Saturday, 2 October 2010

Do you believe in angels?

Increasing numbers of people say they do. Is a dyslexic pensioner from Ireland responsible?

Ever since she was a child Lorna Byrne has been able to see and talk to angels. For years she kept this a secret (the angels told her to), but then she wrote a book about her experiences (once the angels had told her it was OK). That book became the kind of word-of-mouth sensation that publishers drool over. Half a million copies in 48 countries and a film deal later, Byrne is sitting in a hall in Euston, North London, in late September waiting to address an audience of more than a thousand people.

Though Angels in My Hair was ridiculed by the one journalist who reviewed it when it came out two years ago, the book’s unexpected success has provoked a debate of sorts (even The Economist joined in): just why do so many people in Britain believe in angels? The accepted, often-quoted and never disputed figure taken from a Mori poll in 2009 is that 46 per cent of people (58 per cent of women and 34 per cent of men) believe in angels. The only comparable survey, also taken by Mori 11 years earlier, implied that a puzzling cultural shift had occurred in the intervening decade: the number of people who believed in angels had increased by 17 percentage points. (Belief in God had remained static, at 65 per cent.) Is Byrne responsible? The man interviewing her on stage works at Alternatives, an events company “that hosts world leaders in spirituality and personal development”. To kick off the evening, he asks: “How many people in this room believe in angels?” Almost everyone raises a hand. Byrne is sitting beside him, a slim, pretty woman in her sixties, with a dreamy, some say innocent, charm, which may or may not be the result of a sheltered life in Ireland.

The man on stage announces that Byrne’s new book, Stairways to Heaven, is already at No 1 in Ireland, outselling Tony Blair’s A Journey. It was, he says, “written with the guidance of Archangel Michael, isn’t that right?”. Byrne nods and concedes that writing books is a particularly astonishing feat considering that she is practically illiterate: “But the angels always told me I would write a bestseller.”

The facts of Byrne’s life are well known to the now rapt audience, who read all about it in her first book: the daughter of a bicycle repairman, she grew up poor in Ireland and suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia. “I was put at the back of the class. But you have to remember I had the angels playing with me all the time. And making me laugh.”

The angels swore her to secrecy about her gift, but she did tell a boyfriend on their second date. “I always remember sitting in the car with him and saying, ‘Look Joe, I can see angels’.” Joe replied: “Ordinary people like us don’t see angels, Lorna.” Nevertheless, she married him, had four children and didn’t mention it again until he was close to death — which she had foreseen because the angels had told her. When she saw Joe’s guardian angel embracing his soul, she knew: “No man dies alone. Your loved ones are there as well.”

And, of course, the hall is filled with angels that nobody but Lorna can see. “There’s a beautiful angel down there, right by where the clock is,” she says at one point, as everyone in the room crane their necks. “He has a male appearance, I don’t know whether he has done that for all the women here.” Everyone laughs. There follow some more details. The angel seems to be standard Christmas-card issue: he is golden, beautiful and has enormous wings. He is giving Byrne a feeling of compassion and love. Can she see any guardian angels? Yes, she can. Everyone in the room has their guardian angel behind them. She can see the angels’ hands on their shoulders.

There are men here, but more women, of various ages and backgrounds. Very few appear to be cranks. As Byrne speaks — about what Heaven was like when God took her there (lots of white mist and a library) and about how she saw Martin Luther King in a previous incarnation, (“You know what was surprising? He was white”) — some of her audience have their eyes closed or their faces buried in their hands with concentration. Most are familiar with Byrne’s story, but nearly all of them say that their interest in angels predates reading her books. “I had an accident and I saw an angel,” is a common theme.

Sharon has seen her late mother in a dream and wants to know whether she could be an angel. Mary sees her husband’s late wife “actually in our home; she’s called Sheila”. Christine is here from Hertfordshire with her meditation group. A crucifix dangles around her neck. As a Roman Catholic, what persuaded her to make the journey to London to see Byrne and not, say, the Pope? “My relationship with him is more antagonistic,” says Christine, who disapproves of what she says is the Holy Father’s failure to discipline paedophile priests, among other things. Elaine, who has given up a high-powered job to become a healer after she became ill, thinks “to talk about some souls being less valuable than others is absolutely sacrilegious”. But faith in God is a prerequisite for believing in angels? “I think so, yes,” she says. Her husband, Gerald, a journalist, thinks that the “solidly Catholic language and imagery” that Lorna experiences in her visions would be hard for an atheist to accept. People such as Byrne appeal to those who have faith but perhaps cannot get on with the Church. “It’s a highly individualistic age,” Gerald says. “There is comfort in ritual. But people feel alienated from a hierarchical, highly centralised organisation that requires unquestioning obedience.”

Sitting in the front row is Mark Booth, her editor. And not far from him is Jean Callanan, Byrne’s agent. Booth is well known in publishing — he has worked with Auberon Waugh and Derek Jarman; he also persuaded Katie Price to write novels while he was still at Random House, where he signed Byrne. When he moved to Coronet, Byrne tells me, “the angels told me to follow him”. Booth and Callanan seem to be central in cementing Byrne’s reputation. It was while Booth was at Random House that someone there commissioned that Mori poll on angels.

Booth says that he was sceptical about Byrne, but then during one of their early meetings Byrne told him that something was wrong with his insides. A few months later he had a hernia operation. He is fascinated by the way that everything she says “checks out”.

“In our society we’re very shy about our mystics,” he says. “A phenomenon like this would be much more accepted in India, for example.” Before Byrne wrote that first book (dictated to Callanan, who gave up a job marketing Magnum ice cream at Unilever to represent her) “tout Dublin would seek her out for advice”, says Booth.

Byrne spends the second half of the evening taking questions from the audience. Does life on other planets exist? Yes. A woman is worried that a dream she has had seems to indicate that she will die young. Byrne reassures her: “You have a long life, OK?” A man wants to know why God doesn’t let the angels appear to more people. Lorna says: “I ask the angels, ‘Why me?’, and they say, ‘Why not you?’. I don’t know why He always does that — pick one person.” This open-ended response doesn’t seem to bother the audience too much. By the time that Byrne is bustled off backstage, people are dispersing contentedly. Byrne gives them hope and a sense of peace, they say; something that the Church, in many instances, has been unable to do for a long time.