Hokum or hope therapy? A sceptic seeks spiritual guidance from the modern-day mediums

Organised religion may be in decline, but the psychic business is booming.

Heidi Sawyer remembers it vividly, how she saw her grandmother waving at her from the front door. She was in her early 20s at the time, and her grandmother had been dead several years. "Initially I thought she was a burglar," Heidi explains. "She was like a normal human, only more transparent."

Heidi recounts the story to a room full of eager listeners. She is a psychic, and as course director at the Institute of Psychic Development is helping her audience to harness the psychic ability she believes we all possess. She rounds off the seminar by encouraging her clairvoyants-in-training to close their eyes and push "debris" out of their "bottom chakras".

Across the hallway in another conference room, medium Maureen Flynn is about to share the proof that there is life after death.

It's just another day at Mind Body Soul – one of the UK's largest psychic-fests, where Scientologists vie for position with holistic nudists, Himalayan salt lamp peddlers, and enough healing crystals to stop the swine flu epidemic dead in its tracks. With an aura of spiritual energy fizzing like the aurora borealis, this carnival of new age hokum and quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo demonstrates that even in credit crunch Britain, while most of us have to forego the second (or even first) holiday, there are still people willing to invest in a new 'radionic chi generator'.

This January more people than ever in the UK will be trying to look into the future, using astrology charts and, increasingly, the services of a psychic. For a fee, your friendly neighbourhood medium will channel the metaphysical energy of the universe, tell you what's wrong with your life, and even throw in some departed relatives and a few predictions. As an industry, psychics are now worth over £40m a year. There is no ignoring the fact that they are no longer a fringe community.

So what's the attraction? As an arch-sceptic, I decided to reach out to the other side to find out. That is how I found myself at Beyond the Senses, a psychic shop in Cheam, Surrey, with tarot reader Sue Stephenson. I try to remain open to persuasion as Sue reads the cards I have chosen. I am willing her to get things right.

With piped mood-music playing in the background, she explains: "Money is tight. You have to look at it closely. You are also looking ahead to new horizons and a new start. You are moving on to better things. I see a younger person who has a lot of love but can be naive at times." It is an ambiguous start, open to much interpretation.

Sue continues. "I'm being shown a nugget. There is a joker here, and he's showing me a chicken nugget. It is symbolising the nugget of a new idea that will grow." Could this ghostly junk-food apparition relate to a website I am planning?

"Your dad, is he in spirit?" she asks." "No," I reply. "Is his dad?" "Yes," I answer. "He was quite a tall man," she states. "Not particularly," I say. "But taller than you..." she ventures. I'm 5ft 8in, below-average height. Most people are taller than me.

Then Sue picks up another spirit. She sees him sitting on a chair surrounded by maps. "But he doesn't travel," she tells me. My departed grandfather did indeed spend hours poring over maps and globes, learning about the world but rarely venturing away from his armchair. Then again, for his generation travel was rare.

After the reading Sue tells me she has been psychic since she was a child – when she had a premonition of her own mother's death. I leave her with mixed feelings. She got some things spot on, but much of what the cards told me was vague and open to interpretation. I get the feeling that if I was a believer, I would have found much to bolster my belief. People see psychics for a number of reasons: entertainment, comfort, counsel and, increasingly, for spiritual guidance.

Steve Zepoloid, a member of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research and also a minister of religion, believes that increasing numbers of people are referring themselves to psychics because conventional religion is letting them down. "The church fails miserably when it comes to addressing life after death," he says.

And for the increasing number of business people booking sessions with mediums, the afterlife is becoming an invaluable reference tool, he maintains. "It sounds crazy, but many people who pass over still practice their profession in the afterlife. A deceased TV gambling pundit might still have a love of horses on his level of existence, so if you want race tips you go to that guy in the afterlife," he explains. "There are doctors, scientists, philosophers and musicians on the other side who still have their gift."

Arch-sceptic James Randi – whose $1m reward to any psychic who can scientifically prove his or her ability has so far gone unclaimed – would baulk at these suggestions. "Magical thinking is a slippery slope; sometimes it's harmless, but other times it's quite dangerous. Why people are so drawn to the irrational is something that has always puzzled me," he says.

Zepoloid admits there are charlatans in the business, but says the mark of a genuine medium is that they can hit on accurate random facts about the person they are reading: it does happen, and when it does it is hard to explain.

Something like that happens to me when I visit Camilla Ventham Fraser at her Surbiton semi. She has been a medium since 1975 and claims an international roster of clients. With a shock of dark hair and theatrical make-up, she certainly looks the part.

The living room where she does her readings is dotted with pictures of her with assorted Tory grandees. Margaret Thatcher, Michael Portillo and Norman Lamont have all come under the gaze of her third eye, Camilla says.

"I read for the Conservative Party," she explains. "I tell them what the Labour Party is up to." She confidently predicts a Tory win at the next election (as she did at the last). She sits at her table and unwraps her crystal ball. "Your name goes off into the spirit world and your spiritual guides and friends are above your head. Your spiritual guides will be linking with my spiritual guides, and messages will come down to the earth plane."

Her head droops. "Mother's side of the family is over there, with feminine vibrations falling here," she says pointing to some porcelain dolls on a shelf. "Father's side of family is in the spirit world here for you, with masculine vibrations falling here," she continues, gesturing towards some novelty candles on a table. The psychic messages start to come in thick and fast.

"I have a Patricia here," she says. "Do you know a Patricia?" "No," I answer. "A Pat, Trish, Trisha?" she continues. I don't. "Hold on to that, because this vibration is linked to the next six months," explains Camilla.

She then tells me her that spirit guides are showing her the letter O. She sees a single, sparkling glove. It's Michael Jackson's glove. "You're going to the O2," she tells me. As a matter of fact I am, but has Michael Jackson really just appeared to me in a Surbiton living room to confirm my ticket booking?

The reading moves on at broadband speed. Camilla sees the Olympics, she sees Noddy's car and a new black one, she sees a cartoonist, a dead man in an RAF uniform, she sees a Ben, a John, a Tony, a Toby, a Maureen and a couple of Michaels. She sees a house with a pond, the number two and the 31st of August. She tells me I'm going to eastern Europe to a wedding, I'm going to Transylvania, to Goa, to New York, to the horse races. I'll have a free holiday courtesy of a film director, I'll meet a Roman Catholic and I'll play boules in France on a cobbled square. And soon I will own goldfish.

At the end of the reading my head is spinning, but despite the comedic entertainment there were far more misses than hits. Then something odd happens. While Camilla leaves the room, the photographer I am with, who has been sitting in the corner, tells me that most of the reading applied to her. Her ex-boyfriend was a cartoonist, her mum is called Maureen, she is moving to a new house near a pond. She is Catholic and her brother, who has a house in France, has a 31 August birthday. Her uncle was in the RAF and was shot down and killed in the war. She used to drive a car that looked like Noddy's but has bought a new one ... and it's black.

When Camilla returns I tell her all this and ask whether she could have been picking up messages for Angela, rather than me. "Oh yes," she says, "that can happen."

With rates for a reading anywhere between £30 and £200, the most popular psychics are booked months in advance. As well as the readings and TV shows, there is the opportunity for book deals, the lucrative tour circuit, and columns not only in new age magazines but also in mainstream titles. For successful psychics, the rewards are huge.

Clients like Carol Hill are their bread and butter, however. She is a housewife from Barnet and regularly pays £45 for a one-hour session with a psychic. She believes it is money well spent. "I walk away from her feeling positive. She doesn't judge me and I know she is genuine because she has told me things she could never have known without some kind of gift."

Maicy Otsus, 29, sees psychics as a counselling service. "They make me feel better about myself and the future," she explains. "I started going to see them out of curiosity, not for a spiritual reasons. Some people go to psychiatrists or counsellors to make themselves feel better, others go to psychics."

According to industry spokesman Robin Lown, president of the British Astrological and Psychic Society, the therapeutic aspect of many readings is the reason for the current boom.

"We offer 'hope therapy'," he explains. "Rather than concentrate on what is wrong with an individual, like psychiatrists and psychotherapists, we focus on what is right." He believes mankind is standing on the cusp of an age of spiritual consciousness where psychic intuition will become a prized asset and where psychics will become valid business consultants.

"Being psychic really means being sensitive, and nearly everyone is psychic to a degree," he explains. "In modern life the pace of change speeds up daily. Every other day there is a new possibility. As a result, we have to make decisions faster, based on intuition. The old structures like greed that caused this recession have broken down and people have lost faith. The growth of the psychic industry is vast and fast – like the IT industry. And telepathy is cheaper than the phone."

Lown, a former schools inspector, has several business clients, including a former Lehman Brothers employee whom he claims to have advised to leave the company before it collapsed. "The past year has shown that stability comes from within, not from money or status. As a result, people are realising that intuition is a tool they can use to manage their lives more effectively," he says.

Lown also maintains that mediums offer a valuable bereavement service. "People seek mediumship because they are helpless, hopeless, or desperate through grief. Many people find solace in psychics because they discover that life goes on forever. In a sense, that helps them get on with their lives. It stops depression setting in." The fact that psychics take fees from the bereaved in exchange for an unproven affirmation of their loved ones' continued existence in the spirit world is the main moral ammunition of the critic.

Karen Phillips lost her 22-year-old daughter last year. She has just begun to see psychics. "I would love to think that I could contact her, and have started going more often to psychic shows and to want personal readings," she says. "I want it to be true so that I can still have contact with my daughter, whom I miss desperately. I know I am on the brink of getting addicted, but at the moment my rational side prevents me."

For my final reading, I visit Litz Butcher, who gives readings on Psychic TV. She tells me that the day she "came out the closet" (admitted she was psychic) was the best day of her life.

Sometimes she sees nasty things, like spirits with severe head injuries. She says that some people will call up the channel 20 times to ask the same question, usually about whether they are with the right boyfriend (inevitably they are women); but they'll only take notice of the psychic who tells them what they want to hear.

I tell Litz I want her to tell me a bit about myself, using her clairvoyance. She gets that I can be a joker, and that I am stubborn. She tells me I'll have a job offer to do with sport, and that in the past I've been passed over for promotion at work. She says there is a link in the family to dress making, and that someone in my family had problems with a leg.

"I can see a big bowl of lemons in a country kitchen," she says. "It's a big kitchen, with a big pine dresser. What's the link with Wales?"

My mother-in-law lives in Wales and has a big kitchen with a dresser in it. I call her after the reading to ask whether she keeps lemons in a bowl. She does, but just two.

Litz tells me she sees my wife surrounded by fashion sketches of clothes that look like they were made in the Forties. I tell my wife this, and she explains her grandmother was a dress- maker.

I liked Litz, but am not sure whether I warmed to her because we had a psychic connection or whether it was because she was easy-going and plain-talking. Psychics elicit the same kind of response as estate agents and Big Brother contestants. You either love them or you hate them. Most of the ones I have met believe in what they do and genuinely believe they have a "gift" that they utilise for the greater good.

Unfortunately there are also others who cynically use illusion and trickery to exploit the bereaved and vulnerable for financial gain. But are the genuine psychics really speaking to the dead? Personally I doubt it.

If it is possible for souls to cross the great divide between life and death, to turn the laws of nature on their heads and make contact with the living, why would they go to all that trouble and effort just to tell me one day that one day I will own goldfish? I was hoping they would have something more profound to say.

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