The answer: feng shui, a treatment best described as a sort of 'acupuncture for spaces'. Instead of sticking needles in your plasterwork, however, a feng shui consultant will advise on everything from the placing of furniture to the presence of mirrors, plants and pictures - all aimed at encouraging good energy (chi) to flow into the home, while the bad stuff is kept at bay.
The idea that moving a few plant pots around a room can bring its occupant prosperity and well- being, as feng shui practitioners claim, seems too superstitious by half. Yet in the Far East, architects, designers and office managers routinely call in the 'feng shui man' (yes, it is almost invariably a man) when planning new developments. Norman Foster employed feng shui consultants when designing the new Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters, and it is also being used as a basis for the design of the colony's new airport.
William Spear, an American feng shui consultant, has a full quiver of cases to suggest the treatment is catching on in Britain. Its effect can manifest itself in curious ways. A couple who had spent years trying to have children conceived after having their flat feng shui'd, Spear claims, coyly adding that three children now bear the name William after he had done the necessary to their parents' homes.
In the commercial sphere, a Chelsea art dealer apparently saw her sales rocket within 24 hours of carrying out a few changes. PR consultant Gina Lazenby also tells how cheques littered the doormat as soon as she placed a crystal in the appropriate corner of her new office and made other changes suggested by Spear. Impressed with her new- found wealth and other evidence, Lazenby has set up a Feng Shui Society dedicated to training consultants and spreading the word about the treatment's more tangible benefits. Anyone who is having difficulty selling a home, she suggests, might consider having the treatment to make it more attractive to buyers. 'It's about improving the atmosphere, like the old trick of filling the place with the smell of freshly brewed coffee.' She tells the story of a man who, having failed to sell his property for two years, closed the deal within a week after following feng shui advice - installing a bird table in his garden.
Intrigued by such stories, I asked William Spear to feng shui my north London flat. With my limited knowledge, I half expected him to whisk round, dowsing rod in hand, and tell me to knock down several walls, build a spiral staircase and blow up the building across the road. Instead, we sat down over tea while he calculated my Chinese astrology and asked a series of searching, therapy-style questions about my life, my work and my relationships.
It soon became clear that it was as much my own energy as that of my home that he was assessing. Next, he strolled around the flat room by room, whistling softly like an interior decorator sizing up a job. At any moment I felt he might frown, suck his teeth and ask: 'What cowboy put that bit of cutting chi in, mate?'
His recommendations were, for the most part, mercifully straightforward: placing the odd bit of cut glass to concentrate energy in wealth and relationship corners, getting rid of a spiky plant, lifting the gloom of dark recesses with vibrant pictures of something growing, and cutting a curve in the corner of my desktop (which considering the times I've crunched my knee into it, has a certain appeal).
As I'd expressed a wish to attract a partner into my life, Spear was concerned at the number of single objects. When I commented that I found pairs of ornaments rather naff, he gave me a meaningful look. But I agreed that the photo in my bedroom of me walking alone in the Sahara might not quite be sending out the right kind of come-hither message.
Some objects, including a couple of mirrors and a large fan which I had positioned to hide the electricity meter, were singled out for disposal on the grounds that they would negatively affect the flat's energy. Without exception, and wholly unknown to Spear, they were all things I had inherited from the flat's previous owners - who had their fair share of tragedy.
But wasn't this all rather worryingly deterministic, suggesting that we are the prisoners of energies which have nothing to do with us? What about those successful, creative types who live in a sea of clutter? Or the neurotically tidy failures? Isn't this denying free choice? Not so, says Spear: the most important energy is that of the individual, but if the energy of the space is against you, you will have to work much harder to achieve your goals. 'It will be like swimming against the flow,' he says.
To many in the West, of course, feng shui will seem a bizarre waste of time and money: in the words of one of the first Westerners to encounter it, the 19th-century orientalist E G Eitel, 'a farrago of nonsense and childish absurdities'. But then a similar reaction to acupuncture was commonplace until recently. As Gina Lazenby says: 'If people can accept acupuncture, they may just come round to feng shui.' So watch, as it were, this space.
DO-IT-YOURSELF FENG SHUI
Feng shui (literally 'wind' 'water', better translated as 'vital energy') is based on the idea that all spaces - buildings, rooms, even desktops - have their own energy: change the layout and you subtly shift the flow of energy.
Certain shapes are inherently bad news: sharp, pointed objects are for the most part unwelcome, particularly if they 'cut across' the space. A cactus plant on the corner of a desk is a bad move - unless you really have it in for your colleagues.
In Hong Kong, where they take these things seriously, the Bank of China is being sued over its newly built HQ by the occupants of a neighbouring block, who claim the angular shape of the bank building is sending 'cutting chi' into their own offices.
Curves are preferable, and clutter is to be avoided. The same is true of dark corners, low ceilings and gloomy colours. Much of this has more to do with common sense than space acupuncture - evidence, say the feng shui devotees, that we all retain an innate sense of the importance of 'vital design'.
Certain areas of space in a home correspond to aspects of life such as wealth, relationships, family and so on. The flow of energy into these areas can be enhanced by making sure they are light and uncluttered, with perhaps some cut glass or crystal to concentrate energy. A waste bin in the wealth corner would be most inauspicious (if your lavatory is there, keep the lid closed or you'll flush money down the drain). Worse still, the cramped quarters of some modern conversions, or offices carved out of corridors, may mean that entire zones such as wealth or well-being are missing. This can be remedied by using mirrors to 'recreate' lost space.
The Feng Shui Society at 2 Thayer Street, London W1M 5LG (0990 116623) arranges courses and introductory workshops. Feng shui consultancies start at pounds 100. William Spear costs from pounds 200 in London, negotiable elsewhere.
(Photographs omitted)Reuse content