Model pupil: Imogen loves going to a ‘Hogwarts for grown-ups’
My friend, the astrologer Jessica Adams, slid a library card across the coffee table.‘Just stand in the middle of the room,’ she said. ‘The books will make themselves known.’
It was a novel approach to choosing a book — literally waiting for one to fly off the shelves and into your hand — but at the College of Psychic Studies, a white stucco-fronted building in South Kensington, , normal rules of academic engagement don’t apply.
The books did not fling themselves at me.Instead I waited for five minutes, staring hopelessly at the shelves. Some titles certainly looked more interesting than others — a tome on witches and spells stood out, and one on herbs — so finally I resorted to more conventional methods and picked them out myself.
Yes, it sounds utterly crazy.But since I joined the college, which teaches all the ‘paranormal arts’ from palmistry to talking to the dead, in 2013, it has changed my life. Stimulating and utterly unpredictable, it has also introduced me to the most fascinating people I’ve met.
There is the paediatric anaesthetist who is a brilliant clairvoyant.A psychic transgender woman who has outlived both her husbands. A City boy who transmogrifies into a little old lady from China when he contacts his spirit guide. A film producer with an obsession about criminal palms. Believe me, it’s never dull.
I am in my fourth year of studying palmistry.
I can tell if you are ambitious, happy or a sexual deviant just by glancing across the dinner table at your hands. I can tell if you are good with money, charming, like to give back, work hard in the community or have an Icarus complex and like to fly too close to the sun. How?
We use a fingerprint technique developed by Scotland Yard back in the Twenties, when people were more open to these things.
And, strange though it sounds, my mind would never have been opened to any such possibilities but for Rasputin.
I was researching my new novel, The Witches Of St Petersburg, about Rasputin, black magic and the occult in the Russian court at the turn of the last century and needed to understand the world of Wicca, ouija, tarot, mediumship and spirituality.
‘Go to the College of Psychic Studies,’ advised my astrologer friend Jessica.‘It’s like Hogwarts for grown-ups.’
Established at the end of the 19th century, when seances, table-tipping and spirit trumpets were all the rage, the London Spiritualist Alliance, as it was then known, took off under the auspices of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Although he is best remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle was a keen spiritualist and tireless in his support of those bereaved by World War I, in the aftermath of which women desperate to contact dead fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and lovers flocked to the college in droves.
Imogen Edwards-Jones says the school for the supernatural arts left her spellbound
The library still contains many of Conan Doyle’s extraordinary texts on spirituality and the occult from his extensive collection — books I was keen to get my hands on.
Where else can you find rare works on witches, spells, the Devil and all his works?Or a building in Central London where the corridors are lined with lists of spiritualists, mediums, clairvoyants and courses that range from ‘Angels and Shamanism’ to ‘Absent Healing and Trance’?
I decided as part of my research to sign up for a course about scrying, otherwise known as crystal-ball reading, cloud reading, tea-leaf reading, dripping-wax-into-water reading — basically reading almost anything there is.
It’s about noticing patterns and pictures, which was frankly not one of my strengths.
In my first lesson, in the basement of the building, I barely spoke.Not that the other students were intimidating; they weren’t. But they were clearly in a different league from me. Most had been at the college before. Some were far more in touch with their psychic selves than I was, and they all seemed totally at home when Michelle, my teacher, vigorously clapped her hands in front of the large mirror in the classroom to clear it of bad psychic energy before we started our first class.
Our task was to draw the first images and ideas that came into our heads.It took all my willpower not to up and leave. But I persevered.
There were times when I felt like a terrible fraud as I stared into teacups and gazed at black obsidian balls and blobs of floating wax and tried hard to see things, or the future, or the answers to questions proposed by the poor fellow pupil sitting in front of me.
But eventually something clicked.I don’t know how or why. I think I gave up trying and just let it happen.
We were reading tea leaves. And I asked a question — would my eight-year-old daughter get the part in the film she was up for? I stared. I squinted.I focused. And there it was. An image of a little girl holding what appeared to be an Oscar! The image was as clear as day. She was going to get the part.
At the College of Psychic Studies, a white stucco-fronted building in South Kensington, London, normal rules of academic engagement don’t apply
So during the weeks of waiting after the auditions, was I anxious?No, of course not. I’d seen she had got the part when I looked into the tea leaves. And she did.
My confidence grew. I began to see other things, especially myself in a past life. That is possibly one of the more bizarre sentences I have ever written. But I did.
Michelle explained to us that we needed to be patient.
We needed to trust the process. So I sat for a full 30 minutes with a candle under my chin, staring at my face in the mirror. Finally, at last, my face melted away and I was left staring at the face of a woman with fine-plucked eyebrows, high cheekbones and pale grey, sad eyes.
She was wearing a medieval headdress and a heavy pearl necklace. I jumped out of my seat and dropped the candle.
‘Recognise yourself, did you?’ asked Michelle, as she patted me on the back. ‘Come as a bit of a shock?’
I know it sounds a little foolish and unhinged.But I am not alone in my alternative interests. There have been plenty of reports recently about the rise of spiritualism and the fall in church attendance. The idea of spirituality no longer equating to religion and belief in God is particularly appealing to millennials, who have been turning to alternative truths as their feelings of lack of control over their futures grow.
The use of tarot and angel cards is commonplace among so-called ‘Generation Hex’, whose interest in witchcraft is evident on social media if you glance at hashtags like #witches ofinstagram.Even established institutions have joined in — the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford recently opened its acclaimed Spellbound exhibition, complete with a medium’s ectoplasm.
Inspired by scrying, I went on to study mediumship — in other words, talking to dead people.
This can be studied at various levels in the college, where interviews for the super-advanced class are conducted in what appears to be total silence, as interviewer and interviewee converse telepathically using only their spirit guides.
The use of tarot and angel cards is commonplace among so-called ‘Generation Hex’, whose interest in witchcraft is evident on social media if you glance at hashtags like #witchesofinstagram
Sadly, as a mere novice, all I brought to beginner’s mediumship was enthusiasm, which I had by the cauldron-load.
Geoffrey, my teacher, was charming and I easily found myself walking down the mental ‘spiral staircase’ he described, into a state of deep meditation. When he next suggested that he open the classroom door and ‘see who comes in’, I was the first to face the door with an expectant look on my face.
He opened the door and waited for a few seconds, ushering in nothing, then closed it again.
‘The person behind you is accompanied by the sound of peacocks,’ said a fellow student, staring at the blank space over my shoulder.
‘Yes,’ she confirmed.‘You know, the birds?’
Now let’s call this woman, a stranger, Mary. Mary wasn’t to know that the sound of peacocks was the underlining sound of my childhood. I would lie in bed on a warm summer’s evening while it was still light outside and listen to them screaming at the dusk like lost children.
Was I brought up in Jaipur?Not exactly. I lived off the B4095, 25 minutes south of Birmingham. However, opposite our house was a farm owned by the Watson family, and the farmer’s wife had a hobby — breeding peacocks.
‘Mrs Watson?’ I asked tentatively, not quite daring to turn round.
‘She’s nodding,’ said Mary.‘That’s her.’
Sadly, Mrs Watson didn’t want to say anything in particular except that she was well and wished me good luck. So I smiled and thanked her politely for coming through.
Eventually, one Sunday morning, I brought my children to the college.The advanced dowsing class had offered to help me find water on my small property in Ibiza, which was as dry as a rasp.
‘Now sit here,’ I told the eight- and four-year-old. ‘You,’ I said to my daughter, ‘can stare at the books and see if you can make them move on the shelves.And you,’ I added to my four-year-old son, whose blond curls made him look like an angel, ‘can read this book on the Devil.’
I know it sounds a little foolish and unhinged.But I am not alone in my alternative interests. There have been plenty of reports recently about the rise of spiritualism and the fall in church attendance
I was only halfway up the stairs when I heard a scream and a crash of crockery.
‘I am sorry,’ said the college secretary, as I rushed into the room to see her standing by a dropped tray.‘I thought they were ghosts. They gave me a terrible fright. It happens here all the time.’
The dowsers did identify a spot on our Spanish property where we should start looking for water. We’re saving up to start the expensive process of drilling down to it, but I’ve no doubt it’s there.
I’m sure there are plenty of ways to explain away the things I have learnt and witnessed at the college over the years, and I am the first person to be sceptical and ask, frankly, what sort of weirdness is this?I trained as a journalist and I am rigorous about facts. Yet nothing will ever explain the evening I spent with Gordon Smith, one of the country’s top mediums.
A former barber, he played to a full house on the second floor of the college.In fact, the interconnecting rooms were full to overflowing as we all sat in silence and he channelled spirit after spirit wanting to talk to their friends or relatives in the audience.
Time after time, he would come up with spirits.‘I have a David here who has hurt his foot — no, sorry, he had his leg amputated and he’s here for someone in this part of the room.’
Inevitably, David’s son or daughter or brother would put up their hand and the reading would begin. In the hour and a half I sat and watched him move around the room, picking up messages and passing them on, there was only one message from a ‘spirit’ that went unanswered.
It was from a Mr Knight.And it was only on the way back in the car that I realised it might actually have been for me.
I knew a Mr Knight. He was a very good friend to me when I was a child, and he had died quite recently. I only wish I had been brave enough to put up my hand.
Another time I wouldn’t make the same mistake.If there is one thing the past five years of being at the college have taught me, it is to take the plunge and give out-of-the-ordinary things a go.
Who doesn’t secretly hope there is life after death? Who says we have all the answers to all the difficult questions?
Like any eager student, I’m busy booking a new course for next term.It’s called ‘Working with my Guides and Angels’.
The only downside? This Hogwarts for adults doesn’t teach Quidditch.
The Witches Of St Petersburg, by Imogen Edwards-Jones, is published by Head of Zeus (£18.99).