The Spark Has Gone Out of Bristol

When guest speaker Mike Marshall asked for a guide to pseudoscience in Bristol, my obvious recommendation was to “pick up a copy of ‘The Spark’: it’s all there”. So I had mixed feelings when The Spark announced it had ceased publication.

The Spark was a quarterly paper, distributed freely to around 100,000 readers in the West Country. It billed itself as a guide to “the Alternative West”.

I might be called an “alternative” person(?), and I’m a fan of alternative lifestyles. Skepticism is about reason and evidence, not enforcing normality. No skeptic could object to people exploring relaxation, dance, voluntary work, food, ethical living, or education – all of them core topics in The Spark.

However, in my experience the “alternative” to consumerism too often turns out to involve buying lots of things; things which are marketed to you as essential but which don’t do any good. In other words, it’s more consumerism.

The Spark had this problem in spades. It was free of charge because its overwhelming bulk was adverts. Many of these were for businesses and events you’d see in any local publication. Many more promoted a full complement of dubious or outright crazy courses, therapies or “healing” methods. You could rely on finding Reiki, Homeopathy, Reflexology, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Kinesiology, Astrology, and much more in the same vein.

The Spark had some very nice staff. I’m genuinely sad to see them losing their jobs. I think the crazy ads were there out of financial necessity, rather than being central to The Spark’s purpose. That doesn’t excuse advertising of junk cancer cures, but I realise they may have been the unintended consequence of a more sensible goal. I hear that there were disagreements among the staff about the ethics of some adverts.

Not only did they run a full-page interview with “Martin Poulter, critical thinker”, but they were happy to quote me saying that I had a big problem with some of their adverts. The interview was printed opposite ads for classes in “Planetary Awareness” (You’re on Earth. That’s 50 quid.) and for “Slim Soul coaching (with Bach flowers)”. (Does this immortal, immaterial spirit make me look fat?)

That issue (Autumn 2011) coincidentally announced the end of the Pierian Centre, which had been based in Portland Square for nearly a decade. The Pierian portfolio of courses had the same mix of content as The Spark, from sensible and useful to positively dangerous pseudo-science or pseudo-medicine. Fiona Shakeela Burns, with her “alternative” theories about cancer, was a speaker.

There are still free papers carrying crazy and irresponsible adverts, but they are smaller, more local affairs rather than the region-wide Spark. Maybe the end of this advertising platform is a sign that there is less money in junk therapy nowadays. Let’s see.


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