Friday, 9 December 2016

Are you gay? If so, apparently there’s good chance you are possessed by a ghost

An article appeared in Pink News (primary focus of interest fairly obvious) on 7th December highlighting an article on a website run by the Spiritual Science Research Foundation (SSRF) which asserts that an overwhelming reason for homosexuality is possession by a ghost.  This is not a good thing as it has a deleterious effect on the possessed person’s ‘capacity’.  The SSRF article in question is ‘Symptoms of Ghost Affecting or Possessing a Person’ and it includes figures to back up the argument.  It seems ‘about 30% of the world’s population is possessed by ghosts.’  Only 5% of homosexuality is accounted for by hormonal changes; 10% is psychological, such as a gay encounter that was pleasurable; and a whopping 85% originates in ‘spiritual causes’, largely meaning ghosts.  Ghosts, it should be added, encompass a variety of phenomena, not just the expected discarnate spirits: ‘demons, devils, negative energies, etc.’.  The spiritual perspective is Hindu.

Unfortunately most people don’t realise they have been infected as only saints, characterised by being above the (scale undefined) ‘70% spiritual level’, or those possessing an ‘advanced sixth sense’, can tell.  That leaves a huge number of people possessed by ghosts while unaware of their position.  There are ways to diagnose it, but the symptoms listed are wide-ranging, often vague, and easily confused with other ailments, presumably why ghosts can get away behaving in this outrageous manner with impunity.  When it comes to sex, things get complicated.  Possession by a ghost can lead either to an increase or a decrease in the sexual drive, so that isn’t much help in assessment.  There are however differences according to whether one is possessed by a ghost of the same of a different sex:

‘If a female ghost possesses a woman, it attracts other male ghosts either directly or through the medium of other males possessed by male ghosts. Such women do not feel the need for getting into a formal relationship with the opposite sex like getting married. They come up with some excuse or the other to avoid such relationships.’

So a woman who is single and not in a relationship is a bad sign.  Oddly there is nothing about the effect a male ghost has when inside a man.  Presumably they remain confirmed bachelors.  It gets really interesting when it comes to cross-sex possession.  The main reason behind men being gay is that they are possessed by female ghosts, and the female ghosts are attracted to living men.  Conversely some women are occupied by male ghosts and they are consequently attracted to females.  The ghost’s consciousness is stronger than the living person’s and can control it in the desired direction.

This of course presupposes the ghosts are heterosexual.  Would a male gay ghost inside a woman be attracted to men, and a female gay ghost inside a man be attracted to females, thus from the outside looking exactly like a non-ghost heterosexual situation?  What about bisexuals; is that the result of a bisexual ghost, or one with a low libido unable to exert full control over the host?  Later on there is a reference to ghosts inside married couples, leading to disharmony, but no mention of the differential effect of the ghost’s sex.  Women should either be spinsters or lesbians according to whether they have a female or male ghost in them so there is some faulty logic somewhere.  The good news is that this deplorable situation can be combated by practices such as hypnotherapy, chanting and focusing energy flows.  In this way ‘homosexual tendencies and desires’ can be overcome, though it’s unclear what happens to the invading entity when the homosexual is freed.

So what about these findings from a body with science and research in its name, do they bear scrutiny?  The first thing to say is that offensiveness or peculiarity of a claim does not automatically render it invalid.  One may have a gut feeling about its plausibility, but guts are not reliable indicators; it’s the evidence that counts.  So what is the evidence?  Unsurprisingly, there does not seem to be any.  The methodology has not been included to allow others to follow the process.  As far as I can tell the statistics have been plucked out of the air, perhaps arrived at by a process of meditating and concluding ‘that feels about right’.  If determining the presence of a possessing ghost is so difficult I’m baffled as to how one could conduct any kind of survey that would give an accurate figure, assuming of course the idea of ghosts possessing the living is valid (leaving aside occasional cases where spirits were said to overshadow the living in the psychical research literature).  The data collection, if it exists, should be released immediately to allow independent parties to assess it.

Further, there is a page on the SSRF website which is essentially homophobic, referring to gay parades as becoming more ‘gruesome’ (i.e. flamboyant), gay pride a form of egotism, and homosexuality a sign of society in decline: ‘Indulging in homosexual activity or supporting it invites sin’.  Russian attitudes to gay marches are cited with approval, a stance offensive to anyone keen to uphold liberal values.  The result of all this gayness, we are warned, will be an increase in unhappiness.  (The counter-argument is that if you want to see people having a huge amount of fun you could do worse than witness a gay pride march.)  The suspicion arises that the information presented by the SSRF stems from prejudice, not scientific research.

Following the Pink News article, Hayley Stevens wrote an article for her blog criticising the SSRF.  What was surprising was how, when links were posted on the Society for Psychical Research’s Facebook page, hostility was directed at Pink News and Stevens – not to mention the SPR’s Facebook administrator (OK, me) – rather than at the SSRF.  Some of it seems to have been because there was actually support for the SSRF’s claim, with resentment at seeing it criticised, though the support was not overtly specified.  Others obviously didn’t bother to read beyond the headlines and assumed it was Pink News and Stevens who were saying gay people were possessed by ghosts (it was generally difficult to disentangle whether comments along the lines of ‘this is crap’ referred to the SSRF’s claim or to the coverage by Pink News and Stevens).  There may have been New Age discomfort that an eastern religion could display bigotry.  One or two commenters were firmly of the belief that ‘yeah, demons’.  Possibly others felt such unsavoury matter should not be given an airing whatever the slant.  There was little calm consideration of what should correctly be called the ‘Spiritual’ Pseudoscience Research Foundation’s unsupported statements, which was somewhat depressing.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun

The idea of Victorian entertainments might initially conjure up parlour games of an improving sort, or an evening round the piano exhorting Maud to come into the garden.  The latest free exhibition at the British Library takes a more expansive look at the world of Victorian show business thanks to conjuror Harry Evans, aka the Great Evanion.

In 1895 Evans was on his uppers and was forced by necessity to sell his collection of posters, playbills, sheet music and other ephemera, some 6,000 items in all, to the British Museum for £20.  That was apparently the most the curators could spend on a single transaction without having to seek approval from the trustees, who would probably have turned their noses up at the offer.

British institutions are not particularly noted for having this sort of foresight, but Evans’s loss was a huge gain for our understanding and appreciation of popular entertainment in the late nineteenth century.  If not the greatest show on earth, the British Library has conjured up a wonderful little one to put us in the mood for the festive season.

The exhibition encompasses magic, circus acts, menageries, mesmerism, dioramas, waxworks, panto and more, together giving a splendid insight into the way our forebears spent their hard-earned leisure in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  There are five main sections, devoted to stars of varying kinds, and degrees of celebrity: John Nevil Maskelyne, Dan Leno, ‘Lord’ George Sanger (a distant relative of mine), Annie De Montford and the Great Evanion himself.  Why these five were selected is not made clear, presumably because there is enough available in the archives relevant to each to constitute a cohesive presentation.

Evanion is not very well known today, but it would have been impolite to omit him, considering he has largely made the exhibition possible.  He was a magician who after appearing in front of royalty (there is some dispute about their precise status) thereafter billed himself as the ‘Royal conjuror’.

Maskelyne was manager of the Egyptian Hall in Regent Street, ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, in partnership first with George Cooke and then David Devant.  Egyptian Hall Posters on display tilt at Theosophy in the form of Koot Hoomi and the Mahatmas, hinting that there was often a seriously sceptical intent behind Maskelyne’s magic.

De Montford, ‘the psychological star’, was originally a millworker but carved out a career as a mesmerist, an unusual occupation for a woman, situated on the blurred line between science and entertainment.  To indicate how popular mesmerism was, on display is the music for Harry Castling’s song How I Mesmerise ‘em, as sung by Charles Gardener.

Sanger was the purveyor of ‘something new under the sun, twice daily’, as both a travelling circus impresario and later at Astley’s Amphitheatre.  A copy of his 1908 autobiography is in one of the cases, and its title, Seventy Year a Showman, does not seem an exaggeration.  Next to it is a ‘memoir’ by one of his acts, Toby the learned pig, which I think it can be assumed was ghost-written.

Finally, tucked round the corner is a section devoted to George Wild Galvin, better known as Dan Leno, comic singer and versatile performer, including as a clog dancer and pantomime dame.  He was allegedly the funniest man on earth (in admittedly a fairly small field).

The star attraction of There Will Be Fun has to be the wonderful posters.  They conjure up the greasepaint and sawdust and are marvels of the printer’s art.  Designed to be disposable, it seems a miracle they have survived in such fine condition.

Bulking out the gems from the Great Evanion’s collection there are films, such as one from 1902 of Dan Leno’s family larking about in the garden, and early sound recordings.  Further objects have been loaned by the Magic Circle, including rather oddly the spend-a-penny toilet lock invented by Maskelyne.

As well as the archival material, there are new films of actors recreating the old routines, and supplementing the exhibition is a series of live performances in the library – probably mounted in the name of ‘access’ but all to the good if it focuses attention on the collection.  The curators have dressed the display in a gorgeous red circus-themed paper with evocative gold text to reinforce the Victorian atmosphere.

Performing was one way someone from humble origins, with talent and some luck, could carve a lucrative career in a society where opportunities for social mobility were limited.  Sadly though, a lot of the greats who dedicated their careers to entertaining our ancestors came to unfortunate ends.  Of those showcased here, Annie De Montfort died in 1882 at the age of 46; Dan Leno spent time in an asylum and died in 1904 aged 43; impoverished, Harry Evans died in 1905 in Lambeth infirmary of throat cancer; George Sanger was murdered with an axe in 1911.

However, their legacy lives on in this excellent little exhibition and for anybody dropping in to see it one thing is certain – there will be fun!  It runs until 12 March 2017.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Juergen Teller selects Robert Mapplethorpe

Muffin, by Robert Mapplethorpe

It is easy to forget quite how young Robert Mapplethorpe was when he died in 1989.  The exhibition currently on display at the Alison Jacques Gallery in Berners Street, London, was mounted to commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday.  Juergen Teller has collaborated with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York to choose 48 images. encompassing Polaroids and silver gelatin prints, spread over two floors.  A note at the entrance wisely points out that the contents are not suitable for children, though they can all be found on the gallery’s website.

I can’t make up my mind what I think about Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and my visit didn’t help clarify my opinion.  They were ably selected by Teller (a good choice of curator for such challenging material), but on this showing what mainly distinguishes Mapplethorpe was his indifference to taboos surrounding the explicit depiction of male genitalia and anuses, and I’m not sure the intention to provoke, which must have been an element of his method, is enough to put him in the first rank of photographic artists.

That said, there is a lot more to him than naked men, and this was a welcome reminder of the variety of subjects at which he pointed his camera.  There are still lifes and animals as well as the portraits for which he is best known.  Patti Smith is present of course, but not wearing a shirt, in fact not wearing anything up top at all as she presses her breasts to a window pane, hands up in a pose evoking Maya Derren and so reinforcing Smith’s credentials as a significant artist.

Mapplethorpe is particularly adept at juxtapositions, whether with the contents of an image – a small statue of a devil with a pitchfork about to spear a penis looking like a hotdog – or titles – a classical statue with its arms flexed, as if stretching after sleep, called ‘The Sluggard’.  Gisèle Freund was photographed with one of her pictures of Virginia Woolf on a shelf next to her, rather a startling addition to a Mapplethorpe.  One wonders what Woolf would have made of all this.

In aesthetic terms the still lifes work well: eight frogs on a plate (or is this a portrait? – you don’t expect a still life to have the capability to jump), seedpods, bread in profile at first glance looking unsettlingly like dung; but inevitably they are secondary to the explicit depictions of the human form,  These often have a playfulness and sense of collaboration which neutralises any sense of seediness they might otherwise have had.  If it should seem crude on occasion, most notably in the explicitness of ‘Fist Fuck’, that says more about the prejudices of the viewer than it does about the photographer.

Mapplethorpe clearly had a way with people to earn such trust, and his empathy is revealed in the connection he makes with his subjects, but my favourite of the whole show has to be the dog Muffin pictured looking like an indolent nineteenth-century French courtesan.  Some of the other work is a little obvious or doesn’t quite succeed – ‘Corn’, in which a cob inevitably looks like a penis; a pair of cocoanuts resembling breasts; a grid of apartment windows marred by an ugly shadow that would be frowned on in a club competition; a long exposure making flowing water look velvety (‘Puerto Rico’), already a cliché in 1981 when it was taken.

Such reservations notwithstanding, Teller is to be congratulated on choosing an interesting group, as is Alison Jacques for showing it.  I would have liked to have seen more of Mapplethorpe’s corpus so finely printed, but am grateful these have been made available.  I’m still agnostic on their lasting value, but you could never say Mapplethorpe was a dull personality, nor, with the odd exception (the 1982 one of a television is surprising in its banality), producing boring photographs.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Society for Psychical Research’s fundraising appeal

In March 2015 I outlined the reasons why I did not feel it sensible to leave money to the Society for Psychical Research in my will.  The Society had been the beneficiary of a significant bequest from late Nigel Buckmaster but was not in my opinion using it wisely.  Since writing that, my attitude towards leaving money to the SPR has not changed.  What has changed is that in mid-2015 the organisation moved from its rented premises in Marloes Road, having purchased a three-story building in Vernon Mews, West Kensington.  The move was forced on the Society by the landlord at Marloes Road ending the tenancy, and it made sense to buy rather than carry on renting.  The choice of suitable property was limited but, while far from perfect, the new premises are definitely better than the old cramped office and library.

The latest issue of the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review has an interesting article by the Hon. Treasurer Dr Richard Broughton on the formidable logistics of the move, which had to be done in a very short period to meet the date the landlord had set.  It was a stressful operation, and fitting out the building to suit the Society’s needs was lengthy and expensive.  Broughton’s article states the cost of the move, which is fairly eye-watering: the purchase price was £1.2m, with another £100,000 for fees and the necessary refurbishment.

The Hon. Treasurer concludes by launching an appeal for funds, noting: ‘Our first donor was Mr Nigel Buckmaster who, you might say, foresaw our needs and allocated a portion of his generous bequest to the Society that amounted to £263,000.  That leaves a little over a million pounds to raise and we need your help.’  To facilitate the appeal a ‘Building Fund Committee’ has been established, and a couple of days ago a ‘New Home Campaign’ donate button appeared in a prominent position on the website, though a new home campaign sounds more like something you do to get a new home than start after you have obtained it (and paid for it).  There are enticements to donors in Broughton’s pitch: opportunities to name the library and lecture hall, though no figures are mentioned.

Mr Buckmaster certainly referred to the purchase of a building in his will, but did not specify any particular amount; he could hardly have known precisely how much his estate would be worth after his death.  That £263,000 was what was left after other Buckmaster projects had been allocated from the bequest which, with growth, amounted to some £750,000.  To put it in perspective, from the Buckmaster funds the SPR will have spent more on the new website and online encyclopaedia – a budget of £350,000 – than was allocated to new premises.

The back page of the magazine is devoted to the appeal under the call ‘Help Build Your Society’, noting the symmetry between the £1.3m spent and 1.3 centuries of the SPR’s existence (134 years).  ‘To be able to realise this dream [i.e. a new home] in London’s heated property market we had to dig deep into our financial reserves.  Now we need your help to recoup this ‘advance’ and help us pay for our new home.’

I’m all for the SPR having a healthy financial position of course, but less sanguine about how it spends its money (including how little it spends on supporting research).  It’s good news it has its own spacious property, both a valuable asset and a base to provide a better service than was the case at Marloes Road.  But the appeal subtly suggests that having spent this large sum on the Vernon Mews property, the Society is now a bit strapped for cash.  It doesn’t mention that the last building the SPR owned and rented out for many years, 1 Adam & Eve Mews, just off Kensington High Street, was sold for £800,000.  Nor does it refer to the difference between the proportion from the Bucknmaster bequest allocated to the new home and the amount the bequest was worth in toto, which comes to nearly half a million pounds.

My attitude is still that it would have been better to have used the money the Society already had more wisely than squander it and have to replenish it.  For example, to simply replace the Buckmaster money given to Council member Dr David Rousseau for personal projects yet to show their worth will necessitate raising £78,000.  Perhaps the appeal will bring in the required million, but I am doubtful in the present financial climate, not to mention the fact the Society actually already had the £1.3m necessary without having to ask.  On the other hand someone may fancy having the rather elegant library named after them.


Broughton, Richard S., ‘The Society for Psychical Research’s New Home’, Paranormal Review, Issue 80, Autumn 2016, pp. 8-10.

‘Help Build Your Society: 1.3 Centuries of History … £1.3 Million’, Paranormal Review, Issue 80, Autumn 2016, p. 36.

Friday, 18 November 2016

The death of Felix Dzerzhinsky

I have long had an interest in Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926); in 2008 I was photographed standing next to his statue in Minsk, Belarus, then earlier this year standing by his grave at the Kremlin wall near Lenin’s Mausoleum (the plaque marking the final resting place of the remains of Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, is just visible on the left, between the trees).  So I was intrigued by the title of a talk, given on 15 November at the University of Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities by Iain Lauchlan of the University of Edinburgh in the series ‘Conspiracy & Democracy’, called ‘Conspiracy in the Kremlin: Who (or what) killed Felix Dzerzhinsky’.

The talk hinged on Dzerzhinsky’s sudden death after a two-hour speech to the Central Committee on 20 July 1926 in which he had been critical of Stalin.  The cause given was heart attack.  But was it?  Could it have been murder, and if so, who could have been responsible?  Was this an early move by Stalin to remove possible opposition and consolidate his own grip on power?

‘Iron Felix’ is best known for his role in the Soviet revolutionary government as head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, better known as the Cheka, though he was also appointed Commissar for Internal Affairs which I suppose would be the equivalent of the British Home Secretary also being head of MI5.  Trusted by Lenin, he was ruthless in pursuing counter-revolutionaries and other enemies of the Bolsheviks.

Minsk, 2008. Photo: Keith Ruffles

Operating in ways not unlike those of the old Tsarist Okhrana, his approach was not above criticism: Victor Serge argued that a transparent system would have achieved its results as efficiently, but with more justice.  Dzerzhinsky on the other hand felt this was a life-or-death struggle and half measures could lead to disaster.  As Lauchlan put it in noting how dependable Dzerzhinsky was, if you had to break eggs to make an omelette, Dzerzhinsky was a man who could be relied on to break them honestly.  It was a position that could attract a sadist who might go beyond what was necessary whereas he did not like the job so would not use it for personal gratification.  His colleagues did not feel his methods were excessive.

Dzerzhinsky died in the Kremlin in mysterious circumstances and rumours swirled around his death immediately, particularly in the foreign and émigré press, his sudden demise used by opponents of the regime to suggest that it was a sign of internal dissension.  There was a Russian tradition of violence in the Kremlin, notably Ivan the Terrible killing his son in 1581, and by evoking that murderous history Dzerzhinsky’s death was bound to create conspiracy theories.

Moscow, 2016. Photo: Karen Ruffles

 The suspicion arose that the regime was encountering its Thermidor, a parallel with the situation in France when the Reign of Terror was brought to an end in 1794 and its leading light, Robespierre, guillotined.  By this interpretation Dzerzhinsky was the Soviet Robespierre and his death represented the government, post-Lenin, in crisis (more positively it could have been interpreted as the often arbitrary repression he represented giving way to a considered approach as the government stabilised under the New Economic Policy, but from an anti-Bolshevik perspective it made sense to accentuate negative interpretations).

There were a number of colleagues who could have wanted Dzerzhinsky out of the way, representing a variety of shades of opinion.  Suspects included Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin.  They had all had areas of disagreement with their late comrade.  However, Lauchlan emphasised firstly that Dzerzhinsky argued with both wings, putting him in the middle; and while he disagreed on some things, equally he agreed on others.  There was no single aspect of policy which might want someone to have him killed.

Significantly, Stalin was not mentioned at the time as a moving force in a possible murder.  Nor did Stalin accuse any of those he eliminated later of having orchestrated Dzerzhinsky’s death when he could easily have done so, though Lauchlan did mention that Stalin had planned to include the possibility of his murder as part of the allegations in the Doctors’ Plot shortly before his own death.  Stalin was capable of accusing others of acts he had authorised, so it would have been easy for him to point the finger, even if evidence was lacking or had to be manufactured.  Later a rumour circulated that Stalin had had Dzerzhinsky killed because as head of the Cheka the latter had uncovered evidence that Stalin had once been an Okhrana agent, though this turned out to be baseless.

So if accusations of a conspiracy were lacking in 1926, why did they emerge later?  Lauchlan argued that it is easy to interpret history backwards, reading motives into events retrospectively because we know what takes place next.  Further, history can become a kind of soap opera in which everything occurs for a reason.  Properly constructed drama does not allow for random forces, it requires motivated individual acts.  From that point of view it is easier to see Dzerzhinsky’s death as part of a wider scheme than acknowledge he just dropped dead from a heart attack.

There were a number of deaths in the senior Soviet hierarchy in the 1920s and 30s which happened at opportune moments, and if one thinks in terms of conspiracies then these could be regarded not as coincidences but acts by the state to purge dissent.  However, Lauchlan’s view is that Stalin’s paranoia only developed after the suicide of his wife in 1932, after which he gradually became insular within a limited clique.  By the time of Sergei Kirov’s murder in 1934 he was ready to implicate a wide range of rivals, and order purges using the pretext of a widespread conspiracy.  The political landscape was entirely different to that of 1926, when Stalin had walked with other leading Bolsheviks behind Dzerzhinsky’s coffin.

Assuming Dzerzhinsky’s death was from natural causes, what more can we say about the man?  For Lauchlan this touches on leadership as performance (curiously Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who happened to be in Moscow at the time, attended his funeral).  With his distinctive beard and sinister reputation, Dzerzhinsky consciously projected himself as a Mephistophelean character.  He admired Robespierre, and saw himself in the same heroic mould.

In pursuit of that image and harbouring a feeling of having a higher purpose, it looks like he had a death wish.  He was not averse to putting himself in dangerous situations and despite a history of ill-health, including previous heart attacks, he effectively worked himself into an early grave, ignoring doctors’ advice to slow down.  He perhaps saw himself as a secular saint, sacrificing himself for the revolution, and there is a remarkable group photo, suppressed until the 1990s, with him in the centre which echoes The Last Supper; he even appears to have a halo behind his head.  It may be relevant that as a youth he had at one point intended to enter a seminary.

Lauchlan outlined a possible cause for this sense Dzerzhinsky possessed that he was somehow destined to martyrdom.  He had had tuberculosis in 1901 which inculcated in him the feeling he was between life and death, engaged in a superhuman struggle with the enemy within, just as he struggled against another kind of enemy within as head of the Cheka.  He wanted his life to have meaning, but turned the desire in a pathological direction.  The irony is that after his death an autopsy, conducted by the foremost authority on TB in the country, revealed no trace of the disease – a conclusion there was no reason to fabricate.  Dzerzhinsky had based his approach to life on a false premise.

For all his faults, Dzerzhinsky created an iconic role model that endures today.  He is still popular in Russia at both official and public levels as a symbol of integrity, and there is a movement to bring his statue, pulled down in 1991 and currently languishing in the fallen statue park at the Central House of Artists, back to its original position outside the Lubyanka.  He is not so popular in Poland (he was an ethnic Pole) and his statue in Dzerzhinsky Square in Warsaw came down in 1989, the square given back its pre-war name.  As the existence of a statue in Belarus attests, the authorities there are quite positive towards his legacy.

The lecture’s title was somewhat misleading in emphasising the ‘who’ over the ‘what’.  One was expecting a surprise contender for Dzerzhinsky’s assassin, perhaps a name hidden in state archives for decades, so it was a slight anti-climax to learn he did actually die of a heart attack after all.  That is an indication of our hankering after conspiracies, life as soap opera.  Despite the disappointment it was still an interesting profile, showing that there was more to Dzerzhinsky, and greater nuance, than is suggested by his image as director of the brutal state security apparatus.  Dr Lauchlan has a biography in press – Iron Felix: Death, Tyranny & the Pursuit of Happiness in Revolutionary Russia, 1877-1926 – which will be well worth a look.