Press Column

The News of the World has discovered that some psychics are fakes. It must come as a terrible shock to the paper which brought us Mystic Meg, and has even launched her services, for a fee, across the Internet, to realise that not all psychics are, as she is and they are, concerned only with the good of their readers. "Sorceress cashes in on sick mix of hocus pocus" was their headline on the story of a witch who had gone into the business of splitting up marriages. "Sinister Sally Mapley, who lives in a thirteenth century cottage with a pet white wolf" offered to cast two spells for £110 which would prevent an old boyfriend of the reporters from getting married: "One of the spells will split them up and find her someone else, while the other will make the two of you get back together." The justification given for this price was that each spell would require the services of five helper witches, at £10 each, as well as a flat £10 for the essential oils and candles. The whole tone of the piece was one of ruthless debunking, as if it were completely impossible that this would ever have any effect,. The reporter did buy a bottle of "witches salt" at £1.50 an aphrodisiac bottle, and was solemnly warned to use only a little bit on the victim’s food, lest he tear her clothes off at the table. "When our girl tried it on her chips it tasted awful."

It is part of the rules of the News of the World that psychic stuff is only taken semi-seriously if it is benevolent. People offering to do evil are by definition fraudsters: it is one of those touches of unreality that makes the paper so reassuring; I suppose it is also an indication that the readers don’t really believe in any of it. In societies where witchcraft is taken seriously, or people are really believed to have psychic powers which can influence the world, there is none of this optimism about the uses to which they will be put.

This came out clearly in the Times, which had two witch feature son successive days to mark Halloween. The first was a send-up by Hannah Betts, who had taken advice from a witch named Titania Hardie, " A third-generation white witch, she lives with her film producer husband in a Somerset cottage, where she works magic for female friends, studies for an English Literature degree and ‘aromatherapises’ her children." Hannah Betts decided to try one of the spells in her book to get a new lover, "For reasons which involved a fair amount of preparatory imbibing, I was forced to perform the spell in a cocktail bar … first I sniffed my twig, then tied a lavender ribbon round the candle, chanted some magic doggerel, bowed, sprinkled aromatherapy oils on the purple knickers and trotted to the lavatory to pop them on. Then I set off into the night."

The second snag with this plan was that the man she spent the evening with was an old friend and did not share the excitement of her aromatherapised knickers at all. When suggested to him that they, er, it all went wrong: "For some time he stared at me. Then he said, ‘Hannah, are you ovulating?’ made his excuses, and left."

So much for the black arts as practised by journalists.

I can’t resist mention the sidebar to this piece, promoting "Britain’s best writers" in the next day’s paper and giving this example from Anne Robinson: "The fading red locks tickling the back of my neck have gone. Girlfriends are eyeing me suspiciously and demanding: what made you have it all cut off?" The quality speaks for itself. You won’t find anything like that in Shakespeare.

The next day the same paper had an interview with Cassandra Latham, who is registered with the Inland Revenue. "I do not call myself a ‘white witch. That’s a racist term … and I believe that is you want to heal effe3ctively you have to have the ability to curse, too." In her house there is "A pervasive smell of incense, tobacco, and chip-fat." She is a qualified nurse and counsellor and talks like a sensible parish priests: "Usually possession is just a state of mind: the problem lies in the person’s relationship with their partner or family. I try to bring them down to earth and demystify what is happening. .. people expect me to wave a magic wand and make their problems disappear but I always encourage them to find their own way out of a difficult situation." But she knows how to dress the part: "when at one point, she nipped out to post an urgent spell, she pulled on a black jacket and a black, wide-brimmed hat."

The Daily Telegraph had a long piece of political analysis from a seminar on disestablishment at St George’s House in Windsor based — at a guess — on the reporter attending, on Chatham House Rules. "It is almost certain that the Royal Commission on Lords reform will recommend that Jeish, Muslim, and Hindu representatives sit in the Upper Chamber alongside Anglican Bishops" wrote Rachel Sylvester. Two days later, the Sunday Telegraph claimed to have a draft of the Commissions report, which recommended no such thing, and proposed the retention of 16 bishops. The wise thing is to treat all such reports as crystal balls.

"Plank the Lord" cried the Mirror. "Is this the image of Jesus Christ on a three-foot plank of wood?" Next to it is a photograph of a wooden plank with a knot in it. "Sme religious groups have claimed it is a millennium message from God. The plank was bought from a London hardware store and brought to the Mirror’s Docklands offices by two readers who wanted to remain anonymous."

Imagine the scene at the shining glass and steel security desk in Canary Wharf tower, while the merchant bankers hurry past the two men who are trying to explain to the guards why they must take a plank of wood into a newspaper office. "Got someone in the lobby who says he’s got a picture of Jesus down here. The shadowy picture appears to show the Messiah with his beard, long hair, and halo." How did they get into the lift? It must have been a miracle.

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