The Next Room

This account concerns the possible after-death condition and whereabouts of my father. When he died I found that neither I nor anyone else had any clear idea what might have happened to him. Had he vanished for good, as science suggested? Was he living on somewhere else, according to occult tradition? Or would he resurface unchanged at a later date, which the reading at his funeral implied? The unhappy, unspoken consensus seemed to be that it was unrealistic to expect anything other than his total annihilation.

It was clear, for all our cultural sophistication, modern man knew nothing of what happened to its dead, beyond their obvious physical demise. Wanting to learn more, I wrote to church leaders, authors, philosophers, scientists, asking where and in what state they thought my father was.

The response encouraged me to do some further investigation on my own. I read widely, wrote more letters and started to form my research into a story.

I discovered the world was divided between those who were certain neither my father nor anyone else survived death in any form and those who were equally convinced, though often in contradictory ways, that everyone lived on, Belief in the former largely depended on the absence of any certain proof supporting the latter.

Almost without exception, Western religion relied on unverifiable historical texts for its beliefs. Contemporarily, only Spiritualists claimed to be in touch, and to encourage communication, with the actual dead. The occult view, which was shared to some extent by Eastern religions, was that the dream world, which all of us visit every night, was where we ended up when we died, and that this was my father’s current home; but that conscious access to it was problematic..

A number of avenues of exploration presented themselves. Out-of-the-body travel was one. I wrote letters to researchers in this field, meanwhile asking myself how it could be possible to know whether the experience of travelling in the dream world, let alone meeting my father there, was real or imaginary. The crucial question seemed to be whether the mind and the world visited could exist separately from the brain.

The scientific position was clear. The mind and brain were the same. When the body died, so did they. I wrote to and received a letter from the arch-exponant of this way of thinking, Susan Blackmore, and was made aware of the hardly less vehement beliefs of Richard Dawkins and Nicholas Humpreys. What was puzzling to me were the number of equally reputable, fully as intelligent non-scientists who subscribed to the opposite viewpoint. One who wrote to me, Professor David Fontana, was quite catagoric on this score.

I thought the problem might be solved if I could learn to travel out of my own body, or failing that, discover someone else who could, and was willing and able to verify this, principally by observing details of something hidden from both them and anyone else. I wrote to neurosurgeon Peter Fenwick, who was experimenting along these lines in hospitals, with those who had undergone Near Death Experiences.

I looked at the historical evidence for survival phenomena, outside of religion, in particular the claims for full form, corporeal manifestations of the dead; but it was difficult to rely even on first hand accounts from such ordinarily impressive sources as the physicist Sir William Crookes or author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, since whatever they believed they witnessed couldn’t realistically be replicated.

Then I came across an organisation attempting to encourage similar manifestations today, whose newsletter reported such bizarre occurrences as the regular reappearance of an extremely vocal Judy Garland, and the occasional visit by Lord Dowding of WW11 fame, as well as innumerable others, in private houses across the country. Unfortunately, all such appearances took place in the dark, where the ‘dead’ could be heard and occasionally touched but not actually seen; and although audio recordings were made infra red filming was disallowed.

I found a contemporary scientist citing the latest physics in support of bodily resurrection but no immortality of the soul; another, using the same discipline to describe an ethereal world in which our souls had lived, were currently half occupying, and would always belong; and others again denying all possibility of – in Richard Dawkins’ words – “energy fields unknown to physics”.

Overall, I bemoaned the lack of interest humanity took in any literal investigation into something that should have been as important, if not far more important, to its individual members as their schooling, careers or pension plans. Making the assumption there was no life after death, or that even if there was it would do us no good to speculate about it, least of all consider how the way we lived now might affect us later, struck me as little more sensible than denying the need to work and earn to provide money and creature comforts in the known world.

I had thought that by visiting a medium I would receive some form of conclusive proof, but this wasn’t the case. I was resigned to ending my research wiser but no more certain of what was or wasn’t true concerning my father. Then something extraordinary happened. I had, and have, no ready explanation for this.


On Christmas Eve, while I was having breakfast, the phone rang. It was my mother. My father, she explained, had had another of his fits.

I listened as the all too familiar description of stiffening limbs and a juddering body came across the line. With the stress and anticipation of one branch of the family descending on them for the holiday, I had half expected this.

The trouble was, each time it happened, the outcome was different. Sometimes, there was only fatigue, or temporary loss of memory. Occasionally, my father would have more difficulty emerging from whatever depths he had plumbed. Once or twice, fitfully present, his faculties slowed down and his speech slurred, we wondered if he might have left a vital part of himself behind.

This time, it had occurred around midnight, and my father had apparently fallen into an untroubled sleep soon afterwards. In the morning, not wanting to disturb him, my mother had breakfasted alone. Later, going upstairs to see how he was, she had found him dead. She had realised then, from the state of his body, that he must have died at the time of the fit.

After the shock, which was greater, partly for being less reversible, than any I had ever experienced; and some inconsolable days spent trying to reThe concile myself to the fact that someone I had known intimately and always been able to turn to, or at least contact, had apparently ceased to exist, and was now forever beyond my reach, I rallied. Everyone died eventually, and my father hadn’t been either well or young. He had gone suddenly, but relatively peacefully, without loss of mind or dignity, in what I’m sure he would have considered, apart from having to leave my mother behind, the best possible circumstances.

It was as if, going to bed one night and falling into the deep, dreamless slumber that he had always said preceded his seizures, he had simply remained there. In a sense, he wasn’t dead, so much as still asleep. I found myself remembering lost nights from my own past, when waking in the morning had been like a rebirth; and wondered how much more absent it was possible to be than to remain stranded in the inky oblivion of an impersonal, nighttime void.

Unfortunately, that didn’t go any way to explaining what would have happened, if instead of this, my father had been dreaming at the time of his death. I imagined his dream ending, like a film stopping mid flow, amid ensuing blackness. The hardly realistic alternative was that he might in some way, on another level, be dreaming still.

It wasn’t until the day of the funeral that I began seriously to wonder where, other than in his actual remains, my father was; and what, if some part of him had survived, it might be doing. At the time I could hardly pretend the teak coffin carried by paid retainers up and down the aisle (and ultimately into the incinerator) held anything except a piece of decaying memorabilia.

In the absence of any faith on my part that this was what would be resurrected at some future date, my father’s body was not something I wanted to see or even think about. It all too firmly emphasised his embalmed self, when animated, was all he had ever amounted to; that as a living entity he no longer existed.

The church service offered scant alternative hope. The village rector, who had known my father as a generous but predominantly absent member of a thinning congregation over many years, gave what I supposed was the traditional homily; but it was accompanied by a mention of everlasting life that was so brief, pronounced with so little conviction, and couched in such abjectly nominal terms, I wondered how the man could live with himself.

Of course, for any self-respecting adult in the late twentieth century, to talk about life ever-after, still less bodily resurrection, as something that was actually going to happen, was bound to be difficult; but I had imagined the leap of faith that made it possible to think this way was what caused clerics to become ordained in the first place.

I had gone to a school that included daily matins and almost as frequent evensongs in its curriculum; but I had paid so little attention to what at the time seemed to me patently absurd, when it wasn’t incomprehensible, and had ‘worshipped’ so seldom since then, I found I had no real notion what a church, never mind a funeral, service was about.

As thanksgiving for someone’s life, what they had done for their community, wide or small, this gathering together of family and friends made reasonable enough sense; as a form of commiseration for the bereaved, amongst whom I counted myself, it was understandable if meagre comfort; but as an avowed, time honoured rite for a traveller to a well documented if ultimately unverifiable bourn, its paucity of detail and downright shamefacedness was staggering.

What did this institution, that I and my father technically belonged to, believe happened when people died? Was it in any way dependent on whether or not they were churchgoers? If so, did it matter what their motives were, either for attending regularly or staying away? What were Christian hymns telling us, anyway? What did the prayers, vocal or silent, mean? Who were we praying to, or for? If, in this case, my father, where was he supposed to be?

What, in fact, were we being asked, in this ancient building, raised through conviction, seemingly populated in hope, to imagine had happened, or would happen, to someone science considered no longer existed?

The only genuinely arresting moment in the service was when the rector read an exert from The Prophet. Afterwards, I was unable to decide whether his reliance on an alien text reflected a Christian hopelessness when it came to finding something meaningful from its own archives, or a Christian tolerance in being able to recognise more than one source of wisdom. I hoped the latter.

I didn’t follow the passage closely, as I was caught up trying physically to contain my sorrow, at least in public, while at the same time reconcile my father in life with the tasteful, if tasteless, coffin resting in the aisle a few feet from me; but I remember hearing about an owl, which struck me as coincidental.

My mother had seen an owl, the night after my father’s death, alight on the railings of the veranda outside her bedroom, and stay there even when she opened the window and looked out. It had been a large bird and she had never been so close to one before. An anthropologist friend in their village had also apparently seen an owl, two days earlier, near my parent’s house. Owls, he had told me, were portents, and in Indian mythology were considered to transport the spirits of the dead.

When I related this to my mother, she brightened, and we speculated briefly on how exactly my father’s spirit could have been carried by, or become ancillary to, or even formed part of, the owl, or owls, that had been seen; but she sounded whimsical rather than wistful, as if she couldn’t bring herself to swallow any of these ideas, however much she liked the sound of them.

For me, it was too reminiscent of storks carrying the newborn in their beaks. I had never liked allegory. Besides, if my father’s spirit existed, rather than be reminded it had been taken from us, I would have preferred to know – wherever it was, however it travelled – what exactly it consisted of, what precise form it took.

Without disbelieving in the possibility of survival, I found it difficult to conceive how any aspect of my father, with his propensity for bloodsports, his passion for food and drink, his well ordered mind, his open affection for my mother, could exist other than corporeally, let alone remain recognisably individual and intact within the form of a solitary, nocturnal bird of prey. After all, if the relatively small affair of an earthly fit or seizure could disrupt, in the way it so often had, both his personality and its means of expression, how likely was it bodily death would be any less destructive?

The service at the crematorium was dire, although at least it didn’t have to make pretensions to modernity. It was hard to imagine anyone in this place, for all their surface piety, believing they were doing anything other than getting rid of a corpse in the most effective way possible. My father had always said he wanted to be burned and his ashes scattered at a favourite place. None of our family had any argument with this: it seemed entirely sensible; but that didn’t stop me wondering why we had to sit through more prayers, more vague homage to a less than certain God, and watch as the coffin disappeared behind stage curtains, and piped music rang out, as if heralding my father’s remains on a voyage of discovery to an unknown, possibly non-existent, although still alleged to be wonderful place, rather than simply to the waiting incinerator.

The vanishing coffin did, admittedly, lend a ring of verisimilitude to the event that the church service, denied its traditional denouement, had lacked; but seeing someone off on a trip from which there was neither expectation of return, nor of arrival at any readily identifiable destination, made the farewells seem strangely redundant. It suggested my father’s ultimate destiny really was oblivion.

The delivery of the ashes the next day compounded this sense of finality. A solemn, top hatted gentleman from the funeral parlour, looking and behaving like someone out of a costume drama, appeared at my mother’s door with a grey plastic tub, a typewritten label stuck on the top indicating this was the remains of my father. I took possession, we shook hands, and he departed, walking backwards away from the door, bowing at the waist.

As soon as he had gone, I opened it, and peering inside, found a substance resembling small grained cat litter. I remember shaking my head in stupefaction that my father, the most colossal character in my life, could have been reduced to this, as I stumbled round the house looking for somewhere discreet to put the surprisingly heavy container. I didn’t want to shock my mother too much with what was, however I considered it, a distressingly undignified way of ending up.

We scattered the ashes the next day. One of my brothers, who had found the cremation, with its recorded prayers, tacky furnishings and jerkily automated curtains, bordering on the Pythonesque, backed out of this latest ritual; but for me it was oddly soothing. I felt my father would have appreciated his remains – if they were his, rather than someone else’s, which didn’t seem entirely implausible – helping trees he had planted grow to fruition, being washed away amongst their roots.

Returning home, leaving my mother alone in her, to me, heartrendingly empty house, I still couldn’t believe my father was dead. He seemed no further away from me than he ever had, the only difference being that now I couldn’t travel to see him, or pick up the phone and talk. Otherwise, it was as if he was still alive – except I knew he wasn’t.

During the ensuing days and weeks, I found myself, in the oddest of circumstances, looking heavenwards and wondering where he was, even crying out loud in the car when driving, which was the only place I knew I couldn’t be overheard.

I got no answer and the nagging question kept coming back. Had he been annihilated? Was he finished, in every sense of the word, like a stage play, leaving only memories; or was he waiting, as I had always thought Christians believed, but which seemed, even more so since we had scattered his ashes, as inconceivable to me as nowadays it apparently did even to them, to be miraculously resuscitated at some future moment?

Far more likely, if still unbelievable, because scientifically every bit as unexplainable, was the possibility that he existed, in some fashion, somewhere, even now, as the person I had always known. The trouble was, if he did, would I still know him, or he me, if and when we met again?

I had always been interested, as had my father, in the occult. We shared a belief, based on the accounts of others rather than any experiences of our own, that there was more to life than met the eye, particularly the eye of science. For some reason, we had never talked much about this, still less about what we thought might happen to people when they died; although the words my father used to describe other peoples’ deaths suggested he considered the state pretty final.

He spoke of his contemporaries "pegging out", "curling up their toes" and "handing in their chips", as if they were game players falling by the wayside; and he seemed to give so little thought to them afterwards, either to their memory or in speculation about their souls, it was hard to believe he credited anyone with a meaningful afterlife.

Christianity was something he had been brought up with, like Shakespeare and gentlemanly behaviour. He could quote from the Bible, but he had rarely gone to church, other than out of the same sort of duty that had sent him off to war. In later years he tended to deride those who still chose to go through the motions of religious adherence, now it was no longer socially reprehensible not to, believing they were trying to protect their underbellies through undue, ultimately hopeless, because largely false, worship.

Catholics, with their seemingly obsessive, often daily church going, mystified him; but there was an element of admiration in his voice when he spoke of them, as if to be that maniacal meant, at least, not that their faith was necessarily justified, but that it was genuine. I think he would have been happy to believe if he had been shown, indubitably, that what he was being asked to subscribe to was reasonable, or even conceivable. Christianity, as he understood it, was neither of these. Nevertheless, remaining a member of the Church of England came as naturally to him as, while probably meaning rather less than, being a member of the Traveller’s Club.

Although he must have wondered, as everyone did, old people more than most I supposed, what would happen to him when he died, I don’t think he had any sense of certainty that anything of consequence, or nothing at all, would meet him on the other side. What was particularly upsetting to me now was that I didn’t, either.


For me, the most striking thing about my father’s thanksgiving service, which was held a month after his funeral, was not the number of people who turned up to honour his memory, which was the understandable and major talking point, but the message printed inside the front cover of the order of events.

My mother had asked for this to be included, having had a copy sent her by an old friend, because, she said, it reflected better than anything the way she felt. On reading it, my immediate thought was how unchristian it was, how unorthodox; and yet it had been written by a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. It read:

"Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effort, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was: there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well."

This was undeniably hopeful: it neither suggested annihilation nor selective resurrection at a later date. In fact, in many ways, it could have been a Pagan tract, since there was no mention of God or Jesus, and only a passing reference to prayer.

Above all, it implied my father not only existed, but existed in a recognisable form, and in a place his family and friends would one day find themselves meeting him. This was comforting, though not, it had to be said, entirely convincing.

It reminded me of the owls, and their possible connection with my father’s spirit. It was too close to what, if I had been asked, I would have said I wanted to hear, to be easily believable; and yet, at the same time, there was no reason why that should have made it untrue.

That the majority of us didn’t know what was going to happen to us when we died was such a sad indictment of our day and age it made me want to find out what those people who believed they did know actually thought, and why. It was annoying as well as upsetting not to be able to say, with any certainty, whether my father still existed, and if he did, what form he took and where he spent his time.

There was, I supposed, something peculiarly modern about my need to know; but there was also something peculiarly modern about my not knowing, or at least not believing I knew, already.

Compared to our forbears we were, or so we presumed, far better able and equipped to winkle out truth: we had information at our fingertips and communication could be instant; we had unsurpassed knowledge of the material world, fantastic physical mobility, and seemingly unlimited intellectual resources; yet we were in the equivalent of the Stone Age when it came to insight into and understanding of what happened to us when we died.

This may have been because nothing did happen. Large numbers of people evidently thought so. Or it may have been because the alternatives were so at odds with what we knew to be true, we found it hard to give them credence. I wanted to learn the facts but found myself wondering if, besides the obvious cessation of bodily life, there would be any to learn.

Historically, knowledge of the afterlife had been based on individual revelation, providing huge scope for imagination to play a distorting role. From a twentieth century vantage point, verifying the existence, or otherwise, of normally invisible realms, attested to by seers of every age and conceivable cultural background, however fantastic the prospect, ought, I felt, to have at least been a matter of interest, providing grounds for research, in some faculty of reputation.

Thumbing through a copy of the UCAS Handbook, which listed higher education courses throughout Britain, and was similar in size to one of the London telephone directories, discovery of what currently engaged the nation’s intelligentsia left me goggling at the sheer, often nonsensical variety of subjects on offer; but at the same time fully aware it was the material world most of them were examining.

It was clear, without bothering to dig further, that the existence and nature of the afterlife was hardly an abiding theme in the sciences; and although the old staples, theology and philosophy, still merited a place in the humanities, no self-respecting academic seemed likely to be expected to study the historical antecedents of what was widely considered by their peers to be an irrational cultural phenomenon as if it had any direct bearing on present day reality.

This struck me as sad. So much money, so much expertise, such massive investment in the lives of so many young people, and yet something as fundamental to them as the nature of their own mortality – the possibility of a more lasting future for the human race than most university students would have dreamed about – was being virtually ignored.

I remembered how, years earlier, when reading A Guide for the Perplexed, by EF Schumacher, I had been shocked to realise the extent to which twentieth century man was out on a limb. Not unreasonably, the author had resented being expected to live as if his ancestors:

"…until a quite recent generation, had been rather pathetic illusionists who conducted their lives on the basis of irrational beliefs and absurd superstitions."

I felt that way now. At any other moment or place in history, if my father had died, I would have known, beyond doubt, what had happened to him. Naturally, since my belief would have depended on the consensus of the society I lived in, it would have differed, often to the point of seeming incompatible, with that of another time or place; but this did not mean I would have believed it any less keenly, or that it need necessarily have been wrong.

At the very least, I would have been sure; just as I would have been sure the earth was flat and the moon influenced the growth of crops. From my twentieth century standpoint, I now knew at least one of these beliefs was false. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same certainty that what I might once have assumed had happened to my father – essentially, that he was still himself, in heaven, hell, or some intermediate state – was no less likely to be the case than that the earth was undeniably round.

In the absence of proof, any notion that we survived death was bound to be considered imaginary by a secular society. Acceptable proof could, I supposed, have come from showing by calculation that unseen forms and worlds did exist; or by creating an instrument, or ourselves somehow learning, to measure them. On a personal level, conviction might follow an otherwise inexplicable event, or series of events; but individual claims, even if there were a great many of them, unless scrupulously sourced, could hardly have been called objective evidence.

What I wanted was to be able to say, to myself as much as anyone, but on some sort of respectable authority, as flatly as if my father had gone to live in Australia, that an invisible version of this was where he now was, and anyone wanting to visit him would find him there.

I wouldn’t necessarily have an address, or a phone number; but I would know where ‘Australia’

was, as would most other people. I needn’t have visited it myself, nor be able to say much about it. I needn’t, in fact, ever try to contact my father there; and if I did, I might have difficulty; but the existence of this place, and his tenure in it, would both be incontrovertible facts.

There were millions of fathers on earth, dying in their hundreds of thousands every day. Where were they going? What was their equivalent of Australia? Did they have phone numbers and addresses, personal locations, details we simply didn’t know about? Apart from their physical deaths, what about them could still be said to be incontrovertible?

I wished I knew how to find out. I didn’t want to go to church any more than I had already done in my life. I enjoyed reading but searching through the relevant sections in my local library seemed to offer the unalluring prospect of either taking something that was frankly ludicrous on trust; or else joining in splitting hairs over the intricacies of its absurdities.

For me, it was far less important to know who Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha were, the nature of their backgrounds, what they did, or even whether they had existed, than to discover how people in general came to be born, where they went when they died, and whether visits there were a possibility, or lines of communication could be set up.

Somebody, somewhere, should have been investigating this, surely supreme, subject. As it was, I struggled to find middle ground between breezily facile exhortation, dull exposition, and the learned dissection of irrelevant minutiae. I didn’t want to study religion, in any accepted sense of the word. I could acknowledge the virtue of the Ten Commandments, and the possible usefulness of meditation; but that was about it. In any case, I didn’t see why the question of my father’s whereabouts should depend on how I thought or behaved.

Initially, I turned to my local Spiritualist Church. I knew they were nominally Christian but they still appeared, to an outsider, a more secular group than most; and they promised, uniquely, direct contact with the dead, which was so extraordinarily forthcoming as to be open to immediate and understandable ridicule.

Services were held weekly at a local Scout Hall; but I needed to steel myself to go. Once before, months earlier, when my father was still alive, I had been tempted to make a visit, after reading descriptions in a Betty Shine book my mother had lent me, detailing spontaneous manifestations of ‘ectoplasm’ and the sudden, inexplicable materialisation of objects at the author’s Spiritualist Church; and deciding I had to verify this for myself.

I had hovered around the doorway on that occasion, but my nerve failed me at the last minute. I was afraid, not so much of associating with, or being recognised by, the slightly seedy looking characters – vaguely familiar, from long association with the town – I had seen slipping, in ones and twos, into the dank hall, but that I might inadvertently learn something about myself, or my future, I would prefer not to know. My immediate family thought the idea so ridiculous, I was glad to be able to tell them, when I returned home early, I had had second thoughts.

I finally went, two months after my father’s death; and found myself, along with an eclectic, threadbare cross section of society, well spread out in rows of freestanding pews, holding – almost holding together – disconcertingly well used hymn books, taking part in a makeshift Christian service. This was led by a medium who, perched ceremoniously by the alter, eyes closed throughout, intoned sonorously with scarcely pause for breath, and certainly gave the impression of being on the receiving end of a direct line from somewhere very far away.

We sang dreary hymns badly and mumbled prayers I vaguely remembered from school, while I grew impatient waiting. I couldn’t believe the congregation was interested in this rigmarole, which was available elsewhere far more comfortably and comprehensively. They must all have been hankering, like me, for the supposed messages from the dead that the medium was there to provide.

After all, Spiritualism was not so much a belief system as a means to an end. This ‘church’, if I understood it rightly, although nominally Christian, existed to act as a sort of inter-dimensional telephone exchange, with the medium somehow carrying a universal ‘directory enquiries’ inside her head. She was to be our means of communication with those who had died because she alone had access. We waited on her.

Once the service had petered to a halt the medium opened her eyes and looked down on us keenly. She had a beady but benign gaze, and I felt a stirring of anticipation. Almost immediately, she singled someone out, on the other side of the hall, and gave them a seemingly inconsequential message. The reply was favourable. After expanding in some detail, she moved on, and the pattern was set, in which specific names and events were served up and almost universally attested to.

I found this lady an impressive figure: elderly but impassioned, she hardly paused for breath; and the individual recipients of her attention seemed fixated by what she had to say. Unfortunately, listening to, and staying interested in, a series of conversations whose subject matter was the everyday life of strangers, made me almost as weary as the service had. Having realised that in the time available a mere tenth of the congregation was likely to be on the receiving end of the medium’s attention, I soon gave up hope I would be part of it, and grew bored.

Whether it was because I was new to the Church and stood out, or the medium chose me entirely at random, or she sensed I was finding the waiting tedious and was afraid I might walk out early, or she genuinely believed she had, and possibly did have, a message for me, I can’t say; but suddenly she zeroed in on me; and what she relayed, with very little prompting – in fact, so little, I don’t believe I uttered more than once – was certainly more applicable to my life than anything I had so far, or subsequently, heard her say to anyone else; but it purported to come from my "two grandfathers in the world of spirit" – which, being middle aged, I could hardly have denied having – and no mention was made of my father at all.

Without being a complete waste of time, I felt I had learned little. Most of the messages, my own included, had been, however suggestive, inconsequential. I supposed this was unsurprising. The vast majority of communications flitting about the globe at any one time must be self-centred, indeed, would be considered odd if they were not. If someone familiar spoke from the ‘other side’, banal details were what permitted recognition and allowed each to know the other was alright, had his or her interests at heart, and was truly who they said they were.

In many ways, the very lack of information given on these occasions, not of who was speaking so much as the place they were speaking from, could itself have been evidential, suggesting a real person was talking – as they would, about themselves – rather than that a medium was successfully reading a believer’s mind. Even so, I was hardly convinced.

My next attempt to get in touch with my father, at a Psychic Evening held in rented club premises with a guest medium from outside my area, was again unsuccessful. This event had no Christian overtones; in fact, it was almost pointedly irreligious, having the atmosphere, the associated fug, of a protracted bingo session, with a mid-term break for coffee, cigarettes and idle chat that was every bit as non-esoteric as the setting.

This time, the medium was a man. He was stout, wore a worn suit, and had the unsettling mannerism of rising up on the balls of his feet and thrusting his midriff forwards for emphasis. He didn’t shut his eyes or seem to be in communication with anything other than his own inner resources, but simply fired off messages as if they were one line gags. Whatever his skills as a medium, he clearly thought of himself as something of a showman.

On arrival, I had positioned myself in the front row, thinking that way I would be surer of getting a message; but as I was waiting for the room to fill I wondered if it could, logically, be as a result of the medium noticing me that a communication would come through, rather than the unbidden arrival of one that told him who to look for.

Either way, the logistics of the affair, considering the number of people who could have attended that evening, and the infinite multitude who might have wanted to communicate with them, were stupefying.

As I waited, I half wished someone would sit alongside me. I felt unpleasantly isolated. I hadn’t liked being put on the spot at the Spiritualist Church and having intimate details about myself – genuine or otherwise – made common property, even if the scrutiny of the medium did seem compassionate, and however sure I was those details were as uninteresting to others as theirs had been to me.

Unfortunately, as became quickly apparent, this man relished unsettling his audience. Apart from anything else, he didn’t give anyone time to think. He shot a statement off and barely waited for the hapless victim to respond before continuing in the same vein. Those who did manage to speak usually gave the impression of agreeing with whatever he said, though it was unlikely, if they hadn’t, that they would have admitted it, for fear of putting his back up; further revelations were similarly received.

One individual evidently decided he was neither prepared to be impressed nor cowed. Either that or the medium was compounding a series of genuine errors. Nothing he said, no name he came up with, no allusion he offered, made the slightest impression.

I found it excruciating, for all of us. I could see how difficult it must be for a genuine recipient to tell, and to continue telling, a medium in full flow, especially one as assertive as this, that he was wrong; but because such steadfastness was the attitude a sceptic determined to prove his point would have decided to adopt anyway, I was left none the wiser by the confrontation.

Eventually, the showman reasserted himself, declaring that the communicators, en masse, were no longer interested in getting in touch with someone so uncooperative and ungracious as to refuse them recognition. Suddenly, he pointed at me. My world went hazy. I was reminded of when I had had to deliver a lecturette at school, and on standing up to speak, with my heart thumping in my throat, had found myself too dry mouthed to utter a word.

I could only nod dumbly and listen and try and grasp how much of what he said made sense, at the same time memorising some of the details, so I could write them down later.

As had happened before, the particulars the medium came up with were apt. I was inclined to be sceptical but I couldn’t deny what he said to me related to my life much more readily than any of the messages he had directed to others in the audience. I knew this was the case because I had made a point of imagining myself in their positions, and most of what was said to them couldn’t have been even remotely applied to me.

Unfortunately, there was no mention of my father or of anyone else I might have recognised from the other side; only an unspecified "gentleman with a fine mind" who was apparently watching over me. With the best will in the world, I couldn’t get excited about this; and ruminating on it afterwards, I thought I wouldn’t go again. The circumstances of any possible meeting of minds were the least favourable I could imagine.

Surrounded by impatient strangers, being talked at, rather than to, for a few short minutes by mediums who doubtless meant well but presumably didn’t want to be tied to specifics for fear of being publicly seen to fall short, wasn’t conducive to the steadiness of mind I needed to evaluate the truth. Besides, my father seemed no more likely to frequent such irredeemably lowbrow places dead than he had when alive.

Meanwhile, I had learned from a brochure I picked up in the Scout Hall that it was considered best to delay trying to get in touch with someone’s departed spirit until several months after their death. I resolved to try again, at a later date, in a series of anonymous private sittings, with one or more reputable mediums – although how I would find out who they were I had no idea – who couldn’t possibly have known me, or my father, or anything about either of us. In the meantime, I wanted a more objective assessment altogether.

I was neither more nor less convinced than I had ever been of my father’s continued existence; but since he had to be somewhere, or else nowhere – there were no in-betweens – I felt it was important I look at the question from as many angles as possible. I wanted to know what other people, rational or not, believed; what their beliefs were based on; what justification there was for them; and what evidence could be found to back them up.

For years, I had accepted this life was all there was and that religion was a blind alley. I had relished being alive in a flesh and blood body that could die, taking me with it, at any time. In fact, this had seemed to me to add to the excitement of living. What rekindled my interest was not my father’s death, though that certainly hastened it, but an increasing awareness of the uniqueness of people – and animals – and how this couldn’t, in all reasonableness, be accounted for by their upbringing alone.

I had noticed this particularly with my own children. The differences between them, all now teenaged, was profound; but the odd thing about these differences was that they were essentially unaltered, being neither more nor less pronounced than they had been at birth. The particular way in which each child had responded to delivery – the nature of the labour, even its precipitation – and the first days and weeks of their lives, was entirely in keeping with their behaviour afterwards. It didn’t seem that experience formed them so much as they formed their experiences.

If people were born with ready made, fully developed personalities, which manifested differently in children than in adults purely on account of relative bodily development, thus giving the continuous illusion they were ‘growing up’, this meant humanity – civilised humanity, at least – was spending inordinate amounts of time busily forming what was in fact already there. The obvious question was, where did such individuality come from?

While a clear case could have been – and contemporarily was – made for the fusion of egg and sperm creating a nascent personality as well as a unique physical being, it was while ruminating on the unsatisfactoriness of this that I came to see as reasonable rather than preposterous the traditional notion of a separate soul somehow infiltrating the foetus while it was in the womb, which folklore – and the Catholic church – told us occurred during ‘quickening’. Assuming this was the case and that the soul, rather than being freshly created, came from somewhere, it seemed more than likely it would return there as and when its host body died.

My interest in the nature and whereabouts of this elusive place struck me as almost prurient when I reflected on the amount of time we as a society gave to the extraterrestrial aspect of our futures, and pasts. Considering how we went about moulding our children, civilising them, educating them, so they might enjoy a career in order to earn enough money to live, raise families, save for retirement, and subsist in old age, it was astonishing how little thought – apart, that was, from passing on accumulated wealth – we currently gave to what happened afterwards.

Certainly, in my father’s case, altogether more time, effort and consideration was devoted to avoiding death duties than contemplating the likely constitution of the world to come.

This must have been largely because our society didn’t believe, in the same way it believed in the ultimate reality of the Inland Revenue, that there was another world at all. Expecting us to avow we were immortal was like expecting us to believe in magic. Yet, according to David Conway, author of Esoteric Knowledge, there was a time when money lenders, presumably as hard-nosed then as now, would advance loans in the expectation they would be repaid, not in the borrower’s lifetime but in his next existence.

Carol Neiman and Emily Goldman made similar claims in their book, Afterlife, suggesting:

"The Druids’ belief in reincarnation was so strong…they were even known to borrow money or goods in the present life with a promise of repayment in the next".

Whether such repayments became due in an actual afterworld, where I had always assumed money would have so little merit as to be virtually worthless and could more or less be conjured up at will, or on earth, by a future incarnation of the deceased borrower, was unclear; but I found my mind boggling at the sheer unlikeliness of either scenario.

Any lender worth their salt must surely have wondered about the ultimate value of specie in an immaterial universe; and even if repayment was supposed to take place on terra firma, how they worked out when, where or in what guise, their borrower would reappear, and if not in their own lifetime, whether it was their lineal descendant, or their own future incarnation, that would one day have to ask for a reckoning of accounts, was beyond me.

Since the source in both books was unclear, I wasn’t able to research further. Nevertheless, it was hard not to believe that if our expected span was measurable in lifetimes rather than years, we should pace ourselves accordingly, and give at least as much attention to preparing – cash considerations apart – for our future existence as we already did for distant perspectives in this one.

Certainly, if the principle of money owing in one life remaining repayable in the next was extended, we could assume that mistakes made and services rendered, grudges held or even attitudes of mind prevailing, would all have their respective repercussions. If so, it would only be by recognising this with the same clarity currently reserved for more mundane matters that we, as members of society, would ever learn to sow in this world what we most wanted to reap in the next.

The alternative view, of course, was that rational beings should not concern themselves with matters that were, at best, outside their speciality and therefore exclusively a matter for theologians or the more wayward philosophers to argue over, and at worst, widely accepted, at least within the scientific community, to be pure moonshine anyway.


I decided to contact the assumed, occasionally self-proclaimed experts in the field and canvas their views. I wrote a standard letter that I could send to more or less anyone, whether their background was religious or secular; if they didn’t respond personally, with any luck they might point me in the right direction. My letter said:

"My father died on Christmas Eve 1995. He was a member of the Church of England though not a regular churchgoer. He was cremated. Other than this, I have no idea what he thought would happen to him when he died. I am writing to ask you where, and in what state, you would consider him to be now; and whether, and if so when, his friends and family can expect to communicate, or be reunited, with him again.

I ask these questions in all seriousness and would welcome as specific an answer as you are able to give, particularly on the possible survival condition and likely whereabouts of my father. Given the vast amount of literature on this and related subjects, could you recommend any book or article that particularly explains your view of what happens to people when they die?"

The ‘experts’ I wrote to were mainly those in positions of authority within recognised religious groups, who I felt ought to be able to give fairly clear answers to my questions; along with a number of private individuals whose interest in the subject was sufficiently renowned to have penetrated the public consciousness.

I included such distant luminaries as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Home and the Dalai Lama, all of whom, even if they shielded themselves from direct contact with the population at large, might hand my letter on to, or else have it automatically dealt with by, some supernumerary.

Using the Yellow Pages, I wrote to a number of Christian groups, and the national and local representatives of the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Bahai, Sikh and Jewish faiths. Somewhat less than wholeheartedly, I sent a copy of my letter to the headquarters of the Christian Science movement, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Salvation Army, the Quakers, and to the quasi-religious entity known as Scientology.

I wrote to one or two ‘survivalists’ whose books or pamphlets I had read, rationalists I had heard on the radio or seen on TV, scientists whose work I had come across and who would definitely have, and I thought might be prepared to share, an opinion, and a ‘philosopher of mind’ whose name kept cropping up in connection with life after death. I also wrote to a small number of popular authors who I knew had an interest in the subject.

While I waited for any replies to arrive (without being particularly sanguine, I thought I might get a reasonable response), I read what I could by or about people it would have been impossible to write to since they were long dead.

The more I read, the more amazed I became that with so much thought, individual time and effort and general angst having been spent investigating what was on the surface the relatively clear-cut matter of whether or not humans survived death in a recognisable form, one group of researchers should believe so implicitly we did, while another was equally adamant we didn’t.

Given whatever facts were available, I felt this was something we shouldn’t have an opinion about so much as an understanding of. Either it was true, or it wasn’t. If facts were so sparse it was impossible to say one way or another, we should admit as much. From what I was reading, there seemed as little likelihood, from either side, of those purportedly in the know acknowledging they were unsure, or that they remained open to alternative possibilities, as there was of them proving themselves right.

Although straddling the fence was the logical position to take up, the argument did seem heavily weighted in favour of scientific objectivity for anyone in search of the truth who, like me, without being hard-faced about it, thought themselves averagely intelligent and not strikingly gullible. This simply reflected a natural tendency to side with the rationalist world view that I, along with most people alive today, had been brought up to espouse.

In late twentieth century Britain, although there was an official Church, we weren’t expected to take the things it said seriously. A major, undoubted effect of living where and when we did had been to make the possibility of survival of death – never mind the other trappings of a religious mind – so absurdly, improbably fanciful, it was taken as a sign of weakness of character to be so much as considering it.

Perhaps this was why talking about what happened after death was generally thought embarrassing, even distasteful. It was alright to make a joke about it; but people might as readily have been expected to discuss, in all seriousness, the existence of fairies at the bottom of their garden, as evaluate an actual afterlife.

Reading books by those who were prepared to approach the subject at face value was refreshing; but too many of them, from both sides of the divide, took too much on trust, and made wholly unreasonable claims. Scientists were too closed, believers altogether too open.

My researches were arbitrary and I found them wearying. So often I was obliged to follow writers down tedious and obscure byways in order to arrive at something supposedly profound that was either wholly speculative or else mere hearsay – I hadn’t yet learned it would have been difficult for it to be much else – so I was glad to be interrupted by the arrival of the first replies to my letter. I was impressed by their promptness, although it was difficult to know if this was due to certainty of mind or simple efficiency with correspondence.

Considering how relatively easy it had been for me to ask the questions, especially as I had sent the same letter to everyone, and how I was asking people who owed me nothing and were under no moral duty to respond to an unsolicited enquiry from a stranger, to summon the energy and perspicacity from a doubtlessly busy life to sit down and set out on paper their view of something as weighty as the survival of a man they hadn’t even known, I was deeply appreciative of all who took the trouble to reply.

The last thing I had expected, or wanted, was sympathy. For me, it always felt excruciatingly awkward, even when impersonally delivered; but I supposed it was standard in our society to commiserate with the bereaved. This must have been particularly so for clergymen, of whatever denomination, whose daily round was presumably largely made up of reconciling people to the deaths of their loved ones.

I felt something of an impostor to have precipitated such a response, especially as I was beginning to be more comfortable with my father’s disappearance – as I tended to think of it. I still couldn’t acknowledge he was gone, in the definitive sense of the word: that was, I accepted his death rather than his non-existence; but thoughts of him were certainly much less persistently present than they had been.

Although still genuinely interested to know where he was, I didn’t particularly wish him back from there. We were getting on with our own lives, and it would have been nice to know he was, too. I would have been keen to meet him, if that had been possible, but only as a short term visitor, just as I had been at his house, or he at mine, on earth.

The first letter I opened bore the insignia of Lambeth Palace. I quote it in full:

"Thank you for your letter, which has been passed to me to answer as the Archbishop is away from Lambeth on holiday until later this month.

I was sorry to hear of the death of your father. Your letter struck a chord with me as my family and I asked many of the same questions when my mother died. Our experiences showed that there are no obvious and easy answers about what happens after death, either for those who are committed Christians or those whose faith is perhaps more tenuous or undefined. The Bible itself is full of the promise of eternal life, but is not specific about what actually happens when we die. We are, however, given the assurance that ‘neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities or powers, nor the present nor the future, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord’. In the matter of Christian faith, trust and hope are all-important.

Many books have been written on this subject. I have looked through the Archbishop’s own writings, but cannot find anything which answers directly the questions you ask. However, I have included a photocopy of a chapter from one of his books which deals with the Ascension of Christ and what that can mean for us, and also a copy of a paper written by Bishop Geoffrey Rowell on the ‘last things’ which I hope you will find helpful. Bishop Geoffrey was also a contributor to the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission report The Mystery of Salvation which has a chapter on the ‘last things’.

I also enclose a copy of a chapter of Joan Gibson’s book Living in Perspective, on ‘Life and Death’ which you might find useful and interesting.

I do hope these thoughts help. I know that the Archbishop would also want me to suggest that you might find it helpful to contact your local Vicar and arrange to discuss these matters with him or her at length and in depth.

Yours sincerely,

Lesley Perry

Press Secretary

Lambeth Palace."

The final paragraph of this letter, which was obviously an important addition for someone whose primary interest and concern would have been to encourage others to subscribe to his faith, at least enabled the way I felt to be put firmly into perspective. The last thing I wanted was in-depth chats with anyone that would necessitate me adding a religious hue to my life as a result of my father having died. That wasn’t the point at all. I didn’t want or need assistance in order to come to terms with the fact that someone had disappeared from my immediate circle. If this hadn’t happened already, of its own accord, it would in time. Death was, after all, the most natural of occurrences.

What I wanted was something far more disinterested, something almost impersonal: an understanding of what had happened to my father, and what would one day happen to me, with as little reference as possible to what either of us may or may not have believed, or hoped.

I studied the articles the Archbishop’s Press Secretary had sent me. I was interested to see if they were any more precise than he had been or, indeed, than the rather glib ‘assurance’ he had quoted in the first paragraph of his letter. I thought I understood his vagueness, and why he would probably have replied even if his superior hadn’t been on holiday. It was only too easy to pontificate from on high, as the Bishop of Durham had done, and be pilloried for it; far easier, safer, and possibly, in the case of the Archbishop, truer, was to be seen to be encompassing as many available interpretations as possible.

Perhaps it was for this reason that the Ascension of Christ appeared to the Archbishop as symbolic rather than actual. He saw it as:

"…an acted parable, in which Jesus returns to his Father in the only way that the disciples would have recognised as departing, and that was by going from them physically…"

This was certainly less contentious than any clearcut assumption:

"…that heaven is a place above our heads and that Jesus somehow rose up there to an unknown physical location."

To the Archbishop, evidently:

"…of much greater importance than the manner of his going is the meaning of his going."

Although I could appreciate this might have been the case for anyone for whom the essential facts were not in doubt, it was presumably just that manner of Jesus’ ascension that enabled thinking Christians to form an understanding of whether and how they would, one day, themselves rise from the dead.

I turned to Joan Gibson, hopefully. Describing herself as "a retired teacher", and "secretary of Depressives Associated, a national self-help organisation for the lonely and depressed", she was forthcoming, in a cheery sort of way, but still essentially vague.

As might have been expected from someone in her position, the thought there might not be any continuation of life, that death did equal annihilation, was too awful to give serious credence to; and the bedrock of her belief was the conviction – or hope – that:

"…life itself does not ever die, but continues in each of us."

I thought I knew only too well how she felt. It was, as she put it:

"…a bleak prospect, if we are no more than a wave in a vast sea, surging with life and individuality for a brief moment, then sinking to merge for ever into the boundless grey depths of ocean".

Nevertheless, hope was powerless without some sort of back up, and if all the author could offer was to claim that:

"…the appearance of Christ Himself, following the resurrection, plainly indicate, as did His teaching, that conscious life after death, while on a different plane, continues for each of us,"

it was clear she knew no more than anyone else.

Unusually, though, she was willing to consider this a problem of perception as much as of faith, describing a species of fish with bifocal eyes that could simultaneously scan both the airy and watery worlds, even though it could only live in one, and speculating:

"If we were able similarly to develop our awareness of a world which exists beyond our own, death would no longer seem to thrust us into a blank void."

I couldn’t have agreed more. The problem was, as she admitted:

"Even if we believe in immortality, the loneliness can be unbearable. We feel so far from them, without any means of communication or assurance of their well–being."

Or, indeed, their continued existence. Her particular faith, it was clear, offered no means of verification, other than occasionally enabling her to feel:

"…the presence of those who have died, as a further assurance that death is only a curtain which hides them from our sight."

The truly dreadful aspect of believing something without being absolutely sure of it – or, in all honesty, being sure of it at all – must have been the accompanying suspicion that any rare but special moments, when a feeling arose that was so persuasive it almost seemed like absolute proof, were wholly illusory bulwarks created by the mind to bolster blind faith.

This suspicion could only have been worsened by the nagging thought, however conveniently disguised – which might, I supposed, have led to depression – that if the belief in question held even an iota of genuine truth, some irrefutable evidence of this would surely have seeped through into our everyday lives.

Bishop Rowell for his part was, somewhat surprisingly, prepared to give a certain credence to the possibility that the phenomena of Near Death Experiences, or NDEs, might provide, as he put it, "pointers" to this truth. His paper was in the form of a reply to another letter, based around the contentious subject of what those who had died but been brought back to life had apparently witnessed, and it had presumably arrived at the Archbishop’s office, rather as mine had, and been handed to the person deemed most suitably qualified to answer it.

I began to get an inkling of the number of such letters, each demanding an individual reply, the Archbishop must receive, and wondered uneasily what initial response my own with its, I now saw, rather barking manner, might have elicited.

Bishop Rowell first set out the ground rules, as he saw them:

"…it is clear that it is not entirely adequate to summarise the church’s belief as you do that ‘the body rests in a grave until the day of judgment when all the dead are raised in their physical bodies’. It is a more complex story. Although it is certainly true that some Christians have held to a very physical understanding of resurrection, it is not resuscitation that St Paul had in mind when he spoke of a spiritual body. That is rather to be understood as ‘a body animated by the Holy Spirit’. In the same way, the resurrection of Jesus is transfiguration, not resuscitation."

He went on to say:

"We are beginning to realise that the sharp distinction between Jews who believe in the resurrection of the body and Greeks who believe in the immortality of the soul ought not to be pressed absolutely – though the weight still falls on the Jewish understanding of resurrection."

This struck me as extremely revealing. I could remember thinking at school that the notion of a soul pre-existing, becoming merged at birth with, and ultimately outliving, the body, seemed an unlikely but nonetheless feasible and in many ways rather elegant solution to the quandary of life and death – which didn’t particularly trouble me at the time other than as an advanced sort of riddle. This probably explained why I considered the resurrection of a well rotted corpse as the only apparent alternative – other than, as it presented itself to me then, the infinitely more likely annihilation – simply preposterous.

I’m sure it was my perception of the asininity of mind required to actually believe something so incredible that put me off Christianity at an early age. Now, here was a Bishop, not saying this wasn’t the case, because it clearly was for some of his flock, but that it wasn’t the only interpretation of the facts.

Of course, a potentially far greater worry was that there were no ‘facts’ to interpret at all but only questionable reports of alleged eye-witness accounts. I knew this was a failing common to all religions, and part of the reason for their requiring faith; but it was disturbing to be reminded how such powerful institutions with such huge followings were built on such disconcertingly questionable bases.

There was little prospect of Bishop Rowell looking much beyond the Old and New Testaments for actual confirmation of what he believed. He allowed:

"It is not unreasonable for Christians to point to near death experiences as putting a question mark against the secular assumption that this life is all that there is, but for Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the pivotal point."

This struck me as contradictory. If NDEs were to be put forward, as the Bishop conceded was "not unreasonable", as proof that our earthly lives were not all there was, then the resurrection myth would have to be re-evaluated to take them into account. The clear implication in the absence of any alternative explanation was that in a Protestant future there would be little opportunity for the soul to exist other than housed in a resurrection body of some sort; but that, critically, this could not be expected to come into existence individually, but only en masse, at the very end of time. How, in that event, could an NDE, which by definition took place long before then, be considered in any way valid?

It would have been instructive, therefore, to have learned where the Bishop felt we would be, other than in a resting state, in the interim period between dying and becoming resurrected; and if his answer was not in the apparently sentient facsimile body that appeared to be the vehicle for those undergoing NDEs, for him to have explained why he attached any validity to reports of such experiences.

If I had wanted, I could have written to him asking for an explanation; but it was not as if one man was going to have all the answers; and I was fairly sure the more replies I received to my original letter the more likely my unasked, even as yet unformulated questions were to be satisfied. As it was, I felt I now knew a little more about the middle reaches of the Church of England than I had done, though hardly enough to explain to me why anyone should belong to it, other than as a legacy of their country of birth or, slightly more purposefully, because it was perceived as a bastion of good sense against the general moral slide.

By now, I had had a spate of replies, mostly from Christian groups. I supposed their relative alacrity was logical, since my father, nominally at any rate, had been a Christian himself, and his welfare was of interest, even if it was only peripheral, to any organisation dedicated to saving souls. This was particularly true of Roman Catholics.

I had always found the idea of Catholicism perplexing, especially as so many people in the public eye, often those of considerable standing and obvious intelligence, were attracted and in many cases had converted to it, for reasons I couldn’t begin to understand. Altogether, I had written to four outposts of the Holy Roman Church, including Cardinal Home; and although I didn’t hear from him, I did receive interesting and illuminating letters from the others. The first of these went as follows:

"Thank you for your letter which has been passed on to me.

Please accept my sympathy for the death of your father on Christmas Eve, and my promise of prayers for the repose of his soul. Your specific questions about the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding what happens to people when they die, deserves an answer which, I hope, I am able to supply.

The most accessible source for information on this subject is to be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I have printed out the relevant summaries of the sections which deal with the mystery of death as understood from the Catholic viewpoint. If you wish to look further, I would recommend that you obtain a copy of the Catechism and seek the relevant sections yourself, which are to be found in Part Two, under the Profession of Faith and in Part Three, under Life in Christ.

Within Catholic Tradition, it is the firm belief that, because of the uniqueness of each person made in the image and likeness of God, they are not lost after death, nor do they stop existing, no matter what form the disposal of their body might have taken. This is as true for the unborn foetus as it is for someone who dies in old age, because each is made in God’s image and therefore holds within themselves the very life and existence of God.

In Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection, Catholics see the fullness of the hope and salvation of all humankind and the defeat of death and the promise of the eternity of God’s Kingdom in heaven.

I suppose one of the most clear and popular statements available to us in England is Cardinal John Henry Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, as set to music by Sir Edward Elgar. In that poem, Newman manages to encapsulate the ancient and abiding Catholic belief in what death means, and what we glimpse, through faith, of what lies beyond. My own faith as a Catholic holds me in such belief.

If you should wish to pursue these matters further, I would recommend that you approach a Catholic friend or colleague, or if you prefer, a Catholic priest.

I hope that this is of some use.

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Rev Andrew J Faley,

National Co–ordinator of Catechises and Religious education."

I had to admit I wasn’t as taken with this letter as with the the one from Lambeth Palace. The Archbishop’s Press Secretary had been happy to acknowledge that death was a tricky area, open to different interpretations, while remaining, for him, naturally, within the central belief structure of Christianity. Rev Faley’s letter sounded almost as though I had enquired about admittance – albeit posthumous – to a club and he was outlining the prospectus to me; a prospectus, including rules, that was very much set down in black and white.

I was struck that the question he was most readily able to answer was one I hadn’t asked but which, from the mention of cremation in my letter, may have appeared to be worrying me. I hadn’t considered the possibility that my father might have forfeited his right to resurrection – indeed, to life everlasting – by electing to be burned rather than buried. However, Rev Faley’s words:

"…they are not lost after death, nor do they stop existing, no matter what form the disposal of their body might have taken,"

were qualified to a certain extent in the extracts from the Catechism he had sent me by the statement:

"The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body."

The implication was that without such faith, cremation or not, there would be scant hope of enjoying eternal life, since it would be dependent on a prior resurrection, which itself depended not only on the belief it would occur but also on the belief it – and many other things, besides – had already occurred to Jesus.

What a conundrum! Unfortunately, Rev Fuller didn’t touch on the precise nature of any rising from the dead, but it was hard not to assume from the Catechism that Catholic belief was firmly rooted in the resuscitation of the original physical body at some undetermined time in the future. The statements:

"…we believe in the resurrection of the flesh",


"…we believe in the true resurrection of the flesh that we now possess",

left little room for other interpretations; although the additional claim that:

"We sow a corruptible body in the tomb, but he raises up an incorruptible body",

along with reference to this body being:


may have corresponded in some way with Bishop Rowell’s concept of "transfiguration". So much depended on what these words were intended, as well as taken, to mean.

Whatever form the resurrection took, the Catechism made it clear that as an event it would be preceded by the separation of a person’s soul from their body at the moment of death:

"On the day of resurrection, death will be definitively conquered, when these souls will be reunited with their bodies."

Presumably, it was only at this later point that believers acceded to heaven. Where individual souls went in the meantime, while awaiting reunification – in other words, where my father was now – was not specified; nor was their status. Nor was it made clear, if hell rather than heaven was to be a person’s ultimate destiny, whether their soul went there immediately following death, as tradition suggested, and a reconstituted body joined it at a later date; or whether both body (suitably atomised) and soul waited in limbo for the Day of Judgment.

To me, there was something cold and calculating and at the same time rather petty about these extracts from the Catechism. They came across as the cosmic equivalent of those pedantic board game rules everyone knows are needed within a particular, artificial context but that are hardly appropriate for real life.

Allegedly, of course, these laws were based on the word of God and therefore had to be followed; but the word of God, even if it was originally genuine, had been recorded by man in another language a long time ago; and it would have been nothing short of extraordinary if what had been meant then was the same as Catholics understood it to be now.

I turned to another letter, which was hand-written, on paper bearing the legend, "For the promotion of Charismatic Renewal in England and Wales". It began:

"Thank you for your letter and the team here pray for you in your concern for your father. As you do not give any indication of your own understanding of death I am not sure if you are a member of the Catholic Church or perhaps a Christian.

The questions you are asking require a very long answer if you know nothing of Christian teaching, and one of the difficulties on the subject is that ordinary language used to describe spiritual things can easily give rise to misunderstandings. To understand death we must first have some understanding of why we live. All things and all peoples came into being by God’s permissive will and are the objects of his love. God wills the salvation, i.e., the happy everlasting life of all people.

Your father must have had at least some notion and even if his understanding of Christian teaching was vague, one can presume that he would have wanted happiness and did not deliberately reject God. Where is he now and what state is he in? No one can possibly tell you that. We know that God loves all and ‘where they are’ after death lies in his relationship to them. Only God knows all about us – our thoughts, difficulties, inhibitions, etc. – so only God can ultimately judge justly. Our part is to pray for the dead so that they may pass through the purifying fire of God’s love and so enter into eternal bliss – i.e., Death – Judgment – Purgatory – Heaven. Let us hope that few are so evil as to turn completely from God. Some make reparation for wrong doing in this life and offer it to God in union with Our Lord’s sufferings – this is all a form of prayer and good works, something understood by practising Christians.

There is no problem with cremation, it is just an alternative to burial. Many years ago atheists used to ask for cremation to show that they did not believe in God. In consequence, the Church authority in those days disallowed it. No one thinks like that now so there is no longer any objection. Cremation or burial makes no difference to the deceased person, it is the relatives and friends who find help and consolation in a particular liturgy or want to comply with the wishes of a family.

You ask about books to read on the subject – would you turn to the Scriptures, that is read your Bible. Especially try reading the Gospels, where over and again God’s love is shown through the life and death of Christ Our Lord. You write in terms of wanting an ‘explanation of this organisation’s’ view of what happens to people when they die. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement is fully a movement within the Catholic Church so I suggest you might also read the ordinary teaching of the church in the new Catechism.

We can all hope to be reunited with our loved ones when we die. It is not for us to probe into matters which can be of no help either to the dead or the living. Our right recourse is in prayer and trusting hope.

God bless you,

Sister Marian Limbrick."

This didn’t really tell me anything new. It was the old story I remembered from childhood of doing good – though what exactly this meant, in Catholic terms, I couldn’t say – in one life in order to earn a smoother, quicker passage to heaven in the next. I didn’t see what use it would be for me to read the Scriptures. I believed what I had been told by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Press Secretary: that the Bible didn’t say much about life after death; and what it did say was unclear.

In order to make up my own mind, I felt I needed to hear other people’s interpretations of whatever was known or suspected about the hereafter; and, rightly or wrongly, I believed that anyone who had faith must have thought about the subject, at least in terms of that faith, a lot longer and harder and far more deeply than I would be able to do.

I supposed the Catholic interpretation of the Bible was what the Catechism amounted to; and that what I wanted from the letters I was receiving was a condensed, personalised version of this seemingly sacrosanct document.

I think Sister Marian probably revealed her own interpretation when she said:

"…our part is to pray for the dead so that they may pass through the purifying fire of God’s love and so enter into eternal bliss – i.e., Death – Judgment – Purgatory – Heaven."

This was certainly interesting. If death was followed by judgment, and since, as I had always understood, the Day of Judgment coincided with the end of the world as we knew it, my father’s soul was unlikely to have progressed to either heaven or hell yet, but along with those of everyone on earth who had ever lived and died, was waiting; though where and in what state – if not, as it seemed, in purgatory – I was unable to say.

Running through this letter was a clear concern, which I didn’t feel I shared, for a successful outcome for my father. I really had no opinion on this, although obviously I wished him well. I simply couldn’t see why my prayers should affect him; but it was as if my questions, which were angling for statements of belief, and if possible, facts to verify them, had been interpreted as a plea for reassurance. Again, cremation was seen as a big issue.

This struck me as bizarre. Even assuming I had been worried, what was I supposed to make of the fact that whereas once the Catholic Church had outlawed the practice, now they no longer did? What did this mean for those who had died and been cremated during the time it had been expressly forbidden, and for whom the promise of eternal life must have been withheld?

In the context of their belief system, the ultimate word on the subject belonged to God. To claim, as Sister Limbrick did, that because "No one thinks like that now so there is no longer any objection", a previously immutable rule was no longer valid, suggested not only that if the Church had misinterpreted God’s meaning once – and it was hardly likely to have been the first time – they could do so again, but that God’s meaning was in any event subsidiary to human convenience.

The very fact that the Catechism was referred to as "new" made it difficult to believe it wouldn’t one day be as redundant as the ‘old’ version it had presumably replaced, though again without any alteration of whatever ultimate truth lay behind it.

The part of this letter that really got my hackles up, hardly surprisingly, considering my intentions, was Sister Limbrick’s claim that it was:

"…not for us to probe into matters which can be of no help to the dead or the living."

I disputed this, from the bottom of my heart. I could, grudgingly, concede that to try and establish and then prolong contact with the dead, in order to retain their interest in this life, might be counterproductive to whatever their purpose was in the next world; but to refrain from all contact, or any attempt at it, on the basis that it might harm them, without having first verified the existence of such a world, never mind their safe accession to it, and yet still believe implicitly in both, stretched concern – and credulity – to breaking point.

As for the living, I could see only benefits from such probing. It was largely because we didn’t know, definitively, that a new existence, supposedly determined by the nature of the terrestrial lives we led, would follow death, but in fact largely suspected the opposite – that whatever we did on earth would have negligible other worldly consequences – that we created and perpetuated at such cost such unsavoury conditions for ourselves and our descendants.

If we knew and could prove, from making contact with those who had passed before us, that we didn’t die; and if we also knew, from what they told us, that not only our actions but also our thoughts in this life directly affected our circumstances for ever afterwards; then our behaviour on earth would almost certainly be drastically modified.

As it was, it struck me that Sister Limbrick’s suggestion of the right recourse being "prayer and trusting hope" was a tried and tested recipe for disaster.


My next response came from an address I didn’t recognise on unheaded notepaper. I found myself reacting to it, as I read it, point by point:

"Your letter has been passed on to me and I hasten to reply to it as soon as may be. First of all may I offer you my sympathy on the death of your father last Christmas Eve. What a sad time to lose so close a relative."

Well, yes, it was sad.

"As far as I can see your letter resolves itself into two distinct though related questions. What is the attitude of the Catholic Church to those outside it who are members of other churches?"

From a doctrinal point of view, I supposed, yes; although I hadn’t really meant it that way.

"What is the nature of the Christian hope and what sense can be given to the resurrection hope?"


"Perhaps it would be better to say a word about the second question first. The doctrine of the resurrection stands at the very heart of the Christian message. Jesus himself rose from the dead…"

I couldn’t help wondering how the writer knew this.

"…and he promises us that we shall each in turn follow him. This teaching was taught with peculiar vigour by his greatest follower, St. Paul, whose analysis of the mystery and vast problems it raises can best be read in his First Letter to the Corinthians, above all in Chapters 14 and 15. How precisely it will happen…"

And how, incidentally, St. Paul knew it would happen,

"…is and always has been found hard to understand. The Christian believes that we are destined by God’s grace for bodily resurrection and not simply for a sort of platonic immortality."

I felt this was admirably, if imprecisely, put.

"A good and brief treatment of this area can be found from the Catholic view point in the article on the subject in the New Catholic Encyclopaedia under the words ‘Resurrection’. That we shall then be all reunited with those we have loved is a common thought in the burial service of Anglicans and Catholics alike.

So, we would be reunited with others, but only after our – and their – resurrection.

"The Catholic Church has never restricted the resurrection hope to those who believed only in the dogmata of the Catholic Church, anymore than has the Church of England. See the moving words on the tomb of Mary and Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey. The second Vatican Council in particular, especially in his decree, On the Church, Lumen Gentium, takes a much less restrictive and narrow view about the nature of the church than had previously been the case."

The notion of a ‘new’ understanding of God’s word rendering the ‘old’ obsolete again begged the, to me, rather obvious question of what happened to those who had lived and died before the rules changed: were they deemed to have suffered in consequence or were they treated in the same way as those living and dying now; or was everyone, in fact, including those due to live and die in the future, immune to yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s rules alike, since the only ones that counted would be those in evidence on the Day of Judgment?

"This means to answer your question that your own father is, we all hope, now at peace with God, either already enjoying the full presence of God or awaiting it, as most of us must, Catholic or not, until we are ready for it after purification in purgatory, that in between state, where we are prepared for the vision of GOD, for which each human being was made in the first place."

This confused me. Sister Limbrick had suggested purgatory followed judgment, which I had assumed lay some way ahead of us; so how could my father, already, potentially, be "enjoying the full presence of God"?

"I hope this goes a little way to answering your perplexities on this very central Christian teaching.

Yours faithfully,

Rev. A. Meridith S.J."

I was grateful to the Rev Meredith for taking the time and trouble to write to me although I thought his letter betrayed a troubling personal uncertainty and lack of enthusiasm about key Christian beliefs. He talked a lot about hope, which was dispiriting. If this was all that sustained people, clerics especially, it was hardly surprising doubts crept in.

The last letter from a Catholic came from the Information Office of the Opus Dei Prelature in Britain. It ran:

"Thank you for your letter. I did not know your father, so not all of the evidence is available to me. However, as Opus Dei is a hierarchical institution of the Catholic Church, you will find the teaching on death, Purgatory, Heaven and Hell in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 988-1060.

In a nutshell, we believe that after death the soul of the deceased encounters God in a private judgment based on his life, and goes either to Heaven (preceded perhaps by Purgatory) or Hell. Then, at the end of the world there will be a public judgment when everything will be made clear to all, and the re-made body of each will rejoin the soul, wherever the soul is."

This was terrific: it was what I had wanted to know. I had been confused before; but this was clarity itself. So, my father’s soul had already encountered God, in a private judgment, and it was now either in heaven, purgatory, or hell. His body, whose ashes I had helped scatter, would ultimately be re-formed and re-united with his soul. That was all there was to it.

This was marvelously concise; and although I didn’t necessarily believe a word of it, I was glad to know what it was that the Catholics of my acquaintance, and their millions of fellow parishioners world wide, believed – or would have believed, if they had had the benefit of similarly succinct teaching.

"In the poem The Dream of Gerontius by Newman – which is a well known choral piece as well – you will find someone passing through death and (at the end of the piece) moving into Purgatory, bodiless. That is a likely first step for someone who is not bad enough to be condemned, but not quite good enough to go straight to heaven without undergoing some purification."

Wherever my father was, whether in purgatory, heaven, or hell, it seemed he was necessarily bodiless. This was difficult, if not impossible, for me to grasp. It wasn’t so much that I would be unable to recognise him – or, indeed, he me – assuming I found myself in his presence, if he had no discernible form, but that he would not be able to recognise himself, nor know where he was, through any accustomed sense.

I could conceive of the possibility of other senses even if I was unable to imagine them, but they made the concept of his continued existence, as someone who, up until now, had been the sum total of his, and others, perceptions, somehow less tenable. If he could neither see nor feel himself, could he be said to exist?

Surely, I reasoned, if someone was bodiless, they were little more than an idea? I imagined teams of Catholic theologians puzzling over this for far longer than I was prepared to, without coming to any firm conclusion. Of course, if my father was going to be reunited with his body at a later date it wouldn’t really matter if he didn’t properly exist in the meantime, because if he couldn’t sense where he was, he would hardly have known about the passage of time anyway; but this rather belied the point of going "straight to heaven" – or, indeed, hell. Perhaps it explained why the Protestant church had dropped the idea of purgatory. The letter continued:

"We believe that it is only through Christ’s Church that people are saved. That does not mean that outside the Catholic Church people are not saved, but it does mean that it is easier for Catholics in some way (easier after a fashion – being a Catholic sometimes means a little more effort or hardship here on earth).

You can pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory – of whom your father might be one – as they, like us, are still not at the end of their journey. They can pray for us too, of course, as can those who are already in heaven."

This was equally difficult to accept. Could my father, in his bodiless condition, ‘do’ anything, especially something as complex as directing a sustained thought?

"I hope all this helps. I hope you will remember us in your prayers, as we will remember you in ours.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Soane."

I thought this an excellent reply, and it neatly wrapped up any questions I had concerning Catholicism. I began to see why acquaintances I would have tended to associate with not being Christians at all should be, or have chosen to become, Catholics. The simplicity and precision of their beliefs, as expressed by Andrew Soane, if instilled in childhood would be very difficult to uproot; and if come upon might seem attractively categorical – if realistically untenable – in later life.

I was particularly interested in Soane’s’ views on prayer, and how he thought it could take place from either side of the divide. My only concern was whether the image I had of interested parties talking into separate telephone receivers connected to opposite ends of the same line, believing they were getting through but not actually being able to hear each other, was the correct one; and if it was, whether the essential isolation of each was due to a prohibition for doctrinal reasons or because the equipment, so to speak, hadn’t been perfected for open communication.

Further letters had by now come from other Christian groups, or ‘sects’, as a Swiss Catholic priest of my acquaintance – who always made the word sound like ‘sex’ – insisted on calling them. I had tried vainly to explain to him what I felt sure he must have known: that scores of such cults had sprung into existence in the years following the death of Jesus, each one with its own different belief system; and how order had had to be imposed, through a series of economical councils, out of which had come the original, all-encompassing Catholic faith.

In other words, my friend the priest’s own essential beliefs were based on the result of a group of powermongers fifteen or more centuries ago applying pressure, calling in favours, elevating the precepts of some, banishing those of others, as they saw fit, and eventually coming up with a doctrine that was deemed to be the one and only truth, deviation from which was henceforward considered blasphemous.

So it seemed entirely reasonable, once fear of reprisal – often terminal – had lessened, that people should have broken away from what they saw as an inaccurate, largely artificial dogma, and re-interpreted the Bible for themselves. Of course, this didn’t alter the fact that the Bible, as the sole available source, might itself be open to question, rendering the whole exercise farcical; but that, of course, was hardly the Catholic view.

The first letter I opened was from the Free Church Federal Council, which included Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians amongst its numbers. I supposed by "free" was meant freedom from the undue influence of either the Catholic or Anglican Churches. This communication ran:

"Thank you for your letter. Please accept my sympathy in the loss of your father. My father died two years ago and we only appreciated how much he meant to us after his death. You ask for the view of my organisation and I should explain that we are a grouping of the nineteen bodies listed at the foot of this page and they might each put things a little differently but I think they would unite in what I shall say now.

There is much we do not know and would not claim to know. Our assurance depends on Jesus Christ and our understanding is guided by what we read in the bible especially in the New Testament, so I will refer to some chapters and verses which you may like to read for yourself.

One of the most helpful is the 15th chapter of the 1st letter to the Corinthians which you will find in the New Testament. The apostle Paul says there (verse 50) ‘flesh and blood can never possess the Kingdom of God.’ Especially from verses 35-44 of the chapter he speaks about the fact that the body which we have now, a physical body, is not what is raised to life. What is raised is ‘a spiritual body’ so when you say ‘where is he now?’, I would reply: he is not located somewhere which we can find in our movements through space. He is nonetheless in God’s keeping.

Beyond that it is hard for us to speak with firm assurance because there are two possibilities. One is that he is ‘asleep’, unconscious until a future time. The other possibility is that he is already well aware of God’s presence. The reason for these two viewpoints I can show from two verses in the New Testament.

Luke chapter 23 verse 43 is where Jesus said to the thief who was hanging on a cross beside him ‘today I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’. In the last letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 4 verse 13, ‘we wish you not to remain in ignorance friends about those who sleep in death, you should not grieve like the rest of mankind who have no hope we believe that Jesus died and rose again so too will God bring those who died as Christians to be with Jesus’. This seems to imply that there is a period of unconscious waiting until the crucial moment in the future when God will change everybody. ‘We shall not all die but we shall all be changed…For the trumpet will sound and the dead will rise unperishable, and we shall be changed. This perishable body must be clothed with the imperishable and what is mortal with immortality.’ (1 Corinthians Chapter 15 verse 51)"

This was quite a mouthful, but the difficulty, as I saw it, was not so much to square Jesus’ apparent promise to the robber that they would be together in Paradise that same day with the idea that everybody remained asleep in death until the sound of the last trumpet; but to try and understand how such a weighty matter as the nature of the after death state could hang on such a slender thread.

Was it conceivable a monumental question like this, on which the faith of millions rested, not to mention the implied future of our species, should depend on isolated, possibly chance, wholly unsubstantiated and conceivably fictitious remarks by men who some scholars believe may not even have existed?

How was it credible for intelligent, sensitive, reflective, comparatively knowledgeable human beings from the late twentieth century to take such statements at face value and base their belief in the conditions of the next world on them? I returned, bemused, to my letter:

"We are left with a picture of a complete change into a new state of life, a state which is described as spiritual rather than physical, immortal rather than perishable, and in close contact with God and together with others who are with God. Our member Churches would not think that it was possible for you now to communicate directly by some spiritual means with your father but that we can join with God through prayer now and shall be joined more closely after we have died. In that transformation we shall be reunited with those who have already died and been joined to God in his future life which we find so difficult to understand or to describe.

So the answers to your questions:-

1. Where is he now? Answer – not located somewhere in space, particularly not where his cremated remains happen to be but beyond this dimension of space and in God’s keeping.

2. Yes we can hope to communicate and be reunited with him in union with God. We can communicate with God in prayer and we cannot say in what way he may be aware of us as we communicate with God and lay him in God’s care and keeping. The faith we have leads us to believe his personality is safe and happy and complete. I think his own church, the Church of England would say the same.

You would find the points of view of our other member Churches well represented in your town at the United church at the corner of High Street which embraces both the United Reformed Church and the Methodist Church or in the Baptist Church at Church Hill, (I see they have another Church office in Fitzalen Road) and you would also find another member denomination at the Salvation Army.

Do not hesitate to be in touch with me again if you wish.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Roper

General Secretary."

Although it was on the face of it extraordinary there could be so many different Christian churches believing in essentially the same thing, I supposed it was common to any other field of human activity where certain types of people liked to congregate together and didn’t want too many of another sort mixing in with them.

I concluded the United churches were closer to the Anglicans than the Catholics in admitting there was more than one way of interpreting the available scriptures and perhaps leaving it to each individual to make his or her own mind up. Whether that meant they thought that whatever conclusion an individual did come to when on earth was what would happen to them after death, to the extent that different things happened to different people, wasn’t clear.

What was apparent, however, was that most of my correspondents shared a belief that prayer was the only means of connection between the living and the dead; with the emphasis so far, certainly in Geoffrey Roper’s letter, of open, two-way communication – by which I understood, at the very least, more than the mere hope someone might be at the other end of the line – being impossible rather than impermissible.

I didn’t take up Geoffrey Roper’s suggestion of visiting any of my local churches, although a representative from one of them called on me. I had moved house, but a note expressing an interest in arranging a meeting with a Salvation Army member, along with a booklet, by John Coutts, entitled, This We Believe, eventually found their way to me.

In essence, what they believed was as Geoffrey Roper had intimated, only perhaps a little less circumspectly phrased. I was particularly interested to note the author’s view, in the chapter concerned with life after death, that:

"Paul wanted to make clear that resurrection did not mean that the dead physical body would get up and walk again, but equally that the soul would not be left naked. Paul, with his Greek background was well aware of another tradition about the after-life."

This put me in mind of Bishop Rowell’s contention that:

"…the sharp distinction between Jews who believe in the resurrection of the body and Greeks who believe in the immortality of the soul ought not to be pressed absolutely."

I wondered where Catholics fitted into this. Their emphasis was probably on the physical. Certainly, they would be unable to share the distinctly Protestant view expressed by John Coutts that there was no such place as purgatory, nor any chance of forgiveness after death, but only unceasing tenure in either heaven or hell.

I had nothing but admiration for the Salvation Army as an institution, but I didn’t follow up on their offer of a meeting. It was distressing to me that people like this – like all Christians, in fact – could take so much that happened so long ago on trust, when there was so little hope, from the amount of actual, current investigation into the matter, of their knowing what part, if any, of their confidence was justified. I simply couldn’t conceive how they should be so credulous.

Even more closed to doubt, because disconcertingly sure of their own validity, was the other group whose representative called at my old home, found me no longer there, and left a note and booklet. I was already moderately familiar with the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, having had several lengthy doorstep chats with their members in the past, in various locations, and I had no wish to get sucked into more fruitless discussions, still less be invited to their meeting place.

I did read their booklet, however, in the hope of gleaning something new about these beliefs. As in the case of all Christians, they were based on the Bible; and possibly the major difference between Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups was that they took everything it had to say literally.

What brought this home to me was the account I found myself reading of Lazarus, and how this man had died, been entombed, and had then re-emerged from his tomb four days later in the presence of Jesus and many others. As the Witnesses’ brochure put it:

"The account of the raising of Lazarus is presented in the Gospel of John as a historical fact. The details are too vivid for it to be a mere allegory. To question its historicity is to question all the miracles of the Bible, including the resurrection of Jesus Christ himself. And to deny the resurrection of Jesus is to deny the Christian faith as a whole".

I agreed, it was hardly sound policy to pick certain parts of the Bible and pronounce them authentic while relegating the rest to the realm of fantasy, because there was no reason to suppose any selection could be other than arbitrary; but to extrapolate from that the notion that if a person didn’t accept the actual, historical accuracy of the entire Bible, they must be denying, along with the Christian message, any of the things it portrayed ever happened – that if only one Biblical incident was untrue, it invalidated the remainder – struck me as excessively uncompromising.

Nevertheless, I applauded the Witnesses’ honesty in recognising that without the resurrection hope or promise – if there was any doubt on this score – Christianity would be meaningless.

My next letter came from the Worldwide Church of God. I couldn’t have said who they were, and had no recollection of writing to them. I disliked the tone of this letter immediately I began reading it. It went:

"We are saddened to hear of the death of your father. Our sympathy goes out to you and it is our desire to help and strengthen you in regard to your loss. Certainly nothing can take the place of a loved one, but Christ has overcome death, and through Him we too can conquer it through the resurrection.

While there is natural sadness and grief at a time like this, it is comforting to know that physical death is only a temporary condition."

Well, yes, it would be, if we did know; but that was the point – I didn’t.

"Just as we wake up in the morning so the dead will rise from their graves. The Bible clearly shows that the dead will live again: ‘The hour is coming in the which all who are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth’ (John 5:28-29).

Yes, there will be a resurrection! Not only will the dead live again, they will live in a better world: ‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold I make all things new’ (Rev.21:4). We will have the opportunity to see our relatives and friends again in the peaceful world to come, where we will rejoice together with the Giver of life!

Thank you for writing, Mr Brockbank. If you have questions in the future, or if we can help you in any other way, please feel free to write again.

Yours sincerely,

JM Newman (Mrs)

Readers Services."

The mildly ranting quality of this letter, and the platitudes it expressed, told me nothing. I couldn’t think an individual had had much of a hand in writing it. Possibly, it was a computer print out. To claim, "…we too can conquer (death) through the resurrection," without specifying how, was almost insulting.

Instinctively, I warmed to the earlier letters, that had clearly taxed the minds of the people who had written them, as if they too were searching for a truth that wasn’t always clear. The theme of this letter was so clear it was almost incandescent, but it was like a firework: one brief and superficial display and it was over.

I wondered what ordinary members of the Worldwide Church of God believed, or what they thought as they listened to their leaders spouting stuff like this. I wondered briefly who their leaders were, and what motivated them, or caused them to think as they did.

My next letter came from a representative of the Quakers. I didn’t know much about this movement, and had evidently misjudged its function in society by asking the sort of questions I had. I was gently put right in their reply:

"Thank you for your letter. I am afraid there is no way in which Quakers could answer your question as to the whereabouts of your father after his death. We do not have a corporate view on the nature of life after death. We tend to emphasise living lives of love and service in this life, leaving whatever happens afterwards to God or providence. Individual Quakers do have their opinions and I am enclosing some readings from our anthology, Quaker Faith and Practice, which shows the diversity.

I wish you the best with your research into this subject.

Yours sincerely,

Harvey Gillman – Quaker Home Service Outreach Secretary."

This seemed a sound and principled outlook. It was, I supposed, the same differences between people as made some read The Times and others The Sun, that resulted in them forming and supporting movements as far apart as The Quakers and the Worldwide Church of God; but what those differences meant on a deep level – on the scale of eternity – I found it hard to conceive.

The readings Harvey Gillman had enclosed were personal statements of belief, inevitably unsubstantiated. I particularly liked one by Anne Hosking, which went:

"I longed to be told for sure that we (for I was afraid for myself as well as for those I loved) would not die, not really. What I wanted was undeniable proof of the immortality of my personality.

Over the next few years, the fear stayed with me, as the dark side of love. Then my mother died. I felt the expected grief, remorse at my failings as a daughter, anger at illness and waste, and all the many emotions bereavement normally arouses.

But the fear of personal annihilation was met by the knowledge that ‘Death is not the end. Your mother still loves you and you can go on loving her’. I don’t know how I ‘heard’ those words: there was no vision, no voice, no particular moment or place. I do know that the day after she died, I told my husband what I had ‘heard’."

I had experienced no such certainty when my father died; but while I could see how easily something like a voice in the head could be imagined, this account had a quiet conviction about it, a quality of restrained reasonableness, that I felt the Worldwide Church of God could have usefully emulated; although, of course, that didn’t make it necessarily true.

Christian Science was as much a mystery to me as the Quakers had been. Although it sounded weighty, their name was misleading, since they didn’t follow normal – or, so far as I could see, any – scientific investigative practice, but instead based their belief system on their founder’s specialised interpretations of the same Bible everyone else used.

Their reply to my letter, accompanied by a hefty volume of distilled wisdom, might have seemed reasonable enough to anyone already believing the essential Christian message; but for me it lacked substance. It ran:

"Thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking letter. These are questions that touch at the very heart of what we believe in Christian Science, and I will do my best to answer them here.

First some background: Christian Science is firmly grounded in the Bible (we use the King James version) especially following the teachings of Christ Jesus. Our textbook is Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science. We understand life to be eternal, and that our true identity is spiritual. This means that not only do we continue on after what is known as death, but, just as importantly, we have a spiritual existence before birth too.

As spiritual ideas we are all part of one divine consciousness, God. In your search for truth, you may find that we differ from many other faiths, because we do not believe that souls occupy bodies, and then float off somewhere else when earthly life is over, rather, that our entire and continuous nature is the spiritual reflection of God, and that our physical selves have no true substance."

This was altogether too rarefied for me to grasp. It sounded, from what little I knew, almost Buddhist in its ramifications.

"Death itself is neither the will of God, nor the end of existence. Christian Scientists agree with Paul’s teaching that ‘neither death, nor life…nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom.8:39). It is this divine Love, which preserves individual identity both before and after the experience of death.

To Christian Scientists death is not a special turning point for good or evil. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven as ‘at hand’ or ‘within’. So we understand that heaven and hell are not physical locations, but are actually conditions of thought."

I could see this, but only up to a point. Milton’s famous phrase about "making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell" had often sprung to mind as I made my way through life. The problem was, how were we to maintain thought of any kind, never mind the sort that led to heavenly or hellish conditions, without a functioning brain, or, it appeared, a body of any kind?

"We see heaven as the spiritual standpoint gained through repentance and spiritual regeneration, striving to have that ‘mind which was also in Jesus Christ’."

I couldn’t make anything of this.

"So although your father may be lost from your sight right now, he continues to progress. Released from the false concepts of this world, he can now fully realise his true sonship with God. All the good in him, that may only have been glimpsed in this life, can be fully expressed through his divine and eternal nature. Such goodness continues to work for, and bless, all mankind.

As someone who has experienced family bereavements, I know that grief can be healed through a better understanding of our spiritual oneness with God. This isn’t just a bland statement either. When we remember members of our family through the spiritual qualities, talents and abilities they expressed, we quickly realise that all that made up their true natures cannot ever be lost to those who knew and loved them. It is only the limited physicality of mortal concepts and human struggles that drops away. We can know that their lives are now freer and fuller and more defined than they ever were.

Since we are all part of one compound idea we can be confident that we will be reunited, even though, at the present time, we may not know the precise form that this realisation might take. Paul expresses something of this when he says: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ (1 Cor. 13:12)

I hope you find this limited answer helpful…the questions you raise are big issues. I am enclosing a booklet How we Live not Die which I believe you will find helpful. Also enclosed is a copy of our textbook which you should regard as a gift – it is the complete statement of Christian Science, and you will see from the index that it contains reference to life, death and eternity. However, it is well worth reading from cover to cover!

With kind regards

Yours very sincerely,

Alan Grayson

District Manager."

On reflection, I doubted I would find a more unlikely, because rarefied, interpretation of Christianity than this. Jesus always appeared so dauntingly physical, with his miracles and his insistence on his disciples touching his wounds; and yet here I was being told nothing, least of all our bodies, had any substance. Of course, Eastern religions and the latest physics said similar things; but it was an unusually penetrative view for committed Christians.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t much clearer now than I had been before what Christian Scientists actually believed, other than that it was essentially insubstantial. I glanced at the literature I had been sent, but reasoned that if Alan Grayson, who had obviously made a serious study of Mary Baker Eddy’s thoughts, found it difficult to be specific, I would have the same problem.

From the little I did read, it was evident a very great deal depended on the degree of credence I or anyone else was prepared to give to Mary Baker Eddy’s personal revelations. In this case, of course, these were largely based on revelations already contained in the Bible.

However, there had been one point of Alan Grayson’s that had struck me as particularly unusual. That was when he had suggested, "we have a spiritual existence before birth too". This idea, while certainly in vogue in the early days of Christianity, and endemic elsewhere, had effectively disappeared from official, Catholic doctrine by the fifth century and was clearly not countenanced by any major Christian group today. Yet it was a hugely consequential matter to be dismissed, or embraced, so lightly.

How extraordinarily different to the ephemeral approach of the Christian Scientists was that adopted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. I remembered my father telling me of a meeting he had once had with two representative from this church, who had come uninvited to his front door, and without being in any way pushy, had left him a copy of their Bible to peruse. I don’t think the Bible was ever read, but for some reason it remained in the small bookcase at my father’s bedside for the rest of his life, along with the collected works of Shakespeare and the novels of Thomas Hardy.

The Mormons’ reply was short and to the point:

"Thank you for your recent letter regarding our beliefs on death. I am sorry to hear about the death of your father. I lost both my parents a number of years ago, within one month of each other. We mourn for our loss, but can only be happy for those who have gone on to a much better place.

I am enclosing a booklet which talks about the Temples we have in our Church and their purpose. I am also enclosing a section from The Encyclopaedia of Mormonism that talks about our views on death.

If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can try and answer these myself, or give you the name of our local bishop.

May the Lord bless you,

Yours sincerely,

Marion W McLaverty

Assistant Director of Public Affairs."

The Mormons, whose founder was known as Prophet Joseph Smith, had what could only be described as traditional Christian values, clearly set out in their Encyclopaedia. They believed that at death, the spirit and body separated. The spirit went either to heaven or to hell, depending, very largely it seemed, on whether or not an individual had been baptised when on earth. Subsequently, each spirit had "their PHYSICAL BODIES restored to them". It was stated categorically that personality didn’t change through death and that "reunions with loved ones and associations with ancestors and descendants" could be expected. Death was seen very much as "a birth into the next life".

It was not specified how a bodiless spirit experienced its new existence, or indeed, whether it was even conscious of the wait for the return of its traditional sensory organs; or what a person would do with his or her time once they were reunited. Much weight was given to encouraging individuals alive today to not only be baptised themselves, thus ensuring future safety, but to receive baptism on behalf of their long dead relatives in order to gain multiple access to salvation; though what happened to those who got left out, whether through choice, ignorance or malchance, was unclear.

I didn’t feel like probing too deeply, because whatever story I came up with, it would again be difficult to know how much faith to put in it. It was hard enough taking any account from the Bible at face value; and it became little short of impossible to accept, in all seriousness, that a nineteenth century American "Prophet", who claimed to have been personally "visited by the Father and Son," and had had much "clarified" for him by "the Lord", could provide genuine insight into an afterworld particularised in the Middle East almost two millennium earlier.

Of course, ultimately the Mormons relied on the same source material as everyone else; and I could hardly have failed to notice how the name of St Paul kept coming up as the man whose writings were what all Christian groups without exception based their interpretations of what happened when we died on; and yet I was unlikely to have been alone in considering it entirely probable that reliance on this man, assuming he had existed at all, may have been mistaken.

He may not have known what he was talking about; he may not have meant what he said; he may not even have said it. He may not have been in his right mind; he may have had, as people say today, a hidden agenda. Most feasible of all, he may have been misrepresented.

The least plausible possibility was that the Bible’s reports by, and of, St Paul, were well attested facts set down in an exact manner; and yet, even if by some extraordinary coincidence this was the case, we still could not begin to presume to be interpreting them correctly all these years later. Yet fully one half of the population of the world, nearly two thousand years after this man’s apparent death, purported to believe that what he allegedly said about accession to the next world was not only true, but precluded any necessity for further investigation.

Once again, it was utterly incredible to me that the central tenet of such an edifice as Christianity balanced on so precarious, so seemingly preposterous, a foundation.


Somewhat fortuitously, the next letter to arrive was from the Office of the Chief Rabbi. Judaism preceded Christianity, and therefore would not be subject to the thoughts of St Paul. I read it with interest:

"I have been asked to respond to your recent letter to the Chief Rabbi.

Judaism insists on the belief in immortality, but it is happy to leave the details of that belief to the individual. I therefore give you my own thoughts on your specific questions.

In a way that we cannot understand the soul lives on after death. The proximity or lack of proximity of one’s own soul to God depends upon the way in which a person has lived his life on earth and the extent to which he has been loyal to the teachings of his own faith. Those who merit the closest proximity to God experience the most supreme bliss.

We are not speaking of the physical world, and therefore I do not think it is a right question to ask WHERE a person is after death. God is everywhere, and therefore the soul in its spiritual state can also be everywhere. Probably existence after death is a sensation of being. This sensation can also be one of a special relationship with the souls of family and friends."

I liked this suggestion; but I wondered if a "sensation of being" was something a soul could expect to be conscious of, as, say, we might be when basking in the sun; or oblivious to, while still enjoying, as would be the case if we were in a deep sleep. It seemed to me, if it was the latter, it would be largely wasted, at least on any level that we currently understood, unless the soul was guaranteed to wake up at a later stage in order to reflect on the experience, which, naturally, would negate any further enjoyment of it. This was clearly another of those conundrums.

"Many years ago I read an article in a paperback entitled The Great Mystery of Life Hereafter, which impressed me greatly. I enclose a copy of the article for your perusal. I also enclose the entry on the Afterlife from the Encyclopaedia Judaica which might be of interest to you.

I am sure you will understand that my answers to your questions cannot be other than vague because we are dealing with matters which are beyond the realm of human experience, and my knowledge on such matters cannot be more certain than anyone else’s.

I would like to express my condolences on the death of your father.

Yours sincerely,

Rabbi Dr. Julian Jacobs.

I did understand that his answers should be vague because Dr. Jacobs had clearly spent time thinking about this subject, and in the absence of any strict edicts on what conclusions he should come to, had reached his own, possibly correct understanding that the matter was, as he put it, "beyond the realm of human experience"; though why he, as a rabbi, should not expect to know more "than anyone else" I found peculiar.

I studied the texts he had sent me, appreciating their succinct matter-of-factness. Christian Science, this time, could have learned a thing or two.

I had been led to believe from Bishop Rowell’s article that the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the body was somehow distinct from the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul; but this wasn’t entirely the case. Apparently, there had been, throughout Jewish history, differing views, beginning with a widespread certainty of the existence of a shadowy afterworld known as Sheol, which was earthily physical, and held very few obvious attractions, and graduating through various forms of belief in bodily and bodiless survival.

Nowadays, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, "a fair consensus of divergent opinions" was that:

"When a man dies his soul leaves his body, but for the first twelve months it retains a temporary relationship to it, coming and going until the body has disintegrated… This year remains a purgatorial period for the soul, or according to another view only for the wicked soul, after which the righteous go to paradise, and the wicked to hell. The actual condition of the soul after death is unclear. Some descriptions imply that it is quiescent…while others seem to ascribe to the dead full consciousness. In the days of the messianic redemption the soul returns to the dust, which is subsequently reconstituted as his body when the individual is resurrected."

The precise nature of this resurrection was not specified, although if I had troubled to search out a full edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica I have no doubt it would have had more to say on the subject; but very much to the point was what Sir Basil Henrique, author of The Faith of a Jew, the article from The Great Mystery of Life Hereafter that Dr. Jacobs had been so impressed with and had enclosed for my benefit, had to say:

"The body will crumble and decay – there will be no resurrection of the body – and the mind will cease to function, but the soul will return to the God who gave it, and with Him will live on eternally."

Clearly, the fact that there was no actual Jewish teaching on the nature of expected immortality, other than that it culminated in reunion with God, meant I was none the wiser about what Christian belief might have been had St Paul not existed. Of course, without St Paul, there might not have been a Christian religion at all, which was even more difficult to imagine.

As it was, the sheer diversity and yet at the same time essential similarity of belief so far on offer was staggering. How, I wondered, was anyone supposed to decide what particular group to give their allegiance to? I imagined the answer must be that they didn’t, since most were born into a belief system they then, at least nominally, remained with throughout their lives. Others might be attracted to one by chance rather than design; few, I thought, would ever make a conscious, reasoned choice in the matter; and a majority of those that did, presumably, would choose not to join any group at all.

Thinking about it, I wasn’t sure my Christian correspondents had emphasised their mutual exclusivity sufficiently to change the impression I had, and that they might have wanted me to have, that the modern church believed all humankind, more or less regardless of its individual convictions, would experience much the same thing after death: that people didn’t have to be Christians to be saved; and that even if they were, death might not necessarily take a Christian form.

Yet in a book I had come across called Life After Death – A Study of the Afterlife in World Religions, written as a Master’s thesis by Farnaz Masumian, the overall Christian view was put much more forcefully. She claimed Christian belief was that:

"…eternal bliss or damnation in the afterlife depends on whether we accept or reject Jesus as our personal saviour."

Simply put:

"…those who accept Jesus as their only saviour will enter paradise and experience eternal life. Those who reject Jesus are condemned to hell-fire and eternal damnation."

It had to be said, such categorical statements, based on the sort of thorough examination of historical texts a university post-graduate education would presumably ensure, hardly squared with the notions of forgiveness, acceptance and love, of mutual inclusiveness leading to widespread salvation, I had found in my letters.

This may have been because I had indicated my father was a member of the Church of England, which had been taken as his acceptance of Jesus as saviour; but I doubted if the response would have been very different if I had suggested he had lived his life outside, or even staunchly opposed to, the church.

The only explicit reference to the extraordinarily privileged position Christians historically, and possibly still, presumed themselves to be in had come from Andrew Soames, who admitted:

"We believe it is only through Christ’s church that people are saved."

I had also chanced upon an article in which the Jesuit deputy director of a Vatican maintained observatory that searched for life forms in outer space was reported as saying:

"If civilisation were to be found on other planets and if it were feasible to communicate, then we would want to send missionaries to save them, just as we did in the past when new lands were discovered."

By ‘saving’, I assumed they meant ensuring, at the very least, the possibility of a benign judgment by God – not just any God, but the sole authority in these matters.

This possibility, as I understood it, would not have been open to anyone, alien or otherwise, no matter how good a life they had lived, dying outside the Christian church, because they would have been judged accordingly, and gone immediately to hell. Whether, in the case of those from non-Christian cultures, they would have been given any opportunity to acknowledge Jesus as their saviour at some point after death, but prior to any otherwise automatic descent into the netherworld, was uncertain.

I couldn’t believe this was what was meant; or if it was, that it could be taken seriously, which was probably one reason nobody else had mentioned it. It belied the purposeful existence – the point, even – of the entire pre-Christian world, and of all non-Christian people, from any age. The presumption was so colossal it was hardly surprising it should be played down in our own era, when so much more was known about other times and places.

Yet if it had been stated as a fact in the past, which was unquestioned, but was no longer such an acceptable doctrine now, who was to say that what was claimed so confidently at the very end of the twentieth century would be any truer in the future? Was any of what could be as readily altered – and conveniently forgotten about – any more ‘true’ than shifting boundary lines on a map?

Clearly, what was wanted was not a malleable set of more or less intolerant strictures that were adjusted according to the age, but a just and benign teaching that was the same now as it had always been, and rather than longing for, bore an intimate relationship to, an ultimate truth.

I thought fleetingly of the beliefs of Socrates and Plato, whose influence had waned under the yoke of Christianity. I had discovered a quote from Arthur Conan-Doyle, in his History of Spiritualism, which I felt summed the matter up well. He said:

"They (the churches) have lost all contact with the living facts of spirit, and are content to refer everything back to ancient days, and to pay a lip service and an external reverence to an outworn system which has been so tangled up with incredible theologies that the honest mind is nauseated at the thought of it."

I had had a reply that seemed to more than justify this claim. It was from the Prophetic World Ministries Trust, apparently a Centre for Biblical and Hebraic Studies, whose motto was, appropriately, "Bringing the unchanging word of God to a changing world." This ran:

"Thank you for your letter received today. I was sorry to hear of the death of your father and your own anxiety regarding what has happened to him.

It is not easy for me to give you a definitive answer as I did not know your father but as a general principle I can confirm that those that die in faith in the Lord Jesus go straight to be with him. This is the promise of Jesus which he gave to the man who was crucified alongside him. He said ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). Jesus also said ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.’ (John 14:1–2).

The Bible does not state specifically what happens to those who are unbelievers when they die but there are many indications that unbelievers survive in a spiritual state until the day of judgment at the end of the age. There are many references in the Bible to this, such as Jesus’ parable about the rich man and the poor man who both died (Luke 16:19-31). In 1 Peter 3:18-19 it is stated that Christ died to enable us to come into a right relationship with God and that he even went into the underworld to preach to the spirits of the departed to bring salvation to them. This is generally interpreted as meaning that Jesus, during the three days between the cross and the resurrection, went to bring salvation even to the departed. Clearly from this we are able to conclude that God will go to any lengths in order to save us from the consequences of our own sinfulness which separates us from God and makes it impossible for us to go straight into his presence when we die. Peter also says that the Lord is not slow in keeping his promises as some understand slowness. ‘He is patient with you not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ (2 Peter 3:9)

You need to remember that neither you nor I are your father’s judge and we cannot know what was his spiritual state at the time of death. If he died in faith he is with the Lord. If not you should be praying that our loving Heavenly Father in his mercy will be extending to him the salvation that is freely available to us through the Lord Jesus Christ and as he himself said ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ because no one is able to go to the Father except through him (John 14:6).

You mentioned in your letter about the possibility of communication with your father. Do not under any circumstances attempt this. This is necromancy which is widely condemned in the Bible (Deuteronomy 18:11). We are expected to walk by faith and to trust the Lord for our own salvation. You should simply be at peace that God in his love and mercy will deal justly with your father and you should now be making it your true concern to find peace with the Lord yourself so that your own salvation is assured.

I trust this is of help to you.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Clifford Hill."

There was a postscript which added:

"If you wish I could put you in touch with a local church where counselling and prayer would be available for you. I myself will pray for you. The Lord bless you."

I was unsure what the true purpose of the PWM Trust was. It could have been revisionism of the excesses of the Christian past; it could have been stemming the tide of liberalism now. What was clear, however, was that through the judicious use of quotations, the Bible could be, as it had been throughout history, made to support many viewpoints.

As it would have seemed inappropriate nowadays for any branch of the church that wanted to be taken seriously to advertise – or, at least, emphasise – the suggestion that Christianity held the exclusive franchise to the afterlife, the best way to avoid that – short of denying it altogether – was to extend the qualifying period so that those who forsook Jesus, along with those who had never known him, when on earth, were given ample opportunity to acknowledge Christianity as the true path in the next world.

Only having to commit yourself to Jesus on the inconceivably distant "day of judgment at the end of the age", in order to reap salvation, may have seemed to devalue the purpose of baptism, confirmation, self-sacrifice and prayer on earth; but there was an added incentive for those who did declare themselves while still alive. Dr Hill plainly stated:

"As a general principle I can affirm that those who die in faith in the Lord Jesus go straight to be with him."

Was this enough of an inducement? It was presumably on account of it that I was urged by Dr Hill to "find peace with the Lord" myself, in order that my "salvation" might be "assured", when the alternative would have been to spend the rest of time – an unconscionable period – in the uncertainty of "a spiritual state", along with the entire population of the ancient world, all later members of non-Christian cultures, and all other unbelievers.

On balance, I thought I would also probably find my father there; but, of course, that presupposed it would be a conscious, recognisably time-bound existence, which wasn’t assured.

What was this spiritual state? How could it be talked about so blithely, without bothering to be described? Rabbi Jacobs had likened it to "a sensation of being," which was hardly precise. I could appreciate the difficulty of explaining the ineffable, but not the impossibility. Unless, of course, such a state didn’t exist, in which case it would be truly indescribable. Yet at the suggestion of trying to establish contact with someone who might be experiencing it now, in order to verify the nature of, not to mention their presence in, what would be to all intents and purposes another universe, thereby learning something about the life to come, Dr.Hill positively bridled.

Necromancy sounded far worse than prayer, admittedly, and if it was a case of calling up the spirits of the dead in order to foretell the future, might have been considered wrong for reasons of causality alone; although, I should have thought, to do this, and to prove it had been done, would have boosted the cause of the churches no end. Conversely, to make a hash of it, and to be seen to have done so, would confirm for any sceptics what they already thought they knew: that talking to the dead was impossible because the dead no longer existed.

It was difficult not to suppose fear of failure lay behind the prohibition. Ordinary prayer, by contrast, seemed, ultimately, a selfish activity, a projection of hope with no expectation of anything other than an impersonal, arbitrary answer; which was probably why it was favoured by the churches. With prayer, there was no suggestion of a message not getting through, since no ‘advice of delivery’ could reasonably be given. In the absence of that, no news was automatically assumed to be good news.

What I, and I’m sure millions of others, would have liked to have seen was the setting up of lines of communication for people to talk along, just as they did in ordinary, earthbound conversations. The fact that the churches held out against this suggested one of two things: either they didn’t know how to organise it; or they thought like the sceptics. It couldn’t, in all honesty, be the case that they believed it was wrong.

I found myself deeply suspicious of the claim that attempted communication with the spirits of the dead was "widely condemned in the Bible (Deuteronomy 18:11)." I had come across references to Deuteronomy before, and it was the only passage ever quoted. The version I had said:

"Let no-one be found among you who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord."

This was one, isolated opinion that had been vested by those who supported its sentiment with the authority of a legal statute; but what better explanation could there be of why no other instances of such condemnation were ever used if not that there were none?

Such censure apart, the Bible was itself something of a hotbed of communicative spirits. Or so Spiritualists claimed. They subscribed to the notion that Jesus was an accomplished medium, and that many of those around him were similarly, if less illustriously, gifted. All the seemingly inexplicable phenomena from both Testaments, the trance utterances, the voices heard, the visions seen, manifestations from the transfiguration on the mountain to the resurrection itself, were put down to pure Spiritualism.

I had written to two Spiritualist groups, one secular, the other Christian; but it was only the latter that replied, rather insubstantially, I thought:

"Thank you for your letter.

I welcome your questions on life after death, and I will do my best to answer them. When we die, we leave the earth world and are born into the brighter conditions of the Spiritual World (Heaven). The law of life and death has been in operation since our creation, and will continue until we have reached perfection.

The book entitled ‘Questions You May Be Asked’, goes into some details of what is Heaven and what is the Summerland, see attached copy. The Greater World Association’s teacher, Zodiac, also gives us an instruction on this (see attach). We also have Jesus’ teachings in St John, Chapter 14, verses 1-4 and St Paul on Life after death in Corinthians, Chapter 1, verses 35-58.

I wish you well, and I have no doubt that your father is safe in Heaven and doing his best to help and guide you.

God bless you,

Yours sincerely,

Ray L Robinson

General Manager."

The accompanying descriptions of the "Summerland" were predictably imprecise. I learned it was "an intermediate state for readjustment and training", and while apparently "not Heaven", it represented "the outer courts of Paradise", and held "as much loveliness and wonderment as we can bear until our consciousness is expanded by experience". I wondered, but doubted, if this was what Dr Hill had meant we would enjoy while in our ‘spiritual state’.

I was surprised the letter hadn’t been more forthcoming about the possibility of communing with someone in the ‘summerland’, since it was this facility that set Spiritualists apart from other Christians, and I had made a particular point of the issue in my letter. I noted from the embossed paper they used that the purpose of The Greater World Christian Spiritualist Association (Established 1931), was:

"To spread in all directions the truth of survival after death, of spirit communion, of healing by the power of the Holy Spirit and to disseminate the teachings received from highly evolved spirit messengers."

This struck me as so entirely reasonable, even logical, within the overall context of Christian belief, it was a surprise to realise how little headway the group must have made in over half a century of existence, particularly when compared with more sensational, far better known, clearly avaricious, in all likelihood at least as fraudulent, yet evidently attractive and eminently successful sects.

There was something so matter-of-fact about this particular group’s acceptance of another, brighter world to come, while still remaining firmly entrenched in the present one, I supposed people wanted something more immediately uplifting. Nevertheless, their apparent willingness to provide individual proof, to anyone, of the survival of the dead, and to learn, through communication with them, more of what would one day confront us all, was so refreshing, I was nonplussed by their relative unpopularity.

How was it established Christian groups, with their message of hope and faith in an afterlife, underpinned by an ancient teaching but without one jot of modern research to verify this, and latter day Christians, born again but under exactly the same, outmoded pretext, should prevail over people who disseminated an essentially identical biblical message of immortality, yet claimed they provided not only evidence of this, but detailed analysis of what it entailed?

Of course, the most obvious answer was that the proof wasn’t convincing, except to the overtly credulous; and in its absence, hope and faith weren’t enough to sustain belief within the confines of the sort of crackpot organisation that believed otherwise. But if that was the case, why was it the same hope and faith were enough for other, in many ways much more sinister groups, as well as satisfying the demands of those in the established churches?

One possibility that struck me was that believers in general were so conditioned not to want to communicate with the dead – either because they thought it was wrong, or else, secretly believing it was impossible, might feel they had little choice but to abandon their faith if this was proved; or because they were afraid of meddling in what was, after all, occult, for fear of what people might think, or what might become of them, or even (as had happened to me) what they might learn about themselves – that any group routinely claiming to do this was almost instinctively shunned; so that only those brave enough to withstand public censure and a certain amount of private ridicule stepped outside their caged mentality in order to test such communication for themselves.

Reading through the pages of The Greater World Newsletter, I came across an immediate sticking point for those, like me, who wanted to be able to face themselves in the mornings. It appeared that ‘Zodiac’, the Association’s "teacher", who had delivered hundreds of addresses earlier this century through the auspices of one particular medium, had claimed "in his earthly life" to have been employed as a scholar "in the Temple of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus". Further:

"Zodiac named his great work The Christ Mission, and it is upon this that the Greater World is founded."

It began to sound as though a team of zealous but disaffected Christians with an over-capacious collective subconscious had got involved in incestuous amateur theatricals. I had to say I found Zodiac’s assertion hard to swallow, although what he laid claim to might, conceivably, have been the case. It was, after all, at least as likely as that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Some of his speeches, judging by the extract published in the newsletter – the last address he gave was in 1957 – made good enough sense, within the constraints of a Christian context; but they obviously remained open to the suspicion they would have made equally good sense if they had been claimed, rather than simply declaimed, by the medium who acted as his ‘channel’.

Nevertheless, it was indisputable that the Greater World, while clearly believing it had a mission, was not relying on the teachings of others to convince people of this: it held regular, inexpensive sessions of clairvoyance that were open to the general public; and "private consultations with experienced mediums" were available for the price of a visit to the theatre.

I reasoned that if I made an appointment to see one of these mediums, under an assumed name, and tape recorded what ensued, I could make my escape and consider what I had heard – and anything I may have inadvertently said – at my leisure, presumably in a less emotional state than during the sitting; and with a full and accurate record, I could make my own mind up about what had or hadn’t happened.

If I didn’t do that, I would be acting unreasonably, almost uncharitably, in laughing off the Greater World’s excesses. No other group I had come across offered so much, so openly, so unequivocally, and – what was more – at such minimal cost, whether in terms of time, money, or commitment.

I had disliked the two public demonstrations of clairvoyance I had been to, largely because I had felt pressurised – not by the mediums so much as the circumstances – and even though I had written down what I remembered later, it was difficult to know what I may have forgotten, or carelessly given away in my responses.

It was only after having resolved to visit a medium, this time privately, but without telling my family, because I believed they would think I was mad, or at the very least soft in the head, that I realised I must have had the same inexplicable revulsion as anyone, not so much for being as being known to be – first and foremost, it seemed, by myself – associated with ‘calling up the dead’.

Because of who I was and where I was researching from I had written the majority of my letters to Christians of one sort or another; and it was no doubt for the same reasons that those groups were in the vanguard when it came to replying. This was fair enough, since the point of any religious group was primarily to help its own; but I was more than usually grateful for the letters I eventually received from outside my, only nominally held, faith.

The first of these came from the Muslim World League. It ran:

"Following your letter please find enclosed some literature that may answer your query: Islam the Natural Way, and a leaflet about life after death.

We feel sorry for the passing away of your father and would like to make clear a few important points concerning the Islamic view of the issue of death and resurrection.

1. Islam prohibits cremation of dead people. Thus the dead person must be buried, because Islam as a religion respects the human being whether he is alive or dead.

2. We believe that people will be resurrected after their death, this is called the Day of Judgment. Those who were believers and religious during their lifetime and did not transgress on the others will be rewarded good in Paradise, whereas those who were non-believers and did mischief in the earth will be punished in Hell–fire.

3. How people meet each other after death? People who abide in Paradise will meet their relatives and friends who are in the same situation. But if their relatives or friends are non-believers and abiding in hell-fire they will not be able to visit them, that is part of the punishment inflicted on the unbelievers.

I hope I have clarified this issue for you. Surely if you refer to the literature enclosed the vision will be clearer.

For further information about Islam or for any other queries, please do not hesitate to contact us.


The Muslim World League Office in London



If it was true – rather than simply culturally preferable – that the dead "must" be buried, coupled to their need to have been a "believer", presumably in Allah, during earthly life, my father, along with most Westerners, would clearly not have entered the Islamic paradise.

Yet, this ascent to heaven, or any descent into hell, appeared to take place after the "Day of Judgment", which, since it was universal, had yet to happen. I wondered if in the meantime there was an Islamic equivalent of the summerland, where believers and unbelievers alike spent their time; and whether they would be in a bodiless, ‘spiritual’, state there?

On the face of it, it was unlikely, if there was such a place, it would be any sort of a fraternal meeting-house, since Marwan suggested reunions between the various departed could only happen in heaven, following the universal Day of Judgment; and that prior to this momentous event there would be little occasion for socialising.

Of course, I had no way of knowing whether the Muslim World League was the Islamic equivalent of the Church of England in terms of moderation or the Children of God in extremism. They came across rather as the Catholics did: sure of their place and what they believed; not apologetic for excluding outsiders and thinking they alone had the answers.

Their essential ideas were not that dissimilar, either. In fact, apart from the belated Catholic acceptance of cremation, their points of view were nearly identical; yet belief in either creed apparently negated the possibility of being benignly judged by the God of the other.

What continued to interest me was what Muslims thought happened after death, but before judgment. As was made clear in the accompanying leaflet:

"Everything we do in this world, every intention we have, every move we make, every thought we entertain, and every word we say, all are counted and kept in accurate records."

Nevertheless, it was only "On the Day of Judgment" that these things "will be brought up." What happened before that?

I turned to Life After Death, and the chapter on Islam, where individual differences between orthodox and other Muslim thinkers were explained. Some apparently believed in a passive state of respite in the grave lasting until the end of time, when all humanity was resurrected; others, in a prior judgment of the dead taking place in the grave – tricky, presumably, in the case of cremation – largely carried out in the form of an interrogation by two angels.

This interrogation was described in various ways, but was in essence a test of faith, failing which the soul of the dead endured torment within the confines of the grave until the general resurrection, when it either gained reprieve, or, in the case of continuing unbelievers, went permanently to a graphically depicted and deeply unpleasant hell.

Those passing the test of faith also remained in their graves, but in a state of comfort and happiness – Dr Hill’s spiritual state, perhaps – prior to being reunited with their bodies in the fullness of time in a heaven where, according to Muhammad:

"There are things which no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, and no mind has ever conceived."

The difficulty of reconciling Islamic and Christian beliefs, which were actually remarkably alike, was that they were mutually exclusive. This may have had more to do with historical accident than the nature of the individual revelations on which they were based, since it was hard to imagine, if the messages meant anything, a truly omnipotent God would play party politics with humanity.

The problem with revelation in general was that voices in the head were now seen as signs of illness rather than divine in origin; and to give credence to belief systems wholly based on their uncorroborated hearsay, even if those systems were culturally worthy, while incarcerating those who claimed the same thing today, was little short of perverse.

No mention was made in Marwan’s letter or the accompanying leaflets of the worthiness or otherwise of attempting to communicate with the dead. Such a proposal would probably have been even more severely frowned on within the Islamic than the Christian tradition, if only because it would betray an alarming lack of faith in something that was deemed to be the word of God. Essentially, to question a monotheistic faith was to step outside it and to suffer the consequences of exclusion. I wondered vaguely if there was an Islamic equivalent of the Greater World Christian Spiritualist Association.

I had to admit I found it hard to accept the Muslim viewpoint could bear any relation to a truth that may once have emanated from an actual God; but that if it did, and Mohammed had received and passed on such a truth undistorted, his followers had subsequently got it wrong. This was largely because I didn’t see how so much of humanity could be excluded from their one and only chance of spending eternity in paradisical conditions simply by living outside the sphere of Muslim influence, or before the birth of Mohammed.

This might have been understandable if people had been reborn disadvantageously as a punishment, and had the possibility of reclaiming poll position in a later life; but for Muslims, like Christians, one bite at the cherry was considered to be all they got.

The likelihood, of course, was that what happened after death, assuming anything did, would be far more complex – and yet at the same time infinitely simpler, because ultimately non-denominational – than most believers, of whatever creed, thought; with Muslims, Christians and innumerable others all discovering that what they had been told would happen did indeed appear to happen – at least initially – in exactly the way they were convinced of on earth, except that it would not be happening to them exclusively.

Logic told me I shouldn’t expect if I died a European Christian to find myself banished to the nether regions of a Islamic hell for not having followed the teachings of Mohammed, any more than a Sikh or a Tahitian from a pre-Europeanised time would have found themselves waiting in a state of somnolence in their graves for a Christian judgment; and exactly the same applied to any suggestion of a dead Muslim discovering himself in another environment than his own.

It shouldn’t have been hard for us to imagine that the initial echelon of any actual, objective next world would be every bit as vast, if not infinitely vaster, than our own multi-faceted earth; and could be expected to correspond to its geographical peculiarities and cultural differences in such a way that we would be no more likely to emerge after death and find ourselves somewhere unfamiliar than we would be to wake in the morning and discover we were no longer in the bed we had gone to sleep in.

It may have been that on a subsequent level, or even a higher strata of the same level, we would realise, just as some people realised on earth, that cross cultural differences could be overcome in pursuit of a truer brotherhood. Possibly, we would understand we were not seeing our new world with as much accuracy as we might, or were looking at a small part of what was, in reality, a many-faceted ‘summerland’, which was itself only a harbinger of things to come, even though for the majority of us it would, initially at least, appear as dauntingly real as this world did.

Of course, such a scenario only absorbed part of most peoples’ beliefs, representing the initial place they would expect to find themselves in, pending a more lasting judgment of one form or another; it didn’t begin to take into account such matters as everlasting bodily resurrection, or perpetual rebirth, which, however much I looked at them, remained irreconcilable.

Oddly enough, I had come across, in a report by a group that included representatives from all the mainstream British churches, the claim that:

"For some reason, a very large number of people from a Roman Catholic background believe in reincarnation."

This presumably meant they also believed in the pre-existence of the soul, a dual doctrine that had been outlawed so far as Christianity was concerned at an ecumenical council in 553AD.

It must have been sufficiently rife up to then to warrant condemnation, but it so obviously conflicted with physical immortality, it was hardly surprising it had been dropped.

What was surprising was that large numbers of British Catholics were either unable to recognise the anomaly for themselves, weren’t worried by the conflict, or else presumably didn’t believe in the truth of the resurrection.

Assuming the last of these was the case, I couldn’t help wondering why such believers persisted with Catholicism, whose liturgy relied for its meaning on an understanding of, and belief in, this singular event, but that as a recognisably empty ritual could hardly have been, at least to my eyes, less alluring.

The answer, I supposed, lay partly in the apocryphal nature of the report – a trite question deserved a trite answer and if pressed I imagine those questioned might have prevaricated – but partly in the absence in most parts of Britain of conveniently situated, culturally acceptable places of worship where the creed was more in keeping with changing beliefs.

It was every bit as hard to visualise a Catholic congregation, dressed up, with its dutiful children in tow and trailing long centuries of tradition behind it, filing into a Hindu mosque or Buddhist temple to hear about the karma of rebirth, as it was to imagine the Catholic hierarchy consenting to re-examine its central tenet.

Accuracy of thought was something I had always attributed to Hinduism, for no particular reason other than that it had evolved in a refreshingly different way from most religions, being unique in not having as its titular head one man around whose views – whose received wisdom – an entire belief system had erupted and now depended.

Of course, it was also a very different belief system from that of either Christians or Muslims, depending on an acceptance of repeated rebirths, over aeons of time, in manifold guises; and ending in the possibility of individual release from selfhood, rather than the glorification of that individuality, along with the physical resurrection of all humankind, in a universal Day of Judgment.

Nor did it seem to require the same order of allegiance as other religions, before benefits could be deemed to ensue. Although there were doubtless well circumscribed ways of behaving, hastening progress, I imagined it wouldn’t much matter what actual creed a person believed in so long as their motives were right. In other words, rebirth was inevitable, whoever you were, wherever you lived, being wholly determined by the way you thought and acted.

What I didn’t know, or else failed to grasp, was what Hindus conceived the point of existence to be. For a Christian or Muslim it was clear enough: eternity, spent either in heaven or hell, depended on the conduct of a single lifetime. The incentive for being good – for those who truly believed – was strong. However, when the prospect was of returning, again and again, but not necessarily with the full force of your personality, or even any remembrance of who you had once been – and possibly in the form of another species, or even an inanimate element – persisting in right conduct might have seemed less attractive.

I had never fully understood the concept of liberation; but it was clearly the key to the mystery. According to Life After Death, the ideal Hindu life was led in such a way as to ensure escape from the cycle of rebirth at its end, or failing that, make certain any subsequent rebirth would be as favourable as possible for achieving it next time around.

However, such liberation was apparently far from easy, and only readily attainable from the highest stratas of society. This struck me as a suspiciously convenient way of excusing gross differences in wealth and status; and I wondered how much the evolution of Hinduism had to do with the perceived need of well-off, high-born Indians to justify and thereby perpetuate their privileged position.

For the average person, it seemed, the emphasis was not so much on liberating themselves from the cycle of rebirth as avoiding being reborn at a lower level than before; in the worst cases, as an animal, plant or mineral, a demotion from which it was apparently extremely difficult to recover.

Hindu belief was made more complicated by having changed so much over the years; although to put this in perspective, the more recent innovations dated from well before the birth of Christ.

Originating, according to Farnaz Masumian, as a relatively "simple afterlife system of retribution based on an eternal heaven and an eternal hell", which sounded remarkably familiar, Hinduism had grown into something exceedingly complex, involving periods of retribution or reward between rebirths, whose length and nature would depend on the life just lived, being spent in temporary and variously located heavens or hells; followed by a return to earth, or even, it seemed, other, every bit as real worlds, in one form or another, more or less indefinitely.

The entire system, based on the belief that a person’s present life was the karmic result of their past, formed a self-perpetuating cycle, which could only be interrupted by an awareness of what constituted right action and extreme diligence in adopting it. This was loosely based on a profound realisation "of the essential unity of life", that was not expected to come about through accident but only as the result of dedicated personal effort. Divine intervention was not on the cards and it was widely acknowledged that liberation was so far from easy as to be for the majority of people and for all practical purposes impossible.

Since this was likely to have been the case with my father, who ate and drank with alacrity, killed other creatures happily, and who was, if not attached to, certainly attracted by the world he lived in – while remaining, or so I liked to believe, a good and moral man – he would, in Hindi terms, be spending time in a temporary lodgement now, whether benign or otherwise; although what temporary meant I had no idea: I supposed it could have gone on for hours or for millennia.

Whether I could contact him there was questionable; whether I would ever see him again, in his current guise – assuming he still bore some semblance to his previous self – seemed unlikely, and depended, I supposed, as much on how I lived my own life as how he had lived his. Either way, the odds, based on the perceived worthiness of "meditation, fasting, faith, sacrifice, asceticism, and a celibate life", suggested both of us ultimately transmigrating to a lower form of existence.

Perhaps, I thought, sombrely, my father had already been reborn as one of the chickens I had recently acquired.

One peculiarity of Hinduism, which struck me forcefully, was how at odds the essentially formless description of liberation was from the rather weighty detail of achieving it. It was considered mandatory in order to get close to escaping from the cycle of rebirth to become a progressively better human: once in the animal or plant worlds, a person’s ‘atma’, or soul, was as good as lost; yet the descriptions given of what liberation consisted of, with the separate individual soul merging "into the Supreme Soul, like a lump of salt in the ocean, never to be separated again", gave the impression of an existence much closer to that of the meditative state of an animal, or even more so, of a plant or stone, than a cognitively active human.

Was it conceivable, I wondered, contrary to the common perception that humankind represented the pinnacle of earthly advancement, that the animal kingdom, with its disinclination to deviate from the present moment, its reliance on direct communication, its lack of language, its concomitant disinterest in abstract thought, was closer to the experience of God, or heavenly reality, than we were?

Lorna St. Auban, in Today is a Good Day to Die, inadvertently suggested something along these lines when she said:

"Amongst animals there is no individuation – especially in the lower species".

In her view, this was a developmental disadvantage; but, for me, it would have put the simplest creatures, in more or less the reverse order of their ability to communicate with humans – plants and minerals very much to the fore – nearer the very same ‘source’ Hindus were so encouraged to deliver themselves up to.

It may, of course, have simply been the case, that just as individual souls liberated themselves from their human personality and became reabsorbed, so new souls were formed, emerging in the mineral or vegetable worlds, enabling the cycle to restart; but I couldn’t see why, if a human wanted to achieve liberation from life – and I wasn’t at all sure why they should want to do that, anyway – they couldn’t do it by the seemingly far easier option of gradually returning to the source, via existence as animal, vegetable or mineral, through a process of downgrading.

This was pure speculation. In the meantime, I thought I saw why no Hindu body had replied to my letters. It must have been because what I had asked was altogether too literal for a system of belief that was largely pictorial, hopelessly imprecise, and wholly dependent on a judgment of my father’s past that could only be done with him, alone and in a state of the most abject intimacy.

Clearly, to expect any earthbound Hindu to be able to say where, let alone in what condition, my father was, would have been almost akin to him twenty years previously contacting the Indian Embassy in London imagining they could supply details of where I, supposedly travelling in their country at the time, currently lodged, or whether I was on the sub-continent at all.


Buddhism looked to have penetrated the West, and made converts, in ways that Hinduism hadn’t. I received two replies to my letter from Buddhist organisations, both handwritten, the first composed in a fashion suggesting, for the writer, that although there were easy, doctrinal answers to the questions I posed, this wasn’t necessarily the whole of the story. The letter ran:

"First, my apologies for this late response to your letter. It had worked its way to the back of my mail tray.

According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition which is followed at this centre it would be said that your father’s consciousness, having passed through various transitional experiences and states after death, would by now have been ‘re-incarnated’. (Re-incarnation is said to occur after about seven weeks). This process follows the natural laws of cause and effect, so your father’s state would be appropriate to whatever tendencies, predispositions and qualities he had in his previous life.

Again, according to this tradition, it is never too late to pray for or to direct positive thoughts towards someone who has died. This kind of connection happens at a subtle level.

Buddhism does not teach that family and friends will be re-united after death – not knowingly – although groups with close ‘karmic’ connections, like families, are likely to be drawn together in future lives in order to work out what had been unresolved in their previous relationships.

It is generally considered not good to contact the dead in the ‘Spiritualist’ sense because it may reinforce their attachment to the people and circumstances they have just left, and prevent them from ‘moving on’. Perhaps there are exceptions to this general rule, for example the dead person might wish to communicate strong feelings of regret or to ask for forgiveness through a medium.

If I can be of any further help please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Yours sincerely,

Mike Pope.

For me, the most intriguing aspect of this letter, which I found an elegant resume of what sounded, on the surface, a logical enough belief system, was the time element involved.

To imagine that my father – or, more precisely, my father’s consciousness – had, while we were busy cremating and mourning him, been passing through various, unspecified after-death states, was not difficult; but to be asked to believe that while I was still articulating my loss out aloud, crying and wrenching the steering wheel as I drove along in my car, he had already been reborn in another form, human or otherwise, was too much to take on board.

I thought I could accept my father had been annihilated, or else that he lived on in some subtle way, but not that he might have traded in his personality – which was essentially who he was – and adopted another guise altogether.

The notion that his mind – mature, reasoned, learned, incisive – far from being lost, was now in a living state, or possibly a state of incubation, in some young creature, or else part of something he would have considered barely sentient, appalled me. I feared for myself, too.

I had thought I was being facetious in imagining he might have become one of my laying hens; now I found this, apparently distinctly real possibility, frightful; and the fact that something like it was alleged to have occurred so quickly after his death, but not so quickly it prevented him – that was, the person he had been – surviving in his original form, and presumably presiding to some extent over the transformation, made it seem almost indecent.

Of course, I may have been misinterpreting Tibetan Buddhism here, since the emphasis was on my father’s "consciousness" continuing rather than his personality or soul. Such consciousness – or so I understood from my supplementary reading – might have lacked whatever it was that let a person know who they were; in which case my father, as an individual, could reasonably be said to have perished at the same time as his body.

I wasn’t familiar enough with Tibetan Buddhism to know to what extent they subscribed to the Hindu belief in rebirth in other worlds besides our own; but I could grasp that, baring karmic encounters neither of us was likely to recognise anyway, so far as this tradition was concerned my father and I had seen the last of each other – my father, of course, having long since seen the last of himself.

However much I might speculate that seven weeks on earth could approximate to several lifetimes in the more rarefied atmosphere of an after-death state, there was no way time could be juggled about with to enable anyone else from earth, dying outside that seven week period, from sharing any of those lifetimes – if, that was, the Tibetans were right in their estimation.

That there were differing views on this went without saying. I had come across an authoritative sounding account from a Toronto psychiatrist, Joel Whitton, an investigator into the possibility of reincarnation through the use of hypnosis, who believed:

"…the time we spend between lives may be as little as ten months (earth time, presumably) or as long as eight hundred years".

On the assumption he got this estimate from the accumulated stories of those he regressed, it would probably be safe to assume it was at least as likely to be true as those stories were. It certainly sounded more plausible, but perhaps only because it promised less abruptness and more choice, than the Buddhist notion of a forty nine day turnaround, which was a timetable I presumed had emanated from the Buddha himself. Apart from that, I could see no reason to doubt one any more than the other, or to rely on either for the truth of the matter.

Again, this sort of issue was one of those that could only be clarified by making contact with someone who had died, and was about to be reborn – always assuming, of course, they recognised this was going to take place. Countless contemporary Tibetans may have effected such meetings, although I hadn’t come across any first hand accounts of them. Embellishments of mythical journeys by long dead paragons, on the other hand, I understood were as commonplace as commentaries on the gospels.

Any notion of contact being made through a medium, as Mike Pope suggested, would presumably have also fallen within the context of the seven week period prior to the deceased being reincarnated. Thinking about this, it struck me as slightly anomalous for a spirit devoid of personality – which was what I was assuming a dead person’s consciousness amounted to – to be capable of expressing "regret" or asking for "forgiveness"; but perhaps I was wrong in denying consciousness any sense of shame.

One thing was clear. Although I was far from sure at what stage of the process between fertilisation and birth – or, I supposed, in the case of plants, germination – the surviving consciousness was believed to instil itself in its new vehicle, there was no way, at least on the rational level I understood, any form of contact could be made with it once they had merged. After all, who would I be getting in touch with?

In the Hindu tradition, individual awareness of previous lives, including the most recent, was considered to form part of every after-death experience; it was only once the surviving entity had become one with its new host that forgetfulness set in. This was certainly one explanation for why most of us had difficulty remembering our supposed past existences; and I wondered if the belief was the same in Buddhism. Even Plato had said:

"All souls do not easily recall the things of the other world. Few are those who keep an adequate remembrance of them."

I couldn’t begin to see how such amnesia benefited us. It struck me that if we believed in reincarnation, and were able to remember our previous existences with as much facility as we did our youth, we would be well placed to take whatever action was necessary to ensure a better berth next time around, or even to escape the cycle of rebirth altogether. As it was, it was as if we were living in a vacuum.

It reminded me of the ease with which we forgot our dreams; and rather than being a deliberate ploy by nature, for reasons we could only guess at, I wondered if it had something to do with the way we used our minds. If we had lived as animals did – perhaps as children do – we might have had no difficulty recalling our dreams or our past lives without confusing either with our behaviour in the present, which was the only argument I could think of for not wanting – or being able – to remember them in the first place.

I turned to my other letter. Unfortunately, it was on unheaded notepaper, and gave no indication of where it had been sent from, though by the signatory I assumed it was the South East Asian tradition of Buddhism. It went:

"You wrote with questions about the death of your father. Can I firstly apologise for not answering sooner. An unseasonable flu rather delayed matters.

You have many questions, none of which are straightforward to answer. I suspect you will have found this from the sources of your other replies!

Buddhism says that there is no ‘soul’ that either precedes birth or follows death. There is therefore no discreet, continuing personality which goes on to reform elsewhere. What does go forward is, to put it horribly simply, the sum total of our volitions which are reborn according to their nature. It is the volitions, the habits even, which go forward. It is not the personality or the identity that goes forward. So, to answer your question about your father Buddhism would say that he no longer exists as a personality, either in heaven or as himself starting over again in a new body. We would therefore say that there is no reunion, either here or elsewhere, to hope for.

This rather simple explanation is the subject matter of many books in all religions and Buddhism is no exception. None of them will be particularly helpful if you are looking for reconciliation or reunion with your father. The above explanation is often quite puzzling (as indeed it was to me in my early days of enquiry) when one is brought up with assumptions about a soul as a discreet, continuing personality. The analogy used to try and make sense of what Buddhism says does go on may be helpful, although like all analogies it breaks down if pursued.

We are like waves in an ocean. What we see going forward is water which takes a certain shape and has a certain sense of being the same water all the time. Of course it is not. The energy passes along as a wave shape but the water in it is constantly changing. So, says Buddhism, is the process by which we go through life, or lives.

I have to bring in another Buddhist teaching here. To put it simply: Actions have Consequences. So the nature and type of wave, or life, we are is dependent on the volitions that shape it. To quote from another tradition ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’. This applies quite obviously in life and Buddhism sees no reason that this should alter after physical extinction.

Although you do not say so in your letter I suspect that your father’s death may have been sudden or unexpected. Even if it was not the time of year must have made it more difficult than it might otherwise have been. He was obviously loved as you mention how he is missed by friends and family. There would seem therefore to be good reason to suppose he was a good man. Buddhism would therefore say that if he was good and kind, a man with friends and family, that that ‘wave’ which goes forward would be reborn in a positive environment, the fruit of his actions being an auspicious rebirth.

One of my colleagues is at present writing a book about Death and our attitudes to it. It includes a section on the process that those left behind go through. It is written from a Buddhist perspective. I am not sure when it will be published but have made a phone call and await a reply. If you would like a copy please write to me at the Centre. It will, I am sure, more than adequately answer all of your questions. As far as other books are concerned I would particularly recommend anything by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. There are now many other books readily available on coping with Bereavement and all of the stages that follow – through shock, grief, anger, regret, bargaining, denial, to acceptance and on to positive memories, love and gratitude.

I am conscious that this reply hardly seems adequate. The questions you ask are important and real. They are also those which, when one embarks on attempts to reply, cause even more questions to arise! I do hope, however, that they have in some way been helpful; and I hope you find some answers which help you move on in your bereavement.

Yours sincerely


In essence, the part of this letter that concerned itself with my father rather than me confirmed what Mike Pope had already implied: that the personality didn’t survive death, that there were no reunions, that there was ‘nobody’ to contact.

I found this prospect dismal if intellectually attractive – which could, I supposed, have been seen as a denial of my bereavement; but I tried not to be blinded to the fact that it might describe what happened far more accurately than anything I preferred to imagine.

I also had to remind myself that I was not casting around for a faith to adopt on my own account, but simply weighing up the likelihood of existing assumptions and beliefs pertaining to life after death. Buddhism was clear on the subject: life carried on, as did the essential energies we were composed of; but we as individuals were finite. In other words, although we might be reborn, we should not expect to have – not even, as Hindus believed, in the interim period between lives – nor be able to gain, through hypnosis or any other means, any remembrance of who or what we had once been.

Overall, Buddhism and Christianity could hardly have lain further apart. One extolled everlasting, other-worldly life, in a familiar body, with an unchanging personality, after a single term on earth, with each individual’s only hope of salvation being the acknowledgment of a specific saviour God; the other suggested a succession of lives, based entirely on personal merit, regardless of belief, with no remembrance from one existence to another, and little hope of escape from the recurring cycle, or even much awareness of being on it.

Neither Buddhist correspondent had mentioned nirvana – their equivalent to Hindu liberation – as something to be sought; nor had they discussed the various heavens and hells depicted by the Buddhist literature I had dipped into. I assumed this was because only adepts aspired to nirvana, and only Buddhists themselves would find themselves in a Buddhist heaven or hell; and that even then, it would be of peripheral importance, over and done with within a seven week period, prior to rebirth.

I resolved to look further into their literature, having been impressed by the depth and detail of Buddhist thought concerning the afterlife. In particular, I needed to find out how literally the seven week period spent, as it were, in abeyance, should be taken; because it was on the basis of that that I was being asked to assume my father was well into, or even, depending on what he had been reborn as, already over, his next life.

The other puzzling question was, how did Buddhists know what they knew? Was it the result of revelation or exploration? After Buddha’s death, did his most accomplished followers somehow travel into the next world to confirm what he had said and discover deeper truths; were adepts nowadays doing the same; or had they been reduced – as Christians certainly had – to merely interpreting the insights and exploits of the past?

It was appropriate that the next letter I received – and the last that was strictly religious – was from a group who claimed they acted as a bridge of reasonableness between existing faiths. They accepted all religions – though not all their teachings – in the belief they pointed to the same spiritual reality and ultimately led to the same God. Their reply ran:

"Many thanks for your letter enquiring what we as Bahais believe regarding life after death. We were saddened to learn of the death of your father last year, and can deeply sympathise with your present state of questioning regarding his spiritual state and continuing existence.

May we state from the outset that the Bahai teachings on this subject are perhaps the most affirmative amongst those of all the World Faiths. Bahaullah, our Founder, wrote extensively about the nature of the soul and confirmed its continuing development beyond bodily death. He taught that there are many worlds beyond this one but that they are spiritual in nature (Bahais do not believe that we return to this world) and that the soul of man is everlasting, continuing to progress closer and closer to God in its future life."

Of course, the immediate question that sprang to my mind was how Bahullah knew what he ‘knew’; or that what he taught, and expected us to believe, was right? To learn, from Life After Death, that he was on the receiving end of revelations from on high made it next to impossible to judge his teachings dispassionately. It was even harder to know what to make of the fact that his son apparently shared his omniscience.

"Bahaullah, and his son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, have some very comforting words to say to the bereaved. ‘Abdu’l-Baha tells us that families and loved ones can indeed expect to be reunited after death. He states:

‘Know thou for a certainty that in the divine worlds the spiritual beloved ones will recognise one another, and will seek union with each other, but a spiritual union. Likewise a love that one may have entertained for anyone will not be forgotten in the world of the Kingdom, nor wilt thou forget there the life thou hadst in the material world.’ (Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Vol.1 pg.204).

You have asked how you may communicate with your father now that he has passed beyond this world. The Bahai writings offer a number of suggestions about this. The Founders of our faith have advised us against involvement in psychic practices, stating that:

‘To tamper with psychic forces while in this world interferes with the condition of the soul in the world to come. These forces are real, but, normally, are not active on this plane. The child in the womb has its eyes, ears, hands, feet, etc, but they are not in activity. The whole purpose of life in the material world is the coming forth into the world of Reality, where those forces will become active. They belong to that world.’ (Baha’u’llah and the New Era, p.178)."

Unfortunately, however valid this protestation, warnings against making contact with those who had died, which all established religious groups promulgated, always made me wonder whether a deeper, underlying motive for not attempting to communicate might have been a fear that there was no one on the other side – in fact, no other side – to communicate with; and that rather than risk discovering this, so called believers sustained themselves with faith, speciously reasoning they were doing the right thing not to question those who had gone before them, to see if they really were there, in case that held them back from their true purpose.

It seemed to me manifestly wrong to conclude that because casual contact with the dead might not be ideal for either party, all attempts at it should cease. After all, it would only ever be by proving, beyond any shadow of a doubt, through such contact, that the dead did live on, that we would know there was something we might not want to hold our forbears back from. In other words, once we knew, we could let them go, in the knowledge that was what was best for them – if, in fact, it was – but until that day, we should reach out, if only to confirm they were really there.

In addition, of course, was the undoubted fact that if we knew survival was true, our own behaviour would be transformed. If entry to – in particular, the choice areas of – the next world was known to be determined by our behaviour on earth, in the same way and with a similar degree of certainty that mundane access to jobs and houses was largely determined by qualifications and money, change would occur overnight.

"However, ‘Abdu’l-Baha encourages us most strongly to pray for our loved ones. He said:

‘In prayer, there is a mingling of stations, a mingling of condition. Pray for them as they pray for you.’ (‘Abdu’l-Baha in London, p.97)."

This was reminiscent of the Catholic view, as expressed by Andrew Soames, that the dead, wherever they were, could and did pray for us in the same way we should for them.

"He states further that conversation can indeed be held with a departed soul:

‘…but not as our conversation. There is no doubt that the forces of the higher worlds interplay with the forces of this plane. The heart of man is open to inspiration; this is spiritual communication…’ (‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p.179.

There is much in the Baha’i writings to indicate that when we are having a mental discussion with our own self, we are open to inspirational ideas coming from those in the next world. We may not actually see them or hear their voices as we remember them, but the thoughts we have may have been inspired by them.

It is an interesting concept that the intuitive advances made by mankind in the arts and sciences may in some way have been conveyed to us by those in the higher spiritual realms. Yet this is what Baha’u’llah assures us.

This reminds me of a number of instances where I have read of great artists, voicing their amazement at the inspiration that flows through them. A particular instance which I have to hand is from the writings of composer Richard Strauss:

‘The melodic idea, coming straight out of the ether, which suddenly overcomes me, which appears without any material stimulus…emerges from the imagination, immediate unconscious, without benefit of intelligence…is the greatest of divine gifts, not to be compared with any other.’

How wonderful to think that such great gifts of inspiration may be coming from our own loved ones who have gone before us!"

One trouble with this notion was that however it might seem when viewed in the light of the marvels humanity had produced, it looked less than appetising when considering the preponderance of horrors that marked living history. To imagine the perpetrators of evil receiving guidance from specialists in the beyond was hardly conducive to thoughts of the afterworld being either fair or just.

In any event, there could be no certainty. Our thoughts might have been inspired by the concerned dead, but equally they might not. To "actually see" the deceased "or hear their voices" would have gone a long way to proving they still existed, and in many ways, knowing that was the case would have made it easier to accept their wider, unseen influence. This again made me wonder why such proof was withheld, or simply not sought.

"At the same time, many people experience contact with the departed through dreams or visions. This seems to happen spontaneously, and not only to those who have a strong belief in the afterlife. However, we cannot create these experiences at will, and should not be despondent if they do not seem to happen to us. On a personal level, I can say that for many years after my parents died I had no such experience of ‘direct’ contact with them. However, recently, while under anaesthetic for a minor operation, I had an extremely vivid dream in which my mother came into the room, assured me I was going to feel much better and brought me a cup of tea. On waking, I was (and remain) convinced that she was actually present, and I have felt a far greater awareness of her presence ever since. I know a number of other people who have had similar experiences."

I found this personal testimony distinctly moving. I knew it was widely considered only too easy to be taken in by the imagination, and for the mind to construct whatever scenario it wanted, for its own complex purposes; but it was also possible that stories like these, which had a ring of conviction about them – not least in the persuasive way they were experienced – were objectively real.

I didn’t find it difficult to accept such dreams at face value, while, of course, reserving final judgment on whether or not they could be what they seemed for the day when proof either way would become unassailable; and I was disappointed not to have dreamed, or at least to have remembered dreaming, of my father since his death. The Bahia approach to this was encouraging.

"The fact that you have written to us so concernedly on this subject would seem to indicate that you do feel some intimation of your father’s presence. We would warmly encourage you to develop this comforting awareness through saying prayers for his happiness. Baha’u’llah says that those in the spiritual realms are ‘closer to us than our life’s vein’, even though we cannot perceive them with our earthly senses. The Baha’i writings are full of beautiful and comforting words about the life to come and I am enclosing a little booklet, The Open Door, which I hope you will find eases your heart.

If you would like any further literature, or if you would like to meet with someone from a nearby local Baha’i community to discuss your questions further, we would be only too happy to help. In the meantime, I have asked our National Spiritual Assembly, when they next meet in session, to say prayers for the progress of your father’s soul, as well as for your own comfort and happiness.

Please do not hesitate to contact us again if we can be of any further assistance to you in your search for the truth.

With all good wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Hillary Freeman (Mrs)

Personal Assistant to the Secretary–General."

I liked the sound of this religion. After all, if someone was going to subscribe to a belief system based on revelation, the choice might as well be made on the grounds of essential reasonableness; and at the very least it could be said that there was nothing outlandish – in relative terms, that was – still less exclusive, about the Bahia faith.

I already knew, from the invaluable Life After Death, that Bahais didn’t believe in a Saviour God who would deliver their community on preferential terms. Instead, they considered that what happened to them would happen to everyone else too, but its precise nature would be dependent on the way each individual thought.

They didn’t believe in reincarnation, either, or in the resurrection of the body; but since both these phenomena were put forward by their adherents as not happening until some time after death – whether the demarcation line was seven weeks or all recordable history was hardly important – their more immediate vision for the future couldn’t be said to be seriously at odds with those of other faiths.

Nevertheless, for me, the most telling part of the letter I had received from the Bahais was not the reassurances of a father and son whose veracity I could not pretend to speculate on, but the account of the dream Hillary Freeman had had of her mother. This was compelling because it had happened contemporarily rather than historically, was personally convincing, and suggested another, remarkable dimension to our otherwise generally undistinguished lives was available to ordinary (if I can assume the ordinariness of a PA) individuals.

If we could show we were able, on occasion, to meet dead people in our dreams, and could somehow prove they were real rather than figments of our imaginations, we would have acquired – or possibly reacquired, since this need not necessarily be a new possession – a key to an interesting door.

Whether this was what the journalist, Janine Di Giovanni, believed to be the case I am unsure, but she recounted a dream she had in similarly affecting terms:

"Yesterday I fell asleep in the afternoon and dreamt again of my father. In the dream he was ten years younger than he was at the time he died, fuller in the face, fleshier, darker, with more hair. He looked nervous: perspiring and twitching slightly when I greeted him, a little sheepish as though embarrassed to be seen in such a state. But he motioned me to move closer, smiled and said my name, using the diminutive. His voice was soft and familiar, a timbre and resonance that I had heard practically every day of my life until last year when, terribly and abruptly, it stopped.

‘Dad,’ I said, surprised, to the man in my dream. ‘What are you doing here? You’re dead.’

‘I’m not dead,’ he said. ‘Who told you I was dead?’

I stared at him, confused in the way that one is often confused in dreams. Perhaps my father was not really dead after all. Perhaps the six months of hell, of the diagnosis, the cancer, the hospital, the flights twice a month back and forth to America, and finally, the death and the funeral, had all been a horrible fantasy.

‘I’m not dead,’ he repeated, with emphasis. He smiled oddly. ‘I’m just in the next room.’ I found it oddly comforting, a sign that he would never be far from me. And then, inspired by the intimacy of the moment, I asked him to tell me something good about the future, because I was not very happy. He paused, and then answered. The message he gave would mean nothing on this page, but it meant a great deal to me in the dream. It was a strange and prophetic message of hope: something that perhaps in life he would not have been able to tell me, because he might have been embarrassed."

I found it personally easy, without being able to offer any explanation, to accept that dreams such as these might have every bit as much validity as when we met and interacted with people in the known world; and that we should not automatically assume we were inventing the occasions for purposes of insight or solace.

Yet the reality of our dreams was hardly debated these days, since it was the precise opposite of this that was widely held to be the case. To suggest to someone that dream characters and places had objective existence would usually be to invite ridicule.

This attitude, which emanated from the amateur psychologist in all of us, should have been, or so it seemed to me, more open to question. At the very least, we might experiment. Although Hillary Freeman believed we could not "create these experiences at will", I felt they would be more likely to happen if we were to direct effort towards remembering our dreams in the first instance, and then consciously guiding our behaviour in them, rather than resigning ourselves to the vagaries of a chance encounter.

Dreams were first hand, and as valid in their way as anything we perceived with our bodily senses. Whether they provided us with an insight into another, less tangible but no less real place, or were as wholly imaginary in content as daytime fantasies, remained an open question; but it was reassuring to see a well established religious group – and I was surprised to find how well established Baha’i’s were – supporting the medium of dreams as windows onto the next world.

What conclusions I could have hoped to come to regarding the status and whereabouts of my father, and the possibility, not to mention advisability, of communicating with him, without subscribing wholeheartedly to one viewpoint among many, even a viewpoint as generous as that of the Baha’is, I didn’t know; but I supposed I had thought a consensus might emerge.

There was, of course, a shared acceptance of our continued existence that ran right through all religious bodies, in direct contradiction to the world of science; but what form it took was so varied as to make any belief, inevitably, open to question.

Although it was possible, assuming the afterworld existed, that its lower levels would be more or less however we expected them to be, according to the belief system we had lived with, I didn’t see how this differentiation could remain true in anything but a short term, superficial sense.

There may have been no reason to suppose that initially it need be any more or less insular than earth; or that my dying father – or his Alaskan, South American or Saudi Arabian counterpart – would have woken up in it in anything other than familiar surroundings; but he would have been unlikely to stay in those surroundings for ever, and when he moved on, I wondered where he would find himself.

I had always assumed, if there was another world, whatever its appearance, it would actually be one, uniform place, its environment subject to universal laws directly issued not so much by a powerful, Godlike being as an elemental force, such as earthly nature.

This was the sort of environment that might ultimately control and eventually follow on from a preparatory afterworld whose varied topography would seem much the same as on earth and where little more social homogeneity need exist than we were already used to. As time passed – assuming such a concept existed – and the ‘dead’ developed, cultural differences could reasonably be expected to fall away, allowing people – if they could still be called that – to congregate outside the barriers of language or custom.

Considering how this type of world, which didn’t conflict too seriously with existing religious doctrines, might be populated was altogether trickier. Souls didn’t necessarily have to have bodies, but their absence made the sort of life they could otherwise be expected or enabled to lead impossible to imagine. As Paul Davies, in God and the New Physics, put it:

"Sex without bodies would be ridiculous."

As it was with sex, so it would be with virtually everything we took for granted on earth, from eating to sleeping. Not having a body posed a multitude of problems.

Clearly, if the afterworld was able to be described visually – and every religion I had come across seemed to particularly value such images – its inhabitants would have had to have the ability to see it, or they could not have co–existed. Being blind would have provided no answer, since the blind still function through known, bodily senses. Quite simply, the mere ‘idea’ of a person could not inhabit a real place any more than the idea of that place could be lived in by ‘real’ people.

This was where the greatest confusion lay. Official doctrine, for most Muslims and Christians, was that the soul remained in the grave, or waited elsewhere – for all practical purposes, in purgatory – essentially formless, until an indeterminate future date when it would be reunited with its body; but there were enough reports of what constituted purgatory – descriptions of life ‘in the grave’ were more nebulous – to suggest it could not possibly be apprehended by anything other than the full range of physical senses. The suspicion remained that the official doctrine was not the perceived wisdom.

For others, including, if I understood them correctly, Christian Scientists and Bahais, from the moment of death and for the indefinite future, the soul was alive and conscious in a spiritual world, in appearance not unlike this one, in a body that while wholly insubstantial was also not unlike its original. It seemed to me that purgatory might be found there too.

For others again, including most Hindus and Buddhists – for whom, uniquely, it was not a soul that survived so much as an impetus – we would return, whether to earth or some other realm, in another body or form, ad infinitum. The only question was, where we went in the meantime; and the answer was almost certainly, some other, differently named part of that same spiritual world.

The biggest differences came later and were between those who believed in a single, earthly existence followed by resurrection of the body and eternity spent in either heaven or hell; and those who held that individuals were reborn in an endless succession of temporary bodies. Whether or not these conflicting views followed on from the same basic initial afterworld experience, it was inconceivable they could both be true.

If they were, it suggested a bizarrely polarised after death state. Although people on earth had their cultural differences, it was their essential similarities, as members of humankind, that were most evident. To suggest that such vastly different experiences awaited the deceased as rebirth or resurrection, and that their choice in the matter would be determined only by their belief – or, even more questionably, their time and place of birth – stretched credulity to breaking point.

If both couldn’t be right, either one or neither was: a compromise had to be out of the question. As to what proofs were available, it seemed to me there was none whatsoever for resurrection, and only a limited – and contentious – amount for rebirth.

Of course, I had to remind myself my interest lay in finding out where my father was now, rather than where it was supposed he might be in some indefinite future. To do this I ideally needed to contact him. It was no good my being told he was in a state of somnolence, along with everybody else who had ever lived and died, and wouldn’t stir from it until the Day of Judgment, because there was no way I could tell whether or not this was a fairy tale.

On the other hand, it was no use my being assured he had already been reborn in another body, or form, since I could only ever speculate as to who, what or where that might be; and even if I was to locate him, and he was human, there was no guarantee he could be expected to remember his previous existence as my father.

If either of these fates was known to be true, then of course I would have accepted it. If, on the other hand, my father was not resting in the earth, or walking on it in a new guise, but was instead living in a facsimile of his old body, on another plane of existence altogether, then the possibility remained that I might be able to contact him there, in order to help prove this was the case.

A glimmer of hope lay in the direction of my dreams, and I filed that prospect accordingly. Prayer, much advised, seemed to me to promise nothing so much as scope for imagination. In any event, I still couldn’t grasp what condition souls waiting for their resurrected bodies were in, so communication directed towards them, by me, seemed fraught with imponderables.

I appreciated that meditation, like prayer, could offer an insight into the apparent nature of reality; but it was such a laborious, long term, lifetime’s occupation, I felt it was only appropriate for those who already had some sympathy with the notion that all was illusion, existence was suffering, and that if they were to escape the cycle of rebirth, or better their chances of doing so in another incarnation, intense dedication was necessary.

Visiting a medium to communicate with the dead, ill advised by all but Spiritualists, was amazingly readily available – mediums were in the Yellow Pages and there were Spiritualist churches everywhere – so I could not pretend the set up was an elaborate hoax; or if it was, I couldn’t say I was not being given every chance to find out. Yet, was it conceivably this easy?

I found it difficult to believe that if even a fraction of what Spiritualists said they could prove actually turned out to be true they would have remained such a sad remnant of a movement, while others, none of whose convoluted, far more incredible beliefs bore any likelihood of corroboration on this earth, numbered their followers in the hundreds of millions. Still, that was the undoubted fact.

For the sceptics, of course, this was the only ‘fact’ concerning Spiritualism they recognised; and they would not have been in the slightest bit surprised that a movement that had set out to prove our discarnate spirits lived on should have itself become virtually moribund.


One well known sceptic, who claimed to have used meditation in her own pursuit of the truth, but which had only served to confirm her disbelief in any form of life after death, was Susan Blackmore, the parapsychologist. I had written to her, along with Richard Dawkins, the neo-Darwinist, and Nicholas Humphreys, a self-proclaimed theoretical psychologist, as being among the most outspoken and articulate opponents of the belief that we were anything other than we appeared.

Of the three, only Susan Blackmore replied. This was more than I had expected, and I appreciated the trouble she had gone to, especially when, as she rightly suspected, I knew the gist of her answer before I got it.

The same would have been true of Richard Dawkins, who was alleged to make a point of avoiding communication with those who had not been to university – though whether that gap in my life was obvious from my letter, I couldn’t say – presumably on the basis they would neither be able to attend to what he had to say nor have anything of interest to tell him themselves.

As for Nicholas Humphreys, he appeared never to have left university, and possibly thought his views sufficiently evident in his books and articles and from his occasional forays on television and radio, not to need further articulation; or else, as they pertained to the question of life after death, were beneath him to express.

These people were professional thinkers, who had jobs to do, and reputations to maintain, and could hardly have been expected to reply to everyone who wrote to them. They probably received more casual enquiries than they did junk mail. Admittedly, my religious correspondents had jobs to do as well, besides keeping up with unsolicited post, but since part of their work was persuading the curious or uncertain of the validity of their particular cause, they were under something of an obligation to reply.

In a sense, materialists served a cause too; and it was instructive, though understandable, that some of them should think certain questions, or certain sorts of person, not worth answering.

I felt I knew Susan Blackmore well; I seemed to have almost grown up with her. Since I could remember, she had appeared on virtually every television programme I had seen that had demanded a reasoned view of the unusual. There was no doubt she was good at her job; and although she had gone to university, and trained her mind accordingly, she never gave the impression this separated her from those who hadn’t.

She didn’t come across as a towering intellectual, dwarfing her audience with unanswerable brilliance, or as loftily arrogant, dismissing her opponents as little short of infantile; but instead gave every indication of being an ordinary person who had thought keenly about her particular subject and come to some clear conclusions but who would be prepared to alter these if new evidence appeared.

This made her something of an enigma. From what I had read and heard, she clearly didn’t believe in the validity of any aspect of the paranormal, yet she carried on investigating it in the hope, it would seem, of one day having her mind changed for her. She appeared convinced that so far no proof of anything unusual having anything other than a straightforward scientific answer had occurred; but what other explanation could there be for her extolling her readers, as she had in a recent publication, to place woodlice in small enclosures and try and will their movements in particular directions, than that she thought such a thing feasible?

She was a parapsychologist, but her interests extended into the field of what happened when we died, and she was something of an expert on Near Death and Out of the Body (OBE) Experiences. Primarily, though, she was a scientist, claiming, as all scientists did, that unlike their religious counterparts, they had no predetermined belief system to defend, while nevertheless defending to the hilt the conviction that nothing existed that could not be accurately measured by present day instrumentation.

Her reply was short and to the point:

"Thank you very much for your letter. As I expect you can guess, I think that death is the end of our own personal experience.

To answer your questions directly, I would say that your father is nowhere and in no state and therefore unable to communicate again. I believe this will be my own fate sooner or later.

You may think this a very depressing view of life but in a way I think ‘selves’ are just temporary constructions that change all the time. In a way ‘I’ dies every moment and the brain just keeps on building me again – that is until it dies. After many years of thinking about this and daily meditation, this does not bother me, though at times it seems odd! I enclose an article that may be useful for you and you may like to read two of my books.

Dying to live, Science and the Near Death Experience

In search of the Light, Adventures of a Parapsychologist

I don’t expect other people to agree with my views and of course we shall all have to wait to find out what really happens at the end.

Yours sincerely,


I didn’t find her view depressing – apart from the suggestion we would have to wait until we died to find out anything conclusive – so much as unlikely. I had read fairly widely over the years and I thought it was more or less proved, though I knew I could have been deluding myself, that something lay beyond the grave – what, was what I hoped to find out – and that therefore our minds and our brains were not, as Susan Blackmore implied, one and the same thing.

I had already read her books, in one of which she explained the phenomenon of the NDE as the closing down of the expiring brain. Certainly, she was correct in saying they could have been this, since there was, as yet, no proof that what people were seeing as they lay dying was anything other than culturally induced hallucinations. Although some of the individual stories, in her book and elsewhere, carried enormous conviction, they were ultimately no more useful as evidence of anything actually taking place than recounted dreams.

However, there was no more evidence that an expiring brain would cause these phenomena either; in fact, there was probably a lot less. It was just that there was no viable alternative explanation for individuals across the globe and throughout history dying, experiencing profound visions of an afterworld peopled by friends and relatives who were already dead, finding that afterworld unbearably attractive, and then returning, often against their wills, to a body that had, for one reason or another, spluttered back into life.

Either these were genuine reports of actual experiences or they were the irrelevant by-product of psychological and chemical turmoil. For a scientist who believed the mind and brain were one, there was no contest. These experiences couldn’t be real.

Susan Blackmore’s wasn’t a superciliously closed view, though when she said, as she did in the article she enclosed with her letter, that:

"…claims of paranormal vision during NDEs may come from a mixture of invention, exaggeration, mis-remembering and guesswork. People desperately want proof of an afterlife, and these paranormal stories provide just that,"

it was difficult not to conclude she had already made up her mind.

Had I received a reply from Richard Dawkins, I have no doubt it would have been considerably more scathing, not only of my questions, that to him would have appeared asinine, but to the subject as a whole, which he would have dismissed out of hand as the trivial speculations of the uninformed.

His view was that there was a scientifically verifiable answer to everything; that the notion of an afterlife derived from a pre-scientific age; that we were nearing a point in history when we would know all there was to be known; and that there was nothing to be learned about the paranormal for the simple reason it didn’t exist. As he had repeatedly said, the universe was sufficiently intriguing as it was without having to invent alternatives.

Nicholas Humphrey, less well known but no less sure of himself, appeared infrequently on television, but when he did he could be heard to expound, in lofty, philosophical terms, why those who believed in the paranormal basically needed their heads examining. I was readily able to imagine his reply to my letter. His undisguised derision for the credulity of the commonalty both fascinated and repelled me; he was like a teacher who knew all the answers, who simply wouldn’t be faulted, but who, whenever he walked out of the room, left major questions unresolved.

Both Dawkins and Humphreys tended towards a condescending view, as if they wondered why they, or indeed anyone, should have to lower themselves to speak on such an implausible subject in the first place. One reason, which a number of sceptics shared, was that there were financial inducements – over and above the notoriety gained – to making a stand, in support of science, on this issue.

The man who brought this, and the ‘conspiracy theory’ in general, to my attention, whom I had neither seen on television nor previously heard nor read of, was Michael Roll. I sent a copy of my letter to him, after coming across his name in an issue of Psychic News, a publication to which I had subscribed in the hope of obtaining interesting leads.

He didn’t reply personally, but he did send me an enormous quantity of intriguing photocopies, both of articles by him and others and of letters demanding change he had sent to myriad people in positions of authority.

He turned out to be the founder – and, for all I knew, sole member, since there was no invitation to join – of a movement calling itself the Campaign for Philosophical Freedom, which believed, in short, that the power in the land, in the form of established science in collusion with the established church, was blocking the pursuit of truth.

Michael Roll’s writings had an unfortunate ranting style, not helped by poor punctuation, a certain disregard for logic, and a tendency to claim his own point of view as "stone cold fact" while dismissing that of others in splenetic and disparaging terms. He reserved his most venomous invective for those who subscribed to the Christian faith. As he put it:

"There is no such thing as the Christian religion. The whole edifice is a priestly invention. Scholars have failed completely to find one iota of original thought. Every single item was copied from much older religions and philosophies."

His denunciation of St Paul was singular:

"A man called Saul of Tarsus said he saw a ghost on the road to Damascus. So what? People are reporting such events every day and are not believed. Why should we believe this man Saul of Tarsus?"

Those who accepted that Saul, or St Paul, saw what he claimed to see, might attribute their willingness to suspend disbelief in his vision being in any way exceptional, or even miraculous, to their parents, or religious teachers, repeatedly telling them it was so. This didn’t make it either true or false but it certainly showed their susceptibility to influence. In a similar way, Michael Roll appeared to have been as much of a victim, or beneficiary, of his upbringing as the most ardent Catholic.

I had already noticed his middle name was Findlay, and from his writings I gleaned the fact that his mother, whom he described as a freethinker, had been an admirer of Arthur Findlay, the Scottish philosopher. Michael Roll’s beliefs, as he admitted, were virtually identical to those of this man, who had died when he was a teenager, and for whom he appeared to be acting in his attempts to get religion out of schools, disestablish the Church of England, and open up the scientific debate on life after death.

Arthur Findlay was a stockbroker who wrote a series of iconoclastic books detailing what he claimed was the true history of religion, along with his own experiences of investigating the afterlife. These are fascinating documents, written by a man who comes over as reasonableness itself; and yet the claims made are so outrageous, emanating from someone who remained successfully immersed throughout his life in the prosaic environment of investment finance, that if they could be shown to be true, and were widely accepted as such, the world we live in – or the way we live in it – would undoubtedly undergo radical change.

Widespread recognition that we are no more alone, on our earth, in this universe, than ants in their nest, but are surrounded by, interwoven with, as much a part of as the air we breath, an etheric world from which we all come when we are born and to which we will return when we die, has not, as yet, taken place. Roll’s belief was that the books revealing this knowledge were widely known to contain the truth, but their circulation had always been restricted, to the point where Arthur Findlay was barely known today, even – or especially – among students reading philosophy or religion at university.

Roll’s – and Findlay’s – central thesis was that everyone, without exception, not only survived death, but survived it in more or less their present form, albeit in a different sort of body; and he had what he grandly claimed as scientific backing for this.

Such backing, which hadn’t been available in Findlay’s day, although he had apparently hinted at it in his writings, amounted to a privately printed book by a retired engineer called Ronald Pearson, who postulated a theory of a subatomic inner space "proving", as Roll put it, "the existence of life after death".

Pearson’s book, Intelligence behind the Universe, approachable but not easy to understand, was obviously something only a scientist, and ideally a physicist, could properly evaluate. Unfortunately, according to Roll, this was not being done because Pearson had broken one of the cardinal rules of modern scientific research by transgressing Einstein’s laws.

Einstein’s theories, by all accounts, had to be adhered to scrupulously, even though they apparently conflicted with much that was widely accepted as true, because if they were not a great many other things that were also widely accepted as true would collapse. So, according to Roll, Pearson was persona non gratis in scientific circles, and his ideas, along with the ideas of anyone who disputed Einstein, were far from required reading at university, where even to allude to them was probably to a budding student’s disadvantage.

To alert people to the conspiracy theory, Pearson had written a booklet, The Colossus. I found this fascinating. It showed, with disarming clarity, how the existing scientific and religious establishments supported each other and the status quo, while retaining their almost diametrically opposed, wholly incompatible beliefs; and how this prevented the emergence of a possibly profound truth – Pearson obviously believed he had inside information here – since neither party had any taste for being engulfed by radicalism.

Pearson acknowledged that all religions held a certain amount of truth, and he seemed dismayed that his work, which could have helped them make sense of this scientifically, was being dismissed on the basis it didn’t fit in with materialistic beliefs that effectively denied any such truth whatsoever. As an engineer, he also accepted much of materialistic science, and felt wounded by its unwillingness to even consider there might be more to the world than met the eye.

Roll, for his part, was avowedly irreligious. He called himself a survivalist, which seemed apt. His view was that nobody should accept anything he was saying without proving it for themselves by reading the available literature and, if desired, visiting a medium. He believed mediums were, to put it crudely, the only instruments humanity currently had for receiving communications from those who had died, and should be treasured accordingly. Not the least of his claims was that during a session with a materialisation medium he had met and shaken hands with his father, who had been dead for many years.

According to him, not only was the establishment suppressing the truth in every way it could, it was also harassing the few really good mediums able to prove the existence of life after death, making their lives a misery unless they gave up their work.

This ‘dirty tricks’ scenario sounded distinctly quirky, if not paranoid, and along with Roll’s apparent willingness to endorse characters like the goalkeeper turned seer, David Icke – known to have come out with some massively misjudged pronouncements in his time – made me question his entire thesis; but I strove to keep an open mind.

Helping the suppression of truth along, according to Roll, were establishment sceptics, of whom prime examples were Susan Blackmore, Richard Dawkins and Nicholas Humpreys. Roll particularly disliked Blackmore, who he credited with doing more damage to his cause than almost anyone, with her bland assurances on television that nothing paranormal was valid; and this probably explained why he was so scathing about her acceptance of a financial award for investigating the paranormal, even though it was a subject she had been engaged in, competently enough, for many years.

For some reason, Roll had a soft spot for Richard Dawkins. Perhaps it was because they shared an utter contempt for Christians, and had no hesitation about letting their feelings be known. Roll believed, incredibly, that if Dawkins was fed the right sort of material, he would eventually come round to the survivalist way of thinking, but that this was unlikely to happen because the material simply wasn’t available in sufficient quantity and the majority of what was available was not contemporary.

Naturally, the shortfall, according to him, was largely due to:

"An establishment conspiracy of awesome proportions."

Whether a conspiracy existed or whether people in positions of authority genuinely believed the consensus view they represented, resisting what must have appeared to them only one of many crackpot ideas put forward by a long series of well meaning, misguided simpletons, I wasn’t sure; but I thought I would follow Michael Roll’s advice, and get hold of some of the allegedly suppressed literature he recommended; and I was even more determined now than I had been before to visit a medium; though from what Roll was saying, I might have difficulty engaging a good one.

Just to show that even in an establishment institution like a university, diverse opinions could still flourish, a professor of psychology, David Fontana, one or two of whose many books on usually esoteric subjects I had enjoyed reading, had sent me a reply to my letter that struck me as representing more or less how I felt at this stage in my research. He was gratifyingly matter-of-fact:

"As I did not know your father, I cannot possibly respond to the very personal questions which you ask in your letter. At a general level however, I can assure you of my own conviction, based upon an extensive knowledge of the literature and long experience in psychical research, that the soul survives the death of the physical body. The exact nature of the afterlife depends in large part upon the belief systems, expectations and history of each individual. In some cases people seem to live in a world very much like this – created essentially by their own thoughts. In others they live more at levels beyond material appearances.

If you are really interested in the subject, then you must make a study of the vast literature available, and eventually come to your own conclusions. Books go out of print quite quickly these days, so all of the following will not be available in bookshops. However, you should be able to get at least some from your library or – if you are lucky – from secondhand bookshops. For the most part, I have listed books which came out in paperback and had a wide circulation.

The absolute classics in the field were written many years ago, and are Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, by F.W.Myers (recently re-issued in an abbreviated version by Peregrin Press), and The Survival of Mam by Sir Oliver Lodge (Methuen – almost certainly out of print). Another near-classic is Alan Gauld’s Mediumship and Survival (Paladin).

Among other relevant texts are The Golden Shore by Joan Foreman (Futura Publications), Is There Life After Death by Harold Sherman (Fawcett), A World Beyond by Ruth Montgomery (Futura Publications), The Undiscovered Country by Howard Murphet (Sawbridge), The Evidence for Life After Death by Martin Ebon (Signet), We Don’t Die by Joel Martin and Patricia Romanowski, and Life After Death by Neville Randall (Corgi).

You may also be interested in the evidence from near death experiences (people who have been clinically dead and then resuscitated). If so, Margot Grey’s Return From Death (Arkana) is worth reading, and even more so Heading Towards Omega by Kenneth Ring (William Morrow). Read also anything by Raymond Moody (including his most recent Reunions), published by Ivy Books), Martin Sabom’s Recollections of Death (Corgi), and Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick’s The Truth in the Light (Headline).

This is only touching the surface of the more serious literature. I wish you all the best.

Yours sincerely,

Prof. David Fontana."

This was the letter of a man I could respect – from afar; someone of clear intelligence, who was eminent in his field, who had read widely, penetratingly, who appeared to have steered clear of anything to do with religion, still less revelation, and had come to what was by all accounts a reasoned, rational conclusion. The fact that his conclusion was not one that was widely accepted was simply unfortunate.

I could see, though, that even if I studied all the books he recommended – and I found I had read a good number of them already – I still wouldn’t have done one tithe of the investigative work he had; and yet, I was more interested in the subject than most people I knew; so it was hardly surprising the vast majority should believe either what popular science told them, which was that nothing survived, or what their particular religion said, however logically untenable.

I didn’t want to do so much studying it became a drag. I enjoyed books, but not being weighted down by them. In any case, what I had already found, reading the amount I had, was that much the same evidence kept reappearing, whether it was used for or against belief in life after death; and that this evidence, absolute certainty about which would have settled the question once and for all, was attributable to relatively few individuals, upon whose discernment and probity the entire matter rested.

For all his reading, David Fontana admitted needing to back his researches up with first hand knowledge. In a small way, I supposed I would have to do the same.

I had written to other popular authors, including Colin Wilson, whose The Occult had stimulated both my and my father’s interest in the subject years earlier, and David Conway, whose treatise, Magic, my father had once lent me and I had never returned.

I felt I knew what Colin Wilson would say, had he replied – I imagined him screwing my letter into a ball and throwing it into an already overflowing wastepaper basket, full of similar instances of his reader’ importunacy – which was that my father, along with everybody else who had ever lived, had almost certainly survived in some form or other; but that of far more interest than this, and something no other researcher was investigating, was what we could learn from those survivors, how we could improve our lives and further our progress on earth, beyond the trite admonitions to love one another and behave more generously.

Colin Wilson came across in his books perennially disappointed by the triviality of what purportedly emanated from beyond the grave. It was as if any surviving entities were making a mockery of serious researchers, such as him; and he wanted nothing to do with them, personally. So his books tended to be filled with anecdotes that had happened to other people, which, as in all such cases, were only as convincing as their source; and, infuriatingly for him, almost invariably showed death, far from providing profound answers to the mysteries of existence, amounted to little more than a change of environment for the continuation of the same essentially trivial human preoccupations.

I had always regretted that nothing ever happened to Colin Wilson himself, since I could have accepted his word more than most peoples’; but I don’t think he knew how to precipitate such experiences, even if he had wanted to, any more than he could have said how I might get in touch with my father; other than through the cultivation of the singular mental state he advocated in every book of his I had read, which he termed Faculty X, and which he believed was the key to the expansion of consciousness on which all occult development depended.

David Conway, on the other hand, I thought would have had a clear idea, and I felt he might have been willing to elaborate on what he set out in his books had his publishers, care of whom I had addressed my letter, not moved, leaving no forwarding address.

He was a civil servant, with a passion for magic and the occult; and he was doubly unusual in that he was able to chronicle the extraordinary history of these two subjects without making either of them sound much more far-fetched than the taxation advice he apparently disseminated for a living.

I had approached his book, Magic, in the belief its title more or less implied illusion. In other words, any effect was of skilful deception rather than the supernormal at work. This was far from what David Conway meant, which was that unusual forces were being summoned up, and employed to create, not so much an effect, as a result.

I accepted this reluctantly, since it was inconceivable to me, even if such forces existed, that they could be invoked by anyone, through the use of the archaic sounding spells found in Conway’s book. Just as extraordinary, but far more acceptable, since I already partly believed it, was another of Conway’s claims, based on occult beliefs apparently far older than most religions: that our dreams were as objective as our ordinary lives.

That was to say, the people and places we saw and visited every night while sleeping were as actual and real as those we met with in the known environment during our waking hours. What was more, he intimated that this nighttime world was essentially the same as the one we went to when we died. In other words, in a small way we ‘died’ every night.

On the basis of this, it didn’t need much imagination to see that one way of communicating with my father would have been for me to summon him up in my dreams. The trouble was, dreaming had always been something I wasn’t aware enough of at the time of doing it to be able to direct even minimally. I never knew how my dreams began – I was never knowingly there at the outset – and even when they were up and running, it was as if someone else was deciding how they would progress and terminate, leaving me at the mercy of events that often changed with bewildering suddenness.

On the other hand, dreams did have the inestimable advantage of being freely available for extended periods of time every night of our lives. They were, clearly, a most wasted resource, as I had realised whenever I made a concerted effort to document them, and found myself confounded by their depth, variety and sheer out-of-the-ordinariness. Why humans had such difficulty remembering their dreams, and found it next to impossible to chose how they would develop, was beyond me, unless it could be put down to the simple fact that as children they were not encouraged to do – in fact, in most cases, were actively discouraged from doing – so.

That this might be rectified, in the same way physical weakness could, through exercise, was obvious; and a lot of David Conway’s book on magic was devoted to ways of toning the mental musculature in order for intention in occult fields to be put into practice. The problem, of course, as with any new regime, was doing this on a regular basis.

Still, the great thing about occult teachings was the way they depended on individual effort rather than on whatever other attributes we might have thought we should but didn’t have, such as talent, expertise, money or leisure. Whoever or wherever a person was, however rich or poor, whatever their circumstances, regardless of education, with just a little freely available knowledge and a modicum of time they could train themselves, if not to be an adept, at least in the rudiments of the subject. It would require patience, and persistence, but it would at least be up to each individual to decide on their progress or otherwise.

I had read David Conway’s book many years earlier, and been impressed then, and I accepted it as a personal indictment that I hadn’t begun, other than in a haphazard fashion, training myself at the time. Apart from recollecting a few more dreams than previously, I had hardly progressed. Of course, I couldn’t complain. I had had the opportunity. In fact, the opportunity was still there.

It all seemed a far cry from what was proposed by a newer, more modern approach to making sense of why we were in the world, and where we might move on from it, which clearly depended much more on group dynamics and, it had to be said, personal wealth.

I had originally come across Scientology several years before borrowing my father’s David Conway book, during the ‘summer of love’ in the Sixties. Wandering down Tottenham Court Road, barefoot and wearing flared trousers, I had ventured into an open doorway, attracted by a placard offering free "personality tests". I was asked to fill in a series of forms. Shortly afterwards, I was presented with a graph showing the strength, or more particularly weakness, of my most pronounced character traits.

Hardly surprisingly, I was awarded low grades in all departments, which may have been an approximation of the truth; but this didn’t stop me seeing the result as a rather obvious marketing ploy; and even in those days, before it became known how gullible the public could be in the face of religious opportunism, I sensed the primary motive of the smooth faced characters imploring me to undergo "dianetic debriefing" was the financial consideration that would accompany any agreement on my part to do so.

Years later, aware of the wretched press Scientology has had, and yet also aware of its continuous growth, much increased respectability, and repeated assurances of providing novel insights into the central mysteries of our being, I had found myself wondering if its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, really had had my best interests at heart.

Accordingly, I sent my standard letter to an address in London, and received what I considered a very non-threatening reply:

"Thank you for your letter. I’m sorry to hear of your father’s death. I too lost my father several years ago now, and we were very close.

At the time I read up on what Ron Hubbard said about death and found this very reassuring as I realised we weren’t ‘gone’.

I thought you might be interested in the enclosed magazine which explains a bit about Ron Hubbard and his researches into death.

If you would like to read more, I would recommend the book ‘Have you lived before this life?" by Ron Hubbard which costs £25 (inc post and packing).

I hope this has helped in your enquiry. Please contact me if you need any further information.

Yours sincerely,

Tabitha Hardy."

The magazine accompanying this letter was every bit as glossy and informative as the Mormon one had been; and although it told a wildly different story, the net result was much the same: my being asked to believe that one man – in this case L. Ron Hubbard instead of Joseph Smith – knew all the answers and was passing them on – selling them was perhaps more exact – to others.

The legend this time was based on investigation rather than revelation, although there was nothing intrinsically new in what had been turned up. L. Ron Hubbard believed in reincarnation and pre-existence; he believed we had a soul – he called this a thetan – which survived death; and he believed he had a foolproof system enabling people to experience their essential separateness while they were still on earth, thereby readying them for its reality in the next life. His central claim was suitably prodigious:

"Probably the greatest discovery of Scientology and its most forceful contribution to the knowledge of mankind has been the isolation, description and handling of the human spirit, accomplished in July 1952 in Phoenix, Arizona".

How this was done, he didn’t elaborate, except to say that just as Spiritualists:

"…isolated from the person what they called the astral body,"

so he had done the same with the spirit; but that the two were not the same thing and shouldn’t be confused.

He had some highly original terminology. A "pre-Clear" was someone who hadn’t undergone "auditing". Through auditing, the first goal was to become a "Clear" and then an "Operating Thetan". This was no small achievement. As L. Ron Hubbard stated:

"Not the least of the qualities of OT is personal and knowing immortality and freedom from the cycle of birth and death."

In other words, Hindu liberation or the Buddhist nirvana:

"…not in the decades demanded in past ages, but within months or at most a year or so."

The problem for someone like me who was interested in knowing whether and in what form the human soul or spirit survived death, and would have welcomed scientific confirmation of this, was the prospect of putting myself at the mercy of an organisation whose promises of personal revelation – it was little else – were conditional on a unspecified course of ‘auditing’ that was guaranteed to cost not only a great deal of money and time but also a fair amount of personal independence.

Given the movement’s reputation, I was obviously not alone in wondering at the motives and pretensions of auditors who employed Scientology, in L. Ron’s words:

"…as a set of drills on individuals",

but who, having a specific belief system to impart, seemed no more likely to uncover a universal truth than anyone else; unless, that was, their belief system was the universal truth; and if it was – which I couldn’t discount – I felt there must, by definition, be other, more approachable ways of getting to it.

The most intriguing part of what I read about Scientology was L. Ron Hubbard’s discrimination between body, mind and spirit. To understand this, he suggested experimenting by first sensing the body, then imagining something – say, a cat – with the mind, and finally speculating on what precisely it was that was able to experience sensation and see a mental image, yet that still existed even when it was doing neither of these things.

His answer was the thetan; and his central belief was that learning to "exteriorise" the thetan, so that:

"…under no duress and with total knowingness,"

a person could:

"…view himself and his mind and act accordingly,"

was the most therapeutic thing anyone could do.

It wasn’t surprising to me that L. Ron Hubbard had studied Buddhism in his late teens and early twenties, as the same search for detachment permeated Scientology. I found this interesting because it was hardly a universal view. Once again, it struck me as nothing short of extraordinary that the major religions of East and West should want and promise such different things.

Not only did this conflict with any notion of there being a absolute truth, an objective, previously existing, same-for-everyone afterworld; but our reason for being on earth in the first place, always assuming there was one, was made wholly dependent on when and where we were born, which could hardly have been right.

I never investigated Scientology personally, but I did come across references to it, disparaging and otherwise, in Dr Christopher Evans’ Cults of Unreason. This book was written in 1973 and its sentiments may have become out of date; but the impression it gave was of overly credulous individuals setting out on journeys the cost of which was likely to be astronomical and whose destination was far from certain, all at the behest of an oddball with unusual ideas, an undeniably inflated ego and a decidedly quirky way of expressing himself. To quote Dr Evans:

"At the time of writing the bottom rung of the ladder is represented by the ‘Hubbard Apprentice Scientologist Course’, which lasts a total of ten to twenty hours. This is followed by the ‘Hubbard Special Dianetic Course’, which lasts about a month… These in turn let one ascend the ladder from the lowly ‘Hubbard Apprentice Scientologist’ to the more senior ‘Hubbard Qualified Scientologist’. At this point the student may be sufficiently ambitious to take the course for ‘Hubbard Recognised Scientologist’. Here he may be disappointed to realise that he is still, after all these exertions and certificates, only on Grade 0 of the seven rungs of the ladder leading to the state of Clear."

Needless to say, each successive course was longer, harder, more expensive, and presumably increasingly difficult for budding Scientologists, never mind potential Operating Thetans, to extricate themselves from, than the last. Dr Evans doubted if even becoming a Clear was worthwhile:

"And what does one get for all this? Not all that much if one is to believe the stories of those who have taken this lengthy course and later come to regret the money spent."

The puzzling question for me was not so much what a person got, or hoped to get, from being a Scientologist, but what they thought life itself was ultimately for, since it was presumably to satisfy some otherwise unaccountable inner craving that they set out on the long road to becoming, or trying to become, free "from the cycle of birth and death".

Could it really be the case, I asked myself, that the sole purpose of human existence was to escape the necessity of having to go through it again?


What, ultimately, was life for? It didn’t seem there were that many answers, and those that came to mind largely depended on what was supposed to happen to us when we died.

The scientific view was nicely summed up by Richard Dawkins, who believed:

"…the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Commenting on the Catholicism of the journalist, Paul Johnson, who had challenged him to an open debate on the subject of faith, he claimed:

"What an ignominious, contemptible, retarded basis for holding the deepest beliefs of one’s life."

Another, less well known, at least in Britain, but no less renowned, scientist, Francis Crick, made the same point of view more clinically:

"A modern neurobiologist sees no need for the religious concept of a soul… Our minds can be explained by the interactions of nerve cells and molecules."

Susan Blackmore would undoubtedly have approved.

So far as science was concerned, then, we could assume there was no point to life other than that it should be lived; and that if there were in built codes of correct behaviour, they were survival mechanisms, acquired over millennia, rather than of other-worldly origin.

Because there was no scientific concept of an afterworld, or retributory rebirth, neither fears for, nor expectations of, eternal life need regulate our behaviour; our conscience was not something we were born with, so much as built up piecemeal; and it was not individual self-determination, but our awareness of being social animals, that necessitated an acceptance of shared ethics.

This was the rationalist, humanist, materialist world view, which at various times in my life I had unhesitently subscribed to.

The religious case was, unsurprisingly, quite different. Christians, it had become clear to me, had differing beliefs as to where, and in what form, we could expect to find ourselves after death; but they uniformly agreed on the point of existence, which was first and foremost to live a good, or Godly, life.

The emphasis for this had traditionally been on appearances. Presence in church was considered more important than what an individual thought about being there, still less what that same individual thought all day long; although it had to be presumed that nowadays many Christians would have recognised and sympathised with Jimmy Carter’s appraisal of himself as having transgressed – in his case, adulterously – not in actuality so much as with his heart.

The life a Christian led, and a Muslim, too, was believed to directly determine the life they would lead – for evermore. Those who were committed lived and died in the certain knowledge they – along with all humankind – would end up, for eternity, in a new body very similar to their old, dead one, in heaven or in hell, depending on a personal judgment that would take place, if not the moment they expired, then – though, confusingly, for many this meant the same thing – at the end of time.

Buddhists, Hindus, some Jews, and innumerable others, believed a rather different destiny awaited them; but they shared the view that the way they as individuals spent their earthly lives – how they thought every bit as much as the way they acted – directly affected, with the exactitude of an immutable law, what they would experience after it. As they reaped, so they would sow.

Of course, a large proportion of Christians, and others, weren’t committed, insofar as they were unable, in all honesty, to accept something common sense assured them was as unlikely as most scientists said; although they might not have gone as far as Reverend Don Cupitt, an Anglican clergyman doubling as a philosopher, who opined:

"We have to learn to accept our own temporality, our own mortality, our finitude. The days are gone when we believed in the soul and free will, that the inner life is of supreme importance. The soul, the self, has died. The self is an animal with cultural inscriptions on its surface."

It was hard to know what to make of a man of God talking like a man of science. It was easier to feel sympathy with those hapless individuals John Updike, the American author, was referring to in his autobiography, Self-Consciousness, when he claimed:

"During adolescence, I reluctantly perceived of the Christian religion I had been born into that almost no one believed it, believed it really – not its ministers, nor its pillars like my father and his father before him."

Christians who didn’t believe in their own future resurrection may still have believed in heaven and hell; but on a strictly doctrinal basis, these places only existed as eventual repositories for reconstituted bodies. Those who rejected resurrection may have imagined they were keeping faith, but in fact their belief would have been in another sort of destiny, an after-death experience more closely akin to that of Hinduism, or the Bah’ha’i faith, than Christianity; although the point of their lives would have been largely the same, since access to the more favourable regions of any afterworld would still have depended on merit.

Muslims, it seemed from my cursory investigation, had far less of a problem accepting a physical resurrection at the end of time, with eternity spent in heaven or hell, after an indeterminate period waiting in the grave that would pass either quickly or slowly, pleasurably or painfully, depending on the life they had led on earth. That life was subject to certain, fairly rigid rules; and the point of Muslim existence, so far as I could see, was to adhere as closely as possible to these so as to guarantee a swift accession to heaven.

As with most Jews, and those Christians who were being honest with themselves, Muslims would have said their particular afterworld experience was the only genuine one, with well-behaved believers going to heaven, and the remainder, along with all non-believers (other than in sanitised versions of traditional doctrines) destined for hell.

This was problematical, as there obviously couldn’t be more than one, all-inclusive afterworld; and it was made more so by most other religions having their own, equally unique places ready and waiting to be enjoyed by their adherents; or endured, in the case of those whose faith had lapsed, or for those outsiders who had failed to gain a glimpse of the true light.

However, the major stumbling block between the creeds was that the non-monotheistic ones considered the dead to be already in, or to have long since passed through, their versions of the next world; whereas, for Christians and Muslims – notwithstanding assorted claims for direct, unembodied access to heaven or hell – they had merely had their places in the everlasting secured for them, pending a final judgment, to be followed by reconciliation with their bodies, at some indeterminate time in the future, and were presently undergoing an inconceivably long period of waiting.

Logic suggested the same rules, whatever they were, would apply to everybody, and that either there was one, uniquely organised ‘resurrection’ afterworld, situated at the end of time, the more agreeable parts of which certain people eventually gravitated towards, with those who hadn’t subscribed to the right deity falling by the wayside; or there was no such thing as ‘the end of time’, and another, very differently composed, open-to-all afterworld, populated by the souls of the unborn as well as the dead, was around and about us now, if we could only recognise it.

Alternatively, of course, there was no afterworld at all.

Since access to most of the afterworlds I had heard of was determined not by earthly success so much as the nature of the life people led, even though the differences in what they expected to happen to them were considerable, believers of just about every denomination were at least linked by a common acceptance of causal immortality.

There were anomalies, such as Holy warriers supposedly gaining direct access to paradise as a reward for what was, essentially, murder; but basically, good, honest, compassionate and, broadly speaking, socially acceptable attitudes and actions were widely believed to presage time spent in heaven rather than hell.

This was reflected in an almost universal consensus of ethics. On the surface, religion acted as social adhesive, knitting people together through its demands for certain codes of behaviour, common values that differed from culture to culture but were by and large recognisable throughout the world.

These were, admittedly, the sorts of value any society needed if it wasn’t to fall apart; but it was unclear whether the distinction between good and evil was the result of animal instinct, refined through trial and error, becoming human common sense; whether it reflected our instinctive awareness of a universal conscience; or whether, as most religious leaders suggested, it had been instilled in us by the instructive voice of God.

Something obviously underlay all religions; but rather than time bringing about a synthesis of culturally inspired teachings, or a superplenipoteniary figure bestowing them on us, it seemed there might have been a naturally evolving ancient wisdom that had once been practically universal, on top of, or out of, which those teachings had grown.

That this was almost impossible to prove, because there were apparently no written records, made it sound more like mythology than history; but David Conway, erstwhile civil servant, put forward a good case in Secret Wisdom for accepting on trust what a lot of people suspected: that orthodox religion, of whatever type, was a social edifice shaped and formed by its place and time, accommodating itself to the needs of those it served, sitting astride, swallowing up and feeding from – and in the process partially or wholly obscuring – a vast body of knowledge concerning another, previously extant world, whose wisdom had been usurped and distorted for secular ends. Of this knowledge, he claimed:

"…its beginnings coincided with the extinction of supersensory awareness, formerly the property of all, in the majority of human beings… once this happened, the knowledge such awareness had provided became confined to a minority of individuals whose ability to acquire it remained unimpaired."

In other words, humankind once lived on an earth that was linked to the next world as naturally as we are to each other; awareness of this was universal; it was gradually lost; and what religious insight any of us still possessed was all that was left of it – hence the name, occult, or hidden, wisdom. It was on this basis that David Conway believed:

"…these arcane teachings contain the essence of the world’s great religions and so represent the denominator common to them all, whatever superficial differences happen to divide them."

He pointed out that occult tradition was:

"…still, even today, much the same all over the world, regardless of the local colour it chooses to wear"; and that making "our mind more receptive to realities outside the realm of sense experience", through recovery of "that supersensible awareness our race was born with millions of years ago", was still the primary aim of "apprentice occultists".

These other realities were, according to occult tradition, parallel worlds inhabited by the etheric and astral bodies of a population that co-existed with our, currently predominantly physical, presence on earth. This population included our dead ancestors, those yet to be born, as well as our sleeping and unconscious selves.

In other words, we had a foot in both camps, and when we died, our centre of operations simply moved from this to the astral world. Our astral self – which included our ego, and mind – could be assumed to be synonymous with our soul, which remained quite separate from our body and brain.

Buddhism, of course, didn’t accept the existence of the soul, still less the continuation of a personality, although its idea of a surviving consciousness was partially analogous; and this provided an area of potential conflict. What, exactly, survived? If it was a body, of any sort, it could hardly not have a personality; and if it wasn’t a body, what features distinguished it from others of its kind?

For Hindus, who had clearly considered the issue of survival in some depth, this was a complex question with conflicting answers depending on when and where in history their followers had lived. Vastly different things were believed at different times and in different places, from a strictly physical resurrection, in a corporeal body, following a single life span, to an exclusive heaven or hell, similar if antipathetical to that of Christians and Muslims; through the development of multiple alternative worlds, inhabited by a variety of creatures, where the dead could be reborn countless times, in innumerable ways; to the survival of a spiritual essence, remarkably like that of the Buddhists, whose sole purpose was to liberate itself from the cycle of rebirth.

I found it perplexing that Hindus today could look forward to something so clearly incompatible with the promises made to their distant ancestors; though whether this was a case of gaining new insight over the millennia into something real, as opposed to doctrinal alterations being made for secular motives to what originally had been false, was impossible to say.

Whatever the reason for the changes, they helped explain some of the more obvious discrepancies between the major religions. Since they had started in different times and places, were at separate stages of growth, and were in various degrees of thrall to unique cultural demands, they were only too likely to see and describe the same alleged phenomena – whether or not it actually existed – differently.

Where the two main Eastern belief systems really diverged from their Western counterparts – with the eclectic Scientologists clamouring in their wake – was in their concept of karma and rebirth, which underlay their understanding of why we were on earth and what we should be trying to do with our lives.

Although neither Hindus nor Scientologists saw life in terms of suffering to the same extent as the Buddhists, they were all agreed the ideal existence was one that would enable a person to be liberated when they died from the necessity of having to return, ever again, to material form, whether on earth or elsewhere. It was their common belief that a certain sort of life ensured this, just as another sort of life guaranteed its opposite.

Reincarnation and karma – the dual notion that every living creature’s station in life was determined by their actions in a series of previous existences – didn’t fit the Bahi’a template, who were in agreement with Christians and Muslims that we lived only once; but it was underpinned to some extent by occult teachings. David Conway claimed reincarnation was widespread in the pre-Christian era, and had always been accepted as logical and fair by the thinkers of every age in a way that physical resurrection and belief in a saviour God had not.

However, whereas Eastern belief systems accepted transmigration in any direction – a man could return as a snake as well as a snake become a man – occultist Lorna St Aubun considered that:

"In contrast to some Eastern beliefs, Western esoteric training states categorically that transmigration moves in only one direction: very slowly the animals are working their way up the evolutionary scale."

I thought it had to be debatable whether humans were at the top of the evolutionary tree; but whatever the truth of the matter, it was certain neither occult nor current Eastern assumptions could sit side by side with the wholly contradictory belief of a large and influential tract of humankind in a single lifespan accompanied by a physical resurrection of the body to an eternal heaven or hell.

To me, it was astonishing that considered opinion in global theological and esoteric circles should still differ so radically.

If revelation on any scale was to be believed, if it was ever correct, such fundamental matters as the number of lifetimes spent on earth, what a dead person consisted of, their ultimate destiny, and the constitution and whereabouts of any afterworld, should have been agreed upon by now.

The fact that no consensus had emerged suggested it was either entirely make-believe; or that any glimpses of objective truth had occurred so long ago they had become too distorted for verification; or that much of the truth of the matter was largely subjective, anyway.

There did indeed seem a strong case for all beliefs being true – up to a point. Given that we continued after death, in some form or another, it wouldn’t have been anything like as far beyond the bounds of possibility as survival was itself that we should survive, at least initially, in different ways, and in different places, depending on our individual belief systems.

All religions pointed to this in their provision of temporary – although temporary, in a timeless arena, might have been only a relative term – resting places before a more permanent dispatch. It was what happened afterwards that showed up their major, intractable differences.

However comfortably we might repose or roast, rather as we did on earth, in our own culturally familiar afterworld experience, it would be stretching credence to suppose only those who chanced to believe in one or other of two diametrically opposed possibilities would ultimately find themselves being reincarnated or resurrected, according to conviction.

I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around the essential illogic of an afterworld peopled by those who had once inhabited bodies, but were meanwhile managing with their astral counterparts, prior to rebirth in another guise, at the same time acting as a repository for the souls of every human that had ever lived, keeping them in indefinite safekeeping for ultimate resurrection to eternal life. It seemed to me that either one of these extremes would happen to everyone, or neither would happen to anyone.

Trying to reconcile such differences, I wondered if the Buddhist nirvana, or Hindu liberation, rare as they were said to be, in some way resembled the Christian or Muslim heaven; but this idea didn’t begin to hold water. Escape from the cycle of rebirth depended on abnegation of all our bodies, physical, etheric, and astral, along with their attendant sensations, plus disassociation from our ego: in effect, a dissolution of the personality in order to facilitate its absorption into a greater whole. In stark contrast, resurrection implied reforming the physical body, reestablishing individuality, and reasserting the ego. The two concepts were as far apart as it was possible for them to be.

These were ultimate destinies. In the shorter term, it was at the very least feasible that whoever we were, whatever we believed, when we died we would find ourselves in a familiar part of another world, in all probability reflecting whatever mileau we were most at home with on this one.

I puzzled over what would happen to the likes of Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore, Nicholas Humphreys, Francis Crick and Reverend Cupitt, none of whom, massively accomplished, prodigiously gifted, believed in their own continuation after death. It was unlikely they would peter out just because they expected to, having been unable to envisage anything else happening; especially if others, who had given the matter of personal immortality far less thought, but who nevertheless believed in their likelihood of survival, were to discover that what they had subscribed to was broadly true.

It was difficult to say to what extent conviction engendered reality; whether what we found on the other side – always assuming such a place existed – would be more or less dependent on mundane earthly experiences than on whatever assumptions we had acquired, through instruction or our own thought processes, about possible survival conditions.

I wondered what would happen if a child was taught a truly out-of-the-ordinary belief system, bearing no relation to anything anyone else followed, and that child grew up and eventually died still believing it. Would it find itself, after death, in that same made-up world?

I supposed if the imaginary world was the child’s whole world, or a large part of it – as, for example, God’s kingdom might be for a Christian – it would be unsurprising if it were not to migrate there, at least for a time; but a normally sociable child might be more likely, assuming it had mixed with people who hadn’t subscribed to its beliefs, to find itself amongst them.

This would certainly have been the case if, as occult teaching suggested, people didn’t have to die in order to visit the afterworld, but were already partially there on an unconscious level, particularly when asleep.

We would, in that event, be more than likely to find ourselves, on dying, in a familiar world, recognising the same society of family and friends we were already well acquainted with, often, albeit without knowing it, from unconscious and nocturnal excursions, rather than that of any stories we had been told – unless, of course, these were one and the same.

Where church going and prayer were part and parcel of everyday life, that mileau would almost certainly be dreamt about and met with in the next world; but this didn’t mean it would be any more real, or necessarily more valid, and certainly no more true, than whatever anyone else experienced. Sceptical scientists, who had spent most of their time in each other’s company, would simply find themselves amongst their fellows, perhaps taking longer than most to realise they had died, but otherwise in a similarly functioning world to everyone else.

This, although highly speculative, wasn’t too far-fetched, once the improbability of any sort of survival had been discounted, since there was no reason why as many and varied landscapes and cultures as we already enjoyed on earth shouldn’t exist elsewhere.

There were interesting parallels here with the Buddhist view that all worlds, including our earthly one, were created by the mind, and that there was no such thing as objective reality; but perhaps David Conway’s explanation made most sense, when he postulated that we entered:

"…the next world with a clear recollection of who we were and what life was like in this world. Because of that and, especially, because our personality has to such a large extent been conditioned by our senses and what we learn from them, our new surroundings seem at first hardly to differ from those we left behind…"

He explained further:

"…newcomers find themselves in an environment which, though they may not realise it, is but the thought-product of those who pass through it, one whose fabric they, too, will soon learn to shape according to their preferences."

That this was not a uniquely occult view was emphasised by Conway:

"…the other world of the Tibetans was also said to resemble the physical world, much to the confusion of those newly arrived in it, while the lower regions of the Egyptian Amenti, like the Moslem paradise, promised a store of earthly delights to everyone who reached them – all, did they but know it, of their own wishful thinking."

It certainly did my heart good to imagine a small army of dead materialists, sitting in their individual, booklined studios, toiling away at increasingly watertight explanations of why it was the astral world couldn’t possibly exist, only very slowly coming to the inescapable conclusion they were in it. I supposed Richard Dawkins postulated something similar, if more abrupt, for those who had the temerity to believe they were immortal; and of course, for all I knew, he could have been right.

I wondered how it might be proved, one way or the other. I had been intrigued to come across, as a chapter heading in David Conway’s book, a quote from Immanuel Kant, who I had thought of as a philosopher, but now supposed must have been something of a closet occultist, too. He had apparently said:

"At some future day it will be proved – I cannot say when and where – that the human soul is, while in earth life, already in an uninterrupted communion with those living in another world; that the human soul can act on these beings, and receive in return impressions of them without being conscious of it in the ordinary personality."

This implied that what we knew about something, deep down inside, wasn’t necessarily, in fact shouldn’t be expected to be, what we consciously believed, even, or especially, after subjecting the matter to intellectual thought.

In other words, our deeper – or astral – levels, in which the soul could be assumed to lie, and which were considered more generally available to us in childhood than later life, harboured universally acknowledged secrets we became less and less aware of as we grew up, to the point where we lost sight of them, and the world they came from, altogether, though they still influenced us as much as ever.

Until, that was, we died. Since, on this basis, all dead materialists, as well as all fundamentalists, had at one time been bright eyed children, drinking in a universe that later became alien to them, we could speculate that once they tired of the comfort and familiarity of their necessarily very different but equally limited parts of the lower levels of the astral world, they would move on, and depending on individual progress, might find themselves communing in a higher, less segregated, echelon. It seemed logical that a finer vehicle than the astral, housing,as David Conway put it:

"a residual memory of the personality",

itself reminiscent of the Buddhist consciousness, should continue into ever more rarefied realms.

What happened then would, of course, be open to interpretation; but Christian and Muslim claims for bodily resurrection seemed the least likely of our destinies, not only because there was so little evidence to back the concept up, but because it was so entirely dependent on the continuation of ourselves as isolated, ego-bound individuals.

Everything else in the field of eschatology pointed to a progressive weakening of our differences in the after death state, to the point where our personality eventually vanished, rather than our remaining as we were for eternity, glorifying in our separatedness.

This was epitomised by the Eastern belief that given the right training, and the correct karmic background, we could learn to blur our existing borderlines sufficiently during this life to enable us, on dying, to by-pass the astral world altogether, and become immediately absorbed within the divine whole.

Of course, so far as science was concerned, the existence of a divine whole had even less to back it up than claims of bodily resurrection; but in terms of a personal journey, within the auspices of growth and decay that was the undeniable order of the universe, there was a certain logic in supposing we wouldn’t stay the same for ever.

It was unfortunate that the reality of the astral world, on which all talk of higher worlds depended, was itself hardly proved, especially as it was more likely to come within the remit of investigative science than anything to do with the resuscitation of corpses.

Problematically, it presupposed dualism, which was particularly difficult for scientists to swallow because it represented, to the majority of them, a bit of speculation from the past that was not only tainted by other bits of speculation that had been shown to be hopelessly wrong, but had itself been overtaken by events and couldn’t easily be returned to.

Daniel C Dennett, an American ‘philosopher of mind’, claimed:

"Dualism has been relegated to the trash heap of history, along with alchemy and astrology, unless you are also prepared to declare that the world is flat and the sun is a fiery chariot pulled by winged horses."

This seemed a bit harsh. While it was certainly true that we knew a great deal more about our material world than at any other time in history, there was a lurking suspicion that as a result of this we knew less than ever before about our immaterial selves, to the point of disbelieving in their existence. Richard Dawkins, of course, was in no two minds about the usefulness of such a trend:

"…through most of human history we have not known the answer and have come up with all manner of primitive superstitions. But you and I are born into a century when we pretty much do know the answer – and what a privilege that is. First, we have the privilege of being alive, and secondly, we have the privilege of being able to understand why."

Was this really the case? Imagining that now, as never before, we could see clearly and were therefore undoubtedly right in what we believed, struck me as dangerously presumptive. Professor Brian Josephson, Nobel Prize winner for physics, saw a common pattern in this:

"A statement often made is that when something unorthodox comes up, scientists first ignore it, and then say it’s nonsense. Eventually, they say its obvious and was obvious all the time."

Along similar lines, Richard Milton, author of Forbidden Science, told the story of the Wright brothers’ difficulties in convincing the world they had built a machine capable of powered flight. Disbelief was so rife that even people who had been present at, and had seen with their own eyes, repeatedly successful trials, refused to accept them as possible. This continued until the facts became overwhelming, whereupon they were suddenly, and universally, accepted.

Milton’s contention was that of the many improbable theories that abounded today – considerable numbers of them in the field largely cornered, and ridiculed, by parapsychologists, central amongst which would have been the existence of an afterlife – all were experiencing similar difficulties in achieving recognition, even though, he believed, some might have even greater repercussions than powered flight.

The converse to this, of course, was that much that appeared certain today would eventually prove to have been fallacious. As Richard Milton put it:

"Once the flat Earth viewpoint was deprived of the appearance of being reasonable, its wildly improbable nature became obvious, and it seems amazing to us today that anyone could have believed in such a theory, however limited their scientific knowledge. I believe that something very similar is true of parts of western science today. It actually contains some wildly improbable theories – as improbable as elephants holding up the Earth. Yet these theories appear to represent a reasonable view because they offer a natural sounding mechanistic explanation that seems constant with common sense and our essentially limited experience and understanding of the world."

We only had to consider the reaction of Aboriginal people to the Western concept of land ownership, or our own response to their notion that stones were alive, to see how much what we thought of as objectivity was influenced by familiarity.

Dualism, while hardly in the same class as continued speculation about a flat earth, was clearly not a concept Richard Dawkins or Susan Blackmore would have much use for; but it was interesting to speculate whether it made general sense – as it still very largely did, despite the advent of materialism – because it formed part of the inherited currency of our time, or because it resonated with us at a deep, unconscious level as a recognisable truth.

There was obvious difficulty in telling the difference between true intuition, the much more familiar, and often mistaken, hunch, and mere presumption. In this case, matters were complicated by the concept of dualism having been formulated relatively recently by Descartes, seeming a comparatively modern, essentially Christian speculation, even though the idea had been around since well before Plato, who had himself been its main populiser, and could have originated at the time David Conway spoke of – when humanity allegedly lost its supersensory awareness – as a way of explaining what had, for whatever reason, been summararily forfeited.

I had always found dualism a tricky concept to grasp, to the point of not properly understanding what it meant, and I welcomed the author and former theologian John Cornwall’s lucid description:

"Descartes believed that the human soul, which in his view accounted for rationality, free will and consciousness, was created by a direct act of God at the moment of conception. His meditation on the attributes and nature of the soul led him, at the very dawn of the age of modern science, to declare that our world is made up of two sorts of stuff – material stuff, which can be observed and measured and modelled with mathematical physics, and spiritual, or mental, stuff, which is immaterial, ineffable and eternal. He believed that these two substances, matter and spirit, meet and interact precisely at a tiny coneshaped part of the midbrain known as the pineal gland."

This was, with due allowance for the intervention by God and the notion that something immaterial needed to be housed in a particular part of the body, an elegant thesis.

Unfortunately, that was no reason to consider it other than past its sell-by date, not because it had emanated from antiquity, and been further defined by a seventeenth century Frenchman, but because it had been supplanted by the newer, much more certain theory of materialism – unless and until, that was, it could be comprehensively proved.

Sadly, the contention that our soul existed, along with all other souls, in a world that was intimately connected with this one, but that we could no more pin down than we could catch the wind, had, as yet, been impossible to validate.

Because it proclaimed something that couldn’t be measured, the onus remained on those who believed dualism represented reality to show they were not allowing their sentiments to run away with them. That this hadn’t yet been done explained why so few serious thinkers subscribed to a theory that presupposed the existence of something as nebulous – and, to most of them, as preposterous – as the soul.

This was the crux of the matter. What, after all, was the soul? Descartes, believing it accounted:

"…for rationality as well as consciousness",

must have thought it included the mind, as distinct from the material brain, which was clearly part of the body. Were mind and soul, therefore, one and the same?

Christians and Muslims spoke simply of body and soul. Science dismissed the soul, talked about the mind, but clearly meant the brain; although it was one of their kind, Sir William Crookes, who had coined a word for what he believed survived death: the "perispirit".

So what was the spirit, if not the soul – or mind? L. Ron Hubbard made no mention of the soul. He claimed the mind was exclusively cerebral, and the spirit – or thetan, as he called it – was the underlying entity able to be conscious of both mental and bodily activity. Meanwhile, Buddhists spoke of there being no soul, only a consciousness.

Body and brain were so obviously part and parcel of the same thing there was universal agreement they constituted a physical unity. There could be absolutely no distinction between them: when one died, so did the other. Soul, psyche or mind, not to mention thetan or perispirit, were different names for whatever animated this; with Buddhist consciousness, and possibly some people’s notion of spirit, being a finer, more rarefied version of it.

Because of the confused terminology, due largely to the widely held scientific assumption that the mind and the brain were synonymous, and nothing else existed, I preferred to think that the vehicle of survival, always assuming there was one, had to be the soul, but that this, rather than a thinking apparatus, capable of rationality in its own right, was simply the replacement, other worldly housing for an immortal mind.

The big question – the only one that mattered – then became, not whether there was a soul – because, even if there was, without a mind, it would be irrelevant to us – but could – did – an immaterial mind exist separately from the material brain? If not, the case for immortality was closed.

For Michael Roll, the iconoclast and survivalist, the answer was simple:

"To confuse our physical brains with our minds is just as ridiculous as saying that a computer is the same thing as the person who programmed it, or that a piano is the same thing as the person who plays it. But I am sorry to say that the vast majority of our psychologists are adamant that the brain and the mind are the same. They say, when the brain dies, so does the mind."

They would have good reason for saying this, even if they knew, or perhaps only sensed, it was not true. Peter Fenwick, co-author of The Truth in the Light, a book about Near Death Experiences, admitted that:

"If it could be proved…that the mind is not local, that consciousness is not limited to the brain, but can become separate from it and exist outside it and independently of it, then a great many scientific concepts will have to be abandoned."

Along with those concepts, of course, would necessarily go a lot of prestige, many people’s occupations and vast funding. There was certainly no guarantee that truth would oust mammon. In fact, the contrary seemed more likely. In Mediumship and Survival, Alan Gould made the point, on behalf of science in general, that:

"The findings of modern biological science strongly suggest that such ‘mental’ phenomena as remembering, thinking, forming plans, using language, and all expressions of human ‘personality’, depend upon, and at the bottom simply are, aspects of the functioning of the brain. There can therefore be no question of human personality surviving the dissolution of the brain, and no rational and scientifically educated person should waste time in studying the supposed ‘evidence’ for survival."

He spent large parts of his book trying to refute this before ending, rather lamely:

"It certainly seems to me that at the moment we know about as much of these matters as the Greeks did of electricity when they discovered that if you rub pieces of amber on your sleeve they will pick up straws."

Non-locality of mind, on which the issue of our ultimate survival clearly depended, should not have been that difficult to find evidence for. That this hadn’t – or wasn’t acknowledged as having – been done, might have suggested it was a false thesis; it certainly constituted a de facto invalidation; but it could also have meant, as the Wright brothers had discovered with powered flight, that the world simply wasn’t ready to acknowledge a discovery of such magnitude.


Investigation into the afterlife was beginning to seem, in the absence of any certainty such a thing existed, so speculative it was understandable nobody wanted to talk about it. Why voluntarily admit to being credulous when the deeper you went into a subject the more questionable even the most superficial interest in it became?

Yet it was considered perfectly normal to spend time in church, or at study groups, or on retreat, talking or thinking – in the most sanctified way, of course – about little else.

All religions promised increased insight into the mysteries of existence over time, but any knowledge gained was inevitably going to be more in the nature, and as the result, of self-appraisal than objective reportage.

I had a quote from Carl Sagan, author and TV producer, ringing in my ears:

"Intellectual capacity is no guarantee against being dead wrong".

He was also supposed to have said:

"The trick is to read the right books".

I had often wondered how it was possible, either for the afterlife to exist and leading scientists and thinkers of the day not know about and freely acknowledge it, or for it not to exist while so many other, hardly inconsequential people quietly maintained it did; until I realised how much depended, not on the relative size and capacity of individual brains, but the direction in which they were turned.

We hardly liked to think we held anything other than our own unique opinions, although the probability was we reflected almost everything but. However originally we believed we acted, there was always a contemporary viewpoint, mirroring the majority consensus, that we either went along with, thereby reinforcing, or reacted against, in concert with others, forming any number of minority views. These usually faded into obscurity, but occasionally one or another would assimilate those around it, and through infiltration or absorption, become a member of the new majority.

This majority view was usually supported by the establishment of the time, largely made up of government and its institutions. As a subject for society’s consideration, belief in an afterlife, having once seemed unshakably rooted, had been supplanted, the consensus view, at least in the educated West, being that the idea was incompatible with the reality of materialism. It was hard, given the facts, not to agree with this, without sounding, and feeling, woollen-headed.

The recent establishment view of the afterlife as a taboo subject might not have fully reflected that of the population as a whole, or of the churchgoing public in particular, but its main strength in a scientific age came from the rationalists who ran affairs generally and filled most of the posts that mattered, in commerce as in learning.

To this extent, Michael Roll was right to believe there was a conspiracy against new ideas in science; just as Thomas Paine two centuries before him had been right to believe there was a similar conspiracy within organised religion. Religion may have become more and more an empty shell; but science seemed thicker skinned and better prepared to take on all comers than ever.

The extraordinary thing was, at the same time as dismissing out of hand the feasible if admittedly unproven notion of there being an unseen parallel universe around and about us, where those considered dead lived on, and where we were destined to go at the end of our allotted span, there was an establishment acceptance – to the point of it being required teaching in most schools, at any rate in Britain – of a less than convincing theory concerning the resuscitation of our dead selves, along with all past and future members of humankind, at some inconceivably distant point in the future; and that what would happen to each of us then depended on our personal relationship with a man, known as Jesus, who was deemed to have been the son of God, but who many scholars suspected may never have existed.

It was almost as though the more outlandish the claim, the more acceptable it was to today’s establishment, perhaps because its very absurdity made it impossible for serious minded individuals to suppose anyone could believe it; whereas something more plausible – and an unseen world surrounding us on all sides was a good deal more probable than television, radio or electricity must have seemed before their advent – might have created the uncomfortable feeling there could, just possibly, have been something in it.

Nicholas Humphreys, expressing a trenchant view of Michael Aspel’s television programme, Strange but True, which specialised in dramatising the allegedly paranormal experiences of members of the public, made me realise just how deeply ingrained the materialist viewpoint was; and yet, the mildly hysterical nature of his response to what was little more than an entertaining reconstruction of events ordinary people – the sort who made up not only the vast majority of TV watchers but the bulk of the world’s population – were convinced had happened to them, made me wonder whether, like the established church before them, rationalism sensed a threat to its hegemony.

Humphreys believed Strange but True was:

"…a disgrace. As mainstream T.V. it’s something we should be ashamed of".

He went on to say it was:

"…trying to make science eat humble pie",

expressing the curious sentiment that:

"…what people want to do is get their souls back from science."

This struck me as hitting the nail on the head, but for the other side. People did want at least to have a go at retrieving their souls from science; but why, I wondered, should Nicholas Humpreys consider this desire, which presumably would die a natural enough death if souls were proved to be non-existent, so reprehensible?

In fact, television interest in the paranormal was guaranteed to enrage the rationalists almost as much as old saws like astrology. Nigella Lawson, daughter of the ex-chancellor, not so much a scientist or intellectual as a reasonably shrewd social commentator, made me, and I’m sure a lot of other people, wonder at the sort of influence her father must have had on her – but not, needless to say, whether she had been to university – when she claimed how it was:

"…manifestly true, however regrettably, that human beings seem to have a basic need for a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo",

and that this:

"…may be the technological age but it is marked by a popular anti-scientific movement, which proudly, pointedly, prefers the darkness to the light".

Wearily, she then declared:

"It always used to be that just the stupid people believed in it all. But now perfectly respectable people do, if people who do could be called perfectly respectable".

That was the difficulty. Clearly, what were needed were not more respectable people believing in it all, but fewer of those same people believing it was merely mumbo-jumbo. A certain balance, in other words.

Brenda Maddox, also writing in the Times, who was married to a recent, long-time editor of Nature Magazine, and may therefore have had a particular axe to grind on behalf of her husband, whose publication was considered the safe repository for the reductionists, hit out equally hard, claiming:

"There are no ghosts. I thought this was a generally accepted fact,"

and going on to expostulate about Out of this World, another television programme on the weird and wonderful, promising, she believed falsely:

"…a balanced look at the unexplained – that is, it will give equal weight to the sceptics. Is this balance? To present science as just another point of view?"

Richard Dawkins was predictably at the forefront of this group of outraged materialists who either sensed the tide was turning against them or else were simply appalled that any credence should be given to the sort of nonsense they believed years of scientific insight into the nature of things ought to have swept away for good. He maintained that:

"…the universe is quite odd enough to need no help from pseudoscientific charletons,"

which was probably true; but if the nature and extent of this universe wasn’t to be thought fixed, surely it at least had to remain open to investigation?

There was an air of paranoia in these outbursts that more than adequately reflected the issues at stake; but in many ways, they showed less of a sense of responsibility than what was being complained about. After all, common sense decreed that the more the paranormal was exposed on television, the more its shortcomings would be revealed, and if it was, as the claims suggested, utter nonsense in the first place, the more lamentably obvious this would eventually become.

Richard Dawkins clearly believed otherwise, wondering:

"Who in the BBC is responsible for commissioning (Out of this World) and why aren’t they fired?"

Hopefully more seriously, he asked us to:

"Consider this. If a paranormalist could really give an unequivocal demonstration of telepathy (precognition, psychokinesis, reincarnation, whatever it is), he would be the discoverer of a totally new principle unknown to physical science. The discoverer of the new energy field that links mind to mind in telepathy, or of the new fundamental force that moves objects around a table top, deserves a Nobel prize and would probably get one. If you are in possession of this revolutionary secret of science, why not prove it and be hailed as the new Newton? Of course, we know the answer. You can’t do it. You are a fake."

He may have been right. But why, even if he was right, did he get so angry about people he suspected, but could not have known, were wrong? By considering the amount of publicity their views were generating compared to his own, or those of the rationalists generally, so unmerited as to require repeated public censure, he betrayed the same problem he roundly condemned in others. As a letter writer to the Sunday Times put it:

"Why is Richard Dawkins so contemptuously dismissive of those who believe in God?"

Yet it should have been of no surprise to anyone who had heard him say:

"…there’s a kind of paranoia in the religious mind that will overreact to the slightest whisper of criticism."

For all that I thought he and his kind were overreacting in just this way to the perceived threat of something that should have been encouraged, so that if untrue it would shoot itself in the foot, but if validated would help usher in a new age of science, I went along with Richard Dawkins in supporting – although it was noticeable he didn’t suggest doing the work himself – the idea of proper investigation.

Unfortunately, this had been mooted before. For more than a century people of standing had been clamouring for science to look into such matters other than half-heartedly, in piecemeal fashion, almost with disgust; but to sadly little avail.

William Gladstone, the statesman, had made this clear over one hundred years earlier:

"I have always thought that scientific men run too much in a groove. They do noble work in their own special lines of research, but they are too often indisposed to give any attention to matters which seem to conflict with their established modes of thought. Indeed, they not infrequently attempt to deny that into which they have never inquired, not sufficiently realising the fact that there may possibly be forces in nature of which they know nothing."

It was around this time that the most famous physicist of his day, William Crookes, later to be knighted, whose scientific standing was, unquestionably, beyond reproach, was being lambasted by his fellows for his "experimental investigation of a new force". Mainly through studying the phenomena, for which he could find no other explanation than what he was forced to term "Psychic Force", of the well known medium, Daniel Home, he concluded:

"If they be the glimpses of natural action not yet reduced to law, ought it not to be the duty of everyone who has the least influence in such actions personally to develop them, and to aid others in their development, by the utmost openness and assistance, and by the application of every critical method, either mental or experimental, which the mind of man can devise?"

He reminded readers of the Quarterly Journal of Science, of which he was Editor, that:

"The true business of science is the discovery of truth, to seek it wherever it may be found, to follow the pursuit through bye-ways and high-ways, and, having found it, to proclaim it plainly and fearlessly, without regard to authority, fashion, or prejudice."

Daniel Home was by all accounts a most extraordinary character, producing a range of improbable phenomenon, including levitation, often in broad daylight; yet as William Crookes lamented, few scientists, whose word would even in those days be taken as law, were prepared to meet the man, still less observe him in action:

"I confess I am surprised and pained at the timidity or apathy shown by scientific men in reference to this subject. Some little time ago, when an opportunity for examination was first presented to me, I invited the co-operation of some scientific friends in a systematic investigation; but I soon found that to obtain a scientific committee for the investigation of this class of facts was out of the question…"

Of course, aspects of the paranormal could exist, levitation could be proved, without anyone being any the wiser about the possibility of immortality. At that time, Crookes himself was hardly an apologist for survival, believing that:

"The increased employment of scientific methods will produce a race of observers who will drive the worthless residuum of spiritualism hence into the unknown limbo of magic and necromancy."

Unfortunately, as the lone observer of phenomena that made no claim to be anything other than terrestrial in origin, but nevertheless were still considered beyond the pale, it was assumed Crookes had been hoodwinked; his investigations ceased, once he realised his career was being threatened by them; and that same pattern, of an individual showing interest, being ridiculed for doing so, and either retreating into obscurity, retracting what he had said, or else, as in the case of Crookes, concentrating on other issues, had dominated scientific circles ever since.

A case in point was that of Professor John Taylor, who studied the phenomenon, brought to the public eye by Uri Gellor, of metal bending in the 1970’s, and wrote a long, authoritative book, Superminds, about it which concluded:

"….the entire resources of science (should be brought) to bear on the problem of the nature of the Gellor phenomenon. In the process, we may well discover surprising things about the interaction of mind and matter."

However, Taylor wasn’t particularly sanguine about convincing the scientific community:

"One distinguished scientist, a Nobel Prize-winner, told me that metal-bending was clearly done by fraud, and his wife threw in for good measure that no scientist of repute would be caught dead investigating Gellor. A scientific colleague with great research funds at his disposal would not hear of the effect being possible."

Nevertheless, Taylor was in no doubt that what he had experienced was both real and valid, claiming that "under laboratory conditions" in the presence of two colleagues, he had presented Geller with a teaspoon and had himself:

"…held the bowl end while Geller worked it gently with one hand. After about twenty seconds the thinnest part of the stem suddenly became soft for a length of approximately half a centimetre and then the spoon broke in two… Geller could simply not have surreptitiously applied enough pressure to have brought this about, not to mention the pre-breakage softening of the metal. Nor could the teaspoon have been tampered with – it had been in my own possession for the past year."

This was only one experiment among many, with others besides Geller. As Taylor put it at the time:

"…the evidence presented in this book will go some way towards convincing the general public that the Geller effect is genuine and that we need to understand it."

However, six years later, Taylor was quoted as saying:

"Every supernatural phenomena I investigated crumbled to nothing before my gaze."

Later still, in a 1997 Equinox programme largely dedicated to rubbishing spiritualism and the paranormal – which a professional sceptic, James Randi, magician, founder and leading member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), featured prominently in and was suspected of largely financing – he made the extraordinary claim that:

"Geller came into my lab. He had an informal look around and then he came back two weeks later and he tried to bend the pieces of metal we had set up. Nothing happened. Nothing at all. At that point we said, ‘Can you come back later’. He never reappeared and he’s never reappeared since. I’ve found nobody who could demonstrate any psychic powers under conditions that I would say were one hundred percent."

Were we to conclude from this that Taylor was not the competent investigator he had claimed to be at the time of writing Superminds, that the observations he made were far from objective, and that the countless photographs in that book of twisted and misshapen metal objects sealed inside glass containers meticulously laid out on his laboratory benches were faked; or that he had found subsequent life in mainstream science so uncomfortable he had been compelled to backtrack? As Richard Milton put it, there were:

"…curious social and intellectual forces that seek to prohibit such research…those areas of scientific research that are taboo subjects: subjects whose discussion is forbidden under pain of ridicule and ostracism."

He claimed – and I suspect William Crookes would have recognised the truth of this – that there existed:

"…a trend towards a normalised world view based on a singular model that is derived entirely from the reductionist western scientific viewpoint, and the marginalisation and suppression of any form of scientific dissent or alternative world view."

It may be the entire metal bending affair was – and is – a fraud. Nicholas Humphrey’s certainly thought so, but he offered such a half-baked theory as to why this might be the case, it was hard to believe he could have mused over it for more than a moment.

He claimed the many children who were the subject of Taylor’s investigation not only manually bent spoons in advance in order not to disappoint him, but uniformly had fathers doing the same in order not to disappoint their children; and all without being seen, or even suspected! That was, until Humpreys himself came on the scene, to see through the artifice and elicit a confession or two. Needless to say, he made no mention of how metal might be similarly affected while sealed inside a glass container.

Richard Dawkin’s, in his 1996 Richard Dimbleby Memorial Lecture, also referred disparagingly to metal bending, claiming it was wholly fraudulent and could be carried out by anyone following instructions freely available on James Randi’s Web Site. Out of interest, I visited this, only to find the following:

"Convince someone you have real psychic powers. Become their friend. Get them to trust you. This is the most important step. The abuse of friendship and common human trust is the method. Say you can’t work under real test conditions because the skepticism will ruin your concentration. Tell them it doesn’t work all the time so you aren’t pressured to perform on demand. Wait until they’re not looking, ram your thumb into the bowl of the spoon and bend it. If it’s a tough spoon, use the surface of the table. (Yup, sorry, that’s all there is to it.) Cover the bend with your fingers so they don’t know you bent it while they weren’t looking. (From here on in, just more lying.) Lie about concentrating, lie about energy, lie about being trustworthy, lie about the spoon not being already bent and slowly slide your finger to reveal the spoon’s bend."

This was dire. I couldn’t believe Richard Dawkins, the scourge of irresponsible television, the champion of clarity, a crusader in all matters pertaining to truth, should subscribe, even indirectly, to such a facile, trite, insubstantive explanation for something that was still, whatever he maintained, twenty years after it had first occurred, as puzzling as it was apparently inexplicable.

A better case by far was made in Magicians and other Entertainers, a book on the history of magic as illusion by Christer Nilsson; but as a scientific document it hardly stood up against John Taylor’s treatise – for all that that was later countermanded. On the strength of what Taylor said he observed, metal bending may have been, and be, a valid phenomenon, and if so, it deserves proper scrutiny.

This point of view was endorsed in 1991 by Professor John Hasted, of the Department of Physics at London University, who reportedly claimed:

"…that Uri Gellor’s gift was genuine and that he had also examined 30 children with the same gift and found them to be genuine."

Certainly, the question was a sufficiently open one to merit serious, well-funded, long-term investigation, in laboratories and on campuses, at least to the same degree as many of the subjects now in vogue whose study was hardly likely to break new ground and could only be considered of minority interest.

Funding was a moot point, as the comment from John Taylor’s colleague suggested. In the past, many scientists had had private incomes and could investigate more or less what they liked. Although they would still have been concerned for their reputations, they wouldn’t have had a paymaster breathing down their necks; nor would their jobs have been on the line.

Nowadays, if scientists weren’t well enough off to remain independent – and even if they were, being an amateur was no longer a mark of respect – they had to be careful what they said; if anything, this was truer as the millennium approached than ever before, and the trend looked set to continue.

Alan Gauld made the obvious point that:

"Governments and grant-giving agencies have not enough funds for tackling problems in this world, and will certainly not subsidise the study of problems relating to the next."

This struck me as unduly defeatist. Huge sums were already invested, both by the government and the churches, in such subjects as theology and philosophy, which hardly concerned themselves with the pressing issues of this world; and psychology and physics had so many different branches it was difficult to believe one or two of them could not, legitimately and usefully, be looking into other-worldly phenomena that might have considerable implications for our species.

Added to that, if even a tiny fraction of the sum currently spent on wholly useless subjects – useless, that was, apart from the undeniable satisfaction and insight to be gained from studying them – was earmarked for legitimising investigation into the paranormal, interesting results would almost certainly have ensued.

Only one long standing endowment in parapsychology existed, and its recent history made strange reading. A chair at Cambridge had been established in 1931 by two members – Messers Perrot and Warrick – of the Society for Psychical Research, or SPR, which had been set up before the turn of the century by well meaning, leisured academics. It provided £60,000 over three years specifically to assist those:

"…interested in investigating the existence of supernormal powers of cognition or action in human beings and the persistence of the human mind after bodily death."

Somebody reading the terms of this endowment might have assumed, reasonably enough, that whoever received the award would be expected to have an open mind on the subject. However, the current secretary of the Perrot-Warrick committee, forensic scientist Dr Donald West, in a letter he sent to the SPR Journal, claimed the terms of reference were:

"…just myth and superstition… The only possible interest was to discover why some people could be induced to believe impossible things."

This presumably explained why Nicholas Humphreys, followed by Susan Blackmore, whose names cropped up again and again whenever a strictly rationalist approach to anything paranormal was called for, should have been the two most recent recipients of this uniquely prestigious and not insignificant award.

Meanwhile, a separate Perrot–Warwick Scholarship, worth £150,000, was gifted to Dr Richard Wiseman, of Hertfordshire University, who, according to a report published in Psychic News, considered his remit:

"…not to study true mediums or psychics, only to investigate and expose fraud."

Perhaps this was not so surprising when fellow academic, Professor John Wheeler, felt impelled to state:

"If the paranormal existed the whole structure of science from Newton onwards would be discredited."

The orthodox view was pithily put by Michael Roll, after listening to Richard Dawkins give his 1996 Dimbleby Lecture on television:

"Professor Richard Dawkins was adamant that what is known as paranormal phenomena does not exist, and he implied that anybody who actually thought they survived death were bonkers!"

The allegation of deliberate, unremitting fraud, as the only alternative explanation for phenomena that was acknowledged to be widespread, was itself interesting. Richard Dawkins had already claimed:

"Several good conjurors, from the great Canadian James Randi down, make it their business to replicate all the tricks of the television paranormalists."

The verity of this was questionable: Randi was a clever, yet highly selective magician, attempting only what he knew he could carry out through trickery; but because the statement was attributed to Dawkins, who was widely perceived to be both highly intelligent and scrupulously honest, it was taken, and not only by those predisposed to believe it, at face value.

It may have been partly true, but just because certain feats were replicable by sleight of hand – it was hard, on the basis of the Internet report I had read, to believe spoonbending was one of them – didn’t necessarily mean that was the only way they could be done, or that other, less easily copied phenomena should be similarly suspect.

It was important to remember that James Randi was hardly disinterested in these matters. Apart from the natural irritation he would be bound to feel as an illusionist at someone claiming psychic powers, he had a vested interest in proving they were fraudulent, as his living largely depended on it. According to author, Peter Duffie:

"James Randi was paid $270,000 by the MacArthur Foundation to change his career so one day he was a conjuror and escapologist and the next he was the mouth-piece for the Debunking Network."

I was unsure if this referred to Randi’s membership of CSICOP, a group to which Richard Dawkins had not only at one time belonged but had also been in receipt of an award of merit from; but it seemed unlikely his would be a voluntary post. Yet who knew what the truth was when the raison d’etre of magic had changed out of all recognition, anyway? Richard Dawkins made what he clearly considered the telling point that:

"…a good conjuror never claims to have done more than a trick and, however mystified we may remain, we do not take it as evidence for telepathy, paranormal psychic powers or energy fields unknown to physics."

This was perfectly true, in the modern age; but it should have been pointed out, in fairness, that the evolution and original purpose of magic was to enable its practitioners to use normally latent occult forces for their own ends, in precisely the way Richard Dawkins deemed impossible. Magic, in those distant days, truly was magical.

The supposition that conjurors operated solely by sleight of hand, rather than by invoking hidden powers, was turned on its head by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Friendly with the escapologist, Harry Houdini, and despite Houdini’s protestations of innocence, Conan Doyle believed the tricks he performed were so extraordinary there could be no other explanation for them than the use of paranormal force, which, he claimed, Houdini need not necessarily have known he was using.

Although this must be considered highly unlikely, Dawkins was wrong to imply all magicians thought the way Randi – and, for that matter, Houdini – did about otherwise inexplicable phenomena. According to Elizabeth Jenkins, in her biography of the medium, Daniel Home, The Shadow and the Light, Adolphus Trollope made the following statement:

"The great Italian conjuror, Bosco, who was one of the greatest professors of legerdemain ever known, ultimately scotched the idea of the possibility of such phenomena as he saw produced by Mr Home being performed by the results of his art."

Michael Roll, in his booklet, The Scientific Proof of Survival after Death, likewise mentioned the report of an investigation into the materialisation medium, Helen Duncan, by:

"…a team of magicians headed by William Goldston – the founder of the Magicians Club. Goldston and his colleagues were astounded when their ‘dead’ friend materialised, the magician, The Great Lafayette. Being true to the codes of conduct demanded by the Magic Circle, Goldston wrote a report to the Psychic News confirming that Helen Duncan’s mediumship was genuine, and that no magician could possibly duplicate the phenomena that he and his fellow magicians had witnessed."

The truth was that for as far back as it was useful to look, even to the beginning of the scientific age, paranormal claims and scientific rebuffs had been the norm; they were still going on today; and so far nothing had been proved either way, however much hard liners from both camps presumed it had.

I had become inured to the comments from Dawkins and his ilk, who appeared to believe scientists couldn’t be scientific if they maintained even the rudiments of an open mind; but I found the assertions of those they disparaged in many ways even more difficult to swallow. Lorna St. Auban, author and occultist, made the astonishing claim that:

"During the years when belief in mediumship was being established, questions that established proof of the identity of the communicating entities were admissible, but now that they have been done, the dead should not be disturbed in order to provide further, repetitive proof."

Estelle Roberts, herself a medium, said much the same thing in Forty Years a Medium, concluding:

"The facts can no longer be denied."

This statement might just as easily have been attributed to Richard Dawkins, in support of the contrary viewpoint. Actually, the facts, such as they were, remained in a state of almost continuous contention, with obdurance on the part of believers, from either side, getting nobody anywhere.

If another world did exist, and entities from it were communicating, through mediums, with friends and relatives on earth, why should those involved – particularly the dead, whose forthrightness in initiating proceeding suggested they wouldn’t mind – object to this being more widely known, and for it to be looked at more closely; and why should anyone with enough interest in the subject to rubbish it be disdainful about doing the looking? The only logical explanations I could see for objecting to this were to protect, on the one hand, the perpetrators of fraud, or on the other, the scientific status quo.

Nevertheless, I could appreciate why the process of investigation might be painful, for all concerned. Scientists were academics; mediums were not. There could be no real meeting of minds. The conduct of any enquiry was likely to founder almost before it had begun; and with such an impressionable subject matter, a harmonious atmosphere was a sine qua non of almost unparalleled importance. As Estelle Roberts put it:

"…it does not do to press for information as this seems to impede the power."

Then she added:

"…the possibly hostile attitude of the scientific investigator (is) an attitude which in itself may tend to inhibit phenomena."

The suggestion that the more keenly a person looked, the less they were likely to find, may have confirmed there was nothing to see anyway, rather than that there was proportionally more to the subject than could be expected to meet the prying eye, especially when there was no way of proving what this might be; but it did indicate that part of the problem scientists may have had in verifying phenomena for which there was no ready-made explanation was that they were particularly ill equipped either to recognise or induce it. Arthur Conan-Doyle believed:

"…there was a certain self-centred and limited – though possibly acute – type of mind which received no impression at all from that which happens to another, and yet is so constituted that it is the very last sort of mind likely to get evidence for itself on account of its effect upon the material on which such evidence depends."

In his inaugural address to the Society of Psychical Research in 1882, its first president, Professor Henry Sedgewick, had made the vital point that:

"The highest degree of demonstrative force that we can obtain out of any single record of investigation is, of course, limited by the trustworthiness of the investigator."

Scientists were recognised universally, then as now, as being, by nature and by training, essentially honest, as well, of course, as having uniquely penetrative minds capable of seeking out the truth. Mediums, by contrast, along with their cohorts, had precisely the opposite reputation.

Professor Sedgewick then added an impassioned plea for a more civilised approach that could equally well have been made today:

"We are all agreed that the present state of things is a scandal to the enlightened age in which we live, that the dispute as to the reality of these marvellous phenomena – of which it is quite impossible to exaggerate the scientific importance, if only a tenth part of what has been alleged by generally credible witnesses could be shown to be true – I say it is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly interested in having the question determined, and yet that the educated world, as a body, should still be simply in an attitude of incredulity."

It’s easy to imagine how confidant such a man must have been that through the aegis of this new society answers would be found to the perplexing question of phenomena that seemed to portend the existence of exactly those ‘energy fields unknown to physics’ Richard Dawkins was later so scathing about; and that, as Sedgewick’s contemporary, FWH Myers, had maintained in the forward to his monumental lifework, Human Personality and its survival of Bodily Death:

"…if a spiritual world exists, and if that world has at any epoch been manifest or even discoverable, then it ought to be manifest or discoverable now."

That, I should have thought, was even more the case today; and it was depressing to realise how little had actually been proved in the interim, and how far apart adherents from the two fields currently stood.

Interestingly, Myers had ended his book with a bold statement, saying:

"I predict that, in consequence of the new evidence, all reasonable men, a century hence, will believe the Resurrection of Christ, whereas, in default of the new evidence, no reasonable men, a century hence, would have believed it."

I thought it could be taken as broadly true that most reasonable men, and women, of our era, did not believe in the resurrection of Christ, at least not in the terms the Church promulgated, even though it was still ostensibly endorsed by much of the establishment; but that the new evidence Myers talked of, while almost certainly penetrating the consciousness of society as a whole – hence the popularity of the deplored television series – had failed to percolate to its more influential sectors.

So a situation existed where a majority belief in aspects of the paranormal was ignored and vilified by the powermongering minority which, in its official guise, claimed acceptance of, and respect for, something most sane people must have thought was altogether stranger.

This was made more complicated still by evidence from materialisation mediums suggesting dead people could and did reappear on earth for short periods. It was claimed they were recognisable, moved about, spoke, and could be touched. If these had been irrefutable facts, rather than avowals, often based on hearsay, they might have disposed those who believed in the historicality of Jesus – possibly a majority, even from the rationalist camp – to accept the literal truth of his descent from a world beyond.

However, to further confuse the matter, this was clearly not the same phenomena as Christ’s, or our own future, resurrection, which implied a reconstituted body formed from the material and made up according to the laws of this earth, being transported intact to another, different world, rather than one being temporarily reformed on earth, presumably from, and according to, an other-worldly origin and template.

Admittedly, this may not have been what Myers meant by resurrection, as I had found nothing in the annals of strange phenomena, including those recounted in his own work, suggesting anything along these lines; until, that was, I came across a recent publication, by a reductionist physicist, Frank Tipler, claiming that a physical resurrection of the dead, at some far off future date, was exactly what science told us we could all expect.

This was an anomaly – an apparently respected scientist supporting a contention very few people, from his side of the divide, began to take seriously. In doing so, though, he wasn’t really stepping out of line. The Physics of Immortality was far from being an apologia for the paranormal: Tipler was adamant there was little possibility of our discovering anything about ourselves we didn’t already know; he believed we were ahead of the game.

Had he read it and been bothered to say so he would have denied the entire contents of Myer’s two volume, densely composed collection of anecdotes, many suggesting personal survival, from the most diverse array of people imaginable – a sort of Victorian, literary Strange but True – all of whom, according to Tipler’s world view, were deluded.

So far as he was concerned, when we were dead, we were dead, until such time as we became resurrected. There was no in-between state. Although this view was contrary to two or more millennia of religious understanding, Tipler believed his speciality of mathematical physics proved beyond doubt:

"…the existence of God and the likelihood of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life…"

His book wasn’t easy to read and one third of it was reserved for mathematical calculations that required considerable – in Tipler’s view, exceptional – expertise to understand; but the gist was clear: humankind would eventually learn to construct computers of greater intelligence than itself; these machines would inevitably acquire consciousness; and at some point in time they would recreate, through simulation, every creature that had ever lived.

To be honest, I skimmed through much of the The Physics of Immortality, because I found even its popularised maths largely incomprehensible, and what it set out to prove struck me as patently absurd; but I was fascinated by the substantial portion of the book dedicated to showing how most of the world’s religions had at their heart – and whose doctrines originated from – a central belief in physical resurrection of the dead.

Having read David Conway’s explanation of precisely the opposite, it was instructive to realise that scripture in general was sufficiently imprecise to allow two such extremely different conclusions to be reached.

Tipler was deeply serious. How much sense his maths made I had no idea. Legend had it that with maths you could go almost anywhere, on a theoretical basis; but what that meant in actuality, I couldn’t say. What was clear, though, was that if his thesis was correct, then all evidence for life after death as something that happened in a world, or worlds, parallel to this one, and was already happening to those who had preceded us, was rendered null and void.

In Tipler’s view, there was no ‘other side’, and if the soul existed, it was not immortal. We died, were cremated or buried, and that was the end of us, until, many years hence, we would be resurrected as computer simulations. What happened to us in the interim was simple:

"The soul won’t be doing nothing, not even sleeping peacefully, because it won’t exist. A human’s soul is not naturally immortal and, when you’re dead, you’re dead until the Omega Point resurrects you. But no subjective time passes between the instant of death and the instant of resurrection, though in the universe as a whole trillions of years may pass."

Among a number of inconsistencies, one stood out. This was the tricky question of how Jesus was resurrected, if not, like us, through simulation by computers yet to be invented. Tipler’s answer was that in his view Jesus was not raised from the dead but rotted in his grave.

This not only appeared to destroy any biblical basis for the individual Christian hope of personal resurrection, but accentuated a second difficulty, which was how anyone could possibly have imagined resurrection en masse was to be our eventual destiny, without having seen it – or believed they had seen it – happen to Jesus. Tipler had clear views on this issue, as well:

"I personally do not believe that the writers of these works (including the Koran and the Bible) had any revealed knowledge. Rather, I think that, if one postulates for ethical reasons a universal resurrection and adopts a non dualist view of the body-soul relationship, then the basic features of simulation resurrection necessarily follow."

This may have been so, for someone versed in the history of philosophy and mythology, schooled in materialistic thinking and late twentieth century physics, who was casting around for something sensational to speculate about; although I found it hard to conceive why universal resurrection, as opposed to its nemesis, reincarnation, should have been considered ethical.

In addition, I couldn’t help wondering what sort of mind Tipler had, or imagined the authors of the scriptures had, to talk of simulation resurrection as if it was an updated synonym for God.

So far as dualism was concerned, Tipler made repeated references to the, as he believed, false and misleading concept of a separate body and soul, even to the extent of claiming people could become:

"…infected by Platonic dualism",

as if it was a virus they were unable to defend themselves against; and he maintained stoutly that he had garnered support for his own view from the records of most, if not all, world religions.

I remained unconvinced, finding his selective interpretation of history specious, not understanding the science behind his central thesis, but grasping well enough that if he was correct, my search had ended: my father was in the ashes I had helped scatter, now washed into the earth, and would remain there long after I had gone.

However, since neither of us would notice the passage of time, one day – to all intents and purposes, the very same instant each of us died, regardless of how many years apart that was – we would find ourselves, along with:

"…not only all human beings but also all cockroaches, all flies, and all other nonhuman living beings that have ever existed upon the earth",

in heaven for eternity. For some reason, there was, in Tipler’s view, no hell.

The more I thought about it, the surer I became of one reason why – at least in the West – science and established religion were able to live in relative harmony. Outwardly, they were both equally materialistic, united in denying the existence of any energy fields unknown to physics. Beyond this, they were able to be radically different in their claims, in fact, so far apart they normally ran no risk of stepping on each others toes.

Tipler evidently hoped to change this, in one fell swoop, by bringing religion within the grand remit of science.


Tipler’s book, glossily produced, authoritatively published, widely reviewed, was despite its extraordinary thesis – infinitely more extraordinary than anything seen on Strange but True – from the point of view of the status quo, the establishment, an acceptable piece of work. The author dropped names with abandon: Paul Davies, Anthony Flew, Roger Penrose – minds of the highest quality, all, like Tipler, rationalist, materialist; and, most importantly, avowedly non-dualist.

The problem with dualism was that it didn’t fit in with today’s physics; and the reason it was anathema to anyone wanting to know how the universe operated, as physicists did, was that the soul lay outside known boundaries. They assumed it didn’t exist, because they couldn’t measure it, other than as one of the many recognisable effects of the brain.

If we hadn’t had radio or television, nor any means of measuring their waves, we would have assumed they didn’t exist either; and if we hadn’t invented the receivers and learned to send the signals, we would have been right.

However, if some other civilisation was beaming messages to us, day in, day out, along similar lines to those of radio or television, but on a different frequency, one we weren’t able to tune into, especially if there were occasional indications of seepage, when we picked up tantalising glimpses of this other world, we would hardly be justified in denying out of hand any possibility of its existence.

If, in the meantime, we could show it was theoretically feasible, at least, for messages of this sort to be sent, it would be even sillier to assume no such thing was happening, simply because we didn’t know how it could be done.

Asking today’s scientists to come up with explanations for the paranormal, whose effects were analogous to the seepage of extraterrestrial messages, was like expecting their Victorian counterparts, brought into a modern sitting room, to explain the phenomena of radio or television.

Almost certainly, after an examination of the sets, they would declare there was something inside them that accounted for the illusion, which in a sense there was; but they would be hard pressed to understand, still less accept, that the truer explanation for the source of the sound and pictures were invisible waves travelling through the air.

This was more or less what was happening now. It may have been there was no psychic equivalent to the way television or radio worked; but this wasn’t made any more certain by scientists saying they could find no evidence of it, when they may not have known where, or how – or even particularly wanted – to look.

It was hard to imagine science had mapped all there was to know, especially when it spent most of its time resolutely narrowing its study of the already well documented. Most established ways of thinking, as represented on university courses and in popular science publications, were determinedly closed to even the possibility they may have been facing – other than infinitesimally – in a mistaken direction.

Was it conceivable a wrong turning had been taken? Popularly, science, particularly physics, having begun with Newton, had proceeded along a fairly straight line before veering sharply in response to Einstein, along which track it had continued ever since; but it was currently experiencing a hiccup, which as a non-scientist I could only understand in the most simple terms.

Science writers, Richard Woods and Jonathan Leake, explained the basic position:

"At the level of sub-atomic particles, Newton’s theories do not hold. Only the quantum physics developed by Einstein and others explain the phenomena."

Apparently, quantum physics provided an explanation, which wasn’t contested, of how the atom worked. What was in doubt, though, was the existence of a theory of gravitation that was fully compatible with it. Newton’s laws, as they stood, didn’t provide this, which was why Einstein had developed his theory of relativity; but that, although widely accepted, was allegedly flawed.

It was said that Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, admitted he and others before him had been unable, despite more than sixty years of trying, to match up Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum physics.

Dr Louis Essen, inventor of the atomic clock, begged the question:

"Why have scientists accepted a theory which contains obvious errors and lacks any genuine experimental support?"

He claimed this acceptance had retarded:

"…the rational development of science."

Whether Essen, or Hawking, would have given their support to Michael Roll’s scientific champion, Ronald Pearson, was difficult to say. Pearson had apparently lectured, to some acclaim, to Hawkings’ students at Cambridge; but this was about the only bit of establishment acceptance he had had.

His contention was that Einstein’s theory of relativity had irreconcilable internal contradictions. He maintained this was recognised at the time by famous scientists of the day, such as Shoddy and Rutherford, who had:

"…rejected Einstein’s concepts as absurdities from the start."

Trying to find where science had gone wrong, Pearson "extended" existing Newtonian laws and discovered to his astonishment that they not only fitted perfectly with quantum physics, and in many ways enhanced understanding of it, but also agreed with the valid parts of Einstein’s theory of relativity, while having themselves no internal contradictions.

The next development was the most interesting, because Pearson found his new theory demanded:

"…the existence of an all-pervading medium to interconnect all things: the Ether of Newton, Crookes, Lodge, Baird and other famous scientists. A brain-like structure of ether emerges directly from the mathematics. This provides total support for the reality of the so-called paranormal, showing, in contradiction to accepted ideas, that mind is part of the structure of Ether and could well be immortal."

It appeared the original idea of the ‘ether’ had been largely discredited because of its incompatibility with relativity theory. If, as it seemed to be, this theory was fundamentally unsound, and if, as Pearson claimed, his "extended Newtonian" theory was correct, there was clearly a case for the existence of the ether to be reconsidered.

Pearson’s problem, and Roll’s, was that nobody in any position of authority wanted to listen to what they were saying. They believed this was not because their ideas were unsound, but because they threatened the status quo too much. Pearson maintained he had been hammering on doors only to be rejected out of hand for years, but that the only actual criticism of his theories he had so far heard was the blanket condemnation that they contradicted the existing scientific consensus. In his words:

"From 11 years of totally futile effort, made to obtain publication in Western scientific journals, I have come to realise it is impossible to publish any alternative to Einstein’s relativity (this is the key to the block). Rejection letters simply say it does not connect with the accepted theories of Einstein and the presently accepted problems in quantum gravity. They totally ignore the fact that the alternative put forward completely resolves the difficulty. Not a single letter of rejection points to any flaw."

Even writing to the Society for Psychical Research, which might have been expected to welcome a theory appearing to back the phenomena it had been expressly set up – and presumably still existed – to look into, Pearson had been reduced to pleading his case with something akin to desperation:

"So we turn to the SPR for help in surmounting this barrier to progress. We are also aware of the need for the SPR to avoid upsetting powerful cosmologists and theologians. So an article is appended, designed to avoid conflict with the establishment, e.g., by avoiding reference to relativity.

However, if the extensions to Newton’s laws given in my literature had been applied early in the century, then Einstein’s theories would not have been required: no incompatibility with quantum physics would have arisen and the paranormal would have emerged as a subset of physics. Something has to be done, as a matter of considerable urgency, to put things right.

I hope you will publish the enclosed article in your journal…"

Of course, although views were bound to differ as to the validity of Pearson’s work, non-physicists were somewhat at sea. The SPR simply said it was incompetent to judge, and that their Journal, in many ways more oriented towards the literary than the scientific, was not the proper place for a theory of this kind. However, Michael Roll, for one, was in no doubt as to the real reasons for such lack of progress:

"As Professor Stephen Hawking makes very clear in his bestseller A Brief History of Time, we cannot have Quantum Mechanics and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; one of them has to go. Since many scientific careers rely on the acceptance of the Theories of Relativity, Pearson’s scientific work will be suppressed for as long as possible. This of course is a hazard all reformers meet."

According to Roll, Susan Blackmore saw it rather differently:

"Dr. Susan Blackmore jumped up at the end of my lecture at London University to say the difficulty of getting past the peer-referee system in scientific journals is because what he (Pearson) is writing is a load of rubbish."

This peer-review system was standard practice in scientific circles, being based on the belief that the best people to judge the suitability of a paper for publication were those already expert in the subject.

Although it would be difficult to think of a scheme more likely to result in perpetuation of an existing consensus and the continued vetoing of criticism, however valid it might have been, the complexity of the subjects involved strictly limited the availability of alternatively qualified people. Even so, it was hard to ignore comments like that of Adrian Berry, the Science Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, when he said:

"Few subjects more infuriate scientists, physical scientists in particular, than claims of ‘paranormal’ events, such as spoon bending, levitation and communication with the dead. They are resented because, if confirmed, the whole fabric of science would be threatened."

Pearson had a theory about how people’s minds worked when confronted with the unusual that he believed scientists – supposedly uniquely detached – had as much difficulty as anyone in circumventing. As he explained it:

"The mind rejection mechanism acts rapidly, so rapidly that the logic centres are by passed. Instead the emotional centres are activated. Then the immediate response to an incoming idea which has been classed as incompatible is rejection. This happens before it can be analysed. The rejection mechanism activates the emotional responses of hostility and absurdity. A desire to pour ridicule on the new is experienced. There is, however, no justifiable reason at all at this stage to classify the new as false."

In this instance, as he said:

"To reinforce the barriers, Einstein seems to have become the God of physics, with relativity as its Bible."

Richard Milton saw the situation similarly, believing a small group of more or less self-appointed representatives:

"…are guarding us, the community, from the awful effects of believing something that is irrational (Meaning: they are guarding the current paradigm.)"

He believed the primary way they did this in the world of science was through the peculiarities of the peer review system:

"The net effect of this peer review system is that, at any given time, almost the entire research effort of the country is directed into subjects that are tacitly approved by those who comprise editorial review committees of the scientific press. The review committees are, in turn, frequently drawn from among the more conservative scientists in the community and the system is self-perpetuating from supervisor to postgraduate to undergraduate. For this reason, virtually the only scientific research being conducted anywhere in Britain into taboo subjects is privately funded and is usually carried on in ‘skunk works’ – private laboratories with little or no resources – and its results are privately published usually in short-run paperback or photocopied editions that do not receive general circulation, or reach major libraries."

This was an almost verbatim account of Ronald Pearson’s experience, even to the extent of his book, Intelligence behind the Universe, enumerating his theory in detail, which had the undeniably amateurish air of self-publication about it, and gave the unfortunate impression that that amateurishness extended to the contents. Yet those contents were reasonable enough – serious, restrained, logical – even if their conclusion did upset convention.

The problem was, absolutely anyone, with no matter what half baked idea, could put together a book, and if they were prepared to pay, have it published; and knowing this, people instinctively based its worth on the standing of its publishers, along with that of whatever reviews it had had. Nor was it necessarily the nature of the reviews that mattered so much as their provenance, or even the kudos of having had them at all.

This had been made glaringly apparent to me by Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality, whose thesis, compared with Pearson’s, was on the face of it, as well as on deeper investigation, ludicrous; whose method of writing was disdainful; whose claims of the backing of religious history were dubious; yet whose book had been published by Macmillan and later, in paperback, by Pan, with my edition having on its first two pages no less than fifteen reviews, all from quality journals or members of prestigious academies, couched in mealy-mouthing terms and approaching closer to peer-worship than criticism.

Part of Pearson’s problem was his lack of fluency as a writer, as he admitted:

"I have done my best but I am not a naturally gifted writer for the non-specialist. I made great efforts to follow the accepted route of first obtaining scientific acceptance, only to find all doors locked and barred. I have therefore to try the popularisation first."

Tipler was undoubtedly the better communicator, but it was because he was part of the consensus, whose physics, even if not its startling conclusion, fitted in with established theory, that he was able to say:

"…that theology is a branch of physics, that physicists can infer by calculation the existence of God and the likelihood of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life…",

and not be laughed into oblivion. Pearson, by contrast, whose book carried no reviews but nevertheless laid itself open to – much desired, never given – criticism, had a story to tell that might have helped underpin a far greater consensus of religious history than Tipler’s, by claiming to show:

"…an immortal consciousness surviving death of the physical body is in accord with extended physics",

but had been ignored.

The extraordinary thing was, both authors maintained they were providing the theoretical framework for traditional belief systems, finally proving what had been accepted across all cultures in every epoch; yet not only was their proof based on physics that must, presumably, have been mutually incompatible, they differed completely in their understanding of what those traditional belief systems were. I could see how the physics might be debatable, but I felt one of them at least was making a mistaken historical emphasis.

The main point of contention concerned the soul. Tipler, who didn’t accept its independent existence, made his position clear:

"According to both modern physics and ancient Semitic natural philosophy, the human personality is not naturally immortal: it dies with the body."

He considered most, if not all, of the great world religions supported this belief, and the concomitant one of a physical resurrection. However, my own, admittedly cursory, investigation showed that today’s Christians, Muslims, Hindus, many Jews, and most other religious groups, with the single exception of Buddhists, whose doctrines even Tipler admitted could hardly be said to support his thesis, accepted – indeed, largely depended on – the immortality of the soul; and also believed that hell (Tipler considered everyone, without exception, would find themselves in paradise) was as likely a destination for it as heaven, and in the majority of cases, a more or less certain one, at least for a period, for anyone not subscribing to their particular creed.

Pearson, for his part, made no comment about the notion of physical resurrection, possibly considering it an historical aberration, hardly worthy of his attention, preferring to give:

"…scientific support to the idea that people have a separate consciousness or soul."

At the same time, his idea of an interconnecting grid of insubstantial, invisible matter, pervading the known and unknown universe, provided, he believed, a handy explanation for the paranormal. His abiding hope was for religion and science to blend together and evolve as one. As he put it:

"There can be only one truth."

This was also the hope of Tipler, who saw religion being absorbed, almost made respectable, by science. In fact, the arguments of both Pearson and Tipler, for and against the existence of the soul, reflected in many ways the incredibly diverse, historically contradictory belief systems of the many religions of the world, most of which had at various times postulated either a separately surviving soul or a resurrection body, with some claiming both.

The overall emphasis, however, had usually been dualist in nature, even if it may have been materialist in outlook; which explained why religion could never become entirely reconciled with existing materialistic science, at least not along the lines Tipler suggested; unless, incredibly, his theory was judged correct, and became so widely accepted that the rest of what the churches stood for was invalidated as a consequence, and only the resurrection promise remained.

That this might, in fact, one day happen was given credence by a reported statement from Dr John Hapgood, Archbishop of York, who stoutly maintained that:

"…nothing departs the body when we die."

What he thought about the likelihood of that same body later reforming itself through computer simulation wasn’t mentioned; but since he had obtained a first class honours degree in physics, I supposed anything was possible.

Within organised religion, such views as these were still in a tiny – at least articulated – minority; so as matters stood, the sole realistic chance for a true meeting of minds would have been if scientific knowledge of the known world had expanded to include what had previously been assumed to exist outside it, and now was flatly disbelieved in. If that happened, the two elements of dualism would coalesce to become, effectively, an expanded materialism.

This wasn’t an unlikely proposition. After all, materialism today held considerably more – including electricity and radar – than it had 100 years ago; so to imagine it might currently encompass less than it would in 100 years time was hardly revolutionary.

Extended materialism taking in both mind and matter – mind effectively becoming visible – depended, ultimately, on proving the existence of some or all of what was now considered wholly illusory. So far as Tipler was concerned, along with the vast majority of the scientific establishment, this was pure speculation, not only unproved but unprovable, practically and theoretically. For those travelling in the boat of orthodoxy, there was no more evidence to suggest the existence of an energy field unknown to physics than there was to imply any one of a whole flotilla of paranormal speculations about life, death and the universe, had the slightest basis in reality.

Dualism, in short, was a myth, and a particularly divisive one at that; which went a good way to explaining why Pearson, enthusiastically waving his provisional proof of it, should not have been received with open arms. Indeed, if this reaction was merited, I was wasting my time trying to discover what had happened to my father, since the short answer was nothing.

Nothing happened to anyone, unless, that was, Tipler had been right, and at some distant point in the future, everyone became re-created. Which still meant there was nothing now in existence that didn’t meet the eye. No ghost was real, least of all the ghost in the machine.

If that was the case, I could live with it; but if I carried on investigating, and found something – just one thing would do – that ‘proved’ otherwise, Tipler’s entire thesis would disintegrate; but then so too would the rationale for the existing scientific establishment. The fact that this hadn’t already happened suggested either that no such proof existed – which I had to admit was possible – or else the scientific establishment had so far been strong enough to resist its influence.

In a way, materialist science resembled religion of old. The church was still around, in many places growing, despite a majority acceptance as reality of innumerable discoveries that had threatened to emasculate it.

Part of its problem was that it clung, in all its diversity, to mutually exclusive aspects of separate creeds that were so obviously questionable – from whatever angle they were looked at – rather than each, individually separate branch of the vast tree of faith divesting itself of anything it didn’t share with its neighbour, thereby forming a united and more plausible front.

Many people believed tolerance of other points of view had been the downfall of modern religion, which perhaps explained why those groups who were intolerant tended to prosper; but relative success was not necessarily the consequence of discovering, or supporting, the truth. Tipler quoted a commentator, Winberg, as saying:

"Religious liberals are in one sense even further in spirit from scientists than are fundamentalists and other religious conservatives. At least the conservatives like the scientists tell you that they believe in what they believe in because it is true, rather than because it makes them good or happy. Many religious liberals today seem to think that different people can believe in different mutually exclusive things without any of them being wrong, so long as their beliefs ‘work for them’. This one believes in…heaven and hell, (that one) believes in the extinction of the soul at death, but no one can be said to be wrong as long as everyone gets a satisfying spiritual rush from what they believe."

This was somewhat unfair. It would have been at least as likely to suppose that the religious liberals Winberg talked of accepted other points of view as well as their own not because they wanted everybody to be happy, though they might well have done so, but because they considered it was the cosmetic details of otherwise shared beliefs – as in the precise topography of heaven and hell, or the specific arrangements for the day of judgment, or the exact period spent in another realm awaiting rebirth – rather than the intractable differences in what was not shared, that were what held believers in different faiths apart.

Truly mutually exclusive matters, which generally were not held with any great fervour by the liberals, were different. Where the immortality, or temporality, of the soul, and whether it would reunite with a resurrection or reincarnation body, was under consideration, it was clear there could only be one truth; and it was equally clear that any fundamentalist, or conservative, claiming their way represented that truth, had little more chance of being right than a roulette player gambling on red or black. I rather hoped, but didn’t suppose, it was for that reason that Winberg had suggested they had much in common with scientists.

Any notion of exclusivity, reflecting a time when communities were sufficiently isolated to imagine the entire world could be judged by the belief system of their small part of it, would have been no more apposite today than the edicts of the Flat Earth Society. Certainly, anybody who presumed – as apparently most Muslims and many Christians did – that their leaders had been singled out as sole authorised issuers of discretionary passports to the next world, had to be in receipt of a woeful misinterpretation of whatever divine message their founders may at one time have received.

It was wrong, therefore, to equate liberality with anything other than the pursuit of common ground; in fact, the "spiritual rush" Winberg talked of was likely to be more closely associated with the fixed certainty of fundamentalism, and its almost inevitable lack of truth, than otherwise.

Unfortunately, as soon as an established faith questioned itself, however good its motives may have been, it started to fall apart, since it could only realistically be sustained through belief in dogma; so progress towards a shared religious understanding, an homogenised, rather than diluted, universal faith – contemporarily derided as a ‘pick-and-chose’ tendency – was likely to be slow, since existing bodies were effectively being asked to partake in their own disintegration.

The existing situation was well illustrated by Ron Pearson in The Colossus. Although I was sympathetic towards him, as an undoubted underdog and also as someone who postulated the existence of an etheric field I would have liked to believe in, I had no real idea if his understanding of physics was any more valid than Tipler’s; but I could say with certainty that his view of the way the world worked showed him to be, if nothing else, a shrewder, more perspicacious observer. Tipler, by comparison, was too immersed in his subject matter, too much of a specialist, to be capable of, or even interested in, the broader view.

Pearson’s summary was:

"One leg of the colossus is a materialistic physics which asserts that the mind ceases to exist when the brain dies. The other leg is the established church helping to prop up physics by joining forces with it to discredit the paranormal. So the pair help to maintain an equilibrium despite their obvious incompatibilities. They are symbolically represented with one foot on either bank astride the straits of progress, so blocking the path to the vista of delight which lies beyond. Further stability is provided by a tail which curves down, ending in a coil on the bank of physics to press up from behind. This is the tail of parapsychology, which, in order to curry favour from dominant physics, tamely tries to help discredit the paranormal. It does so by looking for ‘rational’ explanations for all effects not easily explained by this so-called ‘New Physics’."

Pearson’s own explanation for these "effects" was simple. He believed that a universal mind, or primary consciousness, lay at the heart of an invisible, sub-quantum level of reality, whose fine structure mathematics alone was able to comprehend, and that this had created, through an alteration in its vibratory level, the known universe of matter – the world of the materialists – in order to provide an additional environment for itself.

The implication was there were many more alternative worlds than ours, all underlain by the same primary consciousness, and that this, in individual terms, postulated a subatomic inner space of unspecified distance, breadth, depth and duration, in which our minds had pre-existed, existed now, and would continue to exist after the death of our bodies.

He believed this sub-quantum level of reality was essentially the same as the ether originally proposed by Newton as an all-pervading medium needed for the propagation of light, which had been enthusiastically taken up by other scientists before being discredited as incompatible with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This rejection had been on the basis of experimental data which, Pearson claimed, subsequently proved to be false. New data apparently existed suggesting it was:

"…reasonable to proceed on the assumption that the Ether really could exist after all, despite its rejection early this century".

Such a concept was obviously going to be impossible to swallow for those who believed consciousness, far from having a volition and intelligence of its own, was a product of brain function alone; but I was impressed at how many loose ends Pearson’s hypothesis seemed to tie up – how it lent obvious support to both evolutionary and creationist scenarios of the way our world began – and how much of what he said correlated with the teachings of the oldest of the wisdom traditions.

Specifically, Pearson claimed, as shamen, philosophers and theologians from both East and West had maintained since well before the Christian era, that the ether – an "all pervading net" – was the only thing that really existed, with the world – or worlds – of matter it had created being ultimately an illusion.

In other words, the physical world as we knew it was a manifestation of the etherial, rather than vice versa.


Michael Roll was Pearson’s champion, and he harboured no doubts he had finally found in the work of this retired engineer "scientific backing" for his own cherished belief in life after death.

Survival, he avowed, was for everyone, regardless of religious persuasion, and took the form of a continuation of our current existence, carried out on another wavelength, in a body remarkably like our present one. This was provable, Roll claimed, by the reappearance of the known dead through the auspices of materialisation mediums, who tuned in to etheric transmissions, acting in much the same way as a radio receiver or television set.

Roll based his conviction not simply on the writings of the philosopher, Arthur Findlay, but on the published work of four scientists who he believed, like Findlay, had independently come to the conclusion that the phenomena they witnessed could have no other explanation. In addition, Roll himself claimed to have witnessed the reappearance of his own dead father, and to have talked to and embraced him.

This was stirring stuff. Unfortunately, it transpired that materialisation mediums were as rare these days as established scientists prepared to investigate them. The ones named by Roll, whose long out-of-print books I managed to borrow from my local library, did appear to have had the good fortune to meet with mediums of reputation, to have experienced and recorded extraordinary things, and to have photographed many of them; but it had all happened so long ago, well before the advent of sophisticated filming techniques, to people who were now long dead, and could hardly be cross-examined, that it was difficult to know what conclusion to come to.

All four scientists, at various dates between 1867 and 1940, working independently with different mediums, claimed partial and full form materialisations had manifested in front of them on a number of separate occasions. In the majority of cases, this was attested to by others besides themselves, the possibility of fraud was ensured against to general satisfaction, every precaution against connivance seemed to be taken, and photographic evidence was there to back it up.

However, although each scientist had been solidly accomplished in his field, with Charles Richet, a Nobel prizewinner, and Sir William Crookes, the famous physicist, amongst them, their claims were considered too outrageous at the time to invite anything but ostracism and ridicule from their fellows; and the accompanying photographs did little to sway opinion.

Crookes, whose investigation was the least thorough and therefore most dependent on his personal integrity – the medium was often a resident guest in his house, and he arranged and personally conducted the seances – but whose results were nothing short of miraculous, abandoned the field soon afterwards, going on to win accolades in more orthodox realms. Nevertheless, he maintained to the end of his life that everything he had reported happening happened exactly as he said, and that he retracted nothing.

Crookes’ photographs of Katie King, a young lady looking remarkably like her medium, Florence Cook, show the alleged materialisation as unmistakably human, indistinguishable from the other, living people around her. She was clearly very much ‘alive’. In fact, although she spoke and moved about as he did, on one occasion Crookes confirmed Katie King’s corporality by embracing her. There was even a photograph of a kneeling man, believed to be a doctor, taking her pulse in order to compare it with the, assumably recumbent, body of the medium in the cabinet.

This cabinet, where the medium sat, alone, was a curtained off corner of Crookes’ library, which room remained unlit. Unfortunately, of all the things a fraudulent medium might want to insist on in order to practise deception, these two demands – for darkness and isolation – stand out. However, the prevailing belief was that physical seances were held in the dark – with the medium remaining segregated – because the production of ectoplasm, from which the phenomena were made, required it. Light, it seemed, was particularly injurious to the entranced medium. Flashlight photography was, despite this, widely used.

Crookes supposedly tried to circumvent fraud by ensuring nobody besides himself and Florence Cook had access to the cabinet, and by carrying a phosphorus lamp around with him. He described a scene where he ventured behind the curtain, accompanied by the materialisation of Katie King, to find the medium unconscious on the floor:

"Three separate times did I carefully examine Miss Cook crouching before me, to be sure that the hand I held was that of a living woman, and three separate times did I turn the lamp to Katie and examine her with steadfast scrutiny, until I had no doubt whatever of her objective reality."

Unfortunately, nobody else present saw any of this, and on various other occasions, when Crookes held the curtains of the cabinet open so the audience could see the medium and the materialised figure together, one or other of their faces was always hidden from view. Nor were there any photographs of these scenes.

Clearly, Crookes was either lying, and a confederate to deception, or else he was genuinely witnessing the materialisation of a dead person. What was inconceivable was that in his own home, in his personal library, under conditions and before witnesses chosen by him, he could have been the unwitting victim of an impersonation by any accomplice of his guest, Miss Cook.

Needless to say, since Crookes’ death he has been called a liar and a cheat, and, most pertinently, accused of using his seances – usually attended by his pregnant wife, to whom he was apparently devoted, and some of his children – as cover for a love affair with Miss Cook.

The most convincing ‘proof’ of this was that it provided a better explanation than any other for his support of the phenomena he reported without giving one ounce of credence to it. There could, in all reason, be no other explanation for him having lied, since it was not as if he was merely fudging the details of some trifling experiment, as was usually the way with scientists who went off the rails. Either Crookes had witnessed what he said he had, or he was being ruled by his heart rather than his head.

The truth was, we would never know, and could only speculate, about what happened over one hundred years ago; but at the very least, it was worth maintaining an open mind as to the possibility that Crookes was correct in what he claimed, and that it would not be inconceivable, given the right conditions, for something similar to happen now.

The problem, particularly with contemporary reports, was that most writers, from both sides of the divide, were incapable of impartiality. Ruth Brandon, author of The Spiritualists, put this point well:

"Anyone who reads widely in this field must be shocked when he arrives at some of the weightiest tomes by some of the most highly respected of the researchers. Quite simply, all the facts are never mentioned – or, if they are, only in the most slanted way, so that those undermining the desired evidence will be dismissed."

Unfortunately, this was the precise policy Ruth Brandon herself adopted, when she set out to rubbish a movement through the judicious use of archive material, giving weight not so much where it was due as where it would best serve her purpose. Arthur C Clarke acted similarly when he derided spiritualism in his TV shows, Tales of the Unexplained. Spiritualist writers no doubt did the same. I was undoubtedly guilty myself.

This made it difficult for a reader to know what to believe, which was why reports by scientists like Crookes and Richet were held in such esteem, even today. Untrustworthy scientists were not unknown, but it was generally accepted that of all members of humanity, they had less of an axe to grind, or if they had, were more unlikely to allow it to interfere with their dispassionate search for the truth.

By comparison with Crookes, Roll’s other researchers were models of propriety, going out of their way to ensure fraud couldn’t possibly take place, independent witnesses were present, and as many photographs as possible got taken.

Richet, having originally considered the proposition that human beings could materialise out of thin air as ludicrous, was much impressed with Crookes’ work, apparently taking what his fellow scientist said at face value, to the point of publishing, in Thirty Years of Psychical Research, his own photos of a suspiciously ‘real’ looking ‘phantom,’ peering out from behind what appear to be a swathing of bedclothes.

To be asked to believe a fully formed human could be built up out of ectoplasm it would have been reasonable to expect additional photographs of a partial figure, or at least the vestiges of one; but Richet’s other offerings were paltry by comparison, either showing portions of what resembled regurgitated cheesecloth sprouting out of the medium’s nose, mouth or ears, or else what looked like creased and crumpled magazine images of different faces attached in one way or another to her body. There was no conceivable relationship, other than that the same man had executed them, between these tawdry shots and those of the full form figure they were presumed to turn into.

Yet Richet was convinced:

"…To ask a physiologist, a physicist, or a chemist to admit that a form that has a circulation of blood, warmth and muscles, that exhales carbonic acid, has weight, speaks, and thinks, can issue from a human body is to ask of him an intellectual effort that is really painful. Yes, it is absurd; but no matter – it is true."

Earlier in his book, Richet had made the point that:

"To admit a fact as scientifically demonstrated, no less positive proof should be required as would justify a death sentence on a man."

It can only be assumed he considered he had accumulated just such positive proof in support, not necessarily of survival, which he was never entirely convinced about, but of the absolute veracity of the phenomenon, including full form materialisation, that he had witnessed. In fact, it is only necessary to consider Richet’s trenchant views on survival to realise how far he was from losing his critical faculties during his investigations:

"And what is it that is to survive? Will the old man who has fallen into second childhood have the Self of his intellectual prime or the Self of his decrepitude? Will the Self of a person who stammered continue to stammer in the Beyond? What puerility!"

These questions, of course, were ones Michael Roll might have done well to consider.

A third scientist, Schrenck-Notzing, made glowing references to both Crookes and Richet in his own book, Phenomena of Materialisation, but added nothing in the way of photographic evidence that did not again look, even with the most charitable disposition, like cheesecloth and old, crumpled drawings or magazine photos.

Whether these had ‘manifested’ through psychical means was impossible to say, though the idea that the medium was fraudulent and practised consummate sleight of hand could almost certainly be discounted. Schrenct-Notzing’s precautions before every seance and his searches of his principal medium – usually extending to all orifices of the body – were infamous. If Schrenct-Notzing himself was telling the truth, something was materialising, even if it was neither particularly interesting nor evidential.

The same could be said for the investigations of a Canadian, Dr Glen Hamilton, which took place in the 1930’s, and were described posthumously in Intention and Survival. Again, there were any number of pictures of ectoplasm, some formed into shapes that on enlargement seemed to have human characteristics; but these phenomena, as from all three investigators – apart, that was, from Richet’s ‘phantom’ – were so paltry by comparison with those Crookes claimed to have witnessed, as well as seeming somehow so pointless and unwholesome in themselves, I eventually wearied of turning the pages.

It would have been difficult to understand why any one of these four scientists, however much they may have wanted their researches to prove human immortality, or at least, show the phenomena pointing towards survival was true, should not have told the truth, especially when they were all, without exception, considered honourable people, with the soundest of reputations. It would simply not have been worth their while to have fabricated the results of something so portentous; unless, of course, they were sufficiently enamoured of their individual mediums to say anything.

There was no suggestion any of the four other than Crookes might have become entangled in this way (providing a plausible explanation for how much better his evidence was), possibly because none of their mediums was a comely fifteen year old; and the simplest overall conclusion must be that the ectoplasm, shown in the majority of the photographs taken by three of the scientists, was objectively valid: though what purpose it served, or whether there was more to it than the photographs indicated – one suggestion being that these images were residual remnants of full form materialisations that flashlight had shrunk down to size – was impossible to say; but that the examples given of wholly life-like manifestations were almost certainly false, if only because they relied so completely on the testimony of one man, and had never been even remotely replicated.

For Michael Roll to base his beliefs on the work of four scientists from a forgotten era whose results may have been suspect and couldn’t be precisely emulated wasn’t entirely his fault. No scientist nowadays could be expected to investigate phenomena of this nature without the preconceived belief it was nonsense. If they didn’t think that they wouldn’t be scientists. This had also been, after all, the starting point for Crookes and Richet; but whereas they had changed their minds, as they saw it, in the face of overwhelming evidence, no one of similar standing seemed likely to do that now, even had they deigned to look into the matter.

Roll was insistent full form materialisations were taking place today, in private circles, repeatedly, but that the mediums involved were unwilling to undergo the rigours of investigation. I had already wondered why, with the availability of night glasses and infra-red cameras, neither of which required the light that was considered so antipathetical to the production of phenomena, an unobtrusive observer couldn’t have come up with some fresh insight into an issue of far greater consequence than most the media troubled itself with, yet that remained a side-lined curiosity; and my tentative conclusion was that they must have tried to do so, but the results had been disappointing.

I could appreciate the vast majority of people thinking such manifestations a sham, as part of me did, too. After all, what we were being asked to believe was that on a regular basis, in a number of ordinary homes around the country, dead humans were re-materialising, allegedly from an etheric realm we were all destined to go to, and were being seen, welcomed, touched and talked to, by those who had been intimate with them on earth. At the same time, it sounded every bit as unlikely individuals could be making this up as that they were mistaken in assuming it was taking place.

I remembered how when my father used to telephone he only had to say one word for me instantly to know who he was. It was inconceivable anyone else could have phoned in his stead, and been mistaken by me. Yet if that wasn’t what was happening at these seances – where dead fathers weren’t merely being heard, but were seen and touched – and the whole imbroglio wasn’t a tissue of lies, what was left, if not the obvious possibility of exactly what was claimed?

For my part, it wasn’t that I needed to see my father again, in the flesh, to assuage my grief, which had more or less died away by this time; or to hear from him for any other reason than to verify his continued existence. Once I was assured of this, and had some understanding of his whereabouts, I could let him go, content to know he was still around, and that in the fullness of time we would meet again – even if only fleetingly – before going our separate ways.

I wanted to know he was as much a fixture as before, somewhere. Merely hoping he was, on the basis of other people’s assurances, which I couldn’t in all conscience accept on their unsubstantiated word alone, wasn’t enough. In fact, hoping he had survived was worse than knowing, beyond a doubt, that he hadn’t.

Roll, having apparently met his own father, was one step ahead of me, and obsessively keen the world should learn this sort of thing was possible. He claimed:

"It will not be long now before contemporary materialisation mediums are ready to invite sympathetic, scientific teams to film recently deceased people."

Clearly enthused at the prospect, he added:

"Imagine the impact when millions see on their television screens recently deceased, internationally famous people being reunited with their friends and relations who are still alive on earth."

As if to mitigate anxiety, he explained:

"Different physical laws operate in the Higher Life, so that communicators can alter their etheric bodies to appear as loved ones remembered them and even look in on different periods of history."

Although this sounded logistically improbable – individual variations in memory would have demanded a separate image for each viewer – it was hard to imagine Roll would be saying it if he didn’t believe it was true. From my perspective, it was hard to imagine him saying anything at all concerning survival for very much longer without people beginning to wonder how it was, with infra-red cameras at his disposal, and a knowledge of where the mediums were to be found, revealing footage hadn’t already been made public.

Infuriatingly, it seemed there was as much of a ready answer to this as there had been in Victorian times to repeated demands for openness and light at physical seances. Hoping to discover more about materialisations I was privately convinced must be, but at the same time couldn’t bring myself to accept were, true, I had become a member of the Noah’s Ark Society for Physical Mediumship, which existed to promote the development of what was widely seen as a dying art.

This society produced a regular Newsletter, with accounts of meetings, at one of which, in late 1996, the following was reported:

"The highlight of the seance for me was the purported presence and communications from Lord Hugh Dowding, who was Chief of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain… One lady present, who had known Dowding well during the War, confirmed his identity to me later that day. The materialised form had shaken hands with her and recalled time spent together during the War. On leaving her he kissed her hand… Lord Dowding also shook many other hands and even wandered behind the back row patting many on the shoulder as he passed by."

Shortly after reading about this extraordinary event, which was also reported on the Internet, I came across an article by Michael Roll in Psychic News, commenting on the account of the seance and wondering:

"Why wasn’t someone there with infra red?"

Apparently, Roll was experiencing problems in filming these events himself. He knew the mediums – of whom there were surprisingly, some might have said perilously, few – but wasn’t being allowed near them. Their ‘minders’ kept him away, ostensibly because in his wake came the sorts of people – probing scientists, media alarmists – who were not only inimical to the successful production of phenomena, but more often than not openly antagonistic to the very notion of any form of communication with the dead taking place. Roll was tough enough to take this, but the mediums weren’t.

This may have been so; but why was it, I wondered, that somebody less contentious, from within the Society, had not been allowed to set up, in advance of a seance, a remote control, infra-red video camera that would automatically record proceedings without the need for any further human involvement? Neither the other sitters, nor the medium, need even be aware such a thing was going on.

I wrote to the editor of the Noah’s Ark Society to ask about this:

"As a new and inexperienced member I have a question that seems to me pertinent but is possibly naive. I notice from the back pages of the Newsletter that audio tapes of purported spirit communications are available for purchase by members. These are no doubt interesting but hardly evidential of physical mediumship, which is what the Society exists to promote. Why is it there are no video tapes available, for purchase or loan, showing some of the phenomena reported? Serious investigators, from William Crookes on, used whatever photographic equipment was available to prove their claims. Most of the results are open to the criticism that they could have been faked. With today’s technology, surely this is less the case than before?

As members may know, in the Jan 27 edition of Psychic News, there was an appeal from the former NAS President Alan Crossley to then Vice President George Cranley to ‘…get out your sophisticated filming equipment and show the world something of the phenomena seen by a minority of NAS members’. He suggests, and presumably he knows, that ‘the NAS has much in its armoury, but prefers to keep it under wraps’. Surely, even if there are valid reasons for not making such evidence generally available, allowing members who haven’t experienced physical phenomena for themselves – and even those who have, but would like confirmation of what they witnessed – access to existing photographic records is no more than their due?

In the August issue of the NAS Newsletter, S. Hume wrote about Dr Wiseman’s experimental fake ‘seance’ during which it was nevertheless hoped ‘to capture something genuinely paranormal on film’ through the use of ‘infra-red filming equipment’. Although it should be hardly surprising that nothing memorable occurred, presumably the same cannot be said for such cameras left running during a genuine seance. Unfortunately, without actual evidence of this, the suspicion must remain that no contemporary photographic records are available simply because no physical phenomena occurs."

Rather than my letter being published, and stimulating further correspondence in the Society’s Newsletter, as I had hoped, it was explained to me that the decision was not considered to be in earthly hands:

"Thank you for your letter. The tapes that are advertised in the Newsletter are not purported spirit communications but actual spirit communications many of which were recorded at physical seances. We have never claimed that they are evidential of physical mediumship. The NAS, as we say on the front cover of every issue, exists for the promotion, development and safe practice of physical mediumship.

The question of video tapes has been discussed in the pages of the Newsletter and elsewhere ad nauseam. Our attitude has always been that the phenomena takes second place to the evidence. Both our recent contributors, David Nicholls and Steven Hume, wrote a very thought-provoking article on this very issue in the September Newsletter. In fact, Steve Hume will be dealing with the work of Sir William Crookes in the next two issue of the Newsletter.

It is indeed naive to believe that video tapes of seances will fare any better than the clamour for photographs in the heyday of physical medium ship. With today’s technology videos can easily be faked as is often demonstrated on television. We have the equipment to use should the guides give the signal but nothing will happen until they are ready and even then they will be available only to NAS members. We are not out to convince the world. The work of the Society is to encourage people to form their own home circles and get the evidence in their own homes.

Mr Crossley was taken to task for making the ridiculous statements in PN and claimed he was misquoted! While it is true we have two infra-red cameras (one of which was borrowed by Richard Wiseman to film his fake seance) and that we have taken photographs of ectoplasm etc they are not suitable for publication even if the circles concerned gave permission for their release. Neither the mediums nor their guides are willing for their public seances to be filmed at this stage but this is not to say that this may not take place later on. We always seek the cooperation of the Spirit World and have never been let down when reasonable requests are made.

Best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

George Cranley."

I thought this attitude odd. If the spirit world was real, and people in it wanted to impress those on earth of their continued existence – something they must have done or they wouldn’t have communicated at all – why not do it in the most effective way possible, which was undoubtedly through the judicious use of video. Certainly, film could be faked, but nothing like as readily as audio tapes; yet George Cranley strenuously objected to my use of the word "purported" in relation to these.

I felt sure that if a camera was set up and left running during a seance, in such a way as to take in the majority of the room, with the audience and the cabinet in full view, something of interest would show, even if it was that nothing unusual had taken place. It was the suspicion that nothing psychically unusual could take place that made the general unwillingness to prove the opposite seem so damning.

Reports in the NAS Newsletter of trumpets hurtling about, materialised children skipping and dancing, dead relatives appearing and embracing loved ones, were so commonplace I found it incredible no one had tried to capture them on film. Was it really a case of waiting for permission from the "Spirit World"?

It seemed it was. In a recent Newsletter, a trip to Japan, undertaken by George Cranley and a medium known as Lincoln, was described by the secretary of the Japan Psychic Association, which had financed the visit. He was enthusiastic, but mentioned:

"One of the members of the committee arranged to bring into the seance hall an electronically operating video camera called ‘The Thermal Imager’, which catches any object with the slightest heat even in the total darkness. This emits no light; only the motor sounds indicate its existence in the dark. We set the machine in the back of the hall and waited to get permission to use it.

George was cooperative but sceptical; it was all up to the spirit world to decide. We asked Magnus (Lincoln’s guide) for permission twice, once at the first seance, then at the second. He did not say ‘Yes’. It was because, he explained, that Colin (Lincoln) was extremely sensitive to machinery, and it would take a lot of effort to harmonise the electro-magnetic waves emitting from it with other biological and spiritual waves coming from the sitters and from the spirits."

The secretary took this gracefully, intimating that asking for additional proof possibly revealed an attitude of mind inimical to the production of the phenomena he desired to capture anyway, and that he certainly would not want to be the cause of any diminution of this. While I could see how scepticism might get in the way, I couldn’t understand why a video recorder should be any more of a sign of it than individual eyes and ears, or the tape recorder routinely used, already were; in fact, it was possible that knowing an objective recording was being made might even have led to a softening of attitudes.

As for the notion of harmonising electro-magnetic, biological and spiritual "waves", while it was hard not to deride this as pseudo-science, particularly in view of the fact that a video camera registers rather than emits impressions, if it was indeed the case that "a lot of effort" was required from the spirit world to get around this problem, I wondered no one should think it an effort worth making, particularly in view of Michael Roll’s repeated insistence that:

"Our etheric counterparts are working just as hard, and they are just as keen to make sure every person on earth has access to the scientific proof of survival after death."

So far, I had come across no sign of this; but then I had come across disappointingly few contemporary accounts of the proceedings of any physical seances outside the pages of the NAS Newsletter. Jeffrey Iveson, in In Search of the Dead, quoted author Alan Gauld as saying:

"The full-form materialisations that were produced (in the past) seem to me to smack very strongly of fraud and conjuring, as do the ones I have seen myself. The only difference is that whereas it was cheesecloth in those days, it’s nylon or net curtains nowadays."

Dr Gauld went on to speculate:

"…that one reason such phenomena are minimal today, compared to the nineteenth century, is that advances in photography and various other devices enable investigators to see in the dark. This makes it much more difficult for mediums to get away with it."

Between the seemingly natural, ingrained belief I had that this must be what was going on, and my equal certainty that George Cranley and his cohorts couldn’t be being repeatedly fooled, and would hardly be fooling each other, there was a wide gulf.

Seances in the dark, with closed cabinets, and no filming, all pointed to a credulous public wanting so much to believe in survival they were prepared to turn a blind eye to even the most elementary precautions against deception. Yet, as George Cranley emphasised, the phenomena his Society was seeking should take second place to the evidence obtained. I even wondered whether, if evidence for survival became indisputable, it would much matter if fraud did occur.

Interestingly, none of the four scientists beloved by Michael Roll had experienced anything other than the production of apparently inexplicable phenomena; and they made no particular claims for the likely population or nature of any afterlife. Studies of physical mediums since the time of Crookes and Richet had made claims for survival, but because the claims were not endorsed by scientists, and no proof other than personal testimony was offered, generally – but not always – from people of little or no reputation outside spiritualistic circles, they couldn’t be given serious consideration.

Scientists, of course, were not complete strangers to dissembling, and were certainly not to be considered infallible, or the work of Richet and Crookes would have been unanswerable; but they were quite rightly thought less than averagely credulous, and more than usually observant; and their word was almost always respected. The only thing more convincing than the testimony of a scientist would have been its grudging acceptance by the establishment.


I already planned to visit an ordinary medium, in full light, with a tape recorder. I was under no illusions any phenomena would occur; and so I supposed whatever he or she told me that I recognised about people who were dead, since I would know it already, could be attributable to telepathy rather than survival.

Even if I was told something I didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, but that was later proved to be the case by someone else who did, it could be put down to what Dr Gauld called "super ESP".

Of course, science didn’t recognise ESP or telepathy as realities, and was still beavering away trying to prove the most basic, pictorial messages could be sent between two known, living, usually adjacent individuals, more often than would be accounted for by chance; so it would be extraordinary in its own right if a medium got anything correct even once, still less was able to repeatedly turn up actual facts from someone’s life.

It would be far more extraordinary, though still, I supposed, explainable through some form of ‘memory imprint’, if, instead of relaying information from the deceased, the medium was to produce, through the phenomenon known as direct voice, the sound of a dead individual speaking; and so extraordinary as to have no ready explanation other than that that individual had survived death, if they were to appear in the medium’s presence, recognisable, conscious and sentient.

Rita Gould was both a direct voice and a materialisation medium whose name cropped up repeatedly as someone who was active today, producing as verifiably fantastic results as any medium in the past, and who could, if the will had been there, be thoroughly investigated and – at least in Michael Roll’s view – prove to the world the reality of life after death.

That that hadn’t yet happened may have been due, as Roll claimed, to Rita Gould going underground, though it was impossible to say whether this was as a result of threats from the scientific establishment, in the form of anonymous phone calls, as he maintained, or she was afraid of being discovered fraudulent, as most people might have assumed, or her well-being and the survival of her gift were genuinely at risk from any concerted investigation, as her spirit guides were supposed to have advised her.

Certainly, it was unlikely to be the case that no investigator was forthcoming. Roll freely stated:

"My colleague, the psychologist, Dennis Kent is determined to film full materialisation phenomena."

His major difficulty, it appeared, was getting:

"…the physical mediums away from their Spiritualist minders and into the physics laboratory where this great experiment belongs."

I felt he was being altogether too sanguine. Very few of those qualified to undertake experiments in physics laboratories would be likely to admit they had witnessed something as heretical as full form materialisation; whatever the truth, their conviction would hardly be strong enough to overcome a reluctance to acknowledge the scientifically impossible.

Not wanting to jeopardise their careers, they would either say they believed there was no evidence to speak of, or they remained unconvinced by what they had seen or heard.

What they were likely to be confronted with, from the only account I had come across of Roll in the company of Rita Gould, was something pretty extraordinary. He described a seance which had taken place in a living room in Leicester, when four adults including himself and the medium were "physically" present, but where seven other characters, of different ages, sexes, and backgrounds, had materialised from "the etheric world".

Chairs and tables moved, matter was seen to pass through matter, variably sized figures walked about in luminous jacket and boots, one even thrusting a wooden drumstick through his body. Most of the characters were already known to Roll, and he claimed to have conversed with them, at length and in some depth, and to have verified their essential differences through touch. Besides this, they all apparently had strong, individual accents and exhibited pronounced former personal idiosyncrasies.

However, this seance wasn’t allowed to be photographed, nor even tape recorded, and of course the lights were off. In addition, we had only one man’s word for what went on. According to Roll:

"The visit from the Etherians lasted from 8.45 to past midnight… I was completely overcome and did not really recover for another 48 hours. If this experience has such a shattering effect on me, a person who has read psychic science all my life, what must it be like for an outsider?"

Precisely. I was surprised Roll imagined the establishment he generally derided would be likely to give him the thumbs up on account of a similar exhibition to this, albeit in a physics laboratory. I doubted if anybody, never mind someone in Roll’s position, could have had sufficiently sympathetic friends in the right places, considering the nature of what they would be investigating.

Nevertheless, Roll was indefatigable in his quest, giving lectures up and down the country, in public halls, on university campuses, usually in the company of Ron Pearson. Roll provided the historical evidence, Pearson the scientific back-up. I had obtained an amateur videotape of one of these meetings, at which Dennis Kent was also present. On this occasion, Roll had a little stall with his leaflets and books set out in front of him for sale or perusal, including those by his four scientists, all now long out-of-print.

I recognised them from their bindings and felt a surge of embarrassment, knowing that people from the audience, anticipating something truly spectacular, would be going up and opening the pages of these books, searching for the proof Roll talked of so glibly, only to find a hundred different varieties of splurged cheesecloth emanating from the orifices of mediums who always managed to look terminally constipated; or else agreeable pictures of pretty Katie King, carrying on for all the world like a precocious child at a dressing up party.

Yet Roll, rotund, avuncular, every inch the former rugby player he claimed to be, was confidence itself. He came across with the sort of casual mastery only experience of, and certainty in, a subject can produce, holding books up and reeling off information about them, talking of the pamphlets he had written, the supposed conspiracy against him, the support he had had from Ron Pearson, the progress they were making.

I felt he must have been the recipient of something fairly hefty in the way of personal testimony, both when he had met his deceased father and on other occasions, to have made him so unapologetic and down to earth about his belief, which was not so much in psychic phenomena – the paranormal effects didn’t seem to particularly interest him – as individual, universal survival; and for me the matter-of-factness of his conviction was its most appealing aspect.

The emphasis was wholly, unremittingly secular: survival wasn’t something that only happened to people who went to church, or who believed in a God; this was everyone’s destiny, just as it was to have been born; and Roll clearly, passionately felt the subject should be thrown wide open for examination.

An account he particularly recommended had been written by Gwyn Bryne, the mother of one of the "Etherians" who had appeared at the Leicester seance. Russell was the story of a child of the same name who had died of cancer, aged nine. Some time after his death, Gwyn had received a phone call from a stranger, who claimed to have been present at a physical seance given by Rita Gould, where Russell had materialised and had given his parents’ phone number for them to ring.

This book, which was something of a welcome antidote to the dry, scientific tomes I had recently laboured through, chronicled Gwyn’s subsequent experiences, at innumerable seances, apparently speaking and listening to her son, seeing him, being given presents by him – objects seemingly materialising from nowhere – even touching him.

I was affected by the story, and particularly by Gwyn’s pertinent comments on how useless orthodox religion had been, how irrelevant in relation to her loss, and how harshly it had treated her venture into spiritualism, promising her another world while condemning her for trying to contact it; but it was hard not to conclude that the marvels she recounted could so easily have been made up, or that she could have been genuinely mistaken in thinking they had actually happened. Once again, any reader had only the word of a stranger, however endearing, to go by.

Dr H.H. Furness was even more of a stranger to me, being a long-dead member of a commission set up to investigate spiritualistic claims in America earlier in the century; but he, quoted in Ruth Brandon’s, The Spiritualists, had put the likelihood of sitters at a seance being mistaken in stark terms:

"…at another seance, a woman, a visitor, led from the Cabinet to me a Materialized Spirit, whom she introduced to me as ‘her daughter, her dear, darling daughter,’ while nothing could be clearer to me than the features of the Medium in every line and lineament. Again and again, men have led round the circles the Materialized Spirits of their wives, and introduced them to each visitor in turn; fathers have taken round their daughters, and I have seem widows sob in the arms of their dead husbands. Testimony, such as this, staggers me. Have I been smitten with color-blindness? Before me, as far as I can detect, stands the very Medium herself, in shape, size, form, and feature true to a line, and yet, one after another, honest men and women at my side, within ten minutes of each other, assert that she is the absolute counterpart of their nearest and dearest friends, nay, that she IS that friend."

If this was true, and if such blatant self-delusion could happen, it could presumably happen anywhere to anyone – even someone, like Michael Roll, who had been "reading psychic science" all his life.

Of course, we had only the good doctor’s word to go on for the degree of credulity present, and we had to remember his account was being quoted, possibly out of context, by someone who was not herself neutral. Certainly, it was hard to reconcile what he said with the impression gleaned from Alan Crossley’s book, In Search of Helen Duncan, about the 1940’s physical medium of that name.

A succession of statements, made by respectable witnesses at her trial proceedings in 1942, when she was charged under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 with "falsely pretending she was capable of holding communication with deceased persons and causing their spirits to materialise", indicated if that wasn’t precisely what she had been doing then those present at her seances who subsequently testified on her behalf were more prone to suggestion – or perjury – than could readily be imagined. According to Crossley:

"Witness after witness told of the return of the dead – wives, husbands, children, friends and even animals."

A lady known as Mrs Norah Alphonsine Tremlett, of Aldsworth Manor, Emsworth, Hampshire:

"…talked of the figures which appeared at the Duncan seance on 14 January – the forms for Lieutenant R.H. Worth; the little girl Shirley, the child control; the man with the mutilated arm who sobbed; the parrot and the cat."

Another, Alfred Dodds, a Shakespearian scholar, described his shock at a seance he had attended in Manchester when, from the cabinet:

"Out there came the large form of my grandfather. I knew it was him because he was a very big man of more than six feet and very corpulent. He looked around the room very critically till his eyes caught mine.

He then strode right across the room from the cabinet and touched the heads of the two sitters beside me. He grasped my hand and said, ‘I am pleased to see you, Alfred, in my native city.’ I looked at him very carefully. He had on the smoking cap he used to wear and he had the donkey fringe (a style of wearing his hair) I knew. His face was brown and bronzed, and he had the same look in his eyes, and the same tone I knew so well."

Without knowing, or having remotely known of, Mrs Tremlett or Alfred Dodds, it was impossible to be sure they were not either gullible fools or inveterate liars; or indeed, that Helen Duncan was not the most consummate hypnotist.

It did seem, in this light, particularly disappointing that in lieu of any personal testimony from the medium, who declined to speak on her own behalf on the basis she was in trance at the time the alleged offences were being committed, the court refused to take up her repeated offer to hold a seance, or seances, for the jury to judge for themselves. The Recorder maintained:

"There is no use wasting the time of the jury witnessing some kind of demonstration. It is bad enough a London jury having to try a case from Portsmouth, without having their time occupied by witnessing demonstrations or exhibitions which may or may not assist them."

That such a demonstration could only have benefited any jury that had not already made up its collective mind suggested the court, at least, was not looking for justice so much as to silence a medium who, according to Crossley, was allegedly revealing war secrets – specifically the deaths of servicemen – often before the authorities had heard of them. It was difficult to see, in the circumstances, how any seance, particularly a successful one, would have been faithfully reported. Helen Duncan was duly convicted and imprisoned.

Of all known writers, it would be hardest to imagine Sir Arthur Conan Doyle failing to report something as he saw it, even if what he saw was not, as proved so often the case for Dr Watson, what the evidence seemed to suggest. This made it all the more difficult to know what to make of Conan Doyle’s bald statement in The History of Spiritualism, concerning a seance presided over by an American materialisation medium known as Jonson:

"Upon the occasion of the sitting at which the author was present, a long succession of figures came, one at a time, from a small cabinet. They were old and young, men, women, and children."

It was no easier to believe, had Dr H.H. Furness been present on that occasion, he would have changed his mind that all materialised characters were contrivances of the medium or the fantasies of the sitter, than it was to imagine Conan Doyle being as wholly mistaken as such a view would have implied.

Of course, if the gulf between the believers and the sceptics was easy of solution, it wouldn’t have existed. Part of the problem may have been irreconcilable. Spiritualists invariably claimed the success or otherwise of a seance, particularly one involving materialisation, depended in large part on the atmosphere. This might not have been something science was prepared to recognise, although it was difficult for it to dispute. Swaffer, a psychic investigator providing evidence at the Helen Duncan trial, was asked, according to Crossley:

"…what part the sitters played in the production of physical phenomena. He replied that the more unity there was, the more blending there was of temperament, the easier it was for the phenomena to take place – just in the same way that you start a conversation at a dinner party."

If this was the case, and the difference between a convivial and antagonistic atmosphere, depending largely on the thought processes, both conscious and unconscious, of those present, was particularly discernible to the medium – who was, after all, also known as a sensitive – it meant any investigative presence would be antipathetical to success.

The more hostile this presence was, the more sceptical any observer, the less they, or anyone else, would see. Although this hardly began to explain why his fellow sitters should have singularly failed to identify what Dr Furness apparently did, it might clarify why so little actual proof of anything in this field existed, and why, the more assiduously enquirers sought, the less they found.

Adding to the difficulty of creating an harmonious atmosphere was the forced mixing of minds. The analogy of the dinner party was a useful one. While there were always exceptions, investigators tended to come from the opposite side of the cultural divide, as well as the other end of the social scale, to the people they were investigating.

Mediums – assuming they were genuine – acted as channels for information they had little choice but to accept at face value; they knew no more about what took place during a trance than they were told afterwards; meanwhile, investigators assessed it all dubiously, as if from on high. It was hard to imagine the two sides agreeing on anything at a dinner table, even the quality of the meal.

I came across a typical example of this in Colin Wilson’s book, Afterlife, where in a postscript, the author described a physical seance he had attended in the Midlands. As I read, I realised, although he called his medium "Martha", he was almost certainly talking about Rita Gould, because he repeated the, only slightly changed, story I already knew about Russell, the boy who had died of cancer.

Colin Wilson had been persuaded to make this visit by a "correspondent" who had heard he was writing a book about life after death and assured him Rita Gould would provide evidence of this. As Wilson put it:

"She was, said my correspondent, a ‘materialisation medium’, and during her seances, perfectly solid people would appear out of thin air and walk about the room. They would behave exactly like normal people, replying to questions, allowing themselves to be touched and sitting down at the side of members of the audience".

Wilson went and was unimpressed. His description of the seance, from the over-effusive welcome he received, through the awkward serving of tea and the tacky preparations for blanking out all light from the seance room, to the distinctly questionable nature of what phenomena occurred, were evocative of a man not so much out of his depth as simply unsure of, and uncomfortable in, unusual, atypical surroundings. It was also disappointingly low-key. It seemed unlikely – though no more, I supposed, than that powered flight should have emerged from an undistinguished corner of backwoods America – that televised confirmation that we did indeed survive death was going to come from here.

The climax of the seance was when a character called Raymond appeared. Raymond was famous in spiritualistic circles, and had been for some time. He claimed to be Sir Oliver Lodge’s son, who had died during World War 1. Oliver Lodge was as great a scientist in his day as Crookes had been in his, and his investigations into spiritualism, which he found personally convincing, produced almost as much antipathy amongst his colleagues as Crookes’ had. He wrote a book, Raymond, devoted to proving communication had been established with his dead son; and, on the proviso that what he said happened actually did happen, rather than was merely believed to have done, or was simply made up, it was a convincing document.

Raymond had reappeared at intervals ever since, at a number of different seances, and according to one source – a trance medium called Ray Smith, who claimed to become, when unconscious, the mouthpiece of Sir Oliver Lodge – had long been reunited with his father on the other side.

Why Raymond should have bothered to appear on this occasion, still less engage in what turned out to be an unseemly tussle with Colin Wilson, was beyond me, unless it was the earnest desire of those in the spirit world to spread more confusion than already existed as to its reality. The story went:

"’Raymond’ arrived, and introduced himself to me. It was at this point that my vague doubts began to become insistent. This ‘Raymond’ sounded nothing like the voice I had heard on tape (previously sent to him by his correspondent). He spoke in rather a slow voice, with an upper-class accent, and a slightly feminine intonation, like Ella Shields as ‘Burlington Bertie’.

I asked him if it was true that spirits could see in the dark, and he confirmed this – in fact, told me that when a friend of mind from the Society for Psychical Research had attended one of Martha’s seances, he had astonished him by telling him how many fingers he was holding up. He added that the room had been full of wires at the time, and that the spirits had proved their ability to see in the dark by avoiding them.

This seemed an invitation, so I asked ‘Raymond’ whether he could tell me what expression I was wearing on my face at the moment. I pulled a horribly distorted face and thrust out my lips. ‘Raymond’ asked hesitantly: ‘You mean if you’ve got your mouth open, or something?’ And quite suddenly, I knew beyond all possibility of doubt that ‘Raymond’ could not see in the dark. I said yes, that was what I meant. ‘Raymond’ replied promptly that ‘he didn’t do that any more’. Why not? I asked, and he explained that it convinced no one. ‘But it would convince me’, I told him. ‘For example, if you could tell me how many fingers I am now holding up.’ I held up two fingers. ‘We don’t do that anymore’, said ‘Raymond’ irritably. ‘Why not? Wouldn’t you like to convince me?’ ‘Raymond’ explained that if I left the house, and stated in print that ‘Raymond’ had been able to count my fingers, no one would accept this as proof. They would accuse Martha of using an infra-red light or something of the sort. I explained again that it was not a question of convincing other people, but of convincing me. If he could tell me how many fingers I was holding up, I would accept he was a spirit. If not, I wouldn’t.

At this, ‘Raymond’ became very waspish. They had already given me all the evidence I should need, he said. They had allowed me to touch the spirits, and to see them by the light of the torch (encased in a red sock to dull the beam). I pointed out that the torch showed nothing that could be regarded as evidence ? not even whether Martha was still sitting in her armchair. And while it was true that someone had taken my hand and allowed me to touch her arm, I certainly could not swear that it was not Martha herself.

It became very clear to me that seventy years in the spirit world had not eliminated ‘Raymond’s’ ordinary human characteristics; it was obvious that he was finding it hard to control his temper. They had given me proof, he insisted. That should be enough. And I insisted that he only had to tell me how many fingers I was holding up to remove all my doubts. ‘We don’t do that kind of thing any more…’ I noticed that as he became angry, the voice seemed to become more feminine.

It seemed pointless to continue, and I said so. The music was played, and the lights turned on. It was a very awkward moment. I was as certain as I could reasonably be that ‘Raymond’ was a fraud, and it seemed to follow that the whole seance had been a fake. Martha woke up sleepily and asked what had happened; Bill (Martha’s husband) explained that ‘Raymond’ and I had had a disagreement. I thanked them and took my leave quickly, anxious to avoid further embarrassment."

Perhaps Raymond was justified in his actions. As Wilson admitted:

"Even if ‘Raymond’ had been able to count my fingers and read the expression on my face – even if he had been able to read my mind – it would have made no real difference. It would merely have confirmed what I already believe to be true: that such things are possible."

So why did he insist on it? Even if he had no doubts it was possible, he admitted to harbouring serious questions about Raymond and Martha – and presumably Bill – which would have materially affected the atmosphere. It wouldn’t be logical to suggest that a difficult atmosphere would make a genuine medium indulge in fraud, but it might make fraud appear the more likely explanation for phenomena that failed to convince.

Perhaps, if Colin Wilson had allowed events to take their course, something more evidential of an afterlife, something more personal to him, than the contested ability to see in the dark – for which infra-red assistance was always going to be a possibility – might have occurred. I found myself wishing it had. I admired Colin Wilson, and rather more to the point, I felt I could trust him to tell me, and the world, the truth – which was what he had just done. If he had said that he had met and embraced his dead father in Rita Gould’s living room, I would have had less of a struggle with my sceptical side than when Michael Roll said the same.

I could no longer doubt that it was Roll who had encouraged Wilson to go to this seance. As Wilson explained:

"The correspondent who had first told me about Martha was furious when I sent him my report on the seance. He had no doubt whatever that she was genuine, and if I disagreed, then it must be because I had joined the ranks of the wilfully blind. I explained that I was not certain that Martha was a fraud, but that I was a hundred per cent certain that ‘Raymond’ was. This failed to mollify him. Nothing would convince him that I had not gone over to the ‘enemy’."

Only someone who believed in, and talked unceasingly of, "an establishment conspiracy of awesome proportions", could have reacted in this way. Which was not to say that that made Roll wrong in thinking Rita Gould was genuine, and would provide ultimate proof of an afterlife, but only that until such proof was forthcoming, he should maintain an open mind, or else he would be thought as blinkered as those he so freely and frequently disparaged.

It was at about this time that I made a less fraught, nothing like as embarrassing, though hardly more conclusive, investigation myself, into the trance mediumship of Ray Smith. This was the gentleman who claimed to act as the mouthpiece for Raymond’s father, Sir Oliver Lodge; although Smith, in the forward to his book ‘by’ Sir Oliver, Nobody wants to Listen and Yet, rather downplayed this, saying:

"…it does not surprise me that people who witness my trance sittings may think that the invisible friends who influence my mind are but other levels of my own personality."

Smith admitted to wondering why it was:

"…the invisible friends only seem to give snippets of information instead of a string of personal details that would leave no doubt in our minds."

He also freely acknowledged:

"Even my own mother promised to try her best to return with irrefutable evidence of her survival yet, so far, in my opinion, she has not achieved this."

Ray Smith lived in Southern Spain, and made frequent tours, with his wife, of Spiritualist churches throughout England. I went to one in Brighton, where I sat in a reasonably crowded hall and listened to a man who looked and sounded as if he was giving a golf club address explain how his overriding desire in life was to live to see the unification of science and religion. This sounded both familiar and homely. He then sat down, his wife switched on a cassette of indistinguishable music, and within about fifteen seconds, Ray Smith metamorphorsised into Sir Oliver Lodge.

He was still the same man, of course, although I would have been far more impressed if he hadn’t been. He sat, moved, gestured and spoke differently, but looked otherwise identical. Had he been an actor, it would have been a competent performance. The sad part about it was that after a few minutes, the effect palled. I had paid to go and would never have contemplated leaving early had others not done so, some not even bothering to disguise their obvious disappointment.

What they had expected I don’t know – perhaps the ectoplasmic transfiguration I had secretly hoped for myself – but I was surprised to hear ‘Sir Oliver’, who could evidently listen even if, with Ray Smith’s eyes shut, he complained (curiously, in view of Wilson’s account of ‘Raymond’s’ claim to be able to do this in the dark) he couldn’t see, compare the intermittent scraping back of chairs and heavy footfalls of exiting punters to student behaviour he had experienced as a university lecturer.

I found it excruciating to be caught between a man I couldn’t be sure was in a trance, still less speaking with the genuine personality of a long dead physicist, but who I felt nevertheless deserved a fair hearing, and the silent reproach of those of his audience who had already made up their minds and were walking out on him. I doubted the students of his day would have been so rude, but then they would not have been expected to question his authenticity.

I returned home none the wiser. Was Ray Smith a liar, a consummate actor, a dupe of a secondary personality inside his own head, or was Sir Oliver Lodge, more than half a century after his death, communicating through this medium with those of us interested in the subject of an afterlife that had so troubled him in his own lifetime?

I bought a copy of ‘their’ book, wondering what secrets it might reveal, and was unsurprised to discover little beyond the standard spiritualist fare. Yet, at the same time, that standard fare was, out of all the descriptions I had come across, from those in the Bible or Koran to those of L. Ron Hubbard or Prophet Joseph Smith, the most reasonable, logical, pleasing and – if given a modicum of scientific credence – likely explanation of what Shakespeare knew only well enough to call:

"That undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns."


I found it necessary to continually remind myself why spending time investigating what happened to people when they died was no more abnormal or unhealthy than any other preoccupation and was far from being a sign I was tired of my own earthly life.

It seemed, in all fairness, not that different from those mundane affairs we were exhorted from an early age to take such an interest in, because the known future depended on them: such matters as our education, our career plans, the best means of supporting ourselves and our families.

At every stage of life we were expected to anticipate, or have our parents do so for us, what we wanted and how we should go about getting it; so that nowadays we could hardly begin our pension provision soon enough; but if it had been seriously suggested by anyone other than a church buffoon that we might already be paying, behaviourally, into an other-worldly, compound interest trust fund, of which we would be the sole beneficiary in our next life, the majority of us would have treated the idea for all practical purposes as risible.

If it had been further explained that it wasn’t simply what we did but more particularly the way we thought that found its way onto the celestial ledger, and that there was no more chance of entries being successfully covered-up than there was of our avoiding a final accounting, we would have had even more difficulty taking the matter to heart – at least, in the same way we did our future mortgage payments.

This would be because none of it would seem any more real or threatening than the prospect of an afterlife already did. We knew education and opportunity mattered and would influence our style of life in ways we couldn’t conceive of our manner of living affecting us when we died. Yet it was the unmistakable message from every world religion, as it had been from every thinker seriously addressing the issue, that individuals reaped in the next world what they sowed in this one. The fact we paid such scant heed to any more than the most immediate repercussions of the way we thought and acted only reflected our current disbelief that any such world existed.

It might have been wondered why, if that was the case, our ancestors, living for the most part in thrall to religion, were not noticeably more attentive to themselves and others than the record suggests, since they certainly believed their conduct directly determined what happened to them in the next life: principally, whether they went to a glorious heaven or deeply unpleasant hell; but in all epochs and across the cultural board, required behaviour had traditionally been inimical to finer feelings.

Being mostly outwardly oriented, with cruel, rigid guidelines, any deviation from which amounted to heresy, people everywhere, throughout history, must have felt either irredeemably lost, or else that they had good reason to believe in their own righteousness, however at odds their behaviour might now seem with genuine sanctity.

Any discrepancy between what individuals may have sensed – even if they couldn’t put it into words – and what the ecclesiastical authority of the day laid down, would have been unhesitantly inhibited; until, that was, questioning the message of God became commonplace; by which time, of course, it had became equally commonplace to question his omnipotence, too.

Prior to the modern age, humans lived and died for generations without once doubting either, taking it for granted that this life was the school house for the next; all they differed over was what constituted right behaviour and how it would be rewarded, while unthinkingly adopting whatever codes were accepted by the society they lived in.

For many, knowing what was objectively correct, what should or shouldn’t be proscribed, was far more of a problem today; although an underlying suspicion ran through all cultures that individual conscience was, in effect, the higher self: that we knew intuitively what was right or wrong; and that as this knowledge was something we were born with, it remained wholly unaffected, though only too readily obscured, by our circumstances of life.

We were in a better position than ever before to demand of ourselves the truth about these issues. As a society, we had unsurpassed intellect and learning, access to veritable storehouses of erudition, sufficient leisure, a plethora of sophisticated devices, and ample funds. We should have been able to discover, once and for all, whether and in what form we survived the grave; and if we did, what our earthly modus operandi ought to be, and why. Otherwise, we might as well have still been in the dark ages for all our alleged sophistication.

To discover the answers – to know whether it was better to slaughter animals while facing in a certain direction or to avoid doing harm to any living creature, and to know whether we would be rewarded beyond the grave as a result of this – we needed to ignore the behests of most existing churches.

Not only did they have no clear rationale, they had no means of verifying their myths. Their mutual edifice was built on the assumption that revelations received by historical figures, as nowadays recorded – with contemporary emphases – were true and correct impressions of another world, rather than the sorts of fantasy we might more rationally expect to hear from the inmates of an asylum.

In this respect, I was intrigued to come across a letter in Psychic News reminding readers there was such a thing as a "Universal Doctrine, as subscribed to by Socrates, Plato and Jesus"; and giving other, less well known examples:

"Confucius: Do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you. LaoTse: Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss. Buddha: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. Hinduism: Do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. Jainism: A man should treat all beings as he himself would be treated. Zoroaster: That nature only is good that does not unto another whatever is not good for its own self. Mohammed: No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself. Judaism: What is hurtful to yourself do not to your fellow men. Sikhism: As thou deemest thyself so deem others. Shintoism: The suffering of others is my suffering, the good of others is my good. Sai Baba: Whatever you feel should not be done to you by others, avoid doing such to them."

The trouble was, similarly pithy phrases could probably have been found from most of these same sources advocating an altogether different approach, along the lines of – "Christianity: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

Although this obviously did not make a loving attitude wrong, treating and thinking of your neighbour kindly was a universal moral precept that could, and did, stand up in a secular society, too. It was, after all, a humanist doctrine. The problem was, how were ordinary mortals supposed to know whether it represented the major stairway to heaven, as opposed to mere heaven on earth; or even that there was even a celestial level to ascend to?

For all purposes of discovery, prayer could be discounted on the grounds it was a one way communication. Solace might be a result, but not increased knowledge, other than of the self. I saw little reason to make allowances for people who ‘heard’ the voice of God in their heads, since this hardly constituted proof they were not the victims of over powerful imaginations.

Mediumship was undoubtedly more useful as an avenue of exploration; but it suffered from the disadvantage of being wholly impersonal, with any investigator relying on another, possibly fallible – not to say fraudulent – individual for increasingly detailed intimacies about a world that for all they knew could have been entirely fanciful.

Meditation remained suspect because it strove, in keeping with its source religions, to bypass the world – or worlds – of cause and effect, the suggestion being that by repeatedly entering the stillness at our centre we could hope to escape the vicissitudes of existence altogether, both in this life and the next.

I lived near a Buddhist community where young Westerners sporting brown robes and shaven heads spent inordinate amounts of time meditating, often in small, windowless huts in woodland adjoining the monastery, trying to reach a place inside themselves that would enable them to forget their seperatedness in a way that was as near as they would get in this life to communion with ‘the source’. Inevitably, mundane thought intervened, and they either fell by the wayside, returning to the secular world; or else redoubled their efforts.

I felt they could more usefully and gainfully have employed their time, even – or especially – as Buddhists. This was despite recognising, deep down inside, some such craving of my own spirit for the ultimate reunion with its source, which I knew in my heart would be better than sex and was why people took drugs. It was something I instinctively believed in, craved after, and wondered how I would ever find; but I also thought it was far from proved we should try and make that journey from our restricted vantage point on earth, or that if we did, we would do anything but fall alarmingly short; and that by making the effort we were missing out on, avoiding even, the other stages of life – both earthly and other-worldly.

To me, it was as if, being a teenager, I had wanted to become an old man, wise before his time, overnight: it couldn’t realistically be done; or if it could, there seemed little point having been born in order to do it. Elevation from the normal, material world to nirvana, by-passing all intermediate learning states, had to be unrealistically hopeful.

Buddhism already provided a seemingly excellent means of investigating the periphery of the next world – that young adult stage of a teenager’s life – which was not through meditation but the medium of dreams. It was difficult to tie down precisely what Buddhists made of the dream world, particularly as they considered our physical existence on earth fairly illusory anyway; but it was probably safe to say, since they treated it in a similar light to the initial realm we entered when we died, they believed the two were one and the same.

This tied in with esoteric teachings claiming that when we fell asleep we woke in a world that was as objective and real as – if vastly different to and infinitely more variable than – the earth; and that this was the same place we found ourselves in after dying. Once dead, our tenure there, according to the occult view, could be more or less indefinite, depending on personal progress; whereas Buddhism restricted us to as little as forty five days, before our forcible rebirth.

Apart from Buddhists and followers of occult teachings, and with the possible exception of Aborigines and other tribal animists, no other religious group – and certainly not the Christian or Islamic movements, for whom nocturnal life had little relevance – advocated investigation of the dream world as a preparation for, and prelude to, eventual birth, or rebirth, there on the day of our death. In fact, the notion that our dreamscape might be objectively real, in the same way as the Sussex Downs, rather than a hotch potch of confused memories and imaginings, would have been anathema to most of them.

This was certainly as it would be for the average scientist, and particularly psychologist, of today. Whereas they might see some use in investigating dreams, remembering and interpreting them as a means of addressing unconscious issues of worldly concern, they would dismiss as sheer lunacy any suggestion these events took place in an actual rather than imaginary location – centred, naturally, within the brain – as they would the even more outlandish idea that that location was where we would spend our post mortem existence.

For the run-of-the-mill dreamer, whose nighttime experiences made little sense but did appear, when they were remembered, inextricably linked with their everyday lives, the psychological view was what was generally believed. It was, after all, so logical. The conscious mind shut down at night, the unconscious took over, and all the forbidden things we hadn’t let ourselves do, or all the things we’d done that we shouldn’t have, rushed to the surface and got mixed up in a freakish parody of life.

Yet, this didn’t explain why dreams should be so exotic, or why they were difficult to remember, or even why we dreamed at all, in such splendid detail, when half the time we weren’t aware of doing so. Those few times we were, we still remained at the mercy of whoever, or whatever, directed our actions, with events running their course despite rather than because of us.

This may have reflected how we lived our lives, or it may have simply been that we had lost the habit of being in charge in such a diffuse realm; but so much that went on while we slept remained beyond our control, that we could even be said to be present in our dreams was dubious.

Periodically, I had kept a dream record book, waking during the night to write what I remembered down. I got the idea originally from my father, who had had a keen interest in JW Dunn’s theories of precognition, even claiming once to have dreamed the winner of a horse race.

I usually got bored, finding myself with a notebook of scribbles but nothing much to show for them except disturbed nights and a sense of abiding mystery as to why I should be spending time in another, altogether as real, every bit as interesting, world that I could remember no more of during the day than if I had been sent occasional film footage of adventures I had forgotten taking part in.

I couldn’t grasp why this quasi-existence should prove so elusive. It was a struggle to remember a dream and all but impossible to keep it in mind without writing it down; but when I did make the effort, I was astonished, even when recalling only fragments, how redolent they were, in richness, precision and undoubted – if hidden – purpose, of a different life, as charged with meaning as this one.

Yet this world, this existence, went on largely unnoticed. Absolutely anything could have been happening in it, night after night, with me at centre stage, without my waking self knowing any more about it than I did the life of a stranger.

Of the dreams I remembered, some were mere superficial ramblings, others as deep as canyons. A few, admittedly, were so extraordinary I hardly needed to record them; I still had one or two in my mind from twenty years before. Even so, largely because traditional theories of interpretation were of no interest to me, and without them I couldn’t make enough of my dreams to warrant the effort involved, enthusiasm for committing this alternative existence to paper invariably lapsed.

Of course, what the Buddhists and occultists were involved in was something quite different. They weren’t interested in the ability, when awake, to remember and interpret what happened at night, any more than they would have been interested in the day’s activities once they had fallen asleep; or, if they were, it was as a preliminary exercise in mental discipline that paved the way for the dream yoga that enabled them to wrest control of their dreams from, in modern terms, their unconscious selves, and explore, purposefully, the dream world.

It was clear this was a practical, realistic way, not necessarily of proving anything decisive about whether people’s behaviour on earth determined what happened to them when they died, or even where my father was now – though I didn’t dismiss these possibilities – but of venturing into an inner world that would at least give some inkling of whether the mind was capable of acting separately from the brain, on which all investigation and any further speculation depended.

Dream yoga wasn’t being practised in the Buddhist community near me and was definitely not something individual Buddhists I knew thought worth pursuing; but I found references to it in The Tibetan Book of the Dead that suggested adeptness was the sole, realistic way of achieving insight into the mystery of existence:

"There is a very profound system of yoga in which the devotee’s aim is to enter the dream state at will and carry on experiments therein in full consciousness of being in the dream state, and then return to the waking state with complete memory of the experience…"

Buddhists talked of the ‘next world’ being made up of a number of bardo, or in-between, states, one or more of which would approximate to what occultists called the astral plane. According to their teachings:

"The Bardo body, formed of matter in an invisible or ethereal-like state, is an exact duplicate of the human body, from which it is separated in the process of death. Retained in the Bardo body are the consciousness-principle and the psychic nerve system (the counterpart, for the psychic or Bardo body, of the physical nerve-system of the human body)."

This was so uncannily similar to the astral body talked of by occultists and others that they had to be assumed to be one and the same. Buddhist and occult teachings were likewise virtually indistinguishable when it came to the possibility of entry into the bardo or astral world, via the dream state, while alive, in order to explore and map it; and were more or less in agreement that this was the same world we would find ourselves in when we died.

Where Buddhists differed was not so much in their insistence on the ephemeral nature of this state but the limited options available to people residing in – or, more to the point, passing through – it, and perhaps most importantly, the amount of time they spent there. The fact both schools of thought stressed its ultimate unreality was hardly germane when it was realised they considered our familiar, physical world equally, if not even more, illusory.

Actual – as opposed to theoretical – recognition of the insubstantial nature of the dream state, which was conditional on a prior, necessarily heartfelt acknowledgement our own world was similarly false, apparently brought liberation; otherwise, what was only ever transitional soon ended; although the Tibetan Book of the Dead made the point that the bardo existence was:

"…symbolically described as an intermediate state of forty nine days duration between death and rebirth",

so possibly the interval was not to be taken literally. If this was the case, the twin Buddhist concepts of eventual rebirth or ultimate liberation could be said to be analogous with occult ideas, whose concept of time in any post mortem existence was fluid in the extreme.

I had come across a number of contemporary dream researchers who were investigating and mapping very similar territory to this, in a more or less identical way, and doing what they could to make the skills involved readily accessible to others. Their aim was to become conscious during a dream, and then direct it, exploring the world they found themselves in and their reactions to it in preference to remaining passive participants in what would otherwise effectively have been someone else’s story.

The only real difference between the lucid dreaming being done today, in a remarkably open, available, ritual-free manner, by professional dream researchers and members of the general public during their hours of sleep, and the age old practice of dream yoga, was that the leading contemporary ‘onironauts’ – as they called themselves – didn’t believe their sleep world had any objective reality.

So far as they were concerned, it was a structure created, peopled and animated by, and therefore contained within, their individual minds. Nobody could enter another person’s dream, any more than their dream world would continue after they woke up. Least of all could anyone expect to find themselves in a similar, familiar place when they died, since their mind would have perished with them.

The crux of the difference between ancients and moderns was once again the crucial question of whether the mind could exist separately from the brain, or if they were one and the same. On this simple matter ultimately hinged the reality or otherwise of our possible survival of death. If our minds died with our brains there was no hope of immortality – unless, of course, Tipler was right in his resurrection thesis. If, on the other hand, our minds could be shown to exist independently from the brain, albeit while that brain was still alive, there would be a formidable case to answer. That this hadn’t been proven, either way, I found maddening.

There were a number of avenues for exploration. The astral world was traditionally regarded as an objective place – meaning it was recognisably the same location for everyone; but it was formed largely subjectively, with each one of us creating our own unique version. Comparing notes of where we had been and what we had done was only likely to strengthen the view that these things were not real in the sense that our known world was. Although I had read reports of people apparently meeting in their dreams, and confirming the details of their mutual experience afterwards, these remained, as they obviously had to, anecdotal stories, which there was no conceivable way of verifying.

If, however, the astral world did exist outside our living brains, and if it was where our minds went when we died, and if my father was one of many, many people there now – I was discounting the Buddhist contention that he had long since been reborn – then logic suggested I could meet him. In fact, it implied I may well have done so already, without knowing I had.

People claimed to meet their dead relatives in their dreams, and embrace and converse with them; so I supposed I might do the same if I persevered to the point where I could remember and direct my nightlife. Should that happen, and I woke up certain I had been with my dead father, there was then the question of what he might have said to me, what I should have asked him, that would show he was not, as might otherwise be assumed, a figment of my imagination.

One leading onironaut, who headed an international organisation dedicated to the investigation of lucid dreaming, expressed the orthodox view:

"We have anecdotes from several people who have met deceased relatives in lucid dreams and gotten a feeling of reassurance and comfort from that final goodbye. It’s not necessary to believe you are really meeting with that person’s soul or spirit, because the conflict and distress you feel is your own, in your own mind."

It was indicative of the current state of play in this field that any objective investigator who wanted to be taken seriously and who valued the opinion of contemporaries would have made much the same claim, whether or not they believed it. I had been told by the secretary of a dowsing society that its more scientifically minded members invariably waited until after retirement before joining, not because they lacked interest or spare time while in employment but because they were afraid of losing, if not their jobs, certainly the respect of their colleagues.

Because there was so little prospect of learning anything that either I or anyone else still living didn’t already know or couldn’t have found out if we wanted, proving actual rather than imaginary contact had taken place would have been almost impossible. It might be supposed that a dead person living on the astral plane would have automatic access to any information they wanted from our world; but then, I reasoned, so might our dream selves.

This was another, very different area for speculation. Notwithstanding the possibility of nightly travel in astral realms, where the dead may or may not have lived on, it seemed there was also the possibility of our traversing the known world, in an insubstantial and far more fleet body than we usually enjoyed.

In occult literature, this was known as the etheric body, and was the stuff of phantoms or ghosts. It was claimed to be every bit as accessible to us as our astral guise, supposedly sandwiched between that and our flesh and blood form; and for us to don it and go somewhere, at any point in place or time – but always remaining in the known world – was simply a question of our desiring to do so. The clear implication was that we already did this, most nights, in our sleep, but that we either didn’t remember, or when we did, it was only afterwards that we realised where we had been.

Such journeys were, of course, more commonly known as Out of the Body, or OB, Experiences, and as a phenomena were well documented. The only real difference between a lucid dream and an OBE – apart from the fact that those OBEs we were aware of tended to occur in a trancelike state during waking hours, often emphasising the distinctness of separation from the physical body by enabling us to see it as it was being left behind – was that an OBE had a clear beginning and end and was a consistently conscious state. Lucid dreams, by contrast, had more of a lucky dip quality about them, beginning as an ordinary dream, with consciousness arising, as it were, from nowhere, and then vanishing when control was lost.

In both cases, it was supposedly possible, with practice, to visit either our known or the astral world, in different but similar bodies, interact with people there, glean information, and return, remembering everything as easily as we would a trip abroad, all without ‘doing’ any more than we already did when we slept at night, or took a catnap during the day, apart from becoming more conscious of what this was.

The notion was so simple, yet at the same time so prodigious, it would have been inconceivable had it not been for the glimpses we all got at night of an existence beyond this one. Yet some people went further still. Oscar Ichazo, in Master Level Exercises, claimed, as Immanual Kant had hinted:

"Modern research is discovering what has been known in ancient schools and sects of meditation. That our dreams and states of dreaming are in fact being produced twenty-four hours a day. However, they appear to us only when our consciousness sinks inside our body, producing a detachment of our sensory awareness, obliterating us from the external world… It is a good reference, then, to say that dreams are like the stars that only appear under the conditions of a clear night; and although they certainly exist permanently, we are not aware of them under the light of the sun."

Believing this to be the case, and that we were alive and functioning in the dream world even while living our daytime lives – in fact, while ruminating on these very words – was not hard once we properly appreciated how little we knew or remembered during our sleeping hours.

Quite what it would mean for someone sitting down in the afternoon, entering a species of trance, and ‘separating’ from his body, in order to do a spot of armchair travelling, when, according to Ichazo, his astral or etheric double was already accounted for in some other dimension, was difficult to say. Possibly, the moment of apparent separation was the biggest illusion of all.

What was certain was that in our culture and epoch we were missing a lot. Nobody had produced any statistics, except to compute the amount of time we spent in Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, sleep, which had been shown to coincide with periods of dreaming, the implication being that when REM sleep was not present, we were ‘merely’ sleeping; but it seemed presumptuous to assume, because the majority of subjects couldn’t remember anything on being woken from non-REM sleep, nothing was occurring, when vast numbers of us appeared to believe, if we dreamt at all, it was a good deal more briefly than our eye movements suggested.

Edward Heath made this, and much else besides, crystal clear when he said, quite seriously, in the prime of life:

"I go to sleep and I never dream."


Clearly, intelligence, sensitivity and a position of importance in world affairs, were no assurance against being wrong. The only question was, how wrong were those, unquestionably in the majority, who accepted that they dreamed, but didn’t believe their dreams meant any more than a nightly sorting operation for their brain’s filing system?

Long before my father’s death, I had consumed books and articles on the subjects of lucid dreaming, OBEs and astral travelling; and also, to a lesser extent, NDEs; and I had come to the conclusion then that if it couldn’t be proved, through one or other of these phenomena, against all possibility of doubt, that the mind was able to exist independently of the living brain, then it would probably be safe to assume they were one and the same, that when one died so did the other.

I felt the same now. Ideally, I would have learned to leave my body myself. I had tried – was still trying – to engineer an OBE from the waking state but had made little headway. I was struggling to wake up in my dreams, too; and in this respect I could report a modicum of progress.

Within the last few days, I had dreamed I was at my parent’s old home, standing in their garden, on the lawn, talking with my father. Neither our speech nor our surroundings had been particularly distinct, and nothing memorable had occurred that I could recall; when suddenly I remembered – how, I couldn’t say – that I was trying to become lucid.

Immediately, a transformation took place.

The change was analogous to my having been half-heartedly watching a grainy television programme in a poorly lit room suddenly finding myself participating fully in a brilliantly illuminated virtual world. The scene in the garden, my presence there, my father and everything around and about us, became incandescent with life and unspeakably vibrant.

I felt emancipated, supremely joyful at having succeeded in coming alive, convinced I was in my father’s actual presence – though unaware, seemingly, of ever having lost him; whereupon, to my utter chagrin, I woke up.

Afterwards, knowing my dream hadn’t changed so much as my perception of it, that simply by becoming conscious of what was going on, my senses had dramatically quickened, I wondered whether, if the dream world really was where we went when we died, we would be awake to it in the vital way I had been briefly shown, or the lacklustre version that seemed to be my more normal experience.

Unfortunately, this lucid fragment was too brief for me to know whether I might have carried on to do something usefully investigative, rather than simply remain in awe of it happening at all. It was with immense regret that I considered the possibility the dream might have continued without me; or, even worse, that I was still in it, walking round the garden, talking with my father, while sitting up, awake but unaware of this, in bed. It had been so real, anything seemed more probable than that it had evaporated along with my sleeping state.

So far, that was my sole success. It had been such a long time coming, that since I didn’t know how it had happened, and could hold out only poor prospects of repeating the trick (which I clearly needed to improve on, anyway), in lieu of my own skills I decided to advertise for people more adept than me to assist in an investigation I had become convinced could ultimately prove, or disprove, if not immortality, at least that the mind and brain were separable.

A surprising number answered, some obvious cranks, others reasonable sounding individuals. They all asked for more details. I sent them an outline proposal:

"Many thanks for replying to my advertisement. I have been interested in astral projection, lucid dreaming and Out of the Body experiences in general, for many years; but I have no experience of any, other than fleetingly. It is not for want of trying, but simply the difficulty of maintaining an intention formed in the waking state during sleep or trance.

Recently I was struck by a statement from Susan Blackmore – who is a researcher in this field – questioning the reality of these experiences and suggesting that our minds somehow create the illusion of being separated from our bodies. Stephan LaBerge, a lucid dream researcher, says much the same thing in his books. This contrasts with the opinions, usually less scientifically authoritative, of those who believe the mind, or some part of it, can exist separately from, and in fact survives, the body.

I find it exasperating that with so much money, time and effort spent in so many spheres of life to prove or disprove fairly unimportant theories, something as fundamental as the apparent ability of our minds to separate from our bodies and enjoy an independent existence has never been properly investigated; at least not to the point where it is accepted, or refuted, as a fact.

I believe it could be fairly easily proven, if true, through someone gaining knowledge of something that is both hidden from them and unknown to anyone else. Obviously, this would have to be carried out under conditions of absolute veracity, if it was to mean anything to the world at large; but my initial hope is to prove, or disprove, to my own satisfaction (which means only I would know I wasn’t cheating) that such a thing is possible.

Firstly, I need the assistance of one or more projectors who are able to travel in this world. Travel in the dream world, while undoubtedly fascinating, seems presently beyond the scope of scientific investigation. Assuming I find someone who is willing to cooperate I intend setting a series of tasks whose reality I – or anyone else, for that matter, who lives in or is prepared to visit my locality – can verify.

I have in mind several possibilities for the final step; but as an example of an intermediate task, I could leave a book, chosen and opened at random, without me looking, face up with a rectangle of glass holding down the pages, at a local landmark, last thing one evening. Meanwhile, the traveller would have been asked to direct him or herself to this landmark, to locate the book and to describe it as well as they could, including the all important page number.

First things first, however. Whether you are an experienced out-of-body traveller or not, I would be pleased to hear from you with any advice or assistance you might be able to give me."

I got no offers of help, though many people wrote back with descriptions of their own experiences. It was almost as though they were putting these forward as compensation for the fact they could not, or were otherwise unwilling, to do as I asked. One correspondent said:

"I cannot possibly explain in this letter the depths and heights that I travelled, and the beautiful, breathtaking Astral world that I lived in for one month – yes, one month, receiving information from the pure source of life itself. I have searched books, from 500BC to the present time – I only need to read a paragraph and I know the book – and made a thousand phone calls, actually while still Astral…"

Why, I wondered, if she could do all this, wasn’t it a relatively simple matter for her to locate and read some – or, at the very least, the page number – of my book? My most reasonable surmise, on the assumption she was not a lunatic, was that she had no facility for travelling in the known world.

Shortly afterwards, I came across My Research into the Unknown in my local library. The author, Gladys Archer, was so matter of fact about her experiences, so accepting of the reality of inexplicable phenomena in general, I wrote to her, in the hope she might be able to help:

"I recently read your book. I was particularly struck by your chapters on OBEs. Some time ago I advertised for experienced astral – strictly speaking, etheric – travellers to help prove this phenomenon, having long been haunted by the many claims of the parapsychologist Susan Blackmore. Nor is she alone in the way she thinks. Celia Green, in Lucid Dreams, makes the following statement:

‘…there is a tendency, even among people (in a normal state of consciousness) who are studying reports of OBEs, to believe that they might be cases of actual perception from a different point of view, and not hallucinations… it would seem somewhat harsh to say that an OBE subject is showing defective insight in failing to come to the correct conclusion himself.’

In my reply to those who responded to my advert I said I needed the assistance of one or more projectors who were able to travel at will in this world, and that I could devise tests to try and show that, far from what Celia Green imagined, actual perception from a different point of view had occurred; but unfortunately, so far I have failed to locate any etheric projectors to work with! I have begun to think that the only way around this problem is to somehow learn the trick myself, and then to ask someone to start hiding things for me to try and find and describe.

I wonder whether, out of all the people you have come into contact with who have had OBEs, where they have found themselves out of their bodies but in the familiar world, any of them are able to induce this at will; and if so, whether you think they might be interested in corresponding with me with a view to investigating the phenomena further?"

This sounded a bit plaintive, but I was hopeful. The lady had been in touch with some extraordinary people, while sounding reassuringly normal herself.

Her reply, while not giving me the contacts I had hoped, and causing me to revise somewhat my opinion of her normalcy, was nevertheless generous, if presumptuous, in its opinions and leads:

"Many thanks for your letter of 24th instant. I was pleased to hear that my book is still being read! I had imagined that all copies were sold.

I had hoped, when I wrote the book, that people reading same would learn about the ‘bodies of man’, and by so doing, would realise that WE CANNOT DIE and that the psyche/soul/mind certainly, and without any doubt, survives the death of the physical body. I’m afraid that regardless of the claims of Susan Blackmore, Stephen LaBerge, Celia Green and any others, they will soon have to leave their money-making positions as critics in their books, on radio and T.V. for there is so much evidence now that THEY ARE WRONG.

I take it that you have never heard of Michael Roll – the great campaigner for Philosophical Freedom – or of Ron Pearson, B.Sc., who has PROVED the existence of other worlds superimposed upon this one, and has also proved the existence of the psyche AFTER THE DEATH OF THE PHYSICAL BODY – read his book, INTELLIGENCE BEHIND THE UNIVERSE. I will enclose some leaflets which will give you further indications of what is going on in the country, other than the people who are being given prominence AGAINST THE TRUTH, such as Susan Blackmore.

I remember reading, although I no longer have the book, that Susan Blackmore took drugs while at University, in order to see whether her psyche would leave her body! I can tell you that it does and I have met and spoken to drug takers who have seen themselves sitting on a chair whilst they were up on the ceiling. I can only suggest that you read the books of R.A. Monroe – one very good one being JOURNEYS OUT OF THE BODY. In his book, R.A. Monroe writes that he has formed a large following in the USA who are communicating and discussing their ‘journeys’. Perhaps you would like to join his group!

On looking at my bookshelf, I can see also books that would interest you from Raymond Moody, J.R., M.D., who also has formed a group or society in the U.S.A. Here again I feel sure you will be reassured by his many books that the MIND DOES SURVIVE the death of the physical body and is indeed a separate body.

I have also noticed on my shelves the very interesting book written by Dr. Peter Fenwick, MB BChir (Cantab) DPM FRCPsych., fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a neuropsychiatrist with an international reputation. He is at present Neuropsychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, London and also President of the British branch of IANDS (The International Association for Near–Death Studies). This book is called ‘THE TRUTH IN THE LIGHT’ and is the result of three years research into near-death experiences with over 300 cases. What more proof do you want that the mind survives the body at physical death?

In my book I wrote about the ‘porous’ magnetic–field which surrounds schizophrenic people who are able to see ‘both worlds at once’ – there is an opening in their surrounding human atmosphere which allows them to see beyond ‘the veil’ and also be influenced from beyond ‘the veil’ much to their unhappiness! The difference, in my humble opinion, between schizophrenics and mediums is that mediums are able to control any invasion of their physical/earthly privacy/magnetic field and schizophrenics are not – poor souls.

You speak of astral plane projection and etheric projection – all I can say here is that the etheric body is that which surrounds the physical and ‘feeds it with etheric energy by means of chakras via our physical glands’. The Astral body is the next body which allows us to manoeuvre in an Astral World. The etheric-body is merely the surrounding body which is essential to nourish the physical body and is totally different to the astral body. The mind body is yet another body which enables us to function – in the World of Mind. When we ‘astral-travel’ it is our psyche/mind which is using the astral body in which to travel with the guidance and will of the mind body.

There are many books which will enlighten you about the BODIES OF MAN – without the knowledge of this I feel people can never understand and accept anything about the paranormal. If you manage to obtain, from the Theosophical Book Shop in London, you will be able to read the wonderful works of Phoebe Payne and Dr. Lawrence Bendit who have explained all of this in great detail. Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophical Society (they have a headquarters in London) will also be able to supply you with books on this – including Leadbeater’s book on the Aura and other such things. Max Heindel has written about ten wonderful books dealing with these things in detail and I would suggest you try to get hold of some of them from Flowers bookshop.

I’m afraid I cannot put you in touch with the people I wrote about in my book with reference to OBE’s for I wrote the book many years ago now and at 72 I really do not want the trouble of it.

I recently visited a man called RAYMOND SMITH and his wife who live just outside Gibraltar and witnessed Sir Oliver Lodge and many other prominent people talking through RAYMOND and have a copy of the book dictated from Sir Oliver entitled NOBODY WANTS TO LISTEN – AND YET. The book cover and some of the illustrations are not as good as I would have wished but the words of Sir Oliver Lodge are very revealing of things to come.

However, I must be boring you! If I can help you further with book titles, etc., I shall be happy to do so.

Yours sincerely,

Gladys Archer."

Much as I wanted to accept what Gladys told me, logical as it sounded – well, some of it – I knew there was little point reading the books she mentioned – re-reading in many cases, since I had already perused a number of them – other than through curiosity, because it was clear the "proof" she repeatedly talked of simply wouldn’t be there.

Proof, to me, meant putting something not just beyond reasonable doubt, but beyond any doubt at all; and it was almost laughable to expect the world at large to be convinced by the nascent mathematical theories of Ronald Pearson, any amount of occult tradition, Rudolf Steiner’s revelations, Sir Oliver Lodge’s alleged contribution, or, indeed, the personal assurances of people like Moody and Monroe that the things they talked of had, in fact, happened.

This did not mean I didn’t believe everything she and the listed authors said was true about the bodies of man and our survival of death; but only that I couldn’t make it my considered opinion. I couldn’t accept it, or anything else, as fact, without either proving it for myself experimentally, or by hearing or reading an account from someone I trusted of evidence that they had done the same.

Although it was disappointing Gladys couldn’t give me any personal contacts, one name she came up with that particularly interested me was Dr Peter Fenwick. Here was a man who had a considerable reputation. He was someone I could respect, as a scientist, in the same way I respected, even if I didn’t agree with, Richard Dawkins.

I knew something of Dr Fenwick already. Along with the letter I had sent to those replying to my original advertisements requesting help, I had enclosed a photocopy of a newspaper article headed, Tracing the mind that escapes the Body. It had been about Dr Fenwick’s plan to:

"…settle the central mystery of OBE’s: are they hallucinations, or do people really leave their bodies?"

This scheme could hardly have been simpler, as the reporter explained:

"Patients with heart failure are among the most likely to die and then be resuscitated – thus living to tell of Near Death Experiences, the most common form of OBEs.

The team (of doctors from a number of hospitals in the south of England) will therefore be putting objects around coronary care units in places where they can only be seen if patients actually leave their bodies.

About one in three patients who come close to death report near–death experiences. The team hopes to amass convincing evidence about the reality or otherwise of OBEs by including about 50 or so patients in the trial.

According to Dr Fenwick, the importance of the experiment lies in its implications for the vexed question of where brain ends and mind begins.

Most scientists believe that the mind is simply the result of electrical activity localised in the brain. ‘But if we can show that mind is in fact non-local, and that you can have experiences beyond the brain, then you have got a whole new ball game’."

This was eminently reasonable. If Dr Fenwick obtained a positive result from his experiment, with due allowance made for the possibility of telepathy, and the outside chance of collusion or fraud mitigated against, his report would stand a reasonable chance of gaining widespread acceptance in the scientific world.

That this would be almost entirely due, as was the setting up of his experiment in the first place, to the fact that Dr Fenwick was a respected establishment figure, was indicative of the weight given in these matters not so much to what was said but to who had said it.

The only puzzle was, if I was to believe Gladys Archer, Dr Fenwick had already shown that the mind was non-local in his book, The Truth in the Light. Why repeat himself?

However, having already read this book, I knew Gladys was using the word proof in a profligate way, to describe not so much a presentation of evidence as the accumulation of sentiment resulting from dozens of extraordinary and remarkably similar stories, whose verity nevertheless couldn’t be confirmed.

It was difficult not to assume, if the ‘evidence’ contained in the other books she listed was of a similar – or, as I had good reason to suppose, from those I had already read, lesser – quality to Dr Fenwick’s, who was careful to make no overt claim himself, that Gladys Archer’s critical acumen was being rather too exclusively reserved for the beliefs of those, like Susan Blackmore, who had the temerity to hold onto the view that the mind and brain were one.


Meanwhile, I wrote to Dr. Fenwick:

"I read an article some time ago about your investigations into OBEs, which coincided with my placing advertisements asking experienced ‘travellers’ to help prove this phenomenon; although my interest was in approaching it from the angle of those who had learned the trick of inducing OBEs at will, rather than the more spontaneous NDEs experienced by patients in hospital."

In my letter I mentioned the views of Susan Blackmore, Stephan LaBerge and Celia Green, and how they contrasted:

"…with the opinions, usually less scientifically authoritative, of those who believe the mind, or some part of it, can exist separately from, and in fact survives, the body."

I explained how the response I had received to my pleas for help had been mostly from those whose journeys were limited to an apparently astral world. I wondered:

"…if it is also the case with those patients who have experienced NDEs that they believe they were present in another, as opposed to this, world?"

Actually, I already knew the answer. The descriptions of NDEs in Dr Fenwick’s book, and in other publications, overwhelmingly suggested an amalgam of both worlds.

Typical experiences began in a hospital room, with ‘dead’ individuals suddenly finding themselves outside their recumbent bodies, seemingly looking on from a detached vantage point – often watching hospital staff rallying around trying to save them – and then moved in a dreamlike manner to unfamiliar, often mystical surroundings, where they met and conversed with long lost friends and relatives, before culminating in an unceremonious return to the hospital room.

The trouble was, no matter how transcendent the experience, it had so far been impossible to corroborate. It might – it apparently did – change individual lives, but it could still be explained, as it was by Susan Blackmore and others, as unconscious mental trickery carried out by the dying brain. The fact that people tended to see whatever their belief system or cultural background suggested they would, rather than any objectively verifiable place, only strengthened this view.

The problem, as I considered it, wouldn’t necessarily end with patients succeeding in noticing what they saw when out of their bodies but still in the hospital room:

"Clearly, for your patients, only those who find themselves projected ‘ethereally’ would be able to see any of the objects you have had strategically placed. However, even if it was proved to your satisfaction that these objects had been correctly identified by patients who could not possibly have known of their nature or whereabouts, I have read of situations where precisely this seems to have occurred, but there has been speculation that the information was obtained not so much by a projected consciousness as through a form of telepathy. In other words, since either you, or the members of the investigating team, will know what objects are where, and what they are there for, the chance exists that through extra sensory perception a patient might learn this."

I then explained what I had proposed to those who had responded to my advertisement. I ended by asking:

"Can you say how your investigations are going, and whether anything you have discovered so far has been written up and is available in any form? I also wonder whether, out of all the people you have come into contact with who have had experiences where they have found themselves out of their bodies but in the familiar world, any of them are able to induce this at will; and if so, whether you think they might be interested in corresponding with me with a view to investigating the phenomena further?"

Dr. Fenwick’s reply was short and to the point, betraying not merely a disinclination to waffle, in the manner of Gladys Archer, but scant sign of any desire to communicate on the subject at all, which I wasn’t entirely sure how to take:

"Very many thanks for your letter. You may be interested in contacting Professor Arthur Ellison who has a great interest in OBEs and at the present time is doing experiments to see if their veridical nature can be confirmed.

I have sent him a copy of your letter.

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Dr Peter Fenwick."

Interestingly, Dr Fenwick’s book, far from proving the seperatedness of the human mind from its concomitant brain, as Gladys Archer had suggested, tended towards the opposite view, that pending further research, they must in all reason be considered one and the same. As he made clear:

"If it could be proved that information really can be acquired in this way, that the mind is not local, that consciousness is not limited to the brain, but can become separate from it and exist outside it and independently of it, then a great many scientific concepts will have to be abandoned."

He was hardly sanguine about the likelihood of this occurring:

"However, at the moment this theory (of mind and brain seperatedness) is not a strong contender for scientific acceptability because there are no known physical principles whereby mind can exist or memory be stored outside brain processes."

He then made this further point:

"…even if non-locality of mind is eventually accepted as proven fact, this does not imply the possibility of soul or the continuation of individual consciousness after brain death. Personal consciousness depends on brain memory, and unless there is some evidence that memory is not locked within the brain, but can be stored outside it, it is difficult to argue that individual consciousness can survive the death of the brain."

This was an understandably cautious approach; but it had the inestimable advantage of being firm in the absence of proof rather than intractably closed to any possibility that what appeared to be the case – namely, that the mind was capable of leaving the confines of the body, and that human memory did persist after brain death – might one day find scientific credibility. Leaving the question open was not, however, the same as implying, as Gladys Archer, did, that it was a cut and dried case.

However, even if Dr Fenwick’s scheme produced ostensibly successful results, whether an individual could be said to have proved non-locality of mind by learning, during an NDE, something verifiable about their environment they weren’t – but that others were – previously aware of depended on how much credence was given to the possibility of them having obtained the information by other means, including telepathy. In scientific circles, suspicion would be bound to be immense.

It may have been that Dr Fenwick thought he should get these positive results first, even if they were ultimately suspect, and that there would be time enough then to hide something in such a way that nobody on earth could be said to have known what it was, knowledge of which, if discovered through an NDE, would prove the case once and for all.

Proving that the mind could leave the brain, and exist separately from it, at least while that brain – however near death it might have been – was still alive, would be a large step forwards; but it was, as Dr Fenwick suggested, far more difficult to prove the mind, and associated memory, could survive once its host body had actually died.

The only conceivable way would be if a person having an NDE, or OBE, of whatever sort, was to meet someone during it who was already dead and learn something from them that was not only unknown to anyone else on earth – to avoid charges of collusion or telepathy – but was open to verification. This was a tall order, with proof in such a direction, if it was to come at all, more likely to emanate from professional mediums than dying patients.

Dr Fenwick oscilated between an acknowledgement such a thing might be feasible, that an objective, ‘other-world’ could exist, and a more orthodox understanding that denied any such possibility. At times, he sounded almost as if he was refuting himself. Recounting one episode, he expressed astonishment that short-sighted people should experience NDEs as if they were able to see normally, yet claimed:

"This is not surprising. As we have discussed, they are not seeing with their real eyes, but seeing images which have previously been seen clearly and stored in the brain. If these visual images are not already there in memory, ready to be drawn upon, there could be no visual imagery in the NDE."

Without vision, he implied, there could be no recognisable NDE at all.

However, Dr. Fenwick admitted he had heard of one account where the theory of the recycling of previously stored images appeared not to have been the case. The story was of a woman who at the age of three months had been permanently blinded by excess oxygen in her incubator. Twenty two years later, she was involved in a road accident and lay in a coma for three days. He quoted her saying:

"The first thing I clearly remember was being on the ceiling, looking down and seeing this body. I was really terrified by this ability to see."

She went on to describe being above the street, away from the hospital, seeing lights, flowers, and finally, Christ. Dr. Fenwick commented:

"Whatever it was that (she) saw made sense to her. And yet how can she have seen anything even in her ‘mind’s eye’ without a database of imagery to draw on?"

He tried, fairly unconvincingly, to find an explanation for this, before admitting:

"The alternative is that somehow in the NDE she did truly see. Science at present has no explanation for this…perhaps we should not dismiss (her) claim to have ‘seen’ in her NDE, even though we do not know what mechanism might have been involved."

It struck me when I first read this story that if NDEs were real journeys that people took, away from their bodies, to another world, and this world was the same one we all went to, at least some of the time, when we dreamed, and finally, when we died, which was somehow recognisable without being discernible to our physical sense organs, then the dreams of blind people would be an interesting test case. If the congenitally blind ‘saw’ in their dreams, any notion of what they viewed being somehow constructed out of stored images could be scotched, since they would have no such pictorial repository, never have actually seen anything in their lives.

Similarly, if people who became blind later in life found themselves dreaming of images that could not have been seen by them during the sighted period of their lives, the same conclusion would have to be reached: that somehow they were seeing, not a manufactured world with their own inner eye, but an objectively real place from the vantage point of a separate ethereal or astral body enjoying the full use of normally exclusively physical faculties.

The converse of this would obviously be if those who had been blind since birth were found to experience no imagery in their dreams whatsoever, and those who had become blind later in life still saw things, but what they saw was made up of the limited, and increasingly dated, amount of material available to their memories. This would suggest the dream world was not a real world at all, bore no relation to any near or after death state we might find ourselves in, but was fabricated by our brains for a largely unknown purpose.

I made representations to various societies dedicated to the interests of the blind with the following letter:

"I wonder if you, through your members, would be willing to help me? I am currently investigating the nature of dreams, and in particular the widely held belief that all dream imagery is subjective; in other words, that it is based entirely on what we have seen at one time or other during our lives.

Overall, I’ve come across remarkably few references to the way blind people dream. The consensus seems to be that those who have been blind since birth still experience as much Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep – indicating dreaming is taking place – as the rest of us. The question that springs to mind is whether their dreams are as wholly non-visual as their waking lives.

Those who become blind later in life apparently continue to dream visually; but it would be interesting to know if their dream images were of a similar maturity to their dream sounds, smells, thoughts and feelings. In other words, if they dreamed of something familiar, would they see it as it was when they became blind or as it is now?

Closely related to dreams are OBE or Out of the Body and NDE or Near Death Experiences. Although I have come across third hand accounts of congenitally blind individuals ‘seeing’ while apparently out of their bodies, I would like to communicate with anyone who has direct experience of this.

If you know of any person, or group, who might share my interest and be willing to correspond in writing, by telephone, or on audio tape, I would be glad to hear from them. Alternatively, if your organisation issues some form of bulletin or journal to members, and this letter could, in full or part, be incorporated into it, I would be most grateful."

From this, I unfortunately netted no personal contacts, but I did gain access to a library of literature on the subject, from which I had little choice but to draw the initial conclusion that scientists were right in suggesting our brain was responsible for dreaming, that dream content was determined by our memory banks, and that there was no separate reality we catch glimpses of at night; although I was far from sure this was the whole story.

On the face of it, dream physiology was clear. In a paper entitled The Detection of dreaming in a Congenitally Blind Subject, two doctors, William Offenkrantz and Edward Wolpert, from two separate psychiatric institutions in North America, studied the correlation between REM sleep, which most people experience at intervals throughout the night, and is widely considered to be the reliable indicator of dreaming taking place, and dream content.

Their conclusions were that individuals who had been blind since birth did not have REM sleep, but still dreamed, largely in the manner that they lived, through sound and touch; whereas those who had become blind later in life had periods of REM sleep whose frequency and duration were dependent on how long it had been since they were able to see. In other words, the correlation between REM sleep and visual dream content – as opposed to dreaming in general – was absolute.

They emphasised their findings by referring to two other studies, one of which they summed up:

"According to Blank, who reviewed the literature and reports his own experiences, congenitally blind individuals do not have visual dreams."

The other was no less circumspect:

"Berger, Olley and Oswald, in a work published after the completion of the present study, found REMs absent in blind subjects who do not have visual imagery in waking life."

Despite these assurances, I was suspicious about what I had read, partly because the assumptions of the investigators were likely to have been – if only because it was the expected outcome – that they had a case to prove, and that that case was the orthodox one, which must in turn, I felt, have influenced their choice of subjects and the responses those subjects were encouraged to come up with; and also because of the immense difficulty I imagined blind people, especially those who had never actually seen anything in their lives before, would have in recognising and, perhaps more to the point, remembering a visual dream even if they were having one.

After all, if someone like Edward Heath could maintain he never dreamt, in any shape, size or form, in the face of what was common knowledge, where did that leave those who were assured by experts there could be no visual component whatsoever to their nighttime experiences?

Although I had difficulty recalling dreams, those I did remember were almost wholly visual. While I’m sure there was, there seemed to be neither sound nor texture to them. If I had by some mischance been born deaf or paralysed, and had had no experience of hearing or feeling anything in my life, but had always remained fully sighted, I’m not certain my dreams would have been, or at least appeared – in qualitative terms – very different to the way they were.

Blind people, presumably, would have had inconceivably greater difficulty relating to any visual component in their dreams.

Compounding this problem was the perennial one of human fallibility, reliably illustrated by Susan Blackmore:

"My most surprising finding came when I wrote to the author of a book that contained a fascinating story about a woman who watched her own resuscitation and described in detail everything she had seen – even though she had been blind from birth. This story, fast becoming a classic, was actually made up by the author to illustrate his own convictions about the soul."

Whether the story in question was the same one Dr. Fenwick told, I didn’t know, but it showed the immense difficulty in this field of placing reliance on any one reported event – or, indeed, on any one person.

Someone I would nevertheless have liked to investigate further was Michael Gerwat, who was born blind, and had recently, in his forties, became deaf as well. Relating an account of his typical day, he said:

"I have wonderful dreams where I’m surrounded by fur-covered flowers, sweetly perfumed water, and birds with wonderful plumage. I’ve never seen a bird, so my birds are my own – they’re almost square, with curved wings, and they sing beautiful songs, with real chords. Although I have lost music, the sound is still in my head and I dread losing it."

I wrote to him:

"I was fascinated to read an account of your day and I hope you don’t mind me writing to ask you some questions?

I am currently researching the way people dream and am particularly interested in finding out the degree to which our dream-world is dependent on our past experiences. In other words, whether everything we dream about – every sound, every sight, every sensation – is based on the accumulation of experiences gained during waking life.

If it was, I would have expected those who have been blind since birth to dream wholly non-visually; and my initial investigations, including writing to and obtaining literature from the RNIB, showed this was the case.

I am therefore intrigued by your account of the flowers and birds in your dreams. How exactly are you experiencing them? I suppose you might be dreaming of "fur-covered flowers" and, at a pinch, "square birds with curved wings", through your sense of touch; but I don’t think you could be doing this with the "wonderful plumage" you talk of. Are you, somehow, able to see this plumage, and other things, in your dreams, even though you have never seen them, or anything else, in waking life? Are you, in fact, able to see colours, even though you will only ever have heard them described before?

If you could spare the time, I would certainly be glad to hear the explanation of this seeming conundrum! Also, if you knew of any written work that goes into the subject in any depth, or if you have any blind acquaintances who you think might be interested in corresponding with me, I would be pleased to have details.

I enclose a SAE and hope to hear from you soon."

Unfortunately, he never replied. I wondered afterwards if it was reasonable to expect his wife, who helped him get through his days, take the trouble to do whatever had to be done to enable someone who obviously found life an enormous struggle to understand even the gist of my letter; or if he simply found the notion he could ‘see’ – in any size, shape or form – too preposterous to take seriously.

I resolved to continue my research into blind people’s dreams, possibly by finding other individuals I could question personally. The marvellous thing about dreaming was that everybody did it; I didn’t have to engage an expert in order to have an expert opinion on the subject.

I wrote a letter to a local residential unit for blind people, outlining my ideas; but again received no reply. Then I discovered, in Ian Wilson’s Life after Death, that Kenneth Ring, a well known researcher in the field of NDEs, had made similar approaches. He had apparently written to a number of organisations for the congenitally blind and obtained a:

"…small but significant list of individuals who claimed to have had near-death experiences… Of these, no fewer than fifteen claimed the sensation of sight during their experiences, another three said they could not be sure because the sensation was so unfamiliar to them, and only three said positively that they could not see."

Kenneth Ring was due to publish his results in the near future, and I wondered what Blank and his colleagues, Michael Gerwat, or even Peter Fenwick, would make of them. I found it hard not to agree with Ian Wilson:

"…unless these people are involved in some conspiracy of liars (an idea which is both unworthy and inconceivable), it is already clearly apparent that some form of awareness carrying powers of sight, hearing and movement can and does separate from the physical body at the onset of death."

This, of course, did not necessarily mean that the same independent awareness was able to leave the body at night while we dreamed; but I thought it unlikely we would have one faculty without the other, and that even if we did, a separate dream self was the more likely of the two.

In the meantime, another question had come up which I found potentially even more fascinating, if far harder to evaluate, than blind people’s dreams. According to dream researcher, Jane Anderson, in her book, Sleep On It:

"In the month or two before birth, babies spend up to 80% of their total sleep time in REM sleep…"

This was confirmed by Stephen LaBerge, possibly the most accomplished and certainly one of the most articulate exponents of the art of lucid dreaming, whose own belief system didn’t allow the possibility that what he was exploring was in any way a separate reality, outside his own head. He blandly stated:

"Babies have REM sleep."

Stanley Coren, in Sleep Thieves, confirmed this, claiming that:

"It appears that while still in the womb, at around 25 weeks or so of age, the infant dreams virtually all the time! From that age, the proportion of rapid eye movement sleep gradually diminishes until birth, when half of the sleep time is spent in this state."

The obvious question here, which was more or less unanswerable from the babies point of view, though hardly less intriguing for that, was that if it was accepted as a fact – which in the scientific community, it was – that REM sleep and predominantly visual dreaming went hand in hand: that you could not, in fact, have one without the other; and if it was also accepted – as it was – that all dreams were the result of our brains constructing models of reality from previously stored images, what possible explanation could there be for unborn babies, who had never so much as opened their eyes let alone used them outside the womb, to be spending so much time in REM sleep?

Clearly, if what Jane Sanderson, Stephen LaBerge and Stanley Coren cursorily reported – it was startling to me how none of these authors considered the subject worthy of further speculation – was to be relied on, either the correlation between REM sleep and visual dream content needed to be radically revised, or the belief that the brain constructed dreams from previously stored material had to be put on hold. They couldn’t both be correct.

My suspicion was that REMs might prove to be absent in the blind not because there was no visual dream content to stimulate them, but because the appropriate musculature, which would ordinarily have activated daytime eye movements, had atrophied. Unlike a baby’s, whose unopened eyes lay in readiness for a lifetime’s efficient operation, blind eyes were damaged eyes, and could hardly be expected to respond, even to visual dream stimuli, in a normal way.

However, if unborn babies were using their undamaged, still closed eyes to follow dream events, rather as we might ‘pan’ a scene with a camera, in exactly the way they would, after birth, learn to use them to follow the ways of the world they would then be living in, they could hardly be following images constructed from memory, because their eyes hadn’t yet opened. If images were present, the only conceivable answer was that they emanated from another reality.

Whether this was the case, and that other reality was also being experienced but largely failing to be recognised by the blind, had to remain an unanswered question. Meanwhile, another, tantalisingly illusive pointer claimed my attention, a story that seemed to have become something of a cause celebre, unsurprisingly in view of the impact it would have made had it been proved, in every respect, to be true. I first came across it in The Truth in the Light:

"This was a case concerning a woman, Maria, who was brought into a Seattle hospital after a cardiac arrest. Maria told her social worker she had seen various things while she lay there, her own body from the vantage-point of the ceiling, the view from outside the emergency room, and a shoe, described in great detail, which she had seen on a third-floor window ledge at the north end of the hospital building. She described the shoe as having a worn patch by the little toe and the lace stuck under the heel. Doubtful, the social worker went in search of the shoe – and found it, exactly as Maria had described it. Convincing? Of course. The only problem is that no one who has tried to follow up this story has ever actually been able to find this particular woman and talk to her. So we still have to regard it as hearsay rather than hard fact."

Caution was understandable, but so too was the realisation of what the effect would be on this sort of research if such a case was proved beyond any doubt. In fact, the impossibility of proving anything that was not replicable and that relied on individual, unsubstantiated human testimony made a researcher’s life all the harder – or easier, if it was their job to underline this fact.

Susan Blackmore was an undoubted expert at explaining away whatever phenomenon she came across. Her reaction to the shoe on the ledge story was laconic almost to the point of indifference:

"The trouble is that the shoe no longer exists, Maria has died and only the social worker is left to corroborate the story."

I came across a fuller version of the proceedings in Jeffrey Iveson’s, In Search of the Dead. It appeared Maria had had no conceivable opportunity to ‘plant’ the shoe, and had in addition to describing its whereabouts provided a lot of information about the hospital itself that she could hardly have been expected to know as an out-of-town migrant.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the social worker in question, who later became an assistant clinical professor, had had her life changed by the experience. She talked at some length to Iveson, describing her reaction to discovering the shoe:

"It was an incredible, jarring experience. I had some choices to make. I could at this point believe Maria was a humming bird – I ruled that out. I could believe Maria had somehow gone into a tall, downtown building half a mile away, gained access to an upper office, had high-powered binoculars or a telescope, and had spotted this tennis shoe on the ledge. All this, in case she had a heart attack and was admitted to that particular hospital. This didn’t make any sense either – I was right back to thinking Maria was a hummingbird.

Or I could believe that Maria, when I witnessed her ‘death’, was out of her body and travelled clear around the corner of the building and up a floor and was able to describe to me an object as small as this shoe… I had no choice but to believe that this woman, by all accounts dead, had been out of her body that was no longer functioning. Right then my whole perspective about life and death shifted. Maria was really my great teacher."

An alternative possibility, as a small voice in my head kept saying, and as I have no doubt Susan Blackmore and Dr Fenwick suspected, was that for reasons of her own the social worker had made the whole story – or crucial parts of it – up. She must have felt, in any event, that she was on a hiding to nothing. It was not hard to imagine, even if the shoe in this story still existed, Maria was alive, well and told her story convincingly, the social worker was the acme of professionalism and civic responsibility, and others of similar standing were discovered from the same hospital to back up the claim, researchers would still hint at collusion or deceit and demand further proof.

Even if the entire event had been scrupulously recorded, or fortuitously videoed, from beginning to end – Maria’s return to consciousness, her explanations to her social worker, the trip that lady took to the window, the shoe found on the ledge – people would still have doubted it, calling it anything from deliberate fraud to a lucky chance. That was the way of the world, and would be until events like these were sufficiently commonplace to not require any alternative explanation.


Although I was no further forward in discovering whether the mind could exist apart from the brain, and often found myself wondering why, if what I wanted to prove had been true, it wasn’t already common knowledge, I still imagined I might be able to come up with the proof others had been casting around for, to little avail, for so long.

In reality, I had no contacts to speak of and could barely remember my own dreams, never mind wake up in or control them, still less engineer an OBE from the waking state.

There may have been one compelling reason for my – and others – laggardly progress, which could have been seen, depending on a person’s point of view, as a convenient smokescreen thrown up by those afraid to admit there was no mystery, and that all we amounted to was in the brain; or a cogent explanation of why the mystery should persist.

The undoubted fact was, if we were able to remember our dreams as readily as the rest of our lives, and found ourselves leaving our bodies during them, meeting and interacting with people in the astral or etheric worlds, such an alternative existence, whether or not it was objectively real, would come to mean as much to us as, if not more than, our earthly routine; and given its reliance on the stability of its members lives, and their urge to acquire and consume, society would become quickly, hopelessly disoriented.

Such a scenario suggested we may well have been living simultaneously in another world, but simply didn’t remember it, any more than when we were in it – such as at night – we remembered this world. It meant we were limited to what we were able to be conscious of at any one time, and experienced immense difficulty carrying that consciousness back and forth between our dream and waking existences.

It may have been the case that, as we became more civilised, we had cultivated this dichotomy as a deliberate, highly necessary skill. In the context of a strictly material world, dreams were an irrelevant nuisance; which would not have been so for those born and raised more primitively. According to Malcolm Godwin, in The Lucid Dreamer:

"…animistic shamanism (Latin anima or ‘soul’) is not only apparently the most ancient of spiritual vocations, predating any religious or mystical equivalents by many tens-of-thousands of years, but it probably originally arose from the experience of dreams. Dreaming of any sort showed that the consciousness of human beings could exist independently of a physical body. This meant that primitive people began to conceive of themselves as essentially two, co-existing beings – one that lived during the day as a waking entity and one that emerged at night as the dreaming soul; the latter being able to take spirit journeys beyond the body and into unknown realms of power."

More probable, I thought, than that "primitive people" should only gradually have become aware they lived in two worlds was the likelihood they were in the process of following their more ‘advanced’ cousins in losing this knowledge, which was something they, along with the rest of the animal kingdom, had previously taken for granted; and that nowadays the only sentient creatures who knew nothing of such a dual existence, to the point of almost total disbelief in it, were civilised humans.

Young children, as Piaget and others had shown, largely failed to differentiate between ‘inner’ experiences such as dreams and ‘outer’ ones which were shared with others and were clearly located in the external world, only learning to do so after a long period of virtual indoctrination.

Aborigines, too, appeared to have their feet in both worlds. As Kenneth Oldmeadow, a specialist in their tradition, put it:

"…they emphasise the existence of supernatural powers which are accessible to the human world; and they experience the world as saturated with spiritual power."

This was not to say the primitive, infant or Aboriginal view was necessarily the correct, objective one, although it might well have been; but if it was, and if it could be proved that our dream world was every bit as real as the mundane, that we visited it at night, and that it was where we migrated to when we died, then the nature of our society and our acquired cultural habits – including the central one of reflexive thought, which allowed us to consider our position at any length – rather than of our intrinsic selves, may have been the explanation for the immense difficulty most of us had in recognising this facet of our lives.

Having the strongest possible social and survival reasons for relegating dreams to the far recesses of our minds, which not only made them, to the majority of us, insignificant to the point of being unworthy of consideration, but even to those who deemed them meaningful, not remotely as important as waking life, it was difficult to go against the habit of a lifetime and resurrect them to a shared pre-eminence.

What sort of minutia this was reducing those interested in the subject to was revealed to me by Arthur Ellison, who had had my letter to Dr Fenwick forwarded on to him. As he explained, he was involved in an investigation that was less convoluted, but just as irredeemably fussy, as my plan to hide upturned books in obscure locations:

"My friend Peter Fenwick has sent on to me your letter about OOBEs, which I read with interest.

I have been interested in altered states of consciousness for many years and, in fact, managed to induce two OOBEs in myself in the early 1950s. If you are interested, I describe them in a book which is now out of print but any public library would get it for you. It is The Reality of the Paranormal, published by Harrap in 1988.

We none of us let Susan Blackmore worry us. Her ideas seem to me to be built on sand: she assumes that the physical body and brain are real and obvious and argues from that as her basis: that is just what I do not believe and can clearly show it. I felt many years ago just as you do and in fact used to think that having an OOBE would show that human beings survive bodily death – that is why I went to so much trouble to have the experience. But many people find that they do not ‘see’ their normal surroundings but a dramatised memory of their surroundings. (Usually they do not notice this.) Sometimes there are symbolic additions. It is not so straightforward as it looks. You will find in my book a description of an experiment I did with a volunteer hypnosis subject which produced remarkable and enlightening results. Two psychics did a somewhat similar thing with my apparatus and I learned a lot. Read the book!

Today I have a PhD student studying and experimenting with this important ASC for his degree and I am also carrying out experiments with various projectors in different parts of the world. I have random numbers on my bookcase which I change when any projector tells me what they think they are. Herbie Brennon and his psychic wife are also working with me and we are all learning a great deal.

Your letter showed a great deal of insight – especially that there may be astral projection and also etheric projection. However, though the traditional views agree with this there is actually little scientific evidence that it is true and I am hoping to find out before very long. If it is true it would certainly explain certain peculiar results I have been getting this last year or so. This research is orders of magnitude more difficult than normal scientific research – and not the least difficulty is that ‘normal’ scientists think it is all illusory! Some of it is but it is still of the most enormous scientific and philosophical importance.

If you come across any good subjects I should be delighted to hear of them! This work will certainly be published, of course, when it is finished.

Good luck with your own deliberations! You really ought to join the Society for Psychical Research and read the literature in the best library on the paranormal in the world. You would also then meet those of us who are interested in these matters and have been researching into them for many years. The SPR was founded in 1882 and is the only open-minded thoroughly scientific body in this country interested in the paranormal.

With warmest good wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Arthur Ellison."

I subsequently read Arthur Ellison’s book, but interesting as it was, I didn’t think it proved anything, apart from the undoubted fact that illusive and largely inconclusive results could be obtained from repeated experiments with assorted machines programmed to do certain things arbitrarily.

This emphasis on the use of mechanical devices, as if they rather than the results were what made an investigation scientifically respectable, was ostensibly to avoid the possibility of any success being attributed to telepathy; but was there any success, anyway?

I had already written a letter, outlining my quest and my search for experienced projectors, to Arthur Ellison’s co-experimenter, Herbie Brennon, author of Discover Astral Projection, one of the first books I had read on the subject, and an unshamed apologist for the objective reality of the astral plane. It seemed he and the Professor had been working together for some time. Results hadn’t, however, been spectacular, as he explained:

"I have to tell you, with regret, that I don’t think I’m going to be a lot of help to you on this one.

I’m currently engaged in a set of experiments with Professor Arthur Ellison (of the Society for Psychical Research) on very similar lines to those you suggest.

He leaves a 3-digit number on a bookcase in his study and projectors try and read it. Once success is established, the number is selected not by Arthur, but by computer. Finally, the results will be evaluated by computer as well, so nobody ever actually knows which targets matched, only the percentage that did. This is to cut out telepathy of course.

Arthur contacted me originally for much the same reason you did. Unfortunately my best work with etheric projectors was done more than thirty years ago and I’ve completely lost touch with them. I tried to dredge up subjects for Arthur. The best of a poor enough bunch turned out to be my wife, but while she scored well in the early stages of the experiment, the decline effect has set in now.

You’d imagine this would be an easy one to pin down, but it isn’t. I’ve long been able to get interesting, often suggestive results, but never anything absolutely conclusive. This seems to be a very common pattern.

If you’ve better luck elsewhere, I’d be really interested to learn what sort of results you achieved. I do feel as you do it’s important to try to pin down what is actually going on in projection and, like you, I’m not at all sure people like Sue Blackmore have done very much to prove their case, although God knows they assert it often enough as if it was the only reasonable explanation.

Take care,

Herbie Brennon."

After receiving and reading this letter, I sat briefly and imagined I was an accomplished projector, able to simply shut my eyes and ‘will’ myself anywhere I wanted – in this world or the next.

I decided to visit Arthur Ellison’s study, which I found to be carpeted with Turkish rugs and furnished with large, leather armchairs; and it was an easy matter to glide over to his bookshelves and read the three numbers there. What I thought they were I’ve long since forgotten but it seemed, and still seems, incredible to me that if, in principle, it was possible to leave the body and achieve this feat, which many claimed and I had pretended to be able to do, and if there were people alive today with the requisite skill, why nobody had yet done it.

The sceptic’s answer would obviously be that it wasn’t possible; and until they were proved wrong it was difficult to say they were being unreasonable in their assumption. Whether they were being unreasonable in demanding the sort of proof they did, with its insistence on precision and replicable detail, both of which were uncommon commodities in this line of research, was harder to evaluate.

Arthur Ellison believed "dramatised memory" and "symbolic additions" contributed to making any OBE objectively unquantifiable; but it was surely the case that while the nature of the astral world was undeniably subject to this, being to a large degree individually formed, distortion was less likely in the familiar world; and it was in that environment nearly all veridical experiments were, for obvious reasons, being carried out.

It was worth considering the question of malleability because it was largely on account of the highly personalised, often irrational and usually nonsensical nature of our dreams – and, presumably, OBEs – that most people in the world today – I speak, inevitably, of the West – considered them an unconscious tidying-up operation, of no intrinsic value other than as a possible indication of our overall state of equilibrium.

I hadn’t found this more succinctly put than by Bill Poole, a congenitally blind reviewer of a book by a blind colleague, whose comments helped provide insight into the dreamlife of those, like him, who couldn’t see:

"I happen to believe that the importance of dreams is over-valued in all cultures of which I have detailed knowledge since I take the view that the primary function of dreams is to dispose of yesterday’s preoccupations so as to free the mind for today’s activity."

This was the orthodox standpoint, and ranged up in support of it was the silent majority. Even those active in lucid dream research went along with it, including Stephen LaBerge. As he said:

"When asleep, the brain acquires little information from the senses. Therefore, the information most readily available is what is already inside our heads – memories, expectations, fears, desires, and so on. I believe that dreams are a result of our brains using this internal information to create a simulation of the world."

A pair of writers, Jayne Gackenbach and Jane Bosveld, in Control your Dreams, quoted Susan Blackmore’s precise summing up of this impasse:

"One group hypothesises that the ‘soul, astral body, spirit, or whatever,’ says Blackmore, ‘leaves the body temporarily in an OBE and permanently at death.’ Psychological theories, on the other hand, she says, ‘deny that anything leaves the body and posit that the experience is one of the imagination.’ "

They seemed happy to conclude that:

"Most current theorists favour the latter view…"

It may have been that in order to be taken seriously by scientists, or even for a researcher to take themselves seriously in a scientific world, such a no-nonsense approach to the matter was required; and certainly, a convincing case could be made for the brain-model scenario. It covered all apparent eventualities, barring the highly contentious one of our mind supposedly existing apart from the brain, since our imagination, drawing from unconscious memory banks that could be assumed to be more or less limitless, must be supposed capable of inventing just about anything.

It dismissed out of hand such ideas as ‘mutual dreams’, in which two or more people claimed to be able to meet, while remaining unconscious; and it denied any possibility of survival of death; all of which must have made the task of research so much less fraught, particularly as the consciousness of the dreamer rather than the nature of the dream world was what was being investigated.

Stephen LaBerge gave an account of the way we might be supposed to construct our dreams, more or less as they happened, which depended largely on who we were and the nature of our preoccupations of the moment, and that denied anything other than an entirely blank canvas as our starting point – a moment we were rarely if ever aware of.

For him, the dream world, however detailed or involved, however far removed from what we might have thought we were capable of imagining, was no less the result of our creative faculties than the most vapid day time fantasy.

I had to admit this helped make sense of my more ludicrous or dull dreams. Being chased by a hundredfold magnification of a pet guinea pig, or repeatedly having the same tedious phone conversation with a friend, couldn’t, I thought, be happening in any ‘real’ environment, where others would presumably also be acting out their fantasies.

Was my friend, for example, simultaneously having the same conversation with me? Did he know my thoughts as I apparently knew his? Could others see my larger than life guinea pig; or, more to the point, was the actual, sleeping guinea pig aware of what it was doing? Surely, those dim figures present in the periphery of my dreams were figments of my imagination rather than astral versions of actual sleeping people who would be glimpsing me on the periphery of their dreams?

Herbie Brennan, in Discover Astral Projection, put it this way:

"It seems to me that when you find yourself in what one might call a virgin area of the Astral Plane, such as one does in dreams, the only influence on the billows of astral light is your unconscious mind. Consequently, your environment will mirror your personal concerns automatically and continuously. But when you find yourself in an astral district which is already reflecting a physical terrain or long-established thought-form, it requires a conscious effort on your part to change your surroundings in any way."

In other words, he was implying that the astral plane was objective and real, and that we were always on it when we dreamed, but that we would find ourselves on different parts, of which there were myriads, from an essentially blank terrain to a highly detailed topography, depending, presumably, on exactly the same preoccupations of the moment Stephan LaBerge alluded to.

This, of course, primarily applied when we were asleep. In his book, Herbie Brennon did give detailed advice on entering the astral realms from a waking state; but I had so far made no headway with this, fascinating as the possibility was. Besides, my ostensible interest was still to prove the mind could separate from the body by voyaging in the known, rather than another, world.

Perhaps the most rounded explanation for dream phenomena in general was provided by Jane Anderson, in Sleep on It. She had been a biologist before becoming a dream researcher and was keenly aware of the potential discrepancies in this area. As she put it:

"Where do we really go when we dream? Do we travel the astral planes of dimensions beyond the physical universe, freed from the constraints of both physical body and time? Do we commune with the spirit world, interact with our living friends, share in learning and healing experiences, exchange notes with extraterrestrials, talk with God, Buddha or our Dreamtime ancestors? Do we then return to waking life with a dose of amnesia or a limited ability to comprehend the enormity of our travels, leaving us with inadequate impressions called ‘dreams’?

Or do we journey the hills and valleys of the contours of our physical brains, mentally flicking the dust off old memories, cleaning out the crevices of useless behaviour patterns and processing and filing yesterday’s experiences and thoughts?

Are our dreams the symbolic memory of our mind-body housekeeping, or are they remnants of a greater experience in another dimension: the ‘astral plane’? Or are they both? Or are they the same thing?"

Her conclusion was that they could be, and often were, any of these. She gave examples of innumerable types of dream or OBE in her book. Naturally, I wrote to her, hoping she could introduce me to one or two of her correspondents, ideally those whose speciality was OBEs in the familiar world. I sent her my standard letter, but added a postscript:

"You mention in your book how the congenitally blind experience periods of REM sleep. Do you know if the dreams they have are as wholly non-visual as their waking lives? You do say that people who have become blind still dream visually; but it would be interesting to know if their dream images were of a similar maturity to their dream thoughts and feelings. In other words, if they dreamed of their father, about an issue that was very much current, would they see him as he was when they became blind or as he is now? Similarly, would the paraplegic you talk of who enjoyed the full use of his limbs in his dreams experience himself – in age and build – as he was prior to his accident or as he would be now?

These questions fascinate me – as does the fact that you say, ‘In the month or two before birth, babies spend up to 80% of their total time in REM sleep.’ What are they dreaming of? – because the answers to them might help confirm or deny the possibility of us having a parallel, other dimensional existence, in which we are capable of sensing not only as we do on earth, but as we would be able to do if we had full possession of our faculties – including, maybe, even if we were dead."

Her reply was stimulating, even if she did fail to answer my questions. I suspected she had come across the quote about babies, just as I had come across it in her book, and knew no more than I did as to why it should be so. Still, at least she was doing her investigating now, rather than thirty years ago, as had been the case with Gladys Archer and Herbie Brennon; and she had set up her own fledging organisation rather than joining an archaic one, like the Society for Psychical Research. This was what she said:

"Thank you for your letter forwarded through my publisher.

I have enclosed some information on The Dream Research Bank which I think will interest you. The Bank does have some overseas members, and since I’ll be adding e-mail in the next few weeks, what’s an ocean or two between people interested in dreams and allied research? (Then again, even without e-mail, one can try the ‘remote viewing’ you are suggesting in your letter.)

As you will read, The Dream Research Bank was set up following the publication of Sleep On It to build on the network of dreamers keen to take part in dream research and to contribute their experiences towards publication.

Onto your letter:

Yes, I can share your frustration that so much money, time and effort (is) spent in so many spheres of life to prove or disprove fairly unimportant theories (while) something as fundamental as the apparent ability of our minds to separate from our bodies and enjoy an independent existence has never been properly investigated‘. On the whole I think the subject is too ‘scary’ for most people who have some training in research. Not scary in the sense of ‘not wanting to discover the real truth’, but scary in terms of being work that is difficult to evaluate statistically or scientifically – although I am trying! What is at stake, of course, for many researchers, is their ‘professional’ reputation. Better perhaps to earn your pay with a good ‘credibility approved’ seal from an established grant awarding institution than to research what you really want to know!

I have chosen to carry out my research independently of any institution, simply because I prefer the freedom. Financially, this is ‘head above water’ stuff, but it’s worth it! Working in such a field is personally extremely rewarding, especially through the contact I have with other ‘dreamers’ and being privy to their experiences, perceptions and insights. As you will know from reading Sleep On It, I feel dreaming is a subject which should be approached from a number of viewpoints, from the statistically scientific all the way through to the reporting of individual experiences. It is only through having an experience that you can truly know it. We can intellectualise, and enjoy the process, but can only know through experience. And where experience, perception and subjectivity enter the picture, most scientists tend to get cold feet and pack up their bags and leave.

Your basic idea is a good one and I invite you to write a short article, if you wish, to go into the next issue of DreamNet. You can use the article to invite people interested in experimenting with OBE-remote viewing to get in contact with you directly, or you can suggest a simple experiment and ask people to report their results.

We can easily get bogged down in definitions and miss the experiences. This is one reason why I set out to offer a definition for ‘Astral Travelling’ and ‘Astral Plane’ in Sleep On It while fully aware that my definitions were at odds with the common usage of ‘in the astral’.

In the same way, I note your concern with keeping your would-be experimenters in the familiar world (or ‘etheric’ as you choose to define it), as opposed to being in the unfamiliar world (or ‘astral’ by your choice of definition). The trouble is, even in the waking, conscious world we all perceive differently. A hundred people can be in the same place at the same time, and each will take a way a different story. As laboured in Sleep On It our brains choose what to perceive, which is often quite different to what may or may not actually be there (eg, our eyes may see upside down and our brains reverse the image to make a better fit of what we imagine our surroundings to be). By the same argument, one person may interpret (or see) a situation differently from one year to the next, depending on his/her experiences gained during the intervening year. Now, once we have an OBE, our perceptions change again. In the OB state, we enjoy an expanded consciousness, a different perceptual awareness. Not only do we experience ‘life’ from a different viewpoint, but our sensual viewpoint often differs too. So, what we see during an OBE may not necessarily appear ‘familiar’ because we perceive it from a different consciousness – we interpret the ‘familiar’ world in a different way.

Now, given that, remote viewing becomes muddied. We may get there, we may view, but what do we see? Suppose we set out to read a headline in a newspaper conveniently left at some spot. Suppose we get there, and find the paper, but our sensual awareness is such that we only see the small dots that make up the newsprint? Or we see the process of producing the headline (a time leap), or get involved in wandering through the weave of the paper? Or perhaps we perceive instead the emotion the editor felt as she/he chose the title…and so on. Perhaps this is the very reason why it is difficult to get consistent scientific results – we may be getting the results but not realising it!

Have you read Robert Monroe’s Journeys Out of the Body? One of his suggestions, and I would tend to agree, is that it is easier to aim for a person during an OBE than a thing or a place.

I will keep your letter on file and hope that my rushed thoughts and enclosures are encouraging rather than discouraging! I look forward to receiving your DreamNet article/request if you make that choice, and to following your experiments with great interest. If I can be of further support, please don’t hesitate to contact me. This is the way in which progress is made.

With sincere wishes,

Jane Anderson."


Although I accepted Jane Anderson’s view that our perception of places and events during an OBE might be so confused we wouldn’t necessarily know if we were in the familiar or astral world (she in fact defined astral travel as being out of the body, per se, regardless of environment) this didn’t altogether square with the experiences of Sylvan Muldoon, author of The Projection of the Astral Body, who maintained:

"I have never had a conscious out-of-body experience when I was not here on the earth plane, just as much as I am right now. I wouldn’t know where to look for the higher planes!"

It may be that whereas Sylvan Muldoon was deliberately projecting himself out of his body, during waking hours, and both felt and saw the separation taking place in the room he was in, which could have accounted for the fact he then remained in the world that room was a part of, most, if not all, Jane Anderson’s reports, whether first hand or otherwise, were of dreams, or states of mind, experienced during sleep. Presumably, the more control a person had over the parameters of their experience, the more clarity they could expect.

One person who stood out in this respect, but without remaining in any way earthbound, was Robert Monroe. I had been advised by many of my correspondents to read this man’s books, though in fact I had already done so, years earlier, during my first flush of enthusiasm for the subject; and now I found myself studying them again, unsure, as ever, how seriously to take him.

Monroe, if he was to be believed, was an out-of-the-body traveller of the first order. He voyaged, in a facsimile body, not only as an unseen entity within the known world, which he termed Locale 1, but also in remarkably similar adjacent worlds, together making up Locale 111, and, just as intriguingly, in what others might have thought of as the astral world, which he knew as Locale 11.

Locales 1 and 111 followed understood laws of cause and effect: in Locale 1, Monroe simply functioned as an invisible observer; in Locale 111, he appeared to enter into, to the point of more or less taking over, the body of someone already living there. Locale 11 was a different matter altogether.

As Monroe explained:

"Locale 11 is a non-material environment with laws of motion and matter only remotely related to the physical world. It is an immensity whose bounds are unknown (to this experimenter), and has depth and dimension incomprehensible to the finite, conscious mind. In this vastness lie all of the aspects we attribute to heaven and hell."

He went on:

"The greatest difficulty is the inability of the conscious mind, trained and conditioned in the physical world, to accept the existence of this infinite Locale 11. Our young Western mental sciences tend to deny its existence. Our religions affirm it in a broad, distorted abstraction. Accepted sciences contradict such a possibility, and can find no supporting evidence through their instruments of research and measurements."

The intriguing aspect of Robert Monroe’s belief in the reality of these three Locales was his claim to have repeatedly verified the existence of at least two of them, meeting his deceased father in Locale 11, and regularly visiting people he knew in Locale 1. These latter trips he ‘proved’ – at least to his own satisfaction – by receiving unsolicited confirmation from those he had visited that they had, in fact, been doing what he claimed when he said they had, although none of them had seen him at the time.

Not the least of Robert Monroe’s resourcefulness was his apparent ability to leave his body at will, usually during the day, in order to make his trips. In fact, he had formed The Monroe Institute to disseminate these and other skills.

I decided to write to Robert Monroe, even though I considered it unlikely he would allow a stranger to set the terms under which he operated, to see if he would be interested in cooperating with me. As things stood, he had no discernible reputation outside his field – despite a considerable one within it – and I found myself unable to take what he said on trust.

I certainly found his books affecting, but it was too much to ask of me to make the prodigious leap from scepticism – in the final analysis, I still harboured considerable doubts – to acceptance on the strength of what was, necessarily, only hearsay. I wrote to him, care of his publisher, and received the following reply:

"Thank you for your recent letter to Robert Monroe. I regret to have to inform you that Mr. Monroe made his transition from the physical in March of 1995. I’m certain that had he read your communication he would have applauded your desire to prove for yourself the existence of such phenomena as he wrote about.

At present I know of no one with the proficiency in out-of-body travel to perform the kinds of activities you describe. I will keep your communication in mind, however, in the event that someone comes through here who might be capable of such performance. Meanwhile, I wish you much success in all of your endeavours.


Darlene R. Miller, Ph.D.

Director of Programs."

I liked the tone of this letter, which made me feel I was pursuing something worthwhile; but I was surprised to find the only person considered sufficiently skilful in out-of-the-body travel by the director of an Institute that had been set up expressly to teach this to people was Robert Monroe himself.

Admittedly, according to some accompanying pamphlets, Monroe had interested himself in his declining years in the production of a particular sort of sound – I hesitate to call it music – that was designed to lull a listener into a preferred frame of mind. The list of available CD titles suggested the desired emphasis was on personal achievement and wealth rather than exploration of other realms; so it may have been that his Institute was more grounded in this world than I had imagined.

I was disappointed but I supposed, on reflection, that if he had not been making the whole story up, Monroe must have been the recipient of a pretty extraordinary gift it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to pass on. According to his books, there was no technique, as such. He simply lay down in a convenient place, felt himself begin to "vibrate", and then peeled away from his body; or, as he expressed it, "rolled out" of himself.

How he did it, he didn’t know, any more, presumably, than he knew how he slept; or, indeed, how he could have taught others to do the same.

Interestingly, Monroe doubted – and he spoke, if he was to be believed, from considerable experience – whether the majority of those in the next world – or Locale 11 – spent any more time looking back at earthly life trying to communicate with us than we did with the possible denizens and locations of any of our previous existences, of which, according to him, there had been many. In other words, nobody should be surprised if they failed to get in touch with anyone ‘out there’, since in all probability they would be paying very little attention.

I returned to writing my short article for DreamNet, which was duly published:


I recently came across a statement from the parapsychologist Susan Blackmore questioning the reality of OBE’s and suggesting that our minds somehow create the illusion of being separated from our bodies. Stephen LaBerge says much the same thing in his books on lucid dreaming.

By way of contrast, J.H.Brennon, author of Discover Astral Projection, claims that "…leaving one’s present circumstances in the body and the world is exactly what is happening." He goes on to distinguish between etheric projection (where you wander the familiar world like a ghost) and astral plane projection (where you enter a totally different world).

Although I see no easy way of proving anything about the Astral Plane, it should be feasible for an etheric traveller to move through the familiar world and gain knowledge that was ordinarily both hidden from them and unknown to anyone else.

I have in mind a series of tasks whose reality I could verify, such as descriptions of war memorials or historic buildings in my locality. Assuming anyone appeared able to perceive such things from a distance, I might then ask them to try something more difficult, such as reading the chapter name or page number of a book chosen and opened at random by me and left in an predetermined place.

In theory, it should be a simple matter to show that perception from a different point of view had occurred. The reality would probably be more complex. Any etheric traveller would be likely to experience all manner of sights, sounds, sensations and emotions, most of which would be unverifiable, interfering with their search.

To start the ball rolling, would any DreamNet readers, who believe they are able to leave their body at will while remaining in and travelling through the familiar world, be interested in corresponding with a view to investigating this phenomena further?"

I had moderately high hopes of getting a decent response to this, since I could be fairly sure the readership of DreamNet, which was small circulation, privately printed and wholly dedicated to one subject, would number a few etheric travellers amongst them.

The fact that I received no replies at all, not even from interested ‘by-standers’, did make me wonder, not for the first time, whether what I was proposing was, quite simply, impossible: that etheric travel was a myth; that astral travel may have happened but was restricted to individual fantasy worlds.

I was at an impasse. I wasn’t like Edward Heath: I knew I dreamed; I remembered fragments of those dreams but was aware the bulk of them vanished like early morning mist the moment I awoke. I believed I could train myself to remember more, and learn to take control of what had up until now seemed arbitrary phenomena; but I was resigned to it taking time.

With such skills, I could, theoretically, decide to go anywhere, or see anyone; then I could begin verifying matters for myself, not least that this separation from the body also happened to those who died – only they never came back. On the assumption that where they went was also where I went when I was dreaming, I ought to have been able to meet up with my father there, once I had attained the necessary degree of control over my actions – always assuming, of course, he hadn’t ‘moved on’, whether through rebirth or otherwise, during the intervening period.

I had tried everything I knew to induce lucid dreaming. I had even bought a ‘dream-alarm’, which was a mask not unlike those given out by airlines to exclude light from the eyes, with a small sensor built in which alerted me, through flashing diodes or buzzing, whenever I entered a period of REM sleep. This was supposed to enable me to ‘wake up’ to the fact I was dreaming, but without regaining normal consciousness. Unfortunately, I slept right through both triggers, even on the maximum setting; and it disturbed my wife’s sleep so much I had to send it back.

As with most things in life, I felt perseverance would win out, but I was impatient, and it didn’t help having books on my shelf with titles like Lucid dreams in 30 Days, and Astral Travel made Easy, as if rapid progress was somehow automatic so long as I followed a set of simple instructions. Of course, this might have been so, had the instructions not been of the type that assumed by the end of the third day my recall of dreams would be almost total and that within a week I would have sufficient control to re-enter, consciously, any dream I spontaneously woke from.

I also had instructions aplenty for achieving a non-sleeping OBE, by sitting or lying down and working my way through various mental exercises, usually ending with me supposedly able to imagine I was separating from my body and looking at it from the other side of the room; or by staring at shaped pieces of brightly coloured card and using them as ‘astral doorways’, through which I was then instructed to ‘see’ myself stepping.

This use of the imagination was a sticking point. If I shut my eyes and tried to picture something I got a grainy, grey fog, like a badly tuned television picture. Even when totally relaxed and in a middle of a reverie things were little clearer visually, however far away from present reality I felt. This was wholly unlike the dream images I experienced, which although somewhat distant at times, were often more distinct and three dimensional than real life.

All I needed, it seemed, was to get my hands on the tuning button which lay somewhere inside my own head, and twiddle it. In the absence of finding anyone else who already had good reception, I was on my own. Yet, what if, when I finally achieved an OBE or lucid dream, and was aware of being awake in another world, whether astral or etheric, I still couldn’t prove anything other than that I was now master of my fantasies rather than their chief subject matter?

Why should I assume, just because I was interested in seeing if a particular route was passable, it would necessarily lead me where I wanted to go? It might, after all, be no easier travelling outside my body than it would be for a child, unversed in the ways of the world, to get about earth unaided.

The trouble was, however blithely people talked about finding themselves wherever they wanted in the etheric world, or meeting a personal ‘guide’ at the portals of the more mysterious astral plane, I was hardly in a position to take either of these possibilities seriously. The fact remained, I needed help, from others whose apparent good fortune it already was to have the gift for leaving their bodies and who, presumably, had some mastery over the vagaries of this sort of travel. At the same time, though, I wanted these people to still have their feet on the ground.

Lately, I had come across an organisation known as ECKANKAR, promulgating what they called "the Ancient Science of Soul Travel", whose members appeared on the surface to be dedicating their lives to little else but leaving their bodies at will in order to learn more about the next world.

Unfortunately, the impression their literature gave was of a sect who had long ago made up their minds about a tradition sounding like a cross between Hinduism and the occult, and I wondered if they could really have any new answers. Certainly, the extent of their domain, according to Paul Twitchell, author of The Far Country, an introductory book on the terminology and beliefs underlying ECKANKAR, , was considerable:

"The Far Country is a vast world lying beyond what the human race calls the earth planet and which apparently has not been explored by either the scientists or politicians for materialist glory.

It is a magnificent series of spiritual universes where the Tuza (the soul in ECKANKAR terminology) goes, following the disposal of its earthly body in that phenomena called death, and where so many travel in their Arma-Sarup body (the Soul body) from this earth plane.

The Far Country has many names. The Greeks called it the Elysian fields, or the Isles of the Blessed, Happy Isles, Fortunate Isles, and the Garden of Hesperides; the Scandinavians give it the names, Valhalla and Asgard; the American Indians knew it as the Happy Hunting Grounds, and the Hebrews as Canaan, or the Promised Land.

The Buddhists call it Nirvana and the Christians know it as Paradise or Heaven. Other religions have various names for this afterworld where all disembodied entities live."

I felt Paul Twitchell had got it wrong about the Buddhist nirvana, since this was a concept rather than location, beyond any imaginable time or place; but broadly speaking, I liked the sound of his "Far Country". He went on:

"Those who have had a glimpse of the Far Country are always unhappy with their existence on this earth planet. Unless they learn the art of Soul Travel, these people become extremely restless. Some will commit suicide in hope of reaching it, but they only defeat their purpose."

This sounded reasonable enough. Could I, I wondered, learn soul travel with any more felicity than I had so far singularly failed to learn astral projection or even take temporary control of my dreams, and gain access to the world, assuming it existed, it sounded as though my father would be in?

Unfortunately, to find out I needed to get hold of another book, How I learned Soul Travel, by Terrill Willson, and I would probably have to join ECKANKAR as well; and I was dubious as to how genuine a movement it could be, or perhaps more to the point, how it might affect me if I was to spend time finding out.

After all, here was Paul Twitchell, having explained how he had studied under Sudar Singh, apparently one of many explorers of the Far Country, at an ashram in Allahbad, India, going on to say:

"After extensive exploration of Sach Khand (Fifth spiritual plane), Sudar Singh granted me permission to proceed on my own through the spiritual worlds.

It was through Sudar Singh while travelling in the Soul body, that I met Rebazar Tarzs and intensified the study of the world called The Far Country, during a lengthy visit with him in the Himalayas above Darjeeling.

Later, with Gail, my wife, I came to know Rebazar Tarzs better. He talked several times to us. I began to leave the body at night and meet with him at his mud and brick hut in the Himalayas.

Rebazar Tarzs is a man who looks to be in his middle thirties, but many, including Yaubl Sacabi (another explorer of The Far Country), say that he is well over five hundred years old in his physical body."

As if to compound the error of making him sound like a resident of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Paul Twitchell launched into a graphic description of this – scientifically speaking – impossibly old man:

"Tarzs’ black hair is cropped closely, and is curly enough not to bother him in the fierce winds from the icy mountains. His beard is coal black and trimmed close. His eyes are shining coals of dark fire, his lips purple and his speech a clipped style as he barks words to emphasise points he is making. His flesh is dark, swarthy from the hot sun and winds. His feet are large, generally encased in sandals, but he often goes barefooted through the rocks and sand. They are as dark as walnut stain.

Rebazar Tarzs lives alone in his little, mud-brick hut high on a cliff above a torrential blue river, roaring out of the high glaciers across the valley into the plains to feed the teeming millions, six hundred miles to the south in the vast sweltering midlands.

Often leaving his physical body on the rude cot inside the hut, Rabazar Tarzs goes to the Tuza who needs his help, or to teach in one of the temples of the Far Country."

So, not only was I being asked to believe that Paul Twitchell, an ordinary looking, almost ominously clean-cut American, judging from his photo on the book’s back cover, having learned the art of soul travel, was able to meet, while in his soul body, the soul body of Sudar Singh, in the presumably astral realm known as Sach Khand; but that in addition he was able to pay visits to a five hundred year old man in a hut high up in the Himalayas, without ever leaving his Connecticut home.

Was he a con-man, singularly deluded, simply barking mad; or was he another Robert Monroe, with a unique gift he wanted more than anything else to pass on to others?

Undecided, I ordered How I learned Soul Travel, trying not to think of it sitting, read, studied, but unsuccessful at passing on its skills, alongside similar sounding treatises on my top bookshelf.

Of course, that was exactly what happened, though it was hardly Terrill Willson’s fault. He gave a graphic, surprisingly humble account of how, without undergoing any sort of indoctrination – in fact, without once meeting, in the physical realm, another ECKANKAR enthusiast, though regularly reading and studying books on the subject – he taught himself, from scratch, over long, tedious years, to first wrest control of his dreams, then travel in them to other worlds, and finally to meet in these other worlds spiritual masters, some of whom were allegedly still alive on earth.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the effort he had put in – two hours intense concentration on a nightly basis – he was not sanguine about teaching the skill he had acquired to others. As he put it, at some length:

"I’ve spent years writing this book, trying as best I can to word it in a way that sounds believable and hopefully gives you the notion that you or anyone else can consciously experience and verify the reality of out-of-the-body travel. Now I’m going to twist this next-to-last chapter in a direction that will probably surprise you. Breaking all rules of persuasive writing, I’m going to make the statement here that even if you do have the desire to try and experience a conscious out-of-the-body sensation, I don’t give you very good odds of succeeding. For every twenty people wanting to consciously experience what I’ve spoken of in this book, my guess is that only one person will eventually succeed. I don’t make this statement to discourage you, only because I believe it to be true.

Supposing you are an individual who’s come to believe after reading this book that maybe I am telling the truth about Soul Travel. Maybe now you’d like to consciously experience and verify what I’m talking about. All people have the same latent Soul Travel capabilities. Soul Travel is a learned ability much like playing football or driving a car. The more a person does it, the easier it gets. Then what could possibly hold you back? Being a believer or non-believer in the possibility of Soul Travel won’t make much difference in your out-of-body success. Desire isn’t even the most crucial factor in Soul Travel Success, although people with the greatest desire to experience out-of-body travel will naturally have the best chances for success because of being willing to persevere longer.

My reason for giving you such poor odds of success can be attributed to one word – time. Time, patience, and desire are the three requirements for out-of-body success, and of these three, time is by far the most elusive. The fast pace of today’s living, especially here in the western world, just doesn’t leave most people with much free time; my one and only possible advantage over other people in getting started as a Soul Traveller has been my free time.

A good friend of mine back in Iowa grew up with a strong interest and belief in all things of psychic and supernatural nature. She had heard about ECKANKAR and Soul Travel many years before I did, but so far she’s been unable to achieve that first conscious trip out of the body and declares now that she’s given up."

Terrill Willson went on to make some other very valid points:

"To those of you who do manage to achieve that first conscious out-of-body experience, who persevere and make the time to do it, even with the poor odds of success I’ve given you, my congratulations will certainly be a very small part of your reward. One conscious experience out of the body can give you proof that there is life after death, and that nonphysical worlds do exist. Walk into any church anywhere in the world and ask any number of preachers if there’s life after death, and most will say they believe in an afterlife. But few of these people will really know. There’s a big difference between believing and knowing, between having faith and knowing, between accepting other people’s say-so and knowing. The knower doesn’t have to argue or debate over the question because the knower just simply knows! Just one conscious trip out of the body can transform anyone, a believer or nonbeliever, into a knower. Becoming a knower about the afterlife exposes death for what it really is, merely a transition from life in one world to life in another.

I remember several years ago travelling by shuttle bus from the St. Louis airport to downtown to catch my next job on a riverboat. A conversation got started between another passenger and a group of about six priests who were also on the bus. After some small talk the passenger asked the priests about the afterlife, what life would be like for him after he died and what he would consist of. His sincere questions to the priests drew nothing but a couple of short quotes from the Bible and a solemn assurance that there is life after death.

I couldn’t help thinking at the time how typical this man’s questions were; most people throughout the world would dearly love to know the answers to these same questions. What this fellow and most other people don’t realise, however, is that Soul Travel can unlock the answers to all questions about the afterlife. The commonly accepted notion that a person has to wait until death to find out what’s next simply isn’t true. Science and religion may not be able to agree on what awaits each of us after death, but even the beginning Soul Traveller can start sorting out important answers to various questions about the afterlife, questions considered intangible and unprovable by most people."

As always, what was being claimed might have been, part of me suspected wasn’t, but I nevertheless sincerely hoped was, true. Certainly, Terrill Willson was wholly right about the inability of religion to do much more than utter platitudes.

For me, though, the main issue was how far a cry, how much more intriguing and enterprising, his sort of inter-galactic soul travel sounded from the journeys of Herbie Brennon’s wife who, with only intermittent success, spent her time, not gallivanting around the Far Country, but endeavouring to read the computer generated numbers on Professor Ellison’s bookcase.

If Paul Twitchell, Terrill Willson, and presumably a host of other ECKANKAR affiliants, could voyage as suggested, and interact with others while out of their bodies – particularly with those who were still considered to be living on earth – surely this meant they could have easily proved, if they were sufficiently interested, the ability of the mind to function separately from the body?

I wrote to the address on the back of Paul Twitchell’s book to ask, but the only reply I got was in the form of an application for membership of ECKANKAR, and a list of merchandise which included various sized photos of the "Living Mahatna" – apparently Sri Paul Twitchell himself. Neither membership nor memento were particularly expensive but I was reluctant to become involved. It may not have been the Church of Scientology, but it was certainly going to mean signing up for courses and study-groups that would cost time if not money and would probably require a degree of commitment I was not ready for.

Besides, notwithstanding Terrill Willson’s observations concerning patience, there was a limit to the sort of lengths I was prepared to go in my quest, and carrying around in my back pocket – even metaphorically speaking – a wallet-sized effigy of a man who couldn’t see the ridiculousness of the word ‘Sri’ in juxtaposition with the surname ‘Twitchell’ was well outside it.

Deep down inside, I wasn’t prepared to subscribe to anything I didn’t already believe was true, in case I ended up accepting something that clearly wasn’t – other than to a seriously disturbed intellect.

If I had known, indubitably, that what was said was the case – that the Far Country did exist, and that ECKANKAR affiliants, more than anyone else, knew the way there – it might have been different; but until I had rid my mind of the nagging suspicion there was no such place, and to suppose there was was neither going to be personally nor socially advantageous to me, nor help my quest, I couldn’t go along with them.

Ultimately, I suppose I feared becoming the sort of person who wanted so wholeheartedly to believe in the utterly fantastic they entirely lost their critical faculty. I had met, and deplored, people like that, from all walks of life. Terrill Willson impressed me as not being this way inclined; but I suspected that could have been a deliberate marketing ploy.

At about the same time as reading his book, I came across the work of Dr Waldo Viera. He ran the Centre for Higher Studies of Consciousness, in Brazil, on what he claimed to be "one of the most privileged sites in the world in terms of geoenergy"; and was the, apparently self–appointed, director of the International Institute of Projectology and Conscientiology. Information supplied by this organisation suggested I might be – if only very slightly – more at home with them than with ECKANKAR. As one of their leaflets explained:

"Projectiology is the science that studies the Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) or Projection of Consciousness (PC) considered to be the most important of the 222 known psychic, mediumistic and energetic phenomena.

Projectiology focuses on the practical application of Conscientology that studies consciousness, its attributes and manifestations, analysing it as systematically as possible. It extends its investigations beyond the boundaries of physical manifestation, analysing multi-dimensional capacities and previous existences."

I thought I could see what was meant here, though I wished it had been couched in simpler language. What I particularly liked was Dr. Viera’s assertion that emphasis would be:

"…given to the experiences which clarify the existence and nature of multidimensionality without the imposition of mystical connotations."

The Institute ran fairly inexpensive courses, on weekends, at a bookshop in London, with the express intention of training people with "no background or previous experience", to "produce healthy and lucid OBEs". I decided to go along and see what I could learn.

I learned, for a start, that I needed, as a preliminary, to devote myself to an hour a day for the rest of my life to something known as PENTA – or Personal Energetic Task – and that this commitment had to be deeply meant. In other words, if I was to benefit, it was no use my pretending I was prepared to dedicate myself.

In addition, I had to have sex at least once every day – this was apparently in order to dissipate energy otherwise spent in inappropriately lustful thoughts. Since I was contentedly married, only averagely horny, and had always found too frequent indulgence lessened desire, this prospect was strangely unexciting.

Besides, since sex was reserved for after, rather than before or during, the practice of Penta, it still left one hour a day to be accounted for. This was a long time to devote to an obscure discipline – seemingly a mixture of meditation and thought control – that had to be carried out at an inconvenient hour of the morning, and guaranteed nothing; especially for someone who found difficulty keeping up even his few minutes a day stomach tightening exercises.

I abandoned the idea of taking Conscientology any further, and wrote instead to the director of London operations, who had been "motivated to become an IIPC teacher as a result of his own OBEs", in the forlorn hope he might be moved to try his hand at reading the page numbers of an upturned book left in an ordinarily inaccessible place somewhere in southern England rather than spending time traversing the reaches of "multidimensionality" – which presumably included within its remit, "Sach Khand (Fifth spiritual plane)".

Unfortunately, all I got by return of post were more details of up-coming seminars.


Where did my researches leave me? Was I any nearer knowing whether my father had survived death, and if so, where he was?

I was certainly more knowledgeable than before about what other people, intelligent, resourceful, responsible people with considered opinions, thought, or believed, might have happened to him; but I was hardly surer of my own view than I had been when I had attended his funeral.

It still struck me as incredible there should be such polarity of opinion between those who claimed we lived on and those who were convinced we didn’t. Neither side allowed for the possibility they might be wrong; but I supposed this was understandable with something of such an absolute nature as death, since it was impossible to be only partially right. Either we survived or we vanished: there could be no quasi-immortality.

There was clear uniformity amongst those who didn’t believe my father was anything more now than an increasingly distant memory in other people’s recollections. His body, housing his mind, which was itself only the unique actions of his brain and sensory organs, had perished, and nothing remained.

This was what I understood to be the orthodox, scientific view, as expressed by such luminaries as Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore. It was a logical conclusion, which I had shared myself for many years, and part of me remained in sympathy with it now. It was basic materialism, and most people knew it made sense even if they couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe it.

There were, admittedly, some scientific mavericks around, of whom one of the most respected was Paul Davies, who were prepared to consider the possibility there might be more to life than had so far met the eye of modern research; but theirs was hardly a mainstream view; and so far none of the speculations of the ‘new physics’ had changed the essential nature of the materialist creed, which was that nothing could be true unless it was calibrated, and that the measure of virtually everything had already been taken.

Immortality was meanwhile sought by materialists in the only way they thought possible, not by speculating they already had it to look forward to, but through cryonics, the freezing technology that preserved human tissue, in the hope that science would one day be able to bring corpses back to life. In other words, they would be resurrected, not into a different world but a future version of this one.

Another of the avenues the technology of materialism traversed was the emulation, through virtual reality, of a synthetic environment that looked, sounded, and could ultimately be expected to feel, every bit as ‘real’ as the one we were used to. People got excited at the prospect of sitting in an armchair, more or less insensible to their bodies, donning a headset and venturing into an alternative universe.

Were they to be reminded they did this every night, for free; that the technology already existed, inside them; that if they worked at it, they could learn to control the process; and that there were rumours adepts could share experiences in each other’s dream worlds – true, global networking – they would have laughed. Who could get excited by something so commonplace as dreams?

To me, it was an extraordinary indictment of the way our world functioned, the perverse fashion in which it had become oriented, that it was deemed more useful to invent and programme machines we could strap on and plug into in order to become lost in another world than to train people in the mental discipline – which I knew was hard, but required no resources, and couldn’t have been more ideally tailored to suit individual personalities – of simply learning to wake up in the dreams they were already having.

This would have been equally true regardless of whether that dream world was treated as – or, in fact, turned out to be – a recreational game, a remedial workshop, a fantasy training ground, or – as I suspected – the main stairway to heaven. The point was, the resource, the expertise, was already ours; yet we were dismissing it out of hand.

I had also come across somewhat less plausible reports that the phenomenon of the ‘apport’ – so renowned in the psychic world, where a solid object, apparently having been dematerialised and transported from an unknown source, rematerialised elsewhere – was being replicated by science: a sort of vastly superior fax machine.

Yet, seemingly, the ‘technology’ had long been available, by a far less circuitous route than was currently being investigated; that was, if the feats of Sai Baba and others who manifested such things on a regular basis – on one celebrated occasion, a cubic metre of well rotted horse manure – were to be taken at face value.

Another scientific ‘innovation’ was a proposed computer chip, sufficiently small and powerful to be implanted into nerves behind the eye and used, according to journalist, Steve Connor:

"…to record every sight, thought and sensation in a person’s life from cradle to grave."

Its hopeful developer, Chris Winter, claimed:

"This is the end of death. We envisage that all we think, all our emotions and creative brain activity will be able to be copied onto silicon. This is immortality in the truest sense – future generations will not die."

Chris Winter’s belief was that such memory chips, in conjunction with individual gene records, could be used to recreate new versions of people after they had died.

It seemed, increasingly, that science was trying to emulate in this world what folk wisdom suggested was our natural inheritance in the next.

The question that sprang to mind, if we did have an immaterial, immortal soul, which incarnated into our bodies sometime between conception and birth, and then left us at death, carrying with it its own record of our lives, was what would happen to this when our reconstituted selves, with their computer memory chip on board, were recreated; and would our ‘new’ bodies be able to function without it?

It might be that such a soul would be drawn back into its replica body for another bite of the cherry; but it might also be that that soul had a different destiny ahead of it. What would happen to the body in question?

A removable computer memory chip linked to a recreated body was one thing; direct ‘cloning’ of the still living was another. Always assuming there was a soul, could it be expected to somehow share itself; and if two or more clones were created, would it spread itself ever further?

This would have been somewhat akin to all the Cox’s Orange Pippen apple trees in the world, having originated from one chance seedling, being the proud owners of a group soul.

Of course, they could well be; but perhaps the best way of judging how the cloning of individuals might affect us – and possibly not a bad way of clarifying whether or not something immaterial made us the way we were – would have been to consider the characters of those animate, sentient creatures who had had it done to them.

On that point, only the future would tell. In the meantime, Dr Lee Silver, a biology professor, made the claim:

"Of course, the main reason people fear cloning is based on the notion that scientists are venturing into God’s domain. Suffice to say that this religious faith – which, by definition, is unverifiable – is not universal, even among believers."

I should have thought there was nothing particularly scary or even irreligious about replicating, or trying to improve on, nature, in terms of our physicality, since we had done this to plants and animals since time immemorial; what was frightening wasn’t the possibility that we were usurping the role of God, but that we may have misunderstood our reasons for being alive in the first place.

Our biggest error may have been in subscribing to the notion that this was the only life we got, and that we must make the most of it, in every possible way, extending it indefinitely if we could; rather than acknowledging that even an apparently brief and unhappy tenure on earth may not have presaged the end of us as individuals.

It was almost as if the materialist view had subtly changed from the traditional one, neatly summed up by Colin Wilson, in a quotation he attributed to Lord Byron:

"I was much struck by Esmond Donally’s assertion, that it was the comparative insignificance of ourselves and our world, when placed in competition with the mighty whole, of which it is an atom, that first led him to imagine that our pretensions to eternity might be overrated."

Now, it seemed, those pretensions were stirring again, but this time as something we would create for ourselves, in the manner of true innovators, rather than have to remain forever indebted to some mythical power for having made an intrinsic part of us.

Looked at globally, the earthly guardian of that power, orthodox religion, was still a massively influential, if in places pathetically faded, part of most societies, managing to exist in tandem with materialist science, even though their ultimate claims were diametrically opposed.

Its views varied, depending on the culture it had grown out of and in many cases still dominated; but at its core, religious belief was dualist in nature, holding that humans were made up of a perishable body and an immortal soul; although the different understandings of what happened to that soul, how it was constituted, what its antecedents were, never mind what might happen to its its body, were extraordinarily diverse.

Huge swaths of the globe believed, on what, without any shadow of a doubt, was the flimsiest possible evidence, that when they died their souls – apart from those of the most wicked or just, whose punishment or reward was considered to be instantaneous – would either undergo a form of extraordinarily long-term ‘cleansing’, pending the ‘end of time’; or else would fall into something resembling an eternal sleep, all perception of which would pass in an instant, so that the moment they expired, they would appear to themselves to be waking up on Judgment Day – even if a million intervening earth years had gone by – and be reunited with their bodies, and possibly their families and friends, in either heaven or hell.

For Muslims, this belief was based on the recorded word of Mohammed, as set down in the Koran. For Christians, the Bible may have been the word of God, but most of what was accepted concerning death and resurrection hinged on the writings of St Paul. Whatever was claimed, both these men were fallible humans.

Jews had their own sources, none of which instilled any particular confidence in the dispassionate onlooker. Yet these three religions, whose adherents numbered themselves in the billions, amongst them people of prodigious mental capacity, far-reaching insight and undoubted goodness, offered no means of verifying categoric assertions made so long ago as to be almost pre-historic, misinterpretation of which – always assuming they were not imaginary in the first place – was statistically almost certain.

Such ‘miracles’ as apparently occurred from time to time, usually within the Catholic Church, were so smalltime, it was hard to reconcile their trivial nature with the grandiose claims made in their name. Any attempt to get in touch, other than vicariously, through singing, chanting or prayer, with whatever lay behind these or any other manifestations – in other words, to look ‘beyond the veil’ – was frowned on, and alleged to be either dangerous, or else disrespectful to the deity concerned.

This was an important point, since each of these major religions – and their myriad offshoots – believed that it alone could provide salvation. Conciliatory noises were made in every camp about the possibility of those from other traditions being acceptable to an all-encompassing saviour, but there was no suggestion their God would be too. In essence, they remained exclusive clubs, each conveying the impression of being the sole authorised spokesgroup for the next world.

There was considerable discrepancy, within all three belief systems, when it came to where my father was now. They were in no doubt he was his soul, at least until the end of time; and since there wouldn’t be any resurrection before then, he was unlikely to be currently embodied; but it seemed, according to certain authorities – notably most Catholics and some Muslims – he was not in a state of somnolence but existed in some sort of purgatory.

The problem was, if my father had no body – and presumably this meant not even the memory of one – it was hard to imagine what form he could take; what condition, as an insensate, thought-free being, he would be in; and what sort of housing, in the broadest sense, might be provided for him.

This wouldn’t have been an issue if the answer to the question of his whereabouts was the more commonly assumed one among Protestants that he was asleep, unaware of his own existence while waiting for the end of time, and therefore in no place at all. Milton put this most succinctly:

"…the interval between death and resurrection is to them that sleep and perceive it not, a moment."

In this event, my father’s soul may have been in much the same condition as when, during surgery, his living body had been under anaesthetic. He had said then that he had never experienced so profound an absence. It had been exactly as if, for the duration of the effect, he had not existed. Death might be like that: simply an unimaginably deep sleep.

I found myself wondering if time for beings in this sort of ‘other world’ might slip by as I assumed it did for the cattle tick, born to live its entire life in a state of quiescence on an unpalatable shrub waiting for upwards of eighteen years – which for such a creature might approximate to eternity – for the passage of a sentient, warm blooded mammal on whom it could attach itself, in order to reproduce, before expiring.

If this was the case, my father needn’t even have known he had died. He could, in fact, be in much the same position now, many months after his death, as he was, sleeping soundly in his bed, immediately prior to whatever fit or seizure had caused his body to breath its last.

Unless, of course, we were aware, on some subterranean level that was so inaccessible to us on waking we forgot it in its entirety, of the resting place for the soul; and that this nether-location was where we retreated during a coma, while anesthetised, in deeper, non-dreaming sleep, as well as when we died.

The notion certainly existed, within Buddhism, spiritualism and the occult, that as we slept we passed through the different stages of death, from the relatively shallow astral region to the more profound – or higher – realms; and that it was as difficult to recognise or remember one experience from another as most people found it to recall dreams when returning to waking reality. This would have at least explained why deep sleep was such an profound blank.

It was neither a Christian, Muslim, Jewish nor scientific view. In fact, the only scientist I had come across who was deemed sufficiently mainstream to have had his work published in reputable journals as well as a major imprint, while still endorsing any religious view – though, in this case, an effective denunciation of the soul – was Alan Tipler, whose monumental treatise, while claiming to give scientific support to the central doctrines of most of the major established religions, was actually solidly founded in a quirky version of futuristic materialism.

It was based not on science’s possible recognition of a spiritual world that already existed while remaining currently unrecognisable – the proverbial energy field unknown to physics – but on the eventual creation of entirely new life forms, through simulation, using computer expertise to reform the atoms of every creature that had ever lived, thereby effectively raising them from the dead.

Tipler denied the existence of the soul, and therefore all possibility of our becoming one with it during sleep; or indeed of anything surviving the death of the body pending its resurrection; which made his claim to represent any religious group – apart, possibly, from the one headed by Rev Culpit and seconded by Dr Habgood – decidedly odd.

Somehow, he even managed to include within the remit of his theory Hindu and Buddhist beliefs that were not simply inimical to technological advancement, but entirely negated the ultimate reality of the sort of world he proposed.

Although Buddhists claimed not to believe in an immortal soul, both religions followed the same general tradition. This was for the continuation, or slow evolvement, over innumerable lifetimes, of individual consciousness, revolving around the twin concepts of karma and rebirth. It was a journey that could only end with the dissolvement of individual personalities in a universal void – absorption into a form of eternal bliss – that would be the very antithesis of physical resurrection,

Hindus and Buddhists were idealists, in so far as they didn’t accept the reality of matter at all, least of all the human body. Everything was illusion, in this or any other world, and it was our difficulty in coming to terms with that that ensured our repeated rebirth.

The goal for devotees of these religions was to escape the recurring cycle by recognising the illusory nature of appearances. Essentially, the degree to which we could learn to become less our false, separate selves and more part of a wider, unified whole during each earthly, or other-worldly, existence determined the rate of our ascent up the ladder of opportunity that led, ultimately, to our disintegration.

That this ascent was far from easy was illustrated by a story I had come across in Sogyal Rinpoche’s, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, where he advised his readers to:

"Imagine a blind turtle, roaming the depths of an ocean the size of the universe. Up above floats a wooden ring, tossed to and fro on the waves. Every hundred years the turtle comes, once, to the surface. To be born a human being is said by Buddhists to be more difficult than for that turtle to surface accidentally with its head poking through the wooden ring. And even among those who have a human birth, it is said, those who have the great good fortune to make a connection with the teachings are rare; and those who really take them to heart and embody them in their actions even rarer, as rare, in fact, ‘as stars in broad daylight’."

It was almost as hard to accept this view that the dregs of humankind could represent the pinnacle of achievement in terms of a universal life force as it was to swallow Tipler’s contention that in the immortality stakes cockroaches were on a par with kings and queens.

Of course, Eastern religions weren’t solely concerned with liberation. In between dying and being reborn, the soul or continuing consciousness was recognised – other than in certain schools of Buddhism – as being embodied and imbued with personality to such an extent it often took a considerable time before an individual, unless they were exceptionally adept, realised they had died. The surviving entity then continued to exist, for varying periods, in various other-worldy states.

Although in the majority of karmic traditions a person – if they could still be called that – recovered during each interim period a complete memory of all their previous incarnations, this was instantly forgotten again when they were reborn. It was emphasised, the destiny of all except the most exceptional – the "stars in broad daylight" – was to be repeatedly reborn, and not always, it seemed, necessarily on earth.

According to these belief systems, my father was either still in an in-between state, or had already returned, in some form or other, to the known world, or was in one of many possible, equally ‘real’ alternative worlds. There was talk, in their writings, of time spent, whether it was counted in minutes or aeons, in the most sublime and awful places.

Wherever my father was, there was no suggestion I should, or could, contact him, or even locate him with any certainty; and there was the intimation that any attempt at this might somehow ‘hold him back’, and that it wouldn’t do me any good either.

The only possible approach would be if I had already been adept at dream yoga, and could have visited my father on the bardo; but naturally, within the context of Buddhism at least, had I been that accomplished, but known the course of action was not recommended, I should hardly have attempted it.

Besides, I didn’t know for certain he would still be there. According to

tradition, a maximum of forty nine days could be spent in this in-between state; after which anything could have happened. The time limit was long past; although it was questionable, in earthbound terms, whether it was expected to be taken literally.

Oddly enough, some Buddhists, according to one of my original informants, emphasised that individual, "discrete" personalities – without which, I should have thought, my father could hardly have told one bardo state from another, nor have had the capacity to perceive himself, still less been recognisable to me – got left behind on earth, and only their "thread" survived.

This threw open the whole question of what actually went on in the lower reaches of the Buddhist afterworld; but I had learned, from other sources, that Lokpala may have been making too much of the distinction between a surviving consciousness and an immortal soul; and that the depersonalisation he spoke of more accurately took place at the time of rebirth – or, for the favoured few, when moving on to a higher realm – than at the moment of death.

Strictly speaking, the view of both Hindus and Buddhists was that death, at least in the short term, produced nothing other than a change of environment. So far as they were concerned – and this applied equally to Muslims, Christians, Jews, or for that matter scientists – individual experiences in the next world depended not on the strictures of whatever monolithic religion or world view may have been believed in but to universally applicable laws as set out in their own wisdom traditions; the difference being that instead of meeting unfamiliar deities in foreign landscapes, those unacquainted with these teachings would be confronted with images and thought forms from their own scriptures or memory banks.

They should not, however, expect to be resurrected to eternal life, nor annihilated, as they might have been led to believe; but must resign themselves to eventual rebirth. In all but the most auspices circumstances, liberation was thought unlikely.

All religions had their sacred writings, usually based on the supposedly received wisdom of one man, that oscillated between the Abrahamic doctrine of an immortal soul in a physical housing enjoying a single earthly life followed by an eternal spiritual one in a reconstituted body, with no pre-existence and no possibility of rebirth; and the more nebulous concept, personalised by Buddha, that our soul, or essence, from its inception, was in a constant state of evolution, through the learning experiences of successive incarnations in different forms, en route to its final, unimaginably distant destiny, when it would merge with its source.

What was more or less common currency with those who favoured the latter scenario, and would have been common to Christianity and Islam too, if only very slightly different interpretations, or a different emphasis on existing interpretations, had been placed on the utterances of their prophets, was the existence of another world remarkably like the present one, though with fewer of the unpleasantnesses, that everyone automatically acceded to on their death; and of a succession of further worlds that led on from it.

Whether these worlds were considered illusory, or material in their own right, and how long, in earthly terms, our tenure there was likely to be, was of less importance than that their nature and appearance, at least initially, was largely dependent on what we as individuals believed would happen to us when we died.

This was a stance shared by a number of contemporary writers, including Robert Monroe. In Ultimate Journey, he called these worlds, "Belief System Territories", considering they were where:

"…many Human Minds reside after completing physical life experiences. Each is attracted to a particular segment in accordance with a deep attachment made during the life just finished to a seemingly powerful belief."

William Buhlman, author of Adventures Beyond the Body, used the term "Consensus Reality" for much the same phenomenon. He described it as:

"…any environment that is created and maintained by the thoughts of a group of individuals. For example, the heavens (and, I presumed, hells) of each religious

group are created by the thoughts and beliefs of their respective inhabitants."

Both authors confirmed – though how they knew, I couldn’t conceive – that believers carried on trusting in their own exclusivity for a considerable time after death; but that eventually – whatever this meant, in earthbound terms – they recognised their folly in supposing their environment represented any sort of unique place or definitive state, and were able to advance accordingly.

Assuming this was the case, it would be pertinent to ask where humanity’s different belief systems had originated. Occultists claimed their kernel had always been there, since before the dawn of history, when people were well able to see what they later couldn’t even sense, so that now they had ever increasing difficulty acknowledging there was any truth in the extraordinarily diverse, seemingly absurd embellishments of what must originally have been self-evident.

The spread and development of civilisation went some way to explaining the existence of major cultural differences in, and attitudes towards, what might otherwise have been, if not a universal creed, certainly the widespread recognition by humankind of a common life beyond the grave.

For confirmation that such a radical change – essentially, from full awareness, through partial belief, to mere hope – could take place, it was only necessary to consider the Australian Aboriginal or North American Indian cultures during the last two hundred years. From what we knew of these people, they lived their lives in such close communication with nature, at one with the changing seasons and the cycles of regeneration, we either had to take at face value their claim barely to have been able to distinguish, because for them there was so little difference, between the condition of the living and that of the dead, or else assume they were fantasists of the first order.

An animist’s dreamtime or happy hunting ground may seem like wish fulfilment to us, but we can’t be certain people weren’t as fully in touch with these places, visiting them regularly, possibly every night, as we like to think we are with our reason.

Their descriptions of where their ancestors were, of what condition they were in and how they spent their time, of whether and in what way they influenced those still living, and the accompanying picture this created of a spiritual world that permeated the physical one as water did a sponge, may have been as accurate a description of objective reality as we would expect from our most detailed television travelogues.

In Life After Death, edited by Arthur Koestler, it was firmly stated by one contributor, that:

"Comparative studies of the concepts of after-life and of the posthumous journey of the soul reveal striking similarities between cultures and ethnic groups separated historically and geographically. The appearance of certain motifs and themes in different time periods and remote countries is quite remarkable."

What was even more remarkable was how quickly these living concepts, compared to their memories, had been lost.

For the Aborigines and Indians, two hundred years had done for them. For the Westerners who treated what may have been the result of supersensory sight as superstition and fancy, what they themselves had had and forsaken countless generations earlier might have been essentially the same thing.

The net result was that people everywhere were asked to believe, not what those who had allegedly retained at least some of their clairvoyant sight told them was every bit as extant now as before, but what those recipients of whatever distorted version of this had been passed down through history had had indoctrinated into them.

There were very few researchers, within existing religious traditions, doing much more than re-evaluating old beliefs. Ancient texts were invariably the source used. However conscientiously this was done, it couldn’t be a substitute for direct exploration. If another world existed ‘out there’, even if it turned out to be ‘within’, then we should have found out about it, or we should still be searching for it, rather than imagining we knew all there was to know, on account of what a series of historical figures had supposedly told our forebears.

It seemed singular that half the world should believe only what history told them and the other half dismiss all such belief out of hand. Approaching the millennium, rather than wait passively, if hardly expectantly, for another messiah, it surely behoved us to look out – in more ways than one – for ourselves.

That this could be done was well documented. The understanding of life after death inherent in – at least Tibetan – Buddhism, appeared to have come not so much from the Buddha himself, as through journeys made into the bardo realms by adepts.

Most of these were undertaken a long time ago, when it was clearly stated in the texts that the way a person slept, the way they dreamt, the control or lack of control they exhibited during their unconscious hours, more or less mirrored what they could expect to experience at death.

This should have been instructive and illuminating for any Buddhist – or any individual sympathetic to their ways – who wanted to make progress; but I had come across very few contemporary accounts of adherents making such journeys today.

The majority of other religions relied on a mixture of revelation and seership; but in nearly all instances the most recent episode of intercommunication with the next world was a very long time ago.

It could, of course, have been argued that new groupings such as Scientologists, and the innumerable sects that had appeared over recent decades, were satisfying this need for more up-to-date information about something so puzzling we still couldn’t be certain of its existence.

The trouble with all such groups was their leader. Proclaimed as an enlightened being who had received new knowledge, how was anybody to know he or she was not a charlatan? It wasn’t simply a question of whether we were able to trust them to be right, but whether, if we did, it was necessary, as it seemed to be for membership, to believe everybody else was wrong. What I could see the most pressing need for was something along the lines of a spiritual Internet. Not an earthly website with copious details of existing religions and belief systems on it, for perusal and personal gain, which was all well and good, and probably existed already; but something along the lines of Ron Pearson’s other-wordly access point: his truly worldwide web. Somewhere we might go in our minds to tune into whatever was coming out of an ether we could then at least acknowledge was real.

We needed to be able to find out what was going on for ourselves, without being told. Just as we could, as city dwellers, go for a walk in the country and hear birds singing, see flowers and trees, breath the different air, and be in another frame of mind, without either denying the differences with what we were used to or trying to impress them on others; so we should be able, as inhabitants of earth, to tune in to the spiritual side of things, make contact with and learn from other worlds, independently of an organisation that would not only feel it had to tell us how to do this, but also charge us, in money, time and allegiance to their way of doing things, for the privilege.


I realised I was back to learning to leave my body, in order to find out what, if anything, lay outside it. Failing that, I was, by default, back where I had started, with spiritualism.

Spiritualism, with a small ‘s’, was a philosophy that was clearly modelled on, or had independently come to similar conclusions to, the occult, rather than a religion founded on one man’s teachings.

It was based on individual insight into, or discovery of, the lot of ordinary people in the next world, by ordinary people in this one; and I thought I could understand why Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, should have become so excited by it; although it was also clear why so many of his contemporaries scorned his apparent credulity.

It looked, on the surface, to be the answer to most people’s most fervent prayer. First of all, it gave confirmation, a sort of blanket assurance, that everyone, no matter what their opinion or creed, least of all their social standing, financial credibility or secular achievements, survived death in much the same form.

It apparently mattered not one jot what a person believed, whether in God or nothing, resurrection or rebirth, annihilation or eternal return, they still arrived, along with everyone else, in an after death state that was so remarkably similar to the world they had left behind, they often had difficulty recognising they had died.

Once there, they sought out, or were drawn towards – as they would have been on earth – the home base that suited them best; with many individuals, being neither as they fondly imagined, nor as others thought, experiencing unexpected relocation. By all accounts, some sort of life review took place, from which there was no possibility of hiding, that determined individual fitness; and where a person ended up was where they stayed for the foreseeable future.

There was no indication of the turmoil and uncertainty, the fearful loss of self control, the fight to stay ‘awake’ or ‘conscious’, and the inevitable, almost forcible rebirth, often in other than human form, suggested by Hinduism and Buddhism:

"…where the departed soul is described as shrinking in agony from the Clear Light of the Void, and even from the lesser tempered Lights, in order to rush headlong into the comforting darkness of selfhood as a reborn human being, or even a beast, an unhappy ghost, a denizen of hell."

Within spiritualism, if rebirth was on the cards – which, apparently, it wasn’t always – it was seen as a choice, an option for a person’s future rather than something that was thrust upon them.

There were other realms to which it was possible to eventually progress, but it was deemed unnecessary to know about them, apart from the fact that they existed, before it was time to go there. Descriptions of the ‘summerland’, as it had become known, abounded, along with accounts, detailed to the point of mundanity, of what people got up to there.

It was the sort of next world anyone in their right minds would have hoped for, when they were not fearing its opposite: a wishful-thinking, lottery-win-for-all type of place in which a person gravitated to whatever part they felt most comfortable, where they found congenial companions and agreeable surroundings, where the tedious acquisition of food and lodging and wherewithal was notably absent, where time was relative, where sensual, intellectual, emotional or any other kind of indulgence was no sooner thought of than gratified.

There would certainly have been grounds for imagining something along these lines, even if there had been no evidence to suggest it was true. After all, what could have been more agreeable than doing what you liked with a minimum of disturbance and none of the inconveniences and encumbrances of earth for as long as you wanted before moving on somewhere else? In Secret Wisdom, David Conway expressed the slightly absurd nature of this well:

"…most Spiritualistic literature consists of banal and idiosyncratic descriptions of life beyond the veil where, it seems, musically minded people gather in vast halls to listen to spirit orchestras, doctors pursue their researches in well-equipped spirit laboratories (without recourse to vivisection), great writers write, and where, since someone must keep the lawns trim, spirit gardeners garden contentedly."

A recent advertisement for a book, Joyous Inheritance, in the NAS Newsletter, showed the strength of the mundane vision. Allegedly consisting of a protracted interview between "retired business executive Ronald Alford and his ‘dead’ wife Ying", some of the questions asked, and answered, were:

"How are spirit world houses built? Do spirit beings use buses and trains? Are organ transplants acceptable? Do astral cafes exist?"

A possibly less contentious, certainly more rarefied, and probably more typically spiritualistic view of what we might expect to encounter came from David Thompson in a letter to Psychic News:

"There seems to be some sort of pecking order within the world of spirit. Since we on Earth have social, commercial and financial stratas in society, so it follows that there are degrees of spiritual progression.

There is the lower strata composed of those who have caused suffering to others and have no remorse.

There are those who have remorse and are striving to spiritually improve themselves.

So we go up through the lower levels until we reach what may be the most common level of spirit: those who have led reasonable lives with its usual ups and downs and mistakes and triumphs. They generally extend the level of their earthly life into the spirit world where they will quite often link up with their partners, relatives, friends and in social gatherings.

At that level, as at all levels, there is the opportunity to progress up the spiritual scales…"

Although Christians in general had little open sympathy with spiritualism, still less the occult, I had been intrigued to come across an article by Stafford Betty, a professor of religious studies, in Fragments of Infinity, intimating a belief that the summerland of spiritualists was nothing other than the purgatory which he, as a Catholic, found such disturbing contemporary reluctance to talk about, never mind admit existed, among his fellow worshippers. Perhaps, this was because his idea of purgatory borrowed so much from outside Christianity.

He began by emphasising that it was the unanimous teaching of both Eastern religions and psychic literature – and also, he believed, of St Paul – that we had bodies in the next world. He furthermore suggested that since there would be little point in embodiment, presumably with senses intact, if there was no environment in which to operate, that environment was likely to be an objective, tangible one. He then set about describing it:

"With considerable trepidation I would describe the Good Land in the following way: when we die, we will discover that we are thoroughly ourselves, with all our good or bad habits intact. We will not experience hunger or sickness or any of the other ailments that are peculiar to the physical earth body, but we will experience the full range of emotions that we knew on earth. If we have hated someone, we will continue to hate him, and in the act of hating we will draw him (if he has died) to us. Reconciliation will often be harrowing; it may indeed be thoroughly hellish. All evasions and self-deceptions will be discovered, often to our profound mortification and sorrow. The whole point of living in the Good Land is to strip ourselves of illusions… Hell is not so much a separate world as it is an unhappy state – a ghetto, if you will – within the Good Land… I imagine the Good Land – at least for the basically decent person – as a place of clarity, color and luminosity. The landscape, far from futuristic or strange or ghostly, may be in many respects homey, comfortable and ‘normal’ – the sort of place where you can get work done without undue distraction. Loved ones who have died before us may be present from time to time… What about Jesus? He will be available in glory to anyone who calls on him – as will Krishna to his devotees, as will all the other personalities that the faithful have given to God, or alternatively, that God has incarnated Himself in."

Obviously, this wasn’t official Catholic doctrine, or anything like it, but it was so much closer to the sort of thing that might reasonably have been expected to happen to us in another world – once we had swallowed the initial difficulty of how we might make the transition from one body to another – especially when compared to the current archaic, unappetising, and less than readily believable dogma, it seemed incredible to me that more theologians weren’t coming round to the same point of view.

It was far more important, surely, than dressing up outdated, confused, and often contradictory ideas, in order to make them seem relevant, to simply convey what was thought to be true, in modern language; especially if the essential message was one most people wanted to hear anyway.

I was intrigued to discover a Commission had been set up by the Church of England in 1937 to investigate spiritualism, which had not been published until nine years later, due to its unpalatable conclusions, but that had had the honesty to admit:

"…if we assert that phenomena attested by Spiritualists must be doubted because they have not yet proved capable of scientific statement and verification, we must add that the miracles (in the Bible), and the Resurrection itself, are not capable of such verification either.

We must therefore ask what the proper Christian grounds of belief in these central truths of Christianity are.

The answer to this question is clearly that we believe upon a basis of faith, and not of demonstrable scientific knowledge."

This was a fair enough comment, or admission, for a Christian to make. Because the central truths of Christianity lay in the distant past, they could not be considered scientifically. This was not the case with spiritualism, which was nothing if not contemporary. The Commission had strong views about this:

"We may sum up the position from the point of view of science as follows:

There is no satisfactory scientific evidence in favour of any paranormal phenomena (materialisations, apports, telekinesis, etc.). All the available scientific evidence is against the occurrence of such phenomena.

Further, the hypothesis of unconscious mental activity in the mind of the medium or sensitive is a strong alternative hypothesis to that of the action of a discarnate entity in cases of mental mediumship.

Thus the strictly scientific verdict on the matter of personal survival can only be one of non-proven. Again, the whole question of extra sensory perception is still a matter of scientific subjudice."

Nevertheless, the Commission allowed – somewhat anomalously, I thought, since the souls of the departed were popularly supposed by their church to be quiescent – in respect of ‘messages’ received from the dead:

"We think that it is probable that the hypothesis that they proceed in some cases from discarnate spirits is the true one."

If this sounded too good to be true, for a modest fee, and with no obligation on their part to belong to any sort of group or organisation, or be under any religious overtones whatsoever, an individual was free to visit mediums who claimed to be able to bring personal messages from those of their dead friends or family who wished to contact them.

What was more, very occasionally, if a medium was sufficiently skilled, the actual materialisation of humans, from the spiritual to the earth plane, could be engineered. Living people might, it seemed, meet face-to-face with the dead.

For Conan Doyle, this made so much sense he had endorsed it ringingly, suffering a series of embarrassments, notably in the case of the Cottingley fairies, photographs of which were, and are, widely assumed to be fakes; but never swaying from his central position that here, at last, was a belief system that was logical, fair, universal, held out every bit as much hope of spiritual progression as any other, and promised immortality for everyone; and what was more, anyone – absolutely anyone – could verify this for themselves.

It wasn’t a case of having faith in something they had been told about, and spending the rest of their life hoping: it was a case of finding out for certain and knowing.

Conan Doyle was clear about what this belief system entailed. He stated, as early as 1887:

"Let a a man realise that the human soul, as it emerges from its bodily cocoon, shapes its destiny in exact accordance with its condition; that that condition depends upon the sum result of his actions and thoughts on this life; that every evil deed stamps itself upon the spirit and entails its own punishment with the same certainty that a man stepping out of a second floor window falls to the ground; that there is no room for deathbed repentances or other nebulous conditions which might screen the evil doer from the consequence of his own deeds, but that the law is self-acting and inexorable."

As Michael Coren, his recent biographer, emphasised:

"…we cannot dismiss his religious and philosophical ideas as absurd if we wish to retain any intellectual consistency in the study and appreciation of Conan Doyle. A man who was sufficiently gifted and brilliant to invent and develop Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger, qualify as a doctor and suggest military reforms far ahead of their time surely did not have one gargantuan weak spot when it came to his personal belief in life after death and the supernatural."

To suggest of such a man, as a number of critics had, including the magician, James Randi, that the death of his son in World War 1 somehow deprived him of his reason, so keen was he to believe his flesh and blood had not ‘really’ died, was not only to dismiss the fact that Conan Doyle’s investigations into the subject had by then been going on for over a quarter of a century, but to trivialise the deaths of millions of young men whose parents, for whatever reason, chose not to embrace spiritualism, but could scarcely have been assumed to love their children any the less for failing to do so.

I found it hard, examining the history of spiritualism and noting the number of individuals of seemingly inarguable integrity, standing head and shoulders above the others, not to believe that even if some of them were proved to have got it hopelessly wrong, they couldn’t all, without exception, have been either deluded or fraudulent. Yet there was no other alternative explanation. If people didn’t live on, those who thought they did were fooling themselves, or else were being fooled.

I had to admit there were enough indications, not from professional debunkers like James Randi, whose arguments were too often specious, but – despite their open prejudice – from closer reasoning analysts such as Ruth Brandon and Trevor Hall, who had each written separate books entitled, The Spiritualists, that this was exactly what happened.

Unfortunately, the more widely I read, the less I trusted what other people told me. There was a body of knowledge available, concerning the activities of such knights of the realm as Conan Doyle, in all other respects a man of the utmost sagacity, William Crookes, a world renowned physicist of immense repute, and Oliver Lodge, another famous scientist who pioneered radio and television, all of whose investigations apparently left them no option but to affirm the existence of an etherial world co-existing with this one to which we went when we died; but none of it, even first-hand reportage, was entirely reliable, based as it was on the observations and speculations of individuals who, for all their reputation, could not be guaranteed to have told the truth.

What was almost worse than not being sure these famous men had been entirely honest, or else had not been hoodwinked, was the way those writing about them today, from the vantage point of belief or disbelief in the phenomena witnessed, picked and chose the portions of what was known or suspected about each case that best revealed to their readers their own prejudices, in the hope of swaying them to their way of thinking.

The more authoritatively such authors wrote, the more evident this was; and I had come across so many glaring instances, where pieces of evidence were foreshortened, or left out of the narrative altogether, in order to strengthen the case for or against what was only, after all, the writer’s opinion, I was left with the impression that the historical truth could never be known.

Further complicating this tendency to select bits from the past to bolster arguments in the present was the likelihood that many of the earliest source statements would themselves have been the result of selective observation at the time of writing, again depending on the prejudice of the observer. This brought home to me just how difficult it was to make a case for anything that relied on personal testimony and that couldn’t be verified either through direct observation or experiment.

The fact was, it was useless to rely on evidence from the past that was not capable of being repeated unless it was absolutely incontrovertible, which very little was; and as matters stood – rather incredibly, it seemed to me – there was none available from the present. What photographs there were of spirit manifestations were particularly dubious, even though we now had the technology to film in any conditions.

Tape recordings of spirit voices were always going to be questionable unless they told us something verifiable, that we couldn’t have known otherwise; and even then they weren’t going to be believed by the wider public unless the entire process was somehow given the seal of approval by not just one but a number of reputable people.

Records of communications from mediums, and their accuracy, were again entirely dependent on the presumed honesty of the sitters, which, if unsubstantiated, was impossible to rely on. There were any number of convincing sounding reports from seemingly unimpeachable sources, but by their nature they could never be entirely copper-bottomed.

To give some indication of the strength of opinion believers in the existence of an afterlife, never mind the paranormal, had to battle against – which suggested the sceptics found the allegedly credulous just as much of a threat – I only had to turn to Psychic Investigator, by James Randi, which contained a scabrous quote from Dr Alan Chapman, historian, scientist and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, nominally about astrology:

"I think it’s an insult to the human spirit, this species of bullshit, and I think we should be angry about it… It’s not perhaps as bad as spiritualist mediums, but it covers the same ground, the poor bewildered people…"

There were undoubted shades here of Dr Nicholas Humphrey’s anger at the paranormal being featured on prime time television; and Richard Dawkins’ impassioned belief that the population was being hoodwinked by the most abject, obvious nonsense.

In fact, what came across strongly from this overbearing attitude was the sense of a privileged elite – privileged in being blessed, or cursed, with a certain sort of mind, receiving a particular type of education, and becoming guardians of the establishment viewpoint – thinking they knew what was best for the mass of humanity that hadn’t had their presumed advantages, and deploring it when it didn’t agree.

Astrology, the paranormal, and the existence of an afterlife, may have been so much twaddle; but to come out so strongly against them suggested something akin to a deep seated fear that the peculiar expertise their detractors had acquired – which boiled down to a dependence on one way of making the brain work – not only cut them off from those areas of life populated by people whose brains worked differently, but excluded them from beginning to know how to examine even moderately novel approaches to existence.

In Jane Sherman’s, The Country Beyond, a character called Scott, who later claimed to be none other than T.E. Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame, gave his opinion, through the automatic writing of the author, of this conundrum, insofar as it related to life after death:

"Perhaps psychology can help us understand this tendency. It is surely a kind of masochism, a stoic resolve to punish the wishful thinking one suspects is behind any belief in immortality. It feels very stern, strong and noble to deny the thing one secretly longs for, and so to prove that one is quite able to do without it. It is easy to find arguments to support this denial and see how superior it makes one feel to say ‘I, at least, do not need to believe in such things’."

Of course, this may only have been Jane Sherwood’s sublimated view surfacing in an unusual way. It largely depended on whether we could imagine T.E. Lawrence remaining abreast of, and interested in, current psychological thinking, from the ‘other side’.

In the same book, but with a different entity, known only as E.K., again communicating through her, Jane Sherwood described the process of dying:

"Actual death is followed by a period of unconsciousness which lasts for some time; this gives way to a kind of awareness but not a consciousness of one’s environment. The new senses have not yet begun to function so there is nothing, or at best a misty, unreal setting, fantastic and dreamlike. During this interval, the memory appears to be stimulated so that one lives through a resume of the lifetime just past. Then one sinks into a second period of unconsciousness which should give place to a full awakening in the new world."

She explained further:

"We shed our physical body when we leave earth; we shed the etheric body when we enter the astral plane; we shed the astral body in its early form when we ascend to the higher astral plane; and finally, the astral body itself must be laid aside when the ego, sole surviving principle of the being goes on to live in its own sphere."

This, in a nutshell, was the basis for spiritualist faith; and believers would say there was evidence aplenty to prove their case; but what they meant was that the sheer weight of hearsay, added to our historical certitude of the existence of the soul, lent credence to an existing prejudice. This, in turn, underpinned more contentious claims. Medium Estelle Roberts blithely maintained that:

"…anyone who has studied the evidence knows that telekinesis (the supernormal movement of objects) and materialisation are facts no longer capable of refutation."

She then went on to say:

"It would be foolish to risk possible injury to the medium by trying to investigate too closely."

I could quite see why, in the face of this sort of obduracy, those with doctorates in rational thinking should find themselves wincing. It was unfortunate, to say the least, that the only way spiritualist claims for such feats as these could begin to be proven was if the conditions at a sitting were changed in precisely those ways that mediums believed would not only most endanger their safety but also inhibit the production of phenomena.

The mere presence of sceptics was supposed to sour the atmosphere; light was detrimental to anything of interest occurring; singing, or the playing of music – encouraged while waiting for the spirit world to ‘come through’ – gave inevitable rise to the suspicion it was being used to cover up noisy preparation; and possibly most damning of all, the latest infra red technology, that would allow people to see, and machines to record, in the dark, was not welcomed, on account of its allegedly interfering ‘vibrations’.

All these precautions or restrictions could have been necessary for genuine intercourse with the spirit world; but they could also have been integral parts of a blanket deception. It was probable we would know, one way or another, fairly early in the next millennium, and belief in the paranormal and an afterlife would either increase exponentially if confirmed, or slowly wither and die if further discredited.

The Noah’s Ark Society for Physical Mediumship, for example, which had infra red cameras available even if it didn’t use them, was likely to fold if it didn’t eventually come up trumps, not as the result of any increase in the number or virulence of tirades against it from outside, but as the direct consequence of members insisting on their due.

The process had already begun, with letters appearing in the Newsletter doubting the phenomenon reported, and outrage expressed on behalf of the mediums involved. Considering the extraordinary nature of what was proposed, I was surprised a denouement hadn’t occurred.

On the other hand, the Society did have a refreshingly different and I thought wholly admirable attitude when it came to death, which may, of course, simply have reflected the truth of what they believed. In one of their newsletters, I came across a reference to a recently deceased member, which ended:

"He will no doubt be reunited with his family and friends who preceded him to the Spirit World. We wish him every happiness in his new life."

It was exactly as if, the majority of the people the dead man knew having emigrated to Australia, he had decided to go too, and those he had left behind in England were wishing him well. I thought this was marvellous, however misguided it might have been, and found myself distinctly covetous of the casual certitude it betrayed.

There was no doubt whatsoever in my mind that if what they believed was true and the whole world learned to feel, with equal conviction, the same way – which it would have to do if the evidence became incontrovertible – human society would as a result function differently and its members be infinitely better off; which was never going to be the case while the question remained one of faith and hope in what sounded exceedingly unlikely speculation.

The editor of the NAS Newsletter, and a minority of its members, must, I felt, either be credible in the extreme, be behaving fraudulently, or else have been witness to some truly striking phenomena. The accounts of seances held were, if what was said to have happened had actually happened, with individuals and objects materialising from nowhere, matter passing through matter, and a variety of recognisable voices, including those of pet animals, emanating from thin air – except for the last, unattributable to anything known to science – literally beyond belief.

How far this sort of thing stretched credulity had been expressed pithily by Charles Richet, a man who investigated the phenomena and found, to his own satisfaction, it was true, but who couldn’t bring himself to accept it constituted proof of survival. Even within the NAS, there were restrained observers trying, often vainly, to keep the pot of spiritualism from boiling over too exuberantly. David Nicholls, who appended after his name "Dip.Th(Camb), B.A.(Hons), M.Phil", presumably to leave no one in any doubt he knew what he was talking about, responded in one issue of the Newsletter to the grandiose claims for spiritualism of a fellow member, Iris Turner, who unhappily had no such letters to her credit:

"Iris begins by saying that ‘an enormous library’ of knowledge has been established. What is this library? Where is it? What does it contain? If it exists, why are so few actually borrowing from it (i.e., the all-too obvious ignorance of the subject)? She also refers to spiritual healing ‘giving hope to millions’. Where are all these healers? These ailing millions do not need ‘hope of healing’, but healing itself – so why is this not happening?

She says that psychic phenomena will ‘save our planet in the end’. How? What evidence does she have to advance this extraordinary view? She adds that it ‘opens the door to knowledge of the natural laws which are exact’. What laws? How is any of this ‘exact’ when different communicators say different things, often at complete variance with each other?

Iris continues by saying that we should listen to ‘etheric groups’ and ‘we cannot fail’, but once again, she says nothing about how we deal with the often conflicting ideas and stream of banal comments that are said to originate from the next world.

Finally, she says that we are ‘imprisoned’ within our five senses unlike those in the next life. In fact, she may wish to consider that existence in disembodied form invites a whole host of problems and anyone in such a situation may be in a no better position than the rest of us: possibly a worse one.

In sum, communicators can only speak for themselves – give their own history, their own opinions, and detail their own interpretation of their own experience. And that is all. To make them into oracles of wisdom is hardly a wise, or helpful move. If anything, it is positively harmful."

Was it, I wondered, David Nicholls’ presumably lengthy university education that made him sound as though he was batting for the wrong team? I felt he would have made a good sparring partner for Richard Dawkins.

He was clearly a rare fish, since he evidently accepted there were genuine "communicators" even if there was considerable doubt about the validity of what they were communicating. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been so surprising; if a cross section of humanity was asked to explain how the known world worked a consensus might be somewhat hard to find.

A more simplistic approach, taken by Michael Roll, who I hazarded wouldn’t have comfortably undergone more than a minute’s grilling from David Nicholls, was also derided in the NAS Newsletter. Roll had apparently received an offer of £10,000 from a benefactor to use as collateral to try and entice a materialisation medium into his clutches. The Editor of the NAS Newsletter wasn’t impressed:

"This sort of challenge reveals a complete lack of understanding of physical mediumship."

Why this was, I couldn’t have said, but unfortunately he didn’t elaborate. Roll’s colleague, Denis Kent, saw things differently:

"I’m very pro-survival, but why are physical mediums only demonstrating to the chosen few? Why not share this knowledge with the people; it could change the entire planet.

We just want to get something going. My hope is that there is someone perhaps unknown who is able to allow this experiment to take place.

We’re looking for someone to come forward, and let us know what the spirit operators say about how we can proceed.

We will agree to any condition and be very flexible. We just want to observe."

Michael Roll was more direct:

"As soon as a medium comes forward – we’ll be straight in with the cameras!"


In the wake of profoundly different attitudes from the worlds of science and the survivalists – the NAS was not itself spiritualist – it was distressing to be reminded that even those who believed in the existence of something as contentious as the soul and the reality of an inconceivably immense etherial universe were at odds over how this might best be proved.

That it was the case, I was all but convinced, not from any personal experience I had had, but because I couldn’t conceive every single one of the untold legions of people who had claimed over the millennia to have received proof of the continued existence of the dead in another world were either deluded or lying. To disbelieve this didn’t require a vast majority of these people to be right: one would have sufficed.

It was clear to me that while there might be valid enough excuse for making up claims like these if there was no underlying reality of an etherial world, as a form of recompense, or soft cushioning, to compensate for human mortality, there would be no such compelling reason if this wasn’t the case, when even if we couldn’t see it, that world would be there – unless, that was, an individual’s livelihood or reputation compelled them to invent what they were insufficiently sensitive to intuit.

In The Church of England and Spiritualism, the authors stated:

"It is abundantly clear, as Spiritualists themselves admit, that an easy credulity in these matters opens the door to self-deception and to a very great amount of fraud."

Nevertheless, if the willingness of the authors of this document to acknowledge the probability of communication with, and therefore the separate existence of, the discarnate, was taken as the actual position – which it may or may not have been – we could confidently assume that instances of fraud and self-deception were likely to be fewer, and probably far fewer, than those that were valid.

The degree of validity wouldn’t always be the same, of course; but to accuse the entire human race throughout history of making something up which it may simply have lacked the knowledge and skill to describe scientifically was almost akin to claiming a badly drawn and unreliable map meant the terrain it was supposed to represent did not exist.

Only one unquestionably true piece of verifiable evidence of the existence of the soul, or disembodied mind, would be necessary to prove the issue once and for all. The Church of England report claimed:

"If rigid scientific methods are applied it is probable that verification will never be attained."

I found this hard to accept. Something demonstrable could surely be achieved using scientific methods, which for all their rigidity need not be applied in such a way as to sully the investigative atmosphere.

Clear thinking rather than antagonism was needed, with what initially cried out to be proved or disproved, the question of whether the mind could exist separately from the brain, well within society’s remit.

To this end, out-of-the-body travel in the familiar world, the reality of which could be determined by a fairly simple expedient, remained the key. I deeply regretted I was no nearer than I had ever been to finding someone prepared, and able, to give my idea of trying to read the page number of an upturned book in an otherwise inaccessible location a go.

A separate issue was whether the mind could travel in alternative, astral worlds. I didn’t see how this could be conclusively shown other than by a living person discovering information previously concealed by, and known only to, someone who was now dead, through meeting and communicating with them in a discarnate world.

Were there other ways of proving the dead lived on? A medium might, I supposed, also provide information, unknown to anyone living, that could later be shown to have been privy to someone deceased; but this was only likely to come about if the intention for it to do so had been set up in advance, and if some means of discovering the dead communicator’s secret was known and available; which could, of course, lead to accusations of intrigue.

In the meantime, however many individuals heard evidential information at private sittings, the charge that this was only suggestion, or the results were engineered, or were the indirect result of telepathy, was always going to be levelled at them.

Physical mediumship was different again. Matter passing through matter, the manifestation of apports, and the re-materialisation of allegedly dead people, were all ‘impossible’ feats that had supposedly been witnessed time and again but had yet to be caught on film. Until they were, they had to be considered highly speculative. In the meantime, it was hardly worth wondering what conditions needed to be satisfied before we would know if it truly was ‘dead’ individuals we were seeing on our TV screens, as Michael Roll was promising, since all known channels remained disappointingly blank.

The phenomena of direct voice – which might otherwise be dismissed as mere ventriloquism – again largely depended on knowledge being conveyed that was later learned to have been known only to a dead communicator. However personally convincing they might be, replication of accent and sentiment couldn’t, in themselves, be considered evidential.

It struck me that in addition to making our wills, perhaps we should all be taking the trouble to secrete private messages in sealed envelopes to be left with our lawyers or executers until such time as, having passed on, we managed, or were thought to have managed, to communicate their gist. At this point the envelope could be opened and its contents compared with the supposed message. Without this, connivance was always going to be a possibility.

The options currently available to me, as an interested investigator – apart, that was, from filling in my own envelope and waiting to die – depended on how far I wanted to travel along byways that promised much but seemed destined to deliver, if they delivered at all, only after a prolonged, almost certainly lonely journey.

I had come across an indication of the sort of patience required in this field in the columns of the NAS Newsletter, where a member, A.E.Perriman, wrote an article expressing how he came, "to delve into the mysteries of the after-life."

He was an architect by profession, and considered himself a sceptic; but he felt that since it was only his training and long experience that qualified him to express an opinion on architecture, he shouldn’t expect to have to study any less assiduously before being fit to pronounce on psychic matters. In his words:

"I talked the matter over with my wife, and we decided to investigate the truth of psychic manifestations for ourselves… We sat for our enquiry twice a week for an hour… I do not want to discourage earnest and sincere investigators when I say that my wife and myself sat over a period of nearly twelve years before we got even a rap on the table."

It seemed every bit as inconceivable to me, if what they had been investigating was true, that such persistence could have gone unrewarded for so long, as that the Perrimans could have continued to believe a result would one day be forthcoming; but the apparent fact was, they did get a rap at the end of the day; and they went on to become convinced of the validity of psychic phenomena.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to wait twelve years for the inadequate reward of a a tap on the table. Looking for a speedier route and a more exotic journey, I could have joined ECKANKAR, and possibly – eventually – learned how to soul travel. If Terril Williams was to be believed, however, it would have been an extremely hard won skill – though scarcely in the Perriman class.

Alternatively, I could have subscribed to the CCI; but the drawback here was I would have had to become a serious affiliant – daily sex and a ritualised lifestyle – in order to be in a position to succeed. It would certainly have been more inviting than committing myself to any overtly religious group; but either I was more slothful than I cared to admit or I simply preferred staying a layman, since the prospect of being converted – even by an idea – didn’t appeal to me.

I wanted to remain an interested outsider, who could learn about something without having to check it for himself. This didn’t strike me as unreasonable. After all, I didn’t need to go to Australia in order to verify it was there. As it was, the world abounded in people who already knew – if they were to be believed – how to travel out of their bodies, often claiming not to have had to make any effort to acquire the skill. All I needed was to find one of them to help me.

For a different sort of proof, as a paid-up member of the NAS, I was eligible to attend any of its seminars. These usually included trance demonstrations. In other words, on past form, I could have expected to hear the sound of manifested people – once, famously, Lord Dowding – walking about the room, a succession of their voices, and much anecdotal evidence; but to have seen very little, apart, that was, from such after-the-event foolery as a loosely roped-down medium being found the wrong way round in his chair with his buttoned-up cardigan on back to front, his smiling, unbound ‘agent’ sitting alongside him.

I didn’t want to join the ranks of the believers without having more to believe in than the distinct possibility of sharp practice. I found I agreed with the letter writer in the latest NAS Newsletter who questioned the logic of what went on during physical seances. In particular, he wondered why, if an "ectoplasmic shield", brought into existence by "the spirit world", was able to protect a medium from the dangers of flashlight photography – anomalous enough on its own, I should have thought, considering the supposedly photo-fugitive nature of ectoplasm – while he took pictures of his sitters, as had reportedly happened in Japan:

"…it was not possible similarly to protect the medium should selected sitters wish to photograph the physical phenomena".

Why, indeed? Certainly, I would not have expected Lord Dowding, who had lived through the horror of World War 11 as well, presumably, as his own death throes, to be more than momentarily put out by the intrusion of flashlight photography.

Until such time as these sorts of proof appeared, the only realistic option for people like me – who wanted evidence without commitment – was to contact ordinary, non-physical mediums and try to obtain personally convincing messages from them. After all, I reasoned, if I couldn’t get even that there would be little point in searching further.

I began my quest by sending a photograph of myself and a cheque for ten pounds to a gentleman in Devon who promised what he called a "postal reading". This arrived on cassette a week later and proved so trifling it hardly bore listening to. Nothing remotely applicable to me, my life, or as it turned out, my immediate future, was provided, despite the irritating repetition of the phrase, "Spirit says…" – invariably lacking the definite article and delivered in a doleful monotone – followed by pronouncements of stupefying triviality.

Following this, I rang someone who claimed in her advertisement to be an "Internationally Acclaimed Psychic Artist" as well as a medium. She lived only a few miles from me, so I made an appointment for the following week. For a fee of twenty five pounds, I had high hopes. I had asked if I could bring a tape recorder and she had no objections. This, surely, was evidence of her seriousness: the certainty that whatever she said, it could not become distorted in time by wishful thinking, but would stand up to repeated scrutiny?

I fantasised about my forthcoming visit to the point where I heard from my dead father at such length I could not have failed to be disappointed. The suburban setting was hardly the medium’s fault, nor her prosaic manner; but her diatribe was. Although she began drawing soon after I arrived, she also wittered on incessantly, mostly, I was outraged to discover, about herself. Was this – could it be – mediumship?

I kept my own mouth shut, both to avoid giving information away – not that that would have made much difference – and so as not to contribute to casual small-talk that might not have been out of place in a bus shelter but was hardly appropriate when I was paying for the privilege of listening to whatever thoughts were passing through this woman’s head; particularly as the drawing she was executing, without appearing to give it more than a smattering of her attention, bore less and less resemblance to anyone I knew.

I ended up with a colour portrait, in garish pastel, of a lady called Sarah, who it was claimed came from my father’s side of the family, and allegedly kept a close eye on me from the ‘other side’. I had expected the portrait to be either of my father, or failing that, a cousin who had died in his teens, or even possibly one of my grandparents, or as a last resort, a pet animal, but not some obscure, distant relative whose name and features meant nothing to me. I was assured that in the next few months I would come across her likeness in a photo album, but I doubted it.

Oddly enough, on a subsequent visit to my mother’s house, we sorted through some old photos that I hadn’t seen before, most of which had belonged to my father. These albums almost certainly contained the images of all his known relatives ever to have been caught on camera. "Sarah" was not amongst them, and I didn’t trouble my mother with the name. Nor, since, have I listened to the tape of an hour of what still seems to me to have been a complete waste of time and money.

I was surprised to have drawn such a blank with my first two mediums; but I put this down partly to the unrealistic expectations gained from reading so many accounts of successful sittings, which were, after all, the only ones worth publishing. I resolved to travel further afield in the hope of finding someone with a reputation; and failing to get through to The Greater World Christian Spiritualist Association, I turned to the more secular Spiritualist Association of Great Britain. Their receptionist booked me a half hour appointment with a medium whose particular speciality she claimed it was to prove the truth – rather than merely give insubstantial details – of survival.

The frontage of the Association’s headquarters in Belgrave Square was undeniably impressive, if redolent of another, faded age. I couldn’t say the same for the empty room I was directed towards, which was a minute, claustaphobic cubicle. Photocopied disclaimers, pinned to the back of the door and on prominent display in the corridors I passed through, reminded sitters that if they were dissatisfied with their medium in any way they must say so within ten minutes of the start, and return with them to the main reception area or their money could not be refunded.

I had paid my eighteen pounds by postal order when I had booked a month earlier under an assumed name – my precautions seem, in retrospect, laughable – and could not conceive I should have any grounds for wanting to terminate a sitting early. In fact, within five minutes of introducing himself – by which time my medium, who had arrived late and started proceedings by explaining why in some detail and at considerable length, had begun describing, incredibly enough, his own, seemingly luckless existence – I suspected with a sinking heart that I had landed another dud.

In all seriousness, this man was dire. I said as little as I decently could, without being rude, but when he wasn’t haranguing me about his upbringing – as if the paucity of chances he had had in his life, his lack, as a child, of foreign holidays, the breakdown of his health and marriage, had been my fault, and that this was the time to say so – he was angling, with grotesque obviousness, for information I had thought I was paying him to intuit.

He had the barefaced effrontery to ask, directly, which, if either, of my mother and father was still alive, what job I did, how old my children were, and whether my wife worked, before, openly, mechanically, reflecting my answers back at me. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing; but I could no more have terminated the session than I could have walked out of a tedious dinner party. I just kept hoping things would improve.

The tape I have of this half hour sitting, to which the medium archly referred, as if it would be my main source of wisdom, solace even, for years to come, was the only one I ever listened to again. This was simply to confirm it had been as bad as I remembered. The sole piece of ‘evidence’ for survival – but whose, I couldn’t say, though this was supposedly the man’s speciality – was his claim he could see, standing beside me, my "Red Indian Guide". This may have been true, but it was so ludicrously out of context, I baulked. I hadn’t travelled all that way to be told this sort of unverifiable rubbish.

Where, I wondered, were the prosaic facts, the messages from people I had known? What were their names? Where was the proof, however slight, they still existed? This man, if he wasn’t a fraud, was certainly a buffoon. Or was I simply one more butt of an age-old joke? I felt distinctly cheated, as if I had been served fake food in a restaurant of repute, when he cut the session short with a rejoinder to me to visit my local Spiritualist church, and departed as abruptly as he had arrived. I spied him later strolling in the sun with his new lady friend – he had told me about her at some length – as I set off on my long journey home. I felt like running them down with my car.

Although disappointed, I wasn’t prepared to give up on such a low note. I resolved to try once more, with a medium advertising in Psychic News called Tom Flynn, who apparently gave sittings over the telephone and who had had a couple of favourable write-ups. After that, I would call it a day.

My telephone encounter was brief. Tom Flynn advised me he no longer "did" phone work, concentrating instead on "churches and healing". He kept asking me where I had come across his details, and on being told, evinced startled surprise as if there was something out of the ordinary in my having responded to his paid advertisement. I didn’t see what I could say. I was speaking on the phone to him already, and if a message had come through I supposed he would have mentioned it. Instead, he asked me my name, took my number, and rang off.

Strangely, a week later, and again the following week, I read separate letters in Psychic News testifying to this particular medium’s availability and expertise. One ran:

"A few weeks ago I had a telephone reading from Mr Tom Flynn. It was a wonderful reading, he got my father, my mother and my grandfather.

He was very accurate with the information he gave me. In my opinion he is an excellent medium."

The other letter said, by way of preamble:

"…concerning Tom Flynn, I now feel that I should tell you about my amazing telephone reading…"

I couldn’t help wondering, if these testimonials were genuine, whether they were unsolicited; and if not, what their purpose was. Coming so soon after I had been told by the medium himself he no longer ‘read’ over the phone, I drew my own conclusions.

My investigation, such as it was, seemed to have petered out. At the outset, I had subscribed to Psychic News, in the hope it might give me otherwise unobtainable leads, and it had; but for too many months now, while buying my Sunday newspaper, I had had to ask for my weekly, wafer-thin copy to be found in, and taken out of, the drawer of obscure orders, in full hearing and view of whoever happened to be hanging around the till.

It made me uneasy to be associated in the minds of the shop assistant, assorted customers and possibly some of my neighbours with…well, with what exactly? The best answer I could give came on the front page of one of the last issues I bought. It was headlined:

"Spirit Awareness Spreading Via Psychic News",

and it told the story of how Michael Roll, Ron Pearson and Denis Kent – "that intrepid trio" – had between them been heard for over two hours of supposedly "prime time wireless" on Talk Radio.

While this was all well and good, what it actually meant, to the world at large, was made clear to me later that same week when I came across an article in an altogether weightier publication proclaiming the advent of this radio station. The reporter was fulsome in his praise of both content and concept, before adding:

"There’s a lot of irritating nonsense on, as well. James Whale, for instance, still has late-night idiots who talk about life after death and how they are in touch with the other side."

Well, quite, I thought.


During the ensuing months, I came across two further ways in which the living were allegedly able to contact the dead, neither of which required any other participant, but only time and the temporary suspension of disbelief.

The first of these was known as Electronic Voice Phenomenon, or EVP. This involved the use of a device not unlike an old fashioned crystal set, linked to an ordinary tape recorder. The operator turned a dial on the side of a small box that had, strictly speaking, no innards – or none that would have been familiar to a scientist – and taped the silent proceedings.

There was neither a power source nor any recognised wave lengths to tune into. What there was instead was a belief, pioneered in the late 1950’s by Friedrich Juergenson, author of Radio Contact with the Dead, and attested to by numerous individuals since then, that through persistent use of one of these machines, recordings could be made of spoken communications from those no longer on earth. Juergenson himself, having died some years earlier, reportedly made regular, mildly prophetic pronouncements in just this way.

The problem was, such recordings only became audible on playback. This made the whole process potentially very drawn out. Having discovered a vendor of EVP machines – they cost less than I had paid for my single sitting with the portraitist of ‘Sarah’ – I was tempted to buy one; until I totted up just how long I might have to spend recording and playing back minutely different stretches of silence, on the off chance a voice, or voices, might appear.

I didn’t think I had that sort of patience. Besides, as the maker of the unit made clear, they were far from ordinary impressions that were being captured:

"A further characteristic of these recordings is that listeners appear to hear the voices in their own language."

This implied that had I been successful in taping a voice, which for the sake of argument turned out to be that of my father; and had I then played that tape to someone who understood only Chinese, they would have heard a man talking in a language he had not known a word of when on earth.

I wasn’t saying this was impossible; but it did strike me as unlikely that a Chinese speaker and I could have been together in a room listening to the same recording but hearing different things. It reminded me of Michael Roll’s claim that the individual dead would one day manifest on our television screens in multiple guises instantly recognisable to us all, whether we had known them in infancy, their prime or advanced old age.

Just as unlikely, but nevertheless remarkably well vouched for, were claims of a different sort made for an advanced version of a more traditional occult skill. I was vaguely familiar with the phenomenon of ‘scrying’; but it was only when I read Raymond Moody’s Reunions that I realised, if the author was to be believed, that what I had understood to be limited to the appearance of small, visual impressions within a crystal ball – something that could easily have been explained away as imagination or hallucination brought about by the effort of staring without focusing – was actually far more involved than this.

According to Moody, who used mirrors rather than crystal balls in his experiments, not only could these impressions become lifelike in both size and manner, they could be directly experienced. In other words, a scene that was viewed in the mirror could, on enlargement, be stepped into, the characters in it joined, and any activity taken part in, by the scryer. Apparently, this was as easy – in many ways, easier – than opening a door, since it was enough merely to wish it for it to be so. Moody wasn’t specific, but I assumed it was the astral body of the scryer that was supposed to make the transition, and that if anybody else had entered the room at the time they would still have seen a recumbent figure in a chair gazing sidelong into a mirror.

I didn’t know quite what to make of this. Moody was, or had been, a medical doctor. He wrote precisely and dispassionately Had he been talking about any other subject, I wouldn’t have hesitated to believe him. Without being fastidious, he took his researches seriously. He had set aside one of the rooms in his house as a sanctum – he called it a Psychomanteum – for people from all walks of life to spend an hour or so in the hope of meeting recently departed friends or relatives. Sitters were encouraged to steep themselves in memories of the person they desired to meet beforehand, in order to facilitate contact; although this did make any subsequent vision or visitation – there were remarkably few occasions when nothing happened – easier to explain from a scientific point of view.

What wasn’t easy to explain was Moody’s own, related experience. Notwithstanding the success his guests enjoyed, seeing, talking to, and on occasions mixing with, the recently departed, Moody’s own initial attempt at scrying was disappointing. He had wanted to get in touch with his dead grandmother, but after an hour or so spent gazing at the mirror, had seen nothing. Eventually, he gave up, deciding to try again on another occasion.

Several days later, sitting alone in his lounge, he had looked up as a figure came into the room. It had been his dead grandmother, but not the one he had wanted to contact. This was a grandmother he had no fond memories of.

Moody’s account was that of a rational man trying to explain the irrational in everyday terms. He described a protracted meeting with therapeutic overtones as if it had taken place contemporarily. Yet the presence of this grandmother, long dead, who appeared to him younger than he remembered, and who seemed from her conciliatory, if conveniently pat, approach to have gained considerable insight into the deficiencies of her character over the intervening, other-worldly years, defied all known physical laws. This was no ghostly figure at dead of night but an actual flesh and blood person manifesting during daylight hours.

The audience ended with Moody leaving the room for a moment and on returning finding his grandmother gone. She hadn’t allowed him to touch her but she was, according to Moody, as real as anyone he had encountered in his life. In fact, he stated unequivocally that he considered the experience as objectively valid as any he had had. To the degree he believed in his own existence, he accepted she had been in that room with him.

Having never met Moody, or anyone who knew him, I had no idea of his trustworthiness. I received the overall impression he was honest; but I remembered having had that same conviction as a teenager after reading the claims of George Adamski in Flying Saucers have Landed, who turned out to have been a consummate liar. I supposed Moody could have been lying, but it didn’t seem likely. The only conclusion I could come to was that if what he had seen, heard and – by way of sensing another’s presence – felt, had not taken place, he was mistaken – in a word, deluded – in thinking it had, rather than deliberately making the story up.

How infuriating it was to be sure of something, yet in view of its implausibility, to continue doubting it while wanting to believe little else, was brought home to me shortly after trying Moody’s experiment for myself. I had waited until I could be certain of being alone at home for a reasonable period. I chose a warm room, drew the curtains, made myself comfortable in an easy chair, and while ruminating on what my father had meant to me, began gazing into the dark surface of a dressing table mirror.

The glass was deliberately slanted, so I couldn’t see myself, and I tried to avoid either staring at it or letting my eyes glaze over. The policy I adopted was of looking ‘through’ the mirror while making no effort to see anything. Rather than trying to discover what lay within, I simply waited for an image to appear.

An hour and a half later, I was ready to give up. I had spied numerous vignettes of fairly meaningless figures and landscapes, some crystal clear, others vague, both moving and still, but every time I had tried to get nearer to them they had vanished. The process reminded me of the imagery that sometimes occurred when I lay dozing in bed and that was so easily destroyed by trying to focus on it. In fact, the only time a mirror image had seemed about to swell in size and engulf me was when I momentarily fell asleep. Jerking myself awake again, the mirror became blank.

Finally, I got up and went to make myself a drink. As I waited for the kettle to boil, the phone rang. Initially, I ignored it; but when, after the customary delay, the answering machine failed to respond and the ringing continued, I walked to the foot of the stairs and picked up the receiver. As I said "hello", I found myself gazing in some stupefaction at the junction box on the skirting board.

I remembered pulling the telephone lead from its socket prior to beginning my scrying, so as not to be interrupted. The apparatus was still disconnected. As I stared at the coil of wire terminating in a plug that lay several inches from the wall socket, a familiar voice sounded in my ear:


My heart gave a thud that resounded through my bones. An oily sensation, beginning around the nape of my neck and causing the hairs there to stand on end, slid down my back and drained into my legs. Then the rational part of me, vainly maintaining this couldn’t be happening, faded into the background.

The voice I had heard was that of my father. I clutched the phone, mouthing a reply. When it came, it sounded extraordinarily amplified:

"Dad? Is that you?"

My father had a way of talking over the phone. It was this that had always told me, above the sound of his voice or what he actually said, that he was on the other end of the line. This time, he said something like:

"It certainly is!"

I could almost hear the exclamation mark on the end. This was the way he liked to finish a sentence, leaving me to ask him to elaborate. It was his most infuriating habit. He knew what I wanted him to say, just as I knew he wanted to say it; but for some reason he liked to be drawn out.

By now I had more or less forgotten that the telephone I was speaking into was unplugged and that I was talking to a dead person. Or rather, I knew my father was dead, but conversing with him in this way didn’t seem unusual. However, I did feel I needed to clarify his whereabouts:

"Dad, where are you?"

I heard his instantly recognisable laugh and knew it preceded a full explanation. I shifted on my feet, listening intently. Straining my faculties towards my father, I thought I heard him open his mouth, sensed the parting moistness of his lips.

Just then, he was cut off. There was a strange whistling sound, then the merest trace of a dialling tone, then absolutely nothing.

I acted as I would in an emergency. I dialled Memory *; but it was useless. I reached to the floor, plugged in the lead and tried again. The number I was given was that of someone I had spoken to that morning. I put the phone down, concentrating hard.

The first thing to ascertain was whether or not I was dreaming. I went to the front door, opened it and looked out. I focused on sodden grass, some newly planted trees, the remains of greenfly on the porch rose; I listened as the reassuringly familiar sound of a car passed by on the other side of the hedge.

The cold air creeping under my shirt seemed undeniably authentic; yet I shut the door behind me and stared, unconvinced, at the phone. Was it possible this was a lucid dream, one of the fabled out-of-the-body experiences I had longed to have? I went into the room where I had sat, half expecting to see myself still there; but the chair I had been in was empty.

I had a flash of inspiration and phoned a friend, asking him to tell me something I didn’t know. Ignoring his remonstrations, I repeated my request; but by the time he had grasped what I wanted and told me his accountant’s wife’s brother’s name, I realised I must have been awake – no dream was this exasperatingly pedantic. Even so, the next time I saw him I confirmed the fact that we had spoken, as well as verifying what he had told me over the phone.

Then I wondered if I could have been sleepwalking. I remembered how in my youth I had gone with friends to see Woodstock in Leicester Square. I had fallen asleep half way through; and the next thing I knew we were walking down Oxford Street. At the time, I had pulled my friends up short and asked what was going on. Apparently, after leaving the film we had had a cup of coffee in a Wimpy Bar and, deciding to visit someone in Holburn, had been walking across London, dodging pedestrians, negotiating traffic, conversing all the way, for the best part of half an hour.

According to them, I had acted normally enough, remaining open-eyed throughout, talking rationally about the evening’s prospects, discussing the film – including, it seemed, that part I had no awareness of; yet I remembered nothing. The trouble was, this was the direct opposite of the present case, in which I remembered everything but wondered how any of it could be true.

I thought of the kettle. Had I imagined putting it on to boil? I went to the kitchen and touched the shiny surface, which was scalding hot. There was also a pinch of dry tea in the pot. Was it possible, then, that rather than jerking myself out of encroaching sleep as I had supposed, I had actually fallen into a deep slumber while scrying, and had then got up and done all this in a trance, including imagining I’d heard the phone ringing and that I had answered it and that it was my father?

Suddenly, anything seemed possible. I had been certain at the time, and remain convinced now, that I had fallen asleep while watching Woodstock and had only returned to normal consciousness later; and that during the intervening period I was in some sort of hypnotic state. The fact I had seemed normal to my friends during this time was mysterious, but nothing more.

So I was open to the possibility I had been sleepwalking again; but why I should have remembered what I had done, why the events of those few minutes, from me staring at the mirror, to levering myself out of the chair, to going to the kitchen to put the kettle on, to hearing the phone and answering it, to realising it was disconnected, should have progressed so seamlessly, I couldn’t begin to say.

After all, if that was how it had happened, at what stage had I woken up? The string of events was contiguous. Hearing my father’s voice, talking briefly, being cut off, realising what had – or seemed to have – happened, reconnecting the phone, stepping outside, all this had led directly to the present moment. The only logical hiatus was my realisation of the phone being disconnected; but my father’s voice had come after rather than before that.

Strangely, although the experience struck me at the time, and strikes me in retrospect, as being every bit as real and as rooted in this world as sitting writing these words does now, I still couldn’t believe it had actually happened. Not on terra firma; although I didn’t discount the astral alternative.

The trouble was, I knew only too well the tricks my mind could play on me. Just the other morning, I had had the unnerving experience of apparently waking three successive times, on each separate occasion visiting the lavatory and relieving myself, before getting dressed and beginning breakfast; only to wake one final, fourth time, still in bed and with a desperately full bladder. Obviously, the need to urinate had triggered off a repeated dream; but each time the feeling of having got out of bed and started the day was so intense I didn’t doubt it was real.

What made the issue of the phantom phone call doubly interesting was my discovery that it was not an isolated phenomenon. There was even a book expressly about the subject, Telephone Calls From the Dead, by Kenneth Ring. Although I hadn’t managed to get hold of a copy, I had little doubt it would be at least as convincing as Raymond Moody’s Reunions.

The fact was, either such extraordinary things as phone calls or personal visits from the dead happened, in much the same way as, if far more rarely than, those from the living; or they didn’t happen but were, on apparently sound evidence, believed to; or they were alleged to happen, by those who would have liked them to.

Unfortunately, any such reported phenomena were worthless as evidence of survival. Raymond Moody might claim he had discovered from his dead grandmother something that only she could have known and that he wasn’t privy to beforehand; but sadly, this was not something that could be corroborated. For myself, I wished I had had the time, and hoped I would have had the gumption, to ask my father on the phone something whose answer I couldn’t have known but might have later verified; but even if I had, I would only have convinced myself.

Of course, convincing myself would have been half the battle. As it was, despite having written to so many ‘experts’ asking for straight answers to a relatively simple question, I felt hardly more qualified than before to answer that question myself. This wasn’t helped by the dead-end visits I had made to mediums.

Nonetheless, asked in what precise way I thought my father lived on, it could only have been as the person I had always known. I didn’t think he had disappeared; and any other sort of survival would be no more him continuing than if he had turned into a tree. But asked if I thought he had phoned me, in the same way I might phone my living brother, I would have demurred.

The simple truth was, although I considered the possibility of the existence of another, parallel universe, peopled by the astral selves of the deceased and unborn, to which we migrated at night and might pay visits during the day, far more conceivable than that its inhabitants could make themselves known to us by audaciously breaking the most fundamental laws of physics, I still didn’t feel it had been proven.

That was the sad part, the part that needed work doing to it. I certainly hadn’t given up my personal quest. I wasn’t planning to join any churches but I would visit a medium again, if one was recommended to me. I was still trying to wake up in my dreams, would undoubtedly return to scrying, and might even try EVP. I would try anything, if I considered there was a realistic chance of it providing evidence of survival.

So far as I was concerned, this was a subject that, if proved true, dwarfed all human discovery and invention. If shown to be false, nothing but artifice would be lost. I only hoped there were enough people in the world who felt the same way.

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