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It's well known that physical mediumship (PM) is rare. In the UK there are just a handful of demonstrating physical mediums, and in other parts of the world PM is equally scarce. No one is entirely sure why this should be. We only know that it seems a very particular physiological make-up is required in order for the spirit world to manifest physical phenomena in this material world of ours.
We also know that with very few exceptions (most notably the materialisation medium Minnie Harrison) physical mediums typically spend many, many years in development. PMs walk a difficult and rocky road, and almost inevitably attract scepticism and controversy, mainly because their séance room events are at times so spectacular and inexplicable as to seem beyond belief - too good to be true.
In Noel Coward's magnificent play Blithe Spirit there's a line which never fails to bring the house down. His stout, matronly and rather overbearing lead character - a medium known as Madame Arcati - arrives at the elegant home of socialite and author Charles Condomine who has invited her to conduct a séance in order to provide him with material for his next book. Briefly acknowledging her clearly sceptical hosts, she pauses, sniffs the air dramatically, and with great excitement delivers in a booming cut-glass accent what must surely be the most unlikely line in the history of British theatre - "I smell ectoplasm!"
Ectoplasm is of course a substance inextricably linked with physical mediumship. Apparently externalised from the body of the medium, it is to the best of our knowledge the means by which the phenomena of the séance room take place. In the case of physical medium Bill Meadows, the legendary Noel Coward might well have had to consider a rewrite, since Bill, unlike his two colleagues and most of history's physical mediums, produces no ectoplasm at all, and works with what he and his circle describe simply as "energy".
I first met Bill and his wife Colleen in 2006 and sat with them on several occasions during the following year. Though he had been sitting to develop for nineteen years, Bill had at that stage only just begun to demonstrate in public. Arriving in Eastbourne to cover the GHF events, I was pleased to meet the Meadows again after a gap of several years. They were accompanied by Bill's brother, Chris, who is now the only other member of the circle, following the passing of long-standing member Monica White in October 2010.
Glyn Edwards, founder-director of the Gordon Higginson Fellowship.
Much of a Meadows circle séance is conducted in good red light, but the circle is hot on integrity and transparency and has numerous controls and checks in place. Prior to each of Bill's three séances two independent ‘checkers' were invited to inspect the séance room. I performed this function myself for the first séance, along with Eric Hatton.
We were given unrestricted and unsupervised access to the room, and examined the cabinet (a simple three-sided wooden structure with a curtain suspended from a wooden pole along its open front, in which the medium would sit), the walls, the carpeted floor, a closed serving hatch, a small table, two séance trumpets, a harmonica, a flute, a small drum and two drumsticks, an 8 x 8-inch plaque with a 4 x 4-inch area of luminous tape at its centre, and a basket of small foam balls (cat toys the size of ping-pong balls). There were no windows in the room and all doors were locked and sealed immediately prior to the start of the séance.
Save for the fact that Eric Hatton and I were seated close to the cabinet, sitters were allowed to select any seat they wished. Bill's circle leader - his wife Colleen - sat immediately to the left of the cabinet as sitters faced it, and operated the CD player that would provide music (intended to raise the vibrations in the room so as to assist the production of physical phenomena) with which we all sang along. Chris was seated to the immediate right of the cabinet and I held his hand throughout all periods of darkness.
Controls on the medium
All sitters now seated in two concentric horseshoes (having been searched for any inadvertently forgotten objects such as mobile phones, lighters and other light sources), the medium came into the room and waited quietly as his circle leader gave a last-minute reminder that sitters should join hands during periods of darkness so that all present would know the whereabouts of everyone else should any phenomena take place. Those in the outer horseshoe were told that they were welcome to stand up in order to see more clearly if necessary.
The medium was then searched in full view of the sitters and made his way to the chair in the cabinet. Seated, he was tied to his chair by means of Velcro straps and tough plastic cable ties by two sitters who had never previously met him. The cable ties secured, the loose ends were cut off and handed to me, so that I could match them with Bill's bindings at the conclusion of the séance. This was to ensure that there was no possibility of the medium detaching his bindings during the séance and then re-fixing or replacing them. Music was then played via a CD as Bill slipped quickly into trance, following which his regular control, named Marie, greeted the sitters. It's worthy of note that in each of the three séances sitters were invited at regular intervals to reach into the cabinet and check that the medium's hands and feet were still bound to his chair. I myself performed this function four times during the first séance.
The phenomena: a spirit orchestra
The hymn Amazing Grace had earlier been played on a harmonica (a blown instrument) whilst a flute (also a blown instrument) interjected decorative accompaniment. It was an impressive demonstration, to say the least.
During the second séance, the control named Marie again spoke to me and asked if there was anything I wanted. As a former professional musician I knew the impossibility of a human being accurately performing on two wind instruments simultaneously, especially in different parts of the room, and intended to ask for a repeat performance. I therefore told Marie how impressed I had been, and before I'd had a chance even to frame my request, both instruments had risen into the air and were busy playing, causing much laughter in the room.
Dazzling trumpet flight and an unexpected request
The levitation, sometimes as high as the ceiling, of séance trumpets (long, cone-shaped objects made of aluminium or cardboard) is a regular feature of PM demonstrations, and Bill's three séances were no exception in that respect. Two trumpets were aloft in all three séances, moving at extraordinary speed, sometimes in free flight and at other times performing at frantic pace in the style of a spinning Catherine Wheel, and other synchronised formations.
There was, however, one very significant difference from the norm. Sitters in traditional physical séances using ectoplasm are regularly cautioned that the trumpets (and any other phenomena or manifestations) must never be touched, since they are directly connected to the medium's body and any contact with them could cause injury to the medium.
This ‘Don't touch' habit is deeply ingrained in all experienced sitters. Imagine my apprehension, then, when as a trumpet came to rest, suspended in mid-air close to the top of the cabinet, I was invited by Marie to walk forward and take hold of it. I questioned the instruction but was told firmly to go ahead and do it.
I did so, experiencing just a slight resistance as I pulled the trumpet free and placed it on the floor. Eric Hatton was then invited to do the same, as were several sitters in the second and third séances. In all cases the medium slumbered on peacefully in trance without the slightest ill effect.
Later in the first séance, after the medium's bindings had been checked once again, the control Marie announced that Bill's spirit team would try to bring "the babies". These, we were told, were very small children attached to the Meadows' spirit team. In good red light sitters watched as two small shapes (less than a metre high) pushed themselves against the cabinet curtain, bulging it outwards towards the sitters. I was then invited to approach the cabinet so that "the babies" could touch me. Since they were behind the curtain and only their outline could be seen, I paid very close attention indeed. I am 5' 3", and within seconds I felt what seemed like tiny fingers on the lower part of my legs, travelling up towards my knees. Several other sitters experienced this phenomenon subsequently, and some were allowed to take hold of "the babies'" hands. Each reported that they had been able to discern tiny fingernails on the hands. This phenomenon at an end, the cabinet curtain was raised without human assistance to reveal the medium still under restraint.
Deformed hand materialises
In the Meadows circle's third and final séance, one sitter was called forward to witness what was to prove a highly evidential manifestation. Bill Meadows has two perfectly normal hands, as have his wife and brother, yet in good red light an obviously deformed hand, apparently with twisted fingers and a piece of one finger missing, belonging, we were told, to one of the spirit team named Ralph, was visible to many sitters.
Materialised face seen by many
Much remarkable phenomena took place in Bill's three séances, but for me, perhaps the most outstanding was the clearly visible manifestation of a face towards the end of the second séance - a phenomenon I had thought consigned to the past. With a clear view of the cabinet I watched as the brightly illuminated square plaque, which had been flying in various parts of the room, hovered at the front of the cabinet, tilted and clearly illuminated a face which bore no relation to that of the medium. Many of the sitters were able to see this, including the gentleman sitting next to me - one of the few remaining people to have witnessed full-form materialisation in light.
Cable ties a perfect match
At the end of each séance the light was switched on to reveal the medium, still seated and bound to his chair, levitated out into the main body of the room. At the third and final séance Bill and chair were found more than two metres from the cabinet. He was released from his restraints by the two people who had secured him prior to the séance, and in séances one and two I was handed the cable ties so that I could check them against the cut-off portions I had retained. In the third séance the cut-off ties were retained by Scott Milligan. In all three cases they were a perfect match.
Bill Meadows, 72 years old, is an unassuming and modest man who shies away from publicity. But if his mediumship continues to develop at the rate it has done since I last sat with him in 2007, he is unlikely to escape attention for very long.