Giving it large with the medium
One of the feats of Madame Blavatsky, the flamboyant spiritualist and psychic, was to play a piano, locked in another room, via "astral projection".
Although Madame B herself has long since made the transition into the spirit dimension - she died, aged 60, in 1891 - echoes of her (if not her piano) are still to be found in the corridors of the College of Psychic Studies.
A portrait of a man said to be her secretary hangs outside the lecture hall of the school, founded in 1884, to "promote spiritual values and a greater understanding of human consciousness".
These days, though, things are somewhat more restrained at the college's imposing London premises, located just round the corner from South Kensington's natural history and science museums.
Meditation takes place in the basement, and workshops abound on such subjects as trance, crystals, tarot readings and a whole variety of healing techniques.
But the theatrical tradition of those pioneering 19th-century psychics has not entirely departed. I am visiting the college on a chilly weekday night to experience a demonstration of "mediumship and psychic sensitivity" at the hands of a group of the school's more experienced students.
Gerrie March is their teacher, and she opens proceedings with some introductory remarks. We all have psychic powers, she tells the 60-strong audience, but only some of us choose to acknowledge and develop them.
Although the words of others flow through her, Gerrie is a woman clearly used to being in control, and her teaching style has more than a little of the didactic about it. Smartly dressed in a black top and chiffon scarf, there's an air of both Clare Rayner and Sybil Fawlty about her - with a dash of Mystic Meg thrown in for good measure.
Her students, she tells us, will select members of the audience and convey messages to them from relatives, friends and pets who have entered the spirit world - or died, as I might more prosaically put it. We must answer them directly and honestly in order to ensure that the best information is elicited.
The first student stands up: Sarla, a woman of around 50. There is a tangible sense of anticipation in the room as she looks out across the rows of faces, searching for an appropriate subject.
"The gentleman there at the end of the row - in the black shirt."
So, tucking myself away towards the back hasn't guaranteed anonymity. I am to be the first in line.
Sarla looks at me, closes her eyes. "I am getting," she says, "a man. He's in tweeds with a tweed hat. Could he be your grandfather, on your father's side? Does that make sense?"
"There are buildings involved. I see him sitting there, surrounded by plans. Could he have been an architect?"
"No. Shall I tell you what he did? He was a crane driver."
Undaunted, Sarla continues with the property theme. "Do you go to Spain?"
"There are properties there. You are buying them in a derelict state and improving them. You are buying at 10,000, 11,000 and selling at 50,000."
This is promising. I appear to be doing well in my new career of property developer. Is this what I am being urged towards by my upwardly-mobile grandfather? Sarla doesn't say.
Then we move on to my grandmother. Did she have grey hair? Well, yes, but don't they all? Sadly, though, nothing else about her seems to fit.
Finally, a dog comes through, but once more we seem to be barking up the wrong tree.
"I've never had a dog," I say, "but my sister has one if that's any good."
Once Sarla has sat down, Gerrie gets back to her feet. It seems she hasn't found my responses very helpful.
"We don't want life histories," she says sharply. But she does send a woman across with a flower for me, which is "full of love and healing".
There were a few echoes in my life in what Sarla was saying, but I'm not convinced that we've disinterred the spirit of my grandparents: possibly someone else's grandparents, but not mine.
In turn, each of the seven or eight other students gets to their feet and makes a selection from the audience.
They work on the responses they get, dropping lines that prove negative, developing those that are affirmed. "I'm getting laughter," one of them tells an earnest young man a row or two back from me. When that gets a "no" it's quickly turned around: "You need to laugh more then."
Various insecurities about work, personal life and relationships are teased out, and appropriate advice given.
One woman in her mid-50s agrees that the 1960s were a significant time for her. "And words are important to you." Yes, and she's thinking of writing a book, she says. When her flower is handed over - a rose - she smiles and says it's her favourite.
From their responses, it is clear that most members of the audience want to find correspondences in their lives, want to believe in what they are being told. But it occurs to me that many of the things being said to others could equally well apply to me. I am involved with words. I too have choices to make in my life regarding work.
So what are we seeing here? What precisely is being "demonstrated"? Certainly, there are close observational powers at work. A careful reading of responses. I am impressed when one student correctly identifies an American woman's accent as originating from Connecticut.
Clearly, too, there is scope for intuition, for "tuning in" to others'
wavelengths. But Gerrie also makes it clear that her students' work goes beyond intuition, and that real contact is being made with the spirits of the departed.
For those brought up on empiricism and the scientific method, this is harder take on board.
Madame Blavatsky and her self-playing piano were ultimately exposed as fraudulent. And while I have no doubts that Gerrie and her students are sincere in their beliefs, hasn't belief on its own always been a pretty poor guarantor of truth?