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Unghostly Ghosts

Today over my lunch I selected two bits of reading material to look at. One is a book by a British science writer Matthew Hutson about magical thinking (which is actually quite good, and which I might review here eventually, as it is raises some interesting issues). The other is the latest issue of the SPR’s Paranormal Review, which arrived a few days ago.

First I picked up the Hutson book and carried on reading from where I left off, a brief discussion of afterlife beliefs. He rehearses the standard arguments against them: mind processes are affected by drugs and diseases that attack the brain, so it’s logical that the mind is the brain; Susan Blackmore and Olaf Blanke on NDEs; and so on. On the subject of ghosts he mentions that 34% of Britons report believing in ghosts, and 43% of respondents in this survey report having communicated with the dead, but adds:

Most ghost stories aren’t cinema-worthy, let alone enough to compel Bill Murray to dust off his proton pack. They usually amount to hearing a wind chime or footsteps, seeing a shadow move in the corner of one’s eye, or feeling an eerie presence. Such encounters implicate nothing more than draughts, knocking radiators, or pets, plus anxiety, expectation, visual illusion, selective memory, and imagination. Some ghost-myth busters have offered brain-altering magnetic fields or chill-inducing subsonic frequencies as additional explanations.

Having finished the chapter I turned to the Paranormal Review, where I found an article titled 'A Neighbour’s Return'. I'll give the gist.

It's September 1983 and a Miss Parsons is returning to her flat in Bayswater, West London, having lived abroad for more than a year. While waiting for the lift she is greeted by a neighbour, a Mrs Leyton, who she has known for years, and who is delighted that she has come back at last. They chat about this and that, and then Miss Parsons draws attention to her neighbour’s wrist, having noticed that it's bandaged. “Oh it has been like that for a month or more,” is the response. Miss Parsons is in a rush, having double parked, so Mrs Leyton says, “I don’t want to keep you”, and they part.

The next day Miss Parsons meets with the porter, and during the course of the conversation he mentions that Mrs Leyton died last Christmas. He pays no attention to Miss Parson’s protests and adds that the woman’s sister is in now in her flat, trying to sell it. Miss Parsons says nothing further, assuming it was the sister she must have been speaking to. But when she meets the sister it is someone quite different. The sister mentions that the injured wrist was the cause of Mrs Leyton’s visit to a doctor, during which a severe heart condition was discovered, from which she died soon afterwards.

The incident was investigated eight years later, and revisited by the author of the article, Peter Hallson. The essential details are confirmed by documents and an interview with Miss Parsons. Hallson examines two possibilities: that the encounter was a case of mistaken identity; and that Miss Parson’s memory of it might have become corrupted by the eight-year time lapse between it and the investigation, causing details to be forgotten or false ones added.

However there are some significant arguments against both these: mistaken identity would require another resident closely resembling Mrs Leyton, who happened also to have injured her wrist, and who also knew that Miss Parsons had been away – an unlikely combination of circumstances. Reference to the bandaged wrist at three different times in three weeks – the original encounter and Miss Parsons’ subsequent meetings with the sister and another relative – all argue against false memory.

Hallson cautions against considering such cases as hard evidence of survival, but thinks it’s at least interesting enough to put on record. That’s seems about right, although considered collectively, a substantial number of well evidenced incidents of this kind might reasonably be held to point in that direction – as the authors of Phantasms of the Living argued.

I just find it remarkable that this phenomenon barely ever gets mentioned in casual debunkings like the one in Hutson’s book. Of course it could easily be brushed aside – ‘such cases are invariably found to be caused by hallucination, mistaken identity, the corruption of memory over long periods, and suchlike’ - but we don’t even get that. It seems not at all to have penetrated the collective educated mind that this sort of thing happens.

I was expecting to write something along these lines in a few weeks time when Halloween comes round, always an opportunity for media folk to take a little walk on the spooky side. I’ll be looking out in those reviews, articles and broadcasts for the slightest sign of knowledge of the SPR’s research, without expecting any. But it seems to me that this is a problem with a doable solution. If the SPR (ideally) or some other organisation set itself the task of educating the media about the phenomenon of crisis apparitions within, say, five years, it could perhaps get measurable results.

What I also find rather intriguing is that these ‘ghosts’ don’t appear remotely ghostly. The ‘trick of the light’ school of thought assumes they’re wispy shades, something quite 'other'. But in all the most striking anecdotes the narrator at the time has no suspicion that he/she is not dealing with a real person. They’re normal encounters, seemingly with real people, and if they aren’t real people, that surely makes them very cinema-worthy indeed.

Spirituality in the Vatican

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, aka Pope Francis, was in the news a while back for not being nasty to gays. Now he’s being nice to atheists. He says:

You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience. Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.

Who would have thought it: compassion and common sense from the Vatican.

Long ago when Pope Paul V1 died I remember being interested in his successor, and being berated for it by my communist girlfriend. She regarded Catholicism as just another reactionary institution to be swept away. It was nothing to do with religion, I said: the Pope has more influence over more people than anyone else on the planet. Who wouldn’t want to know what sort of man he is, what he thinks and feels?

In the event John Paul I checked out after barely a month. His Polish successor was obviously doctrinaire, and I soon lost interest. Has there been anything more stupid and vile than the Vatican’s battle to stop the use of condoms as protection against AIDS, guaranteeing an agonising death to people who might never have got sick? Or the ghastly kiddy-fiddling by priests all over the world, and the lies and cover-ups that followed?

Under successive popes the Catholic Church, as an institution, has seemed reliably to lack any emotional intelligence, any compassion, any understanding of the problems in the lives of ordinary people. When it comes to a choice between standing up for the helpless of the world on the one hand, or preserving its doctrinal purity on the other, the Vatican chooses the other every time. It embodies that extraordinary paradox about the Christianity (and Islam, of course), that so often it seems utterly remote from the teaching of its founding texts. For the Jesus of the Gospels it was all about seeking forgiveness and helping the poor. The hypocritical churchmen, so aloof from the real world, infuriated him.

There’s a lot of stink about Bergoglio’s background, and I was curious about it, so I checked out the new biography of him by Paul Vallely. It seems he has been on both sides of the fence. As the unusually young head of the Jesuit order in Argentina (he was appointed at age 36) he chucked his weight around and harassed those Jesuit priests who had opted to spend time in the slums ministering to poor. This was when Liberation Theology was sweeping the continent, and some activist priests aligned with secular Marxist revolutionaries. In the Dirty War that followed the Church leadership took the side of the murderous junta, while individual priests were among those being tortured and chucked out of planes.

Two of them blamed Bergoglio directly for their ordeal. He had ordered them to stop their charitable activities in poor districts and was outraged when they refused (disobedience is a big deal for Jesuits). He suspended them, which effectively signalled that they were no longer under church protection – a green light for the death squads. The pair were detained and tortured for five months, before being released and fleeing abroad. In other respects Bergoglio seems to have covertly helped people against the regime, showing some personal bravery. But the fate of the two priests has dogged him ever since.

Bergoglio made so many enemies he was eventually forced out, spending years ‘in the wilderness’. Then he was brought back as an assistant bishop in Buenos Aires and eventually became archbishop. But now he was a changed man, his priorities completely altered. Although still a conservative with an authoritarian streak he was no longer much interested in upholding church traditions; instead he used his office for promoting the needs of the poor and needy. He went into the slums, listened and ministered, formed relationships, provided financial assistance wherever he could – exactly the kind of thing that he had formerly condemned those under his authority for doing.

This is how the new Pope is behaving in Rome, and it’s a joy to behold. It’s always good to see traditionalist dinosaurs being discomfited. Minutes after his appointment he made it clear he wasn’t interested in the flummery and dressing up that Benedict enjoyed so much (forget the poncy red shoes, he’s devoted to his battered old black ones.) By tradition he was supposed to carry out a papal footwashing routine in a big church, but instead went to a juvenile detention centre to do it. He likes to drive around Rome in a battered old car, lives in a small room instead of the palatial apartments, etc, etc.

But it’s in the big things that he will really make a mark. One of his first actions was to appoint a panel of strongly outspoken bishops from around the world to advise him how to clean out the Augean stables that the Vatican has become. He’s turned his back on the absolutist monarch model and seems bent on making the church more collegiate, in line with the Vatican II liberal reforms of the 1960s, some of which we may now see enacted for the first time. For Francis, it’s all about pastoral care. He’s unlikely to depart from established doctrines – he’s strongly opposed to gay marriage, for instance – but has more important things to do than ram them down people’s throats. Instead of banging on about abortion he’s concerned about human trafficking and sex slavery.

This is a religious leader one can relate to, and it makes me think about the values we attach to these two rather different ideas – religion and spirituality. I’ve often been shocked by the detached, even dismissive way that some clergymen – Protestants as much as Catholics – talk about spirituality. If they mean New Age faddism, then fair enough: spirituality in the developed world can seem to be a toy of the bored middle classes. But the converse is also true when it comes to the clergy. Traditional religion can seem to lack real spiritual content when it’s all about infallible doctrines, fine phrases, rituals and traditions.

The development of meaningful spirituality may come from the awakening of conscience, and this in turn can be triggered by events. That’s what seems to have happened in the case of Bergoglio. Vallely clearly sees a story of sin and redemption here; he implies, without making heavy weather of it, that Bergoglio eventually went through some dark night of the soul over the fate of the two priests. (One died, still angry; the other has since had an emotional reconciliation with his former tormenter).

Bergoglio has not publicly acknowledged any guilt but he must have felt it. The gradual change, from the hardline conservative who hounded leftwing priests into one who became their champion, is surely explained by his inner anguish at the effects of an act of moral blindness – as one is perhaps justified in calling it. This is why Bergoglio talks all the time of being ‘a sinner and in need of God’s forgiveness’. It was the answer he gave to the ritual question of whether he accepted his election as Pope, before saying yes, the first of many startling departures.

It’s also surely why he behaves as he does now that he has become Pope. This is someone who has experienced life as a man, not just as a religious leader; who has come to understand the effect on other people of his actions, is appalled by it, and now dedicates his life to atonement. He's a deeply religious man in the traditional sense - he spends two hours early every morning in prayer - but he seems also to have experienced the classic transformation that we see in the near-death experience, the kind of conversion which leads to a change of priorities and redemptive action in the real world of relationships. When he says to atheists ‘God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart’, it’s not just a trite formula, it's something he knows from his own experience.

One often feels, when a new leader comes to office, that all the changes he or she introduces won’t last long; that power will soon re-establish the old ways. In five years time all the excitement may have evaporated and the Vatican will have reverted to its former repressive behaviour. We don’t yet know how Francis will deal with the upheavals that could follow if he carries on as he has begun, or whether his congenital conservatism, and the need to preserve the Church, will trump his more recently acquired liberal sensibilities.

Still, it’s possible to imagine, when Bergoglio’s story is told on the big screen - as it surely will be one day – that his election will be portrayed as the first step in a process of change, perhaps even a revolution in world religion.

Things You Can Do When You’re Dead

Tricia Robertson is a paranormal investigator in Glasgow, a recent president of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research. She has been involved in a number of investigations and some years ago co-authored a much-praised research study into mediums.

I met Tricia a year or so ago when she invited me to talk to the SSPR in Glasgow. It was a pleasant trip, and she had some interesting tales to tell. Now she has published a book titled Things You Can Do When You’re Dead! A cool title - although not, as I first thought, about what dead people do in their new existence but rather about them communicating with the living (as the subtitle actually makes clear). It’s a good read by someone who really knows her stuff.

She starts with a startling case of the crisis apparition type. A retired Navy pilot named Bob is returning from a foreign trip and arrives at Glasgow airport expecting a friend to pick him up. There’s no sign of the friend, but he catches sight of another pilot, a man 20 years younger named Jack whom he used to know well when they flew on the same airline. Jack is coming towards him, grinning; they exchange pleasantries, and then he rushes off to catch a plane. The following day Bob sees an obituary in a newspaper about Jack, who it appears died after an illness in an Edinburgh hospital – two days before the meeting.

It fell to Tricia to investigate the case and she contacted the head of security at Glasgow airport. The security videotape had already been wiped and reused, but there was some interesting information in the flight schedule.

Upon checking aeroplane timetables for that day we discovered that there was a flight to Jack’s small hometown at 3.00pm on the day in question and the checkout desk for that flight was the end desk which Bob saw his friend running towards. (It is worth noting again that Bob checked his watch at 2.45pm). The chief of security also established, subsequently, that the coffin of an airline pilot was transported through Glasgow Airport about that time and certainly on that day, having been already transferred from Edinburgh. Although we cannot pinpoint the exact time of this coffin transfer we know for certain that it was loaded on to an aircraft bound for Jack’s hometown destination on that day. One possible answer to this mystery would have been if Jack had a twin brother or a brother who looked exactly like him, and who also knew Bob, but he did not. No other person with even the same surname was on board that 3 o’clock flight.

The pilot, an atheist with no interest or belief in such matters, was deeply shaken by the incident.

There are other cases of ghosts and apparitions, followed by cases of the poltergeist type that Tricia investigated. A professional couple build a conservatory in which weird things start happening: a pungent and pervasive smell of tobacco, doors and windows repeatedly found open, anomalous movements of objects. While showing a friend round, the house owner points out a heavy straw model of a Viking ship on a shelf.

As they looked up, one of the straw paddles very slowly detached itself from the vessel, rose up about two inches and travelled half way across the room horizontally before it gently floated to the floor in a deliberate zig zag manner. Even a feather would have travelled faster.

Investigating the case Tricia learned that the couple had a friend who used to visit often but who they made to smoke his pipe outside. They promised that when the new conservatory was built he could smoke in it, but he got ill and died before that happened. The tobacco smoke is a giveaway: it’s natural to suppose, assuming survival to be a reality, that the friend had dropped in to say hello and to convey the fact of his still being around, so to speak. That seems dimly to have occurred to the couple as a possibility – but they found it very hard to accept; Tricia says the idea of it made the woman hysterical.

Tricia describes a number of other cases that are anyone familiar with the poltergeist literature will recognise – mostly seeming to be caused by discarnates, friendly or otherwise. One that was investigated by her colleague Archie Roy in the 1970s involved very disruptive activity over an extended period. At one point it seemed as if someone

with an enormous sledgehammer was taking it and hammering it against the side of the house to such an extent that the whole house shook, a blow coming every 5 seconds or so, hour after hour, till in desperation one would say, ‘Oh stop it.’ And it would stop. For a while . . . on one occasion after a long interval of blessed silence Max said, I believe we will get to the bottom of this. Immediately there was a sustained banging as if to say, ‘oh, no you won’t’.

There’s quite a bit on mediums, including a drop-in type case of a company director who died in a car accident, but was able to communicate to a colleague in a dream the presence of important papers in the wrecked car; these were eventually found sandwiched between the crushed metal. The material is filled out here and there with classic cases from the archives, such as the famous R101 episode involving Eileen Garrett. There is also a chapter about healers named Gary Mannion and Nina Knowlan, with some striking examples; and one on past-life memory cases – this includes the young Glaswegian boy named Cameron who talked about a previous life on the island of Barra.

Cameron used to speak to his brother about Barra constantly, so much so that the brother would yell in despair, “Gonnie shut up about Barra” He used to say to Norma [his mother] “You’ve only got one toilet in this house, in Barra we had three.” He never changed his story. He said to Norma “You would like my Barra Mum, she’s nice, and we could go and see her” He said it with such affection. He spoke about living in a white house and being able to see the beach from his bedroom window as it looked on to the beach and that the sheep used to come up to the front door of the house. He said that there were boxes outside the house, where he thought that fish was kept.

He gave details of the family group. He had three brothers and three sisters. “They were allowed to go and play on the beach on their own but I had to have someone with me.” He spoke about playing with a black and white dog and often referred to a big black car and the fact that there were always plenty of children around to play with. He never referred to his own name, but said that his father was called Shane, and said that his father had stepped out onto a road and was knocked down by a car. He also said that he was with him when this happened. (We have no information if this happened in Barra, Glasgow or elsewhere).

When Norma asked him about his mother’s name he replied “She was called Mummy” a response delivered with a kind of scathing look. He enthusiastically told Norma that his Barra Mum has long hair down to “there” as he pointed to below his waist and then he added, “but she got it cut shorter”. He kept saying “You’ll like her Mum when you see her, when we go to Barra. Please can we go? You’ll like her.”

The family did nothing for some time, but eventually responded to a press advert appealing for parents in this situation to come forward. The outcome was a TV documentary film in which the family were flown to Barra: the house that Cameron claimed to have lived in was identified, and many of the details verified.

Reading the book I was struck yet again by the gulf that exists between, on the one hand, the science that tells us such things do not happen, and, on the other, the findings of investigators that suggests they actually happen rather often, and more than most of us probably realise. It’s a world away from laboratories equipped with complex and expensive gadgetry, supported by massive funding to create exciting new technologies; that science is uncertain when it comes to peering into homes, families and human relations, where such things typically occur. As we know, if what emerges does not chime with what science understands about the accessible world of matter it’s dismissed as anecdote and fancy.

But this is not anecdote in the usual pejorative sense. What we know about it – that part which we can consider at all reliable – comes from investigators like Tricia Robertson, who must travel to the locality – often at some distance - win the trust of the people involved and corroborate the events as far as is possible. If we continue to regard them as anecdotes, it’s only in the sense that they are reports of human experience, stories with characters and incidents, accounts that must first be narrated in order to be accessed at all.

From her experiences and research Tricia has become a robust believer in the survival of consciousness after death. But as a practical investigator her interest is more in the events themselves than in their spiritual and metaphysical implications. It’s natural for readers unfamiliar with such things to wonder whether the people at the centre of them may be attention-seekers, or unbalanced, or following some concealed agenda; in her experience they are ordinary folk to whom something rather disturbing has occurred. They seem mostly confused, as any of us would be, often also anxious and desperate for the problem to be go away. Much of her work involves developing trust with people in these situations, and providing reassurance. She comments:

One thing that we have come to accept is that there is always a reason behind the production of phenomena; once you have pinpointed a possible reason, whether it is on-going or historical, incarnate or discarnate in source, then you can begin to look towards a possible resolution, or at least some kind of understanding.

Science may not formally recognise the existence of such things, but we’re reminded that they happen just the same and that we have to learn how to deal with them.