Close Encounter: Off for a spell in the suburbs

For Hallowe'en, Joanna Briscoe meets a witch at the end of the Central line
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The Independent Culture
The contemporary witch is a media-friendly figure. This is putting it mildly. Journalistic enquiry has led to dozens of the species, adept at deftly reconciling arcane Wiccan concealment with the crass delights of mass publicity. Quite frankly, we're talking egomaniacs. Monster show- offs masquerading as native healers, humble - yet special: the Me Me Me school of the double-jointed, with photographic memory and three-octave range, who just can't help it.

My witchy subjects so far have been New Age spouters with ego-massaging monikers and houses featuring joss sticks, damp geraniums and stained- glass window attachments. Or they've been cartoon-coloured ciphers grasping for a slice of the Mystic Meg pie: regional newspaper celebrities with soft-as-a-babbling-brook "mystery" voices, living in sea-view maison-ettes or commuter-belt semis with crystal swans, narcissistic cats and studio portraits. Witches - like infantilists and advocates of amusing lingerie parties - tend to live in the suburbs.

So with spooky Hallowe'en beckoning, inevitably I was off to the far reaches of the Central Line to meet a witch. I found the requisite suburban house, but as my interviewee appeared in triplicate, ballooning and thinning in the novelty glass of her front door, I felt my first twinge of terror. Elizabeth St George let me in. She was neither a New Age nuisance nor a Mystic Meg aspirant.

A waft of animal pelt and nicotine hit me, and I entered the filthiest pit I've yet encountered, so nicotine-stained that its walls and ceilings had merged into the uniform anaemic mustard of neglected pubs. Plastic statuettes, random spell ingredients and an immense, tar-stained collection of opera records rose above spilling paper, cat fur, grime and bursting cardboard boxes.

"I'm not trying to make this a thing of terror - I'm really trying to get people to realise that sometimes, you know, spooks can be pretty friendly guys," said St George, in booming patrician tones with urbane American touches.

This was not what I had expected. Not what I had expected at all.

This was Gore Vidal meets Two Fat Ladies. This was Happy Valley grande dame meets Quentin Crisp with a role in Macbeth. No special-old-me preening, no irritating incense-and-whales antics. With her long white hair, bare feet, husband, son and cable television, the offbeat and mundane were constantly juxtaposed, just as her matter-of-fact espousal of ghosts and spells was delivered in the lazily amused growl of one who doesn't give a damn.

So how do you know you're a witch? "When I was very young, I was living out in the West Indies and I happened to see a ghost.

"All right, the adults of the world didn't see it, but I did: tough luck," she replied, as though stating the startlingly obvious. She moved around America before going to school in London. And then? "It was a natural progression. I started learning a lot of theory and I went to a teacher and learnt from there." Her day is spent performing spells for clients, writing the books she later sells, collecting for animal charities and studying for a BA in operatic studies. St George prefers to be known as a "working occultist". "Basically," she says, "I study the things that a lot of people find rather obscure and unnecessary. But I do occult work that's quite often accessible to people, and I will take cases. You name it, I've probably been asked to do it. I'm asked to put marriages right, help people get well again, do a love spell."

St George has the measured and confident manner of a professional raconteur, treating the fabulous as the obvious. "Why not have a laugh?" she says with a wheezing giggle. "In the name of the almighty pumpkin." And indeed, her utterly unshockable sense of humour, her racing intellect, are, if I may generalise, unusual in the contemporary witch. She would be a great dinner-party guest.

Into the room loped a three-legged cat called Tripod. By this time, I was being grandly entertained with casual reference to spirits and spells in St George's Roedean-evacuated-to-Boston accent. I wrenched the conversation round to the hoary old subject of Hallowe'en. Is it the witches' big night out? "Traditionally it's the time at which the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest," says St George, who will be hosting a party. "I can see friends that I no longer see because they're not living... Round about midnight, the party tends to get going. There's a basic open invitation to other folks of other worlds, and the party finishes at cock- crow."

At that moment, an ordinary London taxi juddered down the street of the suburbanites: "They don't get their knickers in a twist about horrible witches because they know witches can be really rather nice people to have around," commented my working occultist. For the first time, I agreed.

For a happening Hallowe'en, bridge and tunnel it to the sticks, and look behind the net curtains.

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