One eye on the stars, the other on the main chance

The new moon will bring a rush of pretenders to Patric Walker's stargazing throne. Decca Aitkenhead looks into the future
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The death of Patric Walker this week has thrown the world of astrology into turmoil. He was pre-eminent in his field, and his friends and colleagues feel an understandable sense of loss. But one reason his demise has sent the media's celestial stars into freefall is distinctly earthly: it opens up golden miles of global column inches worth millions of pounds.

In the many tributes to the grand old man of horoscopes, surprisingly little mention was made of his wealth. Patric Walker's brand of fortune- telling made him an extremely rich man. He enjoyed several homes, an extravagant lifestyle and a passion for jewellery. Star-gazing put him in a stratospheric income bracket, and the scramble to succeed him is on.

When he rose at 5.30am each morning in Lindos on the island of Rhodes to compose his columns, Patric Walker was addressing a billion readers worldwide. He wrote daily for the London Evening Standard and the column was syndicated to newspapers across Britain, Australia, the US, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia. His column in the Mail on Sunday was reproduced in weeklies across the world, including America's TV Guide, which has the highest circulation in the US.

His magazine columns appeared in Harpers & Queen, Good Housekeeping, Australian Marie Claire and New Woman and Vogue in the US. Since 1991 he had been running weekly phone lines, the worth of which is almost incalculable. The Mail on Sunday alone received an average of 4,500 calls each Sunday. At 49p a minute, the profits were staggering.

Fellow astrologers' estimates of his income range from the "extremely healthy end of six figures" to "countless millions". Walker's office is curiously vague about the exact extent of his revenue. Even his assistant of 19 years pleads ignorance. But what is certain is that all these pages and phone lines will have to be filled by someone else.

Pretenders to Patric Walker's throne are many, due not least to his habit of promising it to so many different people. One, keen to remain anonymous, claims: "Years ago, Patric led me to believe he would groom me to be his heir. I was absolutely thrilled ... Then it transpired he'd said the same to God only knows how many people." Others to enjoy his fickle favour included his assistant Peter Watson, Shelley von Strunckel, of the Sunday Times, and Jonathan Cainer, of the Mail.

"Half of Patric, you see, wanted to have an heir. But the other half wanted to be the Magus. He rather wanted there to be a big gap in the world on his passing."

Shelley von Strunckel must be kicking herself. "He chose me as his heir and I worked with him for a year," the former Los Angeles fashion buyer explained. But in 1992 the Sunday Times offered her a column, and she left Walker to take it.

Von Strunckel is the first astrologer to grace the pages of the Sunday Times, and is located at the "serious" end of astrology's spectrum. "Astrology used to be a profession held in great esteem. It is only since the scientific revolution that it's been eclipsed," she points out. The same, one might think, could be said of witchcraft. She is currently writing a book about the history of astrology, and hopes her gravitas will help her to inherit some of Walker's work. "I can tell you," she confides, "my phone line has been hot this week."

Hers is not the only one. Peter Watson was a commissioning editor at the Mail on Sunday's You magazine before working in Walker's office. It was a curious career move, explicable only now as he emerges as favourite to step into his mentor's shoes.

"Everyone is reeling from losing him. It's a very difficult time. He was stunning to have known. He was fabulous. Fabulous." But Mr Watson could not chat for long. "If you'll excuse me, I have a lot of practical things that need to be sorted out. You would not believe the madness that's going on, and I'm up to my eyes in all of it."

The image of the esoteric astrologer is belied by the hard-headed jockeying going on this week. Even end-of-the-pier-style practitioners such as Mystic Meg are shrewd business operators. Meg, a former sub-editor and now the News of the World's astrologer, earns a reputed pounds 500,000 a year.

Neither she, nor Russell Grant - jolly, seemingly bumbling, and a multi- millionaire - will expect to profit from Walker's demise. But pseudo-respectable soothsayers like Nick Campion of Vanity Fair and Jonathan Cainer of the Daily Mail are serious contenders, though the latter fears he may have scuppered his chances.

"There was a time when I think Patric would have liked to sit me down and show me the things he had learnt," Cainer says. "But I got on my high horse and said, 'I know what I know' and didn't listen. But I didn't know he was going to die and I wish I had sat down with him and listened."

Campion is an academic with two MAs to his name; Cainer is evidently a man of intellect. It is odd to hear him talk of tabloid horoscopes with academic earnestness. Odd, that is, until you remember that he also earns pounds 500,000 a year. "People say we make it all up," he laughs, "but of course we don't."

Looking at the millions up for grabs this week, whether or not astrologers make it all up scarcely seems to matter. As Patric Walker's potential successors look skyward this weekend, they will not just be seeing stars - there will be pound signs gleaming in their eyes.

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