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16 February 2017

How my visit to the Church of Scientology ended in a police station

The Scientologists sent me to prison – but I still have a particle of admiration for their ways.

By John Sutherland

I’m one of the shrinking number of Britons who can remember, with a distant thrill, the question: “And do ya have an embarrassin’ moment to share wi’ us?” Wilfred Pickles, Have a Go!, on the Light Programme. Twenty million listeners. Eat that, Chris Evans.

Embarrassing moments? As Frank Sinatra warbled, I’ve had a few. But only once has it landed me behind bars. It was 1978 – scoundrel time. I was lurching back from the Goodge Street Spaghetti House, belly full of pasta and Chianti, when, outside the Church of Scientology, an ephebe invited me in “for a free intelligence test”. Moi! With a PhD! And late for a seminar! (What was it that saucy student said? “Don’t worry, Dr Sutherland, we all know that you can’t remember our names after lunch.”)

My companion, less liquored up, slid away. I went inside (sod the seminar), made a pretence of taking the test (first question: “Are you happy?”) and raised a ruckus.

I denounced Scientology, and its founder, like a raving lunatic. Drink rarely had that effect on me. It was usually a one-way ticket to mumbledom. Not today. After quarter of an hour’s yelling I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard the words, familiar to me from Z-Cars, “You’re nicked.”

I was frogmarched between two coppers a few yards down to Vine Street police station and thence into a cell for a very sobering hour. My arresters, I later apprehended, were checking with Hendon as to whether I had form. No, as they testified the next morning at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court: I was of (previously) “excellent character”. I followed a sad transvestite into the stand.

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I was charged with causing an affray. I pleaded guilty and apologised meekly to the judge, who bound me over for a year to keep the peace, fined me a tenner, and told me to drink less. It was another five years before I took his sage advice. Doubtless my name is still on a dusty Scientology blacklist. It is not a forgiving church.

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Nowadays, 34 years sober, I often cruise past L Ron Hubbard Way en route to Good, my favourite restaurant on Sunset in Los Angeles. Every time, that dank hour in Vine Street station flicks back into my memory.

I know the liberal elite putdowns of Scientology: I chortled at Tom Cruise bum-bouncing on the couch and sat through John Travolta’s tribute to the paramount leader, Battlefield Earth.

Oddly, I have a fragmentary particle of admiration for the Church. It was, in the 1960s, a force for abolishing ECT – that sledgehammer so-called therapy. The snake pit was more humane.

The Scientology attack on Big Pharma, whatever bees in Hubbard’s bonnet motivated it, bears thinking about. One in ten Americans takes an antidepressant. Do all those children need Ritalin to make them love the classroom?

True, Scientology’s museum on Sunset – Psychiatry: an Industry of Death – is extreme. But entry is free (just like that intelligence test) and, assuming I’m not desperate for lunch, I may just hook a right next time and look it over.

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times