25 May 2020

TIME OF OUR LIFE

Joseph Mazur. The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time. Yale University Press, 2020.

I have long been fascinated by the mystery of time and specifically anomalies associated with it. So it will be no surprise that I found this book particularity interesting. It is a genuinely fresh approach to the subject and I learnt many things that I never knew. Always a sign of a good book. This is particularly true when they are delivered in an easy to read form as here, so do not panic that the author is a US emeritus professor of mathematics, as his writing skills balance out any fear of being overwhelmed by theory.

The concept behind the book is simple. How and why do we measure time and in what sense is this real or subjective? Whilst it is framed through the concept of how clocks developed from sundials to atomic measurement then seeking to prove how relativity is true by flitting them on aircraft, the book always teases at the questions that lie beneath.

Sounds simple put like that. But the truth is, like many topics we just take for granted as an everyday experience, time turns out to be anything but simple. The psychology of its perception and its basis in wider reality may not at all be the same.

Mazur's questions are wide ranging. Take sundials. We have many old clocks but few very old sundials as they are made of stone and being of necessity outdoors, they weather and disappear. Stated like that it is obvious, but is a question I never asked, like many that pop up in this book. That is the skill of the author. Asking the obvious that is in plain sight yet we may ignore its importance.

An engaging aspect of this book is that it unfolds like a story with relatively short chapters on different themes punctuated by what he calls 'Interludes' between each one that are short anecdotes or interviews with people in all walks of life illustrating the themes that have just been discussed more broadly.

So we might read about how division of time used in the modern world came about via multiple systems across the ages and have to grasp the way in which the brain can or cannot properly perceive them and then see it fleshed out by what Olympic athletes or downhill skiers feel as they win titles by tiny fractions of a second.

Or how time is dealt with by people not living on Earth - passing an entire year in orbit aboard the international space station. How do you perceive time in such a timeless environment? Something many ordinary citizens have had to face unexpectedly in the Covid pandemic where lock-down changed our link with time. He even quizzes prisoners in isolation almost preempting this thought.

Broader questions, such as temporal anomalies or time travel are not a big part of the book. Understanding how scientists and philosophers think about the meaning of time though factors back into these things very much.

You will also find delightful new ideas such as how the division of time into 24 hours happened to prove so useful even though that could not have been realised when it was envisaged. Or how and why we perceive time differently at various stages in our lives.

The author has a nice way of being set off on trains of thoughts by innocent asides. A young girl sat behind him on a flight asks a parent why there are seven days in a week not eight? Adults take things for granted as 'that's how it is' in ways younger minds do not. But like many questions around time it leads into a fascinating discussion. Or his debate with a student when teaching relativity and time dilation and the student asks him how if he is on a spaceship moving at 50% light speed he can cause the Earth's rotation from so far away to change so that his twin back home ages differently to him in deep space?

This book is not so much about time but the human relationship with it, and if we modify its flow by interaction. It is a refreshingly oblique look at something we all experience every moment of our lives yet tend to see as a given. It is not that at all. So if what time really is interests you this book will be right up your street. The author even quotes Lewis Carroll on the subject – a writer that inspired me on the matter from childhood. Needless to say I enjoyed this book greatly -- Jenny Randles.

22 May 2020

MARKS OF THE BEAST

Jack Fennell. Rough Beasts: the Monstrous in Irish Fiction, 1800-2000. Liverpool University Press, 2019.

"In Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea, the protagonist Roquentin descends into an existential crisis when he starts to perceive the viscosity of the world around him – that is, its malleability and lack of consistency – which Mary Warnock explains via a comparison to treacle, a substance that is nether solid nor liquid, lacking a defined shape and boundaries."

This reference to Nausea in the introduction to Jack Fennell’s Rough Beasts, gives him a useful metaphorical signpost on which to indicate what’s monstrous. Monsters do not just break things and people but our sense of time and space, puncturing and disrupting as they spill through our minds, bodies and social relations. Sartre is also conjoined with Albert Camus warning to us that the monster, in fact and fiction, is close at hand to spread itself through a meaningless (For Camus) universe.

‘The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together.’

So projections of self-loathing appear to create monsters of a very human and very literary kind that are now, according to Jack Fennell, brutally existential; existing in the realm of the private individual and the socio-political history of Ireland from 1800-2000.

The Great Famine (1845-52) takes central ground in Rough Beasts. It’s a catastrophe which Fennell sees as a horror narrative. It destroyed a dying, though romanticised, Gaelic culture: the monstrous effects of the famine. The atrophy of your visceral organs from starvation was experienced as if a scene from a gruesome chapter in a Gothic novel. Drawing upon a folklore catalogue Fennell takes the example of fear gorta (“hungry grass”) a cursed patch of vegetation. People become so hungry that they were prepared to eat raw food – the grassy sod. Fennell refers to William Carleton’s 1847 novel The Black Prophet to illustrate the terrible effects of starvation. Here the most dreadful sight is skeletal children that are wan and yellow with ‘a spirit of pain and suffering on their innocent features.’

Both Red Hall and The Squanders of Castle Squander (Both 1852) are further Carleton fictions that capture the prevailing mood of despair and horror. Though Fennell admits that Carleton’s prose style is overwrought especially when it comes to describing acts of cannibalism (Rough Beasts remarks on ‘real’ cases of cannibalism in the Galway / Mayo region but generally there’s scant evidence of such acts occurring in the real famine.)

Other literary monsters of the famine years are examined. Extracts from a poem called 'The Famine' (1849) by James Clarence Mangan come across as truthful but mediocre and declamatory: in contrast to Mangan’s fated life of poverty and probable death from cholera, that’s so tragically typical of the times, and will hopefully be remembered more than his writings. Whilst George Moore’s (1903) short story 'A Play-House in the Waste' is of much greater literary value and sociological importance in revealing the ‘monstrous’ class division that the famine exposed.

Fennell covers a lot of generic ground in Rough Beasts or maybe I should say follows a viscous trail. We have chapters on ghosts, magic, Faustian pacts, zombies, vampires, shape-shifters and haunted spaces. The most famous writers considered here are Sheridan Le Fanu and James Joyce. Le Fanu wrote a masterly novella Camilla and the much anthologised story 'Green Tea.' Fennell has perceptive points to make here. But it’s his inclusion of the Circe episode from Joyce’s Ulysses that intrigued me more. Stephen Dedalus is trapped in a trial sequence in the Nighttown of Dublin that culminates in a vision of his mother as a horrific, decayed ghost in a brothel. The episode is effectively interpreted as a nightmarish shape-shifting.

"...Nighttown is an inverted, disorded, heterotopian image of the rest of the city: anything that does not belong in Dublin-at-large ‘belongs’ in Nighttown. It is, by necessity, a part of the city where the commonplace becomes estranged and potentially threatening, a 'grotesque world'..."

This is a fascinating Joycean tent of grotesquery. I was persuaded that he came close to writing a darkly comic horror-fiction packed with internal and external monsters. Yet it’s a pity that Rough Beasts didn’t also mention Joyce’s great literary companion, Samuel Beckett. I would have thought Beckett’s bleak and starkly extreme novel The Unnameable warranted inclusion (A solitary head in the dark condemned to speak of its suffering is a suitable monster of modernism – both Irish and universal, or is this too solipsistic for Fennell’s argument?)

If the quality of fiction considered in Rough Beasts is highly variable, for there’s a long paraphrasing of some mediocre texts, this is more than compensated by Fennell’s philosophical tone of voice. He is always scrupulously serious and exact in exploring the ramifications of the idea of the monster and the monstrous events that occurred in 200 years of Irish history. And in his final chapter 'Conclusions' Fennell admirably summarises the image of the monster as being a necessary aberration to break through the country’s repressive ideologies (The Catholic Church and the recent 21st century mismanagement of the Irish economy.)

"Not only is the monster’s disruptive existence preferable to this kind of domination, but it can also be seen as a release from ideology, social conditioning, hegemony, and historical determinism: the monster may not be our friend, exactly, but its presence asserts that the sclerotic social systems we live in are not immutable."

To raid, for a moment, the poetic store of W.B.Yeats, rough beasts may always be slouching towards us to be born (In the form of famine, civil war or pandemics) but it’s our accommodation of the monster, both real and fantastic, and its unintended consequences for changing our world, for good or ill, that matters. Rough Beasts presents a compelling argument for us to be roused. – Alan Price.

18 May 2020

HELL FIRE AND DAMNATION

Geoffrey Ashe. The Secret History of Hell-Fire Clubs from Rabelais and John Dee to Anton LaVey and Timothy Leary. Bear & Company. 4th ed. 2019.

Geoffrey Ashe is not a name you would associate with Hell-Fire Clubs. He is a venerable British historian known for his expert research on the subject of King Arthur. At the time of writing this review, in May 2020, I found that he is still thriving at the age of 97 and living in Glastonbury, where he is an Honorary Freeman 'in recognition of his eminent services to the place as an author and cultural historian'.

This 2019 edition is the fourth version of a book that was first published in 1974. In his "Preface to the 2019 Edition", dated 20 September 2018, he recalls: "This book had its origin in a casual remark by a publisher, who told me that there was no good account of the Hell-Fire clubs of the eighteenth century." He knew nothing about them, except for the one associated with a Thames-side retreat at Medmenham, "and all I knew about that was from Three Men in a Boat. Jerome K. Jerome had this to say about it:

"The famous Medmenham monks, or 'Hell-Fire Club', as they were commonly called, and of whom the notorious Wilkes was a member, were a fraternity whose motto was 'Do as you please', and that invitation still stands over the ruined doorway of the abbey."

The motto over the doorway of Sir Francis Dashwood's famous Hellfire Club, officially 'Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe', to get more enjoyment from blasphemy and debauchery, was actually in French and more accurately translated as 'Do what you will'. As he looked more into the subject he realised that the quotation had come from Rabelais' Gargantua as the rule - the only rule - of his imagined Utopian abbey of Theleme. This led Ashe to wonder: was there such a thing as a spelled-out anti-moral tradition?

Such things were topical at the time, "because of what many regarded as a wave of moral anarchy unleashed by the 'hippie' activities of the sixties." They seemed in the main to be cheerful and creative, but the dream of the sixties ended in 1969 with the nightmare of the evil and perverted murders committed by the 'Family' of Charles Manson.



GARGANTUA VIEWS THELEME. Gustave Dore, 1873


This led to a most important question: is freedom unlimited in principle? Ashe puts it like this: "It is tempting to suppose that uninhibited 'doing what you will', without restraints from religion or conventional ethics, is a way to freedom; that libertinism, to use an old-fashioned word, means Liberty. But is that actually so? What has happened when people have tried it, in reality or fiction?"

Still in his 2019 edition Preface, he relates how, after Rabelais himself, John Dee was his first encounter with the principle of  'do what you will'. When I saw Dee's name on the cover it immediately seemed incongruous, as anyone who has studied Dee's life and work would know that his character was the exact opposite of a libertine. Ashe's comments are, of course, focused on the famous 'wife-swapping' incident in Bohemia when Dee and Edward Kelley swapped wives one night, at least, in obedience to a perceived command from an angel appearing to them as a young girl named Madimi. Her recorded words were: "Behold you are become free. Do that which pleases you. Do even as you list."

John Dee himself was at first incredulous and unwilling, and his wife even more so, but eventually with more apparent persuasion and exhortation from the 'angel' (or, possibly, Kelley's manipulation) the transaction was accomplished. He recorded the incident in his diary for 22 May 1587, but it remained a secret until after his death. Dee and Kelley permanently parted company soon after the event, so there is no indication at all of any continuation of the arrangement in any form. In the main text Ashe spends a few pages on a concise, fair biography of John Dee in which he says "he had nothing malign about him". So, apart from that one incident, it is a stretch to include him in the company of libertines, but at least we can see his honesty, and possibly a touch of naivety, in this example.

A far better example of a libertine, or anti-moralist as Ashe might say, is Aleister Crowley. Interestingly, he claimed to be the reincarnation of Edward Kelley, which seems quite feasible considering both mens' reputations for deviousness. I am surprised Ashe did not put the name of Aleister Crowley on this book's cover instead of John Dee. It would be more appropriate for the subject, and indeed Ashe does devote several pages to Crowley in the main text. One immediately thinks of him for his 'Law of Thelema', 'Do what thou wilt', taken straight from Rabelais, and his Abbey of Thelema, a magical free-love community he set up in Sicily in 1920.

There is a long chapter on the Marquis de Sade, the ultimate libertine, horribly fascinating yet extremely psychopathic. Ashe summarises de Sade's attitude to life as: "Pleasure - your own - is the sole object worth pursuing. This should be done in a scientific spirit, with no restraints whatsoever. The only authentic pleasure is sexual. Other kinds are feeble and limited and should never be allowed to compete. Perversion, so-called, is a higher pleasure than normal intercourse, which has distracting associations of love and parenthood."

The extension of this totally loveless and selfish view of sexual pleasure is that excitement is gained from cruelty, even violence, torture and murder that feature so much in de Sade's writings. Ashe describes this evil as "the secret of the supreme thrill" and the "royal road to an anti-moral superhumanity." Is it mental sickness, or individual freedom? Ashe makes the point that de Sade's "chief works were sinister as no Hell-Fire club was". Exactly, consenting adults can have as much fun as they like, and it's fun to be naughty, but the game of life has a major rule: not to harm another deliberately. There are serious consequences.

The other two names appearing on the book's cover are Anton LaVey and Timothy Leary, again very different kettles of fish, but both are linked by being part of the sixties counter-culture of San Francisco. It is enough to say that LaVey founded the Church of Satan and was another, like Crowley, acclaimed as 'the evilest man in the world'. Leary proclaimed 'turn on, tune in, drop out', and advocated the use of LSD and free love, which was wonderful at the time. I remember some of it.

It reveals Ashe's evolution of thinking, and changing attitudes in the world, to compare the different titles of the four editions. The first, in 1974, was Do What You Will: A History of Anti-morality, the second, in 2000, was The Hell-Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-morality, and the third, in 2005, was The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Rakes and Libertines.

There is also some amusement to be had from a one-star review on Amazon from a disgruntled customer who complains: "I bought the same book three times due to the change of cover and book title". Well that's life and that's publishing. When you've lived as long as Geoffrey Ashe, and are still writing in your mid-nineties, you're entitled to a few revisions over the years. I recommend this book, but make sure you get the 2019 fourth edition with his updated comments. It is a hell of a good read, it will fire up your imagination, and along the way it brings wisdom from a man who has seen a lot of life. -- Kevin Murphy

13 May 2020

PHYSICS AND PSYCHICS

Richard Noakes. Physics and Psychics; The Occult and the Sciences in Modern Britain. Cambridge University Press. 2019.

Psychical researchers, at least those at the more serious end will often justify the validity of their subject by referring to the many notable scientists in other areas of science who have been interested in, and often done their own research into alleged psychic phenomena.

In particular a group of physicist at the end of the nineteenth century, giants in their field, who not only researched psychical phenomena but were convinced of their reality. These included Sir Oliver Lodge, who was Professor of Physics and Mathematics at University College, Liverpool and later the first principal of Birmingham University, as well as the mathematician and physicist James Clerk Maxwell. The chemist William Crookes, and many other contemporaries, were active researchers and proponents of psychic phenomena.

Although their interest is now sometimes seen to be an anomaly, and it is possible to point to many of their contemporaries who were as critical of psychical research as any modern-day ‘skeptic’, Richard Noakes demonstrates that their interest was not an isolated off-shoot of the development of science, but an integral part of the history of science.

He points out that in the mid-nineteenth century ‘physics’ as a distinct discipline was only gradually being refined, and what phenomena it might or might not include was still open to debate. It is significant that some of the earliest scientific interest in psychic and ‘occult’ topics came from scientists and engineers working in the fields such as electricity and telegraphy. As scientists were finding out more about magnetism, electricity and Hertzian (radio) waves, the idea of some other invisible, almost undetectable force seemed an attractive idea and attracted many researchers.

Noakes also suggest that a major influence in the wider acceptance of psychic phenomena came as a result of the increasing secularisation of scientific thought. Many, maybe even most, of the early ‘physical-psychical scientists’ were Christians who tended to look to psychic phenomena as a defence against the growth of secular and atheistic ideas in all aspects of scientific thought. In this they mirrored the more ‘occult’ inclined movements such as Theosophy. This attitude continued in psychical research well into the twentieth century, and set the pattern for the development of the Society for Psychical Research’s search for evidence of personal survival after bodily death. Indeed, the idea of conservation of matter and energy was used to suggest that there was a scientific background for such a belief.

The book describes many of the experiments undertaken by Crookes, Lodge and others, which may seem rather naive to us now, particularly in the attempts made to study the physical phenomena of mediumship. The experiments, although outwardly scientific – electrical connectors which would break if the medium moved to fake an effect for instance – were invariably flawed by allowing the medium and his/her (usually her) handlers to impose their own conditions on how the experiment was conducted. One sceptical researcher who broke the conventions and pulled the curtain away from the medium’s enclosed chair, to reveal her moving into the seance-room was generally regarded to have broken the etiquette of the séance.



You must remember though that most of these investigators were physical scientists and their experiments reflected their scientific experience. Electric motors don’t tell lies, gravity doesn’t need a dark room to work, the spectrum doesn’t have an ‘off-day’ in the presence of a sceptic. Although conjurers like Maskelyn were already reproducing seance-room phenomena, the idea of asking one to investigate a medium as part of a scientific experiment was thought unacceptable. The idea predominated that such tomfoolery may amaze and mystify the hoi-poloi, but ‘Herr Professor’ could not be fooled by such simple tricks. Indeed, the names in this book indicate the class divide that ran through the whole field of psychical research, and still does to some extent.

Another issue that confronted the physicists was the growing doubt of the idea of ‘ether’ as a universal medium through which such effects as gravity, radio waves and the transmission of light were possible. It was also available to explain how even the transmission of messages from the dead to the living, might be facilitated. Ether provided a medium for the survival of an individual presence following bodily death, a concept which Crookes in particular returned to after the carnage of the First World War and the death of his own son.

The challenges the concept of ether, through Einstein’s and others’ theories and experiments, led to physicists questioning the work of the earlier pioneers like Crookes and Lodge. The ‘discovery’ and later dismissal of ‘N-Rays’ as a semi-psychic equivalent to X-Rays also increased the unwillingness of scientists to involve themselves in an increasingly controversial and possibly career threatening topic as psychic phenomena.

Although some physicists retained an interest in psychic phenomena, their scientific involvement was often limited to devising physical controls to guard against any fraudulent practice when investigating mediums and others claiming paranormal powers.

As physicists began to move away from studying psychic phenomena, another developing science was moving into the field, psychology. A pioneer of introducing the methods of the sciences of the mind and brain into the investigation of psychical phenomena was J B Rhine, a botanist who had begun studying psychic phenomena after studying psychology at Harvard, and undertaking investigations of psychics.

Convinced that the medium Mina Cranston used trickery in her seances, he began testing for psychic abilities in laboratory conditions, using the term ‘parapsychology’ instead of ‘psychical research’. He moved from investigating mediums and ‘spontaneous phenomena’ toward testing for traces of paranormal abilities in the general population, via his students at Duke University.

We now tend to see the involvement of prominent scientists in investigating phenomena such as table-turning, materialisations and the activities of the seance-room as a bizarre side-track to their their more conventional scientific work. Noakes denies this and suggests that it was “of a piece with the scientific and technological enterprises for which our protagonists are justly remembered”, concluding that if that is so, “it will greatly enhance our understanding of the complex sources of scientific creativity in the past and our appreciation of them in the future.” – John Rimmer.

6 May 2020

STUBBORN TO THE CORE

Miles Russell and Stuart Laycock. UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia. The History Press, 2011, reprinted 2019.

'Imagine a scenario today where county boundaries suddenly become impassable. Supplies of raw materials would not be able to get to manufacturers and manufactured goods would not be able to get to customers'. When this book was written the authors probably thought imagining this would be quite hard to do but life in 2020 has made it our actual experience, courtesy of Covid 19. 

The scenario just described occurred after Britain voted Rexit (Rome exit) in 411 AD when it left the Roman empire of its own accord, deciding that it preferred to fight invading Picts and Scots (amongst others) on their own without the hefty tax burden of Rome. Nice idea but unfortunately things fell apart pretty much the moment the legions left. Historians have puzzled over the reason for this, but the book provides a convincing explanation, drawn in part from the authors' own experience of the modern world.

The main theme of the book however is to question in great detail the extent to which Rome actually influenced Brits on the ground, and the answer is a pretty conclusive thumbs down. Whilst the Romans left a few ruins dotted about they signally failed to penetrate British society culturally and hardly at all materially. People of course took advantage of the newly available manufactured goods but otherwise they carried on living their lives in much the same way that they had before the invasion of 56 AD. One reason for this is that the Romans never came to these isles in large enough numbers to make an impact, and underneath the veneer of Roman Britain the old tribal identities still persisted, so that when the opportunity came to throw off the Roman yoke permanently it was seized with alacrity. The legions' departure in 411 AD was just the final chapter in a series of endless uprisings, and when the Romans left they probably agreed with the monk Gildas writing in the 6th century that,

"This island, stubborn to the core, from the time people first lived here, rebels ungratefully sometimes against God, sometimes against its own citizens, and often against foreign kings and their subjects."

The final myth debunked by the authors is that the invading Anglo-Saxons were the authors of ghastly ethnic cleansing against the British, forcing the survivors to huddle together in corners of wet Wales. This invention of 19th century imperial Britain is exposed by the authors, who proffer a far more intriguing and nuanced explanation of what happened.

This book, although written with a refreshing lightness of style, is clearly the product of extensive research. By writing a history covering such a long expanse as the period of the Roman occupation and the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons from the perspective of the natives British, to my mind it breaks new ground so that a careful reading of it must alter forever ones preconceptions. – Robin Carlile

30 April 2020

PROTECTING THE RIPPER

Jonathan Hainsworth and Christine Ward-Agius. The Escape of Jack the Ripper. Amberley Books, 2010.

Although the Jack the Ripper story is basically just another unsolved criminal case, it hhas always had an odd sort of link to the world of Forteana. I think think the main reason for this is because of the culture of the era in which the Ripper’s murders took place.

The killings (at least the five now widely accepted ‘canonical’ ones) took place in 1888. This was two years after the publication of R. L. Stevenson’s novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and two years before Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Grey. And just a few years later we saw the publication of Dracula. It was also the years when Sigmund Freud was developing his own ideas of the subject of schizophrenia.

The idea of a deranged killer, slaughtering prostitutes in the dangerous slums of London’s East End by night, living as a respectable gentleman by day clearly resonated with ideas that were very much in the air at that time.

Add in the stories of Spring Heel Jack, which still had currency at that time, especially in the sensational ‘penny dreadfuls’, and you have the perfect combination of psychological fear and apparent supernatural abilities. The image of a cloaked figure disappearing mysteriously into the swirling, smokey fog has proved to be a very powerful one.

On top of this, there is the question of the very existence of ‘Jack the Ripper’. Over the years the number of murders attributed to him has been gradually reducing. At least four other East End murders have been claimed as his work, and from time to time one or other of the ‘canonical’ murders have been subjected to sceptical review.

A number of researchers have suggested that there was no actual ‘Jack the Ripper’. A former murder squad detective claimed that the figure existed only in the imagination of the writer of an anonymous letter from an individual claiming to be the Ripper – a letter which is almost universally accepted as fake – but which provided the stimulus for the sensationalist press of the time to build a terrify serial killer narrative.

A number of other writers have also suggested that the figure was basically a media myth, perhaps helped along by elements in the Metropolitan Police itself, and social historians rather than ‘Ripperologists’ are increasingly moving to this view.

However the authors of this book do not subscribe to this idea. They are certain that the Ripper was one individual and they are clear who it is. It is not going to be a spoiler for anyone contemplating buying this book if I name him now, because the authors themselves do so in the first few pages. They identify the barrister and cricketer Montague Druitt  [left] as the Ripper.

Druitt has long been one of the favourite candidates for the role. He committed suicide by drowning shortly after the last of the accepted Ripper murders, and there was a great deal of contemporary gossip which seemed to identify his as the culprit. A senior police officer involved in the case named him, and the MP for his home town in Dorset described the killer, without mentioning a name, in terms which exactly fitted Druitt’s circumstances.

This is the premise with which this book begins, and readers seeking the argument against this identification will need to look elsewhere. The bulk of this book is an investigation into the way in which the Druitt family, their social and professional acquaintances, and a variety of ‘establishment’ figures managed to prevent the truth about Druitt been exposed to a wider public. This certainly seems a more plausible conspiracy theory than the so-called ‘Royal Conspiracy’.

The book describes how Druitt’s family had him incarcerated for a while in an asylum near Paris, suffering from “spasmodic homicidal mania”. The asylum staff were briefed in advance that as part of this mania he would confess to crimes similar to the Ripper killings, but to ignore this as it was a symptom of his condition. Druitt’s family was wealthy and the asylum officials seemed willing to go along with their explanation, but the fuller story was apparently leaked by a member of the asylum staff and it appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1889.

I doubt that this book will settle the question once and for all - Hainsworth’s original book identifying Druitt certainly didn’t – but it presents better evidence for its claims than many other Ripper books. Perhaps more importantly it gives a dramatic insight into the social and political milieu in which Druitt could have committed his murders, yet been protected from their consequences until his suicide. It certainly demonstrated just how widely his responsibility for the murders was assumed and commented on by his contemporaries.

If there actually is a Jack the Ripper, this book strengthens the case for Druitt being that individual – John Rimmer.

27 April 2020

WHERE IS EVERYONE?

Wade Roush, Extraterrestrials. MIT Press, 2020.
Keith Cooper, The Contact Paradox; Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Bloomsbury, 2020.
Dan Farcus. Hyper-Civilizations, an Answer to ET Contacts on Earth. Flying Disc, 2019.

Extraterrestrials is a handy guide to the current status of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) research. Wade looks at the history of our dreams and ideas about the existence of aliens, how SETI research began after World War II, the more recent discovery of extremophiles that exist in extreme environments on Earth (and possibly lurk elsewhere in our Solar System) and the increasing numbers of exoplanets being detected that might be the home to primitive life or even intelligent civilisations.

The problem with SETI is that beyond a few false alarms there is no sign of life out there. The famous Drake Equation used such factors as the number of stars and planets that might support life; the fraction of planets where life might emerge; those that might evolve into intelligent organisms and develop technology; and the length of time intelligent civilisations might exist, to calculate how many alien communicators might be out there.

Depending on how pessimistic or optimistic your parameters are, this equation estimates that there could be from 1,000 to 100,000,000 intelligent technological civilisations in our Milky Way galaxy. Yet, we get the ‘great silence’, leading to the formulation of the Fermi Paradox which begs the question ‘why are we alone?’ when statistically the galaxy should be teeming with life.

Keith Cooper’s The Contact Paradox sets out in further detail the reasons why we have not heard a peep from our galactic neighbours and like Wade notes the assumptions, methods and technology SETI researchers have used to find life out there.

Some think the great silence is due to the conditions on Earth being so rare that no other planet has been capable of sustaining life as we know it. Certainly, our Earth is in the habitable zone that is not to far or too close to our Sun thereby maintaining the right temperature to support liquid water and a suitable atmosphere for life, and we have a Moon which keeps the Earth’s rotation stable at 24 hours a day. Also, Earth’s plate tectonics activate a carbon-silicate cycle that regulates the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which absorbs heat from the plant’s surface and keeps the atmosphere warm.

The 'Rare Earth' theory sinks the whole premise of SETI but it hardly seems credible that we are alone in such a vast Universe. One explanation for the lack of alien communications might be that they are deliberating avoiding us or they are so advanced or different from us that we are unable to detect them at our current level of understanding. Cooper notes ‘...the Universe is not obliged to deliver on what we hope or wish it to be. Our mainstream depictions of what we expect extraterrestrial intelligence to be like insidiously introduce bias right under our very noses.’ Like Wade, Cooper thinks we need to widen our anthropocentric assumptions to better define what we are looking for in the stars.

Both authors consider new ways of scientifically detecting ETs, and as Wade puts it we should look for ‘life as we do not know it.’ Yet, in relation to the knotty issue of flying saucers being ET visitors he states, ‘There isn’t a single example of a UFO or an alleged alien visitation or abduction for which an unbiased scientist would resort to an extraterrestrial explanation sooner than a terrestrial or psychological one.’



Dan D. Farcas, in contrast, is far more keen to embrace the notion that UFOs are of an extraterrestrial nature. Farcas notes the existence of the great silence and goes on to detail how the evolution of our planet over 4 billion years finally brought about intelligent life. He suggests that different civilisations could be either at the stage of evolving from primitive organisms or be millions of years in advance of us. This makes the likelihood of a civilisation being at the same stage as us very remote.

All civilisations face what has been termed ‘The Great Filter’ which includes the perils of warfare, pollution, over-population, ecological doom, pandemics (fingers crossed on that one at the moment) and anything else that could cause total extinction.

Having survived the great filter, Farcas suggests that civilisations would go on to explore and populate their own stellar system and eventually their home galaxy. In this manner over thousands or even billions of years, vast hyper-civilisations would be created using the manipulation of time and space using science and techniques unimaginable to us.

This brings Farcas to postulate that there are two extra-terrestrial hypotheses to explain the UFO phenomenon. There is the primitive hypothesis that imagines ETs to be intent on invading our planet as depicted in most science fiction movies, then there is the hyper-civilisation hypothesis that regards ETs as having a science, philosophy and technology that appears to us as magic. Furthermore, they have haunted us for centuries and are keeping an eye on us until we are morally worthy as a future hyper-civilisation.

Fracas is in favour of the latter theory and offers stories about UFOs, abductions, fairy tales, folklore, crop circles and includes Zecharia Sitchin’s claims that beings from beyond our planet created the human species 445,000 years ago. Into the mix he indicates that there is a link between religious and UFO phenomena and takes us to the realms of ESP, remote viewing, out of the body experiences, near death experiences, reincarnation, virtual worlds and psi to conclude that our world is far stranger than most of us imagine. Fracas thinks that ‘ Mankind seems to be supervised, from its beginnings, by a presence that uses countless disguises, appropriate to the place and epoch in which it appears.’

The hyper-civilisation hypothesis is a step further than the conventional ETH but it basically rebrands the ideas of the likes of John Keel who regarded aliens as ultra-terrestrials from another dimension. The problem is that by accepting the perception of alien activity as ‘magic’ you can throw away science and embrace any old mystical nonsense - Farcas falls into that trap by favourably referring to the writings of Edgar Cayce, Ingo Swann, Zecharia Sitchin and accepting UFO cases and abduction reports at face value. I don’t agree with his conclusions but I’m glad someone found my copy of this book when I left it in a trolley after shopping at Tesco!

All three books provide a refreshing look at the current state of SETI, with Farcas stretching our cosy assumptions to the wilder realms of infinity and beyond. – Nigel Watson.

23 April 2020

TRACING THE PAGAN PAST AND PRESENT

Liz Williams. Miracles of Our Own Making, A History of Paganism. Reaktion Books, 2020.

Dealing mainly with the British Isles, this book traces a historical path from the earliest evidence of religious practice in these islands to the roots of the modern pagan revival and the position of paganism as a belief system in the twenty-first century.

The first thing the author demonstrates is that we know very little indeed about historical paganism, other than it existed in some form or other for a very long time. The problem we are faced with is that for most of their history pagan communities, other than those of Rome and Greece, left little written or archaeological evidence of what they actually believed and practised. From earliest times to the early mediaeval period the written record of native British religion and magical beliefs was largely recorded by their adversaries.

The earliest evidence we have of any religious practice in Britain is from 33,000 BC in the form of the ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland, in South Wales. This is a skeleton (probably actually male) found in a grave along with objects made of mammoth ivory, which are believed to be ‘grave goods’ and seem to indicate some form of religious ritual surrounding the individual’s death. Of course we have no idea what that ritual may have been or the beliefs surrounding it.

We have to wait more than 30,000 years after that to find any written description of religious practice in Britain, and this comes from the Roman invasions, and their contact with the druids. The Roman senator Tacitus is one of our main sources of information about the druids, and it is from him and Julius Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars that we see them as a priesthood often practising human sacrifice, sometimes by the infamous ‘wicker man’.

Williams suggests that although these accounts were written by Romans who were keen to promote the idea that the far-flung reaches of their Empire were inhabited by savages who needed the civilising influence of Rome, it is probable that their accounts were not too far from the truth, as they correspond to what we know of practices across the rest of Europe and in Italy itself, which the Romans would already have been familiar with.

We get an idea of some of the Celtic gods and goddesses, as the Romans practised a ‘syncretic’ form of religion, and were usually happy to incorporate local deities and sacred sites into their own practises, and we are able to learn about figures such as the Celtic oracular goddess Sulis, whom the Romans happily adopted and adapted as Sulis-Minerva, a goddess of wisdom. But with the eventual departure of the Romans, we have to wait nearly 1500 years before we encounter the druids again, this time a very different guise.

The vagueness which we have seen towards the beliefs and practices of Celtic religion in Britain, continues when we try to understand the religious beliefs of the Saxons. We know the names of some of their gods - we name the days of the week after them – but others seem to have vanished without trace: Tuw got Tuesday and Woden got Wednesday, but what happened to Rig, Ran and Irpa?

Again in the absence of a contemporary written record, we get most of our information from later, Christian Saxon writers who were keener to glorify the conversion of the Saxons rather than record their beliefs and practices.




We are little better off when it comes to the next wave of invader who brought their religion, the Norse. Here we do have significant written sources in the form of the Eddas, although even these were written when most of the Norse lands had been Christianised, but it does mean that we have a clearer picture of the Norse gods, the myths surrounding them, and some of the religious practices associated with them.

The Vikings were actually remarkably quick to adopt Christianity, and by the century before the Norman invasion, Britain was almost entirely a Christian country, so the events of 1066 made little difference to religious life in Britain for most people.

But if any form of paganism as a distinct, living religious practice was now beyond living memory, does this mean that no pagan or magical practices were taking place in Britain? Well not really, as many of the traditions involving magical spells, charms and rituals that were part of the ‘pagan’ world, continued in the newly Christianised society. And here we come to one of the important arguments of this book. These survived, not as some hidden, underground alternative belief system which were suppressed by witchcraft persecutions, but as a regular part of everyday life, tolerated, and sometimes encouraged by, the established church.

Some of the older Saxon ceremonies were even incorporated into Church ritual. Williams cites the ‘Land Ceremonies Charm’ a day-long ceremony in which priests would sprinkle honey, holy water, milk and herbs over fields to ensure their fertility, which seems to have been taken over wholesale from earlier pagan Saxon rituals.

The medieval church in Britain seemed not to be particularly bothered about witchcraft, and at first mocked those who were foolish enough to believe in it, but at the same time tolerated the ‘cunning’ men and women practising herbal medicine and mostly benevolent spells in towns and villages across the country.

As a number of recent histories of witchcraft and magic in Britain have shown, for most of the time witchcraft trials were largely political in nature, targeting individuals who were seen as likely to cause unrest and threaten the status-quo, or were often the result of local family feuds. It is clear that there was no secret underground ‘witch cult’ being suppressed by the state and church authorities.

The attitude towards magical and ‘occult’ beliefs began to change at the time of the Renaissance, when scholars re-discovered Classical texts and ideas such as Hermeticism and alchemy began to be studied more widely. This was a new ‘High Magic’ far removed from the practical magic of the ‘cunning folk’. The magicians of this era were people like Robert Fludd and John Dee, and later figures like Isaac Newton at the time when alchemy and astrology was transforming into chemistry and astronomy.

Another form of study that began to emerge throughout the seventeenth century was antiquarianism, a study of the ‘relicts’ of earlier ages. William Stukeley explored and measured Stonehenge, and may be considered a pioneer of archaeology, and it is at this point the druids return to the story.

Stukely’s idea of the druids was they were monotheistic proto-Christians which is totally at odds with what little we do know about historical druidical beliefs. Williams points out that Stukely’s druidical revival came at the time of the foundation of a whole range of ‘gentleman’s clubs’, from the artistic and political to the notorious ‘Hell-fire’ clubs, which have their own place in the history of pagan revivalism in Britain. The new druidical movement also rose in tandem with a nascent Welsh nationalism.

By the start of the nineteenth century the ideas of paganism began to be expressed in the burgeoning Romantic Movement in art and literature. Writers and artists saw the figures of mythology and paganism as expressions of freedom and their own revolt against society. The poet Percy Shelly describes how he raised a small altar to “mountain walking Pan”.

Later in the century writers and mystics began to look to the east in search of magical interpretations of the world. H P Blavatsky established the Theosophical Society, which became a massive influence on later groups, and in France Eliphas Levi’s writings on ‘high magic’ described practices and rituals which are still used in one form or another today. This was the period of the ‘Occult Revival’ with a mixing of ideas and beliefs from oriental religions, classical literature, Freemasonry and groups like the Rosicrucians, the Spiritualist movement and the growing intellectual interest in psychical research.




But still working away at a popular level were the cunning-people and a whole range of folk beliefs, spells and talismans. Williams outlines the work of Edward Lovett, a London banker, who spent much of his spare time buying charms, amulets and other tokens which, well into the twentieth century, were sold on market stalls and in herbalist shops, particularly in the dockside areas of London, where they were particularly popular amongst sailors.

When we began our journey, the problem in understanding pagan and occult belief and ritual in Britain was the absence of any contemporary written record. Looking at the twentieth century the problem in understanding modern paganism seems to be the sheer massive amount of written material.

It is here that this book really comes into its own, as the author guides us through the complicated network of religious, philosophical, theosophical and magical societies. As they developed they formed complex ‘family trees’, Groups have split and formed new groups, or been refounded, renamed and evolved, and new groups have emerged from the ashes of their predecessors, others seem to have sprung from obscurity, or from one individual’s inspiration.

The book’s jacket tells us that Liz Williams not only has a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University, but also owns a witchcraft shop in Glastonbury. Both of these qualifications are needed to lead us through the complexities of modern witchcraft, Wicca, heathenism, Chaos Magick, and the other pathways by which individuals seek some understanding of, and connection to a spiritual world, as well as introducing us to many of the individuals involved in this history.

Although I have read a fair amount about modern paganism and magic, is is not my particular field of study and I am often baffled by the complexity of it. Williams’s clear and good natured account of the many groups and beliefs has helped me understand it in greater depth.

She has not been afraid to touch on the controversies, disputes and some of the problematic issues that have arisen from time to time, sexual exploitation, dubious political ideas, or the dangers of cultism, but does so in what I think is an objective manner and without rancour. An interesting appendix to the book outlines some of the warning signs of incipient cultism.

The author writes in an easy, fluid way, avoiding jargon – or explaining it when it is unavoidable, steering well clear of academic complexity for its own sake, and happy to insert a humorous touch where appropriate. This is probably not a book for someone who is already involved in the world of paganism and magic, but for someone with a sympathetic interest in the topic who wants to understand it more fully, I think it would be hard to find a better guide. – John Rimmer