Magical mystery tour
Natalie Haynes goes in search of spiritual enlightenment
At first glance, I could be one of them. I'm rarely to be seen in anything other than floor-length black clothes, my hair's dyed purple, although it's looking a bit orange today, I own all seven seasons of Buffy and all nine seasons of The X-Files on DVD, and my shoes could often be described as sensible. On top of that I'm vegetarian, and I might easily cry if a sufficiently sad story about a horse came up on the lunchtime news. In short, I'm ideally qualified to be sent by New Humanist to cover the Mystic Arts Exhibition at London's Olympia. I could wander round without exciting any attention at all.
But, although I may look like someone who watched The Craft a few too many times in my formative years, I'm not one of them. Not only do I not believe that Tarot cards can tell my future, I'm not even sure I'm enough of a determinist to believe my future can be told. I never read horoscopes, and don't think the lines on my palm reveal anything about my character beyond my propensity to wash up without rubber gloves. Crystals can make beautiful jewellery, but I'm pretty sure they can't heal anything, other than the ache I feel in my heart when I see someone with a nicer pair of earrings than my own.
Still, I did try to go in with an open mind. Like many non-believers, I'm intrigued by belief itself: the certainty of faith in anything non-empirical is always extraordinary to me. And the idea of believing that a crystal ball can predict the future doesn't strike me as any more outlandish than believing in reincarnation, or miracles. And, after spending years of my life studying and teaching classics, I'm aware that a pragmatic, resourceful society can flourish even when it's founded on belief in magic, oracles and curses.
As Dan (the photographer) and I approached Olympia, there were no signs for the exhibition at all. I began to wonder if we'd come on the right day, as the side-doors were flung open to reveal cavernous, empty space. We asked a security man where the Mystic Arts Exhibition was, and he grinned a toothless smile. "If it's mystic arts you're into, you should know where it is," he said. It's hard to argue with such a valid point. I used to live around the corner from a hotel near Euston that held psychic conferences every few months, and each time they would place a notice-board up on Woburn Place which read "Psychic Conference: Entrance At The Side", with an arrow pointing in the only possible direction they could mean. And every time I used to think: they should really know that.
Once we did make it through the doors, though, we knew instantly we had to be in the right place. Right opposite us was a stall called The Magik Thread. I'm sorry to report that a cavalier attitude to both spelling and punctuation pervaded the whole exhibition, so if that kind of thing gives you a facial tic, you should probably stop reading here. If, on the other hand, you find it mildly amusing, I can report that the finest prose mishap appeared in the Mystic Arts brochure, where An Evening of Ghostly Encounters promised that "the forts reputation for paranormal activity never ceases to disappoint." Well, quite. And yes, that is their missed apostrophe, too.
Dan and I made a quick tour of the exhibition before buying tickets for a past-life regression workshop. We walked past a giant pyramid, which you could pay twenty quid to sit in for meditative purposes. Next to that was a stall selling smaller versions - metal pyramids, like the frame for a lampshade in Abigail's Party - which women were placing carefully over their heads. Presumably that was some sort of meditative aid, too.
In a large auditorium, less than a quarter full, a woman was handing out free copies of Take a Break's Fate & Fortune magazine. On page 54 was an agony column for pets where Texas the psychic horse (I imagine there can't be more than one) gave his diagnosis through his animal communicator, Holly. Readers then responded with compliments about his uncanny ability to know that, for example, a dead father might occasionally be taking over the body of a small poodle. I began to think these people didn't take their paganism entirely seriously.
David Wells, our past-life regression expert, knew his audience, however few they were. Truthfully, the prospect of a 90-minute workshop filled me with a reasonable amount of dread, but he wisely started late, and spent the first ten minutes warming up his crowd with a well-rehearsed "How many Geminis/Tauruses/Aquarians does it take to change a lightbulb?" routine. He went through the whole calendar, so I think it's safe to suggest that the prospect of a 90-minute workshop had filled him with dread, too.
Eventually, we started visualisation techniques, at which I knew I would be appalling since I have no visual imagination whatsoever. When he compared the art of looking through another person's eyes to read what was behind them to the process of deciphering those magic eye pictures that enjoyed brief popularity few years ago, I knew I was sunk. I could never see the dolphin in those, either. Dan and I tried hard with the gazing, and managed several minutes of eye examination with no hints of a past life for either one of us. The people behind us started to mutter that it was impossible. A man behind them claimed to have seen a nunnery in the eyes of his partner. I was, and remain, pretty confident that I couldn't identify a nunnery in a lineup, let alone behind someone's eyes.
Then came the long meditative journey - into some woods, under a tree, past some elemental kings, whatever they may be, through a bubble and a shiny door, and into a library, to find a big book of your soul that's being looked after by a mythical animal. I came completely unstuck around this point. All the way through, I'd been thinking like the verbal-minded soul I am - this bit's like the film Labyrinth, this bit reminds me of that Borges story about the library of Babel. I realised that I wasn't meditating; I was reviewing. He told us to think of the mythic animal and I thought of the unicorn in Legend (early Tom Cruise, Mia Sara wears lovely eye make-up). Then he said the mythic animal had prepared the book for me, and I realised that hooves don't contain an opposable digit. It all slipped away again.
He wrapped up by asking people what they'd seen on the cover of their book. Runes, crosses, and Merlin all featured heavily, as they did on the stalls outside. I suspected that these people might be doing more with their short-term memories than with their past lives. Someone reckoned he'd seen an octopus, but no one, not even David Wells himself, knew the significance of that. He suggesting Googling it later.
Back at the exhibition, the atmosphere was now sweltering. The Scientologists offered me a stress test, which I think went quite well in so far as I don't now live in a commune, and still have control of my bank accounts. They were pretty much the only people offering to do anything for free. Everything else - tarot card readings, palmistry, aura photography, blood microscopy, Jerrold's Healing Art Visions - cost a minimum of £20 and often more. The offers to improve your health were ubiquitous, and entirely synonymous with reducing your weight. Positive thinking, stress reduction and enhanced creativity were the other big draws.
I had my aura photographed, which turns out to be a nice yellowy-orange colour. In spite of my dour outfits, I like yellow, so I was pleased about that. The information sheet explained that I was very well-balanced in virtually every respect: creative and lovely and generally super. I think they probably say that to everyone, since no one's going to pay to be told they're grumpy and horrid. Although I made this suggestion later the same day to a producer at the BBC, who confessed that a numerologist had once told him he had the same number as Hitler, so perhaps that doesn't always work.
So, after a day spent in a WooWoo Zone (I quote the leaflet of some rogue sceptics who'd snuck in, wearing T-shirts reading "Seeking (The) Enlightenment" on the back), here's the thing that I don't understand. Creativity is seen by this industry as an objective good - something to be desired and, if necessary, paid for. But we'd just spent an hour and a half with perhaps forty other people who were determined to believe that what you or I might call their imagination, the hive of creativity, was actually their memory of former lives. They'd paid good money to get into the exhibition, and then again to go to the workshop: to sit in a dingy, windowless room on a summer day, being given the imaginative equivalent of a paint-by-numbers book, being told everything from where they were going and who would be there, right down to how to move around and what to do next.
And even when they did use their brains to personalise the story, even though they'd clearly picked patterns or animals to feature in the collective waking dream, everyone preferred to believe that these patterns or animals had, in fact, picked them, had come from their previous incarnations to help make sense of their current lives. They were cheerfully handing over their active imagination in order to convert it to passive memory, demanding to know what the symbolism meant when they saw a bird or a wizard or a goat.
Almost every stall and workshop was peddling the chance to find better ways to live your life, and yet all of them relied on a willingness to be a victim of circumstance. The notion that self might be more than the sum total of your star sign, past lives, blood group and birthstone was clearly an art too mystic for Olympia.
Natalie Haynes is an Aries with gorge rising