An apparition causes havoc by menacing two people in their kitchen. From the London Stereoscopic Company Comic Series, 1865/Getty Images
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I was a die-hard sceptic, but then I saw a poltergeist

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

One dim afternoon, I was doing the washing up, when I heard an insistent ticking noise. I looked to my right, and a just-washed wineglass, set aside to dry, was shaking slightly on the kitchen counter. Unthinkingly, I laid a finger on the base of the upended glass, silencing it.

I continued my washing; my brain finally caught up, and I wondered what the ticking noise had been. Then it started up again. I stared at the glass in horror, worrying that it signalled the return of the massive, brown rat that had occupied my kitchen for weeks, and that he was again chewing away at the wood of my cupboards. But no, only the one glass was shaking.

I was too stunned to be scared, but I remember the sense of conviction; surely, it was a poltergeist. Why, I thought, had a supernatural being decided to show itself to me, a Marxist, who does not believe in ghosts?

The ticking and rattling continued. In my mind’s eye I saw the home page of a YouTube channel with thousands of hits, and an increasing bank balance. I grabbed my phone and started filming. Then the fear came, and feeling like a brave reporter, sacrificing her own well being to capture historic footage, I held the phone out in front of me like the exorcist’s crucifix. I imagined myself on the red couch of The One Show, with perfectly coiffed hair, describing my encounter to a rapt audience, obscured by the blazing lights. Fixed to the floor, I watched the rattling glass through the tiny screen, as if its sense of remove could protect me from being ripped limb from limb by a spirit with inhuman strength.

My fiancé returned home from the store. I felt like Eve showing the apple to Adam. “David,” I said, “there’s a supernatural event!” As he watched from over my shoulder, he explained; I had put the glass down so quickly that a vacuum had formed, and as air seeped in under the nearly perfect seal between wet glass rim and counter, the glass shook and rattled. I stopped recording; he switched on a light, and I saw the tell tale foam on the upturned glass’s rim. My encounter with the supernatural had ended.

I was stunned by my credulity, and by how it had affected my thoughts and choices. Where was my sense of scientific inquiry? In my ego and my belief, I had stayed with the poltergeist, filming, afraid of scaring it away; if I had stopped for a moment to turn on the light, I would have seen the foam.

Humans flock to the supernatural. Psychologists, philosophers and anthropologists have long wondered why. Perhaps neuroscience will give us an answer, when the brain is finally mapped and understood. The world has always been an inexplicable place; even as humans mastered their environment, they wove stories of gods and spirits, imbuing them with human and animal personalities. By connecting the monstrous, unpredictable world with the smaller unknown of another being’s mind, those gods and spirits kept us from going mad with fear. We can pray to a god, or sacrifice for one; a spirit can be appeased. And, in the two months since I saw the poltergeist, I have realised that despite all of my education and understanding, as soon as there is a gap in my knowledge, the ghosts and spirits will enter.

I must admit that, now, I hunger for this experience. I seek out a sense of the numinous, and I find it, richly and wonderfully, in all elements of human experience. Consider the regular, deep gashes on this washed up log, found beached on the banks of the Tamar River. Was it gouged by the claws of an eldritch sea-beast, or gnawed by fat, writhing caterpillars the size of a duckling? I pause and enjoy these moments. Sometimes my curiosity wins, and I must sleuth out the answer, but sometimes I let my imagination run and find the most creative explanation.

Unfortunately, the world is still a horror. In some senses it is even worse than it was at humanity’s birth. We may know what causes an earthquake, but global poverty means that too many die when their buildings crumble into dust. We may understand climate change, but we still pour greenhouse gases into the air, ignoring our treaties and ensuring that floods and tsunamis will drown and beggar entire peoples. The elites who control us give us ghosts to believe in. They tell us to trust the free market to find solutions to our crises. It is a powerful spirit. In speaking of it, we even refer to market forces; to an invisible hand.

When we contemplate Stonehenge or Uluru, we may believe in ghosts, but we must renounce them when we contemplate our future as a species and a world. It is easy to throw together a few observables and come up with an explanation, but, even today, at the pinnacle of human civilisation, for each penetrating analysis there are many more ghosts. They are UKIP’s stock in trade. Immigrants and Europe did not cause recession, austerity and unemployment; selling our legacy to the bankers did that.

I feel smug here, until I remember that I, too, am susceptible. When I take stock of the horror, death and oppression across the world, I grasp for solutions as fervently as a medieval fisherman might have prayed as he watched the wave engulfing his house, from his vantage point on a high hill. Many ghosts hide within my Marxism, like belief in the infallible and mighty Leninist tradition, belief that building the vanguard party is the only way to save humanity and the planet. Unfortunately, those traditions are gone; I can mourn them, but I must never worship them.

My fiancé David, a counsellor, tells me that a belief is mutable and superficial, but a person’s values are deeper. When I chase away my ghosts, I find my values. I still know that justice exists, and that the workers and poor around the world hold the immense power to change the world in their hands. They are kept quiescent, or divided, or betrayed, by ghosts. And it is not my job to sit here and belittle them for their ghosts. It is my duty to do battle with the ghost-makers, who are, unfortunately, all too real.

 

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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Yes, you could skip brunch and save for a deposit on a house. But why?

You'd be missing out. 

There’s a tiny café round the corner from me, a place so small that you have to leave your Bugaboo pushchair outside (a serious consideration in this part of the world), which has somehow become famous across town for its brunch. At weekends, the queue spills on to the road, with people patiently waiting for up to an hour for pancakes, poached eggs and pondy-looking juices served in jam jars. The food is just as good later on, yet there’s rarely much of a line after 2pm, because brunch is cool in a way that lunch isn’t. Where lunch is quotidian, brunch feels decadent – a real weekend treat.

Though the phenomenon is hardly new – the term was coined by a Brit back in 1895 – brunch has always been more popular in the United States than here, possibly because it’s a meal that you generally go out for and eating out has long been more affordable, and thus common, across the pond. Despite our proud greasy-spoon heritage, the idea of brunch as an occasion with a distinct character, rather than just a wickedly late breakfast, is relatively recent, and it owes much to the increasing informality of 21st-century life.

The Little Book of Brunch by Caroline Craig and Sophie Missing revels in the freedom that the occasion bestows upon the cook, falling as it does outside the long-established conventions of the three-meal
structure. “It’s the meal where you can get away with anything,” they write.

By way of proof, along with eggs Benedict and buttermilk waffles, the book features such novelties as ’nduja-and-egg pizza, spaghetti frittatas and lentil falafels – dishes that you could quite respectably serve for lunch or dinner, yet also contain the cosseting, comforting qualities necessary in a first meal of the day.

Though such culinary experimentation is no doubt attractive to the increasingly adventurous British palate, I suspect that the arrival on these shores of the “bottomless brunch”, a hugely popular trend in the US, may also have something to do with our new enthusiasm for the meal – to the concern of health experts, given that Americans seem better able to grasp the idea of drinking as many Bloody Marys as they can handle, rather than as many as they want.

As David Shaftel put it in an op-ed for the New York Times entitled, wonderfully, “Brunch is for jerks”, this meal is “about throwing out not only the established schedule but also the social conventions of our parents’ generation . . . revelling in the naughtiness of waking up late, having cocktails at breakfast and eggs all day. It’s the mealtime equivalent of a Jeff Koons sculpture.”

The Australian social commentator Bernard Salt agrees, blaming this taste for “smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 a pop” for the younger generation’s failure to grow up, take responsibility and save enough money to buy a house. But as critics observed, house prices in Sydney, like those in the UK, are now so high that you’d have to forgo your weekly avo toast for 175 years in order to put together a deposit, and so, perhaps, it’s not unreasonable to want to live in the moment instead. “We are not going out for brunch instead of buying houses: we are brunching because we cannot afford to buy houses,” as the journalist Brigid Delaney wrote in response.

Baby boomers got the free education, the generous pensions and the houses and left us with shakshuka, sourdough and a flat white. Seems like a fair deal. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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