Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The English Believe in Ghosts?

The setting in London, all of Britain for that matter, is perfect for it. Imagine walking down the antiquated streets of Clapham Old Town in the early evening, the leaves are changing color, the air is crisp, and the fog is drifting in. You hear the bell tower of Trinity Church in the Common strike 7 o’clock and you wander past the fantastic historic pubs on the way home, tempted to hop in to grab a quick and cozy pint before turning in for the evening.

Like so many buildings in the UK, our flat is recently refurbished with modern amenities, but it is located in a very old structure. The prior use of this building is debated, but it was likely originally built for an institutional purpose at one point; a school, a hospital, or perhaps an asylum? Not sure, and it isn’t really relevant because in a city as old as London, buildings have multiple lives. In my own real estate work here in the UK I have seen pubs converted into childcare nurseries, churches converted into restaurants, restaurants converted into flats, and power stations converted into world class museums of modern art, so this isn’t unusual.
Remember, this is the city that built a modern financial centre out of bombed out World War II docks, so revitalization and reuse are normal concepts and they are integrated into the very fabric of this city.

Greater London (including the surrounding countryside as well as most other English cities) is unique in this way, not only because of its age (a lot of European cities share a similar vintage), but because of how effectively and obviously these historic physical spaces have been seamlessly mixed in with the modern, creating a constant reminder throughout all of London of the city’s past. History in London is not designated to an “Old Town” or a “Square”, but is juxtaposed against everything modern a Londoner experiences on a daily basis. Because of this history, I think accompanying myths and legends permeate the English national psyche.

Let me be clear that I’m not a superstitious person, but over the last few months, we’ve been told by our English friends nonchalantly that we have a ghost in our flat. It started by me telling them about a couple of incidents where lights in other rooms had turned on by themselves in the middle of the night. On one occasion, a hairdryer even started up spontaneously. I’ll admit, the way I presented it might have seemed fanciful, opening myself up to a nonsensical explanation along the lines of “you have a ghost”, but I was surprised to have such a consistent response from most people I told this to. More surprising, the majority of people I spoke with have had their own “encounters” with ghosts including an apparition in Kent verified by multiple sources, a poltergeist in an old house near Oxford, and a friend whose mother has a “white witch” as a personal acquaintance.

Amused, but ultimately unfulfilled by these answers, I did some independent probing and found that there really is a rather logical explanation for lights and appliances turning on spontaneously; electrical surges due to faulty wiring in older buildings. We have since had an electrician in to fix another electrical problem we had with the fuse box and haven’t had any incidences again. Good thing too. Prior to Lily arriving to London permanently I never had these issues, so I was starting to wonder whether there really was a ghost, and if so, that perhaps it fancied me and was jealous of her presence?

Ultimately, I don’t believe in ghosts and I don’t really believe the English do either. I just enjoyed how the vocabulary of ghosts as a possible explanation was so easily inserted into a conversation on multiple occasions with different people in such a casual, matter-of-fact style. In reality, it isn’t a sign of a preoccupation by the English with the supernatural, but a result of living in a country where the climate, environment, architecture, and history are conducive to such stories. And let’s face it…With its dreary weather, medieval castles, and famous literature, where better than England for a good old fashioned ghost story?


  1. Let's not forget about the black cat in the building too! I'm thinking...halloween party at our place. Too bad I'll be in Venice then. =) Love, L.

  2. Ghosts are so much more romantic than crazy electrical currents! I'd stick with the ghost theory, it's way more cool.

  3. Dude, enough with the nonsense about old wiring. You guys have a ghost.