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Sunday, 21 September 2014

Master of the Mystic Arts

“Speaking of Marvel, what about Doctor Strange? There’s some interesting occult retro-Forteana for you. Very much a part of the occult and consciousness explosions of the 1960s.” That’s what regular reader Ross wrote in one of the comments to last week’s post. There’s only one thing wrong with Ross’s suggestion: I can’t understand how this blog has managed to exist for three and a half years without it ever crossing my mind to do a post about everyone’s favourite Master of the Mystic Arts.... So thanks for prodding me, Ross!

I did mention Dr Strange a couple of times in my Marvel Age of Comics post last year, in the context of my earliest encounters with Marvel superheroes. As I said then, there was a Dr Strange reprint in the first British black-and-white “Power” comic I bought, Fantastic #54, and another in Marvel Collector’s Item Classics #9 – my first ever Marvel colour comic.

The latter reprint came from Strange Tales #119, when the series was still being drawn by Steve Ditko and scripted by Stan Lee. These have to be among the most innovative and ground-breaking comic stories ever written. Eventually I managed to get hold of all but one of the issues of Marvel Collector’s Item Classics (later renamed Marvel’s Greatest Comics) that reprinted Lee and Ditko’s Dr Strange stories. “Beyond The Purple Veil”, “Witchcraft In The Wax Museum”, “The Demon’s Disciple”... you can’t beat titles like that!

Dr Strange first appeared as a short back-up feature in Strange Tales #110, cover-dated July 1963. Like Spider-Man, the character was co-created by Lee and Ditko (although in a letter at the time Stan apparently said “‘Twas Steve’s idea”). Ditko drew the series for three years until he left Marvel in mid-1965, by which time Dr Strange had become a well-established cult figure among the more spaced-out and mind-expanded members of the comic-reading public.

The combination of mystical plotlines with dream-like art, often bordering on surrealism, were foreshadowed in some of the more esoteric tales Ditko wrote for Charlton Comics in the 1950s – which as I’ve mentioned a couple of times before (Giant from the Unknown and The Flying Dutchman in Comics) are now in the public domain and viewable online. Last year I bought a really nice volume called Creepy Presents Steve Ditko, featuring the black-and-white stories he wrote for Warren magazines after leaving Marvel. Again, some of these are distinctly reminiscent of Dr Strange in both theme and style.

It wasn’t just Ditko’s psychedelic artwork that made Dr Strange a sixties phenomenon. There was also Stan Lee’s inimitable way with words. By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! ... By the all-seeing eye of Agamotto! ... By the crimson bands of Cyttorak! ... By the mystic moons of Munnopor! ... By the eternal Vishanti! ... By the seven rings of Raggadoor!

At a comic fair a few years ago I saw half a dozen issues of Strange Tales, from the original Ditko era, at a knock-down price. Admittedly they weren’t in great condition, but I snapped them up anyway. The one pictured above (the open comic) is #126 from November 1964, which was something of a turning point in the series. According to Blake Bell in Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko:
The scope of the series exploded with issue 126. “The Domain of the Dread Dormammu” features Dr Strange transcending the physical barriers of Earth, delving into a dimension ruled by the powerful despot Dormammu, a character Devil-like in appearance and just as ruthless. Here the series makes the turn that catapults Dr Strange into alternate, parallel universes, with Ditko’s craftsmanship and imagination stretching the boundaries of known physical laws and dimensions.”
By the time I started reading Marvel Comics in 1968, Dr Strange had his own title, with the numbering continuing from Strange Tales. The series was cancelled after just over a year, and as far as I can remember I only ever had issue #177 (pictured above), written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Gene Colan. A second Doctor Strange series started in 1974, initially drawn by Frank Brunner and then by Gene Colan. I really liked these at the time, because the art seemed much more “grown up” to my sophisticated 16-year-old mind than the usual comic-book fare of the time. Issue #5 is pictured above (a “cents” rather than “pence” copy, connoisseurs will note).

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, Dr Strange is still around and scheduled to get the Marvel Cinematic Universe treatment in 2016. These days he’s a member of the Illuminati, along with Iron Man, Professor X, the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, Black Bolt and Namor the Sub-Mariner. That’s not to say they’re members of the sinister Illuminati I was talking about last week – this is a secret Marvel super-group that calls itself by the same name.

I bought New Avengers: Illuminati on the basis of the title, but I’m not going to pretend I liked it (although I shouldn’t be too critical of modern Marvel comics, because I’m about as far from the target audience as it’s possible to get). To my mind, any group calling itself the Illuminati has to be one that hides in the shadows and pulls powerful strings. They don’t have to be working towards a “New World Order” – in fact they can be doing just the opposite. You might expect a “heroic” Illuminati to be working behind the scenes to maintain stability and preserve the current world order. I think that’s what Marvel’s version of the Illuminati is supposed to be doing, but it doesn’t come across very clearly in the stories. All the crises they deal with (in the book I read, anyway) could have been handled just as well by the Avengers or the Fantastic Four.

But that’s a technicality. The real reason I disliked Marvel’s Illuminati is that – in my crankily old-fashioned opinion – they repeatedly break the first rule in the superhero team rulebook. That states that at some point in every adventure, each team member should use their special ability to achieve something that couldn’t possibly have been done in any other way. That just doesn’t happen in the Illuminati (unless you count Reed’s special ability as “talking a lot”, Tony Stark’s as “being rich” and Namor’s as “having an Atlantis-sized chip on his shoulder”).

I’m probably taking nonsense, of course, because I don’t know anything about modern comics. But things were different 35 years ago, when I did a school project on the subject at the tender age of 11. Among other things, I produced tracings of various Marvel heroes, one of the best of which was a Ditko pinup of Dr Strange. Some time ago (ten years ago this month, as a matter of fact) I made a scan of the tracing and had a go at enhancing it digitally to make it look less like the work of an 11-year-old. Here is the result, before and after:

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Iron Man, the Illuminati and the Holy Grail

For about 18 months now I’ve had work trickling in writing short educational articles for various websites. Essentially the site supplies a title, around which I have to write an article. You can find all the titles I’ve done listed on my website, under the broad headings of Science and History. Most of the topics are pretty mainstream, but a few are distinctly Fortean. Earlier this year, for example, I did an article for Synonym Classroom entitled “What Are the Flaws in the Ancient Astronaut Theory?” (As I said, the titles are supplied by the website – I wouldn’t have worded it so negatively).

More recently, a number of assignments have come in from eHow, rewriting articles which have been on that site for some time but need to be brought up to date. There’s a lot of competition for this sort of thing, resulting in a feeding frenzy every time a new batch of titles appears. Among the half-dozen I’ve managed to grab so far were three I was particularly pleased with – on Iron Man, the Illuminati and the Holy Grail (you see – it wasn’t just a contrived headline to grab your attention!).

I did What Is the Holy Grail? in July, and The History of the Illuminati in August. They’re both archetypally Fortean subjects, although the writing guidelines for eHow are pretty strict so I had to stick to facts rather than speculation in both articles.

Perhaps the most surprising title of all was one I did last week: How to Make Energy Like Iron Man. This was listed in the Science category, not Entertainment, and I’ve always wanted to have a go at one of these “science behind science fiction” articles. To make things even more interesting, the science in this case is Cold Fusion – a Fortean topic in its own right, since it’s a classic example of “damned science”. Nevertheless, all the evidence (from the movies, at any rate) suggests that the Arc Reactor in Tony Stark’s chest plate is some kind of Cold Fusion generator.

I really enjoyed researching the article, but there was one thing I kept coming across that drives me mad. That’s the widespread belief that the character of Iron Man, and/or Tony Stark, was created for the 2008 movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. As I pointed out in The Marvel Age of Comics last year, that’s simply not true. While RDJ’s interpretation of Tony Stark is definitely appealing, it’s nonsense to say things like “he created the role and no-one else could possibly play it” when the character has been around since 1963.

But perhaps I shouldn’t press the point so hard. I recently dug out the T-shirt pictured below, which used to fit me perfectly when it was new (the larger one fits me now). OK, then – if the character of Iron Man was created in 2008, this T-shirt must be newer than that, right? I reckon that makes me about 16 years old (which, by coincidence, is a pretty accurate estimate of my mental age).

Actually the T-shirt dates from 1968 (the iron-on transfer was a free gift in Terrific #1, dated 15 April 1967, but I bought it as a back issue the following year). In those days, of course, no-one had heard of Cold Fusion. The highest level of technology mentioned in the early Iron Man stories was “transistors”. I wrote an article on that subject earlier this year, too: What Is a Transistor and What Effect Did Its Invention Have on Computers?

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Retro Terrorism

As regular readers probably know, I’m a sucker for garishly-covered mass-market paperbacks from the 1970s. Whenever I’m looking through a display of used books, those are the ones that jump out at me. That’s what happened at the Yeovilton Air Day back in July, when I spotted the book pictured above.

My immediate thought was that it was a factual account of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center thirteen years ago. With the title 911, and the words “Terror” and “New York” on the cover, that’s a reasonable assumption. The seller must have thought the same way, since she’d stacked the book under “Military History”.

After a few seconds thought, however, I realized that couldn’t be the case. They’d stopped producing covers like that long before 2001 (more’s the pity). The price on the back, 85 pence, strongly indicates an origin in the mid-seventies. After I’d bought the book and taken it out of its plastic bag, I saw that the publication date inside was 1977.

Actually, this is a work of fiction, by an author I’d never heard of before – Thomas Chastain. I’d like to creep people out by saying the novel is a prophetic vision of future events, but it isn’t. The “terrorist” villain is a lone psychopath with a grudge against the city of New York, who plants a series of time-bombs around midtown Manhattan. The title refers to the emergency telephone number (equivalent to 112 or 999 in the UK), where the bomber leaves taunting messages. The book is essentially a police procedural, similar in style to the Kojak TV series – also based in New York – which was popular at the time.

The plot is pretty good, but the novel has far too much padding for my taste. It’s 280 pages long, but could easily be cut to half that length. If the book had been 140 pages (as many novels were in those days), then I’d probably give it a top rating. As it is, I found parts of the book almost unreadably tedious. The last few chapters are absolutely gripping stuff, though.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the book, judged by modern standards, is how cozy it is. Despite the wording on the cover, there really isn’t any “terror” at all. The focus is almost entirely on the police investigation, with very little about the public or media reaction to the bombings. There’s a distinct lack of gratuitous violence, too (no, I’m not disappointed – I’m just saying). Although there are a dozen bombing incidents in the course of the novel, they cause very few fatalities or serious injuries.

In fact it’s almost a case of “gratuitous non-violence”. The clearest example is when one of the bombs is placed under the back seat of a bus. This foreshadows Britain’s own 9/11 – the 7/7 London Transport bombings which killed 52 people in July 2005, half of them on a Number 30 bus that exploded in Tavistock Square. But when the Number 4 bus blows up on Fifth Avenue in the novel, it just happens to be out of service at the time, so there’s no-one on board except the driver. And because the bomb was right at the back, he only suffers from smoke inhalation. Like I said – gratuitous non-violence!

Of course, the world was a much simpler place in the seventies. In those days, the word “bomber” was more likely to conjure up images of a large military aircraft than a homicidal individual. And that reminds me...

Since I mentioned the Yeovilton Air Day in the first paragraph, here are some pictures I took (not great quality, I’m afraid) of what must be the most beautiful bomber still flying – Vulcan XH558, the Spirit of Great Britain. The pilot on this occasion was almost as legendary as the aircraft – Martin Withers, who led the first of the Black Buck bombing raids against Stanley airfield in the Falklands in 1982.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Ghost Towns of the Old West (of England)

I wrote about the “ghost town” of Imber, deep in the heart of the British Army training grounds on Salisbury Plain, in a blog post three years ago. On that occasion I used a couple of photos taken by Paul Jackson (who has also written about Imber, and several other ghost towns, on his own blog). I finally got around to visiting the place myself a few days ago – the last week of August is one of the few times of year that it’s accessible to the general public – so here are a few of my own photos.

To recap what I said about Imber last time: “The Army took over the village during the Second World War, because its location and topography made it an ideal place for them to practice urban warfare in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. The residents were forcibly evacuated, with the assurance that they could return when the war was over. Unfortunately, the moment the war was over the Army had to start practicing for the next war... and then the one after that and so on. Seventy years later, Imber is still being used as a training ground for urban warfare!”

Imber is deep in the heart of Wiltshire, a few miles from the infamous 1960s UFO hotspot of Warminster. About fifty miles further south, on the coast of Dorset, there’s another village – Tyneham – that suffered a similar fate during WW2. The village and the whole surrounding area was commandeered in 1943 as an Army firing range. As in the case of Imber, this was originally pitched to the locals as a temporary measure for the duration of the war... but as with Imber, the site remains in Army hands to this day. They use it for live-firing tank training, and again public access is strictly limited. I managed a visit a few weeks ago, and a selection of my photos can be seen further down this post.

Although Imber and Tyneham have similar histories, the atmosphere of the two places couldn’t be more different. Approaching Imber along the access road from Warminster, the frequent warning notices leave you in no doubt that you’re a reluctantly tolerated visitor on government property. In the village of Imber itself there are strict limitations on where you can walk, and none of the buildings except the church is accessible to the public. Even on the “open” day when I went, there were far more trainee soldiers than tourists in evidence.

The atmosphere at Tyneham is completely different. On the days when it’s open to the public there are virtually no signs of army occupation at all, and you can go wherever you want within the village itself. Unlike the “urban warfare” site at Imber (where the buildings remain pretty much intact, apart from being windowless), the army had no particular interest in Tyneham’s houses and other buildings, so most of them have been allowed to fall into picturesque decay. The location of Tyneham is more scenic, too, being less than a mile from Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. You can walk along a footpath to Worbarrow Bay (see last photo below), which is also part of the Army ranges and has a small abandoned settlement of its own.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Man who Helped to Free the World

I had a nostalgic moment last weekend when I saw Robert Silverberg at the Science Fiction Worldcon, which was held in London this year. In the photograph above, he’s on a panel reminiscing about the two previous London Worldcons in 1957 and 1965. Both were before my time, of course! I first got into Silverberg’s writing in the early seventies, as I mentioned in my piece about Dying Inside a couple of years ago.

I also saw Bob Silverberg at the Worldcon in Glasgow in 2005, but the first occasion was way back in 1976 when he was Guest of Honour at the 27th British Science Fiction Convention in Manchester (the cover from one of the progress reports is reproduced below). It made such an impact on me (I was 18 at the time) that I can still recite verbatim at least a dozen things he said! He was only the third “big name” American author I’d seen, after Isaac Asimov (who I met on his visit to England in 1974, as recounted here) and James Blish, who I saw a few months before he died in 1975 (as mentioned in my blog post about Black Easter).

A couple of months after the convention in Manchester, I saw my fourth big name – Harlan Ellison – when he was signing books in the Andromeda Bookstore in Birmingham. I stood there and gawped the whole time he was in the shop (although most of the time I was gawping an the impressively tight and stiff-nipple-revealing T-shirt of Harlan’s nubile female companion... I remember it as if it was yesterday).

It just happens that Robert Silverberg (and Harlan Ellison, too, for that matter) once played a small but important role in changing the course of history. This isn’t as big a deal as it sounds, because this particular change probably would have occurred even if they hadn’t been involved – they just happened to do the right thing at the right time. The incident isn’t as well known as it ought to be, though, and it relates to the subject of censorship which I was talking about last month, so I thought I’d give a quick rundown of the salient facts.

Robert Silverberg published his first science fiction novel in 1955 at the age of 20, and within a few months he was making a healthy living from writing the genre. Then in the late fifties, disaster struck. The market for SF magazines suddenly collapsed. In the grand scheme of things, this was only a temporary glitch – by the early sixties the old magazine market had been replaced by an equally healthy paperback book market. But in 1958, the only paperbacks were sleazy ones, designed for holding in one hand while the other hand was busy doing something else... and that was the market Bob Silverberg decided to move into.

The publisher Bob wrote for initially was called Bedside Books. But then he had a better idea. He knew that another person on the lookout for new opportunities was a man named William Hamling, who had been the editor of one of the SF magazines that had just folded. Hamling had started a Playboy-style men’s magazine called Rogue, which Harlan Ellison was working on. Using Harlan as an intermediary, Bob suggested to Hamling that he should start up a line of erotic paperback novels to compete with Bedside Books.

Hamling liked the idea, and so in 1959 a brand new imprint called Nightstand Books was born. Its very first title, Love Addict, was written by Robert Silverberg under the pseudonym of Don Elliott.

Silverberg was soon joined by dozens of other authors, who turned Nightstand Books into America’s foremost publisher of sleazy sex-novels. Among them were several other refugees from the world of science fiction, including Marion Zimmer Bradley, Avram Davidson, G. C. Edmondson, John Jakes, Donald E. Westlake... and Harlan Ellison, of course. The resulting books weren’t pornography in the modern sense, because the United States had very strict obscenity laws at the time. They were erotic only in the sense that they hinted at sexual activities without describing them in explicit detail.

The world-changing drama began in 1965, when – despite the softness of the material – the authorities in New York decided to prosecute a news vendor for selling obscene materials. The two books in question were both published by Nightstand – Lust Pool and Shame Agent (these weren’t written by Silverberg or any of the other well-known authors, who had moved back to SF by this time).

From the prosecution’s point of view, the case was a disaster beyond their worst nightmares. William Hamling was wealthy enough to afford the best defence lawyers, and they took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. The latter merely pointed out what had been obvious to an impartial observer all along, that any form of censorship is unconstitutional – a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. As the presiding judge observed: “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” (which is pretty much what I said last month, about David Cameron’s attempts to reintroduce censorship in the UK).

The end result of the Nightstand case, in 1967, was the complete abolition of America’s anti-obscenity laws. Far from banning the softcore fluff they had targeted, the New York authorities succeeded in opening the floodgates to genuine, hardcore pornography. To quote from the main source I’ve used for this article, an excellent book with the dubious title of Young Lusty Sluts: “Every aspect of human sexuality was covered in every combination of gender and colour, with whole families, their pets and assorted farm animals thrown in for good measure.”

And it all started when the 24-year old Robert Silverberg had a money-making idea in 1959.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

What-Ifs of the First World War

Everyone was talking about the First World War last week. Or everyone in Britain, anyhow. I imagine there’s been less fuss on the other side of the Atlantic, because back in August 1914 America had the good sense to stay out of other people’s quarrels. But why didn’t Britain stay out of other people’s quarrels?

On the face of it, the idea of Britain rushing to the support of France would be hilarious if the outcome hadn’t been so tragic. For much of the previous thousand years the two countries had been at war with each other – so why the sudden show of friendliness? To make the situation even more ludicrous, the supposed “common enemy”, Germany, was led by the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria – a member of the British Royal Family, in other words.

It’s true that the British government, early on in Victoria’s reign, had agreed to defend Belgium against invasion – but who expects politicians to keep a promise? Especially after seventy years? A declaration like that is clearly intended as a deterrent – a bluff, in other words – and once the bluff has failed only a fool would imagine the country really did have an obligation to wade into someone else’s war.

If Britain had followed America’s lead and remained neutral, then the result would almost certainly have been a quick victory for Germany (when did France ever win a war, for goodness’ sake?). The outcome would have been a powerful German-led, French-supported “European Union” much like the one we have today, except that it would have started a hundred years ago.

I like thinking through “what-ifs” of this kind, because they highlight how some historical events were virtually inevitable, while others were the result of highly improbable accidents. In the 20th century, for example, an all-out clash between western-style Capitalism and eastern-style Communism was pretty much inevitable, as was a conflict between the Islamic world and Judeo-Christian interests in the Middle East. On the other hand, the rise of Nazi Germany wasn’t inevitable at all. If it hadn’t happened, few people would believe that such a malignantly evil regime could have existed even in the Middle Ages, let alone within living memory.

The Nazis rose to power because a single paranoid individual managed to convert a whole country, defeated and humiliated after the First World War, to his own particular brand of insanity. That shouldn’t have happened. On the probability meter of history, the needle barely even flickers. And it wouldn’t have happened, if Germany had won WW1. The Nazis would never have existed, and neither would WW2. That’s not to say the 20th century would have been a time of peace, of course, but its real conflicts – the Middle East, and Communism versus Capitalism – would have flared up in the late 1920s (when they were already simmering in the “real world”) instead of in the late 1940s.

Everyone has their own views when it comes to speculations of this type, and I’m sure most readers will disagree with me on all the details. But hopefully most people will agree on the main point, that such speculations are interesting and instructive. Last year I bought a whole book of such things, called What If? I found it in a science fiction bookshop – Forbidden Planet in London – but these aren’t way-out speculations by science fiction authors. The book’s subtitle is “The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been”.

While I’m on the subject of books you might like to read, I should of course mention a small ebook of my own – The Deadliest Weapons of World War 1. That’s just one of a number of titles from Bretwalda Books to mark the centenary of WW1. Another ebook, with a more Fortean theme, is Myths and Mysteries of the First World War, also available as a paperback in the UK.

The accompanying images show a couple of postcards I bought at an antiques fair a few years ago. The one at the top depicts the ruins of a church in Ypres (“Campaign of 1914-1915”), which struck me as a peculiarly depressing subject for a postcard. The card below is a copy of a painting showing Reims Cathedral in flames, after it was hit by German shells in September 1914.

Altogether I got five old postcards for £2 (the other three depict the ruins of Caen after the Normandy invasion of 1944). Interestingly, there was a minor local celebrity named Paul Atterbury rummaging through the same boxes of cards at the same time!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Buddhism and Human Rights

In last week’s post I mentioned the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, which also happened to feature in the very first thing I ever wrote for publication. That was a review of a book called Buddhism and Human Rights, which appeared in the Buddhist Society magazine The Middle Way back in August 1998 – sixteen years ago, in other words.

Since the whole purpose of human rights is to protect individuals against authoritarian governments, I took the (possibly over-simplistic) view that to oppose such rights is to show support for authoritarian governments. Yet for the most part the book’s contributors – mostly Western academics – seemed lukewarm about human rights at best. Since I can’t think of anything else to write about this week, here is an abridged version of my review:

Human rights are a man-made concept, developed within the specific context of modern Western culture. The concept is not native to Buddhism, but it is so central to the modern world that Buddhist thinkers must face the subject squarely if they are not to appear irrelevant or anachronistic. This book constitutes the proceedings of an online conference held in October 1995 to address just this issue.

A book of this kind needs to consider three important questions. First, exactly what are Westerners referring to when they speak of human rights? Secondly, are these concepts compatible with Buddhist morality and practice? And finally, can a Buddhist viewpoint help to alleviate suffering in countries with poor human rights records, whether the Buddhists in question are an ethnic minority or a government-supported majority? The book answers the first question very well, but gets so bogged down in the second that the all-important third question does not receive the attention it deserves. Earlier this year [1998], demonstrators in London were handing out leaflets accusing one particular government of waging “genocidal war” while being “propped up by a vicious fundamentalist Buddhist priesthood”. Whether or not there is any truth to this claim, it brings home the enormity of the issues at stake, and dispels any illusion that we are talking about a cosy theoretical abstraction.

Human rights, as affirmed in the UN declaration, address the relationship between society and the individual, in particular protecting the latter from exploitation and persecution. The purpose of the declaration is not ethical or philosophical but legal. Although it is not legally binding in itself, it forms the basis of other documents which do have power in international law. To Western thinking, at least some of the clauses should apply to all cultures at all times – the right to life and to equality of treatment, for example. Others are more politically specific, such as the right to own property or to join a trade union, but it is only the former category of “universal” rights that needs to concern a book such as this. The various contributors achieve reasonable, though not total, consensus that these universal rights are consistent with Buddhist morality, the most persuasive argument being based on the Buddhist notion of compassion for all beings.

Despite this grudging consensus, only a minority of the authors represented here seem prepared to embrace human rights wholeheartedly within a Buddhist context. Others are deeply suspicious of the concept because they cannot find its germ in Buddhist teachings, which is akin to denouncing the Highway Code because the Buddha never said anything about road safety! Another stumbling block is the egocentric, though legally convenient, wording of “rights language” – even though the underlying concepts could equally well be recast in terms of the duties of a state towards its people. The worry is that the existing formulation may foster the wrong attitude in some people (“I know my rights!”).

The book’s weakness is its tendency to descend into pedantic hair-splitting, rather than squarely facing the reality of human rights violations and asking how Buddhist beliefs and practice could help to eradicate them. This hair-splitting is not just frustrating, it sends out the wrong message. Any government unwise enough to engage in the repression of minorities might take comfort from this book that Buddhists (or rather Western academics studying Buddhism) are divided over whether to condemn them or let them off. Sometimes even philosophers should come down off the fence.

[The photograph is one I took in the Musée Guimet in Paris last year]

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Esoteric Censorship

Around this time last year the British government announced Draconian plans to censor the internet. This should have been big news, because censorship has always been one of the clearest indicators that a government is starting to fear its own subjects. Yet apart from a brief flurry of headlines, the mainstream media barely covered the story.

One reason is that the most loudly announced target for censorship was pornography, and no-one wanted to be seen to be “defending porn”. The other reason is that the censorship didn’t involve any new legislation. There were no new laws that made it illegal to view the “censored” material. Instead, the government simply persuaded ISPs to install content-filters that would be switched “on” by default. Users were still at liberty to switch the filters off if they wanted to.

But the government’s target wasn’t just porn – the new initiative also targeted what they described as “esoteric material”. The mainstream media more or less ignored this. Their readers wouldn’t even know what esoteric means, let alone have any desire to access it on the internet. It bothered me, though, because a lot of the material on this blog is “esoteric”. UFOs, conspiracy theories, the occult, alternative religions, paganism, witchcraft ... I’ve covered all that stuff at one time or another.

Needless to say, some of the internet’s fringier forums immediately pounced on what they saw as the government’s hidden agenda. Pornography was just a cover story – what the government really wanted to do was to suppress the Truth. And on said forums, the Truth is synonymous with the esoteric.

Between the silence of the mass media and the hysteria of the fringe forums, the only intelligent analysis of the subject I’ve seen was a piece by Ian Simmons in Fortean Times earlier this year (FT312: “Cameron versus Forteana?”). His common-sense take on the story is that it’s a clumsy attempt to woo middle-class voters by being seen to “protect children from harmful influences”. To the government, “esoteric material” means evil cults and Satan worship (which is pretty much what “witchcraft” meant to their predecessors in the 17th century).

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

“So what?” says Mr Cameron. A filter that is on by default doesn’t negate Article 19, because people can always choose to switch the filter off. Nevertheless, both the crusading supporters of the filter initiative, and its scaremongering opponents, took it for granted that the majority of internet users wouldn’t be clever enough to do that.

But they were wrong. According to a BBC article a few days ago, “New broadband users shun UK porn filters” . People aren’t fools after all – an official report found that “users had overwhelmingly opted-out of the filter”.

And I haven’t noticed a drop in the number of visitors to this site, either.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Quantum Weirdness

I finally got my name in a real book! I mean a proper hardback book, that is going to be read by more than a few dozen people! It’s called 30-Second Quantum Theory, and it’s the latest in a popular series of “30-Second” titles from Icon Books. It’s a really great-looking package, printed on top-quality glossy paper with stunning illustrations and an appealing visual design.

The content is first class, too. Contrary to what you might think from the title, this isn’t a journalistic dumbing-down of quantum physics for the lazy reader – it’s as serious a popularization of the subject as you’re going to find anywhere. The book is edited by Brian Clegg, and includes contributions from seven other authors in addition to Brian himself. And right down at the bottom of the list of contributing authors is – Andrew May! I’m not sure if they put me last because I’m the least well-known, or because I’ve got the smallest number of contributions (both are true).

The book is organized in double-page spreads, of which I’m responsible for five. The most Fortean-sounding of these is “Zero-Point Energy”, because of the way the phrase has been appropriated by New Age mystics and free-energy conspiracy theorists. But I barely touch on the wackier aspects of the subject (although Brian mentions that it’s “beloved of fringe science” in his introduction). Zero-Point Energy is weird enough even if you stick to the well-established facts!

Another of my contributions is on the Quantum Zeno Effect, which I also wrote about in Fortean Times last year (FT309, Christmas 2013). There’s also one on the quantum double-slit experiment, which is such a basic aspect of quantum physics that it’s in danger of sounding mundane. But Wheeler’s delayed choice version of the experiment – which I mention in a sidebar – is every bit as weird as the quantum Zeno effect or zero-point energy.

I also contributed a two-page biography of Erwin Schrödinger. In fact this can be seen online – it’s the second item in the slideshow on this page (if you click on the image, a bigger version pops up). It’s a shame that Schrödinger is only known to most people for his silly “cat” paradox, which he never meant people to take seriously (he was attempting to refute a ludicrously arrogant interpretation of quantum mechanics that was current at the time). In fact he was one of the most innovative physicists of his generation – for reasons that have nothing to do with cats.

In his spare time, Schrödinger is said to have dabbled in Eastern philosophy and mysticism. That’s also true of the other person I wrote a two-page biography of: Brian Josephson. The work that made him famous – and earned him a Nobel Prize – was done at a very early age, in his twenties. By the time he was in his thirties, however, he was drifting away from mainstream science, feeling that it ignored large areas of human experience – things like mysticism and the paranormal – that it ought to be trying to explain. This led Josephson to set up his Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge University... and to become one of the most outspoken heretics of modern science.

Needless to say, 30-Second Quantum Theory is packed with other good stuff besides the handful of contributions I wrote myself. There’s quantum gravity, quantum biology, quantum chromodynamics and quantum tunnelling. You can read about superluminal experiments, about waves that travel backwards in time, and about the many-worlds hypothesis. There’s a whole section on the ramifications of quantum entanglement (“Spooky Action at a Distance”) – including the dubiously named “quantum teleportation” effect, which I wrote about last week at Mysterious Universe. (It’s worth reading Brian Clegg’s comment at the bottom of that article, as well, since Brian explains the details of the effect better than I do).

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Fortean Trends

Since I renamed this blog Retro-Forteana, I thought it would be interesting to look at changing trends in Fortean topics over the years. At one time, Fortean Times used to produce an annual Weirdness Index based on the number of press reports in different subgenres of Forteana. This strikes me as being in the true spirit of Charles Fort, and it’s a pity they don’t seem to do it any more.

In lieu of that, I decided to turn to Google’s N-gram viewer. I’ve already mentioned this addictive online utility once, in my post about Spooky Action at a Distance. Basically it allows you to see how the popularity of a specified word or phrase has changed over time. After searching through millions of digitized books it returns, for each year in a specified range, the percentage of all the books published in that year that include the given word or phrase.

You can waste hours playing with the N-gram viewer, but here are a few charts I thought were particularly interesting (you may need to click to enlarge them in order to see what is going on).

Chart 1: Fortean specialisms

This chart plots three words that are only ever going to appear in Fortean specialist literature. “Fortean” itself first makes an appearance in the 1930s, around the time of Fort’s death. It rises steadily until the 1950s, at which point it suddenly shoots up. I’m not sure why this is, or why it drops back down again equally suddenly in the early sixties, After that it starts to climb steadily again, reaching a peak around 1999 (remember pre-millennial tension?). It plummets down in the 21st century almost as fast as it was rising at the end of the 20th century.

The word “ufology” seems to emerge circa 1960, after which it follows a similar pattern to “fortean”. The post-millennial dip – which appears to confirm the widespread view that ufology is in decline – is almost certainly real, and not just a statistical artifact (you might think, for example, that it just means there are fewer books from recent years in Google’s database – but remember that what’s shown is not the number of books containing the word ufology but the percentage).

“Cryptozoology” is a newer word than either Fortean or ufology, only dating from circa 1970 – but it’s in a healthier state, displaying a steady increase which continues to the present day.

Chart 2: Sasquatch versus the Loch Ness Monster

In a head-to-head between the world’s two best known cryptids, the Loch Ness Monster got off to an early start in the early 1930s, then received a boost during the 1970s – but apart from that shows no strong trends either upwards or downwards. In contrast, Sasquatch got off to a slow start in the 1950s, before suddenly shooting up (and overtaking its Scottish rival) between the mid-60s and mid 70s. Then after a fairly static period, Sasquatch received another huge boost in the 90s.

Neither Sasquatch nor the Loch Ness Monster appear to suffer from the post-millennial let-down that UFO-related subjects do (more on which later).

Chart 3: Paranormal versus Parapsychology

I stumbled across this one more or less by accident, but I thought it was very interesting. The two “para” subjects make their appearance around the same time in the 1940s, and follow virtually the same pattern until 1980. But at that point there is a sudden divergence – “parapsychology” goes into a steady decline, while “paranormal” continues its upward trend.

Chart 4: UFO versus flying saucer

Not surprisingly, “flying saucer” makes its first appearance in the late 40s (following the Kenneth Arnold sighting) and rises through the early 50s. After that it’s more or less constant right up to the present day.

“UFO” starts a few years after “flying saucer”, but overtakes it by the early 60s. It then climbs at an impressive rate for two decades, remains more or less static through the eighties, and then shoots up again in the 90s. Then it hits that millennium barrier and starts to plummet back down again. There’s no getting away from it – UFOs just aren’t as popular as they used to be.

Chart 5: UFO topics

For this last chart, I typed in a few two-word phrases that are only going to appear in specialist UFO literature. As you can see, they all appear to suffer from that post-millennium crash. In the case of “Zeta Reticuli” and “Roswell incident”, the peak of interest is pretty much bang on the year 2000. With “Area 51” it’s a couple of years later. And with “crop circle” (maybe not strictly a UFO topic, but closely related) it’s 2005. But the decline after that point is unmistakable, even though Google’s database stops at 2008.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Subversive Aliens

I went to two exhibitions of “subversive art” in London last week. The first was Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK at the British Library, which I mentioned briefly in my post about Fortean Comics a few weeks ago. As I said on that occasion, I’ve never been very interested in the subversive side of comics – but I was still disappointed at how little there was in the exhibition that I could relate to. All the comics on show seemed to date either from before I was born, or from after I’d passed the peak of my comic-reading phase.

There was, however, one artist on display whose name is well known to people of my generation – even non-comic-reading ones. That’s Bob Monkhouse, who was a high-profile game-show host in the 1960s and 70s. Before he went into TV, however, he worked in the comics industry for a few years. The “subversive” work on display consisted of a story he produced for a comic called Oh Boy in 1949. This features a superhero named the Tornado battling a villainous race of aliens, whose subversiveness consists not so much of their politics as their physical appearance – which, as you can see from the picture above, is distinctly penis-like (for other monstrous dicks on this blog, see Phallic Satire).

I had to use a picture I found on the internet, because there were signs all over the place saying that photography was forbidden. That struck me as a little ironic for an exhibition that claimed to be subversive. Even more ironic was the fact that visitors had to pay the blatantly capitalist sum of ten pounds to get in!

The other exhibition I went to was much better – Banksy, the unauthorised retrospective at Sotheby’s S2 gallery. This one was free entry and you could take whatever photos you wanted to. And for added subversiveness, just as the title suggests, the exhibit was unauthorised. In fact the artist not only didn’t authorise it, but he was reportedly disgusted that an event of this type was put on at all. Now that’s what I call a subversive exhibition!

You can find good quality images of all the works on show by clicking the link above. My favourite picture was Lenin on Roller Skates, but the most Fortean had to be the one with the flying saucers. Here is my own photo of the picture in situ:

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Frog Falls, Dragons and the Universe

On a trip to the local supermarket a couple of weeks ago I discovered an antiques shop I’d never noticed before (even though it’s been there for months, apparently). I bought a 580-page, half-leather-bound, gold-embossed book called The Universe for just a pound. It’s a very late (1909) edition of a book that was first published in French in 1865, but it’s still a pretty good bargain. The shop is called Loopy’s (“Antique – Modern – Retro”) and it’s right opposite the Crewkerne branch of Lidl... and equally good value.

The first English edition of The Universe, by Félix Archimède Pouchet, appeared in 1870. It’s divided into four main sections: “The Animal Kingdom”, “The Vegetable Kingdom”, “Geology” and “The Sidereal Universe” (i.e. astronomy). There’s also a short appendix at the end called “Popular Errors: Monsters and Superstitions” – which, as you might imagine, is one of the best bits. It deals mainly with mediaeval legends of sea serpents and dragons, including the one pictured above from a work by Athanasius Kircher (one of The First UFO Hoaxers I mentioned a few weeks ago).

The appendix isn’t the most Fortean part of the book, however. In the section on the animal kingdom there’s a short chapter dealing with “Showers of Frogs”... fifty years before Charles Fort made the subject his own in The Book of the Damned. Pouchet had no doubts about the reality of amphibian fafrotskies: “Mention is made of these in very remote times, but later writers generally believed that the assertions of the authors who related them were inventions. Modern observations have at last demonstrated the actual existence of this phenomenon, which is explained nowadays in a very rational manner.”

I was going to type out more, but then I decided it would be easier just to take a photograph:

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Lost Crown

There aren’t many computer games that have the author’s name on the cover, but in the case of The Lost Crown it’s well-deserved – Jonathan Boakes created the whole thing virtually single-handed. I originally bought the game in September 2008 – only a couple of months after it first came out, and long enough ago to have forgotten most of the details. But that didn’t stop me from entering the Lost Crown quiz that Jonathan ran on his blog a couple of weeks ago.

I approached Jonathan’s quiz in the true spirit of adventure games, which are all about resourcefulness, after all. I know “resourcefulness” isn’t precisely synonymous with “cheating”, but it’s certainly consistent with using Google when your memory isn’t quite up to the task. Even then, there were a couple of answers I wasn’t sure about... so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was among the five lucky winners (picked at random from the ten people who got top marks in the quiz). My prize was a free key for the newly released Steam version of The Lost Crown.

Although the details had faded, the general atmosphere of the game is impossible to forget. In a sense, it’s stretching things to call it a “game” at all – it comes across more as interactive storytelling. The Lost Crown is almost unique in that respect. In most point-and-click adventures, the narrative is simply a convenient vehicle to get you from one puzzle to the next. The interest lies in decoding cryptic messages, or putting unlikely objects together to construct even more unlikely objects, or whatever else you need to do in order to progress through the game as quickly as possible. The playable characters don’t get emotionally tied up in the plot, and a die-hard gamer can safely ignore all those boring grown-up things like characterization, subtext and back-story.

The Lost Crown isn’t like that at all. It contains very few traditional-style puzzles, and when they do crop up you can whizz through them pretty quickly. It’s really much more about slow, methodical exploration and perseverance. That may sound dull – and I guess it would be dull for the kind of gamer who just wants to... well, play a game. But if you think of it as being immersed in your own personalized horror movie, then The Lost Crown really comes into its own. The evocative black-and-white settings, the bizarre cast of characters and the atmospheric soundtrack all help to create an emotional depth and a sense of genuine mystery that is much more than “just a game”.

The plotline of The Lost Crown consists of multiple interwoven threads, but all those threads are Fortean in one way or another. You’ve got conspiracies and paranoia. You’ve got ancient legends. You’ve got timeslips and other paranormal phenomena. And you’ve got ghosts... lots of them.

The story starts with the main character, Nigel Danvers, attempting to escape the clutches of his employers – a sinister high-tech corporation called Hadden Industries. It seems that Nigel, either inadvertently or deliberately, came across some computer files that were above his pay grade (“Danvers has seen and heard too much! He knows about the chasm, and D Labs. He could have seen the experiment.”). Nigel takes the train to a small (and entirely fictional) town on the coast of East Anglia called Saxton. An isolated and strangely old-fashioned place, it looks like the ideal hideaway for Nigel... but there’s always the sneaking suspicion that Saxton is precisely where Hadden wants him to be.

The official Lost Crown website quotes the Fortean Times review as saying that “a sense of unease and isolation develops similar to that evoked by the film The Wicker Man”. In some ways that’s a good comparison – certainly the creepy feeling that everyone in town except the protagonist knows what’s going on. Nigel wasn’t expecting to end up in Saxton, but it seems that at least some of the Saxton residents were expecting Nigel.

The subplot of the “lost crown” itself is based on (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say inspired by) the M.R. James short story “A Warning to the Curious”. The key idea here is that a crown dating from Anglo-Saxon times is buried somewhere on the East Coast. According to legend, the crown protects the country from invasion. If you believe the legend, you’ll leave the crown where it is. If you don’t believe the legend, you’ll seek out the “treasure”. Nigel, of course, can be counted on to make the wrong decision.

There’s another homage to M.R. James in a scene featuring a young hippie couple named Karswell – after the villain in the brilliant short story “Casting the Runes” (and the equally brilliant 1957 film Night of the Demon based on it). This scene is significant in that it’s the one unambiguous case of a timeslip in the game. Nigel later learns that the Karswells died more than 20 years earlier – and not only that, but the house where he had dinner with them burned down at the same time (unfortunately, you can’t go back to the Karswells’ house after you discover this – I would have liked to see with my own eyes that it was nothing but a decades-old burned out ruin!).

I referred to the Karswell house as an “unambiguous” timeslip because there’s explicit documentary evidence within the game that the house burned down before Nigel visited it. But if you want “ambiguous” temporal anomalies, The Lost Crown is full of them! Nigel arrives in Saxton (or Sedgemarsh, to be pedantic) on a steam train – something that strikes him as odd, but doesn’t seem to bother the station master. The barmaid refuses to tell him what year it is. Present-day newspapers contain antiquated-looking advertisements for goods priced in shillings (which were phased out in 1970). The villainous Ager brothers only exist as ghosts today – but there’s conflicting evidence as to just what century they lived in (18th? 19th? 20th?).

The first time I played the game I spent a lot of time worrying about these anomalies. The second time around, I just took them in my stride. I don’t think there’s any profound significance to them – they’re simply part of the vaguely surreal nature of Saxton. In some ways the place reminds me of the village in the Prisoner TV series – you just have to take it on its own terms, not try to apply logical analysis to it.

The Lost Crown’s subtitle is “A Ghost-Hunting Adventure”, and it certainly lives up to that. Despite the homages to M.R. James, the various ghosts you encounter tend to be closer to “real ghosts” than those of traditional ghost stories. And by “real ghosts” I mean the kind of ghosts people who believe in such things claim to encounter in the real world! There’s a strong sense of realism in the way Nigel goes about ghost-hunting, too, with orb photography, EVP recordings and a satisfyingly jittery EMF meter – gadgets that would have baffled M.R. James, but are the stock-in-trade of the modern paranormal investigator.

Nigel is supported in his ghost-hunting activities by a psychology student named Lucy Reubans – arguably Saxton’s only non-creepy resident! The juxtaposition of believer Nigel and skeptic Lucy is an obvious echo of Mulder and Scully... and the game’s mixture of supernatural and man-made horror is also reminiscent of The X-Files. The most genuinely frightening scene in The Lost Crown is the one where you discover where the town’s cats have been disappearing to – and it’s got nothing to do with ghosts! I don’t think that’s a coincidence, either, because deep down you know that ghosts can’t hurt you... but a psychotic with a butcher’s knife can!

One of the great attractions of The Lost Crown for me is that you spend hours exploring the kind of places I like to explore in the real world – old churches, caves, coastal paths, a quirky museum, an old railway station, an antique store... even a New Age shop! I’ve never been to East Anglia, where the story is set, but the actual locations were filmed much closer to home, in and around Polperro in Cornwall.

The good news for Lost Crown fans is that Jonathan is putting the finishing touches on a sequel, called Blackenrock. Personally, I can’t wait!

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Victorian Strangeness

Those of us with a penchant for Retro-Forteana have plenty of regular features in Fortean Times to keep us entertained. There’s the excellent “Blasts from the Past” series from Theo Paijmans, there’s Barry Baldwin’s “Classical Corner” (sometimes too retro even for me), and then tucked away at the back of the magazine there’s Jan Bondeson’s “Strange and Sensational Stories from the Illustrated Police News”.

The Illustrated Police News, despite its official-sounding name, was a sleazy Victorian tabloid that was once voted “the worst newspaper in England”. Jan Bondeson’s series has been highlighting the IPN’s more Fortean stories for three years now, ever since FT274. As that first article (which is available online) explained: “For the Fortean enthusiast, the IPN has a good deal to offer. Just like Charles Fort himself, the newspaper’s editorial staff sifted an enormous amount of newspaper copy from Britain, Europe and the United States in their search for dastardly crimes and sensational stories. When there were no recent murders, curiosities of other kinds were pressed into service: ghosts, freaks and hermits, strange deaths and premature burials all featured over the years.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and no less venerable an institution than the British Broadcasting Corporation has recently begun to follow in the footsteps of Fortean Times. Earlier this year the BBC website started a weekly feature called “Victorian Strangeness”, which draws heavily on the Illustrated Police News as well as other late 19th century tabloids.

The stories picked up by the BBC aren’t so much Fortean as just plain bizarre. The latest instalment, for example, starts with an irate man walking into the office of a leading medical journal carrying a newly severed human leg. That sounds like the opening of a classic Sherlock Holmes mystery... except that if it had been written by Arthur Conan Doyle, the situation would have had a less mundane explanation!

Other good stories that have appeared recently include the ship that was taken over by a menagerie of animals (11 May), the man bludgeoned to death by a clockwork automaton (24 May) and the grave-robbing monks of Sicily (31 May). But perhaps the most Fortean story was one that appeared back in April, recounting the havoc caused by an escaped circus lion (pictured above). Of course, Britain is still crawling with out-of-place big cats – a few lions, but mostly pumas and panthers – but these days they’re clever enough to behave in a suitably elusive way (see Big Black Cats: Physical or Paranormal?). They only allow themselves to be glimpsed tantalizingly from a distance – they don’t leap through windows and attack civilians the way they used to do in Victorian times!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Fortean Nostalgia

This blog has been going for three and a half years now, since January 2011. When I started I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to be writing about, so I gave it the broad-ranging title of “Forteana”. But there are dozens of similarly titled blogs and websites on the internet, and most of them deal with the hot topics of contemporary Forteana much better than this one. The last time I talked about a current news story was in March last year (Bigfoot, Richard III and Outsider Science)... and even that story had its roots in the 15th century!

I may be the last person to notice this, but this blog is stuck firmly in the past. In recent months I’ve written about old UFOs (The First UFO Hoaxers), old Bigfoot videos (Patterson-Gimlin Film: Fake or Fact?), old comics (Hitler's Astrologer; Fortean Comics; Fortean Agent of SHIELD), old pulp magazines (Pulp Forteana; The Fortean Fiction of Robert E. Howard), old poltergeists (Creeping Coffins), old works of art (Monsters, Mystery and a Monkey; Satan, Sin and Death), old pornography (Two Geeks, a Chicken and Bigfoot), old poetry (The Waste Land), old TV shows (Cult TV and Autoerotic Asphyxiation)... and even plain old history (The Lost Tomb of King Arthur; Iron Age Oddities; Devon's Underground Secrets).

So I’ve changed the blog title to Retro-Forteana. That’s a more accurate description of the content, and (because it’s such an unfashionable subject) it isn’t likely to get confused with anyone else’s blog. It also means I can indulge in my penchant for nostalgia without feeling too guilty about it!

As you can see from the photograph at the top of the post, much of my nostalgia (as far as Fortean writings are concerned, anyway) is focused on the 1990s. One reason for this, as mentioned in Anomalous Progress last year, is that was the decade when I first started reading seriously about the subject. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I have a soft spot for the Forteana of the nineties, just as I have a soft spot for comics of the sixties and seventies (cf. The Marvel Age of Comics).

But there’s another reason why I’ve tended to lose interest in the ongoing Fortean soap opera since the end of the 20th century. The open-minded sense of wonder that used to characterize the subject has been all but swept away by anti-establishment cynicism. It’s now generally accepted that the U.S. government knows the truth about everything from Bigfoot and UFOs to ESP and Free Energy... and is systematically hiding that truth from the public at large. To me, that’s a depressing thought. It means the only really efficient way to research Fortean subjects is to become President of the United States... and since I’m not a U.S. citizen, that option isn’t open to me.

What’s that you say? Barack Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen either?! And they’re hiding THAT from the public as well?!! My goodness, we live in a complicated world!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Devon's Underground Secrets

The photograph above shows the view from inside a cave looking out. It isn’t very clear, but you can just make out what appear to be a couple of rounded archways on either side of the central pillar. Round arches were introduced to Britain by the Romans, and it was the Romans who built this cave – the part of it that’s visible in this picture, anyway. But the Romans were just the start of it. The cave complex was steadily expanded (with a short break in the 16th and 17th centuries) from soon after the Roman invasion in 43 AD all the way up to the early 20th century. In the course of that time – almost 2000 years – the caves have witnessed their fair share of secrets, from religious outcasts and smugglers to the shadowy world of freemasons.

The cave complex is located near the seaside village of Beer on the south coast of Devon. Although Beer is only 20 miles from where I live, it wasn’t until last week that I finally got round to visiting the site. Its official name is “Beer Quarry Caves”, which never sounded massively interesting to me. I pictured a typical open rock quarry with a few shallow caves dug into the rock face. In fact it’s nothing of the sort. The entire “quarry” is underground, consisting of miles and miles of man-made tunnels. Most people would think of it as a “mine” rather than a “quarry”, but technically a mine is a place for extracting minerals. What was extracted here was stone – a special kind of limestone called Beer Stone.

Most limestone is either too soft to use as a structural material, or so hard that it is difficult to carve into intricate shapes. That was a big problem in the Middle Ages, when everyone wanted to build ornate churches and cathedrals out of stone. Beer Stone offered the best of both worlds. In its natural, waterlogged state it is easy to work (into any shape, since it’s very fine grained) but when it dries out it becomes as hard as the hardest Portland stone. That meant there was a huge demand for Beer Stone. Not only was it used in building the nearby cathedral at Exeter, but also much further afield at Winchester Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and even the Tower of London.

The heyday of Beer Quarry was the great age of church building in the 13th to 15th centuries. All this came to an abrupt end with the English Reformation in the 1530s. This proved to be a disastrous time for the quarrying industry. It wasn’t just that work on church building came to an end, but the demolition of all the monasteries meant that millions of tons of ready-worked stone suddenly came onto the market for use in non-religious buildings.

During the enforced hiatus in quarrying at Beer, other more clandestine uses were found for the caves. When Catholic church services were made illegal, on punishment of death, they were driven underground... literally. Part of the tunnel network was converted into a chapel, the empty shell of which can still be seen today (see photograph). Originally this was decorated with fittings made of Beer Stone, but apparently these were “stolen to order” early in the 20th century. The thieves were eventually caught, but they never revealed who their clients were and they were never prosecuted. According to legend, the stolen fittings now adorn the private chapel of the Houses of Parliament!

The other clandestine use of the mine was for storing smuggler’s contraband. It was ideal for this purpose, partly because of its close proximity to the sea and partly because of the vast and confusing network of pitch-dark tunnels. Customs officers brave or foolish enough to venture into the caves often disappeared without a trace. According to the tour guide, each tunnel branches into nine other tunnels, and each of these into another nine, before they start to join up again in a gigantic rabbit warren. The tour route only covers about two percent of the total – the only part fitted with electric lights. A few years ago a visitor deliberately detached himself from a tour group in order to go “exploring” on his own with a flashlight. Its battery failed long before the search party found him... 16 hours later.

In its heyday, Beer quarry employed hundreds of workers – women and children for domestic tasks and men for the muscle work. The latter fell into two categories – “unskilled” quarrymen who were paid 3 shillings a week (with deductions for poor work) and “skilled” stonemasons who got 21 shillings a week (with bonuses for good work). Much of the masons’ skill lay in their trade secrets, which they guarded jealously – the origins of the secret society still known as the Freemasons today.

Beer caves are full of pillars, like the pair seen in this photograph. The size and separation of the pillars has to be capable of supporting the weight of rock above it, which depends on the amount of rock and its physical properties. Nowadays that would involve a complex computer calculation of the forces and tolerances involved – but that wasn’t an option when Beer quarry was being worked. Yet the dimensions and separation of these pillars are within three centimetres of what modern engineering regulations would stipulate. The masons knew the secret – and they kept it to themselves!

The slightly smudged inscription below consists of a name: Anthony Northcott, a date: 1758, and a few other cryptic symbols. Under the name is what looks like the initials AN – but if you look carefully, the “A” is actually a stylized representation of the Masonic “square and compasses” symbol!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Fortean Agent of SHIELD

When I was talking about Fortean Comics a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that a namesake of Fortean Times founder Bob Rickard appeared in an early issue of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. That wasn’t something I knew from direct experience, but it’s mentioned in the current issue of the magazine (FT 314). Since then, however, I’ve acquired my own copy of the comic in question – issue 12, dated May 1969.

Believe it or not, this was a genuine impulse buy. I suppose I could have tracked down a copy on eBay if I’d wanted to, but it never occurred to me. But last weekend while I was skimming through a comic dealer’s box of back issues (as I do every now and then) I saw that selfsame issue – in v.g. condition, for the very reasonable price of £4.75. So naturally I had to buy it.

There’s nothing particularly Fortean about the comic except for the “Robert Rickard” name. I’ve already explained how this came about – Bob was a friend of the two British comic creators who were responsible for this issue (see the credits on the splash page above). The writer was Steve Parkhouse, who as far as I know did very little other work for U.S. Marvel comics besides this issue. On the other hand the artist, Barry Windsor-Smith, rapidly rose to “big name” status, thanks to his pioneering work on Marvel’s version of Conan the Barbarian the following year.

I originally assumed the Rickard character would just be a minor cameo, but in fact he’s the main villain of the story. When he first appears, he’s posing as an investigator from another government department who has been sent to evaluate SHIELD’s effectiveness. He quickly focuses on Nick Fury as a “weak link” in the organization, aided by some planted evidence which appears to show Fury consorting with enemy agents. He manages to turn the rest of SHIELD against Fury – but by this time the reader knows that Rickard is really an agent of Hydra.

The villain is referred to simply by his surname “Rickard” (or his Hydra codename, “Agent U”) until the very last panel on the last page (see photo below), when his first name is revealed to be “Robert”. Throughout the story he is depicted wearing a green suit and matching green fedora, together with dark glasses... until his hat and glasses fall off on the last-but-one page. For some bizarre reason his hair turns out to be dyed blue!

As you can see from the pages reproduced below, Rickard dies at the hands of Nick Fury at the end of the story. That’s a pity, because otherwise “Bob Rickard” might have gone on to become a household name like the Red Skull, Doctor Doom and other recurring Marvel villains.

For the benefit of younger readers, it’s worth pointing out that the SHIELD of the 1960s was a rather different organization than the SHIELD of today. It originally stood for “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage and Law-Enforcement Division” rather than “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division”. In other words, the emphasis was proactive and outward-looking (international espionage) rather than reactive and inward-looking (homeland security). In British terms, that’s the difference between MI6 (the covert branch of the Foreign Office) and MI5 (the covert branch of the Home Office). Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll take the first over the second any day!

The emphasis on “international espionage” was almost certainly a homage to the then-popular Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series (which was a favourite of mine – see Cult TV and Autoerotic Asphyxiation). In fact, now I come to think of it, that’s probably why I automatically gravitated towards SHIELD as soon as I started reading Marvel Comics at the end of the 1960s!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Creeping Coffins

What have these three books got in common (apart from being battered mass-market paperbacks dating from the early 60s?). There’s a murder mystery by John Dickson Carr called The Sleeping Sphinx, a science fiction novel by Lionel Fanthorpe (using the pseudonym “Bron Fane”) called U.F.O. 517, and a non-fiction compendium called Great World Mysteries by Eric Frank Russell.

No prizes for guessing the answer is going to be Fortean in some way. Eric Frank Russell, although he was best known as a science fiction author, was one of the earliest British disciples of Charles Fort. There have been several articles about him in the last few issues of Fortean Times, as part of Bob Rickard’s series on “The First Forteans”. The other two authors have also featured in fairly recent FT articles – I know because I was responsible for both of them! I wrote about “Fanthorpe’s Fortean Fiction” in FT297, and about the Fortean aspects of John Dickson Carr’s “Locked Room Mysteries” in FT 288.

The cover of the Carr novel depicts an old coffin, and the strapline mentions “restless coffins”. And that’s the connection between the three books – coffins that move of their own accord!

The relevant chapter in Russell’s book – the only non-fiction one of the three – is called “The Creeping Coffins of Barbados”. This seemingly poltergeist-like case will probably already be familiar to readers who, like me, can remember a time when there was more to Forteana than Bigfoot videos and leaked government UFO documents.

The events occurred in the early 19th century, in a churchyard on the south coast of Barbados. Over a period of several years, every time the Chase family’s private vault was unsealed to add a newly deceased relative, the coffins were found to be in wild disarray – often standing on end. The coffins were always carefully put back in their correct places, only to be found scattered about at random the next time the vault was opened. Increasingly elaborate precautions were taken to prevent unauthorised entry to the vault, but all to no avail. Eventually they gave up and abandoned the vault.

Exactly the same story is recounted in the Fanthorpe novel, where it’s given a characteristically Fanthorpian explanation involving a time-travelling flying saucer. A number of more conventional explanations are discussed in Russell’s book, ranging from malicious damage and natural phenomena to supernatural activity. The Barbados case wasn’t unique – Russell also mentions a similar case that occurred on the island of Oesel in the Baltic, as well as two in England. For himself, Russell says he “refuses to credit that any coffins have been moved around anywhere by ghosties or eerie beasties or things that go bump in the night. Whatever shifted the coffins at Barbados and elsewhere was, I believe, a force natural enough though not within our knowledge even at the present date.”

Others who investigated the case came to very different conclusions. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, favoured a supernatural explanation, referring (as quoted by Russell) to “bodily emanations, and the residual life-force supposedly remaining in the bodies of suicides and others who have died before their time.”

Talk of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes brings us neatly to John Dickson Carr and his own fictional detective, Gideon Fell. Carr is best known for his “locked room murders”... and the creeping coffins case is a classic example of a locked room puzzle. Strangely, however, this particular novel – The Sleeping Sphinx – isn’t a locked room murder at all. It’s a very clever mystery, as you’d expect from Carr, but it’s one of the few Dr Fell stories in which the murder itself doesn’t have any “physically impossible” aspects to it.

My guess is that either Carr’s publisher or his agent told him the novel had to include an “impossible mystery” in order to please his readership (the book dates from 1947, by which time Carr’s name was virtually synonymous with the locked room genre). So the scene with the coffins was tacked on as an afterthought. That’s not a spoiler, by the way – there’s no suggestion in the novel that the “restless coffins” have any direct connection to the murder, except for the tenuous link that one of the coffins involved is that of the murder victim.

In the novel, the solution to the coffin mystery comes at the very end of the book, even after the solution to the murder itself. So I won’t say what it is – except that it’s not supernatural! Carr doesn’t mention the Barbados case explicitly, although he refers briefly to the Oesel case and the two English ones. However, he does borrow a detail from the Barbados case, where fine sand is sprinkled on the floor of the vault in a vain attempt to detect the footprints of any intruders.

In a footnote Carr mentions a book called Oddities, dating from 1928, by Rupert T. Gould. Russell’s book also refers to Gould’s Oddities. I’m not sure if this is the same book, under a different title, as one I saw for sale a few years ago – “A Book of Marvels”, also by Rupert T. Gould. I would have bought it, except that the copy in question was thoroughly saturated with stale cigarette smoke – one of the few things that can totally ruin the pleasure of reading an old book, as far as I’m concerned. So I had to settle for photographing the cover and contents page... which as you can see includes a chapter entitled “The Vault at Barbados”: