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If you're superstitious, good luck to you

In an uncertain age, more and more people are trusting to fortune-telle rs and their lucky stars. Esther Oxford reports on a supernatural revival
Most of the clients who visit Tamara the Palmist would deny they were superstitious. They climb the staircase to her lavender-coloured room in Greenwich, south London, convinced that the bedroom-slippered psychic, with her crystal ball and tarot c ards, will reveal some insight into the future.

For a few minutes this fantasy maintains its grip. Tamara's quiet, gentle manner is compelling. But from the moment she opens with the words: "I can see you've had a hard childhood," any illusions are shattered. The glass ball wrapped in black silk showsitself for what it is: a gimmick. The brass "map of the palm" suddenly looks tacky. By the end of the £16 session all is clear: this is a business built on superstition.

Tamara is a lucky beneficiary of a Nineties phenomenon: fear of the future. A survey by Gallup in 1993 found that a quarter of those questioned had consulted a fortune-teller. Another fifth believed everything they read in their horoscopes, and nearly half thought it was possible to forecast that something was going to happen before it actually happened. One in five believed in lucky mascots.

This obsession with superstition and imposing some order on the future is reflected in the growing number of New Age books, fortune-tellers, and hokey-pokey back-street shops offering anything from horoscope books and moonstones to in-house tarot readings. A magazine has been launched, aptly named Miracles, to cash in on this "supernatural" revival. The circulation is just 40,000, but the editor predicts it is soon to rise.

Public figures, from the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York to Stanley Els, the US Open golf champion, and Sylvester Stallone, have not been slow to go with the flow. Princess Diana sees a psychic and has a penchant for crystals; Fergie prompted headlines over her visits to Madame Vasso and her blue pyramid. Els is known to have "a thing" about No 2 balls and Stallone is said to have planned the birth of his son so he would be a Taurus with Libra Moon and Leo Rising (for intelligence, apparently).

Ten years ago most people would have been embarrassed to admit to feeling superstitious, says David Greer, author of White Horse and Shooting Stars, a book on the subject. Rituals, talismans and "future-seekers" were seen as the preserve of primitive cultures. "People were categorised into Those Who Were Superstitious and Those Who Were Not," Mr Greer says. "It was preferable to be classed in the latter."

Not any more. Britain's blossoming love affair with superstition has been given the official stamp of approval: the new national emblem is two fingers crossed, for the 30 million hopefuls who buy 60 million National Lottery tickets each week.

While Camelot is selling the crossed fingers as a universal luck sign, most people have their own ways of influencing luck favourably: chucking a white candy mouse under the wheels of a speeding car, wearing a hat back to front, only walking on the whitestripes of zebra crossings, or choosing a personal sequence of numbers.

"I always make sure I eat a packet of cheese and onion crisps before I fill in my lottery ticket," said one red-faced gambler in Whitechapel, east London. Why? "Because one time I did and I won a 14-inch television on the school raffle."

Lilian Storey, general secretary of the Theosophical Society, says "change" is the reason for the "terrific growth" in the number of people turning to psychics and superstition for help. When her mother was born in 1894 "everyone lived the same life" - same job, same family, for their entire lives. "Now there is so much chaos in peoples' lives that many feel insecure. Superstitious ritualsare a way of improving the odds against unpleasant things happening to you."

Until recently the church, the family and the local doctor were popular sources of order and stability. Both could offer guidance and advice. "The church in particular gave a lot of people certainty and assurance. It gave them a set of values and a way to live," Miss Storey says.

Now church attendance has fallen, family doctors are overworked and the idea of a stable family unit is a thing of the past. But still people need to have a set of rules; still people need to have a meaning in life. And they need reassurance: "One likes to be told that everything is all right," Miss Storey says.

The mood of national anxiety has been made worse by the approach of the millennium. Nostradamus, the Seventh Day Adventists and the American soothsayer Edgar Cayce all prophesied that the world would end in AD2000. "We've all been impregnated by certain images relating to the End of the Universe. Many just dismiss these predictions by the prophets, but some are apprehensive about the future," explains Miss Storey.

Mr Greer agrees: "There has been so much uncertainty in the last few years: the threat of nuclear war, then Aids and the fear of terrorism. The approach of the millennium is making the country's uneasiness worse."

The darker side of science and technological development, such as radiation and pollution, has also heightened the fear of the future. "People are more doubtful about the answers brought by science," says Mr Greer. Superstition and ancient ritual offer alternative, timeless and natural solutions.

Nowadays the real significance of many superstitions has been forgotten. Omens that once foretold a death (it was thought that black cats sucked the breath out of old people and babies) are now merely a matter of "bad luck". The serious ritual of throwing wheat over a bride "in tokenyng of plentie and fruitfulnesse" has degenerated into a frolicsome throwing of paper rose petals. But the need to get through a tough situation, to follow a set of rules where there appears to be none, is as intense as ever.

Maria, a 22-year-old Catholic, first became superstitious when her sister died two years ago. "I was so frightened of something horrible happening, of being knocked down or dying, that I couldn't even cross the road." When she turned to her family for support, she found they were enveloped in their own grief. The Catholic church suddenly seemed full of an excess of "irrelevant" ritual.

Convinced that "evil spirits" are threatening her safety and happiness, Maria has taken to carrying a crystal "on particularly bad days" and goes through mini-rituals to keep the spirits at bay. "The rituals build up a protective barrier," she explains. "They make me feel safe."

Never wearing green, always holding her breath under bridges and touching wood all work, she says. "I haven't been ill for ages." Whenever she feels vulnerable, Marie increases the number of rituals. A favourite is retracing her exact steps at the end ofeach day to keep the spirits happy. It can disrupt her life, she admits, but it is worth it to "keep bad things away".

Maria has attended psychic sessions for counselling. They haven't helped. Now she relies on keeping up her rituals to give her a sense of order in a "chaotic and unpredictable" world. "Some people think I am a bit odd. But I don't care."

Some say the hunger for answers has been taken too far. Ruth Strandley used to advertise her services as an astrologer in a local newspaper. Clients would pay £16 to ask exacting questions about how they could improve their lives. "My clients didn't likethe idea of a psychologist sitting behind a desk in a suit. I looked ordinary - jeans and a T-shirt. I was one of them." But she says their willingness to interpret suggestions as commands put her off using her "talents".

"A good many visitors wanted clear-cut answers. They wanted to know if the council would be giving them a house with a garden in the next six months; they wanted me to pinpoint who was causing problems in their lives. After a bit, I noticed that, actually, they did want authority. They wanted to be told exactly what to do."

Tamara, in her lavender room in Greenwich, didn't seem perturbed by her power to influence her client. She even taped her predictions so that I could listen to them at home and mull over her wisdom. For more than an hour she perused her cards, shivered over the crystal ball, and spoke in a soft, spooky voice. "Be careful of ... change is coming ... I feel warmth here ... I see a bright light," she repeated over and over again.

The fact that all the details about my life were wrong didn't matter. She'd told me what I'd paid to hear.