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Showing posts with label ufology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ufology. Show all posts

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Crossword Exegesis

I don’t really know what an exegesis is, but people expect a crossword compiler to have a big vocabulary. What I mean is, on the other side of the following image are the answers to last week’s crossword and/or trivia quiz, together with an explanation of the various Fortean connections.

If you want to do the puzzle but haven’t done so yet, reading beyond this point will take you into spoiler territory. But if you’ve done the puzzle, or just want to see the answers, scroll on...


ACROSS

1. Author of Chariots of the Gods: ERICH VON DANIKEN. An easy one to start with! But EvD’s ideas weren’t as original as many people imagine – see Reinventing Ezekiel's Wheel.

9. First of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation: EPHESUS. A Turkish town and a major centre of early Christianity. It was also the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Temple of Artemis.

10. “Their weapons were no match for the Bossonian LONGBOW" (Robert E. Howard). This comes from the only full-length Conan novel that Howard wrote, The Hour of the Dragon (also sometimes published as Conan the Conqueror). Not a particularly Fortean story, although some of Howard’s other fiction is. I think I’ll make that the subject of my next blog post.

11. "Voyagers who have shown every indication of intent to EVADE " (Charles Fort). This comes from The Book of the Damned, a few paragraphs after the oft quoted “I think we're property” – the voyagers in question being extraterrestrial ones.

12. Yggdrasil, for example: ASH. Yggdrasil is the World Ash Tree in Norse mythology.

13. The world ends without this, according to T.S. Eliot: A BANG. From The Hollow Men (1925): “This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper.” Another Eliot poem from the same period, The Waste Land, is packed with Fortean themes – I’ll have to add that to my list of future posts as well.

14. Site of the Crucifixion: CALVARY. From the Latin Calvariæ Locus = “place of the skull”. The Hebrew equivalent is Golgotha.

16. "I had long hoped for a personal CONTACT with a man from a flying saucer" (George Adamski). A quote from Flying Saucers have Landed, co-authored with the far more interesting Desmond Leslie.

18. The queen of the fairies, according to Shakespeare: TITANIA. From A Midsummer Might’s Dream, of course. The picture (fourth image on top row) shows a detail from The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847) by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.

21. Sayings of Jesus that are not found in the Gospels: AGRAPHA. This is an obscure one, but anyone who’s tried compiling a crossword will know that the more words you fill in, the harder it gets to find unobscure words to fit the remaining spaces! But Agrapha isn’t so obscure that it doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page.

23. Max ERNST, German surrealist. Perhaps the most Fortean connection here is Ernst’s bird-man creation called Loplop, which was adopted as a kind of mascot by Jon Downes and the Centre for Fortean Zoology (see picture – third image on the top row).

25. URI Geller, Israeli-born psychic. Geller’s 1973 appearance on the Dimbleby Talk-In was one of my Fortean Events that Shook the World.

26. "Thus SPAKE Zarathustra", by Friedrich Nietzsche. Written in the 1880s, this philosophical work focused on two concepts more often associated with the 20th century: “The Superman” and “God is Dead”.

27. Lenape people living in New Jersey when the Europeans arrived: RARITAN. This is one of two grid entries where I just couldn’t find anything Fortean that would fit. There’s a modern-day city in New Jersey named Raritan, as well as Raritan Bay between New Jersey and New York.

28. "IMMORAL Tales" (1974), featuring Paloma Picasso as Countess Erzsébet Báthory. The Báthory segment focuses on the historical countess, not the later legends that associate her with vampirism. So she doesn’t slaughter large quantities of female virgins and bathe in their blood in order to restore her youth. She just slaughters large quantities of female virgins and bathes in their blood because she enjoys it (see picture – first image on bottom row).

29. Britain's best-known cryptid: LOCH NESS MONSTER. In light of the upcoming Scottish independence vote, perhaps I should have worded this as “Scotland's best-known cryptid” to stay on the safe side.

DOWN

1. The building pictured [in last week’s post]: EXETER CATHEDRAL. Another non-Fortean one – I needed a 15-letter word or phrase beginning with E and ending with L, and this was the best I could do. The answer was actually written on the image, if you can read Latin: Exoniensis Ecclesiae Cathedralis.

2. Eldest son of Abraham, according to the Book of Genesis: ISHMAEL. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Ishmael is less important than his younger half-brother Isaac. In Islam, however, Ishmael is the more important of the two, being a direct ancestor of Muhammad.

3. Herman HESSE, author of Siddhartha. According to Wikipedia, this 1922 novel “deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha.... It was published in the U.S. in 1951 and became influential during the 1960s.”

4. The James OSSUARY is inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus". If the inscription is genuine, it might constitute archaeological evidence for the Biblical Jesus... but quoting Wikipedia again, “most scholars hold the last part of the inscription to be a forgery”.

5. The DELPHIC Sibyl, prophetess of Apollo. The illustration (second image on top row) is from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

6. Professional assassin in feudal Japan: NINJA. I’m not sure if this is an easy one or not – everyone uses the word “ninja”, but do they really know what it means?

7. An esoteric branch of Judaism: KABBALA. When I compiled the crossword a few years ago, I convinced myself this was a valid spelling – although “Kabbalah”, “Cabala” and “Qabbala” are more common.

8. A type of hippie found in 1980s Britain: NEW AGE TRAVELLER. Again the spelling may look wrong to some people, but that’s how it’s spelled here in Britain. And hey, spelling rules are just another fascist conspiracy anyhow. If you catch my drift, man.

15. ANN Greenslit Pudeator, hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. It was tragic, of course, that so many innocent women were accused of witchcraft in the 17th century... but really, with a name like Ann Greenslit Pudeator, what do you expect? She probably had a pierced nasal septum and wore black lipstick, too.

17. "Alles Vergangliche ist NUR ein Gleichnis" (Everything transient is only a symbol - Goethe). These words are sung by the Chorus Mysticus at the end of Mahler’s 8th Symphony (see The Curse of the Ninth).

19. "The Serpent Power: Secrets of TANTRIC and Shaktic Yoga" by Arthur Avalon. The author’s real name was Sir John Woodroffe, who derived his pseudonym from Arthurian mythology. Oddly, though, the book isn’t about Arthurian mythology but about Indian mysticism. Woodroffe was one of the first proponents of the New Age formula “if it’s old, and it doesn’t come from the Judaeo-Christian or Graeco-Roman tradition, then it must be good.”

20. Thomas AQUINAS, author of "Summa Theologica". Aquinas was a 13th century scholar who specialized in interpreting the works of Aristotle (that’s what scholars used to do in those days, in lieu of thinking for themselves). He was often depicted trampling on a rival Aristotle-interpreter named Averroës, as seen in the painting by Gozzoli in the rightmost image above.

21. Belief that all living and non-living things have a spiritual essence: ANIMISM. Closely related to paranoia: the belief that all living and non-living things are out to get you.

22. Generic term for Indian languages related to Sanskrit: PRAKRIT. Most mystical and religious Indian writings are in Sanskrit, although the earliest Buddhist scriptures are in a Prakrit language called Pali. “Karma” and “Nirvana” are Sanskrit – the Pali equivalents are “Kamma” and “Nibbana”.

24. The largest moon of Saturn: TITAN. One of the few bodies in the Solar System that astrobiologists believe may support alien life – thought probably not as advanced as the alien life envisaged by Philip K. Dick in The Game-Players of Titan.

26. SIMON Magus, a sorcerer mentioned in the Book of Acts. All the Bible says about Simon is that he became a Christian, but not a very good one. However, later writers describe him as one of the founders of Gnosticism, and presumably for that reason he’s one of the many highbrow figures namedropped by Philip K. Dick in VALIS.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Fortean Crossword

Apparently the crossword puzzle marks its centenary this month. A few years ago I put together a Fortean-themed crossword which I thought would be worth repeating here. You can either print it out or do it in your head... or just ignore the grid and treat the questions as a trivia quiz.

Answers next week – together with an exegesis of all the Fortean connections.
ACROSS

1. Author of Chariots of the Gods [5, 3, 7]
9. First of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation [7]
10. “Their weapons were no match for the Bossonian -------“ (Robert E. Howard) [7]
11. "Voyagers who have shown every indication of intent to -----" (Charles Fort) [5]
12. Yggdrasil, for example [3]
13. The world ends without this, according to T.S. Eliot [1, 4]
14. Site of the Crucifixion [7]
16. "I had long hoped for a personal ------- with a man from a flying saucer" (George Adamski) [7]
18. The queen of the fairies, according to Shakespeare [7]
21. Sayings of Jesus that are not found in the Gospels [7]
23. Max -----, German surrealist [5]
25. --- Geller, Israeli-born psychic [3]
26. "Thus ----- Zarathustra", by Friedrich Nietzsche [5]
27. Lenape people living in New Jersey when the Europeans arrived [7]
28. "------- Tales" (1974), featuring Paloma Picasso as Countess Erzsébet Báthory [7]
29. Britain's best-known cryptid [4, 4, 7]

DOWN

1. The building pictured below [6, 9]
2. Eldest son of Abraham, according to the Book of Genesis [7]
3. Herman -----, author of Siddhartha [5]
4.The James ------- is inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" [7]
5. The ------- Sibyl, prophetess of Apollo [7]
6. Professional assassin in feudal Japan [5]
7. An esoteric branch of Judaism [7]
8. A type of hippie found in 1980s Britain [3, 3, 9]
15. --- Greenslit Pudeator, hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692 [3]
17. "Alles Vergangliche ist --- ein Gleichnis" (Everything transient is only a symbol - Goethe) [3]
19. "The Serpent Power: Secrets of ------- and Shaktic Yoga" by Arthur Avalon [7]
20. Thomas -------, author of Summa Theologica [7]
21. Belief that all living and non-living things have a spiritual essence [7]
22. Generic term for Indian languages related to Sanskrit [7]
24. The largest moon of Saturn [5]
26. ----- Magus, a sorcerer mentioned in the Book of Acts [5]

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Rendlesham Magi

Here is a seasonal short story, loosely based on the Rendlesham UFO incident, that I wrote for the Christmas issue of a newsletter back in 2008:
Christmas 1980: a day I will always remember. St Dunstan’s College was almost deserted. The students were on vacation, of course, and the married fellows were at home with their families. That left just four of us in the Senior Common Room that evening: the three wise men and myself. At that time I was the youngest ‘don’ at the college, having been appointed to the post of Teaching Fellow in Asiatic History the previous summer. The next in age was more than a decade my senior—Don Hunter, a lecturer in Astronomy, with whom I was engaged in a game of Fortean supercheckers.

The other two sat by the open log fire, smoking cigars and talking earnestly to each other: Arthur Dodson, the ancient and venerable professor of Theology, and Otto Ziegler, a German professor who was visiting Cambridge for a couple of semesters during a sabbatical from his own university. I had never quite made out what Ziegler’s specialism was—some kind of abstract mathematics or higher physics. He was small and round, with a bald head and goatee beard—pretty much what you imagine when you hear the term ‘mad scientist’.

“Oh do hurry up, Justin!” Don Hunter ran a hand through his long, prematurely grey hair. “If you don’t make a move soon we shall be here all night.” He looked impatiently at his watch—the third or fourth time he had done so that evening. He said a few other things, muttering under his breath, that I didn’t catch. I got the general impression he wanted to get away and do something he considered Very Important.

It was true that I was having difficulty concentrating on the game. Part of the reason was the sheer effort (not made any easier by the imbibing of several festive brandies) of focusing my mind on a board with 1600 squares and hundreds of pieces. By this stage, if I remember correctly, I was down to less than 200 men while Don still had most of his original 360.

I shrugged and moved a piece at random. Don grunted in disgust and proceeded to take another fifty or so of my men.

There was another reason for my lack of interest in the game. I was listening with more than half my mind to the animated conversation over by the fireplace. They were talking, of all the hackneyed subjects, about the Star of Bethlehem.

“It’s all nonsense, of course,” old Dodson was saying. “The Star in the East is purely symbolic. A theological necessity, to demonstrate fulfilment of God’s prophecy in the Book of Numbers. To a good Christian, that is all that is needed. But materialists like yourself—and countless others going back to Johannes Kepler in the sixteenth century—refuse to be satisfied with the beauty of religious symbolism. You insist on looking for comets and supernovas and planetary conjunctions. But these theories are all discredited—totally discredited.”

Nein—nicht so.” Ziegler puffed excitedly on his cigar. “Not my comet—nobody discredits him.”

Dodson looked amused. “And what’s so special about YOUR comet, Herr Professor?”

“Ah, my comet—he travels backwards in time. Backwards! It is sehr unheimlich—it is very strange—but it is what the equations tell me. And equations, they never lie.”

“A comet travelling backwards in time? Where from? And why?” Dodson seemed mildly intrigued in spite of himself.

“These things the equations tell me. My comet, he is one of a pair—a time-symmetric pair created by a Fanthorpe singularity in the year 988 AD. One comet travels backwards in time, the other forwards. The two orbits are like mirror images, with aphelion in the Kuiper Belt and perihelion here, on Earth. For the backward travelling comet, perihelion was 4 BC...”

“4 BC?” Dodson looked up. “The year that Herod the Great died—generally accepted as the year of the Nativity. Well, that fits your theory, I suppose. What about the forward-travelling comet?”

“From 4 BC to 988 AD it is 992 years,” Ziegler said slowly. It was clear that he was building to something in the nature of a climax. “And from 988 AD another 992 years is... 1980! Christmas Day, 1980! Today!” He beamed triumphantly.

Whatever response Dodson was about to make was cut off by a cry from Don Hunter. I had made another disastrous move and he had promptly taken all my remaining pieces.

“Finished at last!” Don looked at his watch and jumped to his feet. “Sorry, gents—I’ve got to go now. Must keep my appointment with that new star in the East, you know.”

We all gaped at him.

“New star in the East?” Dodson and Ziegler spoke almost simultaneously.

“Yes—I’ll have to leave young Justin here to tell you about it. I’ve been chattering away to him all evening. First saw it through the telescope a couple of days ago—much brighter yesterday—should be visible to the naked eye by now. Rises just before midnight. I’ll have to rush off to the Observatory if I’m going to catch it.”

I have to admit this was news to me as much as to the others. Now I came to think of it, Don had been mumbling about something or other, but I hadn’t been paying much attention.

“We know all about your new star,” Dodson said. “Or rather, the Herr Professor here knows all about it. It’s a backwards travelling comet, previously known as the star of Bethlehem. If you can believe a word he says, that is.”

Nein, nein—this is the forward-travelling one,” Ziegler said. “But the rest—ja, it is essentially correct.” He turned to address the astronomer. “You have a physics background—you know the theoretical possibility of a Fanthorpe singularity. I say it is more than a theory—it is a reality that occurred in 988 AD. Your so-called new star is nothing but the inevitable mathematical consequence of this.”

Don shook his head uncertainly. “A Fanthorpe singularity? But that’s impossible—such a thing could only be produced artificially, using an immensely powerful nuclear reactor. It’s not possible today, and it certainly wasn’t possible in 988 AD.”

A sudden thought flashed into my head. “Maybe it was,” I said.

Now it was my turn to be gaped at.

“988 AD,” I stated flatly, “was the year that Zhang Tsu disappeared.”

There was a long pause in which they continued to gape at me.

“Let me explain,” I went on. “Zhang Tsu was the original rocket scientist. The Chinese had just invented what they called ‘fire arrows’—simple rockets they used in warfare. But Zhang Tsu tried a series of experiments in which he replaced the black powder in the rocket with red mercury. Many scholars believe this resulted in a primitive form of nuclear propulsion. The first few experiments seem to have been successful, but then there was a huge explosion and Zhang Tsu was never seen again.”

This time the pause was so short as to be imperceptible.

“For what do we wait?” Ziegler demanded. “To the observatory, schnell!”

Don Hunter needed no further encouragement—he had been itching to leave for several minutes. And I was all for it—it sounded like a great adventure. Only Dodson seemed reluctant to forego his place by the fire, but I managed to persuade him by pandering to his ego: “After all, we’re just an astronomer, a mathematician and a historian. We have our limitations. There are some situations that only a theologian can rise to.”

So the four of us were in it together. We rushed downstairs and piled into Don’s battered old Austin Mini. We decided he should drive because... I was about to say “because he was the least drunk”, but what I mean, of course, is “because he was completely sober”. He’d barely had a drop of liquor all evening. Which was a good thing, because if none of us had been fit to drive we would have missed the adventure of a lifetime.

* * * *

We pulled up at the observatory just on the stroke of midnight. Don let us into the deserted building and opened up the huge dome. The bright yellow star on the Eastern horizon was clearly visible.

“It’s altered significantly in the last twenty-four hours,” Don said, frowning as he adjusted the giant reflecting telescope. “There’s been a significant course change—there’s no doubt now that it’s headed for Earth. Let’s see if George can compute an impact point for us.”

‘George’ turned out to be the observatory’s state-of-the-art VAX-11/780 mainframe. It chugged and clicked as Don fed it the data.

“Impact point, eh?” Arthur Dodson chuckled to himself. “My money’s on Bethlehem, if history is anything to go by.” It was clear that he thought the whole thing was a load of hooey.

“Bethlehem? Nein—I think not.” Otto Ziegler, in contrast to Dodson, was taking the matter very seriously indeed. He bent over a globe and studied it carefully. “Theory predicts impact point is one hundred-eighty degrees from starting point. Starting point was somewhere in China, I believe?” He looked at me expectantly.

“Um, yes—I see what you mean,” I said. “Let’s see—Zhang Tzu’s experiments took place near the town of Huangshi in Hubei province, I believe.”

“You show me.” Ziegler indicated the globe.

With a bit of difficulty I located the place and pointed it out to the earnest-looking mathematician.

Ach, ja—approximately thirty degrees North, hundred-fifteen degrees East. So we subtract hundred-eighty degrees to get...” He rotated the globe carefully. “Thirty degrees North, five-and-sixty degrees West. Jawohl! Right in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. It surprises me not at all.”

“Bermuda Triangle, my foot!” Dodson scoffed. “You mark my words—this comet is heading for Bethlehem.”

A heated argument ensued, and might have gone on all night if it hadn’t been interrupted after a few minutes by a cough from Don Hunter.

“Sorry to disappoint you fellows, but George disagrees with you.” Don was standing at the computer, a slip of paper in his hand. “The impact point isn’t Bethlehem and it isn’t the Bermuda Triangle. It’s much closer. Just on the coast about sixty miles east of here. A place called Rendlesham.”

“And the time of impact?” Ziegler looked anxiously at his watch.

Don glanced at the paper. “0140 hours—just over an hour from now.”

“Can we make it in time?”

“We can if we’re lucky. Let’s go!”

Cramming ourselves back into Don’s little car, we tore off eastwards along the A14. All the time the yellow star grew brighter and brighter ahead of us.

“Follow that star!” I shouted.

The new star in the East!” Dodson added, chuckling.

“We’re just like the three wise men following the star,” Don observed.

Ziegler, the great mathematician, grunted. “Except that there are four of us,” he pointed out.

“Ah, but only three of us are wise men,” Don said. “Justin doesn’t count—he’s only 28. You can’t be a wise man at 28. It would be a contradiction in terms.”

I ignored the insult. “Maybe we’ll witness the Second Coming,” I speculated.

“Poppycock,” Dodson snorted. “The Second Coming is a purely symbolic concept, just like the Star of Bethlehem. Theology is about the world of the Spirit, not the world of superstitious nonsense.”

We drove at hair-raising speeds past Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and the sprawling lights of Ipswich. Just as we were passing through the village of Woodbridge we saw a huge, silent burst of brilliant yellow light ahead of us.

“The star’s gone!”

“It came down in the woods over there!”

We drove a bit further and came to a gate into the woods. A sign informed us that the place was called Rendlesham Forest, that it was the property of Her Majesty’s Forestry Commission, and that we were welcome to enter so long as we didn’t light any fires.

We left the car by the gate and went into the woods.

“I should have brought a flashlight,” Don muttered. “So much for foresight.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “There’s a light over there in the forest. Let’s head towards it.”

The light turned out to be an eerie yellow glow with no obvious source. We crept towards it and came to an unnatural looking clearing.

“I think this is where it came down.” Dodson was looking upwards, and our eyes followed his. There was an gap in the canopy of trees that was open to the sky. The ground beneath was littered with freshly broken pine branches.

“Some of the wood looks scorched,” I observed.

“You’re right,” Don agreed. “There must have been intense heat here.”

Ziegler was standing at the edge of the clearing, looking thoughtful. “Intense heat, ja—or intense radiation.”

Our thoughts were interrupted by the clamour of voices approaching. With a start we realized we were not the only ones in the woods that night.

“What the blazes?” Dodson looked around. “They sound like Americans. A large number of them! What are they doing here?”

Don snapped his fingers. “Americans—of course! We’re right next to a US Air Force Base. Woodbridge, I think it’s called. Top Secret atomic stuff—we don’t want to be caught snooping around here!”

The voices were getting closer.

“There’s someone out there, Sir!” one of the voices shouted. “What should I do? Finding that thing out here has made me mighty nervous.”

“Take no risks, man!” another voice barked. “Shoot the commie rascals!”

Actually the word he used may not have been ‘rascals’, but we weren’t paying much attention by that point. We were running as fast as we could back to the car.

* * * *

Well, that’s more or less the end of the story as far as my involvement is concerned. The ‘Rendlesham Forest Incident’, as it’s now known, has become quite notorious among conspiracy theorists. Many people are convinced that a UFO crash-landed in the East of England that Christmas Day more than thirty years ago—despite consistent denials by the UK and US governments. Another theory is that it was a Soviet nuclear powered satellite that came down. But an artificial comet created by a tenth century Chinese rocket scientist... a time-travelling twin of the Star of Bethlehem? Who knows? I may be the only one left who’s in possession of the full facts. Old Dodson died years ago, and Don Hunter is in a retirement home. I’ve no idea what happened to Otto Ziegler—he must be either dead or a very old man by now.

There is one curious postscript to the story. It appears that the remains of the reactor core—or whatever it was the US airmen recovered—was transported back to the States on board an aircraft carrier. It was then ferried by helicopter, slung underneath a giant Chinook, to NASA headquarters in Houston, Texas. And late at night, a few miles outside Houston on the 29th of December 1980, this strange phenomenon was witnessed by two local women returning from an evening out. The women—Vicky and Betty—were both devout Christians, and when confronted with this huge glowing apparition in the sky they could only draw one conclusion. To them, it was the Second Coming... and maybe, in a sense, they were right.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Anomalous Progress

I belatedly realized that I missed a significant anniversary earlier this year. I’ve been buying, reading and hoarding Fortean Times for 20 years now. The earliest issue in my collection is FT67 (cover-dated February-March 1993), which was the first issue I ever saw in W. H. Smith (I’d bought a previous issue—FT60 I think—from another shop just over a year earlier, but I hadn’t been impressed enough to hang on to it). It was only after I started reading FT in earnest that I got interested in Forteana in any depth. I’d read various books on the paranormal and “unexplained mysteries” in the 1970s and 80s, but only at the popular mass-market level.

Looking back at those early FTs, it occurs to me that at some point in the last 20 years my attitude to Fortean subjects underwent a distinct change. I don’t mean anything as dramatic as a flip from “believer” to “skeptic” – I’ve never been close to either category. I’ve never seriously believed that UFOs are vehicles piloted by extraterrestrials, or that ghosts embody the surviving consciousness of dead human beings. But I’ve never been a skeptic either, in the sense of dismissing anomalous phenomena from consideration simply because they are anomalous. During the 1990s I became fascinated by a whole range of anomalous phenomena, and I was convinced that with sufficient study they could be fitted into the mainstream paradigm... at which point they would cease to be anomalous.

Some time around 2003 I changed my mind. The rosy-spectacled idea that the anomalous phenomena of today are the mainstream phenomena of tomorrow no longer seemed credible. The reality is that anomalous phenomena are self-perpetuatingly anomalous. This wasn’t because of anything that happened in or around 2003 – it was because I’d been following the subject with close interest for ten years. I wasn’t really aware of the change at the time, but looking back through my old FTs and remembering the way I responded to the various stories at the time, it’s clear that’s what happened.

Thinking about it analytically, there are two sides to the problem: (a) lack of progress in areas where you would reasonably expect to see progress, and (b) ongoing progress (or at any rate change) in areas where you would logically expect to see no change at all. I’ll explain what I mean.

When I first became an avid reader of all things Fortean in the 1990s, I was under the impression (as I suspect many newcomers to the subject are, whatever the time period) that the world was on the brink of a massive paradigm shift that would lead to the mainstream acceptance of many things previously considered paranormal. There were theories of “mind-matter unification” and “macroscopic quantum systems” that promised to explain a whole range of psychic and holistic phenomena. There were tantalizing hints that antigravity systems had been demonstrated in the laboratory. The ideas of Hancock and Bauval were going to revolutionize our understanding of ancient civilizations. And a lot more in the same vein.

The reality, of course, is that none of it ever comes to anything. The world of anomalous phenomena isn’t interested in solving mysteries... it’s interested in perpetuating them. I made the mistake (coming from a scientific background) of assuming the subject had something in common with science. But it doesn’t. Science starts with the evidence and looks for explanations of it. The vast majority of ufologists, ghost hunters and cryptozoologists do just the opposite – they start with an explanation and look for evidence to support it. That’s why the state of progress—as far as any real insight is concerned—is exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.

The only people who aren’t going to be disillusioned by the situation are the Conspiracy Theorists. From their point of view, it’s a no-brainer the Government will stamp on anyone as soon as they come close to revealing the Truth (personally I’ve never really understood this viewpoint – particularly as the Conspiracy Theorists themselves spend their lives expounding the very Truth the Government is supposed to be suppressing).

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a flip side to all this. While there’s been no perceptible progress in understanding anomalous phenomena in the last 20 years, there’s been an ongoing evolution in the phenomena themselves. In some areas, such as the continuing sagas of Roswell and Bigfoot, it’s almost like watching a soap opera. If Roswell was a real flying saucer crash, and if Bigfoot was a real species, you simply wouldn’t expect the underlying data to evolve over the decades in the way they have.

Back in the 1990s, another magazine I read occasionally was Magonia, which promoted the so-called “psycho-social” hypothesis. This is an unfortunate term, because it suggests everything is glibly dismissed as the product of a deranged mind or mass hysteria. But the Magonia people meant something more constructive than that. If I remember correctly, the basic idea was that the whole area of anomalous phenomena—the way they’re described, the context they’re put in, the way they’re investigated and the theories proposed to explain them—are all the product of a (largely unconscious) collective exercise in imagination. The analogy is with a role-playing game, in which the players are so immersed in the game they don’t realize it’s a game.

One of the big things in the early 90s was the “alien abduction” scenario, where the bulk of the evidence took the form of memories retrieved through hypnosis. That’s a perfect medium for the unconscious imagination to work in, particularly if prompted (again unconsciously) by the expectations of the researcher. I don’t think Magonia was accusing anyone of deliberate deception. Instead, the idea was that an apparently mysterious phenomenon could be created and developed spontaneously (possibly around the germ of a real but mundane event) based on current social and cultural expectations. Today, with the rise of the internet and social media, the possibilities for “unconscious collective creativity” are greater than ever before. And you never know what’s going to happen next.

I’m as fascinated by the world of anomalous phenomena today as I was 20 years ago. The only difference is that in those days I thought of it as a sub-branch of science. Now I think of it as a sub-branch of the entertainment industry.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

The Flying Saucer

I finally got round to reading The Flying Saucer, a novel by Bernard Newman that was originally published in July 1948 – just a year after the term “Flying Saucer” was coined following the Kenneth Arnold sighting. Newman’s book was reputedly the very first to cash in on the Saucer craze – which, as far as anyone knew at the time, might have fizzled out as quickly as it had arisen. I first saw it mentioned in Flying Saucerers, by David Clarke and Andy Roberts, and then in Mark Pilkington’s Mirage Men, and I’ve been meaning to get hold of a copy ever since (this American paperback edition, dating from 2010, says “originally published in the United States in 1950” – but it had already appeared in the UK two years before that).

It’s a good book, but not at all what I was expecting from the various reviews and teasers I’d read. There are no sinister government conspiracies and no hushed-up crash retrievals. The book is firmly rooted in the political and social preoccupations of its time, and to approach it with the additional perspective of 60-plus years of ufological speculation risks missing the point entirely. As with most fiction, the best way to appreciate it is to think yourself into the mindset of the time the book was written (for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, the following discussion is guaranteed spoiler-free).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of 1940s fiction (looking at the authors in my tag cloud, John Dickson Carr, Eric Frank Russell, Agatha Christie and A.E. van Vogt were all active at the time). So I’m embarrassed to say that—apart from this one novel—I’d never heard of Bernard Newman until I did a little research a few days ago. It turns out he was a prolific writer (his bibliography lists almost 50 novels), who was particularly well known during his lifetime for his series of first-person spy thrillers. The Flying Saucer fits into this series – not because it’s a spy story as such, but because (judging by internal evidence) it shares the same continuity and the same characters.

The novel is narrated in the first person by “Bernard Newman”. As well as being the author’s real name, this is the name by which he is addressed by other characters in the novel. The narrator, as well as being a well-known author (he refers to his earlier spy novels as if they were non-fiction), is also a government-trained espionage agent. Was this true of the “real world” Newman too? He didn't do much to dispel frequent speculations to this effect (although such speculations were unlikely to harm his book sales, even if they were unfounded). Newman aside, the two other main characters are entirely fictitious – a brilliant English scientist named Drummond and an equally brilliant (if somewhat elderly) French spy named Pontivy. I get the feeling that both of them appeared in several of Newman’s novels prior to The Flying Saucer.

The plot of The Flying Saucer was inspired by a news report from 1947. But it wasn’t the Kenneth Arnold flying saucer sighting in June of that year. It was a speech delivered on 1 March by Anthony Eden (who was Shadow Foreign Secretary at the time), which the novel paraphrases in the following terms: “It seemed to be an unfortunate fact that the nations of the world were only really united when they were facing a common menace. What we really needed was an attack by Mars.”

At the start of the novel, under the influence of Eden’s remark, Drummond, Pontivy and Newman decide they will stage a fake threat from Mars. This is easier for them than it would be for most people, because Drummond is a scientific genius. He is able to build rockets that are different from any “earthly” rockets in their appearance and characteristics. As the plot progresses, Drummond is called on to develop many other “Martian” technologies, while experts in other fields—sworn to secrecy—are brought into the scheme as and when necessary.

So where do flying saucers fit into the story? The answer is hardly at all. My guess is that the first draft of the novel (under a different title) was finished before the saucers hit the headlines for the first time. Newman then made some hasty additions – the opportunistic change of title, and a few references here and there to saucer sightings. But the latter aren’t part of the fake Martian invasion – they’re an independent (and never explained) phenomenon that goes on quietly in the background. While our heroes are happy for people to associate the saucers with their Martians, they don’t really exploit the sightings as much as they might. This is what makes me think the first draft was finished before the saucer craze even started. The fake Martian spaceships are described as being cylindrical, not saucer shaped, and they are physical objects found on the ground, not mysterious objects in the sky.

But none of this is relevant to the point Newman was trying to make. He was focused on the single biggest concern of the international community in the wake of the Second World War – namely, the tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. No-one wanted another war, but the differences between the two sides seemed irreconcilable. So, inspired by Eden’s quote about the Martians, he thought he’d offer a radical solution to the problem. In a way, it was Newman’s misfortune to slap the trendy new label “Flying Saucer” onto the novel, which makes it look (to modern readers) like an inept treatment of a subject that barely even existed when it was written. Most of the baggage we now associate with the UFO phenomenon lay in the future, and it would be anachronistic to expect to find it in a novel of the 1940s:
  • Early on in the novel (in what I imagine is an interpolation into the original draft) Newman recounts numerous saucer sightings from 1947. Significantly, however, there is no mention of the Roswell incident in July that year. Since Roswell was the archetypal “crashed saucer”, and the novel revolves around rocket crashes, this may seem a surprising omission – but it isn’t really. Although few people realize it today, Roswell was scarcely ever mentioned in the ufological literature prior to the 1970s.
  • The plot of the novel could be paraphrased as “a conspiracy to fake an alien invasion”... but even so it has little common ground with modern conspiracy theory. The “conspiracy” in the novel is a conspiracy in the historical (pre-JFK) sense of the word – a covert plot by a group of private individuals against the established order, rather than a covert plot by the government against its own people.
  • The portrayal of politicians and government officials is likewise in the historical, pre-JFK tradition – as stuffed shirts full of vacuous rhetoric, rather than the coldly competent schemers of modern conspiracy theory. Although the protagonists are perpetrating a massive deception against the governments of the United States and Soviet Union (and all the other governments of the world), their battle is against stolid bureaucracy, not a vastly powerful secret elite.
  • The novel paints a vivid picture of early Cold War society, in which the pervading atmosphere was one of suspicion (at one point Newman even anticipates the X-Files mantra: “Trust No One”). But this is suspicion of other people’s governments, not one’s own. The British are suspicious of the Russians and the Americans. The Russians are suspicious of the Americans and the Chinese. The Americans are suspicious of Communist countries and Communist spies. But, in those days at least, the Americans were not suspicious of their own government.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Fifty Years of British UFO Research

As a sweeping generalization, British UFO researchers are less single-mindedly fixated on the extraterrestrial hypothesis (and concomitant beliefs such as alien abductions and government conspiracies) than their American counterparts. Of course there are exceptions on both sides, but British ufologists do tend to adopt a “more things in Heaven and Earth” approach to the subject. This was certainly the message that came across during the first day of the BUFORA (British UFO Research Association) 50th Anniversary Conference that I attended yesterday.

The first speaker was Lionel Beer, who (although he doesn’t look old enough) was a founder member of BUFORA back in 1962, before I had even started school. He talked mainly about the development of British ufology in the 60s and 70s, when it’s probably fair to say the focus was still on the extraterrestrial hypothesis here as in America. But I was really interested in what Lionel had to say about government involvement in the subject. He brought out a subtlety that hadn’t occurred to me before, but makes perfect sense based on what I know of that period in British history.

There is no doubt that during the 1970s the police Special Branch (whose responsibility was national security and counter-insurgency) took a strong and active interest in UFO groups. That’s a well-documented fact. But it’s not the same thing as saying that they took an interest in the subject of ufology. The British authorities in the 1970s weren’t all that paranoid about an alien invasion, but they were paranoid about far-right anti-government extremists. The authorities believed that certain far-right political activists were infiltrating UFO groups in order to recruit new members. That sounds very unlikely to me, because I’ve never met a far-right UFO enthusiast in my life (although I’ve met many far-left ones)... but the fact is that it’s what the authorities believed. And it’s certainly true that if you’re looking for people with a deep-seated hatred of the establishment, a UFO group is as good a place as any to start.

The second talk was by Heather Dixon, whose subject was “Developing an understanding of the Reality behind the Myths”. Essentially this was a very lucid exposition of the statement, often made by people in BUFORA, that “98 per cent of UFO cases turn out to have a perfectly rational explanation”. In some cases the explanation is physical—for example an astronomical object or atmospheric phenomenon—and in others it is physiological, for example sleep paralysis. Almost by definition, a UFO sighting is something that is novel and inexplicable to the witness, and outside their previous experience. If they have an interest in UFOs, or have been immersed in sci-fi popular culture, they may interpret what they see in ufological terms even if it is something completely different that is outside their experience, such as a rare conjunction of two astronomical objects.

Many people will dismiss this sort of talk as “scepticism”, but it’s really the only way to go about serious ufological investigation. In the real world, it’s inevitable that some UFO reports will turn out to have perfectly mundane explanations. At the same time, other cases—the ones Heather calls “High Strangeness” cases—defy rational explanation. Something is going on that science can’t explain. But that still doesn’t mean it’s extraterrestrials. Many people in the Western world, seeing something they’ve never seen before, will mentally pigeonhole it as a UFO because that’s the way they’ve been brought up. You sometimes hear patronizing statements about primitive peoples along the lines “of course, if they encountered extraterrestrial aliens, they would interpret them as gods or angels or spirits”. But why not the other way around? If a sci-fi geek encountered a god/angel/spirit he or she would interpret them as a space alien!

The next talk was by John Spencer, on the subject of “Political, Cultural and Social Influences of UFOs”. This was a strong contender to be the single best talk I’ve ever seen on the UFO subject... and I’ve seen a lot. Essentially it was about the “cultural tracking” aspect of the UFO phenomenon—the way UFO experiences reflect the technology, political issues and popular culture of the time in which they occur. Again, some people will dismiss this as scepticism, but it’s a real effect that has to be faced up to. This became particularly clear as John went through the history of the subject from the 1940s to the present day. In many UFO cases something undeniably extraordinary—and maybe even extraterrestrial—occurred, but the way it was described by witnesses is shaped by the concerns and obsessions of the time.

An interesting point John made is that the contactees of the early 1950s—people like George Adamski—recounted long conversations with the Space Brothers, in which the latter warned the people of Earth in dire terms about the dangers of nuclear weapons. But in those days, every thinking human being on the planet was worried spitless about the threat of nuclear weapons. The Space Brothers never thought to warn the people of the 1950s about something they weren’t already obsessing about, such as ozone depletion, greenhouse gases or global warming.

John’s take on the Roswell incident was also interesting. This took place in 1947, of course, but when I started reading about UFOs in the late 60s and early 70s it was never mentioned. Books of that time never bothered to mention the biggest UFO case of all time, even though it had occurred more than 20 years earlier. In order to believe in Roswell, you have to believe that the United States government is capable of lying, scheming and deception on an industrial scale. Cultural tracking wasn’t ready for that yet. So there was a long pause from 1947 to 1974, when the Watergate scandal proved beyond doubt that the United States government was indeed capable of lying, scheming and deception on an industrial scale. It was only in the post-Watergate world that people were culturally primed and ready to believe in Roswell.

The next talk was by the legendary Jenny Randles, via a live video link from her home in North Wales. Despite her lower public profile of recent years, Jenny was as lively and entertaining a speaker as when I first saw her almost 20 years ago. The subject of her talk was “solved” UFO cases—cases that have been definitively explained as non-extraterrestrial in origin. Who wants to hear about such things? Well I do, because I think such cases can tell you a lot about people’s perceptions and motivations, but apparently most people don’t—Jenny said her book on the subject ended up being sold for a fraction of the cover price in remainder bookshops!

One striking example came from the 1960s, when a glowing orange ball was filmed hovering over an English primary school, as well as being witnessed by dozens of 10 and 11 year old children at the school. Despite having all the hallmarks of a UFO, the cameraman thought it might have something to do with the fact that a US Air Force F-111 fighter-bomber crashed nearby on the same day (in those days, the USAF was allowed to maintain a small number of air bases in the UK, as a goodwill gesture from the British government—and by inference, the British people). But when the USAF saw the photo of the orange ball hovering over the English school, their response was along the lines “Nothing to do with us. The picture was taken 14 minutes before the crash-landing of the F-111, which at no point caught fire. So it’s nothing to do with us. No, sir. If you ask us, it looks like one of them there extraterrestrial spacecraft people are always talking about.” So contrary to popular belief, this was a case of the US authorities actually encouraging an extraterrestrial interpretation of a UFO sighting.

Many years later the truth emerged in a way that leaves no room for any doubt. When the F-111 first got into trouble, 14 minutes before the eventual crash-landing, the crew went through a standard procedure to reduce the risk of an explosion on landing. They ejected all the aircraft’s fuel, and used the afterburner to ignite it, causing a massive fireball. The US aircrew chose to do this immediately over an English primary school. Had it become known at the time that they had effectively placed their own safety over that of British schoolchildren, the goodwill of the British people would have evaporated... and the USAF would have been kicked out of the country. That’s the kind of cover-up and conspiracy I find easier to believe than the extraterrestrial kind.

The last talk I attended was by another living legend: Lionel Fanthorpe. Lionel is now 77, although he looks ten years younger. His talk was on the subject of six alternative theories as to what UFOs (the kind that don’t have mundane explanations) might be. Only one of the six involved extraterrestrials -- the others ranged from ancient Atlantis and Lemuria to the paranormal. There’s no use pretending the talk was anything but an excuse for Lionel to hold forth about the subjects he’s always been fascinated by: timeslips, werewolves, poltergeists etc. But needless to say it was the most entertaining talk of the day, and it did reinforce what I saw as the whole theme of the conference: that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of by the average ETH-believer.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Theoretical Crankology


The biggest problem with being interested in anomalous phenomena is that people assume you’re a crank. There’s good reason for this, since many of the most vocal proponents of the subject really are cranks. But just what is a crank, and how do you tell the difference between a crank and a serious researcher? For a long time I thought this was one of those grey, subjective questions that it’s impossible to answer, but it’s just occurred to me that there might be an objective, black-and-white criterion after all. It all comes down to what a person finds interesting, and what they find boring. Anomalies don’t exist in isolation, but they can only really be understood in a wider context (for example, cryptozoology in the context of mainstream zoology, ancient aliens in the context of ancient history, etc). My theory is that serious researchers will be as interested in the broader context as they are in the anomalies, while cranks are bored to tears by the context -- which to them is just an irrelevant waste of time.

To be honest, I didn’t really come up with this idea myself, but I got it from a recent blog post by Nick Redfern. He was talking about some of the more annoying traits of ufologists, and one of these was the fact they never “turn off the ufologist switch”. Well, I think serious ufologists do, but the cranks certainly don’t.

There are plenty of really interesting things to see in the sky besides UFOs. A ufologist who wants to be taken seriously ought to be a half-way decent plane spotter and a half-way decent amateur astronomer -- at least to the point of knowing where to look for Venus, Mars and Jupiter on a particular night. Many of them do, of course... but not the cranks. I’m suspicious of anyone who thinks planes and planets and re-entering space junk are simply “boring” things that debunkers use to explain away UFO sightings.

There’s a similar situation in cryptozoology. One of the reasons I have so much time for Jon Downes and his colleagues at the CFZ is that they’re as happy talking about insects and spiders and amphibians as they are about monsters. These are real creatures, which may be rare or outside their natural habitats -- but they’re not cryptids by any definition. Yet it’s only by understanding the behaviour and ecology of known species that you can have a hope of understanding the unknown ones. In a recent article, Jon described himself as a “naturalist, cryptozoologist and journalist”, in that order: he put naturalist before cryptozoologist. Now, that’s my kind of anomalist -- and there’s nothing remotely cranky about it. A crank is someone who thinks there are only two species of creature in the woods: (a) Bigfoot, and (b) everything else, which is simply a distraction and a waste of time.

I often get accused of being a skeptic, but that’s not true (well, I suppose it’s true from the point of view of the sort of cranks I’m talking about, but it’s not true from any rational point of view). I’m interested in physics (in fact I’m reasonably well qualified in it) and I’m convinced there are major discoveries waiting to be made in areas like gravitational control and inertialess propulsion. But I’ve got no time for the countless internet cranks who claim to have proved Einstein wrong, yet can’t even get the units on each side of an algebraic equation to agree -- let alone understand the finer points of tensor calculus.

I’m also a believer in ancient aliens. Well, perhaps not ancient aliens, but certainly an advanced level of technology (or paranormal equivalent thereof) in certain ancient civilizations. But that comes from a wider interest in ancient history -- trying to understand it in its own context, identifying where there are apparent anomalies, and looking for an explanation of the anomalies. That’s quite different from a crank’s approach, which is the other way around altogether -- starting with the assumption that extraterrestrial visitation is an indisputable fact, then looking for evidence of it and dismissing everything else as an irrelevant waste of time.

[For anyone who is wondering, the photograph above—which die-hard ufologists will find utterly uninteresting—shows the re-entry and breakup of an ATV unmanned resupply craft. Perfectly explicable, therefore only of interest to non-cranks!]

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Principle of the Excluded Middle

Aristotle (right, as imagined by Rembrandt) is often blamed for the prevalence of black-and-white thinking in Western culture. But the problem stems not from what Aristotle said, but what people think he said. The Principle of the Excluded Middle, as originally formulated by Aristotle himself, makes perfect sense. It argues that, if a statement X is demonstrated to be false, then the negation of statement X must necessarily be true. The operative word is ‘negation’... not ‘opposite’.

I mentioned the Bible’s Excluded Middle on a previous occasion. If you start with statement X = ‘Everything in the Bible is true’, and find something in the Bible that is demonstrably false, then you have proved that statement X is false. All this means, in strictly Aristotelian terms, is that the negation of X must be true: ‘Not everything in the Bible is true’. But far too many people imagine they have proved the opposite of X to be true: ‘Everything in the Bible is false’. It’s not just the Bible-hating atheists who take this view -- many Biblical literalists do as well. That’s why they get so upset if anyone suggests that pi is anything other than three.

For a more Fortean example, there is an analogous situation in the case of UFOs. In this case, statement X might be ‘All UFO reports can be attributed to sightings of extraterrestrial spacecraft’. If this statement is proved to be false, then all the Excluded Middle says is that its negation must be true: ‘Not all UFO reports can be attributed to sightings of extraterrestrial spacecraft’. But again there is a tendency to apply the erroneous logic that the opposite statement must be true: ‘No UFO reports can be attributed to sightings of extraterrestrial spacecraft’. And again, it’s not just the skeptics who think along these lines, but the UFO enthusiasts as well... hence their outrage when any specific report is ‘explained away’ as a weather balloon, the planet Venus or a flock of pelicans.

When Aristotle formulated his Principle of the Excluded Middle, he was talking about a statement and its negation, not a statement and its opposite. But the ancient Greek philosophers did have something to say on the latter subject. It’s called the Dialectic Principle, and in this case the statement is called the ‘thesis’ and its opposite is called the ‘antithesis’. According to the Dialectic Principle, the two sides should engage in a sober and rational dialogue, and come to some mutually agreed compromise called a ‘synthesis’ (don’t laugh -- the ancient Greeks really thought this might happen).

In the case of ufology, the thesis would be ‘All UFO reports can be attributed to sightings of extraterrestrial spacecraft’ and the antithesis would be ‘All UFO reports have mundane explanations’. If ufologists and skeptics were as enlightened as the ancient Greek philosophers, they would engage in a meaningful dialogue—without spelling mistakes, bad grammar and whole sentences in capital letters—and come to a synthesis from which the state of human knowledge could move forward. But the real world doesn’t work like that.

Forteans, of course, are an exception to the general rule -- we are at our most comfortable in the ‘excluded middle’ between thesis and antithesis. Charles Fort himself referred to the dialectic principle in Lo!, and even attributed it to Aristotle: “I am thinking of an abstraction that was noted by Aristotle, and that was taken by Hegel for the basis of his philosophy: That wherever there is a conflict of extremes, there is an outcome that is not absolute victory on either side, but is a compromise, or what Hegel called the union of complementaries.”

Thursday, 16 February 2012

A Virtual Spaceship

Last month, the BBC ran a show called Stargazing Live over three consecutive nights. The middle instalment was the most interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it featured a surprisingly (for television) level-headed segment about UFOs, featuring cameos by David Clarke and Mark Pilkington. Secondly, a young astrophysicist from Oxford University called Andrew Pontzen showed a computer simulation of galaxy formation (the screenshot above is taken from a clip he posted on his YouTube channel).

The simulation interested me because that’s the sort of thing I did for my PhD thirty years ago... except that in those days we had to wrestle with mediaeval technology, so the results didn’t look as impressive (example on the left, complete with hand-written labels). But the principle was exactly the same. In one of Andrew’s videos (called “This is a Galaxy”), he uses graphics technology to fly through a simulated galaxy. The result is enormously impressive, but he wasn’t the first to have this idea. I looked back through my thesis, and found the following:

“I devised an interactive program based on GAL64, which produces axonometric projections [of the simulated galaxy] on the screen of the Vector General unit at the University of Manchester Computer Graphics Unit. Unlike the GAL64 views the magnification and viewpoint of these pictures are not fixed, but can be set arbitrarily by means of the Vector General hand control units. Because the operation of the program thus bears a marked similarity to piloting an intergalactic spaceship, it was given the appropriately spaceship-like name of VALKYR.”

Why did I call the program “VALKYR”? I don’t think it stood for anything, unless I made up some extremely contrived acronym. It’s just that in those days, program names were limited to six characters (I told you the technology was mediaeval). I was a big fan of Wagner at the time, and that was the closest I could get to “Valkyrie”!

In those days, my science fiction reading inclined towards the arty end of the spectrum, with authors like Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard. However, I discovered long afterwards that a much more downmarket writer named Alfred Coppel did write a couple of stories featuring a spaceship named Valkyr -- “The Rebel of Valkyr” in 1950, and a sequel “Forbidden Weapon” the following year. As you can see from the scan below (taken from the British Edition of Marvel Science Stories), Valkyr was an appropriately mediaeval spaceship!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Moon Aliens

A few years ago I bought a second-hand copy of a book called Secrets of our Spaceship Moon by Don Wilson. This was first published in the USA in 1979, but the copy I bought was the British Sphere paperback from 1980. Inside it I found a newspaper clipping from the Sunday Mirror (a downmarket tabloid here in the UK) dated 9 September 1979. Headed "Moon Aliens: Riddle of two UFOs in crater as Apollo made historic landing", it cites various dubious pieces of evidence suggesting that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin encountered extraterrestrials while they were on the surface of the Moon in 1969 (see scan below -- click on the image for a larger version).
The alleged Apollo 11 encounter is discussed in Secrets of our Spaceship Moon (it's even mentioned in the teaser paragraph on the first page), but it's pretty tame compared with some of the book's other "revelations". One of the later Apollo missions found a discarded glass bottle on the Moon, while another produced metal shavings while drilling into its crust. Early reconnaissance photographs revealed huge monuments, pyramids and other structures on the surface. As far back as the 1920s, coded radio signals were received from an alien satellite in lunar orbit. In 1968, a male-female pair of Soviet cosmonauts landed on the Moon a year before Apollo 11, but the man was killed by a "mechanical monster" and the woman was forced to return to Earth alone. To top everything, as the title of the book suggests, the Moon itself is a hollowed out artificial megastructure of alien origin. NASA knows this, but insists on concealing the truth for nefarious reasons of its own.

You might think that all this comes from the author's imagination, but actually all the claims in the book are carefully referenced to third-party sources. It's just that the sources aren't especially reliable. The information about the metal shavings, for example, comes from an unnamed "high school student". Now call me an old cynic, but I don't find that overwhelmingly conclusive. And one of the sources for the Apollo 11 UFO sightings is Otto Binder, described by Don Wilson as a "former NASA researcher and writer". I'm not sure about the "former NASA researcher" part, but Otto Binder certainly was a prolific writer. Most of his output was science fiction, written under the pseudonym of Eando Binder (originally shared with his brother Earl: "E and O Binder").

In 1969, Binder wrote a novel called Menace of the Saucers (left) and its sequel Night of the Saucers. These are interesting because they're among the very few adult science fiction novels which buy wholeheartedly and uncritically into the UFO paradigm. The two books are full of references to "real" ufological cases and associated anomalies -- including lunar ones. At one point in Night of the Saucers, the hero (a skeptical journalist turned believer) says to his alien wife (a member of the Galactic Vigilantes) "By the way, Lunar Orbiter Two, in 1966, photographed perfectly shaped domes on the Moon, and also strange spires. The domes had moved, when next photographed. Anything of yours?" -- to which she answers "Yes, they are our mobile Moon bases, plus antennas, with which we keep a long-range check on Earth".

Monday, 26 September 2011

Words and music by Desmond Leslie

The two items pictured on the left were both produced by the multi-talented Desmond Leslie in the 1950s. By far the better known of the two is the book Flying Saucers Have Landed, written in collaboration with George Adamski in 1953. Perhaps "collaboration" is too strong a word, as the book consists of two completely disparate sections -- the first written by Leslie, the second by Adamski. The book's fame (or notoriety) rests on the latter section, which records Adamski's alleged encounters with visitors from outer space. This was the beginning of the "contactee" phenomenon which was to dominate ufology in the 1950s -- naïvely written accounts of extraterrestrials coming to Earth in order to warn people about the naughtiness of atomic weapons.

Desmond Leslie's contribution is at the opposite end of the intellectual scale from Adamski's. It's still nonsense, but it's literate and well-researched nonsense. Leslie was the first person to try to link the UFO phenomenon with what would nowadays be called New Age beliefs -- bringing in everything from Atlantis and the Pyramids to Indian flying machines (vimanas) and Celtic mythology. Leslie also draws heavily on esoteric writings such as the Stanzas of Dzyan and the theosophical theories of Madame Blavatsky... and even inserts a few original ideas of his own. Foremost among these is the notion that Flying Saucers are powered by musical tones and harmonies: "A vimana can be moved by tunes and rhythms".

This brings us onto the second item depicted above: Music of the Future. This is a modern CD, but the music on it was recorded by Leslie in the 1950s and originally issued as an acetate in 1959. "Music of the Future" is an accurate description of the sounds produced by Leslie, if not the technique he used. The music sounds electronic, but it isn't -- it was produced acoustically by various contrived means, and then processed mechanically on analogue tape recorders. The French term for this type of music, which was a short-lived fad among avant-garde composers, was musique concrète... the result sounds a bit like a cross between Revolution 9 by the Beatles and the closing sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The titles of the tracks clearly show Leslie's continuing interest in the mystical and esoteric: "Comet in Aquarius", "The Warhorns of Mars", "Coming of the Elementals" and "Death of Satan". The last-named is described by Leslie as an esoteric tone-poem, and contains the album's only recognisable tune (which can be heard in the clip at the bottom of this post) -- a distorted version of the theme from Richard Strauss's own tone-poem, Don Juan.

The first six tracks on the CD were written for a now-forgotten film called The Day the Sky Fell In. I don't think Leslie had anything to do with the plot of the film, but from the way he describes it in the sleeve notes it sounds like an archetypal "contactee" scenario. A mysterious stranger visits a defence scientist and tries to dissuade him from working on nuclear weapons. The scientist refuses, so the stranger gives a loaded revolver to the scientist's son... who happens to be mentally retarded. The point being -- this is no more dangerous than giving an atom bomb to a politician!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Ghost town UFO?

My Califorteana post a few months ago included a photograph taken by Paul Jackson of the archetypal "ghost town" of Bodie in California. A few days ago Paul visited another ghost town... the deserted village of Imber on Salisbury Plain (the picture on the left shows the boarded up remains of Imber Court, an old manor house).

Although Imber is less than thirty miles from where Paul lives, it's one of the most inaccessible places in the country... because it's locked away inside the British Army's training grounds. 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. After almost seventy years, Imber is still being used as a training ground for urban warfare! The village is off-limits to the public on all but a handful of days every year, when visitors like Paul flock to experience what is essentially a time-warp back to the 1940s. The surreal atmosphere is accentuated by the use of ancient red Routemaster buses to ferry visitors around!

Imber was always an isolated place, even when it was lived in: "Seven miles from any town, there stands Imber on the Down". The town referred to, which is indeed seven miles away, is Warminster. The name Warminster may not mean much to people nowadays, and it probably never did mean much to people outside the British Isles, but in the 1960s and 70s Warminster was Britain's most notorious UFO "hot-spot" -- the venue for countless overnight vigils by UFO spotters, hippies and New Age truth-seekers. And Imber itself was not immune from such activities. An article in the June 1967 issue of MUFORG Bulletin (and now reprinted on the Magonia website) recounted a "Sky Watch" that took place at Imber during which the legendary Arthur Shuttlewood witnessed a Mysterious Phenomenon... a phenomenon that only the most skeptical of his companions dared to point out was nothing more mysterious than common-or-garden lightning!

Paul's photograph of Imber church, shown on the right, displays a small smudge just to the right of the church tower (you may have to enlarge the image by clicking on it to see what I'm talking about). Paul thinks this is "probably a pigeon in flight"... or it might be an out-of-focus insect or a speck of dust on the lens. At the height of the Warminster flap, however, such mundane explanations as these would have been out of the question. I can't help wondering what the great Arthur Shuttlewood would have made of Paul's picture...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Stranger than fiction

There are some "larger-than-life" individuals who, if they were characters in a novel or a film, you'd have difficulty believing in them. Graham Ennis is one such person. Probably best known for his numerous contributions to the British version of UFO Magazine (from which the mug-shot on the left is taken), my own first encounter with him took place in April 2000 when he phoned me up at work. This was about a year after I'd finished my secondment to MOD, where I'd been involved, among other things, in monitoring advanced propulsion research. By the time Graham called me I'd moved on to something completely different, but he hadn't known that... which was fortunate for me, because I had the chance to talk to a fascinating individual!

Although I'd never heard of him at the time, he mentioned several mutual acquaintances, and he was obviously very knowledgeable on subjects like the Podkletnov gravity-shielding experiment (which was big news at the time, although it's been discredited since then). During that first phone call I wasn't at all sure what Graham's background was -- I thought he might have been a journalist, because he talked about making TV documentaries, but he also talked about a research project he was trying to get funds for at Sussex University... obviously a man of many talents! I subsequently found out (from one of the mutual acquaintances he'd mentioned) that he was the director of a small company called Condor Aviation which specialized in advanced aircraft designs such as blended wing-bodies.

As a result of my chat with Graham, I received a faxed invitation to a meeting he was organizing at the Royal Aeronautical Society on the subject of "Force Field Propulsion" (right). The aim of the meeting was to set up a steering committee that would be the British counterpart to NASA's "Breakthrough Propulsion Physics" initiative. Unfortunately I had to turn him down, for the simple reason that I was no longer working in that area. I'm not sure if the meeting ever went ahead (I have a feeling it didn't), but a few months later, in January 2001, Graham organized a much more ambitious gathering along similar lines -- the First International Field Propulsion Conference at the University of Sussex. Again I received an invitation, and again I declined it... a decision I've lived to regret, because by all accounts the event was a massive success (it was even reported in the Guardian newspaper!). However, I've no idea if the proposed steering committee got off the ground, or if Graham's research project ever got funded.

Graham's first contributions to UFO Magazine were on the subjects of electro-gravitic research and gravity shielding... not too different from the sort of things he'd talked about on the phone. But his later articles went into completely new territory... predicting worldwide disaster as a result of a shift in the Earth's poles, and/or an environmental catastrophe. In the last few months of the magazine's existence (October 2003 to March 2004) he had a regular "science column", covering subjects like SETI, the Martian meteorite and the Beagle Mars lander. Still not quite clear what Graham's "day job" was, I was interested to see him describe himself in one of his articles as a "sober and serious aerospace scientist"!

Googling "Graham Ennis" turns up Condor Aviation, the 2001 Field Propulsion Conference and his work for UFO Magazine, but also the interesting snippet that he was a humanitarian aid worker during the Bosnian War (1992-95). These days he is the director of something called the Omega Institute -- apparently an environmental "think-tank" which has developed a number of patents relating to wind turbines. Aid worker, aerospace designer, breakthrough physicist, UFO journalist, environmentalist... as I said, a larger-than-life individual!

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

UFOs: the forgotten book

At yesterday's Aliens and the Imagination event at the British Library, David Clarke mentioned that the first non-fiction book on the UFO phenomenon in the English language was Gerald Heard's The Riddle of the Flying Saucers (1950)... and went on to suggest that most people had probably never heard of it. Actually I had heard of it, but only because I'd read about it in a book co-authored by David Clarke himself (Flying Saucerers, written with Andy Roberts). I even bought an old copy of Heard's book in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago... and promptly forgot all about it because it was so unmemorable!

There are a couple of first-rate UFO books that were published shortly after Heard's, which are sometimes erroneously described as having being the first on the subject:

  • The Flying Saucers are Real, which appeared later in 1950, and is the work of Donald Keyhoe -- a former marine who, back in the 1930s, had been a prolific writer of pulp fiction, producing tales of the First World War flying ace Philip Strange, and the scheming Fu Manchu clone Dr Yen Sin. The significance of Keyhoe's book is that it was the first to suggest the now-indispensable idea of a government conspiracy to cover up the truth about UFOs.
  • Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953), written by Desmond Leslie in collaboration with the first "contactee", George Adamski. Although the book is best remembered for Adamski's contribution, Desmond Leslie was the more thoughtful and erudite of the two authors, and his ideas on Atlantis, the Pyramids and ancient Indian flying machines (vimanas) were the first of many attempts to link modern UFO sightings with ancient mysticism.

In comparison with these two books, Gerald Heard's The Riddle of the Flying Saucers offers nothing to get the pulses racing -- no government conspiracies, no alien abductions, no ancient astronauts. Instead, in a series of breathtakingly glib deductions, Heard progresses from the small body of observational evidence to the conclusion that Flying Saucers are piloted by intelligent bees from the planet Mars. These aren't even giant bees -- they're just slightly larger than ordinary earthly bees (about two inches long, Heard tells us).

If this all sounds too ludicrous to be taken literally, I suspect that's because it was never meant to be taken literally. If you look at the titles of the other books written by Gerald Heard (as seen in the scan on the left - click to enlarge), they all seem to be on religious or moral subjects. While The Riddle of the Flying Saucers doesn't contain any overtly religious ideas, it's got more than its fair share of moralizing. The Martian bees don't like humanity's preoccupation with war and nuclear weapons, and it's a safe bet that Gerald Heard didn't either! It's reasonable to suppose that he picked on flying saucers, as a currently fashionable subject, simply as a convenient vehicle to get his message across. In which case, it's only fitting that the book fell into such total obscurity!

Incidentally, my copy of the book (which I bought in Sherborne, Dorset) has a hand-written inscription inside the front cover that says "To Desmond from Mother - Xmas 1950". Maybe it was Desmond Leslie's personal copy!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Wikipedia versus Forteana

No-one can dispute that Wikipedia is a useful source of information in many areas. It's strong on mainstream science, computer programming, cult television, video games and anime. These are the subjects that get a typical Wikipedia editor's pulses racing. In other areas, such as history and the fine arts, they shrug their shoulders and leave it to people who are knowledgeable in these fields. Only Forteans are seriously persecuted... Wikipedia doesn't share their interests, but unlike classical music and Greek philosophy (which they don’t like either) they just won't leave us alone.

Many perfectly good articles have been deleted, while others have been tagged with so many warning messages (as seen on the left) that the visitor is made to feel a fool for showing an interest in the subject. Forteana by its nature deals with phenomena that lie outside mainstream science, and which are often poorly understood and patchily documented. In the majority of cases, there is a significant element of subjectivity both in the evidence and in the proposed explanations of it. Hence the subject matter of Forteana, by its very nature, lacks neutrality, verifiability and factual accuracy. That's precisely why it's of so much interest to Forteans... and why it's so unpalatable to Wikipedians!

What Forteans understand, but the average Wikipedia editor can't be bothered to, is the perfectly clear distinction between a phenomenon and the description of a phenomenon. The latter can be totally neutral, verifiable and factually accurate even if the former is not. This is true in the case of the Wikipedia article on the Dean Drive, from which the above warning notice is taken.

There are a couple of other reasons why Wikipedia has got it in for Forteans. One is its "policy" WP:FRINGE, which discriminates against any idea or theory which is not part of the mainstream curriculum -- even if that idea or theory has significant social or historical significance. Another is its strange concept of "notability", which seems to be based on the principle "we haven't heard of it even if you have". As a result, many subjects that will be household names to Forteans have had their articles deleted from Wikipedia -- Timothy Good, Alan Godfrey, Charles Fort Institute, David Clarke (lecturer) to name but a few (these are links to the relevant deletion logs, since the articles themselves no longer exist!).

Even Jenny Randles, one of Britain's most prolific Fortean authors (and, like most British Forteans, a highly rational writer far from the rabid ET-believing stereotype that Wikipedia imagines us to be) is tagged for "notability"... as is the Owlman, one of Britain's best known cryptozoological phenomena.

The Fortean Times UnConvention has been running for almost two decades, and is the only event of its kind in the world. A few years ago, Wikipedia had the beginnings of a good article on the subject -- the archived version still exists. But now, if you type UnCon into the search box, you are redirected to the article on Fortean Times... because, we're told, UnCon is not notable except in the context of the magazine!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Fortean Events that Shook the World

As a general rule, events of interest to Forteans have little impact on mainstream culture... with a few notable exceptions. For my contribution to Oll Lewis's "Fortean Fives" series on the CFZ blog, I chose five events which in one way or another "shook the establishment" (the "establishment" encompassing academia, the media, the government, the Church and the legal profession):

[1] The appearance of a young Uri Geller on the Dimbleby Talk-In (23 November 1973). The show was memorable not just for Geller's (at the time completely new) stage act, but for the fact that Professor John Taylor of King's College London, brought on as a skeptical scientist, was completely taken in by it all, and underwent a quasi-religious conversion in front of the TV cameras! A couple of years later I went to a lecture by Prof. Taylor on the paranormal, and he was still a complete believer in it.

[2] The premiere of Ray Santilli's Alien Autopsy film at the Museum of London (5 May 1995). To anyone with any experience of the field the footage was an obvious hoax, and yet it was lapped up by the public and the media because -- just at that moment -- it filled a desperate need created by a combination of The X-Files and pre-millennial tension. BUFORA staked its reputation on the film's authenticity... and, when it was shown to be a hoax, British ufology died its much-publicized death!

[3] The death of Princess Diana (31 August 1997). I was tempted to write "the assassination of Princess Diana", but she wasn't assassinated -- she died in a road traffic accident. This inconvenient fact doesn't stop the conspiracy theorists, however... and also a surprisingly large number of "ordinary people" who refuse to believe that a famous person is capable of dying an accidental death! It's this refusal to believe the obvious that transforms the event from something mundane into something Fortean.

[4] The revelation of the Third Secret of Fatima (26 June 2000). This was a mystery that had been speculated on for a long time (the original vision occurred in 1917, and the "secret" was written down and sealed in 1944)... and it's the kind of mystery that is only interesting as long as it remains a mystery! The fun was spoiled in the year 2000 when Pope John Paul II authorized publication of the secret. Conspiracy theorists refuse to believe that the published version is the "true" secret, of course -- although personally I'm sure it is.

[5] The "Da Vinci Code trial" -- Baigent and Leigh, claimants, versus the Random House Group, defendant (trial started on 27 Feb 2006). There was a time when The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was a book known only to Forteans and New Agers, but its popularity was boosted first by Dan Brown's blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, and then by Baigent and Leigh's lawsuit accusing The Da Vinci Code of plagiarism. During the trial it became clear that the judge, Justice Peter Smith, knew a lot more about HBHG than Dan Brown did (he'd actually read it from cover to cover, for example) and his final judgment is a more entertaining read than The Da Vinci Code (it even contains its own coded message... probably a first in English Law)!