Every night London is placed under siege. Every night, across the city, thousands of people are attacked and maimed. The perpetrators will be ghosts. The victims will be poor, foreign, fragile. Unsurprisingly so; ghosts feed off isolation: few people see them while emailing or telephoning friends. Between midnight, and especially between 2.30 and 3.30, hours when the human body is at its lowest ebb, and when sorrows gnaw most viciously at the heart, that is when they are spotted. Those who see them, or who start to suspect that the tantrums and moodswings of their teenage daughters are signs of demonic possession, are too scared to tell anyone. They live in fear of Social Services knocking down their front doors and taking away their children.
So they stay silent, going slowly out of their minds with distress and confusion. Some, to their later regret, hand over what scant savings they have to sharp-talking Liverpudlians or regal-looking Africans wearing colourful robes. Others end up on the doorsteps of local churches. There then begins a series of sob-strewn and whispered conversations; rabbis, Imams and priests, all of whom would be loathe to go on record to admit the existence of diabolical spirits, open their private address books and, as often as not, telephone Norman Palmer to tell him that their flock-members have been given special dispensation to be exorcised.
Norman is a protégé of occult writer Dennis Wheatley and an
ex-Marine-turned-gift-shop-owner-turned-paranormal investigator. He is 67 years old, wears gold on his fingers and shell-suit bottoms, and when I meet him is chomping on a cigar despite having consulted his chemotherapist a few hours earlier about the treatment he needs to scrape the cancer off his lungs. He seems like the oldest blinger in town. For over thirty years though he has spent much of his spare time developing a reputation as one of London's leading exorcists. A semi-spectral figure, one whose (unpaid) work elicits fear and sniggers, he's not to be found in the Yellow Pages. "I'm a last resort," he says, "a catalyst in the constant fight between good and evil."
"During the War I'd stand at the bedroom window and see these brilliant searchlights lighting up the sky above Lincoln Inn Fields. You could see the planes trapped in the spotlights. It was like a Marvel comic. The dogfights were eerie because of their soundlessness. You couldn't actually hear the screaming engines or the machine guns. It was strange, like a silent film. Every once in a while you'd see a plane hit and start smoking. You might even see the pilots bail out or floating down in parachutes over London. But you didn't know exactly where they'd come from or where they'd landed. They'd just disappear."
Norman is part marksman, part waste-disposal expert. He seeks to disinfect the city - its hapless inhabitants and haunted spaces. "Two-up two-down semis: that's where the battle against evil is fought out on the ground," he says. "You don't go to the London Dungeons or the Tower of London; you go to wherever Mr and Mrs Bloggs live." He and his wife Yvonne spend much of their spare time walking the side streets and back alleys of London looking for signs of 'messiness'. Bad smells, though not so bad they would be apparent to anyone but the keenest-nosed mutt, are a giveaway. Ghosts belong to the capital's grime economy: they give off an odour of decay, of offal. Lost souls may smell reasonably fragrant, but evil ones are 'putrid'.
As we enter a late Georgian square in Islington, Yvonne starts to sniff. "Something's not right here. It's not nice. That square's not welcoming. I don't smell sulphur; I smell sewage. It's revolting. Can you feel it?" she asks Norman. "No," he replies. A few minutes later, I find her clutching some railings with her eyes squeezed shut. "I'm feeling coldness. It's not nice," she complains. "I don't like it. I just don't like it." To a disbeliever, the couple's olfactory- and heat-seeking methods of research might seem like little more than outdoors feng shui; many of the buildings they suspect of harbouring bad presences are found on street corners and so are prone to cross-current breezes, while others merely look a little rundown and in need of new net curtains. Yet it's hard not to be struck by the pair's sensualist approach to navigating London. They feel the city rather than read about it; to them its history is not a textual or archival entity, but something fleshy and living.
And dying too. For Norman and Yvonne feel increasingly estranged by the changes in their neighbourhood. As they wander the deserted streets of Clerkenwell they find themselves preoccupied at least as much by what used to be there as much as what developers have allowed to remain standing. The pavements are full of the ghosts of friends and neighbours, most of whom have been priced out by recent gentrification. Occasionally a faded hairdresser or greengrocer sign can be spotted. Mostly, though, everything seems to be in transition: greasy-spoon caffs of the kind they go to each afternoon are disappearing and being replaced by bistros and fancy restaurants. Norman and Yvonne are planning their own departure: to Plymouth.
They will leave behind them a city congested with ghosts, spirits and immaterial forces. Theologians shy away from talking about these presences, but the Palmers, who have decontaminated council-estate flats and financial-zone offices alike, help everyone from recent African migrants to yuppies and beery students whose post-closing-time Ouija board experiments have gone disastrously awry, are as busy as they have ever been. London is over-lit, its streets are monitored by CCTV and the avian police, its inhabitants monitor themselves using webcams, digicams and mobile-phone cameras; yet the nocturnal city can never be wholly regulated. Ghosts represent residual energies, the unruly subconscious, a wild republic fashioned by the human imagination and hence impervious to positivist or sociological assault.
"I joined the Marines in 1956. Thought I was invincible. It was at the time of Suez. Britain was a troublemaker all through the world. There was always some sort of punch up somewhere: Malaya, Burma, Cyprus, Aden. They said what we were doing was strategic withdrawal; it was bloody mass evacuation. You see extraordinary things: I saw my mate, my bosom mate, literally cut in half by a machine gun right next to me. I must have killed about a dozen men. Four of them close up. You feel almost callous, but it's self-preservation. You have to put that wall up between you and those you're fighting. Then in the 1960s I became a mercenary, getting involved in covert operations against enemies that Britain wasn't meant to be officially fighting...."
"You'll notice I'm not wearing a cloak and pointy hat", says Norman. It's a cold Friday evening in autumn and we're here to conduct an exorcism of what he declares to be "the wickedest place in London." The House of Detention (motto: 'Look on and despair all ye who enter here') is 20,000 square feet of underground passages, tunnels and cellars that lies in a secluded part of Clerkenwell. It was established in 1845 as a holding joint for sheep stealers, loaf thieves, cutpurses and serial killers. It was a remand prison, an indeterminate zone where the poor, wild and luckless lingered a while before being packed off to other gaols or, in some cases, to another world: Australia. Large portions of it were subterranean, making it a hard place from which to escape. At its peak, or perhaps its deepest trough, 10,000 boys and men were squeezed within its vice-like grip. It was crowded as hell.
By the middle of the 1860s it had become a radical pen caging growing numbers of Fenians; in 1867 a botched escape plan involving explosives killed twelve prisoners and local people, and wounded another 120 of them. The jail was closed in 1890, but trace memories of the deaths and desperation it housed have persisted to the present day. The residents of an adjacent sheltered home which we're about to enter have been complaining about strange noises and spirits. Some have learned that their building lies on the site of a former nun's cemetery. The unease that this compounds is shared by the home's warden; he says that his relatives refuse to sleep in the upstairs bedroom of his residence because of its creepy atmosphere. Even Norman is nervous: "All week I've been feeling distinctly apprehensive about this. Mark my words, this is a big one."
In fact, the whole atmosphere this Friday night is discomforting. To one side of the warden's flat is St James's Church and on its grounds local kids are boo-yahing, sex-teasing each other and throwing bottles of cheap beer around. In the past they climbed into the warden's garden to retrieve footballs they'd kicked over, but to stop this from happening he has slung a ten-foot-high net above it as well as placing spikes on the wall. This produces a feeling of incarceration rather than comfort that's also felt by some of the older residents (at one point he calls them "inmates") who live in the complex. The communal garden is full of benches the widows and widowers have dedicated to their loved ones: 'Dearest Ebby, Your space will never be filled - Husband Tom'.
According to Norman, the House of Detention and the gaol which it replaced in the 19th century have incubated and built up layers of unimaginable wickedness: "Think of all that sorrow and fear and anger and negative rage within those four walls." Because the exorcism is being conducted remotely, within the radius of the infection rather than at the source of the infection itself, he's worried that he will have to expend far more energy than he had anticipated. While he mops his brow and asks the warden to identify recent signs, Yvonne and I go upstairs to scout the building.
The room in which the warden's relatives refuse to sleep is indeed rather creepy. Mainly because its former occupant appears to be a lover of real-life crime and detective stories. The walls are lined with original covers of the Illustrated Police News: "When Will The Whitechapel Murderer Be Captured?" Shelves are full of books and videos about Jack The Ripper, Richard Nixon, and Oscar Wilde's imprisonment. Yvonne, thermally rather than textually inclined, says she's confused. "Here: I do NOT like it. It's really really creepy. I'm not cold, but my hair's standing on end. I can feel the draught coming from there." She points to a spot near where I'm standing.
Am I myself a ghost? Suddenly, in this strange house, with noisy London and all its up-for-it clubbers and Friday-night ravers apparently a million miles away from where we are, anything seems possible. It's only when we return downstairs that Norman declares the source of the problem is not coming from the residence itself, but is actually part of the malign forcefield exerted by the House of Detention: "The bad news," he tells Yvonne, "is that it's the old enemy we've come across before. I'll give you three guesses where." "Guildford?" "Yes. It's Thentus." Thentus, it turns out, is a high-ranking demon, a manifestation of pure evil, one that they thought they had banished during a previous exorcism in suburban Surrey. Evil is an elusive migrant too wily and centrifugal to ever be totally extinguished.
And so, with the living room lights on and the curtains undrawn, Norman sits down on an armchair and begins to take out paraphernalia from his plastic bag. Apparently even those spirits attacking Hindus or Jews respond most effectively, that is fearfully, to Christian weapons of destruction: a Bible, a crucifix, holy water that he has brought along in a small plastic bottle with a sticky label on it on which someone has written 'Holy water'. Those spirits may be old ones, they may hail from the sixteenth century, but they always have a perfect understanding of contemporary English.
Norman starts to recite the Lord's Prayer. He speaks with feeling and pauses so lengthily between lines that I worry he's going to keel over. His breathing is erratic. I know he's in pain because his lung cancer requires him to take constant pain killers and medication, but he has left his tablets at home. He's not allowed any alcohol which might help mask the agony. Yvonne urges him not to sit back on his chair as it might exacerbate his piles. "My head is tight," he complains. "I'm getting a splitting headache."
On the walls of the room hang nineteenth-century prints of London scenes: John O'Connor's 'Ludgate Evening' and Charles Dixon's 'Tower Bridge'. But although Norman earlier crossed my forehead and sprinkled me with holy water, there is little art or spectacle on show here. He sees himself as a technician rather than as an artist or a performer. On he labours: "Cease to trouble this place," he commands. Then: "Let evil spirits be put to flight. Deliver this place from the assaults and temptations of the evil one. Before your presence, oh Lord, the arms of hell are put to flight. Free these premises from every evil and unclean spirit that may be assailing it. Begone Satan and cease to trouble this place."
Soon Satan does get himself begone. Or so Norman tells me the following week when we meet to discuss the evening. The exorcism had been expected to last all night long; in the end, it was done and dusted in a couple of hours. It was a very undramatic victory. No hurled crockery. No blood on the walls. No dancing ectoplasm. The strangest thing, as I discovered later in the evening, was the disappearance of my notebook and my mobile phone. "To be honest, I think whatever was there beat a tactical retreat. I think it's trying to lull us into a sense of false security. I'd have been happier if I'd come out of there like a wet dishcloth."
It seems that Thentus, just like Norman and Yvonne, had finally decided to leave Clerkenwell. He had been in the neighbourhood for a good while. Where he has decamped to is unclear, but then the fight against evil, as Norman had often reminded me, is a ceaseless one. Somewhere else in the capital will have to bask in the anti-glory of being dubbed The Wickedest Place in London. But at least the House of Detention is now ghost-free. The residents of the sheltered home opposite it seem happy enough.
Norman, who goes to great lengths to describe himself as less a magus, and more a simple operative who sometimes does a spot of night-shift work, is feeling a little hardier. And thoughtful: "I think everyone's searching for something that's missing. But it makes you vulnerable if you're looking for something unseen or intangible. Things can easily get out of control. I suppose I deal with the sub-strata of London. Its substructure. You could say this is a parallel London that the real or physical London doesn't know about. It occupies a different plane of existence."