Ghosts on Thinking Allowed
You’ve probably had one of these moments yourself. There you are, sitting quietly across the table from a new acquaintance who seems to have all the necessary qualifications to become a new friend. They’re reasonably attractive, fairly clever, quite funny, and nicely self-deprecating. They have some good stories to tell and seem refreshingly free of prejudice.
But then at some point in the evening, often at the very moment when you’ve decided that they’ve passed all the necessary social tests, they suddenly utter a simple remark which makes you re-consider your whole evaluation.
This happened with our new acquaintance, Mary, just six months ago. There we were, all talking with gusto about the present and past problems we’d had with ageing parents. We’d discussed the inadequacy of nursing homes, the derelictions of doctors, the inhospitality of hospitals and had just moved onto funeral arrangements when Mary suddenly announced that the arrangements she’d had to make for her own mother had been relatively easy because she’d been forewarned of the date and time of her mother’s death.
Had she been given such news by a doctor or a consultant? Oh no, she told us with a new-found eagerness in her voice, she’d had a personal presentiment, a sudden moment in a dream in which a page of a calendar had appeared beside a ticking clock. The calendar said June 16th. The clock said 4.30. And that was exactly the date and time at which her mother finally expired.
It is, I suppose, an ugly testament to the inherent intolerance of rationalists, that the gathering broke up pretty quickly after Mary’s admission. Did we really want to sit and talk calmly and intelligently about life when at any moment our measured discourse might be interrupted by another outburst of irrationalism?
But it’s beginning to look as though I will soon have to go rather short on new friends or find some way of playing down my rationalist snobbery. According to recent surveys, British people are now more inclined than for several centuries to accept the possibility of premonitions and apparitions.
The most alarming statistic tells me that thirty-eight percent of the British population believe in ghosts. That means nearly half of all the people who are sitting in the BBC office in which I write these words, nearly half the people in the pub and the Indian restaurant last night. It’s an extraordinary statistic.
Fortunately, I am able to turn to a distinguished social historian for some light on this phenomenon. Owen Davies has written extensively about Witchcraft and Magic and now in his latest book The Haunted fixes his analytical sights upon the social history of ghosts, their changing nature, their links to religion and funeral practices, their relationship to the after-life.
Join me at 4 o’clock today (or after the midnight news on Sunday) when I’ll also be talking to the author of a research paper on our increasing pre-occupation, both male and female, with removing hair from our bodies. Ghosts and Hairless Bodies. That’s Thinking Allowed this week. Also now available as a podcast.