Martin Rowson's illustration for AL Kennedy's column in New Humanist, July/August 2011I have spent the last three years researching a novel about psychics. Let me rephrase that. Two of the central characters of my latest novel are psychics and practise the range of skills that occupation requires.

Let me rephrase that. Two of the central characters of my latest novel are liars of the worst type imaginable. They tell the bereaved that it is possible to contact loved ones, to pass messages, anecdotes, reassurances and (although I’m not quite sure why this would be a speciality amongst the deceased) support during driving tests from beyond the grave. This eternal continuation of love would be wonderful – if rather onerous – if it were possible. As far as I and generations of investigators are aware, it isn’t. In my opinion, the work of psychics is based on a series of horrible, invasive and abusive lies and the promotion of those lies now underpins a massive industry which, to put it simply, makes money out of grief.

In times of economic uncertainty, in times of mass casualty and conflict, people who have been broken by reality turn to unreal solutions. This isn’t because those who are bereaved, or bewildered by seemingly arbitrary misfortunes, are stupid. We all get conned – perhaps by the promise of a new gadget, or a politician’s manifesto, a faked stock report or a seemingly road-worthy car. Human beings are good at fooling human beings and human beings are, in some areas, very ready to be fooled. Stressed and desperate human beings are particularly at risk and, should you have lost someone you cared for deeply, you’ll know how devastating and penetrating that experience can be.

Phoney palmists, ghost-botherers, nastily effective salesmen of all kinds will use a battery of techniques: vague phrasing, suggestion, knowledge of human behaviour and responses, vocal tone and body posture. They will learn statistics on illnesses, causes of death and common dreams, on occupations, gender probabilities and the stages that most of us pass through during our lives in order to feed back apparently credible information to sitters. Even without the addition of physical phenomena, whether they involve ideomotor movements, wishful thinking, Yvette Fielding over-reacting, dodgy photography or the full-blown rigging of special effects, the people who specialise in playing people take advantage of something rather beautiful – that we are all the same species and can communicate very deeply if we simply pay attention to each other.

Very few of us don’t want to be truly listened to and understood, to be completely revealed to another and found to have qualities and strengths. The fakers make their money out of this need and our desire to be close to those we love. They set up an expensive addiction to a mirage based, appallingly, on love.

Before my research, I was vaguely aware of the psychic industry and certainly sceptical. After prolonged exposure to stage psychics, booth psychics, spiritualist churches, gypsy palmists, card readers, one “cyber witch”, innumerable “confessions” and madly rambling memoirs and some of the most utterly cynical manuals and training materials I have ever encountered, I found myself both disturbed and moved.

While it is almost impossible to overestimate the savagery of those who prey on others’ sadness, it is also impossible to ignore how very close we all are, how many needs we share, how many fears and injuries we all suffer, often in silence. For example, it is disgusting that many manuals instruct practitioners to claim awareness of a sitter’s suicidal thoughts, because it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll have been present at some point. But it’s also chastening to consider how many co-workers and strangers, relatives and friends must have passed through periods of utter darkness. We all hurt and are hurt. We all know loneliness. We all die. We can choose to take advantage of this, but surely it can also lead us to be kind.

AL Kennedy’s new novel, The Blue Book, which features a fake medium, is published by Jonathan Cape in August