12th June 2008:
(Picture, part of the Trinity series by Caron Geary)
As the flickering lights of planes descend over the foggy wasteland of Portakabin style hotels in Heathrow, thousands of potential clients touch down ready to make their dreams a reality.
“Welcome people, to your future!”
The lux shiny gold fittings of the low level hotel disappear as I swing through the doors to a soulless shell of a convention room. An interior decorator hasn’t got past reception since the sixties and any veneer of international glamour fades as I scan nicotine coated curtains touching sweaty carpets that display merchandise on push-up tables.
“Have you ever wondered why some people are more successful than
others? Why some earn more money? Are happier? Have better jobs?
Better relationships? Better health?”
Uh, yes. I live in the 21st century so have been known to feel like a Primark carrier bag on Sloane Avenue. If our modern measure is by comparison to two-bit celebrities, I do of course have a barrel deep of bad trip potential. So yes, if this man in a blue silk suit in front of us is to be believed (he’s not dissimilar to Tom Cruise in his seminal ‘Tame the cunt’ role in Magnolia) my very commitment to being here is testimony to the fact that to survive in our world, I need improving.
It may seem to those I meet that I am my own self-made hero, but this is merely a façade to the fact I am forever unemployable. Tonight the bible according to this life guru, Richard Burgess from San Francisco, may be worth ordering, and even if I can’t afford it, I could always rip off his idea, join the other side and become as rich as he’s claiming himself to be.
“Success is as predictable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west…” claims Burgess; his tanned hands gesticulate from left to right, with the force of world leaders. He illustrates the sparkle of gold from underneath his magic illustrative air rainbow.
His dazzling finesse tips towards the pinnacle of truth he’s about to reveal; but is the grand-secret he’s suggesting something of false alchemy? His freakish obsession with cash has me wondering if the initiation process has begun. Or was it when the sorcerer’s apprentice cold-called me on my landline and I listened? Did I arrive here by some kind of phone hypnosis? Or did I walk into a Scientology meeting instead? Is my life in a state of trance? Do I want to be interrupted? Perhaps what troubles me more is the notion that really I want to be rich and perhaps I’m just hiding behind the recycling bins of life’s car park.
“Tonight, I’m going to teach you the secret to success, all you have to do is two things…”
I wonder whether I would trust this guy’s hey presto simplicity if he had long hair, a wizard’s moustache and beard, flip flops and had just walked out of his psychic healing hut on a beach in Goa. But he’s got me, from this moment of promise I am willing to invest in this furtive prophecy, I am not going to giggle like a schoolgirl, I am not going to walk out like a stroppy teenager, I am instead going to stay here and listen.
“This programme you are here to find out about tonight, ladies and gentlemen, will give you a new start in life. This is like a blank cheque to the future. We have researched the last 4000 years of history to give you the information you are here to receive today. We have learnt from science, from religion, from philosophy, from esoteric studies, how to turn your life around. Now I want you to greet those people around you. Look each other in the eyes, and greet new friends with new confidence. It starts now, if you want it to…”
Of course I’m interested in new friends, I want to be a person who hugs people like it’s not an invasion of personal space. I am surrounded by others who are each willing to believe that everyone can teach us something. We all need each other to reaffirm our very being.
Before I know it I’m hugging strangers around me. Without eye contact. God, this is so embarrassing for a Brit. Do I really want to be in the same space as these fantasy-prone, co-dependent victims in a scabby eventskeller in the armpit of West London? But deep within, Richard Burgess, a man who gives pyramid scheme operators a run for his hard conned cash, is starting to appeal to the Aleister Crowley in me. I want to have his success exactly. I want to make profits from prophets. I want more power than North Korea, more friends than Lily Allen on MySpace and more money than anyone else I’ll ever meet.
By inviting us all to hug one another, Richard Burgess is doing the same as the church; he is also using access codes of religion to give our lives meaning. He is creating a past, a present and a future. He has a messiah complex, and we’re all willing to be his messengers if we can achieve his type of success.
You see, whether it’s faith healing, psychic surgery, fortune telling or black magic, chances are it’s based on deception. Maybe not entirely, but I came here tonight as part of my study into how to make millions out of mentalism.
Mentalism? What, pray tell is that? I asked the ed at Bad Idea the same thing. I haven’t heard of anything like that since I lost it on a podium with white gloves burning, screaming MENTAL MENTAL MENTAL.
But a few days further of research led me to realise it’s something way more old school than the magic and illusion of Derren Brown.
I asked magician to the stars, Marlow Reed to define it for me, “It’s about surreptitiously getting information out of someone” he explains. According to Marlow, ‘cold reading’ is used by salespersons, hypnotists, advertising pros, voodoo children, con-men and therapists. They all bank upon their subject’s inclination to find more meaning in a situation than there actually is. It’s little more than the usual tools of manipulation, suggestion and flattery.
It’s about putting the approval to the subject. Sitting ducks are obviously easier. If someone walks into a psychic’s stall they’re looking for answers, “It’s been going on for centuries”, he tells me.
Since I was a child I have danced to Boney M’s lyrics about Rasputin, the lover of the Russian queen, but do you know the real story of how he used mentalism to get into the Tsar’s palace and cure the haemophiliac heir to the throne? The man used all of Richard Burgess’ skill in combining experience with myth: Born a peasant boy the young Rasputin became a pilgrim and grew up learning to survive on the streets. He hustled and entertained whores and harems with his declarations of prophecy and parapsychology. Using healing, hypnosis and forecasting powers was not enough to keep him alive though. One of his former prostitute pals stabbed him, called him the anti-Christ and set up a survivors support group. How’s that for a jilted girlfriend? But Rasputin didn’t die; he became a junky, taking opium for the pain. His life turned worse following the world arrival of aspirin, his skills stopped working with the king’s kid. Then, in the same way that every Eastender claims to have gone to school with the Krays or every clubber in the late 80s claims to have been to Schoom, many Russian men of the time claim to have murdered the supposed shyster, Rasputin. But his work was not in vain, the legend inspired all sorts of dodgy self-declared miracle workers shedding dappled mysterious autumnal light over the ease of being connected to the world of spirituality. Even before the times of Rasputin, starting one’s own army to protect one’s insanity has oft been viewed the best defence. Hassan-i-Sabah, a Persian of the eleventh and twelfth century managed to reprogram hundreds of villagers. His technique apparently was to simulate death via drugging folk before awakingthem in hedonistic pleasure gardens with wine and virgins that they thought was heaven. Hassan-i-Sabbah is said to have appeared as the divine-to-be-obeyed, which he would be, all of his empire-building orders being carried out unto his devotee’s death. A Mongol defeat prevented this from going any further in 1256.
Another historical shaman of note is Stalin’s favourite mentalist (and therefore perhaps everybody else’s), Wolf Messing. Stalin, obsessed by authenticating Messing’s powers of illusion sent him into a bank; presenting the banker with a ‘note’ which requested ten thousand roubles. The note was actually a blank piece of paper but the cashier still handed over the money. Messing put the cash in his briefcase and left the building. Messing then re-entered with two observers and the cashier had a heart attack when he realised what had occurred. The power of suggestion should not be underestimated.
And don’t think it’s just the Commies up to tricks of mind control. Top power tripped loony Hitler had one too. Erik Jan Hanussen was a mentalist, occultist and astrologer. Although he claimed to be a Danish aristocrat he was in fact a Czech Jew. At his height of stardom he enjoyed brown-nosing in the company of Germany’s military and business elite with his mind reading and hypnosis act. It is said Hanussen taught Hitler secret crowd control techniques and the best utilisation of body language. Hanussen apparently predicted the fire at the German parliament building, the Reichstag (partly how the Nazi’s came to power). However, either knowing too much or being somewhat of a Keith Flint, his assassination followed shortly after.
So the history books don’t bode well for mentalists. Top bad magic guru, Aleister Crowley was a bit of a new age dellusionist of his time. Like any fruitloop freak he believed what he was doing was right. Mumbo jumbo conquering all (and to a certain extent I have to believe that mind over matter is as good as we’ve got against the ills of the world) but this occult hero combines everything rock ‘n’ roll dreams are made of; the self belief of starting a group opposing the ideology of mainstream culture lead him to expand on his learnings from enlightenment theosophic group, The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn which Yeats too had joined, and start his own. A supergroup of Buddhism, Raja yoga, Egyptian mythology and more, he founded an ‘anti-monastery’, The Abbey of Theleme in Greece which taught self-empowerment-type behaviour. Burroughs and Leary were members of chaos magic splinter group, Illuminates of Thanateros. But like many of the pantheons before it, Crowley’s place crumbled after his world tour of life and he died a skint smackhead back home in Blighty.
As these characters whiz through my mind, I consider leaving this tawdry coven in fear of becoming the victim of another dark episode in Satan’s path, but recognising that my brain likes to be challenged, and ever a woman of experimentation, one thing I have never done, is join a cult (as long as falling under 12 hour sessions of rhythmic acid house mantras of repetitive beats played in warehouses rammed with thousands of vacant lunatics doesn’t count).
The bell tapping orange toga wearers on Oxford Street are not quite what I’m into. It is the manipulation of minds and alternative cults that have always held a fascination to me. From blowing oneself up en masse, on demand, in a barn in America, to the sixties ashrams of India, to feeling the spiral tribe force of professional anarchic communes, there’s got to be a few good war-stories from joining a secret club. Deriving from the Latin word cultus meaning care or adoration, hero-worship and bullying are often themes of cult discontent. As Richard continues to deliver his personal story of survival to us, images of The Cult and the polar opposite, The Polyphonic Spree, all heavenly and 2006 Winter Diesel-ad like create a fan base in my mind. Just as every brand should. There’s a lot the PR departments of record labels have sifted from meetings like this.
History often works in the same way. I like to think I would have been on that bus of pranksters, in the band, with the band. Being painted with the blood of suckling lambs, cavorting with virgins, wearing capes. I wonder what the oh-so-clever marketing hit squads would do confronted now with the cream of psychedelia? I always found Charlie Manson and his backlit aura kinda cute. A poster boy for revolution. Maybe my romantic visions of black magic occults are no more fun than it would have been as a virgin at a Hellfire Club convention.
Joining an NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) derivative cult for this sacred rite of knowledge goes against my natural pride of being able to find the answers within. By distancing myself from the crazed ravings of a self-made guru who’s clearly doing alright from his preachings, I reaffirm my own sanity and intelligence. This is what I reason as I attempt to back off from buying into his mantra.
But through the haze of what Richard is telling us, I do see an answer. Prior to getting here tonight I discovered that anyone can become a Reverend at the click of a mouse, like Robbie Williams, 20 million ministers so far have signed up for free ordination at www.monastery.com (my fave click through ever, Instant Absolution of Sin) but I bet, other than the instant power of being able to marry, or preach, there’s got to be some good blags in that, ‘Yes, I am a woman of the cloth, and I demand a room in your inn’. It would be a start because for every noticeable conman with stooges in the audience there’s got to be someone like myself who has more than a laywoman’s understanding of the religion of PR & advertising.
Religion equals power. I start to think Richard is less of a mentalist or deluded despot but more of a master of his own magic. My scepticism and cynicism is exchanging for respect. He is empowering me. Where before I joked about promoting my own uber-underground club, I am now seeing it as a reality. In the coffee break, I beat down the crowds of Burgess-o-philes to the man himself. Richard may not be doing Sri Baba sleight of hand tricks, pulling watches and jewellery from thin air, but it’s tough getting past the wanton crowds. Close-up, the guy is strangely attractive. He knows how to spend money, and his A-B-C solution to self-improvement doesn’t look like an illusion. He’s got the eyes of Jesus.
We greet each other and I feel electricity pass between us. We agree to meet, me being a journalist, in the bar after the event. I go up to the merchandise stall and spend what a facial can cost in London. £130. I’m rewarded with a mentalist bumper pack, complete with hypno-CD, a self-published book with quite a nice photo of him in Thailand on the back, a new age DVD, and a pack of cue cards each with a different message of relief for the spiritually bankrupt. I also put myself on the mailing list. Abracadabra. I will die richer, happier and more metaphysically opulent than others.
After our break, the enriching secret prognostics flow from his gilded mouth,
“The first thing to do is to make a commitment to exceed your previous levels of accomplishment…” he announces. Do better.
I see him, and visualise my success with him later. He’d be on my Richest Fucks Ever list. I like the way he hustles the audience, asking questions with only one likely answer and making the impossible seem available.
“Number two is to learn how to be master of your own success.”
After signing up to his next London seminar for £250 on my credit card, we wait until everyone has filtered out and meet in the bar.
He’s big on body contact. He tells me that walking on coals in Tibet was what made him realise anything is possible. “Seven seconds to register the heat, by which time it can be over” he summarises. We then whack up the temperature and I wake up in the middle of the night to find he’s not in the hotel room anymore. It was a good night, but the merchandise I’d bought is gone, as is Richard.
One good thing about con-artists, unlike religions, is they don’t hang around. I consider phoning 0800-Get-Me-An-Exit-Counsellor, but the lesson’s learnt.
I leave in a hotel feeling empowered with femininism and vitriol. In the cab on the way home Richard West AKA Mr C from The Shaman plays on the radio, there’s a remix featuring Tim Burgess from The Charlatans mixed with Just An Illusion by Imagination – like this story. I never met that guy – I never passed over any money – I never fucked him either. Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?