Miracles, Miracles Everywhere: An Ex-Christian on Illusionist Derren Brown’s “Faith Healing”

For weeks, I walked past the Palace Theatre in London, wishing I was among the lucky few who would get to go inside and see illusionist Derren Brown’s latest show, Miracle. I’m a big fan of Brown’s and I love the way he blurs good old sleight-of-hand with Neurolinguistic Programming, using explanation to simultaneously enlighten and obscure. So I was only too happy to tune into Channel 4 last night to watch the recorded live show of Miracle.

To my surprise, I’d seen it already.

I used to attend an evangelical, Holy-Spirit-seeking church. In Miracle, Derren (an atheist) takes on the mantle of preacher, healer, and miracle-worker, planting his tongue firmly in his cheek and calling on the Lord for divine intervention in his audience’s health problems. Anyone who has ever seen a faith healer in action would admit that his mimicry of their style and actions is note-perfect. He made headlines today, and blew up British Twitter, by both “healing” a woman’s defective eyesight and temporarily taking away a man’s ability to read. For some people, the show was doubtless just an entertaining diversion. But for me, it brought back a lot of memories.

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This is My Body, Not Yours.

This week, in the UK at least, abortion has been rather prominent in the public consciousness. To kick the week off, Polish women gathered together for Black Monday. They stayed away from work, school, or domestic chores to march against a proposal to further restrictions on abortion, a procedure that is already tightly restricted in their country. At the same time, Irish women are continuing the fight to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution, which equates the right to life of an zygote, embryo, or foetus to the life of the woman carrying it. And then last night, Channel 4 screened “Undercover: Britain’s Abortion Extremists”. Me and my partner watched it together. Or rather, I watched it with great interest while he worked on his laptop, glancing up occasionally.

While he and I have a lot in common, we are also very different people. In the mornings, when we’re not running late, we have coffee together, always drinking from the same mugs. He uses his “Pantone” mug and I use my “Scrabble” one. I tend to think that our mugs reflect the major difference between how we process the world: he’s a visual thinker who skim-reads and goes straight for the big picture. On the other hand, I search for details and painstakingly read and re-read things. He watches the news every night to find out where we are, and I read books about history and human evolution to find out where we came from. The differences between us, of course, extend into other areas of life, too. He holds some ideas and opinions that I cannot share, and I believe strongly in causes he doesn’t care too much about.

So when he piped up mid-abortion-documentary with: “Want to know what I think about this? What I really, honestly think?”, I got nervous. I didn’t want him to say anything that might upset or anger me or help to cause a rift between us, and since reproductive rights is something I care deeply about, that was a real possibility. Of course I had a vague idea of where he stood on this issue, since a difference of opinion could potentially have real-world consequences for our relationship someday, but to be honest we had never discussed it in much depth. I couldn’t just say “No, thanks, I don’t want to know”, though. I had to bite the bullet and say  “Go on, tell me”. Read More

Urban Parsley & A Falling Star

Much as I hate going to most supermarkets, I’ll admit to liking Waitrose. On the handful of occasions I’ve been there, I enjoyed the clean shiny floors, the high quality of the fresh fruit, chuckling at the “Essential” selection (because who can live without perfumed ironing water and brioche?), taking home a box of yuzu-flavoured coconut water ice lollies (seriously, you HAVE to try them)… it’s exactly the kind of gently rarefied establishment at which you might expect someone like Joanna Lumley to shop, right? Well, in a showbiz exclusive of absolute Heat proportions, I can confirm that indeed she does shop there. During our last visit to our local branch, my partner and I did a double take as we noticed Ms Lumley, with jewel-coloured lipstick and not a hair out of place, gliding through the frozen section. We spent a good five minutes furtively following her at a distance. Creepy behaviour? Possibly… OK, definitely… but what else do you do in the presence of a national treasure and the woman who brought Patsy Stone into the world? The only alternative would be to doff one’s cap and bow and scrape and say “ma’am” a lot. And I wasn’t wearing a cap. In any case, she didn’t (or seemed not to) notice us.

I’ve developed a bit of a reputation among friends and family as a star-spotter. Among others, I’ve happened upon Ellie Goulding, Renee Zellweger, and Bill Nighy. Nighy was one of my favourites. He noticed me recognising him as he walked by, and as if in reply he gave me a nod and an effortlessly cool look, doubtless practised already a thousand times, that said “Yes, that’s right. I’m Bill Nighy. But let’s stay cool about that fact and keep it to ourselves, shall we?”. Lumley, too, was up there among my favourite stars that I happened to have spotted. I just thought, She seems so fantastic. Posh yet down-to-Earth and willing to take the piss out of herself. Always gracious and elegant. A terrific sense of humour. The woman who gave us the grotesque and glamorous Patsy. On a personal level, I felt a bit of an affinity with her because I knew she was a lover of cats and giraffes, and completely hopeless at maths (this is true. Like my mother, she was told not to even bother sitting a Maths O-level. This was back in the days when presumably it was OK for teachers to slap a child on the back and say “Well, never mind about maths, Jenkins; no one was really expecting you to amount to anything anyway”). Then there was her work on behalf of the ghurkas, and her passion for conservation and environment. So yes. I thought Lumley was – how can I resist it? – absolutely fabulous.

Since then, however, things have changed. Lumley is no longer a figure of particular admiration for me. I am now one of many, in fact, who are fighting her tooth and nail over the future of the city we share, and I am left wondering: How did it all come to this? Read More