How, he asked, can people say the year 1000 was a time of terrible superstition when the majority of US citizens today believe that aliens have landed and that the Pentagon is hiding the fact from us?
He had a point. The vehicles may change but there are some forms of belief which have remained pretty constant throughout human history. What went on in the oracle at Delphi 3,000 years back is fundamentally not much different from what goes on today on Brighton pier.
The search for meaning in life takes many different forms, but the attempt to acquire knowledge of the future has been with us throughout history. It still is. According to an opinion poll earlier this year 43 per cent of British women, and 24 per cent of the nation's men believe that the future can be predicted by fortune tellers.
Which is why, earlier this week, I found myself at the seaside in search of the kind of mystical guidance which is presumably what draws our political masters to such places to hold their annual party conferences. Brighton, where the Lib Dems open the season next week, seemed as good a place as any to start.
In a New-Agey little back-street shop, with crystals and pebbles in the window, I came across Maggie, a sun-ravaged woman in her fifties with fingernails as long as claws painted the colour of primroses. For pounds 15 for half an hour she spread a Tarot pack across a square of black velvet and told me that I was at a crossroads with many possibilities bubbling under. I would be working abroad in November and a big change and a new direction at work was coming in 1999. I might also have some legal or business difficulty and would benefit from a spot of spiritual healing. Any questions?
Yes, what's this card mean? I asked, pointing to one of the rows of Tolkeiny characters spread out before me. Not that kind of question, she said, something about your life. OK, tell me more about this travel, I asked, deciding not to use the traditional phrase which is the punchline of Alan Bennett's joke about the man who goes to the doctor having tried to cure his piles with an old wives' remedy of used tea leaves. (Man drops trousers. Doctor says: "Well, it doesn't seem to have cured the haemorrhoids but I can tell you that you're about to go on a long journey.")
Actually I was going on a fairly short one. Halfway down the pier in a hexagonal little booth I came across the Indian Palmist Rai, son of the famous Pundit established in the UK since 1952, and brother of the "top clairvoyant on Scarborough seafront in 1992". But he was having a phone line put in and asked if I could come back later.
To pass the time I had my palm read by a computerised screen (pounds 3 for Chinese and Western astrology and palm-scan readings). "It works on your mounds," said the girl who operated it. The result was disappointing. It was just the kind of anodyne stuff you find in the horoscopes in the local paper. (On one paper I worked for, the editor sacked the sub-editor who wrote the horoscopes because, he announced, they were boring - and he gave the job to a bewildered sports reporter who was passing by. But this was not as memorable as the sacking of The Sun's astrologer: the letter of dismissal began, "As you will know...")
So I went back to the real-live Indian palm-reader (who was born and bred a Yorkshireman, it turned out). "You are a man who is independent and very lucky," he began. Independent? Had he seen the press card in my wallet when I handed over the 40 quid (for two hands and full face reading). I was ambivalent about lucky; while waiting I had won pounds 16 in tokens on a fruit machine. But the Brighton Pier vouchers I exchanged them for were not valid for palmistry he said.
Still it was worth the cash to learn that I will live past the age of 75, will never be broke even if I'll never be a millionaire and that - wait for it - I have big changes coming over the next three years including many trips abroad! This had been in the Tarot too!
So what is going on here? Psychic connection? Broad-brush guesswork? Or an astute piecing together of the fragments of information the punter lets slip in the opening conversational pleasantries. Never been for a reading before - must be at a crossroads in life with questions to answer. And so on. But if all that is fairly innocuous the same cannot be said for the specific warnings I was offered. I am to watch out for a backstabber in the office whose initials I was given. The malignity of such predictions is that they can lodge in the subconscious, destroy trust and become self- fulfilling - as with the woman promised a Capricorn boyfriend with a red sports car who promptly went off and found one.
There is something else too. What happens in the womb-like places in which these clairvoyants operate is that you pass control of your life over to something other. You enter into a relationship in which you cede power and responsibility entirely. And yet there is none of the spiritual, transcendent or transforming quality of religion about it. I reckon it's bollocks, I said to the taxi-driver on the way home. "Ah, but what if it isn't, and you've ignored it?" he said. I would, I told him, just have to take the chance.