While I Remember by Ivy Northage
A Sitting with Alec Harris in Cardiff
It was on a tour in Wales that I was privileged to attend the most extraordinary demonstration of physical phenomena I have ever witnessed. I had an engagement in Cardiff and my host invited me afterwards to go with him and his wife to a materialisation séance with Alec Harris, later an extremely famous materialisation medium but then practically unknown. He was also most reluctant about his extraordinary gift. If I remember rightly, he was an engineer in normal life. His wife played the violin in a theatre orchestra so it was not until she returned after the evening performance that the séances could start. These took place in a small upstairs room in which a cabinet had been arranged by hanging blackout curtains across one corner. In contrast to those of Helen Duncan, these curtains remained open and the medium was fully visible the whole time. Like her, he was stripped and searched beforehand and came back in a very loose tunic and trousers of blackout material. I sat with my host and Mrs Harris, beside me their son David, aged about twelve. Across the room were three rows of sitters, perhaps some twenty people in all. A central red light provided illumination.
It was customary for the séances to start with a solo from David. In his very beautiful choirboy’s voice he sang The Lord is My Shepherd. Meanwhile, fully visible to us all, Alec went into trance and just as the glorious notes of the last verse died away, the curtains billowed very slightly, as if stirred by a breeze.
With Helen Duncan, materialisations came gradually. You could see the flow of the ectoplasm; it came out in a ribbon before expanding into a form. With Alec it was different. There was just a slight tremor of the curtains and there before your eyes was a form. One moment there was nothing and the next moment he was there, and we could still see Alec sitting in the cabinet, apparently quite unchanged. The materialised figure, Alec’s guide, whose name also was David, had a long grey beard. He stepped out and in a very Welsh voice thanked little David for his singing which, he said, had done much to build up the power, before very courteously greeting everyone. Then, before addressing me directly, he asked the sitters across the room if they would excuse him for a moment.
‘Your spirit friends are extremely pleased that you are here this evening,’ he said, turning to me, ‘but they do not intend to manifest for you. There are so many here who need the consolation of conviction of survival, but you have no such need. I have been asked to give you their love, to say that they are participating this evening, helping in any way they can, and that they are most grateful for the opportunities you afford them to bring comfort and enlightenment to the bereaved.’ Then he turned to Mrs Harris. ‘May I, madam, have your permission to take one of these roses out of your vase and, on behalf of her spirit friends, give this to this lady?’ As he handed me the flower I took it by the stem.
As I have explained, I cannot bear to be touched in these situations and with my mind I made my usual plea, whereupon the figure said, ‘My dear, would you shake hands with me?’ Thus forewarned I felt no reluctance to take his hand. To my astonishment it was the tiny hand of a child of five. In my mind - I said nothing out loud — but in my mind I said to myself, ‘This is a child’s hand.’ Instantly he smiled and said, ‘Nobody wants to see hands, it is faces they are interested in, and if we make the hands a little smaller it conserves the power for that more important feature.’ Then, giving a little chuckle, he moved from me and addressed the rows of sitters across the room. ‘I am now going to send those loved ones to you who will try to manifest tonight. It is most important that you answer, because your contact is the supporting rod of energy that will maintain the materialised form.’
Alec’s guide was very much more informative than Albert and there was not that slight feeling of being patronised. I never felt comfortable with Albert but David took time to explain the procedure; he made you really glad to be there and anxious to help in any way he could. Now he explained, ‘Before we begin these proceedings we need to lighten the atmosphere. My hostess is a musician but she has already been working this evening at the theatre. We have our own methods of lightening the atmosphere, which is all that music does; it breaks down the tension inevitably arising when people are in an unknown situation. I shall depart and a little light-hearted creature will take my place.’
There was something like a flash, a “whoosh...” into the curtain and, before we had time to realise it, David was no longer there and in his place was a little girl. She was fully formed, with dark skin and a mass of curly black hair, clothed not in loose draperies but in a whitish-pink dress with a frill on the skirt, which came just to her knees. Nothing could have been more different from the materialised form of Alec’s guide than this little girl perched on the lap of the medium, whom we could see quite clearly sitting with his head down and his arms loosely folded as if asleep.
‘I love him very much,’ she said and gave him a kiss but with no response from him; he was quite unaware. ‘I know he is asleep,’ she went on, ‘but his other bit — his spirit bit — he’ knows I have kissed him.’ Then she explained, ‘I am here to tell you who is coming. David tells me what to do but I am the conductor.’ And she threw back her head importantly, shaking her mop of curly hair. She had the most lovely eyes and very dainty features.
‘You won’t see me,’ she continued. ‘You will only hear my voice because you people want to see bodies, and if they have bodies I can’t have mine, but I will tell you what to do. The first person who wants to come is another little girl.’
With that, Topsy was gone and we heard her voice asking if there was someone who had a little girl called Dorothy. ‘Speak up,’ she said. ‘This is where you must speak up.’ From towards the back of the room a voice acknowledged a daughter named Dorothy. ‘Go on, Dolly,’ we heard Topsy’s voice, ‘your mother is here.’ And there before us was a white child with her hair done in ringlets and wearing a very ordinary child’s dress and white socks and shoes. She greeted her mother and we heard Topsy’s voice, ‘Come on, answer her, answer her.’
The mother, quite overwhelmed and speechless with emotion, at last managed, ‘Oh, Dorothy, it’s lovely to see you!’
‘Look!’ said this lovely little being, pointing to her ringlets. ‘I don’t have to have these tied up in rags, hurting and pulling my hair. They come like this.’ Both parents were in tears. It was these trivial but evidential details which carried conviction, as when an older man who had been killed in an accident materialised in overalls and we could even see the dust on them.
All this time we did not see Topsy but heard her voice. Then followed the most spectacular episode I have ever experienced in my life. Topsy started by asking, ‘Who is it here who does a lot of what they call healing?’ Three of the sitters spoke up.
‘Well, I don’t know,’ said Topsy. ‘I don’t know which one of you he wants, but there is a great, big Indian here — oh, he is a big man, so you will really have to help with this. All you people who are healers, just think about healing and send your thoughts to help him make up the extra body.
’ To the stunned amazement of us all, suddenly before us was a North American Indian at least seven feet tall, olive- skinned with sharply defined features, beaked nose and very firm mouth, clothed in a white leather suit with fringed edges. Two enormous plaits of hair hung down in front of him. We were all dumbstruck. He stood looking around him in a very imperious way. ‘He wants to find his medium,’ we heard Topsy say. Someone asked his name, at which Topsy apparently experienced difficulty because she did not reply. Several people then asked the same at which the Indian figure jumped up and down with frustration and then appeared to mutter something which nobody could understand. An impasse seemed to have been reached when suddenly he turned to the mantlepiece where a carafe of water and a glass had been placed. He carefully poured the water into the glass, then turning back, he gently poured the water onto the floor. ‘Ah!’ exclaimed a lady sitting directly in front of him, ‘You are Running Water,’ whereupon he bent and embraced the lady.
Now this episode raises all sorts of questions, not least, why did he not know her? As far as I can understand, those in spirit do not identify the physical body because their awareness is of the spirit. As soon as the healer acknowledged him he focussed on her spirit and so was able to recognise her. He then held out his plaits and we heard Topsy say that he wanted those in the back row to take hold of them. To our amazement, they stretched across to where two sitters in the back row picked up the ends, and he ran his hands along them. Then, through Topsy, he said he wanted by this to convey to his medium the power he was directing to her, and he gave some instructions for a particular case she was trying to help.
Then, again with the same suddenness, he was no longer there. In his place was a rather hunched old lady. All this time, Alec continued to be visible in his cubicle; we could see that he had not moved. She had a wrinkled face with deep lines down from the mouth suggesting a bad temper. In a very querulous voice with a strong Welsh accent, she said, ‘My daughter is here.’ As a voice answered her, this old lady trod in the water which Running Water had poured on the floor. I think it’s disgusting,’ she remarked, looking down at this. ‘People are so slovenly. Why don’t they wipe up these messes?’ As the embarrassed daughter tried to explain, her mother interrupted. ‘I don’t care who it was, they shouldn’t have left it like this.’
The daughter tried again. ‘I’m so pleased to see you, mother.’
‘Are you?’ demanded the old lady crossly, and went on to criticise her daughter for all the things she was doing wrongly at home. It became very clear to us all that just being in the spirit world and not in a physical body did not, in itself, improve the character.
It was about eleven o’clock when the séance actually started. The materialisations continued, all with personal evidential details, until two o’clock in the morning, everyone staggered by the wonder of it all. Alec’s guide, David, had exuded a special quality, making us feel that we were indeed loved.
It was July. The house, some way out of Cardiff, stood on a hill overlooking the town; in the distance we could see the surrounding hills. I looked up at the sky and it seemed that literally millions of stars were shining down on me. I stood there quietly for a while, wrapped in the wonder of it all, and it came to me how difficult — how impossible — it must be for people to believe such things could really happen. I had only just come from witnessing them, but even I could hardly believe that they had actually taken place.
I realised now more clearly what Chan had meant when he said I needed to understand the difficulty people had when they started to investigate and how important it was for me to be able to say that I knew these things were true, that I had seen them for myself.
I was still holding the rose that David had picked out of a vase and given to me. I treasured this, of course I did, but with no idea then of the extraordinary sequel. Carefully wrapped in damp tissue, I took it home and put it in water. When the mass of violets materialised at the end of an evening in the Hodges’ circle in Brighton, we each took some home. Mine had lasted for a few days, as any violets would, so every day I expected the rose to show signs of fading. Days went by, then weeks. Each morning I looked at it in amazement. That flower lasted for three months with no sign of withering or decay until, one morning in September, I came down and there was no flower. No dead leaves or dead bloom, no stem — nothing in the clear water but around the base of the vase was a circle of ash, like cigarette ash.
I can only think that when Alec’s guide held it in his hands before presenting it to me he impregnated it with some sort of spiritual energy, and that because of the faster frequency of that energy it did not go through the stages of physical decay but turned immediately to dust — the cancellation of the physical level. Whenever I am feeling a bit down or uncertain, wondering at some low moment whether I might not be deluding myself, I go back to that memorable night. With all due respect to Helen Duncan and the others who played their part in my education, for me, that night with Alec Harris was the crown of everything that was convincing.