9 December 2018

SUFFER NOT A WITCH

Willow Winsham. England’s Witchcraft Trials. Pen and Sword, 2018.

Willow Winsham’s earlier book, Accused: British Witches Throughout History, rather than attempting a general overview of witchcraft accusations, which might sacrifice detail and context, made a detailed examination of eleven cases, chosen to reveal the development of public attitudes to witchcraft over the centuries.

This book continues in that vein, by reviewing five specific trials or groups of trials each of which allows us to understand the historic, personal and social background to the events described. All five will probably already be familiar to anyone with more than a cursory interest in witchcraft, but the author presents much that will be new to many students of the topic. Besides going back to original documentation such as trial records and the often sensational pamphlets that were published after each trial, she has scoured parish and county records to reveal more about the specific individuals described, their families and the nature of their lives and social connections.

East Anglia is perhaps the region most associated with witchcraft, and the first chapter describes the witchcraft accusations at the small Essex village of St Osyth. These seem to have begun with a dispute between two women Grace Thurlow and Ursula Kempe. who at first appeared to be great friends. Indeed Ursula helped cure sick Grace’s son using an old folk remedy. Grace was pregnant at the time, and Ursula had expected to be asked to attend to her at the birth of the child. However, in a decision that was to have tragic consequences for both families, another neighbour was invited instead.

Subsequently any illness or misfortune which attended the Thurlow family was blamed on Ursula who, it was claimed, had a “naughty” reputation. The accusations and counter accusations eventually embraced both families as well as their friends and neighbours. The result was that at least ten women from the village were arraigned as witches at Colchester in 1582. Kempe and another woman were found guilty and hanged, Others who were found guilty escaped hanging, but were imprisoned, and two other women died before they could even be tried due to the appalling conditions in the prison at Colchester Castle.

In the St Osyth tragedy all the people involved seemed to be of a similar social status, peasants and small farmers, as was the case in many similar incidents across Essex and elsewhere. However the incident which has become known as the ‘Witches of Worboys’ is an example of a more powerful family clearly persecuting women of considerably lower social status.

The Throckmortons were a wealthy local family, with links to the Cromwell family, including a great-aunt of the future Lord-Protector. When the family’s 9-year-old daughter Jane took ill with a fit of sneezing and convulsions, neighbours visited, including the elderly Alice Samuel. But when Alice sat next to the girl, Jane immediately denounced her as a witch. At first the Throgmorton parents did not accept this, and treated the girl’s condition as an illness rather than the results of spells and witchcraft. The girl’s fits and convulsions spread to her two sisters and eventually resulted in the bizarre situation that they only stopped in the presence of Alice Samuel, the ‘witch’ who was supposed to have caused them. In the end Samuel was held virtually as prisoner in the Throgmorton household in order to control the girls’ convulsions.

The girls seemed to be involved in a series of mind-games with the old woman, claiming that spirits she was controlling were causing their fits, and somehow the death of the elderly Lady Cromwell came to be attributed to her. From then on the case took its tragic and inevitable course, with Alice being tried as a witch, and hung, along with her own daughter who had become entrapped in the allegations, and hung at Huntingdon on 4th April 1593.

It is impossible to work out motivations here. Were the girls behaving out of childish malice, or was it a prank that got out of hand? Or were the children being led on by their parents or other adults. In which case why pick on Alice, whose first visit to the Throgmortons seemed motivated only by sympathy for the suffering child? The girls’ strange behaviour lasted for over three years, raising the question posed in the title of the chapter describing these events, ‘possession or posturing’. Whatever motivations and even genuine concerns were behind these acts, Winsham concludes “it is impossible to fully disguise the fact that the elderly and economically dependent Alice Samuel was, to all intents, hounded, abused and finally held prisoner by the more prestigious and well-connected family”.

The trials of the Pendle Witches have probably been written about, as fact and fiction, more than any other historical witch trials. The otherwise obscure Manx novelist Harrison Ainsworth would be virtually forgotten today but for his not-too-historically-accurate novel The Lancashire Witches, first published in book form in 1849, and remarkably has never been out of print since, the only one of his 39 novels with such a distinction.

As so many times before, the events leading up to the Lancashire tragedy began in a series of disputes between two families – the Southerns and the Whittles – over the theft of some clothes and flour. The claims and counter accusations of witchcraft escalated, often by many of those accused themselves quite readily admitting to conducting magical activities, both for good and evil. The complexity of the case are well set out by the author, who has has to make sense of often contradictory testimony and sometimes dubious contemporary sources.

One particularly damning piece of evidence was given by 9-year-old Jennet Device, despite even at that time the law theoretically  disallowing evidence from one so young. She gave evidence against her own brother and testified that she had seen others of the accused at a ‘coven’ where they pledged themselves to Satan. The case also seems to have become entangled in other religious and political concerns of the era, with suggestions that some of the accused were part of a recusant Catholic plot.

Perhaps after Pendle, the best known witchcraft incident in England is the case of Matthew Hopkins, much represented, and usually misrepresented, in fictional versions. It seems likely that Hopkins had no official authority for his self-proclaimed role as ‘Witch-finder General’, and was more of a freelance witch-hunting entrepreneur, offering his services to local communities. Plenty of people seemed to have had grievances against neighbours, tradesmen and clergymen to ensure that there were plenty of takers for the services of Hopkins and his henchman John Stearne.

Their reign of terror took place in the midst of the English Civil War, when people saw the settled fabric of civil society collapsing around them and normal neighbourly relationships could not be taken for granted. Again, it is remarkable how readily people would admit, even boast, of their magical powers, describing their ‘imps’, who brought them instructions from the devil, and willingly gave chapter and verse for the curses they had put on to other village folk. Because, as Winsham is at pains to point out in describing these trials, people from all levels of society had no doubt whatsoever that witches were real, they could be anyone, anywhere, they were dangerous, and if exposed they would most certainly deserve death.

Well almost everyone. In the midst of the civil turmoil, a splendidly titled news-sheet, The Moderate Intelligencer denounced the panic, wondering “whence it is that Devils should choose to be conversant with silly women who know not their right hands from their left is a great wonder”. A bit sexist perhaps, but a valid point.

Hopkins, like many such chancers throughout history, had a good line in self-justification. No, he wasn’t torturing people when he forced suspects to walk around their cells for days at a time, he was just ensuring that they stayed awake and did not fall prey to the imps which were standing by to further bewitch the victim. Similarly with ‘swimming’ a witch to prove their guilt or innocence, Hopkins allowed that other, less scrupulous, witch-finders might do this to force a false confession, he would only do this with the agreement of the accused and anyway he would only do it in the summer months when the water was warmer. What a gent!

Another complaint made against him was that he was charging too much for his services: “All that the witch-finder doeth is to fleece the country of their money, and therefore rides and goes to towns to have employment”. Mathews had an answer for that too. He charged only £20 a time and “does sometimes ride twenty miles for that … and finds three or four witches there, and if it be but one, cheap enough”. 

As rural life gradually began to return to something like normality, the demand for Hopkins’ and Stearne’s services began to dry up, and opinion began to turn against them, leading them to attempt justification of their work, Sterne writing A Confirmation and Discoverie of Witchcraft to justify the pain and death the pair had caused. Rumours continued after the two men died, some suggesting that Hopkins had faked his death and made his way to New England, just in time for the Salem trials. In fact he died in August 1647, according to Sterne “without any trouble of conscience”.

The Bideford Witchcraft trials in 1682 are believed to be the last in England in which the accused, having been found guilty, were sentenced to death. Indeed, by this time it was increasingly rare for such trials to end with a guilty verdict at all, partly as a reaction to the excesses of the Civil War period, and also as part of a gradual shift in public and official attitudes towards witchcraft claims.

The events in Bideford, North Devon, began in a painfully familiar manner, with an elderly widow, Temperance Lloyd, being accused of attacking a neighbour, Grace Thomas, through magical means and causing her “illness and suffering”. It was actually Lloyd’s brother-in-law Thomas Eastchurch who made the complaints to the local magistrates. The claim was that Temperance was tormenting Grace by sticking pins into a doll made in her image, and thus causing constant pricking pains and making her belly swell enormously.

When accused, Temperance Lloyd denied having such a doll, but remarkably – and also it would seem from such cases, quite typically - she did admit to having a piece of leather which she would pierce with a pin. When arrested and jailed after this admission, Thomas claimed that her pains subsided.

Questioned by magistrates and later by the local rector at the parish church, she made further confessions, such as meeting with spirits, taking the form of a cat to enter houses and now also of having a ‘puppet-figure’ which she stuck pins into. Gradually the claims and accusations began to implicate other local women, and eventually four ‘witches’ stood trial at the court in Exeter – Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, Susannah Edwards and Alice Molland. All were found guilty and hanged. Although all had made confessions, we have no way of knowing just how much pressure, even torture, was used to extract them. The others withdrew their claims at the last moment before execution, but Lloyd was adamant unto the end that she was responsible for the persecution of Grace Thomas.

There has been much speculation as to why these executions should have taken place at such a comparatively late date compared to other witchcraft cases, as it seems likely that the magistrates and other officials involved in the judgement were dubious about the guilt of the accused. It has been suggested that the executions went ahead to prevent wider social unrest and a possible new witch-hunting frenzy which might have drawn in more local people.

The value of this book is in the insights which the author has drawn out about the personal and family lives of both the accused and their accusers, and the complex social, religious and political environment in which these trials took place. It is detailed and well-referenced, but lucidly written and an entertaining as well as an illuminating read, which sets to right many assumptions and misconceptions about witchcraft in English history. I would however have appreciated an index. Nevertheless, this is highly recommended not just for students of witchcraft, but for anyone interested in the social history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially its darker side! – John Rimmer


7 December 2018

CHRISTMAS GIFTS

Christmas is coming, so just a reminder that there is still time to buy a suitable gift for your Fortean Friends from the hundreds of books which we have reviewed in Magonia. Just click the link at the foot of every review, and it's on its way.

You can choose them from the Magonia Review blog that you're reading at the moment - check the subject index in the left sidebar - or from our huge listing of older titles here: 

And if you want to scan the list by author, here's our full index:

You will be sure to find something for that difficult-to-buy-for friend!



22 November 2018

PURITY IS DANGER

Michael Robertson. The Last Utopians: Four Late 19th Century Visionaries and Their Legacy. Princeton University Press. 2018.

Concluding his very last piece for Magonia, our great friend Peter Rogerson wrote: “The anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote a book called Purity and Danger, but a book called ‘Purity is Danger’ would be more apposite, for surely all the worst crimes are committed in the name of purity and pure lands: pure religion, pure nation, pure race, pure people, pure lands that no actual human being is ever pure enough to inhabit.” This book is about four such ‘pure lands’.

Michael Robertson looks at a quartet of writers, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whom he considers to be among the last people who could provide a sincerely intended model for a utopian society. Probably the most famous today is the designer and socialist writer, William Morris. The others, less well-known are Edward Bellamy, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the latter probably remembered largely through her proto-feminist horror story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.

These writers most significant utopian works were published in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and the first two of the twentieth. Robertson feels that no real utopian work has been published since then, although he concludes the book with a chapter ‘After the Last Utopians’ attempting to discern threads of utopianism in more modern manifestations, and looking at later dystopian works.

The four worlds discussed here, although each claiming to present a perfect model of human civilisation, are in many ways mutually exclusive. The earliest, and perhaps the most influential at the time, is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887, published in 1888. Bellamy’s protagonist, Julian West, wakes from a hypnotically induced trance into the Boston of the year 2000. Although Bellamy was initially reluctant to use the 'S' word, his utopia is a centrally planned socialist state, with direction of labour into an ‘industrial army’ that produces goods for equal distribution to all citizens of the United States, all of whom receive equal pay; difficult or unpleasant jobs are rewarded by shorter hours rather than higher pay.

Whether in this society having greater leisure time is all that desirable is a moot point. One way of filling it would be through a cable audio system which would transmit ‘sermons, talks and music’ into every house. Perhaps the most insightful prediction in it is the description of what is basically an on-line shopping service, a sort of Amazon Prime, with delivery thorough pneumatic tubes – which would at least obviate the need to arrange for neighbours to collect the goods if you were away.

The remarkable thing about this vision is that it produced a considerable political movement named, rather confusingly in retrospect ‘Nationalism’, although this refereed to the national ownership of property and businesses and might better be expressed as ‘Nationalisationism’. The principles expressed by Bellamy though this ‘Nationalist’ movement were influential with the People’s Party, founded by Ignatius Donnelly, who had himself published a utopian novel and is perhaps best known as populariser of the Atlantis myth through his book The Antediluvian World.

However the appeal of Bellamy’s vision faded with the withdrawal of the People’s Party from the 1896 US Presidential election, and a follow-up to Looking Backward, Equality, with a more clearly socialist message published a year before Bellamy’s death, did not have the same success, and especially after the First World War, the authoritarian nature of Bellamy’s version of utopia led to the eclipse of the book and his ideas.

Bellamy’s vision, predicated on a strong, centralised industrial state, was anathema to utopians of a more libertarian persuasion. It was in many ways as a critical response to Bellamy that William Morris wrote News From Nowhere, published initially in the magazine Commonweal, the first part appearing just a year after the publication of Looking Backward, which Morris had previously reviewed for the same magazine.

News From Nowhere follows the traditional pattern of the sleeper awakening, used by everyone from Washington Irving to Woody Allen. The protagonist, William Guest – clearly Morris himself – falls asleep in the ‘shabby’ London borough of Hammersmith (no argument there) to awake in a bucolic twenty-first century Hammersmith, where the iconic cast-iron bridge has been replaced by a replica of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. But the whole of industrial London has been replaced by a series of small villages. We learn that Manchester too has completely disappeared (no argument there either) and everyone appears to be dressed like a character in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Which of course is exactly what they are, for the whole of Morris’s book is a Burne-Jones or Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting turned into text.

In this paradise everyone works because they want to. Employment is slavery, there is no form of money or other commercial exchange, the State has withered away – the old Houses of Parliament are used to store manure (subtle or what?). There is no formal education system, children learn through doing. People work whenever and at whatever they please. A morning spent carving an elaborate tobacco pipe (Morris’s utopia is noticeably less puritanical than many others) might be followed up by an afternoon doing some manual road building, just for the sheer fun of it and to get a bit of healthy exercise. Morris is silent on the possibility of doing a spot of sewer-cleaning in the same spirit of joi-de-vivre.

Morris’s is a world of medieval aesthetics – minus the plague, cholera and famine – with a liberal sexual morality that seems more in tune with the ‘sixties flower-power era. In this world marriage and divorce are things of the past, discarded with the other trappings of capitalism. This does not however stop at least two murders and a suicide happening as a result of sexual jealously during the course of Mr Guest’s stay. And even in Nowhere a woman’s work is still, by definition, a woman’s work. No road building for the ladies, who seem to be more involved with the tapestry side of things.

Unlike Bellamy's creation, Morris’s book is still read and admired today, and regarded as a foundation text for the libertarian left – the book gives its name to a radical bookshop in Liverpool, for instance. Morris’s Hammersmith certainly seems a much more pleasant place to live in than Bellamy’s Boston – for a while, anyway. But one can’t help thinking that it's a little bit like that old TV series The Prisoner, lovely and bucolic on the surface, but something a little darker when you get deeper in. You start to ask yourself “but what if no-one actually fancies doing an afternoon of back-breaking road mending, after a morning of light wood carving or calligraphy?"

Perhaps the most obscure of Robertson's four utopias is that of Edward Carpenter [left]. Carpenter was born in 1844, in Brighton, to a large upper-middle-class household, with nine siblings and a full complement of servants. He moved effortlessly through public school and Cambridge and entered the Church; a classic progression for a man of his class and era. Along the way he published a slim volume of poetry, the homoerotic overtones of which were lightly disguised by the classical and religious models they were based on.

The erotic content of his writing became more overt after discovering, and visiting, Walt Whitman in America. By then he had moved away from the Church and was involved in worker education schemes in the north of England, around Sheffield, where he met “a good-looking young ironworker” who lived with his wife and family on a small farm near the Steel City. Carpenter then moved to a cottage he had built for himself at Millthorpe in Derbyshire, which became a sort of northern, but less architecturally appealing version of Morris's Kelmscott. Despite its aesthetic failures it succeed as a meeting place for a wide range of literary figures, political thinkers and socialist writers. It was at this time he produced his main utopian work, Towards Democracy, a long free-verse poem.

What makes Beyond Democracy stand out from other utopian works of the period is its advocacy of same-sex love as the basis of a perfect society. Although some have seen this as a pioneering work of gay liberation it reads very strangely today. Carpenter used the term 'uranianism' to describe homosexuality, a word derived from Plato, and favoured by Oscar Wilde. Carpenter's utopian blueprint was based on his belief that 'uranians' were actually less sensuous than 'mullierasts' – straights – and being less sexually active were more able to advance civilisation through art and philosophy. Many of Carpenter's views sit uncomfortably with present-day ideas of homosexual equality, displaying a hierarchy of gayness, with almost asexual spiritual lovers, whom he called 'urnings', at the top; and “effeminate”, “mincing”, “chatterbox” types at the bottom, along with their female equivalents, who are “markedly aggressive' with “masculine manners and movements”.

In summarising Carpenter's contribution to utopian thought, Robertson points out that Carpenter's lifestyle - vegetarianism, living simply, working on his own organic small-holding, and enjoying the manual labour it involved - was closer to his own utopian ideal than Morris or Bellamy ever achieved. He was after all, as Robertson points out, probably the only Cambridge honours graduate with his own fruit and veg stall in Sheffield Market!

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's utopia is another one with a curious sexual framework. Herland – the clue is in the name – is a society, hidden somewhere in deepest Amazonia, comprised entirely of woman. This same-sex paradise is disturbed by three male interlopers who fly into this world in a bi-plane. They find a perfectly ordered, well-manicured society, but we find it rather less perfectly described than Bellamy's or Morris's utopias. Although it seems to have a high degree of technology – there are electric cars, and an extensive road network – there seems to be a total absence of industry or any manual labour, apart from agriculture.

All males in this world died, through some biological or ecological disaster, two thousand years before, but rather than the remaining population of women dying out over a generation, some young women began giving birth through an unexplained form of parthenogenesis. The resulting all-female society was inherently peaceful and co-operative because, as Gilman explained, women are “natural co-operators” with a “mental outlook” that has “no need for the individualism and competitiveness inherent in capitalism”. Hmm. I suppose I could say 'Margaret Thatcher' and leave it at that.

But when we get deeper into this loving maternal paradise, where all children are 'our children', we find the worm in the bud. Although women reproduce asexually, there is a form of birth-control. Once a woman feels the semi-orgasmic charge that precedes her immaculate conception, she can prevent actual conception happening by concentrating on their work in farm or the electric car factory. This helps keep Herland's population stable, but also allowing it to be carefully controlled, as this cooperative, motherly society “breed[s] out … the lowest types” and those deemed undesirable are required to renounce motherhood.

For this is Herland's and Gilman's dirty little secret, an enthusiastic advocacy of eugenics. Now you might say that eugenics has had a bad press over the past 75 years or so, and its origins were simply in a movement to create a healthier society through educational and environmental reforms, and as such it was promoted by many in progressive circles and on the political left. However, in reality, as well as the need to encourage mentally and physically healthy families, there was the unspoken need to somehow discourage mentally and physically unhealthy families.

In her writings Gilman [right] was an enthusiastic supporter of this process. An earlier utopian fantasy of hers, Moving the Mountain, set thirty years after it was written in 1911, describes a United States Federal Department of Eugenics, which supervises the sterilisation of those deemed to be sub-standard, although we are told that 'moral sanatoriums' have replaced the cruder practices of earlier years. “Sometimes we had to amputate, especially at first … we killed many hopeless degenerates, insane, idiots, and real perverts” our guide tells us, although, to be fair, only after “trying our best powers of cure”. This makes it even more chilling when we read that Gilman describes the feminist utopia of Herland as “entirely Aryan”.

Perhaps the weakest part of Robertson's book is the final chapter, 'After the Last Utopians', which seems something of an appendix to the main text. As well as summarising the anti-utopian and dystopian literature which followed later in the twentieth century, like 1984 and Brave New World, he describes his visits to a series of groups, ranging from small agrarian communities on remote Scottish islands, through Findhorn and Burning Man, to New York's Reclaim Wall Street encampment in 2011. The one thing that all these communities seem to have in common is that in the end they are entirely dependent on the extremely non-utopian societies that surround and ultimately support them, everything from portable lavatories and the New York subway system, to Caledonian Macbrayne ferries.

After reading this book I am more convinced than ever by Peter Rogerson's assertion that 'purity is danger', because behind the facades of efficient delivery of goods and an early retirement age, beautiful tapestries and hard-made furniture, healthy homoerotic farm work and motherly love with electric cars, there has to be some way of dealing the awkward squad, the misfits. I could probably imagine going a few months in Morris's Hammersmith – although I would rather miss Bazalgette's rickety old bridge - and I feel paradoxically relieved that there is the occasional murder in this earthly paradise - but sooner or later it would be my turn to do the road-mending on the Broadway, and that's when I would want out.

A fascinating book, and perhaps one that eventually comes across with a message the author may not originally have intended, for I'm afraid it seems  that 'purity' really is danger, and I'd rather hold on to the messily pragmatic, stick-a-plaster-on-it, but nevertheless gradually getting better world we have at the moment. – John Rimmer.

13 November 2018

HOLD ON TO YOUR TINFOIL HAT!

Timothy Green Beckley and Sean Casteel. UFO Hostilities and the Evil Alien Agenda; Lethal Encounters with Ultra-terrestrials Exposed. Global Communication/Inner Light. 2018

One of the first UFO books I ever bought was a cheap paperback Flying Saucers Are Hostile by Brad Steiger and Joan Whritenour, which promised ‘UFO Atrocities from strange disappearances to bizarre deaths.’ At the time it was as startling as the cover blurb promised.

This volume goes into even more detail about the dangers of UFO encounters and for good measure even includes a chapter about ‘Patterns of Horror’ by Brad that summarises some of the cases he used in his book. Many of the instances involve beams of light that burn the terrified witnesses and cause them to suffer from what seems like radiation burns. He also indicates that UFOs might be responsible for cases of spontaneous human combustion and that the magnetic field surrounding UFO craft flings aircraft to the ground and causes motor vehicles to crash if they get too close.

One of the more intriguing stories is about the discovery of the bodies of Miguel Jose Viana and Manuel Pereira de Cruz, on a hillside in Niteroi, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in August 1966. The two electronics repairmen were wearing homemade lead masks and they had notes referring to waiting for the ‘agreed signal’ and prescribing the use of capsules. UFOs were seen in the local vicinity before they were found and lab tests were unable to explain their deaths. Brad, perhaps influenced by Charles Fort, wonders if they met with the occupants of a UFO and ‘...learned far too late that...[the aliens]...far from being indifferent to earthlings and shunning contact with us, are decidedly aggressive and regard Homo Sapiens as man might regard cattle?’ [This case was described in a very early MUFORG Bulletin

An earlier chapter by another veteran ufologist titled ‘The Hostile UFO Universe of George D. Fawcett’ lists numerous examples dated between 1944 and 1960 of hostile aviation encounters and instances where witnesses said they were burnt by exposure to UFOs.

A more considered viewpoint is given in ‘A Scientist Reports on the Hostility of Aerial Phenomena: Dr. James McDonald’ who says that cases of physical injures are relatively rare and need better authentication before they can be fully accepted. He agrees that UFOs have on occasion presented overt hostility and could be responsible for causing power outrages due to their magnetic fields getting too close to power distribution systems.

From that voice of moderation we get the screaming madness of Commander Alvin E. Moore who claims Skymen (his name for aliens) abduct people and extract blood from animals and humans, and for good measure are ruthless killers. Their work is made easy because they are invisible predators who stab or bite their victims and leave them drained of blood. He recounts several blood curdling instances of unexplained attacks and deaths to shoe-horn into his Skyman theory, but they are mainly based on news clippings rather than on any in-depth research or consideration for more plausible explanations.

The following chapters cover such topics as wartime UFOs, including my own chapter ‘Pre-First World War Scares and Sightings’, the Angel of Mons, disappearing soldiers, foo fighters and the Battle for Los Angeles. Alien attacks, abductions, mutilations and the evil plans ‘they’ have for humanity are all given room from consideration.

This collection of so many stories about the horrific side of UFO visitations gives little room for doubt that they have got it in for us, big time! Yet, before we head for the tin foil hat and underground bunkers all is not lost. Many of the reports are misleading and forget to mention rational explanations for them. Some are just examples of UFOs being seen in the vicinity of a mysterious event with no direct link being established between the two, or some cases might be due to such things as plasma balls, rare electrical phenomena, secret weapon testing or just plain rumours with little basis in fact.

The stories in the second half of the book, about abductions, mutilations, disappearances and the nasty alien agenda, indicate the pure paranoia and fantasy-proneness of people sucked into this subject. It also shows that some of us have not moved on from the mindset of Brad’s ‘Flying Saucers Are Hostile’ hypothesis.

I think such unconditional beliefs are far more dangerous than a UFO zapping you in the middle of the night, and this book should serve as a warning about the psychological dangers of ufology.

Whatever your opinion UFO Hostilities is a sensational exploration of the wilder and unfettered fringes of ufology. -- Nigel Watson.

9 November 2018

TIME AND TIME AGAIN

Eric Wargo. Time Loops. Anomalist Books, 2018.

First things first - this is the most interesting and well-argued book about a paranormal topic I have read in years. It slowly develops a fascinating case with scientific rigour and, whilst proposing what might seem a startling premise - that precognition is not what we often assume it to be - it never seems more than objective and takes seriously, and argues well, sceptical rebuttals. This approach for me is how we should address these topics and is in the true spirit of Fort and Vallee. Given that this is the author’s first ever book it is a remarkable debut because both those author’s would, I suspect, warm to the manner with which he reveals his ideas.

There is a small warning to issue. The book contains science - notably psychology and quantum physics - and discusses its research with a lot of references. This is not superfluous and nor is it hard to read. So do not fear being blinded by numbers - Wargo is a fine writer and never leaves you feeling lost. Indeed the format adds to the book in many ways. But there are literally hundreds of those references, many several paragraphs long, and the last 100 pages of the book are entirely given over to them and to the index. 

So invest in a good book mark is my advice - as you will find yourself flipping back and forth as you read the main 340 pages of text to get more detail of the source of the latest experiment or theory or to find where a summarised experience can be seen in more detail as it is often pointed up for later study by the reader. Such is the moment of this publication these diversions deserve your attention and you will doubtless want to grasp why the author has concluded what he has from these starting points. To put it simply - if Wargo is right in his theorem then the concept set out will revolutionise our understanding of many things.

Superficially, that might seem to be just the concept of ‘foreseeing the future’ - or retrocognition as he calls it with a logic that will become apparent as you read his text. But he helps reveal how precognition - the sudden experience of a future event before it happens - may need to be seen in a new and psychologically fascinating light. This book could be a Newton-plus-apple moment in the understanding of many currently way out there phenomena that we have investigated with frustrating lack of progress for many years.


Of course, it may not turn out to be quite so dramatic, as I think the author realises. But his work as a PhD anthropologist and science writer from Washington DC, with a fascinating blog delightfully called ‘The Nightshirt’, stands him in good stead to see meaning in things that may have passed others by.

Through a vast array of witness accounts about incidents that appear to have predicted the future - we are asked to consider a startling possibility. If true then it is as simple as it is profound. We tend to presume that if someone has a presentiment that they will have a minor car accident should they park in a spot they are driving into, that this occurs to forewarn and so prevent the occurrence.

Logical isn’t it? Otherwise why have the experience if it is not a warning to help us to avoid it? But then, if we never have the incident how was the sense about it happening accurate? It never occurred - so whatever else it was this cannot be described as a precognition. But what if the experience is not a forewarning but an after effect rippling backwards from the event when it happens and influencing us from the emotional impact on our life that event then has upon ourselves?

This is just one of many intriguing questions posed by this book and, as you can see, it leads to so many other implications about the nature of time, space, consciousness and what we call the paranormal that our horizons widen at every opportunity.

Filling it with case studies and speculation as to their meaning with a sprinkling of obscure science experiments you may never have encountered you start to see the import of these questions asked as the author has you thinking deeply all the way. We have a forensic analysis of multiple source precognitions such as 9-11, the Titanic sinking and Aberfan with an even-handed assessment of pros and cons alongside many recent events collated by the author.

There is even a chapter devoted to the prolific science fiction author Philip K Dick, who, despite dying young just before Blade Runner launched his big screen career, has probably been the source of more hit SF movies than anyone - from Total Recall to the ongoing Amazon TV series, The Man in the High Castle. How much did his writing owe itself to his retrocognitive abilities as his frequent experiences seem to suggest? It is certainly a theme that he took to heart.

This book takes you on a journey into the mind and its relationship with time and space and you will emerge aware, perhaps as never before, how things that once looked simple are anything but.

If you believed premonitions either did or did not happen in the way popularly assumed, then Wargo reveals how they instead might be glimpses of the inner core of the universe and how it truly works. -- Jenny Randles

4 November 2018

PARANORMAL TV

The Omega Factor: The Complete Series. BBC. Simply Media 2017. (12)

The Omega Factor was a short-lived conspiracy thriller set in the murky world of psychical research, broadcast by BBC Scotland in 1979. James Hazeldine played Tom Crane, an investigative journalist specialising in the occult and paranormal. Keen to interview Drexil, an ageing black magician with suspected historic connections to the Third Reich, Crane travels to Scotland. There, his wife, Julie, is killed in a car crash brought on by Drexil's psychic powers, or those of his mysterious, silent assistant Morag.

Crane finds himself developing psychic powers, and is recruited by a sinister secret servant, Scott Erskine into Department 7, secret government research unit exploring ESP and the paranormal, headed by Dr. Roy Martindale. Crane also develops a close professional and personal relationship with the physicist, Dr. Anne Reynolds, played by Louise Jameson. Fans of Dr.Who will remember her as the barbarian warrior woman, Leela, one of the companions of Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor. Crane also finds that his brother has also been recruited into the organisation.

As Crane and Reynolds pursue their investigations, with Crane intent on tracking down Drexil, they uncover another, far more secretive and sinister organisation, Omega. Omega are taking Department 7's research and using it to develop systems of mind control that threaten human freedom across the globe. They are ruthless, killing, abducting and destroying their opponents minds and bodies. And their power reaches to the heart of Department 7 and at the highest levels of the civil service.

During its 10 episodes, the series referred to and explored a variety of paranormal topics, including hypnosis, sensory deprivation, poltergeists, witchcraft demonic possession, the Ouija board, mind control using drugs or ultrasound, the 'stone tape' theory of ghosts, Findhorn and intelligence in plants, witchcraft, doppelgangers, astral projection and out of body experiences, telepathy and the Ganzfeld experiments, psychic conditioning and assassination, and Street Lamp Interference.

Drexil seems partly based on the notorious Aleister Crowley. As well as being a black magician, Drexil also, like Crowley, has founded a series of occult groups. One of these was the Golden Light, whose name clearly harks to the Golden Dawn. And a members of these groups, including a woman, have died in mysterious circumstances, rather like the death of one of Crowley's female disciples at his 'Abbey of Thelema' in Sicily.


In the documentary on the programme included in the special features, the creators, producer, director and writers state that the programme was based very much on 'what was in the air at the time'. The '70s were a period of increasing interest in the occult and paranormal. It was the decade that saw the launch of the magazine, The Unexplained, edited by Magonia's long-term friends and contributors, Peter Brookesmith and Lynn Picknett. American astronauts had performed ESP experiments in space during the Apollo missions, and it seemed that parapsychology was on the verge of becoming an established, respectable science. The programme's producers were also friends with the late Prof. Archie Roy, an astronomer, formerly the leading members of the Society for Psychical Research. Roy also wrote thrillers containing parapsychology, and agreed to look over the scripts.

Edinburgh is the Gothic city of R.L. Stevenson, but its university was also the home of the Arthur Koestler parapsychology laboratory. Gerson also had an interest in history, and the episode 'Powers of Darkness', in which a female student is hypnotically regressed to a past life, in which she was a witch, was inspired by his research into the North Berwick witches and the Bridie Murphy case. The series was also strongly influenced by the superpowers' interest in psychic abilities as a tool for espionage. Two of the foreign psychical researchers in the series are eastern European. One is an East German defector, while the name of another, Vashevski, seems to reflect the Russians' own military psychic research. I also wondered if the character's Russian-sounding name may have been partly inspired by the SPR's John Beloff, who sadly died a few years ago.

The blurb on the back of the DVD sleeve states that since the programme was first aired, it has 'been lauded as the show which inspired other iconic thrillers such as The X-Files. I'm not sure if the programme was an influence on the latter series, as I understood Chris Carter based his show on Kolchak: The Night-Stalker, a series about a newspaper journalist investigating cases of the weird and paranormal. Nevertheless there are parallels between the two. In both series, the conspiracy reaches into the heart of the departments in which the heroes work. Crane, like Mulder, infiltrates army bases and secret laboratories in pursuit of the truth. Also like Mulder, Crane is in constant trouble with his immediate boss, Roy Martindale, and is on the verge of being thrown out of the organisation. And Erskine is also the source of secret information, rather like the X-Files' Deep Throat and X.

There are also differences as well as similarities. The Omega Factor concentrated very much on the paranormal and psychic, whereas the X-Files also included weird science – Artificial Intelligence, genetic engineering, cryptozoology and, famously, UFOs and alien abductions. UFOs were also very much in the news in the 1970s. The Travis Walton case was also reported on British television in 1976, as well as local news programmes on the Warminster Thing, and various documentaries, including one which attacked and demolished Erich von Daniken's ancient astronaut ideas. However, the X-Files' story arc about UFOs and alien infiltration was strongly based on the abduction scare which emerged later in the 1980s. As I recall, television in the '70s was rather more sceptical. The programme I recall about UFOs from that decade was Project UFO, a children's series broadcast around 5 o'clock in the evening. It was an American import, based on the US Airforce's Project Blue Book. It featured two men investigating UFO sightings, all of which turned out to be, or were strongly hinted as, cases of misidentification.

The Omega Factor also differs from the X-Files in that it's much less violent. The X-Files was set in the FBI and was also strongly influenced by the Silence of the Lambs, so that serial killers were also among the other weird and sinister characters hunted by Scully and Mulder. Each episode featured grim, violent, and very often multiple deaths. Violence and murder also occurs in The Omega Factor, but it's far more low-key than the X-Files. Some of this might be due to the different standards over the level of violence considered acceptable on television, and especially in British television in contrast to America in the period, as well as budgetary constraints.

The programmes' time slot was also a factor. Over here at least, the X-Files was put on after the 9 o'clock watershed. The Omega Factor, by contrast, was shown before it. The creators and producers were determined that the series should not be a children's show like Dr. Who, and so should not have over-the-top violence and plenty of bodies. And this may well have been a contributing factor in the controversy the series caused. Mary Whitehouse and her Viewers' and Listeners' Association included the series amongst the number of other TV, films and plays they believed were a threat to wholesome British values. Whitehouse herself wrote to the network heads demanding its cancellation, and publicly declared that it's producers 'must be made'. The producers speculate that the low level of violence in the Omega Factor, far from making it less frightening, actually made it more so by making it more believable. Whether this is the case, viewers can judge for themselves.

As well as the series' ten episodes, there is also a documentary, 'Inside the Omega Factor', an audio commentary for the episode 'Powers of Darkness' and a photo gallery. -- David Sivier

28 October 2018

PYRAMID SCHEME

Chandra Wickramasinghe, Ph.D., and Robert Bauval. Cosmic Womb; The Seeding of the Planet Earth. Bear & Company, 2017.

This book is comprised of some quite different sections. The first part, ‘Origins of Life in the Cosmos’, by Wickramasinghe, is a renewed statement of the thesis that he put forwards many years ago along with the late Fred Hoyle, that life did not originate on earth, but somewhere in outer space, being perhaps brought here by comets crashing. He presents some subsequent discoveries that tend to support this hypothesis.

The first eighty pages of Part II, ‘Intelligent Speculation Based on Cutting Edge Science’, by Robert Bauval, consists of three general chapters on unsolved problems in science. The remaining eighty concern his favourite hobby horse, the pyramids of Giza.

“More rubbish has been written about the Great Pyramid than any other construction on this planet” – John Keel. “The Pyramid of Cheops, in particular, has inspired hundreds of crazy and untenable theories” – Erich von Däniken. It will be observed that neither of these two authors have ever been noted for their cautious scepticism.

In fact, though it is fairly obvious that the New Egyptologists were originally inspired by von Däniken, as indicated by some of their titles (Fingerprints of the Gods, etc.), they now find this an embarrassment. Hence Bauval writes: “…a “contact” might have taken place long ago when humans either did not detect it, or worse, they might have heard the “message” but misunderstood it as a divine revelation and turned it into religion. I know that this possibility will evoke the Erich von Däniken, ancient aliens, or paleo-SETI hypotheses that have vexed the scholarly and scientific communities. But this cannot be helped.”

As long ago as 1859, London mathematician John Taylor had observed that when he divided the circumference of the base of the Great Pyramid by twice the height he to the number 3.144, which is similar to Pi, 3.14159. He deemed this to be too close for coincidence. So he supposed that the builders had been trying to ‘square the circle’.

The summit of the Great Pyramid has been ascertained by modern technology to be at 29.9792 degrees north. “It has often been noted by pyramid researchers that if the decimal point of this value is moved forward by four digits it will give the number 299,792, which is, as weird as this may sound, precisely the speed of light in a vacuum measured in kilometres per second.” Bauval asks if this can really be a coincidence? Now, conceivably, extraterrestrial visitants could have informed the ancient Egyptians about the velocity of light, but not even advanced space aliens could have known what arbitrary measures of distance and time would be employed thousands of years in the future.

Bauval proudly observes that he originated the ‘Orion Correlation Theory’ (OCT), that the three main pyramids on the Giza Plateau matched the stars in the belt of Orion. As Magonia meeting regulars Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince pointed out, “the only time that all three pyramids line up perfectly with the stars is in graphics used in Hancock/Bauval television programmes.”

He has tacitly dropped some of the hypotheses of his previous books. One was that the southern shaft leading from the Queen’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid was designed to align with Sirius. Actually, this had been suggested by the Masonic writer Albert Churchward as long ago as 1898. Once again, Picknett and Prince pointed out that this could hardly be the case as the shafts have kinks in them, so they could not be “directed at a specific point in the sky.” But even if they were, no-one that I have read explains how they could have been aligned to any particular star. It might seem unnecessary to say so, but ‘fixed’ stars are not fixed, at least not relative to the earth’s surface, and even have different latitudes at different seasons. Only the Pole Star is roughly fixed.

Another idea from the Keeper of Genesis that is not now mentioned is that the Sphinx must have been built in the Age of Leo, that is, the age during which the Spring Equinox occurred when the Sun was in the sign of Leo, about 10,500 BC. Now, Leo and the other constellations of the Zodiac were originally named by the Sumerians. But these names were not imported to Egypt until about 500BC, ten thousand years after this hypothetical date of the Sphinx.

A forty-four page Appendix by Gary Osborn continues the arithmetic theme, asserting that “highly advanced mathematical data” is encoded in the Great Pyramid: not only pi, phi, and the logarithmic constant e, but the diameter of the earth, the distance of the earth to the moon, and so on. He considers that these are accurate to fourteen significant figures.

I am not sure what all of this is meant to prove. – Gareth J. Medway


24 October 2018

DO THE MATHS

UFO. Director: Ryan Eslinger; Writer: Ryan Eslinger; Stars: Alex Sharp, Gillian Anderson, Ella Purnell. Story Mining & Supply Co., 2018

This is an intelligent look at UFO contact, which centres on a UFO sighting at the Cincinnati International Airport on 17 October 2017. A real TV report tagged on to the end of the film, shows that the story is loosely inspired by the well-known UFO sighting at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on 07 November 2006, to give it a touch of authenticity. It also touches base with The X-Files by featuring Gillian Anderson as Professor Hendricks, and the ‘IMDb’ website informs us that the font used for the ‘UFO’ title is borrowed from Gerry Anderson’s classic ‘UFO’ TV series.

The opening captions note the universal nature of the Fine Structure Constant (Wikipedia tells us that this is ‘...a dimensionless physical constant characterising the strength of the electromagnetic interaction between elementary charged particles’), and that intelligent life elsewhere would recognise this mathematical equation. The captions go on to mention the Arecibo radio message which we aimed at the M13 star cluster thousands of light-years away to get the attention of extraterrestrials, ending with the thought that ‘they’ might already be here.

The core of the film shows how brilliant maths student Derek, played by Alex Sharp, is attracted to the news of the UFO sighting at the airport because he had a sighting when he was a child, and because it intrigues his mathematical instincts.

The sighting also brings FBI special investigator Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) to the scene, where he embargoes all photographic evidence and radar data related to the incident. Eyewitnesses are ushered into conference rooms and strongly told to keep quiet about the event. The cover story is that the sighting was caused by a drone.

From the maths, based on the sighting reports, Derek quickly calculates that the UFO was far too big to be a drone. Probing further into the story he discovers that the object sent out radio signals that are in binary code. He becomes fixated on decoding the signals at the cost of losing his friends and his final year maths examinations. At the same time the FBI follows and monitors his activities to keep a lid on the case.

FBI agent Franklin Ahls as well as being a suppressor of UFO reports, heads a group of top scientists to decode the alien signals. It is his view that they testing us on the Kardashev Scale to see if we are worthy of becoming a Type 1 civilisation. It is not explained why this information is being covered-up, is it the fear of mass panic or that the aliens are a real threat to us? Whatever the reason it offers the opportunity for Franklin and Derek to play cat and mouse.

UFO is cleverly put together yet it is ditch dull. It is like the director got hold of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind wrung out all the drama, tension, suspense, excitement, action, emotion and special effects and replaced it with mathematical formula. I described 2036 Origin Unknown as a pound shop 2001: A Space Odyssey this is unfortunately a pound shop Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Best I can say is that it makes a long-winded advert for studying the Fine Structure Constant, need I say more? -- Nigel Watson.