When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge I used sometimes to have tea with the philosopher C.D. Broad, and we would talk about ghosts. Professor Broad lived in Newton's rooms in Trinity, and his favourite spot for talking and for tea was an armchair placed beside the window where in 1665 Newton caught a beam of sunlight in the prism he had bought at Stourbridge fair and spread it like a rainbow on the floor. Seated in this chair one afternoon Broad told me of his fears that the spirit world in the mid-20th century was losing all its colour. Not that spirits as such had finally gone to rest - new reports of hauntings, poltergeists and so on reached him every day - but it seemed that these modern spirits no longer cut the dash they used to do. Their activities were becoming - dare he say it? - increasingly vulgar. Only the previous day he had heard of a poltergeist which was shifting caravans around a holiday camp near Great Yarmouth. If this trend continued, Banquo would soon be advertising tartans on the television and Hamlet's father taking coach-parties round Elsinore. The old philosopher's face fell as he contemplated the disagreeable prospect, and I understood only too well why he had concluded his celebrated Lectures on Psychical Research: 'For my own part I should be more annoyed than surprised if I should find myself in some sense persisting immediately after the death of my present body.' I do hope he is not now passing his post-mortem retirement in the great caravan site in the sky.
LRB 2 October 1980 | PDF Download