Cool drizzle fell onto the grey Saturday streets of Liverpool, a light breeze tumble-weeded a sweet wrapper down the road in a clichéd fashion, and I was becoming increasingly aware that this would be the strangest conversation of my life. And I didn’t need psychic powers for that. For I was in the company of ‘Psychic’ Joe Power, fresh from his latest in-store book-signing (signed copies of which, I add, are still on the shelves of Waterstones – supply quite exceeded demand it seems), and things were getting weird.
“The thing about you sceptics,” he said, standing on the step of a plus-size lingerie shop to raise himself to my eye-level, “is that you sit there, festering in front of your computers at 3am, thinking up ways to get at people. What if I were to sit in front of your house and tell people you’re a paedophile?”
“Well,” I say, “that’s for you to decide to do if you want to but it’s not really the same thing – I’m raising questions over what you do and the service you claim to provide; insinuating I was a paedophile would be just a personal attack, and wildly baseless. It’s not really the same thing. At all.”
“Oh I think they’re very similar,” he answers, “because you’re there festering, at 3am, plotting to get at me, in the same way that paedophiles fester and plot to interfere with children – you both have to be sick in the head to do what you do.”
With Herculean effort to suspend my natural what-the-fuck? reaction, and with a curt politeness that in retrospect now seems other-worldly, I manage a swift retort: ”Sorry, can I just clarify – are you comparing sceptics to paedophiles? Could you explain that? I mean, are you saying that paedophiles also ask questions of you, or what exactly?”
Joe: ”I think most sceptics probably are paedophiles. I mean you’re sat around at 3am, plotting, aren’t you? Do you deny that?”
An-incredulous-Marsh: “Do I deny what? That I ask questions? That I’m sometimes awake at 3am? Or that I am a paedophile? Could you please be clear what you’re asking me, Joe?”
It’s not often that you’re 5 minutes into a conversation with someone you’ve never met before and they’ve already played the paedophile card. I had a feeling it was going to be one of those days.
As it happens, I hadn’t sat awake at 3am plotting this at all. In fact, although I’d penciled in Joe’s book-signing weeks ago as an opportunity to go along and present him with an application from for Randi’s $1m Challenge, it was only upon arrival at the bookshop that it struck me that I had no absolutely no idea what I was going to say, or do. I hadn’t planned that far ahead. I’d figured I’d wing it, have a quick five-minute chat for the benefit of the unconvinced amongst the queue of would-be signees, and be on my merry way with a first baby-step into sceptical activism successfully traversed – onwards and upwards. Admittedly, the first hiccup in my vague plan was the total absence of a queue of would-be signees. When I arrived at the bookshop, Joe sat alone at a specially-roped-off table, signing a pile of books – with no baying hordes nor adoring fans to dazzle. Perhaps I’d missed the masses’ arrival and departure – I could only speculate, as I’d arrived 15 minutes after the start of the signing, and stuck around for maybe 20 or so minutes. I saw 5 people request signatures in that time. I felt a pang of guilt, even. I figured I’d wait for Colonel Molerat to arrive, then introduce myself, hand over the application form, explain what it was and leave it at that. Alas, as I descended the stairs with the newly-arrived Molerat, we were struck by unforeseen hiccup #2: Joe Power had left the building. Perhaps he was psychic after all – evidently, Molerat and I were not.
But luck was on our side – I could see Joe was stood outside the shop, with his manager Claudine Hope. ’In for a penny, in for a pound’ thinks-I, introducing myself as I approach them, mentally re-citing my position: ‘Stay polite no matter what, keep professional and calm, don’t get goaded into saying something silly, don’t argue, don’t shout and don’t lose your head’. Good thing too, as it turns out.
What follows is a pretty solid account of my interview with Joe. Initially, I hadn’t planned on making a big deal of it – which is why I didn’t record anything, and why I initially verbally agreed not to use some of the… kookier allegations and insults Joe sent my way. Indeed, it all had ended rather professionally and amicably, as was my intention. However, a few days later I was notified of a rumour that had been posted to the excellent BadPsychics forum – which read as follows:
“On saturday the sixth of june Joe power was attacked by group of people who surrounded him and his wife and child. waterstones staff were witness to it. He had just finished signing his books when he was caught as he and his family came out. waterstones staff reckoned they were sceptics. But I would not have thought that sceptics would be party to that only debate and disscussion would be the right thing to do. Has anyone heard about this incident. A security guard from the shop broke up the mob”
The ‘mob’ in question consisted of Molerat and I. The attack was the 30-or-so-minute conversation we had with Joe and Claudine. We spoke to his wife Claudine specifically in her capacity as his manager – she was actually rather reasonable and amicable. Surrounding them would have proven mathematically tricky, with two of us and two of them (although, as Colonel Molerat mentioned to me later, only Joe could tell if there were a surrounding-mob of ghosts on our side – I am not the Man Who Sees Dead People after all). The security guard in question stood near us for part of the conversation, but was told by Joe and Claudine that he did not need to intervene as we were merely discussing things. The entire rumour quoted above, unfortunately, is wildly inaccurate.
When I heard about it, I immediately emailed Joe and Claudine to give them the chance to clarify things – to date they have not responded. We’re also working on obtaining the CCTV footage of the incident, and will post stills from it as soon as we get that. In the meantime, in order to set the record straight, the MSS has no choice but to tell what actually happened. I stress that the views expressed by Joe are not the views of the MSS, and that although the direct wording of the conversation is not exactly transcribed, the subject matter and style is accurate.
Shortly after the conversation where Joe likened scepticism to paedophilia, the police arrived at the bottom of the street. Joe paused and raised his hand to quieten me, saying, “I want to see what the police are doing.” I, entirely off-handedly, told him, “Oh, it’s ok, they’re just on their routine patrol I think,” to which he ominously answered, “No, actually they’re not – they’re here for you, we called them because I knew you were coming.” The police patrolled routinely past, and didn’t look at Joe or I once. I’m unsure if Joe was claiming to have called them psychically, or to have predicted my arrival in advance and prepared the police in that way – but the police took no interest in us. Almost as if they had not been called to deal with us, and as if Joe was entirely bluffing to try and end the conversation.
Having failed to antagonise with the paedophilia slur, Joe decided next to plough a different furrow: ”Well I could set up my own website, I could set one up saying that gays are all wrong, and what right do you have to stick your cock up another man’s arse, and screw him.” Charming. His words, not mine. ”Are you gay, by the way?” he added. ”As it happens, no I’m not,” I politely said, getting the hang of this handing-people-enough-rope malarkey, “and you could do that if you wanted, you could exercise your free speech and make that website. But I think you’d have to expect even more criticism than you’re getting now, and a lot of very upset responses.”
Seemingly aiming to goad me into a more confrontational position, Joe then re-iterated his point: ”But I could say that you’re wrong to stick your cock up another man’s arse and fuck him…” At which point Claudine admonished him, in what I felt sounded like serious distaste with his language and approach. I find it interesting that he could draw a comparison between a sceptical organisation and a homophobic one – quite the false analogy. What it might show about some of Joe’s personal views, I couldn’t comment on.
It was at this point – withouth trace of irony – that Claudine condemned me for making personal attacks on Joe, and even discussing where he lives, what car he drives, and bringing his family into things. That’s not something I have ever done, nor will I ever do. Firstly, I believe it’s important and more intellectually-honest to criticise the work rather than attack the man – the sceptical position is better-served by being professional in criticism; personal vitriol and venomous attack only serve to alienate an audience. Secondly, and more entertainingly, there are way way way more things to say about Joe Power’s work than there could ever be to say about him as a person – we won’t be running out of material any time soon!
Joe then asked about the Randi challenge – why should he prove himself to James Randi of all people. I explained through the obvious answers – the importance of evidence, how exciting it would be if we could prove people did have these powers, plus the $1m (“We don’t need the money.” ”Then give it to charity, Joe. Give it to the families of the victims whose murders you helped investigate – I’m sure they’d appreciate the gesture”). I also pointed out the prestige and publicity involved in being officially, scientifically certified as genuine – if not for his own career (“I don’t need the publicity. I’ve got my own book out, you know. I’ve just done a book signing.” I didn’t retort with “A book signing that 5 people showed up to,” because I’m a) not that cruel and b) not that quick-witted) then for the careers of mediums less successful than he. And to expose the fakes in the industry. ”You must personally know, surely, a lot of people in your profession who are fake, and you know they are fake and THEY know that they are fake, right Joe?” Joe replied, “Yeah, of course I know plenty”. ”So if you can prove you’re real, then others who are just as psychic as you can follow suit, and the ones who are fake will be weeded out, and your whole profession would gain a lot more credibility.”
Joe’s next false analogy was one I’ve heard before, in less extreme terms: ”It’s all the same, you sceptics, you don’t believe, you’re all atheists”. I pointed out that not all sceptics are atheists, Joe disagreed: ”Well you don’t believe in life after death so you must be atheist.” ”There is a difference,” I countered, “between life after death, and COMMUNICATING with the dead. Christians, for example, don’t believe that people are able to communicate with the spirit world – in fact that would be necromancy and would be a sin to even attempt. There’s no major religion that believes people are able to habitually communicate with the deceased”. That lapsed Catholicism of mine is still good for something other than a general crushing sense of guilt, it seems.
Joe: “What do you get from this, from writing about people like that?” Marsh (with a slightly-friendly laugh): “Oh, that’s it entirely – I’m not going to get anything from this, I won’t get a job or a career out of scepticism, I certainly won’t make any money out of all this like you do Joe. I suppose what we get is the chance to protect people who are vulnerable from exploitation – exploitation from people like all those fake psychics you said you know of.”
The conversation then turned to my previous article on Joe, and his involvement with specific Police inverstigations. ”I have email communications from the police where they ask me for help on cases,” Joe claimed, “What can you say to that?” ”Show me them,” I answered, “and I’ll change my tune. But the police have denied ever having worked with any psychic, ever” It was at this point that Claudine and Colonel Molerat had an interesting exhange – Claudine: “How do you know the police all know about it? Maybe the people denying Joe’s involvement aren’t aware of the individual who asked us for help.” Molerat: ”It was an individual then? Was this individual acting in an official capacity as a representative of the police force, or was he just an individual who happened to be a policeman?” Joe and Claudine had no response to this. If I were to be asked my personal opinion at the moment, I think that’s why Joe won’t show the emails – I’d say the only communication Joe’s had (if any at all – without showing his proof we can’t accept that any of it exists) would be if someone personally contacted Joe and just so happens to be a policeman, and was not acting as an official spokesperson for any specific investigation.
Joe also spoke to me about the Lynsey Quy murder case: ”You don’t do your research, you just repeat other sceptics’ opinions. The officer you quoted, Sloane, wasn’t even involved in the case when I gave my information”. Well, Joe, I’m not the only one who doesn’t do my research. Your website describes the case, and how Jeff Sloane replaced the chief inspector you spoke with. His name is Geoff Sloan, as various reliable and non-sceptical sources testify. Aside from bad spelling, the point remains – if the information Joe Power had provided on the case was in any way correct, accurate or specific enough to be useful, the new Detective Superintendent would have been told about it, and about it’s source.
Joe then returned to the subject of testing: ”Well I would do a test but they’re always rigged. I just had to pull out of a test because it turned out there were two sceptics running it. I won’t say anything else about that test.” I can’t be sure, but I know Joe was due to be involved in a TV show with Derren Brown. If I were a betting man, I’d say that was the test he’s pulled out of – but that’s just my opinion/guess. ”But why can’t it be a sceptic and someone independent,” he continued, “and we leave it to the independent person to decide.” I answered, “Because a sceptic, by definition, IS independent – they just want to follow truth and logic. Whereas the third party or a believer might not know the skills that people like the guys you openly admit are fakes can use. How can they tell the difference between yourself and one of the fakes you talked about just using cold reading? A sceptic can do the research and find out all about that, and ensure the test is as fair as possible”. Joe: ”But what about all the grieving people, the thousands of people who have invited me into their homes and I’ve connected to their dead little boys – if I was a fraud the people of Liverpool would never fall for that, never accept that.” I replied: ”Well that’s it – there are people who are frauds who DO do that, and grieving people fall for it because they are in such vulnerable state. How do we tell the difference between you and those fakes?” Joe: ”But why should I prove anything?” Marsh: ”Because any claim that is unusual needs proof before it is to be believed. Show one bit of real proof and I’ll back you to the hilt. It’s like if I said I could fly, and I charged money to teach others how to do it – you’d want to see me fly before some poor sod jumps out of a window.”
One thing Joe was very determined to go on record on was James Randi: ”He’s the most boring, uneducated man I’ve ever met. Just look at his face, he’s so boring” Marsh: ”Just to clarify, when did you meet him?” Joe: ”Well I’ve not met him, but I’ve heard of him. Just look at his face, he’s so boring. And he’s a frustrated medium, that’s what he is – he tried to do it and he failed. He used to attend a spiritualist church even.” As I pointed out to Joe at the time, Randi did mentalism as part of his magic act, and attended a spiritualist church – to debunk it! Again, Joe, it really is worth doing proper homework on these things, I’d advise reading Randi’s book Flim Flam, where he recounts the whole tale of the spiritualist church, and the debunking of the use of the old Billet-Reading trick he found there. Furthermore, how can someone be a failed medium – if you really are genuinely seeing the dead, how can someone who had ‘the gift’ try to do it and fail?
The conversation, by this point, had clearly bested Joe, as he reverted back to gauche attempts to irk and goad us. ”What if I tell you, right now, the exact day and time you’re going to die?” he gloated, “The exact date and time you’re gonna croak it. What would you say to that?” I replied in good humour: “Well, I’d probably put some kind of bet on it”. Colonel Molerat in fact went one better, and offered to put £50 on Joe’s prediction of my expiry, but alas Joe didn’t give us a date. I even offered to make it simple for him, “Actually, if you’d like you could tell me the date and time I was born. Because I already know that answer, so I we check easily.” Joe declined.
One final note on this – Claudine expressed her desire that this stay off the record, because sceptics ‘twist everything that’s said, to make Joe look bad’. I’d just like to re-iterate that I’m only publishing this account to clear up the erroneous reports that we had mobbishly surrounded and attacked Joe – we didn’t want accounts of our peaceful and professional encounter twisted to make us look bad. If there’s anything in the above account that Joe or Claudine feel does not accurately reflect the conversation we had, I’ll be more than happy to listen to their concerns, and if I’ve misremembered any details I’m happy to finesse the account. With an open and honest dialogue, I’m sure we can get to the truth on these things – and if at any point Joe is able to offer any kind of proof of his gift that holds up to any kind of serious scrutiny, I will personally become his number one advocate. I’ll run the fan club. I’ll wear the T-Shirt. Hell, I’d even buy one of the many signed books that are still sitting on the shelves in Waterstones. But personally, I don’t predict that will happen any time soon…