18 September 2018


Geoffrey Kirby. Wacky And Wonderful Misconceptions About Our Universe. Springer, 2018.

“Wacky: Funny or amusing in a slightly odd or peculiar way” yes, this is a light-hearted book, full of outlandish statements made by eccentric people, some of whom might surprise you. It must be said these mathematicians and explorers of the universe had little or no data to establish their findings/theories; also, religious evaluation of these theories could be perilous to the architect of these ideologies. The author relates “Newton purposefully stuck a blunt needle in his eye socket while experimenting with properties of light and did this because people at that time were not really sure whether the eyes were responsible for collecting light or creating it”.

Martin Luther was convinced that the Earth was flat, Charles Fourier claimed that “gravitational attraction was the force of attraction between the Sun, planets and moons in our Solar System and is caused by sexual attraction”. Sir John Herschel “believed that the surface of the Sun was also home to alien creatures shaped like tree leaves.” John Bradbury saw that our Moon is covered in plasticine phosphorus and is a hollow sphere made of carbon less that 2 inches thick” and “that the Sun is a mere 400miles away and cold.”

Samuel Shenton (Leader of the Flat Earth Society) by way of a radio exchange talked to Frank Borman whilst on the Apollo 8 journey around the Moon and asked if the Earth appeared to be round, Borman looked back at Earth from the viewing port on Apollo 8 and replied “It does not look too flat from here, but I don’t know maybe something is wrong with our vision”

The Introduction sets the tone of the book and of course includes Sir Patrick Moore the astronomer and TV personality who presented the longest running programme with the same presenter in world television history, Sky at Night. He received thousands of letters from the public, of which the following were typical:

Dear Sir: I think the Sun acts very strangely. I see it go into a red hot disc then changed into a New Moon as on Saturday last. It rocked about a bit, then went dim and repeated this for a few minutes before it vanished.

Dear Sir: The planet Venus is inhabited with beings who look just like ourselves, no doubt you cannot see this what with all the education you possess. For when one becomes educated things become complicated and the simplicity is non-existable.

In 1969 Sir Patrick Moore presented a BBC TV program called One Pair of Eyes in which he talked with many ‘independent thinkers’ - like the letter writers above - about alternative models for our universe and all the stars, planets, moons etc. This program is available to watch on the Internet, and some of its characters are  described in his book Do You Speak Venusian.

There are many topics making up Kirby’s ‘Wacky Universe’. The chapter headings themselves reveal much of the contents such as ‘The Sun and Its Solar System: A Sexy Musical Pool Game’ or ‘Inner Planets: Imaginary, Delusionary and Inhabited’; ‘Earth: Flat or Inside Out’ and ‘Mars: Inhabited and a Threat’. Perhaps strangest of all is ‘The Outer Planets: Forests of Hemp, Armadas of Seamen and the Holy Foreskin of Jesus’.

Don’t be too put off by these titles, the chapters are full of information, history and facts about these concepts and some have been shown to be rather close to the truth upon more recent investigation and study.

The story begins with Tycho Brahe [right] born in 1546, This was seven years before the refracting telescope was invented by Hans Lippershey. Brahe became a rich Danish nobleman whose nose was sliced off in a duel when he was 20 years old in an argument over a mathematical formula, and subsequently had to wear a false nose. He had one that was made of silver for day to day usage and a gold nose for special occasions. He also had a pet elk which met a bizarre end by drinking beer and toppling downstairs. Eccentric even by Patrick Moore’s standards.

“Brahe became famous for his very accurate and comprehensive astronomical observations. He was arguably the greatest observer of the pre telescope age. His measurements of the positions of the stars, planets and moon were 5 times more accurate than previous measurements.” Brahe supported the Copernican model of the Solar System which had the planets orbiting the Sun. The Catholic Church did not agree to the theory that the Earth revolved around the Moon and was not the centre of Gods universe.

Coming closer to our own time Kirby relates “The Aetherius Society is an international organisation with a membership running into thousands. Its main beliefs are based around the ‘Interplanetary Parliament’ which is said to be located on Saturn and hosts alien representatives living on all planets of our Solar System. The Rev. Dr George King was called by a telepathic voice to be the representative of Earth in 1955, a role he held until his death in 1997. The representative of Venus is none other than Jesus Christ, who purportedly commutes around the planets in a flying saucer.”

Based in California, its British HQ is in the Fulham Road, between a mental health charity shop and something called ‘Urban Buddha’

So this book could be termed a reference book for the fantastic thoughts that people have had through history to explain how the Universe is formed. In a way, reality should be seen through the eyes of an infant when pleased with the splendour of the sun, or of a brief comprehension of the mechanism of the universe, and can just smile at the wonder and magnificence of it all. – Gerrard Russell

15 September 2018


Seneca. How to Die - An Ancient Guide to The End of Life. Selected and translated by James Romm. Princeton University Press, 2018.

I didn’t expect to be writing a review of Seneca’s thoughts about dying and be compelled to refer to the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Well I am for two good reasons. (a) They are mentioned, in the introduction to How to Die, by editor James S. Romm: the reason being a psychedelic experience where you “stared directly at death…in a kind of dress rehearsal.” And according to Rohm this mushroom taking, by some terminal cancer patients, was similar to what the philosopher Seneca was saying, in the first century AD, when he spoke of “The interconnectedness of all things.” (b) 40 years ago I took some psilocybin mushrooms, washed down with coffee, put on a recording of Holst’s The Planets (choosing the Uranus movement - the bringer of old age) sat in an armchair and slowly sank into a state that had a tremendously pacific, near-death power. I felt myself slipping away in the most positive and uplifting manner. Throughout this acting out of my death I was relieved to shed my human form.

During my mushroom experimenting youth I didn’t read a word of Seneca on death or anything else by him. Today, opening this admirably chosen collection of Seneca I felt great comfort, rather then fear and apprehension, about departing from life. Death, though not a friend we seek out, doesn’t come across as a fearful enemy. More a right and inevitable force that brings about bodily extinction, though maybe not the soul’s if you believe in a spiritual life (I do: hovering on some atheistic / agnostic crux.) What Seneca does brilliantly is to dispel our fear of death.

“Death is the undoing of all our sorrows, an end beyond which our ills cannot go; it returns us to that peace in which we reposed before we were born. If someone pities the dead, let him also pity those not yet born.”

“He lives badly who does not know how to die well.”

“We ought to take care that we live not a long time, but enough; for we need fate to help us live long but our own minds, to live enough. Life is long if it is full and it gets filled when the mind returns to its own good to itself and passes over into control of itself. In what way were eighty years, passed in sloth, a benefit to someone? He didn’t live but lingered in life, he didn’t die late, but died for a long time.”

“As for myself, I wouldn’t refuse the addition of more years. But if my span of life is cut short, I will say that I lacked nothing that would render that life happy. I did not prepare for that far-off day that my greedy hopes had promised would be my last, but rather I regard every day as though it were my last…”

I could easily continue writing the rest of this review by just quoting more of the shrewdly wise sayings of Seneca: for it’s hard to disagree with his stoicism and unnecessary to paraphrase his eloquent language, here so beautifully translated.

Yet there are two issues round death that should also be mentioned – suicide and euthanasia. Seneca took his own life and basically regarded suicide as a noble end in itself. As for euthanasia he reveals a sensitive ambivalence about degrees of bodily pain, responsibility to others (caring for the dying) and the meaning of a life that’s still endowed with quality.

I think everyone should read Seneca for he makes you reconsider that a life is not worth living you accept that death is an ever-present reality for everybody. Only then we can live with less fear of the end. For ‘our end’ becomes something we ought to comfortably internalise, accommodate as authentically part of us and attempt to live with and accept its coming at us and for us.

“Make your life joyful by putting aside all your anxiety about keeping it. No good thing benefits its possessor unless his mind is prepared to let go of it: and nothing is easier let go of than things which can’t be longed for once they are gone.”

Unpack that final quote and we have a sobering, stoical, matter of fact view of our mortality.

“We are in no one’s power, if death is in our power”

Such containment of death provides us with liberation and freedom. No more quotes required. Or commentary. Read Seneca to be strangely and naturally reassured. – Alan Price.

13 September 2018


Here is another new issue of folklore stamps, which might be of interest to Fortean Philatelists, of which there are quite a few. The Isle of Man, midway between England, Scotland and Ireland, has a rich heritage of traditional lore from its Celtic and Viking history. The description of the six stamps, is taken from the Manx Post Office publicity information. 

Celebrating the mheillea [1st class stamp] is typically found elsewhere, but on the Isle of Man it can be traced back to the goddess Luan - the spirit of the corn. Its meaning has changed over time, but many associate the word with the last sheaf to be cut, decorated with ribbons and presented to the Queen of the Mheillea; or the baban ny mheillea (doll of the harvest) which sat on the farmhouse kitchen chimney-piece. In recent times the word mheillea has become associated with a harvest supper and auction of produce.

Hop tu Naa, (old style New Year's Eve) [EU postal rate] Divination was widely practised, with particular emphasis on how womenfolk may discover the name of the man they would marry. The dumb cake (Soddag Valloo), which consisted of some unlikely ingredients such as egg shells and soot, was prominent. Each woman helped to mix the cake, and when baked and eaten would retire to bed backwards without speaking, hoping to see the drem image of their future spouse. Also known as Oie Houney (Hollandtide Eve) youngsters would have fun with simple games, the more mischievous disturbing their neighbours by banging on doors with hard cabbage heads! And then there's the mysterious figure of Jinny the Witch, who flies over the house but once a year, with variations of a curious rhyme in her wake.

Despite its connotations, Hunt the Wren [£1.01 stamp] is another tradition which has remained popular across the Island. Originally they were hunted down, killed, and fastened to a pole, before processing in the neighbourhood, their feathers thought to ward off evil in the coming year. It's staunchly linked to St Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) but nowadays revellers use an imitation bird and sell coloured ribbons to those they meet en route.

Celebrations for New Year's Eve [£1.40 stamp] tend to merge with the first day of the new year, but it was important to abide by a few rules if you wanted peace of mind. You might be woken by a local fiddler, bringing good cheer, but ill luck would attend anyone meeting a cat first thing in the morning and you would be advised not to lend anything on this day, for fear of doing so all year. The housewife would rake the fire and spread the ashes across the floor and in the morning look for a mysterious footprint. A death in the family during the year was indicated if the toes pointed towards the door, and a new arrival if they were turned towards the fire.

But perhaps the most popular visitor to any household would be the quaaltagh, [£1.75 stamp] or first-footer in Scotland, who would bring gifts to a welcoming household and receive food and drink in return. Although descriptions might vary across the Island, it was considered that the quaaltagh should be a dark-haired man who was not splay-footed.

But there was something magical about the eve of old Christmas Day [£2.15 stamp] when the bees were said to emerge from their hives at midnight, bullocks fall down on their knees in unison and the myrrh (Sweet Cicely) is reported to come into bloom.

Due for release on the 8th October, the total price of these is £7.66, which seems a bit steep to me. If you should be inclined to do so, you may pre-order them here: https://www.iompost.com/stamps-coins/collection/manx-folk-traditions-/manx-folk-traditions-set-and-sheet-set-/

  • P.S: We are, of course, sorry to see that there is no reference to Gef the Mongoose in this set. Perhaps the postal authorities are keeping that in hand for a forthcoming special issue!

10 September 2018


Irving Finkel. The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. Doubleday, New York (1st edition, Hodder & Stoughton, London), 2014.

In 1969 a young Irving Finkel went to Birmingham University with a copy of Egyptian Grammar under his arm. Unfortunately, after delivering just one lecture, the college’s Egyptologist dropped dead. Unable to procure a new teacher of hieroglyphs at short notice, the university head suggested that Finkel and three young women study cuneiform, or wedge-writing, for the time being. He quickly became hooked on Assyriology, and in due course became a keeper of Mesopotamian artefacts at the British Museum.

There are a huge number of cuneiform tablets that have been dug up in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), 130,000 in the British Museum alone, most of which still await proper examination. Moreover, there are many in private hands, and this is where Finkel’s story really begins. Leonard Simmonds, who was stationed in the Near East with the RAF around the end of World War Two, assembled a collection of antiquities which included cylinder seals and clay tablets from Mesopotamia. He bequeathed them to his son Douglas, who at the beginning of the 1970s had been a well known child actor, playing Doughnut, the fat boy in the BBC comedy series Here Come the Double Deckers. Nowadays, I suppose, the health fascists would not permit such a character, and since Simmonds died when only in his early fifties they might have a point here.

Anyway, one day in 1985 Douglas Simmonds brought some of his father’s items for Finkel’s identification and explanation. “This in itself was nothing out of the ordinary, as answering public enquiries has always been a standard curatorial responsibility, and an exciting one to boot, for a curator never knows what might come through the door (especially where cuneiform tablets are involved).” Finkel recognised at once that one of them was a previously unknown version of the Babylonian Flood story. Simmonds, however, did not see any significance in this, and insisted on taking all his items away again. It was not until 2009 that Finkel was able to persuade him to lend it to him for proper study.

Since 1872 it has been known that there were Mesopotamian versions of the Flood legend that are too similar to that in the Book of Genesis for coincidence. These were in both Babylonian and Sumerian, the equivalent of Noah being variously known as Ziusudra, Utnapishtim, or, in the case of this particular tablet, Atraharsis. This raises, naturally, a controversial question: which is older?

Clifford Wilson’s Crash Go The Chariots, 1972, is ostensibly a critique of Erich von Däniken, but above all else it is intended as an affirmation of the inerrancy of the Bible. Admitting that both the Biblical and cuneiform versions of the legend feature identical details, such as the hero sending out a raven and a dove to see if the flood waters have subsided, he asserted of the Mesopotamian ones “that none of them pre-date the Biblical record which is now recognised as the oldest of all these record.” Finkel does not agree, and says flatly that “cuneiform flood literature is by a millennium the older of the two”.

The most interesting feature of the Simmonds tablet is that it contains instructions for building the Ark. These state clearly that is should be round. This ought to excite those ufologists who have always maintained that Noah’s Ark was really a huge flying saucer. Finkel, however, does observe that it was, according to this description, merely a larger version of the boats used in central Iraq, at least until recently, which are small round coracles. -- Gareth J. Medway

26 August 2018


Ellis Cashmore, Jamie Cleland and Kevin Dixon. Screen Society. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

'A Screen-Less World' is the title of the introduction to Screen Society. It’s now hard to imagine a world without the ubiquitous presence of televisions, cinema screens, computers and smart phones. We are shaping (for good or ill) our personal and collective history through a profound interaction with the screen. Yet as authors Jane Cleland, Kevin Dixon and Ellis Cashmore point out our relationship with a projected image can be traced back to 1696 when the magic lantern is demonstrated in England.

The birth of cinema is circa 1895, with the Lumiere Brothers. Radio, TV and polarised cameras then appear in the 20th century. Videotape, video games, DVDs and the establishment of the web spread out our screen-looking to a global level of individual intimacy where we can now hold an image of nearly everything on the planet, on a small device, in our hand.

“To see a world in a grain of sand.
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand.”

Perhaps our web searching may not be of such Blakean infinity of promise. Yet the smart-phone creates the illusion that our trawls on the internet will be never-ending. But what harm is our screen activity doing to us? And what are the positives for human evolution? Is the screen are friend or enemy?

This remarkably sane and balanced book gives us the most rational social analysis of screen technology that I’ve ever read. It talks not of cultural apocalypse – the screen world bringing death to our old literacy – but of the emergence of a complimentary literacy instigated by us with the 21st century title of “Screenager.”

“We use the term to describe a generation of people that use their screens” many times per day.” That’s about 50% of us. Only 18% describe their screen seeking habit as “several times per day.” 1.4% consulted their screens once per day, 0.4% less than once per week. Unlike previous generations that are defined by years of birth, Screenagers tend to span the years.”

You would then assume that all this screen activity would have a shadow side – wholesale addiction. However apart from a tiny minority of addicts, the authors conclude (convincingly) that we are not losing our humanity (our social skills) but discovering how to socialise, through a deep mediation, with the screen that’s becoming a new and radically different form of communication. The authors selected 2000 people to give them feedback on their questions about screens. One participant, when asked about the possibility of addiction, said that screens provided an alternative and concluded that “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is the human connection.”

The authors did not approach the writing of Screen Society with imposed preconceptions about screen watching. They didn’t have a thesis to prove. Their 'hands off' approach challenges a lot of the accepted ‘wisdom’ and stereotyping that’s assumed to be our screen-life

Chapters are devoted to analysing the screen effects of addicts, politicians, children, people who troll, the gender question, gambling and gaming, health, dating, consumption and privacy. Each chapter is admirably fair, succinct and jargon free. The emphasis always on the participants whose views shape the book and not the authors – they give, as much as possible, an objective summary and opinion of the evidence ordinary people have presented to them.

In their survey of screen dating they find it to be fraught with contradictions resulting in relationships seen as over-idealised but usually temporary, free (too free?) and even claustrophobic (no mystery, too much driven with information before a meetup.).

“All symptoms listed above are significations of a liquid modern existence lived through the medium of the screen.”

The phrase 'liquid modern existence' could be the appropriate tag-line for the entire book. For the authors it’s neither a good or bad state that our screen existence has created for us. We are not trapped they say. For it is we who have created this way of being. And one day there might be another means of communicating that will no longer require the screen. The authors cannot imagine that time yet. And like them I put my trust in us controlling the technology and not some malign dictator.

Certainly the structures for a highly controlling state have been setup. Agreed. But, as yet, there isn’t any such institutionalised Orwellian control - though we have a tense relationship with freedom. With all the pleasure of exploring the screen there arises the possibility of losing all your personal information. 'Screenagers' have a term for that state. Its “a relaxed terror” Such a mix of comfort and fear makes it sound like a synthesis of the fiction of Orwell with Huxley: a sort of agreeable political control appeased by a subtle biological re-structuring of our feelings. A dark payoff kept at bay whilst we engage with the screen?

A cool, detached observation augments many of the insights and information to be found in Screen Society. All screen-enthusiasts and screen-detractors would gain greater understanding and clarity, about their activities, by reading this remarkable book. I can’t recommend Screen Society highly enough. -- Alan Price

23 August 2018


Jan Bondeson. The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities. Amberley, 2018.

Jan Bondeson is an indefatigable explorer of the darker alleyways of social history. His previous books have included a tour around the ‘murder houses’ of London and a history of the fear of being buried alive and the extraordinary steps taken to allay it. A recurring feature of his research is the social history of the extremes of human physicality. The Lion Boy, some of the chapters of which will be familiar to readers of Fortean Times, having been previewed there, continues this theme.

In advance publicity for the book the title was given as The Fat Boy of Peckham, and I’m not sure whether it was the thought of the Fat Boy himself, or the mere mention of Peckham, which the publishers suspected might discourage readers. The Lion Boy of the title accounts for only a couple of pages in the chapter ‘A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities’, whereas the Fat Boy takes pride of place in Chapter One, along with a few other heavyweights. Admittedly the Lion Boy does make for a more spectacular cover image, so maybe this was the publisher’s motivation.

We are introduced to the upper and lower extremes of human height, with diminutive characters like the well-known Barnum protege ‘General’ Tom Thumb, who at 2-foot 5-inches was far from the smallest; and ‘Machnow the Russian Giant’, whose height was claimed to be anything from 7-foot 10-inches to 9-foot 8-inches, the former being the more reliable estimate. As someone well over six foot tall myself – although nowhere near Machnow’s height – I am often surprised both by how tall people guess I am, and how tall I can claim to be and still be believed! As the giants who toured the show circuit were usually careful to wear long coats and tall hats, any of the measurements given by their promoters are extremely suspect.

The stature of dwarfs and giants on these show circuits could also be exaggerated by always having them accompanied by, and photographed with, tall or short stage-hands and minders, as necessary. Photographs are important here, and most of the ones reproduced in this very well-illustrated volume come from Bondeson’s own collection of publicity postcards and the ‘cabinet-cards’ which were issued by the show promoters.

As well as people who were born with extraordinary features, we meet some who were determined to acquire them by growing beards and moustaches to extraordinary lengths, and by attempting arduous physical activities. Bondeson also introduces us to a number of ‘super-pedestrians’, who attempted to walk around the world unaided, except for the occasional ship, although many of their feats would not allow of too much critical examination.

Although we find it distasteful, it is at least possible to understand why an audience would pay to see such remarkable individuals. It is more puzzling to work out why they would pay to watch somebody not eating, but this is exactly what happened in the case of the numerous ‘fasting artists’ who claimed not to consume any food for years at a time. These also seemed to be a popular draw in the carnival shows of yesteryear. And not just yesteryear, it seems, as I remember going to see David Blaine suspended for 44 days in a plastic box at London’s South Bank. At least this was out in the open and you didn’t have to pay to see the non-spectacle.

Super-centenarians are perhaps a rather more agreeable subject of contemplation, and Bondeson assesses, and largely rejects, the claims of characters like ‘Old Parr’ to have lived into their fifteenth decade. Other topics explored are whether or not the last thing a person sees is imprinted on their retina after death – no, but a remarkably large number of intelligent people thought it was. Rather fewer people thought that a severed head remained sentient for any significant period after removal from its host, although those who did went to quite remarkable extremes to prove their theory.

Other ‘medical curiosities’ described here include individuals with strange skin conditions and nail growth, advertised with billings like 'The Porcupine Man’, 'The ‘Elephant-Skin Woman’, and the Lion Boy himself. Some of the illustrations in this section should perhaps come with the standard television warning “contains scenes which some people might find upsetting”.

However, reading this book we find that at the time many people did not find these things upsetting, and they readily parted with their money to view them. Practically nothing here would be allowed as an entertainment curiosity today, But some of the characters in this book who were put on display for their physical freakishness seemed to rather enjoy their celebrity. Certainly being well-fed and accommodated, whilst touring the stages and exhibition halls of Europe and America, occasionally being introduced to Crowned Heads and celebrated public figures, beats being a figure of hatred and revulsion in some isolated village. In fact a number of individuals moved from the role of sideshow exhibit to being publicity agents and organising their own touring shows; while others left the circuits and moved on to successful ‘civilian’ lives, as was the case with the Fat Boy of Peckham.

Of course, we are all far too civilised to enjoy these grotesque physical exhibitions today. Our modern freak shows, like Big Brother, Get Me Out Of Here, Love Island and Channel 4’s various attempts at patronising poor working class communities, seek to entertain us with social rather than physical freaks. – John Rimmer

17 August 2018


From time to time I like to make a note of new postage stamps which are likely to be of interest to collectors with a Fortean inclination. A new folklore-themed set from Sri Lanka shows characters called sanni, who are masked dancers in the role of exorcists. Instead of exorcising ghosts, these rather frightening figures are meant to chase off particular illnesses and ailments.

There are eighteen different dances, which each represent a specific illness. The masked dancers who perform them feature in rituals to call the demons who are thought to affect the patient, and who are then told not to trouble humans and are banished. Now the NHS is no longer funding homeopathy, they might care to take a look at this technique, which is likely to be just as effective. There are eighteen stamps in the set, each depicting one of the traditional figures, and I illustrate some of the more cheerful, but nevertheless fearsome-looking dancers.

16 August 2018


Janja Lalich and Karla McLaren, Escaping Utopia: Growing Up in a Cult, Getting Out, and Starting Over. Routledge, 2018.

If ever there was clinching evidence that devoting oneself to a modern cult is essentially enslavement, this book is it. To befuddled, scarily bright-eyed converts, it might be willing enslavement – at least in the heady honeymoon period - but spare a thought for their children, growing up in a dystopia weirder than any sci-fi nightmare and as cruel as pretty much any brutal regime has ever inflicted on the young and vulnerable.

One of the true horrors of this situation, as made excruciatingly clear in this excellent book, is that getting free from a cult brings its own form of torture, for a fundamental principle of the enslavement is the brainwashing that makes the guilt at leaving often simply too difficult to overcome without extreme trauma. These ex-cult members, however, are made of stern stuff, and have dragged themselves free, albeit often with unimaginable emotional and spiritual suffering. They are all heroes.

This book presents the case histories of sixty-five people who grew up in thirty-nine different cults – many of them completely new to this reviewer - from a dozen countries. Their histories are intensely personal horror stories, but although we learn more about the machinations of abuse and negative group dynamics than perhaps we ever wanted to, there is much here about the triumph of the human spirit – and even handy advice on coping mechanisms. The authors’ own comments are never intrusive and always helpful – Lalich is a professor of sociology who specialises in extremist groups, and McLaren is a social science researcher who grew up in a New Age cult.

Of the dozens of cults described by their escapees here, they all share the imposition of a vicious discipline, designed to break the individual’s spirit and maintain unquestioning adherence to those in charge. Tiny children suffer terribly. This is Jessica, formerly a member of The Family:

"Any form of discipline is fine as long as it was done 'in love'. That really included some very over-the-top things. Kids were getting beaten black and blue, public spankings, nude public spankings. Putting kids in tiny closet rooms, and fasting them for like a month… I was on silence restriction for a total of two years… One time I was on silence for nine months! I could not say a word! …. A boy of seven or eight was put on a year of silence restriction…"

Matthew, an ex-member of the Twelve Tribes says: "…some of the kids were really starving… You had to clean the house [of] thirty or forty people, and you had to help with the dishes every single day for three meals…"

Tiny tots in most of the cults mentioned were put to work, and often received minimal education, which consisted of readings from the works of their leader, and precious little else.

Often parenting was communal – and therefore very hit-and-miss – with children growing up confused and desperate for love. That was not the worst of it, not by far. A young woman raised in the Living Word cult recalled: "The founder started telling people that they should be spanking their children starting a six months. And so my parents were very big on spankings". Her little brother, who suffered from something akin to Attention Deficit Disorder was hauled up in front of the assembly to be punished and shamed.

Elsewhere we read how a young girl’s asthma was seen as evidence of possession by evil spirits, and - in the middle of a very bad attack of asthmas – she was violently exorcised. Someone else’s mother had to soldier on through appalling migraines with only prayer to console her. Perhaps it goes without saying that outside medical attention is usually neither encouraged nor sought. The implications of that are, of course, sinister in the extreme. Without professional medical awareness, just how many cultists have died, quietly and anonymously over the years? How many instances of manslaughter through starvation or beatings have simply gone unrecorded? (That’s apart from the most infamous cults, such as Heaven’s Gate or the Solar Temple, with their mass suicides and murders. They do not feature in this book.)

The outside world is evil and must be shunned. Even when the cultists venture out, it is usually just to proselytise or make money for their Leader. Usually the members own nothing and live hand-to-mouth, working all hours for the benefit of the cult’s authorities. But if you really believe that even to question the status quo is a major crime against God’s own appointed one(s), you will simply continue to comply, exhausted in body and spirit though you are. Under it all, always, is the deadly toxin of brainwashing. Criticise and you are evil. Challenge and you might be expelled – and you are brainwashed to believe there can be nothing worse…

This admirable book not only charts the horror of growing up in a cult – including simply sacrificing one’s childhood years – but also offers the wisdom of those who escaped. Often the journey was monumentally traumatic, and freedom a double-edged sword, but they made it into new life.

One is made aware just how difficult leaving is, especially if life in a micro-managing cult is all you have ever known. One young woman, once out, found herself in the middle of banter with some young people her own age. She was astounded by their witticisms, actually asking if they made them up all by themselves? She had only ever said, or perhaps even thought, what was permitted.

This is a hugely important subject, and there is a vast reservoir of potential material, which is why I ask that the authors of this book forgive my hijacking this review. But I do have to declare a personal interest. For whereas an extreme schismatic version of Mormonism features in their pages, the more mainstream church, to which I was a convert in my teenage years, does not. I perfectly understand that the authors have clearly defined what they mean by ‘cult’, which is many things but perhaps the most characteristic is ‘self-sealing’ – closed to the world, which Mormonism as such is not. However, I still believe that Mormonism (or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) does require an urgent critique from outsiders. To say the very least.

To most people in the West, the Mormons might have eccentric beliefs that they are over-inclined to shove down non-believers’ throats, but basically they’re seen as law-abiding, affable, clean-living and very, very smiley. What could possibly be wrong with that in a world drowning in violence and angry, hollow consumerism? As it happens, quite a lot.

Mormons believe that you get to live in the Celestial Kingdom after death with your entire family, which at least to those who enjoy happy families, is surely an outcome almost literally to die for. However… you have to pay. Yep, hard cash. Of course it’s never put like that, and Mormons don’t think in those terms, but they should. This is how it works: you can only be ‘sealed’ to your family in special Temple rituals (actually stolen from those of Freemasonry, but that’s another story). But you are only allowed to set foot in the Temple if you pass an interview with your local bishop, one of his standard questions being your compliance with the payment of ten percent of your income to the church as regular tithing. If you don’t pay it (and they will check), you don’t get to do the Temple ritual - therefore after death you will never see your family again.

Surely this is an even more egregious form of spiritual blackmail than the old Catholic indulgences, which allowed you to forgo a certain number of years in Purgatory if you paid the clergy. (Indulgences were such a scandal way back in the 15th and 16th centuries that they, along with other instances of Catholic corruption, outraged one Martin Luther so much he created Protestantism.)

Tithing is essentially compulsory: without paying it you’re not a good Mormon and the Lord will not bless you. Very poor members are repeatedly told that tithing is top priority, even before feeding their families or paying the rent. Starving for the Lord is perhaps rare, but it’s possible. Certainly very real hardship is suffered by a great many Mormons the world over, especially as families are encouraged to be large. (Exactly where the tithing goes, and who ultimately benefits from it, is a hot topic among ‘Ex-Mos’, though perhaps one can guess the general consensus.)

The Temple interview is fraught with other, more immediate dangers. The Bishop is empowered to ask individuals, some as young as seven or eight, about sexual thoughts and practices such as masturbation. And he is always alone with the child. There are no chaperones. There are no background checks on the bishop and they are not required to attend any course on appropriate behaviour. Women, too, are compelled to answer questions on their sexual behaviour, often in excruciating detail. (‘Show me where you touch yourself,’ being one far-too-common demand.) Perhaps it goes without saying that the bishops are always men, this being a proudly sexist organisation.

Little wonder that these interviews are now the subject of a massive scandal, especially among those who have escaped this particular cult with sickening stories of sexual abuse.

Then there’s the whole question of the exponential rise in suicides among young men (and some young women) in the ‘Mormon state’ of Utah. In fact, Salt Lake City is the suicide capital of the US for men in their early 20s, almost always because they are gay. This is a rabidly homophobic organisation – the famous Mormon smiley welcome is emphatically reserved for heterosexuals.

In the 60s a close friend of mine in the church, whose homosexual feelings were emerging, made the error of asking our local bishop for advice. "Get out and never pollute my office again!" was the immediate response. "Even prayer and fasting will never put this right. You are evil through and through!" Yes, that was a very long time ago and, you’d think, attitudes have changed. Not in Mormonism, although perhaps the language used today is less obviously inflammatory. Not long ago one of the Church’s Authorities declared that it would be wrong even to entertain a gay man in your home and that they should not be encouraged to come anywhere near your family. Many Mormons simply ostracise their gay sons, brothers, nephews, or – it is not unknown – their own fathers.

There’s been much talk of the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘shunning’ those who fall below the standards expected of them, even members of their own family, but Mormons do it all the time. The only difference is that it’s an official practice in the former case and more insidious in the latter. But Mormon shunning is just as real, and just as psychologically damaging, especially to those who have only ever known a Mormon community.

Then there is the chillingly-named ‘Court of Love’, where those who have committed some kind of anti-Mormon sin are expected to be denounced by a forum drawn from the priesthood (all Mormon men are priests). ‘Courts of Love’ can be very nasty: indeed George Orwell would only too easily recognise the jarring disconnect between name and function. Many escapees from the cult simply refuse to turn up. Declarations that they do not recognise the authority of these courts absolutely shock the Mormon authorities, but of course the latter can do nothing about it, certainly outside of Utah. It’s a small triumph, perhaps, for the former member, but a real one.

And if we’re defining ‘cult’ by terrifying and cruel practices in groups shut off from the world, just where does that leave the Catholic Church, after the emergence of the ‘Magdalene laundry’ scandal in Ireland and elsewhere? Thousands of girls over the decades were literally imprisoned in convents – often their families believed they were dead – and forced to slave in laundries for the profit of the Church. They were starved, beaten, tortured and sexually abused, often by their Father Confessors. If they tried to report what the priest had done to them, they were deemed insane and spent the rest of their lives in mental institutions. And just to underline the reality of this horror, UNICEF officially declared the Magdalene Laundry system to be categorised as ‘modern slavery’.

So while the cults featured in the book more than deserve the exposure as evil, abusive groups, sometimes it does seem that the definition of cult in the wider world might need an overhaul. Usually the bigger and richer the cult, and the longer it is been around, the less it is accountable for its crimes against humanity. And once a cult becomes a religion, as with mainstream Mormonism, there’s even less of an impetus to question its abuses.

This extremely well-written and necessary book is, however, a good start, and will give hope – and practical advice - to those who are on their own journey to freedom. And once again, I salute the many heroic former cult members who got out and started over, both in these pages and out there in the world. You’re amazing. -- Lynn Picknett.