Jonathan Cainer: The big business of astrology

He's a liberal who works for the 'Daily Mail' and his astrological phone-lines have made him the best rewarded writer in Fleet Street. James Silver meets him
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But if the Mail's stargazer appears dishevelled, his business talents are not in question. Astrology may be just a bit of fun for most people, but to Jonathan Cainer it's an industry. He churns out 25,000 words a week and cheerfully admits to being a workaholic. His columns, which plug his premium-rate horoscope phone lines, help to make him "the best-rewarded writer on Fleet Street". Cainer splits the revenue from the 60p-a-minute lines with the newspaper - he says he can't reveal who gets what - and chooses to "stand or fall" from the phoneline income rather than the fat salary he could certainly command.

"The Daily Mail is extremely strict about how long the calls can be. I agree with them. We don't want to kill the goose the lays the golden egg." He claims a vast army of "at least 12 million people" who devour his planetary musings in various forms - syndicated newspaper columns, books, phonelines and the net. Small wonder then that his worldwide businesses turn over £2m annually and employ 30 staff. There's little doubt why newspapers fight for his services. "Horoscopes," he says, "have turned out to sell papers, just like the cartoon, the sudoku or crosswords. They are a little bit of reader glue. And a good astrologer will do two things for a newspaper: bring in new people and keep the ones you've already got because it becomes a matter of familiarity."

Indeed, Cainer, who's 47, goes further. Some readers, he says, view him as the "soul" of the paper. "It's a silly thing to say, but you end up feeling, as you write a newspaper column of this nature, as if you are somehow the genie in the back room, or the Zeitgeist, or the sensitive spirit or soul of the newspaper. Entertaining views of myself which are probably a bit grandiose, wherever I go I feel I am taking a little message with me..."

It's comments like that - alongside his talent for money-making - which have earned Cainer his share of enemies including, inevitably, Private Eye and the author and columnist Francis Wheen. Over the years, the astrologer has made regular appearances in the Eye's Street of Shame column, where he's been branded "the goblin-faced astrologer", "smug", "a raving egomaniac", "the bearded soothsayer" and "the best-paid hack on Fleet Street". He's also been accused of running a "dial-a-horoscope racket".

Another foe is the academic Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University. The scientist once declared: "Astrology may be slightly damaging, but mostly it is just sad. So sad that people are ignorant of the true glories of the stars, and of the stupendous distances and times that separate them, while they bother with the frivolous inventions of a charlatan like Jonathan Cainer."

So is Cainer a charlatan? He remains remarkably calm. If he's bridling, it's beneath a smile. "Fine, call me what you want. Dawkins also believes that psychology is charlatanism and that religion is charlatanism, which is why I take refuge in saying astrology is a belief system because I am in good company there and he can fire the same pot shots at me as he fires at everyone else.

"For thousands of years, astrology was inseparable from astronomy and all the great astronomers of history also cast horoscopes and told fortunes. For the past couple of hundred years, astronomy and astrology have gone their separate ways and the world of science now looks down its nose at the world of astrology. But to insist that everything in life can or will be explained by science is potentially as preposterous as for an astrologer to turn round and say 'I am a living deity who uses the ancient art of astrology to foresee everything that's about to happen before it's occurred'. "

When I first sounded Cainer out about doing an interview, his knee-jerk reaction was to ask for copy approval. Publicists for prickly Hollywood stars, deluded It Girls or jittery soap actors make such demands. But media-savvy newspaper astrologers with 20 years' experience? He didn't get it, of course. But the request did make me wonder whether he's something of a control freak. Perhaps he feels he's been skewered by an interviewer before. Or maybe it was simply a clever ruse to embarrass me into being nicer to him in print. Is he oversensitive? "I am thick skinned about most things," he replies, "but I have got the moon in Scorpio, and people with the moon in Scorpio tend to be sensitive. They can't really help it."

Cainer's meteoric rise began at Today in 1986. From there he jumped ship to the Daily Mail in 1992, where he stayed for seven years. Then - despite being offered £1m golden handcuffs - he quit for the Daily Express, where Rosie Boycott had just become editor, taking the paper sharply to the left. In the process he savaged the Mail as "a newspaper dedicated to the subtle propagation of bigotry" - words he would be forced to eat four years later when he returned to the fold, a prodigal son, somehow reconciled to the paper's politics.

The Daily Mail is wondrously pragmatic, something I didn't appreciate at the time," he says. "They are really interested in selling newspapers. They didn't care about my views. They cared that I wrote a good column and wanted to keep printing it because I'd built a close relationship with a lot of their readers." But what made him want to dump the Mail, which had by all accounts treated him well?

A pause as he relights his pipe. "I was finding myself ever more uncomfortable with the way it goes for the emotional jugular all the time. I was younger and more idealistic then. There were a few things I didn't get. I'm not saying I get it all now, but I get slightly more of it. I think rather pompously I felt the Mail was leading people to chunter. The Daily Mail know they've got a hit when it makes you raise your eyes and go 'What is the world coming to!'. And I used to think 'Poor old readers. Why can't we give them some more happiness?' Rather pompously, I began to see myself as potentially being a sort of pied piper - I began to think it was my job to protect the readers from all this..."

So far, so very hippie. But there were political and practical considerations too. "Back then I did have stronger political views. I'm a liberal. I've always been somewhere to the left of centre. The Daily Mail used to annoy me. And it does still, but I've had to develop a thick skin about it. Besides I'd been very happy there for as long as my main point of contact was Peter Wright. When he left to become editor of the Mail on Sunday, I sort of fell between various stools at Associated which made it easier for me to slip away from them."

The chance to join the Daily Express under Boycott was "too much for an unreconstructed hippie to resist". But executives were suspicious of him at first. "They couldn't work out why any man in his right mind would consider giving up the security and the vastly greater sale of the Mail to address that much smaller, dwindling audience." The answer, of course, lies in the revenue from the premium-rate horoscope phonelines. The Express agreed to give him a far greater cut. He says: "I said [to the Express], 'Let me stand or fall on what I make on the phonelines. You can't afford to pay me so don't even try.' It worked out OK for both of us."

But the dream turned sour when Richard Desmond, with his adult publishing baggage, took over the group. "I didn't take a particular dislike to Desmond as a person but there were issues around what he published which meant that suddenly I was seeing The Daily Mail in a very different light. By comparison their transgressions were minor. I had gone to the Express to join Rosie and one thing was clear: the feminist co-founder of Spare Rib was never going to work that well with the publisher of Readers' Wives. I was there the day Richard Desmond first turned up and I still remember the look on her face."

Cainer, who divides his time between London and Yorkshire, was determined to do his homework first. He reveals he went out to buy a copy ofReaders' Wives to see what all the fuss was about. "I didn't much like having a copy of Readers' Wives knocking around the place," he admits. "But having said that, my whole creed is based on open-mindedness. It isn't quite as simple as saying I took a moralistic view about pictures of naked people in suggestive poses. It suddenly also occurred to me that the world's oldest profession was probably astrology rather than prostitution. Long before anyone thought of charging for sex I am sure there were people abusing their knowledge of where the planets were in order to gain power over others."

With hindsight, he says he should have returned to the Mail, but he found then Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan's offer to give him a higher profile by placing the horoscopes on page nine impossible to refuse. However, the experiment failed. Horoscopes, it turns out, don't work at the front of the book. Cainer felt that he was being gradually sidelined, becoming "just another voice" by the crossword and the cartoons. The Mail wanted Cainer back, but Morgan forced him to see out his contract which led the pair to court.

Cainer denies he felt any embarrassment at returning to the newspaper he had publicly attacked. "I don't believe anyone at the Daily Mail holds a grudge. I feel a bit bad about some of the things I said in retrospect. But by the time I returned I had worked for four national newspapers and I'd seen something about journalism that I didn't know before. [Going for the emotional jugular] is just what the Mail does. They take that line because that's the line their readers like them to take. My job is to tell them what's in their hearts and in their relationship with the sky, not to tell them what's right for them politically. And besides which, the Mail has never censored a single word I've written."

Jonathan Cainer was born in Surbiton, Surrey, in 1957. His mother left home with his two younger brothers when he was 12, which he describes as "a traumatic experience at a very impressionable age". A day later, his father moved his girlfriend into the family home. Cainer dropped out of school at 15 without O-levels. "Rebellious" and determined to prove himself, he wanted to be "a troubadour like Donovan" and he became involved in the free festival movement. He ended up in America with his brother decorating houses and managing a nightclub in Los Angeles.

It was there that Charles John Quarto, a well-known "psychic, mystic and astrologer", gave him the reading that changed his life. "He told me that I would be giving a cosmic message which millions would be listening to, that I would be extremely successful and it would take up the rest of my life," he recalls. Cainer rejected it out of hand as "the ramblings of a LA stoner", yet he found himself in a bookshop one day picking up a book called Instant Astrology. "Something drew me to the book. I was in California; astrology was everywhere. I was broke but I reached into my pocket and found a $50 bill I'd forgotten about." Cainer bought the book and decided to start studying the subject in earnest. "I came back to England and let social security take care of me," he says. And one of the world's most successful astrologers - genius or crank, depending on your point of view - was born.

When I tell him that I'm deeply sceptical about horoscopes, he demurs. "I always used to argue strongly that astrology is a science. These days I think the safest answer is to say it's a belief system with some very rigid dogma. We are taught to believe that Saturn means restriction and Jupiter means expansion. It's scientific in as much as we have to have accurate planetary positions and it's based on actual physical phenomena. But it's a form of divination ultimately, a glorious blending of occult and science."

Writing horoscopes, he continues, does come with serious responsibilities. "For everyone who reads my column to have a bit of a laugh, wondering whether they are going to win the lottery today or to find out what the astrologer says about the fact that their car wouldn't start that morning, [there] is somebody who's had a crisis, whose marriage is breaking up or who's got a health issue. Astrology columns are taken very seriously by people in need. Some of my readers are having a crap time and as an astrologer I know this because I study the cycle of crap times."

Cainer once heard a reader committed suicide after reading one of his horoscopes. "In my column I'd said 'If you've got something that's big in your life go ahead and do it today'. And they did it. They killed themselves." How did he feel when he heard?

"Not very pleased. I had to wrestle with it for a long time. But I'm not going to carry the blame for it. They were obviously in that frame of mind. They would have done it anyway. I didn't write 'End it all today'. But ever since I knew I could have an effect like that on somebody, one of the many filters I put a horoscope through is a 'top yourself' filter. I look for it now. Particularly when a zodiac sign is going through a hard time anyway I look and ask myself whether what I write could be misinterpreted."

Today, Cainer worries about his failure to predict big events like terrorist attacks and natural disasters. "What keeps me awake at night is why didn't I - or anyone in my line of work - get a good bead on 9/11 or 7/7? But then I hadn't been looking for them. Colleagues who had knew that something grim would be happening but they couldn't say what. By and large these things come right off our radar." He hastily adds: "I did, this year, predict the date and outcome of the general election, the exact outcome of the Michael Jackson trial and that the Olympics were coming to London rather than Paris."

As I leave, Cainer is off to meet his great friend and fellow misunderstood psychic, Uri Geller. "The man bends bloody spoons," says Cainer, when I look aghast. "He does. I've seen him do it too many times. And if it's a trick why is it the only trick this highly intelligent man performs? If he could do more he would." One can only imagine their conversation over dinner.

How newspapers made modern astrology

Of all the pseudo-sciences, astrology is by far the most popular: 90 per cent of the country's population can tell you their star-sign. Its success is a comparatively recent phenomenon and entirely owing to the creation of the daily newspaper horoscope.

The first article on astrology in the popular press appeared on 24 August 1930, in the Sunday Express. The editor had invited the astrologer RH Naylor, the assistant to the more famous Cheiro, who was unavailable, to cast the horoscope of the newly born Princess Margaret Rose. (One of his predictions was that "events of tremendous importance to the Royal Family and the nation will come about near her seventh year". The abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, resulted in her father's accession to the throne a few months before her seventh birthday.)

This initial article garnered a strong response from the public and Naylor was commissioned to write a series of articles of predictions for the coming months. In one he suggested that "British aircraft will be in danger" between October 8 and 15. On 5 October the R-101, the passenger airship, was wrecked in a storm near Paris. Forty-six were killed. It was near enough for considerable public interest to encourage the editor to offer him a weekly column, "What the Stars Foretell', which became one of the paper's most popular features. All the other mass-circulation papers followed suit and, in 1941, Mass Observation discovered that "nearly two-thirds of the adult population glance at or read some astrological feature more or less regularly": figures which hold true today.

It was Naylor who invented the Sun-sign column. He had to find a way of writing so that each reader could feel involved, and chose to divide his essays into 12 paragraphs, one for each person born when the Sun was passing through a particular sign. This is not an important part of astrological forecasting, but is recognisable by every reader, because it depends on the day, rather than the precise time, of birth. This made Sun-signs perfectly suited to popularisation and, by the 1950s, most columns used them. Many astrologers think that concentration on this aspect of a birth-chart has done untold damage to serious astrology.