What sparked your interest in psychical research?
I was raised as a nominally orthodox Jew, but rejected it in favour of what Professor Joad, the populist philosopher of the wartime years, described as positive agnosticism. I had left school prematurely, at 16, when my London home was bombed, my father killed, and my widowed mother left to fend for herself, so I became a journalist (at £1.00 a week!) to help support her. Having a somewhat precocious bent for the abstract, I was intrigued by claims made by friends on behalf of a young Irish clairvoyant, Tom Corbett, later among the most famous mediums in the UK. He gave readings to West End actors, many of whom were willing to tell me their stories, and sign statements, in return for being entertained to lunch in the House of Commons, where I was then working as a political journalist. This convinced me that, among the dross, there were nuggets of veridical predictions, some of which could not be written off as chance. I became, and remain, fascinated by the problem of time, as evidenced by cases of precognition.
What is your current position relative to survival of consciousness at death?
I can't any longer doubt it, intellectually. By that I mean that I am not a naturally spiritual person, and certainly not psychic. I have had no personal traumas, vivid revelations, life-
In your winning Ashby paper, you point to the cross-
Yes, in mountaineering terms, the cross-
You mentioned that Richet and Dodds were, and more recently Braude is, sufficiently familiar with the cross correspondences but still the resisted the survivalist hypothesis, although I do recall Sir Oliver Lodge writing that Richet told him just before his death that he did accept it. What is your understanding of their resistance?
There are very real philosophical difficulties in accepting not so much the evidence itself but the implications of the evidence. We find it very difficult to allow that surviving entities find themselves in a world where simultaneously there is no time as we know it, yet can interact on a strictly linear temporal basis with our world. The apparent absurdity of the deceased who smoke cigars, like Lodge's immortal son, Raymond, dress in their preferred habits, live in houses, stroll through gardens, etc., recreating the idealised world they would have wished to have lived in: this strikes most people as inherently absurd. Then there is the difficulty of determining just what survives: the degenerative remnant of a crumbling personality at the point of death, or his spirit magically transformed into the prime of life? And what of survivors who claim to be hundreds, occasionally thousands of years old, and never age: how are they reconciled with the foetus who thrives into youth and manhood on the other side in both our time and theirs? And does it stop at human beings, when the evidence of or about survived pets is so common and strong? If so, what about lesser beings, bacteria, viruses, leaves ... where is it supposed to begin and end; and why? To quote the philosopher and former SPR President H. H. Price, something which is unintelligible cannot be an acceptable hypothesis. I may say that's a view which I reject, but it's powerfully argued, and I think it reflects the grip which our terrestrial upbringing, language and thought processes have on our capacity to conceptualise a world in which, deprived of all sensory stimuli and mechanisms, the discarnate entity can nevertheless appear to exhibit them: in spades! Thus some of the more eminent doubters of survival have argued that the next world does not seem to be anywhere; and only when it is pointed out that it's actually at 15a Gooseberry Villas, Hendon Green, London SW19 does it dawn on them that the spirit world if it exists is not in our time and space dimension, and that the presumption of location is foolish. Nevertheless these are just some of the obstacles to acceptance of the survival concept.
Your Ashby essay does not refer to the Scole experiments. Does that mean that you do not feel they offer good evidence for survival?
The Scole investigation was cut short just about the time when we, the investigators,
had all but completed the primary task of providing irrefutable physical evidence
What are the most interesting or convincing observations in the Scole experiments?
The Scole investigation was comfortably the most important and rewarding experience
of my life. My chief object was not to obtain evidence I would find impressive, but
to ensure that the conditions under which physical evidence was produced were as
far as possible immune to reasonable criticism, and that what evidence we obtained
was objective and not dependent on our feelings, recollections, impressions, etc.
For me the most moving experience was what was introduced as a thank-
Other than the Scole experiments, you must have been involved with some interesting investigations during your 57 years with the Society for Psychical Research.
Not really. There was a gap about 40 years after my work on Corbett and precognition
when I had to concentrate on earning a living and bringing up a family. I had some
challenging and demanding jobs which kept me fully occupied. But I remained a member
of the SPR throughout, and looked forward to the time I could do more than try to
keep up with the literature. More recently, apart from Scole, and some rather inconclusive
It seems that real mediumship, the type demonstrated by Leanora Piper, Gladys Osborne Leonard, Eileen Garrett, Estelle Roberts, and others has declined considerably. Do you agree?
I think the decline is more apparent than real. There's a demand-
Do you think all this evidence is going to produce the paradigm shift so often forecast?
I think it must do eventually, but remember, the problem is not the paucity of evidence
but the strength of the prejudice against accepting it; and as science becomes more
and more successful, especially in the belief that we are well on the road to producing
intelligent automatons, manipulating existing and creating new life forms, so hubris
mounts, and the notion of anything superior to Man seems to become otiose. I think
the breakdown of materialism and reductionism will not come about through a religious
revival: on the contrary, I think it is fear of that, and the supposed excesses which
it is feared will accompany it, that helps to cement materialism as a creed. No,
I believe it will be a combination of evidence, especially from Near Death Experiences,
from veridical messages from deceased relatives, when subject to double-
Note: This interview was originally published in the Academy of Psychical Research and Religion (now ) Bulletin, September 2003, (renamed The Searchlight) and is included on this website with the kind permission of the Editor.