Low life

Even a Cambridge-educated spook couldn't make me believe in ghosts

Denis may have been a Cambridge-educated former Special Branch officer but he couldn’t convince me to believe in ghosts

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

6 February 2016

9:00 AM

Denis was my guide to and from the new out-of-town Lidl superstore at Salernes in Provence. I drove. The road was a smooth ribbon of asphalt newly laid through an ancient forest of dwarf oaks. The in-car conversation with Denis was, as usual, easy and undogmatic and wide-ranging, which is the only sort of conversation I am capable of, for I can never remember what my opinions are, let alone which set of beliefs gave rise to them. In this uncommitted way we drifted aimlessly on a gentle swell until we bumped up against the subject of ghosts. I had never seen or heard or felt a ghost, I said. Neither had I met anyone who had. So no, I didn’t believe in them. Denis had and did, however, claiming to have frequented two houses that were quite definitely haunted.

He once rented a house in Hampshire and became friendly with a neighbouring family who lived in a very beautiful old house that was, in his words, ‘haunted to buggery’. The husband was, among other things, a musician with an academic interest in medieval music. One day his son, who was then about nine or ten years old, sauntered into the house from the garden singing a quaint song, which his father recognised as an obscure old English folk song. He asked his boy to sing it again for him, which the boy did. ‘Where on earth did you learn that?’ said the flabbergasted father to the son. ‘That friendly lad in the garden wearing funny clothes taught it to me,’ said the boy.

One Sunday, the musician and his wife invited friends over for lunch at one o’clock. One o’clock came and went with no sign of their guests. At two o’clock they gave up waiting and started lunch without them. At three the musician rang the home of the missing couple to find out what had happened. They were in. The wife answered. ‘We drove up to the house at ten to one,’ she said, ‘and there was such a colourful crowd in fancy dress on your lawn that we thought it was a children’s party or something and that we’d got the wrong Sunday. So we turned around and came home.’

At Lidl we filled our trolley mainly with Lidl’s own-brand gin at an incredible six euros a bottle. Coming back, Denis said, ‘Would you like to see the first house I bought when I came to the area?’ Under his directions we made a small diversion and parked at the foot of an unmade track, from where we could see a mansion perched on the side of a forested hill about half a mile away. The sight of it clearly moved him. I killed the engine and we sat in silence and stared at it. It seemed to me a gloomy-looking place. ‘How old?’ I said. ‘Oh, not very,’ he said. ‘A hundred and fifty tops.’ There followed another long, contemplative silence, punctuated by the spastic ticking of the cooling engine.

Then he said, ‘And this is the other haunted house I’ve known. I remember the day my wife and I arrived. In the afternoon I took a walk in those woods and saw a magnificent stag standing not 50 yards away, looking at me, as I imagined, significantly. He was the only one I ever saw. I took him as a favourable, welcoming omen, which by and large he was.

‘But there was a woman in Victorian clothing who would regularly appear in the kitchen then disappear through the wall. And one day I was working in the upstairs room that I used as a workshop when I heard the most awful, heart-rending scream — a woman’s scream — which literally made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. My wife heard it too. A bit of local historical research showed that the house was a hunting lodge built in the late 19th century by a Marseilles banker. Tragically, a daughter suffered brain damage due to dehydration after falling asleep in the sun, and the banker kept her locked in the cupboard. The scream came from where the cupboard used to be before it was walled over. Of course we never breathed a word to anyone in case we ever wanted to sell the place. Yet in spite of the apparition and that horrible scream, the atmosphere of the house wasn’t unhappy.’

That this Cambridge-educated former Special Branch officer (then cynical manipulator of the public mind as a television commercial producer) was a believer disturbed my disbelief not at all, however. Much more fantastic to me than any spirit world, and relevant, was the huge amount of Lidl’s own-brand alcoholic spirit, at an incredible six euros a bottle, that we had clanking around in the boot of the car.

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  • CockneyblokefromReading

    Only one fifth of what you ‘see’ comes from the eyes. Four fifths come from the Thalamus. Your brain manufactures images for you to view. Because of this, you can ‘see’ things that don’t exist. Your brain is showing you a little video. There are no ‘ghosts’, it’s all puerile silliness.

    • Mc

      The brain gets up to many weird things, and some gullible people decide its ghosts.

      There’s a fascinating medical condition that some people encounter as they gradually go blind. Essentially, they have weird hallucinations of people and textures.

      Then there was that experiment in Switzerland recently where ghostly experiences were induced in people.

      The fact that one has full sensory dreams is also amazing.

  • Nutzlos Mund.

    What about auditory manifestations experienced by two people at the same time? In the case of the missus and myself footsteps on the floorboards of the bedroom above, very distinct, starting at the bedroom door and going to the farthest corner of the room. And we were the only people in the house, and we hadn’t had a drink! A couple of weeks later, a woman’s voice in the hallway, speaking about 7-10 words which we could not make out. All about four years ago. Nothing since. Certainly ‘spooked’ us.

  • Tamerlane

    Ghosts I believe, gin at Eu 6/bottle? Give over…

    • Todd Unctious

      I believe . Gin at EU 6. Twit.

  • Summer Isles

    Not everything can be explained.

    There are plenty of examples of normal sober people giving independent accounts of otherwise inexplicable phenomena. That is not of course to say they are true ‘ghosts’ whatever that word means.

    What they seem to amount to is simply distant echoes of past visual and auditory images, the physics of which are presently beyond us.

    • Miss Floribunda Rose

      Everything can be explained. It is pointless pretending otherwise.

      • Summer Isles

        No physicist would make that claim, the point of science is that there are always new things to understand.

        If you compare our understanding of the natural world a thousand years ago to what it is now, ask yourself what our current understanding will seem to those living a thousand years from now, or ten thousand.

        • Miss Floribunda Rose

          You have explained everything well, as was only to be expected.

          • Summer Isles

            Thank you very much.

          • Miss Floribunda Rose

            Because everything can be explained…..

          • Hamburger

            Not yet.

  • polidorisghost

    There is a fine story by Saki about a little girl who spooks a young gentleman visitor with a tale about a ghost.
    Can’t remember what it’s called, but he flees in terror and she grows up to be an aunt.

    • Lorenzo

      Actually a couple of ghost people and a ghost dog. The story is “The Open Window”.

      • polidorisghost

        Well remembered.

  • CO Jones

    The number of ghosts encountered is probably proportional to the volume of 6 Euro gin that is consumed.

  • Reality is multidimensional. Only a small proportion – probably in the region of 7% – is addressed by materialistic science. In a real sense there is no such thing as the supernatural, there is only the natural – it is just that scientists have inadequate theories of the universe that are incapable of describing it comprehensively. ‘Ghosts’ appear to be an irrational phenomenon, but they’re not. I would say that in our present society most people suppress or run away from ‘supernatural’ happenngs – they occur, nevertheless, because they are part of the ‘natural’ universe.

    • Miss Floribunda Rose

      Ghosts do not exist.

    • Duke_Bouvier

      What is the difference between “materialistic science ” and “multidimensional” nature? Can you give me some examples of “multidimensional non-materialistic natural phenomena” and share with us a more adequate (predictive) scientific theory of some sort?

      And how did you come up with 7%?

      • Yes, I could, but I’ll do it another time.

        • Duke_Bouvier

          Go on, just a quick pointer… a couple of lines… please

          • Multidemensional means several different states can co-exist simultaneously. Each may have different characteristics. The intermixture of multidimensional states can produce different results at different times.

          • Duke_Bouvier


            Generally (in quantum mechanics) one thing having different states simultaneously would be superposition.

            Theoretical physicists speculate a lot (and apply rigorous maths to evaluate) all sorts of theories about multiple universes, or about our 3D world being a holographic projection a of 2D reality.

            All good stuff that I barely understand. But which can be tested if some specific predictions about the world can be made.

            But do you have a theory that explains when we will find ghosts, what properties they have, what would I have to do to have a chance of creating or summoning one? Who can see them and when? How much do they weigh? Are they aware? Can I interact with them? And can I test any of these claims?

            And how did you come up with the figure of 7%?

          • Is it possible to to encounter ‘ghosts’? Yes. Are there reasons for that? Yes. Do I think I science disproves the non-existence of non-physical or subtle physical phenomena? No. I would argue that Western science – from the Greek beginnings 2,500 years ago to the discoveries within physics of the past 100 – gives a radically different view of the material universe posited by someone like Dawkins. Indeed, Dawkins is in the minority among scientists. Multidimensionality expresses the co-existence of different phenomena that produce the ordered world studied by science, but it also includes an apparently disordered world (according to the standard scientific concepts most are introduced to) as well. Therefore it is possible for phenomena to produce seemingly irrational effects when their number is greater than that predicated. Eg if the standard view = a + b , whilst c is an unrecognised phenomena, if c is introduced different results are produced. Multidimensionality involves apparently contradictory forces. Short answer.

          • Duke_Bouvier


            Basically you are saying that there is some kind of “hidden world” that will occasionally pop up ans do something surprising.

            But these other dimensions are analysable scientifically (even if the rules are totally different to the science of this dimension).

            And how about explaining that 7%?

          • No, I’m not saying any of that. It’s demonstrable phenomena. Find out for yourself and then you’ll know.

  • Duke_Bouvier

    There has been fascinating work by psychologist Bruce Hood on the human propensity towards superstitious belief of various sorts (popular book: SuperSense).

    There are pretty good explanations for supernatural belief but not ones that are mystical.

    Strangely people who claim to have out-of-body experiences of floating above them own bodies have not proven able to read numbers or letter from cards resting on their stomachs.