Eat your heart out, Uri Geller

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THE clairvoyant's blue eyes gazed steadily into mine. His frank, boyish face had taken on a distant, vatic air, indicating present communication with higher powers. In his left hand he held my plastic Swatch watch, through which humble instrument he was receiving the telling transmissions.

'The first impression I'm getting . . . you have a very active mind,' he said. 'Even when you are sitting in front of the television you are always getting a stream of ideas.' This was a pleasant enough experience so far. 'You are not as fit as you would like to be,' he went on. This was certainly sadly true. 'But even so, you are in good health.' He paused and rubbed the watchstrap. 'You are going to live for a long time. And you are going to come into money through hard work.' He frowned slightly. 'I can see a decision - seven to eight months ago - something to do with your career.' At this I almost started, it was so true. 'Now I'm getting the name - David.' I began to look at my watchstrap with new respect. 'Also,' said this navy-suited prophet 'a link to America. A fairly recent link.'

The last was even more startlingly accurate than the eight-month-past decision. Only last month did my brother and his family depart to the United States. With a slight smile the clairvoyant put down my watch and picked up a stainless steel spoon from the table and began to rub one, long, delicate, square-tipped finger along its thinnest part. Nothing happened. 'It can take a while for the power to begin to work,' he said.

Then suddenly the spoon began to move, curling slowly up through the air as he continued to stroke its stem. 'See?' he said. I had. He lay back in his chair. The contorted cutlery lay still before him, a mute witness to his psychic powers. Their owner smiled again, and shook his head. 'All an illusion,' said Richard Mather.

Mr Mather is 26, and was born in Edinburgh. About 20 years ago his parents made him a present of a box of magic tricks, to which he became unusually attached. At around eight years of age another seminal event happened in the life of the infant Mather: he saw Uri Geller on television and became obsessed with spoons to the extent that his mother was forced to keep buying new cutlery.

'By 16 I was working almost full time on spoon and key bending, and reading all the parapsychology journals,' he said. 'A scientist was investigating metal bending, so I wrote to him with a story about having lived with a poltergeist when I was a child and I ended up being investigated for spoon bending by the psychology department at Edinburgh University.

Weeks of experiments ensued, and all tests were triumphantly passed. No one, says Mr Mather, ever asked him outright if he was lying. If anyone seemed doubtful, he says, he threw a tantrum. 'It took months before they installed a hidden camera in the lab and that caught me cheating,' he says.

For young Mather was merely physically bending the spoons with one of those long elegant hands, swiftly and secretly, as he had just done in a second in which I had looked away. And so, having been, like the cutlery, fingered, he embarked on a career as a buster of the bogus.

During the daytime Mr Mather, who went on to take a degree in psychology at Sheffield University, now works as a marketing consultant. In the evenings he performs magic and revelations, as he had just impressively done for me, or 'cold readings', as they are known in the business. And a popular business clairvoyancy is, too, taking place on every seaside promenade and even, it is said, inside the distraught Duchess of York's own home. But what makes Mr Mather's performance unusual is that he reveals his methods, showing how 'psychic insights' are mere skill and trickery.

'Your reading was easy,' he told me. 'I churn it out so fast you're sure to find something that fits you. And then you'll only remember what did fit. Most of it's rubbish: the 'active mind' was pure flattery. Almost everyone has made a decision of some sort about six months ago. David is a common name, nearly everyone knows one. If you hadn't, I'd have warned you to watch out for one.' But, I protested, what about America and the recent link? 'Big place,' said Mr Mather, finally crushing my remaining slight hopes of longevity and riches. 'Most people will have had a holiday there, or friends there. I only got the recent link because you reacted so strongly. If you lean forward and your eyes widen - well, I know I'm on to something, don't I? If I'd had half an hour, I would have had you completely sewn up.'

I had fallen victim to what is called the Pollyanna effect. Those who are told good things begin to want to believe them. On this, and on natural human arrogance - the unwillingness to believe it is possible to be so easily tricked - many in the fortune-telling business depend.

'There is no limit to public credulity,' said Mr Mather sadly, searching in his Filofax for his most recent accurate prophesies. 'Often, after I've run a needle through my arm, even if I've just told them how it's done, someone in the audience will come up afterwards and say 'You have psychic powers, haven't you? Why don't you just admit it?'

Much psychic showmanship is harmless entertainment, he thinks, though its success reflects badly on the standard of British education. Some, he believes, is close to criminal.

One of Mr Mather's specialities is psychic surgery. Those who are suffering from internal tumours need only lay themselves out before him. 'I can vibrate the molecules of their skin so that I can pass my actual hand into their abdomen,' said Mr Mather with great seriousness. With a great wrench and stench of visible blood and guts he will then withdraw his hand, carrying the tumour into public view. 'I assure you, psychic surgery leaves the skin miraculously without scar and the onlookers feeling very sick indeed,' said Mr Mather. 'In the Philippines they do these operations regularly. They cost a lot of money.'

He bent the spoon straight. 'It's close to becoming a nervous habit,' he said. 'When I go into a restaurant with my mum or my wife and pick up a spoon they both shout: 'Don't]' It really gets on their nerves.' He returned to his car, in which he keeps two squash balls to keep his fingers strong, and vanished from view.

On the evening of 5 September the unearthly gifted Mr Mather plans to rematerialise at a meeting arranged by the association of UK Sceptics, at Conway Hall, London, were he will demonstrate his impressive, and entirely bogus, powers, including psychic surgery, and the tricks behind them.

Mr Mather and his sceptical friends are extending a particularly warm welcome to all interested mediums. But credulous Pollyannas and the squeamish, they warn, should carry paper bags.

(Photograph omitted)