Outside Edge: Duncan Steer on the fake psychic Ian Rowland

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The Independent Culture
Ian Rowland has, apparently, read my mind three times in the last hour. He's told me which letter I chose at random from the alphabet and predicted which month of the year I would circle. But he isn't a psychic. His tarot readings and assessments of his audience's lives are - his word - a con, related not to the supernatural but to years of research.

'At the same time I was finding out about magic,' he recalls, 'I was finding out about forgery, financial scams, cheating at casinos, the whole field. Wherever one human being was trying to rip off another, I had an interest. It worried my parents . . .'

Now, in his early thirties, he's the only performer in Britain bending spoons, making objects fly around rooms and generally mimicking the supposed paranormal, while stressing that it's all down to trickery, not an otherworldly gift.

'I understand that people believe that psychic ability exists and I respect that. But I personally don't need that belief because I can see the cogs whirring. But I'm not negative, I'm trying to be positive about the powers of the human mind. The main reason I do the show is for fun.'

His unique act is being pitched into ever more arenas: occasionally, he'll do a full theatrical show but, more often, he's fitting corporate entertainment, lectures on critical thinking and guest slots on television and radio around his day job. Of his wide range he is proudest of the mock tarot readings.

'There's about 25 different techniques involved. The art is knowing them all and then improvising so that you stitch together a successful reading.'

There's two sides to the coin, though. The human mind may not be supernatural but it can be surprisingly powerful. 'The power of the mind can't help you bend metal by stroking it or divine your 1ife from tarot cards; I want to show that up for being simply trickery. On the other hand, there are things that people don't think the mind can do which it can: ways of improving your confidence or your memory which are perfectly genuine and not remotely fake or tacky.'

Rowland himself has the plausible, Tony Blair-ish charisma of someone who has read all the self-improvement gurus out of interest rather than necessity. His knowledge of positive thinking means that he is not just a con man, showman and fake psychic, but also a regular consultant to businesses in search of a higher turnover. 'I talk to them about virtuous circles, where if salesmen believe in the product, they push it harder, more people buy it and the salesmen feel good about working for a profitable company. It's just thought- conditioning.'

Stages, lecture-halls, boardrooms, shops: the forums for Ian Rowland's performances would seem limitless. Would his own television series be the ideal one? He laughs loudly and allows himself a sly prediction.

'It will happen,' he smiles. 'Get my autograph now.'