such an extraordinary gift predicts that the believer is also more likely to appreciate, say, tarot readers, astrologers, angel card readers (pur-lease!), Reiki ‘masters’, crystal pedlars, and so on? Well, judging by the collective ‘skills’ of her ‘talented team of caring psychics’, Sally apparently does – and is happy to facilitate you parting with your money in order to access them. Or, you can go and see her at work:
Below the list of ongoing tour dates is the inevitable (revealing) disclaimer:
‘Sally Morgan & her psychic services are investigational & for the purpose of entertainment. As they are not recognised scientifically, there are no guaranteed or certain results.’ [sic]
So, rather than restrict my research to the media and blogosphere, and in the realisation that she would be in my proximity, I forked out for a ticket to her show in Portsmouth last evening, though not expecting to be convinced, at least entertained.
Outside the front of the venue, I briefly engaged one of the leafleting sceptics, and asked him, in light of the egregious physical and verbal threats made to Mark Tilbrook, whether he’d encountered any hassle. He and his companions had been told to stay on the other side of the bollards which supposedly demarcate Guildhall land, though Sally Morgan’s fascists were not in evidence. I took a leaflet and proceeded to enter a venue wherein I’ve attended many events during the past thirty years. And quickly calculated that the (predominantly female) audience is probably the second smallest I’ve been part of there. I wonder whether the recent publicity is affecting her fan base. Particularly as her reception when she took to the stage, following an introductory screened “montage” featuring footage of Sally declaring “I can talk to the dead”, was hardly rapturous.
The lights are up almost straight away, with Sally pointing to front centre-stage claiming, “I’ve got a little boy here.” And, after trying a few names out, the odd hand starts to go up. I’m interested to see that the participating punters like to stand up in (at least) pairs. Presumably they prefer to do so because it is less conspicuous, less stressful, supportive. If one does stand up solo, but is seen to be talking to someone seated adjacent, or reveals that they have family with them, Sally quickly encourages these others to stand also. Because, as I came to observe, it increases Sally’s chances of a ‘hit.’
The phrase “in spirit” seems to be the accepted nomenclature for the dead, and is used by both Sally and punters, who are driven to raise their hand and accept a microphone because they’ve recognised a name and a tenuous connection with whatever incidental bait Sally is dangling. “Does X mean anything to you?” “Yes, my (whatever relative); he/she’s in spirit.” And hence proceeds an at times uncomfortable to watch dialogue, during which – and this, I think, is what most of the pre-credulous forgivingly overlook – the punter’s most frequent response to Sally’s reaching is “No”. Nevertheless, one grown man is quickly reduced to tears, apparently convinced that Sally has his deceased mother with her.
When she eventually semi-manages to engineer a connection with the persistent jumping boy she has with her, Sally is eight years out. The punter here mentions a child that died shortly after birth. “Ah, but they grow in spirit”, was Sally’s get-out. And then, “Did somebody connected with him die eight years later?” “No”. Sally’s tactic here is to stick to her line. They “grow in spirit” until someone else connected with them dies, so something connected with this boy must have happened eight years after he died. Confused? Me too.
The second half of the performance commenced with brief continuation of the first half’s modus operandi, before predominanting exercises instigated by a card pulled out of a jar; and then a photo pulled out of a box. (Punters are invited to place these in said receptacles made available before the show.) The latter was, to me, further demonstration of how Sally ensures ‘hits’: three ladies stood, conferring between themselves in their willingness (their need?) to get something out of this. And then, when it faded, another couple stood in response to a time of death, which morphs into time home from work, sometime after which the death under discussion occurred; and Sally’s struggle to hit on a name is aided by the punter’s latching onto middle names, much to Sally’s seeming embarrassment.
In my formed opinion it works like this: Have a few spirits congregating round you, throw out a few names and vague suggestion of an incident or trait as bait, and you get a hand up. Then up stand at least two people who, though usually responding “No”, will nevertheless confer, trying to find something they deem relevant – they seemingly so want to help Sally. But if it dries up with the couple on their feet, then sure as eggs is eggs, some other dolt will stick up their hand in recognition, providing Sally with the opportunity to neatly dispense with the previous exhausted punter(s) (with a “That’s a lovely message for you; please give them a round of applause”) and turn her attention to the now more promising lead. Most standing punters respond negatively; but occasionally a short tenuous train of names and incidents is affirmative, which the audience enjoys with a collective murmur, punter tears flow, and Sally is mighty pleased with herself.
But she shouldn’t be. Sally is not as charismatic as one might reasonably expect of a paid performer; she’s confusing (one spirit she claimed to have with her walked towards a supposedly spirit motorbike!?!); she is not humorous – at least, not deliberately: failing to really stir a morbid audience, there was the occasional collective murmur of muted amazement when she made a connective hit, but the loudest response was the laugh when one punter corrected her mistaken claim that the relative under discussion was dead. “He’s here!” “No, he’s not in spirit.” If there’s a skill here, it is how Sally seemingly takes such mishaps in her stride; how (through her experience) she thinks on her feet. I reckon some nights this must take some stamina. But there is, to me, something distasteful about discussing the disease symptoms of the deceased. And the hubristic presumption in passing on reassurance that all is well now. She tells the audience that it has “the keys to heaven.” Inevitably, the ‘energy’ word is invoked once or twice. She does not address the recent aforementioned unsavoury publicity, her perhaps only reference to it being her affected sympathy for one punter’s tears when she says something like, “I’ve done enough crying of my own in the last two weeks.” Still, she can console herself with the positive love that she receives from her cacographic fans via her (negativity-censored) Facebook page.
The first half lasted about one hour; the stated fifteen-minute interval turned out to be 25 minutes, before the second half of approximately 45 minutes. At the end, with the lights back down, Sally rounded off by unconvincingly telling us that we all have the same gift – that of being able to talk to the dead. Well, we can. Though they can’t hear us – because they’re dead. As was this event in many ways. I got the feeling that Sally had given up on her ‘open-minded’ Portsmouth audience – they were not feeling it. Certainly, I overheard exiting conversations suggesting that Sally had ensured I was not the only sceptic leaving the venue. Paying the extortionate fee one always gets lumped with in this town for temporarily occupying evening space in a near empty car-park, I wondered who most vividly saw me coming.