I'm sat in a nice living room in a nice house on a nice road in a nice part of South London. Tribal, primal drums thud away. The air is heavy with Nag Champa. I'm barefoot, both feet on the ground. My toes curl into the rug. I'm holding a crystal in my left hand. I am being healed.
I'd travelled to Streatham on an overcast, miserable Friday afternoon to meet a woman called Valerie Pitts. Valerie, a 67 year old crystal healer who works for both herself and for the College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington, is an immediately warming, calming presence. She's lived in this part of the city all her life and it shows: she has the gloriously crackly cackle of the born and bred south Londoner. On my way to Valerie's house I crossed the common. Benson's Funfairs were in town. A gigantic Spiderman, in a semi-supine, semi-seductive pose, lay next to dodgems and waltzers. The wind howled around our superhero and the hunks of rusted metal he'd sought solace by. A faint hint of oil and fried onions floated by.
Prior to meeting Valerie, my knowledge of crystals, and crystal healing, was limited to a brief flirtation I had at the age of eight or nine with precious stones. By precious stones, I'm talking about the kind of precious stones confined to the pocket money section of small regional museums, which is where I spent most of my childhood. As my brothers dashed towards the rubbers or pencils, I found myself hovering cautiously by the crystals, gently examining the milky turquoise and cloudy aquamarine objects in front of me. They were purchased and duly forgotten. I had no idea that, as the College of Psychic Studies magazine that Valerie kindly gifted me put it, "Crystals have been proved by NASA to contain the same DNA patterns as humans and the stars above, so crystals can work with us to help mend blockages and outmoded patterns in all layers of our being."
If you're wondering why I found myself sat in a lounge, in Streatham, with a 67 year old crystal healer, it's because a few years back, during a deeply dark period in my life, I got really into new age music. All I did—I didn't have a job—was sit on my bed, smoking bad weed, listening to dolphin cries and soft synth-pads. That was it. Every so often I'd trot to McDonalds for a cheeseburger and a pang of self-pity. Eventually, I stopped eating cheeseburgers every day, got a job, and jacked in the weed. I still listen to new age music at work, though, and was intrigued to know if a genuine, real life holistic practitioner had use for the music I'd used as a form of self-medication. That's why I was sat with a crystal in my hand, on a Friday afternoon in Streatham.
It seemed like an obvious place to start, but with these situations, the beginning is normally quite an important place to start. I asked Valerie how she found herself involved in the world of crystals in the first place, and I found an immediate similarity between us. "In the sixties we were into this stuff anyway," she remembered. "A lot of us got married and had children, and then, if you're meant to be in this kind of work, something happens in your life. They say the fairies kick you up the arse. You fall into a deep, black hole and you've got to crawl out of it. I fell into a black hole." I wondered if she'd gone down the same path I had: skunk and soft drinks.
"First of all I went to a spiritualist church," Valerie continues. "It was quite weird. The first time I went they gave me a crystal, the second time they gave me a red rose, the third time they gave me a crystal skull and I went, "I don't want that." They said, "you've got to have it: you're an alchemist." It was after this revelation, on a trip to Mind, Body, and Spirit, that Valerie tells me how a book literally fell on her head, on the front of which was a crystal, a rose, a druid, and a high priestess. This inspired her to begin working on herself and, having a shop at the time, to start buying crystals. One of Valerie's customers told her that she was unwittingly using them as tools of healing. "She gave me this leaflet about a weekend course in crystal healing," Valerie tells me. "For the first time ever I knew what I was sent here to do. I did a two year course, then a two year teaching course and I've been teaching basic crystal healing at the college for 14 years."
I'd already warmed to Valerie at this point, and maybe it was the presence of the crystals around me, but I found myself more willing than usual to attempt to understand a viewpoint which didn't exactly match my own. I asked Valerie another obvious, but pertinent, question: what exactly is crystal healing and what does it do? She talked me through the basics. "Crystals," she told me, "are like magnets: they take negative energy out of the body, and put positive energy in the body. We can rebalance the energy in your body." This is essential, she argues, for anyone who wants to appreciate the world in the way we were meant to appreciate it. For Valerie, and presumably for her peers, and her clients, there's a deep-rooted desire to reject society's supposed norms, favouring pastoralism over capitalism. Which, in the current socio-political, socio-cultural, and socio-economic climate, seems completely fair. She likens her worldview to anarchism, and, in a way, that makes sense. She's an anarchist in the way Thoreau was an anarchist. Her living room is her Walden.
Rejecting everything around us, rejecting, even, the notion of what reality is, in a way, when you think about it, sort of what we do, unwittingly, when we take a pill and go clubbing till 8am. The world outside the club dissipates, and, even though it's chemically induced, and artificial in that sense, the feeling of well-being that most of us experience in that environment is totally at odds with the drudgery of our real lives. So, with that in mind, you can sort of start to understand where Valerie, and other holistic professionals, are coming from. It's easy to understand why people are seduced by the idea that one can return to a kind of pre-industrial innocence by putting their faith in crystals. As absurd as that initially seems. To be human is to exist in a constant state of longed for escape. At that moment in time, though, I didn't want to escape. I quite liked being sat in a kitchen, talking to someone passionate about their line of work and their way of life, about that way of life and that line of work.
I tentatively got my laptop out and asked if I could play some music. Valerie said it was fine. I started playing a cassette by David Blonski, called Dance of the Dolphin, which is one of my favourite new age records. I wondered if this was the kind of new age music that Valerie had been talking about when she told me, over the phone the week before we met, that new age music was "incredibly, incredibly" important to her work. Dance of the Dolphin sounds like the title suggests: waves plash, dolphins bleat.
"Dolphins are magical! The people writing this music are using it in the same way we use the crystals: it's a way of waking people up. The government doesn't like us meeting at clubs or festivals to dance," she said. "And dancing, let's not forget, is something we all love doing. We all love dancing our socks off. You give up dancing, there's nothing left. We talk about HOPE here: Helping Other People Evolve. You can do that through music." Specifically, though, what's the benefit of new age music? "New age music lifts negative energy off people. We use gongs, crystal bowls, pipes, and more. We use the bowls on more than one energy centre at once, which helps align chakras." And there was me thinking it was just really easy music to get stoned to.
At this point Valerie invited me into the living room. This is when she gave me my crystal. I sat crystal in hand, while Valerie played me a CD of new age music composed and recorded by a friend of hers. It was heavier than the goassmer thin, experimentally inclined material that I listened to for pleasure. Voices intoned solemnly about the need to return to the "other place" and for a second, just for a second, the spell was broken. I started to think about how simple this idea of a return to something outside of live-as-experienced was, and how it breaks down as soon as you start to think about it.
Then a massive kickdrum entered the mix. The kickdrum was followed by a series of angelically harmonising voices, a kind of techno remix of a Cocteau Twins record. I realized then, at that exact moment, as I sat with my feet on the floor, and a crystal in my hand, that I wanted to believe in this more than anything I'd wanted to believe in for years. For reasons I couldn't clearly pin point, this whole experience was chiming with me. Take my money Valerie, take it all. We listened to the CD in near-silence. It was doing something to me. As I stood up to return to the kitchen to pack my bag and put my shoes on and walk back to the train station, back past Spiderman, back to the office, back to the unreal-reality of reality, I swear I felt lighter. I felt ever so slightly different.
Just before I left, I asked Valerie to sum it all up for me. Why does she do this, why do people visit for years on end, why, most importantly, does this all matter, if the world's already gone to shit. "We're programmed from school onwards. You must do things this way, mustn't do them that way. And that carries on until something knocks us sideways and we realize we have to change. Many people are happy to carry on though, living that life. If you're working for someone else every day, you lose that agency," she told me.
"It's about seeing reality. This [she gestures around the room] isn't the reality of life. We need everyone to wake up and realize that."
Maybe one day they will. If you want me, I'll be sat, in my lounge, with my feet on the floor and a crystal in my hand, Dance of the Dolphin on the stereo.