Spirit of the age: Know the future, and fulfil it

I THINK I may have picked the wrong bloke. I went all the way to Pembroke, at the most western extremity of wild Wales, to meet Peter Lemesurier. There is always a danger in travelling so far, for the very process of journeying tends to invest meaning in our enterprises. And, given its remoteness, it seemed just the place to find a mystical seer.

But it set up the wrong expectations. Lemesurier is eccentric in a genteel, English way - the former RAF test-pilot, languages teacher, and decoder of the Great Pyramid (wait for it!) had ended up in the harbour beneath the town's spectacular medieval castle two decades earlier when he pranged his trimaran there on a round-Britain voyage. But, despite his sweeping, Tudor-style, pure white hair and beard, he was insufficiently barking for purposes of modern prophesy.

Peter Lemesurier is Britain's leading exponent of Nostradamus, the 16th- century seer whose elliptical prophecies have become the cryptic crosswords of the New Age movement, spawning an epidemic of modern interpretative editions, replete with references to the death of the three Kennedy brothers (though Edward has so far stubbornly refused to comply) and the future nuking of New York.

All this is, to many of its devotees, more than an exercise in jocular superstition. It is a dalliance with quasi-belief. Know the future and you may feel the need to fulfil it, whether in the minor detail of daily life or for those whose preoccupation reaches psychotic levels. The quatrains of Nostradamus were factors in the moti- vations of those involved in both the Hale Bop suicides and Shoko Asahara's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

What does it tell us that Nostradamus is back in fashion? Previous devotees have included Napoleon (who carried his book everywhere) and Hitler (who picked it up from Mrs Goebbels to add to the rest of his interest in the occult). And even those who oppose it have taken it seriously. Elizabeth I's first minister, Lord Burleigh, sent for his own copy when The Prophecies were first published. And the libraries at the Vatican and Lambeth Palace have early editions.

"The beauty of Nostradamus is that you can read anything into it," says Lemesurier, who comes to the task with a scepticism that is agnostic rather than disbelieving. The attraction for him of the 1,000 prophecies - each rhymed in four lines and divided into 10 books known as Centuries - was that of a massive puzzle. His previous book had been the international best-seller The Great Pyramid Decoded, which offered an elaborate solution to an earlier theory that the geometry of the Egyptian pyramids offered a map to the structure of the universe and the meaning of life.

His approach is that of a detached humourist engaged in an intellectual exercise. His first move was, therefore, to go back to the earliest text available. He has found one of the original 1555 edition. "Much of what has been written is based on later, and corrupted, texts," he says. The most popular modern edition, by the late Erika Cheetham, is full of schoolgirl howlers in its rendering of the 16th-century French, compounded by her inability to read her own handwriting when typing up her notes.

Like other modern editions it is preoccupied with verse 72, which foretells the arrival of a "Great King of Terror" in 1999. The quatrain caused widescale panic in Japan last year after the subway gas attack. "The original says `Roy deffraieur' (a king who appeases) but it later acquired an apostrophe to become `d'effraieur' (of terror)," says Lemesurier.

Such debunking is not a popular activity. It brings much abuse down on Lemesurier in the avid Nostradamus discussion groups on the Internet. But he persists. Among the myths he has addressed are: Nostradamus predicted the end of the world (he didn't, though his forecasts end in 3797); he was persecuted by the Inquisition and had his books placed on the Vatican's prohibited Index (he didn't; and even the Encyclopaedia Britannica is wrong on this); he was buried upright with a medallion round his neck forecasting when he would be dug up (no evidence of that); about half of his predictions have come true (if so, no one can agree which half); he foresaw Hitler (no, references to Hister were to an old word for the Danube); it is all written in anagram and code (if so, then crack it).

Lemesurier reckons he has cracked Nostradamus rather differently. "His technique was to look up the position of the stars at the time of great events in the past. He then worked out when similar planetary conjunctions would occur - and predicted similar events at the same latitudes," he says. Which is why he is so big on another Hannibal, another Nero and so on. And why he thinks Europe is about to be invaded by Muslims, and saved by a new Henry V of France.

The neat thing about Nostradamus is that you can ignore the awkward bits which don't fit the modern world, and seek out what does. "That's why he seems always to have predicted whatever has just happened - the death of Diana, the mouth of Monica Lewinsky, the weapons of Saddam," says Lemesurier. All of which is a paradigm of modern spirituality. In an age of emotional insecurity like ours, we're attracted to the idea that it's all sorted out. It somehow eases the itch of our sense of responsibility. And what doesn't suit, we can forget about.

"Nostradamus puts a name to the future," says Lemesurier. "And it may be true or not, but we'd rather have bad news about the future than no news at all. All seers are by definition partly charlatans, but they all also speak a bit of truth." Which is of course not true. But it is no less seductive for that.