I have never thought it strange that so many people do not believe in God. What I find peculiar is the number of people, many of them sane and sensible friends of mine, who do not believe in ghosts.
As GK Chesterton pointed out: “If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.” No one, as the Bible reminds us, has seen God, but hundreds of reliable witnesses have described a huge variety of apparitions, many of which have been seen by several people and so cannot be dismissed as the result of some kind of mental aberration on the part of a disturbed individual.
There is no direct connection between religion and the refusal to believe in ghosts. It is more to do with the reluctance that many people feel to admit that, despite all the incredible advances scientists have made in understanding our world, there are still plenty of things they cannot explain. The reluctance to accept this obvious fact can often be intense and result in anger and abuse, especially when the non-believer is confronted by incontrovertible evidence about such mundane phenomena as poltergeists or water-divining.
It is one of the disappointments of my life that I have never seen a ghost nor even heard mysterious footsteps in the night: the sort of thing so many others, such as my friend the late Dr Thomas Stuttaford, have described.
If there have been no ghosts, I can however record one or two very unusual experiences which I would challenge scientists to explain. The first occurred in my last term at Oxford when, prior to my finals, I was desperately trying to catch up on all the work I should have done over the previous three years. I was supposed to be studying Greats (ie, Classics) and the exams included passages from various Greek and Latin texts which one had to translate.
To make revision easier I had recorded on tape translations of some of these books, and with my friend and fellow finalist Bob Stober played the tapes while following the texts in the original. It was while we were nearing the end of Plato’s Republic that I came upon a passage which seemed familiar. In it, Socrates talks about the immortality of the soul and describes how, after death, it can be transformed like something lifted out of the sea – “as if it shed all the rocks and shells which, because it feeds on the earthly things that men think bring happiness, encrust it in wild and earthy profusion” (Desmond Lee translation).
Reading this in Greek while listening to the translation on tape, I experienced what seemed like a vivid memory of translating this same passage sitting at a desk with a large window on my left. It was so strong an impression that I remember asking Bob if we had ever been given it to translate in one of our occasional college exams. He said no and I marked the passage with the word “Hunch”, and on the morning of the Plato exam read it over again. That afternoon, when I first looked at the exam paper, there it was. And there on my left was the big window.
I was amazed and it was, I think, the only exam I did well in.
But what did it all mean? Why that particular passage? It seemed I was the only person who was interested. Others to whom I excitedly told what had happened shrugged it away, no doubt thinking that Ingrams had been shut up in his digs for too long and was suffering from delusions.
Startling coincidences can be just as difficult to explain. I have written books about the little-known authors Hugh Kingsmill and John Stewart Collis, both of them men out of step with the fashions of their time (which was partly why they appealed to me).
Apart from that, it never occurred to me that the two had anything much in common, which was why I was astonished, on one of my excursions to the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, to find a battered copy of Kingsmill’s book about Dickens, The Sentimental Journey, inscribed “to JS Collis this extremely unprovocative book HK 15 August 1935”. Looking at the book now I find it hard to say how I picked it out, as the lettering on the spine is so faded as to be almost illegible.
So what? A battered and obscure book inscribed by one obscure writer to another equally obscure – few people would give it a second thought.
The interesting thing about such experiences – and most people will have similar stories to tell – is that their impact is purely personal. The discovery of the book is seen as intensely significant, but only by me.
I cannot begin to explain that significance, but I derive some reassurance from Malcolm Lowry, author of the novel Under the Volcano: “What if certain coincidences were really brought into being to remind us that a divine supernatural order exists? Could it be that it was rather as if, on our journey through life, some guardian spirit causes our attention to be drawn at such moments to certain combinations, whether of events or persons or things, but which we recognise as speaking to us in a secret language, to remind us that we are not altogether unwatched, and to encourage us to our highest endeavour … especially this is true when we most need help, which is about the same as saying when we most need assurance that our lives are not valueless.”
But don’t quote that to your scientifically minded friend, as it may lead to anger and abuse.
Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and the Oldie