We’re taking a tour of Jean Ireland’s home – an imposing lodge built in 1840 (that’s just an artist’s impression above, of course). It’s a turreted, Gothic affair with a round tower and stone mullioned windows. Straight outta Psycho, you could say. If Hitchcock had filmed it in Southport.
Jean – keen to unearth what she believes to be the house’s spiritual hangers on – has invited us for a tour with celebrated city psychic, Billy Roberts.
After coffee and cakes, the tour begins. I comment on the pleasing play of light as it dapples the hallway from the stained glass of the porch. But, as we enter a first floor bedroom, it’s obvious Billy’s having none of my small talk.
“Someone was murdered in this room,” he says. “Or if not murdered, they took their life in a gruesome way.”
Talk about ruining the atmosphere.
“Yes!” Jean squeals excitedly. “Visitors have reported seeing orbs,” she says. “A friend even saw an apparition.” Orbs – the latest must-have in the world of the spirit – are bouncing spheres of unearthly light, often caught on camera by ‘ghost hunters’. You might know them as dust particles.
Like a Maplins salesman, Roberts swiftly whips out a series of hand held electronic gizmos – all flashing lights, beeping dials and bouncing needles. He aims them vaguely at the woodchip and tweaks his EMF meters like an electrician chasing an errant power supply.
“Yes, this room is spiritually active,” Roberts says, less than three feet away from a rumbling old immersion heater with its thermostats and heating coils churning away. The prognosis – instantly and convincingly drawn – is that somehow his booty of battery-powered toys have merely confirmed what Robert’s inbuilt psychic detectors knew all along.
As a serious investigation into the realms of parascience it seems curiously brief. I point out that, apart from the merest crackle of static, humans (living or, especially, dead) just don’t give off the kind of energy that EMF meters detect. We’re not – unless we’re a member of Kraftwerk or a mate of Gary Numan’s – sufficiently electric. If we did mess up EMF signals quite so readily, electricians would have stopped using them years ago in fear of mistaking the buzz of a nearby pylon as their dead grandfather trying to say hello.
“When we die, we move into a higher frequency of life,” Roberts offers by way of explanation, “and we can pick this up with these machines.”
Neurologists might have something to say about the theory that, once dead, the human brain could trigger a needle in a £50 black box to bounce around quite so energetically.
Psychologist, Dr Matthew Smith – ex of Liverpool Hope University, now teaching associate at Oxford Brookes – has something to say about it, too.
“We’re hard wired to be gullible. We have a knack of drawing conclusions from insufficient evidence, and it’s easier to say something’s ‘paranormal’ or ‘mysterious’ than to actually try to figure things our rationally and scientifically. It’s how magicians, and so-called psychics make such a good living.”
Belief in ghosts, of course, has a pay off. For a lot of us, it’s a glimpse of immortality. Of something beyond our earthly plane. All well and good – unless you’re cashing in on others’ grief.
“Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof,” Dr Smith says, “and time and again, these psychics simply refuse to take part in genuine scientific trials. That’s really all you need to know.”
We finish our tour of Jean’s house. Over tea and biscuits, Roberts talks of tribo-luminescence, recordings trapped in the fabric of buildings, geomagnetic access points acting as some kind of Stargate entry points into the spirit world (and we always thought that was Thatto Heath station). We get the feeling we’re being drawn into a process of persuasion, rather than scientific enquiry.
To SevenStreets, there’s nothing more alarming than someone who unflinchingly knows the answer first, and then attempts to map out a route towards it. Liverpool’s particularly full of ’em: from Joe (‘I talk to John Lennon’) Power, to Derek (‘I beat up Yvette Fieling, but it wasn’t me, I was possessed’) Accorah, and any number of pubs offering a pie, a pint and a psychic reading. Mix a few centuries of maritime folklore, a few sprigs of Celtic spirituality, a dash of Catholic purgatory and stir together for 800 odd years and you’ve got a potent brew of demons seeping from the walls of our city. And no end of Shiverpool ghost tours.
There’s no mistaking Roberts’ enthusiasm to all things psychic. He set up the Thought Workshop, a centre for psychic studies, still lectures around the world and is a regular on Most Haunted. His skill? “My pineal gland is bigger than other peoples’,” he tells us. “I believe that’s what gives me the gift of seeing.”
Should’ve gone to Specsavers, we’d have thought.
Whether talking to the dead, seeing them float through walls or witnessing their otherworldly squeals with his psychic iPods, Roberts is very clear about one thing: ghosts exist.
“All human experience and emotional activity impregnates the atmosphere’s ‘natural memory bank’ rather like data stored on a computer. Occasionally the memory is tripped and the replay of events takes place: causing ‘ghosts’ to appear.”
So far so ‘I can change the laws of physics’. We ask him why, this being so, there has yet to be any scientifically documented proof of life after death.
“I believe that one day, when scientific laws – currently unknown – are discovered, we will be able to combine the paranormal with everyday science,” he says. “Let’s face it, people once thought it was impossible to land on the Moon…”
Roberts has chronicled many of these computer malfunctions in his Spooky Liverpool series of books (a kind of celebrity deathmatch with that other chronicler of nonsense, Tom Slemen).
Fans of prolific paranormalist Slemen have even waged a war of words on Amazon saying: “I would not recommend Spooky Liverpool. I would recommend the excellent and legendary Tom Slemen.”
“I wonder who wrote those reviews?” Roberts says with a knowing little smile.
Slemen’s 16 books of Haunted goings on certainly pushes the envelope: with some of his tales seemingly plucked from other cities’ ghostly vaults (hey, why not change New Orleans with New Brighton? Ghosts wanna sue? Who you gonna call?)
Who knew the afterlife was such a hotbed of claim and counterclaim?
Jean, meanwhile is happy. Her suspicions have been confirmed. “I always knew there was something strange in this house. It’s amazing how you’ve picked it up.” Less amazing, we offer, is that, by calling a psychic to your house, it’s an easy hunch to make that you’re not after a quote for cavity wall insulation, but that you’re a believer?
“No, I have a completely open mind on it,” Jean says.
She later shows us her scrapbooks – and adds that, as a keen local historian, she runs tours of the house for local interest groups. “I can’t wait to tell them about the ghost, now it’s official…”
You have to wonder, don’t you: Is it our houses that are haunted? Or us?