issue 237 - November 1992
I can hardly believe I'm doing this. The phone rings again and I say: 'Hello, Sun Hotline here'. Only British readers, I'm afraid, will be able to appreciate how bizarre this feels. The Sun is the UK's biggest-selling newspaper, a right-wing tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch which has successfully dragged the rest of the press downmarket towards its package of female nudity, celebrity gossip and knee-jerk philosophy. If there is a single publication that British readers would consider to be the antithesis of the NI then The Sun is very probably it.
Yet here I am, sitting in its fortress in London's Docklands, scene of an historic pitched battle against trade unionism (which Murdoch won hands down).
Why am I here? Because The Sun is engaging in a 'psychic experiment'. Its readers have been asked to stare into the photographed eyes of US medium Diana Gazes at midday, hold a spoon or fork between two fingers and try to bend it just by mental concentration. Diana is locked in a room behind me, deep in meditation and trying to project psychic energy all over the country.
On the dot of twelve I try the experiment for myself - I am at least closer than anyone else in the country to the energy source so that might overcome my own apparent lack of psychic talent. Nothing happens but it's true that the situation is hardly conducive to concentration - I'm sitting in a huge open-plan office in which hard-bitten Sun sports and features writers are going about their business and wondering what on earth this weirdo is doing with a fork stuck in the air.
I then move over to take charge of one of four phones dedicated to the Psychic Experiment. And there I stay for the next four hours. The phones are continually busy - I put down one call and immediately have to pick up another.
Now such is my distrust of The Sun that I would not believe anything which appeared in it unless it was confirmed by about six other sources. So I can quite understand that I have more or less invited cynical disbelief by getting mixed up in such an adventure. In Britain at least you put The Sun together with the paranormal and the result is to multiply the incredibility factor almost infinitely.
But stop a minute. Here I, and not some Sun sub-editor seeking a soaraway sensationalist story, was the first port-of-call - I was able to gauge the honesty of the responders by asking them as many questions as I wanted. There were a few who simply phoned to say that nothing had happened. And there were a couple who were clearly just having a lark. But the vast majority were from ordinary people with no previous experience of anything psychic who had been shocked to find that their spoons or forks had bent without their having applied any physical pressure. Their sheer amazement resounded down the phone line.
After the first few calls, bent spoons and forks became routine, as if we'd entered a kind of parallel universe where such events were entirely normal. I started to look out for stories with something different about them. There was the DJ on Radio Northampton who'd been making a joke out of the experiment, telling his listeners to focus on the studio's broken- down air-conditioning system, which engineers had been unable to fix. At 12.02 the air-conditioning inexplicably started working again. Then there was the man who tried to start a watch that hadn't worked for 10 years: he gave up trying in disgust and went out to walk his dog, only to find the watch had started up again by the time he got back.
These could be explained away as coincidence so that they are actually less impressive than the 'routine' stories of spoon-bending like that of 20-year-old secretary Trudy, who came across the story in her paper just before midday. 'I just thought I'd give it a go,' she said. 'I felt a tingling sensation in my finger and thumb where I was holding the fork and then it started to bend.'
Then there were the people who felt physical ailments disappear. One of the most remarkable was Elizabeth, who was born with her lumber bone pressing onto her spine, leaving her with constant back pain. Throughout her 61-year life she has had to take painkilling tablets. 'When I was 40 the doctor said I could have an operation but if I did there was a danger I wouldn't walk again. So I just carried on taking the tablets. When I saw about this woman in The Sun I thought there was no harm in trying. I just sort of relaxed myself and looked at her. To my amazement I felt a tingling through my body and when I stood up, for the first time in my life the pain was gone.' A month later when I phoned her the pain had still not returned.
What should we make of this? Diana Gazes believes that it was her calling down of help from 'higher, astral planes' which made this kind of thing possible, though she stresses that she was only putting people in touch with a psychic power which is latent in all of us. You may well be left cold by the crass framing of the story in The Sun and by Diana Gazes' association with 'psychic TV' -which has become quite a big thing on cable in the US, with a similar feel for the unconverted as those dismal fundamentalist TV programmes.
But it does seem to me that something was going on here. One month on I phoned up some of the callers I'd spoken to - at this distance even I began to wonder whether they'd been sincere. But they seemed just as they had originally - totally straight, ordinary people who'd been shocked to experience something remarkable. Maybe their experience had nothing to do with Diana Gazes and they only needed a prompt to concentrate their own power of psychokinesis (mind over matter). As experiments go, this is as far from being scientific as you could get. But I still find it pretty persuasive.