19.10.14

STRANGE TALES

Robert Damon Schneck, Mrs Wakeman vs. the Antichrist. Tarcher Penguin, 2014.

Here are eleven essays on bizarre phenomena in American history, from a murderous cult in the mid-nineteenth century to the phantom clown panics at the end of the twentieth.

The longest piece is the account of Ira Wakeman. In a coma after being beaten nearly to death by her drunken husband in 1825 she had a vision of Christ accompanied by angels. As a result she began to preach a curious gospel which, as well as conventional Biblical precepts, taught that she was a messenger sent by God to save the world and bestowed with supreme earthly power. She also developed the idea of the Antichrist as 'the man of sin' who could move from one body to another. It would seem that to become 'the man of sin' all that was required was to disagree with Ira. Unfortunately this would mean that you would need to be exorcised, which in extreme circumstances meant having your head cut off.

There were other ways of having your head cut off, and if you believe that if you want a job doing properly you should do it yourself, and follow the example of Mr Moon, of Lafayette, Indiana. Inspired by America's great tradition of inventive ingenuity he devised an autodecapitation machine, which he satisfactorily demonstrated in room 41 of the Lahr House Hotel in that city. The chambermaid who discovered the result of this grisly experiment seems to have been a lady of remarkable fortitude. Despite this happening in 1876, she was still working at the hotel in 1915!

Most of the other adventures described here are of a more Fortean nature, including possibly one of the most sensible and level-headed stigmatics ever, Cloretta Robertson, a ten year old black girl living in Oakland, CA., who began bleeding from the palm of her left hand just before Easter, 1972. This seemed to have followed on from watching a TV film of the Passions of Christ. Unusually for a stigmatic Cloretta was not a Roman Catholic but, with her family, a member of a local mainstream evangelical, mainly African-American, Baptist church.

Also unusually she and her family were quite happy for her to be examined by doctors and psychiatrist at local medical facilities and universities. They all came to a remarkable conclusion: Cloretta seems to have been one of the most unassuming, pleasant and completely normal young ladies they had ever met!

Her stigmata reappeared annually over the Easter period for several years, and she became something of a personality at her local church, but eventually they just stopped happening and Cloretta disappeared into the everyday world of lower-middle-class American suburbia. A phenomenon all the more remarkable for being so unremarkable!

'Wild Men' were a feature of many 19th and early 20th century American travelling carnival shows and circuses. They were often impoverished young black men, or vagrants, who were dressed in animal skins and roamed about in cages for the entertainment – although the showmen claimed it was education – of the punters. In some cases, as is recorded here, the 'bestial' nature of the wild men was emphasised by them having a metal plate implanted into their head, onto which would be fitted a pair of animal horns. These degrading exhibitions have been the subject of a more contemporary controversy when an attempt to recreate one was closed down by groups of protesters, despite the actors involved themselves defending it as a vivid portrayal of racism: LINK

Another kind of 'wildman' appears in 'The Secret of Ape Canyon', a tale story from 1924, where a group of mystically-inclined gold prospectors described being attacked by sasquatch-type creatures as they attempted to uncover the location of a 'lost gold-mine' in the vicinity Mt. St Helens in the American north-west. Author Robert Schneck points out the similarities between this Spiritualist-led quest and more traditional forms of mystical treasure hunting, such as are described in Johannes Dillinger's book Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America, reviewed HERE.

Other chapters in this fascinating anthology deal with rumours of sinister clowns attempting to abduct children, and linking them to stories of nineteenth-century 'Night Doctors' allegedly abducting people for medical experiments; the ouija board craze that brought panic to the civic authorities of El Cerrito in California; how a small West Virginia town was haunted by a clothes-snipping poltergeist; Jeanne Dixon's White House years, and the historical popularity of vampirism in Kansas City.

Altogether a fascinating and entertainingly presented collection of Fortean weirdness, which I highly recommend. – John Rimmer.


16.10.14

FAILING TO EXPLAIN

Robert Salas. Unidentified. The UFO Phenomenon: How World Governments Have Conspired to Conceal Humanity's Biggest Secret. New Page Books, 2014.
 
Robert Salas can hardly be said to be open to argument on the subject of UFOs, as in his preface to this book he states that there are two things that he knows for certain about the UFO phenomenon. These are that we are being visited by "real objects of unearthly origin", and that alien abductions are also real. A theme which runs through the book is the usual tired old one that world governments are aware of the facts about UFOs but somehow manage to keep them secret.
 
His experience allegedly involving UFOs occurred when he was a crew commander at the Malmstrom nucear missile site. He recalls an incident where he was on duty when he received reports of strange lights in the sky, followed by all of the missiles becoming disabled. But just turn the page and you read: ". . . when I initially tried to recall the incident of that night, I struggled remembering some of the details. It had been nearly 30 years and there were a lot of other memories in between". As well as this one, there are a number of similar stories to be found on the Internet, and they are the subject of ferocious arguments and slanging matches between believers and sceptics.

Salas gives us his opinions on alien abductions, which he regards as being real. He does not even mention the views of those who believe that abduction stories are best investigated by psychologists and sociologists, rather than by enthusiastic amateurs who believe them to be actual physical events. So, like many others, he apparently sees no problem about aliens gliding through walls and never being captured.

He claims to have been abducted himself in 1985, the experience occurring when he and his wife were asleep in their home and he was awakened by a mysterious blue light coming from the living room. He says that he tried to get out of bed but found himself paralysed. Mysterious figures appeared and floated him through the window, and he received similar treatment from the aliens as that described by other abductees. Of course, there is no good reason to believe that this was anything other than a dream.


A chapter is devoted to giving a brief history of nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations, which hardly seems relevant to ufology. This chapter also contains a list of alleged UFO incidents at installations with nuclear weapons, though of course there is no mention of the fact that at least some of them have been satisfactorily explained.


Salas thus follows the usual procedure of dealing with mundane explanations for UFO reports by simply ignoring them. He does not refer to sceptical or scholarly writings on the subject, but prefers the work of authors such as Carey and Schmitt, Frank Feschino, Stanton Friedman (who wrote this book's foreword), Timothy Good, Robert Hastings, and Budd Hopkins. It is only fair to note, though, that there are perhaps limits to his credulity, as the sheer absurdity and implausibility of alleged details of the notorious Bentwaters case are too much even for him, as he concludes that it is "an enigma of partial truths and conflicted facts". -- John Harney


14.10.14

FIRST READ: THE COMING OF THE SAUCERS

Gerald Heard. The Riddle of the Flying Saucers: Is Another World Watching? Carroll and Nicholson, 1950.

Desmond Leslie and George Adamski. Flying Saucers Have Landed. Werner Laurie, 1953.

At the start of my third year at Urmston Grammar School for Boys, I met my first actual ufologist, the parent of one of my fellow pupils. He came to give a lecture on flying saucers, which mainly consisted of slides of George Adamski’s faked flying saucer photographs, and if I remember rightly, a fragment of the Madeleine Rodeffer film. There were also pictures of 'Cedric Allingham’s' flying saucers. All of these contactee tales were presented with a straight face, and to be honest that sort of thing would have been typical of the British ufology of the period. It would not be too unkind to suggest that most of it was quiet brain dead.
 
GERALD HEARD
One outcome of this talk was that I was able to borrow the two books above from the speaker via his son. They were both the products of the marketing skills of Waveney Girvan, who was to go on to publish and then edit Flying Saucer Review. Heard’s was the first hardback UFO book, though I suspect that Heard, a writer on religious and social topics, knew very little about the subject and had taken the commission as a quick way of earning cash. Much of the content was probably supplied by Girvan, and Heard’s own contribution was the suggested that the flying saucers were piloted by Martian bees. The main contents were, I suspected, largely lifted from Donald Keyhoe.
 
But at least this was still just about 'sensible ufology'. Desmond Leslie’s contribution was altogether weirder, being a collection of historical accounts which might suggest flying saucers, some more or less recent newspaper clippings, early ancient astronauts speculation and dollops of theosophy. Desmond Leslie was the son of Sir Shane Leslie (a maternal cousin of Sir Winston Churchill) who had become a convert to Roman Catholicism and Irish home rule. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, Desmond Leslie rebelled against his strict Catholic schooling, and ended up becoming involved in occultism. I imagine that Girvan thought that this book would appeal to a more traditional occult minded group of people than the more 'technical' books on the subject.


I doubt that Leslie's contribution would have achieved anything like its British success without the added material by George Adamski and his amazing tale of meeting the space brothers, and his iconic photographs, which for years to come were the folk image of flying saucers. Adamski’s images soon moved beyond the world of ufology into general culture. I remember as a very small child being given a haircut in Lewis’s Department Store, Manchester, while sitting in a model flying saucer.
 
Adamski’s vision of peace loving, white, nearly Anglo-Saxon Venusians was a reassuring one. If there were aliens they were not all that alien, and not the unseen and rather menacing Martians of Donald Keyhoe’s books. Their space brother message was taken from the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, but without that menacing robot. In the dark post war, nuclear threatened, age they were reassuring figures, like the Cottingley fairies in the post First World War period. They also held out the promise of what today we would call 'green energy', modernity without menace, and a contrast to the polluted, smoke drenched cities of the industrial revolution, and the austere grey Britain of the immediate post-WWII era.
 
Looking at the covers of these two books, allows us to see how Adamski’s flying saucers replaced a previous vision, that of the Trent photographs. Perhaps we should now think of all the various 'flying saucer photographs' less as fakes than works of folk art, in which people sought to give a public concrete expression of images of the other, either reassuring or menacing.
 
The success of Leslie and Adamski’s book in the UK (as opposed to the USA, where it was published by an obscure import house) reflects how much Britain in the 1950s was an essentially pre-technological society, one in which the vast majority of people were scientifically illiterate. One in which the classics and humanities were seen as the basis of a 'sound education'.  -- Peter Rogerson.
 

9.10.14

AMERICAN MONSTERS

Linda S. Godfrey. American Monsters. Tarcher Penguin, 2014.

Cryptozoology is the starting point for many a budding Fortean. If one is British then by far and away the most well-known and written-about cryptid has to be the Loch Ness Monster. If one hails from the United States, it is probably Bigfoot and the news surrounding it that receives the most attention in the popular media, and therefore by default, almost certainly first catches the imagination. Strange beasts with distinctions from the usual fauna have been reported and noted ever since the human race has scratched upon cave walls. They have been with us throughout time, and are still appearing to us to this very day.

American Monsters is an overview of these unknown and unclassifiable creatures that have been reported as being seen in the USA. The lifeforms described are, on the whole, mainly animal-like in their outward appearance, although there are brief forays to examine humanoid beings that are strongly associated with UFOs and USOs as well. The volume’s chapters are divided up into three helpful main sections, Monsters by Air, Sea and Land. The monsters of the title are from all corners of the crypto-zoo, as it were. There certainly seem to be many, many sightings included herein. Things that fly, things that swim and, most distressingly, things that lurk in the lost and lonely places; all have been seen and noted by someone and the accounts have made it here to this tome.

Linda S Godfrey is no stranger to cryptids. She has amassed occurrences of odd yet apparently-living things from her native USA for our consideration. She cut her odd-creature teeth on the Beast of Bray Road (a creature with bear- or wolf-like and human attributes) whilst employed by a local newspaper. It corresponded to the popular folk-figure of the werewolf, except no sightings of it transforming from a human into the figure subsequently seen were reported. Since then she has specialised in unusual creatures and this is her sixteenth book.

The style of the work is quite approachable. There is an easy, almost chatty, style that attracts the reader. What with that and the clear-cut division, mentioned earlier, of land, air and sea early on, finding something of specific interest is simple from the outset. One does not have to have any previous knowledge of this field in order to read it. She does speculate now and then upon what may be behind the apparitions, but this theorising does not overwhelm the recording of the sightings which is, to my mind at least, the main strength of the text. A whole book’s worth of odd creature sightings in one place can be a convenient and a useful thing to have, even if one’s interests are not predominantly those of the appearances of odd lifeform sightings. Putting the USA's (and some bleeding over the borders) cryptid strangeness in one volume is handiness indeed.

This, then, is a book that is most certainly of use to the novice cryptozoologist, due to its approachable style and groupings, and it is probable that even some more experienced investigators will find something previously unknown to themselves here as well. It handily has notes and an index, therefore making it more useful to serious student of the unknown. -- Trevor Pyne


7.10.14

NORTHERN ECHOES: DOWNSIZING


On Monday 22nd September I had the pleasure of meeting Clas Svahn (right, below), his son Niklas (left) and colleague Carl-Anton Mattsson from the Archives for the Unexplained in Norrkoping, Sweden.
 
 
They came to collect the second tranche of my vast Fortean library and Clas estimates there were about 3,500 volumes in all, which they fitted into about 150 boxes.
 
 
They cover much of my collection on parapsychology, as well as a great variety of material on a very wide range of Fortean and related topics. These include many of the books reviewed over the years in Magonia, in print and on line. Another major feature of the collection is the vast collection of books on the Kennedy assassination and related conspiracy theories that I inherited from our friend and colleague the late Roger Sandell, and which I have added to from time to time.
 
 
Their trip was uneventful and the day was fine and sunny (a contrast to the apocalyptic thunderstorms in London), despite a last minute panic on my part when I realised that the day they were coming down coincided with the start of the Labour Party conference in Manchester.

The trip up to Urmston was just part of a longer AFU collecting expedition to England , details of which can be found in Clas Svahn’s blog:  http://www.ufo.se/csblogg3/30447. (go to each side bar), well worth the effort of cutting and pasting into Google translate.
 
AFU is by far the most comprehensive specialist archive and library of paranormal topics in the world, ranging from the most abstruse academic tomes to popular paperbacks and children’s works, and it will be of immense value not just to paranormalists and Forteans but to folklorists and to social and cultural historians. Anyone with a collection or library dealing with any of the topics you are likely to find in Magonia, Fortean Times, the old pre-Llewellyn Fate, SPR Journal etc. etc and wants to ensure a safe home should consider donating. Details of AFU can be found here http://www.afu.se/afu2/

 
It comes as something of a shock to realise that it is 45 years since my first, naïve teenage letter was published in the old Merseyside UFO Bulletin. Like my first article in the now forgotten DIGAP Review, this showed how much I was then under the influence of John Keel. Keel’s articles in FSR changed my perception of the subject and made me realise how complex the whole thing was.
 
However my reading of Keel soon abandoned any fundamentalist interpretation. To be it was clear that Keel’s “elementals” were not to be thought of as literal boggarts, that’s the way down to Gordon Creighton levels of paranoia, but rather were metaphors for mind forged manacles, and that was the take John Harney and John Rimmer had on it as well.
 
My reading of Keel is that he was essentially a gnostic, he saw humankind trapped in a veil of maya or illusion, but this world of illusion should not be thought of as the physical world of rocks and oceans, or skyscrapers, but rather the intellectual world. Everything we believe in is a product of the human imagination, perception and memory, not just the petty beliefs of ufologists, but the big stuff; the entire world’s religions, ideologies, belief systems, institutions, cultures. Not just traditional gods and demons, but the modern secular stuff as well; political ideologies, economics, money, nation states, kings, presidents and emperors; and no doubt he would have said science, reason and even Forteanism!
 
Keel’s vision is that our tragedy is that we have 'forgotten' that we have made the whole thing up, that we are trapped by and worship (even kill and die for) the phantasms of our imagination. The great temptation is to believe that this stuff is as real as rocks, and it is certainly possible that Keel himself, particularly when serious depressed, forgot we had made it all up and at times at least half-believed in the boggarts himself.
 
Mothman Prophecies is, I think, the best of Keel’s work, in that it uses local folklore to create a vision of failed communication; the fall of the Silver Bridge becomes a metaphor for failures of communication, the TNT zone is the deepest and darkest wilderness, and surely Mothman itself is the “wicked bird of prey” preying on breadcrumb sins as in Dylan’s Gates of Eden.
 
One area where Keel has been vindicated is that to understand anomalous experiences you have to know the whole life history of the percipients, not just their other anomalous experiences. Many of these experiences are probably metaphors for crises and other aspects of their lives, and the life of the communities in which they live.
......................................................................

4.10.14

PLACEBO DEFECT

John S. Haller Jr, Shadow Medicine: The Placebo in Conventional and Alternative Therapies. Columbia University Press, 2014.

The author states his position clearly in the Introduction. His aim is ‘not to lay waste [to] one side or the other in the ongoing feud between the proponents of evidence-based medicine and those supporting unconventional therapies’, and on the whole his objectivity is indeed remarkable, especially for a field that is infamous in its high emotional reaction and indeed academic vendettas. It is especially good on the history of medicine, whose emergence into anything approaching efficacy is startlingly recent. What it is not so good on is the actual subject of the book – i.e. coming to grips with the major questions that surround the mystery of the placebo.

True, we learn how the placebo emerged as a force to be reckoned with. For example, Haller examines the role of landmark books, such as Harry K. Beecher’s 1955 work The Powerful Placebo in establishing the phenomenon as worthy of study, noting ‘the placebo threatened the very foundation blocks supporting the edifice known as conventional medicine’.

If it threatens allopathy, what is the placebo’s role in the more elusive and emotive world of alternative medicine? Some would say unhesitatingly that the placebo is alternative medicine, providing the only plausible explanation for any cures that might happen, almost accidentally. But Haller is more open and much more generous, devoting many pages to an examination of the differences (many) and the similarities (few) between the two camps of healers. Sceptics might wonder, simply, why bother? The answer is, briefly, that at least half of all Americans use not only an alternative treatment – one of the myriad on offer – but specifically the one area that evidence-based research has repeatedly shown to have the least going for it. Yes, 50 per cent of Americans actually use homeopathy: so in a market that is resolutely consumer-driven, it must, therefore, be taken seriously. And it certainly is here – not in the sense that Haller is intrinsically or overtly biased in favour of homeopathy, but because it basically takes over the second half of a rather short book. (A third of the pages are devoted to notes, references, bibliography, appendices and the index: in itself this might be laudable and indeed very helpful to other researchers, but the main discussion has no room to enlarge.)

Determined as ever to be balanced and fair, Haller goes into the huge and ongoing row about the efficacy of homeopathy in some detail, sometimes too much and too repetitively. He notes that the whole realm of alternative medicine operates from entirely different perspectives from the mainstream, taking on board patients’ emotional, social and spiritual backgrounds and seeking to deal with their problems through the manipulation of non-physical elements, such as energy matrices. While never straying into card-carrying believer territory – it really isn’t that kind of book, being designed for health professionals – Haller does make several trenchant points about homeopathy. Perhaps the most significant is that, while routinely sneered at as finding ‘the common diagnostic category’ irrelevant, the fact is that given its modest apparatus and actual medicine – mostly treated water, after all - there is little economic incentive to develop or encourage homeopathy, unlike conventional medicine’s notoriously intimate relationship with Big Pharma.

But trial after trial has been unable to find much that is conclusive about just how homeopathy works. Because the problem is, apparently it does. But how? Is any benefit from this and other alternative therapies simply all in the mind? Most allopaths believe it is. Haller quotes medical expert Michael Kottow: ‘alternative approaches bathe themselves in the self-fulfiling prophecy that he who believes in his own cure will actually get better.’ (Yes, but don’t regular GPs routinely use sugar pills?)

Haller does a sound job telling the often surprising story of the discovery and implementation of the placebo (from the Latin ‘I go before’). We discovery that considerable proportions of various trial patients’ conditions have always improved through the administration of such placebos as saline solutions or sugar pills. Once considered totally inert, now they are seen as an active part of the therapy, though the ethical arguments rumble on. Is ‘employing a lie to heal’ what professionals really should be doing? (Surely if it’s a contest between a doctor not ‘lying’ about the ingredients of the pills and us not getting better, and a doctor either implicitly telling a fib or being evasive about the pills and us making a recovery, then most of us know which side we’d be on.)

We also learn that the doctor him/herself can be seen as a drug, what used to be called 'bedside manner’ still being a significant factor in the progress of patients. Of course this is where most fans of alternative therapies usually find the most potent attraction – in the practitioners themselves, who are willing to spend time on discovering as much as they can about the patient, and are not afraid to empathise openly. (The contrast is possibly more glaring in the UK, where harassed NHS doctors can seem uncaring and are usually very rushed. Of course their services are free. Alternative therapies are private, and therefore one is always paying for more time and attention.)

Not surprisingly in a book such as this, comments such as the following point up the argument: ‘the real challenge for researchers is to better understand the power of the placebo.’

Well, quite.

This might be a meticulously researched, soberly ordered and objectively argued work. It has many admirable qualities and as a reference work on several aspects of the history of medicine – in theory and practice – and on the intricacies of the great divide between conventional and unconventional therapies it is excellent. And it must be said, in the most literal way Haller does fulfil the promise implicit in the subtitle. He does indeed examine the placebo in both conventional and alternative medicine. But surely there should be much, much more to the discussion than that.

Unfortunately we learn next to nothing about the workings of the placebo. In an almost throwaway line about its power, Haller mentions the placebo’s track record in curing warts. He then fails to follow up on this, which is perhaps a missed opportunity, as this highlights one of the main elements of the placebo mystery.

As we all know, warts are very real, unsightly little lumps. There they are, on one’s hand, say, and are therefore clearly not a figment of one’s imagination. Yet certainly in the past older family members, local ‘wise women’ or even old-school GPs have gone through the ritual of removing the wart at a distance through some apparently meaningless little ritual. And the very real wart has obediently disappeared, never to return. Witchcraft? Well in one sense perhaps, but put in modern terms it is ‘simply’ the placebo effect. Aches and pains are one thing – extremely hard to quantify, even for the sufferer – but a wart is unarguable. Yet it goes because we believe it will, apparently thanks to a mixture of authority and ritual. To the placebo effect. But how exactly?

Not once in this entire book does the author address the burning question of the actual mechanics behind the placebo effect. He never trawls though the literature of autosuggestion/suggestion, for example, where he would find the early days of extreme hypnosis packed with material with an immediate relevance to the subject of his book. Not only were people cured of dire skin conditions by the power of suggestion – or hypnosis – but in the pre-litigious and pre-politically correct days it was repeatedly demonstrated that if a hypnotised subject were told s/he would feel the mere touch of a cold glass rod but actually a red-hot poker were applied to their skin, they would suffer neither pain nor burn. Often there was not even any reddening of the skin. But does this sort of phenomenon echo or even explain the placebo effect? Sadly there is no information on such matters in this book.

Also although never dwelt on by Haller, homeopathy is frequently used by vets, who report that all sorts of patients – dogs, cats, birds, donkeys – often benefit enormously from the treatment. What kind of placebo could possibly be at work in those cases? Is it possible that the placebo effect can be felt as it were at second hand, through the owners?

(One is reminded, too, of the famous British alternative healer Mathew Manning whose reputation was such that he was invited to address London’s Royal College of Surgeons in the 1980s. At question time he faced much professional contempt as doctor after doctor accused him of ‘just using the placebo effect’. ‘Well,’ said Manning, ‘If it’s so easy why don’t you do it?’)

Shadow Medicine is a very sound, carefully academic work, erring on the side of wordy worthiness. It’s not an easy read and occasionally lapses into downright dullness, which in itself might deter many who are excited by the questions surrounding the placebo phenomenon. But stylistic considerations aside, it simply stops far too short. Understanding the placebo effect could lead to huge leaps in our understanding of illness and wellness – not to mention human consciousness - but sadly, despite the author’s heroic efforts, this is not the book that will do it. Perhaps Haller might consider a sequel, in which the placebo itself is the star? -- Lynn Picknett
 

1.10.14

MYSTERIES ON FILE

David Clarke. Britain’s X-traordinary Files. Bloomsbury, 2014.

There is a perception among many members of the public that archives are rather dull, fusty places full of the property deeds of the rich, or long boring ledgers. David Clarke’s new book shows how wrong this can be. Hidden in the vaults of The National Archives at Kew, the British Library, the Imperial War Museum, and similar institutions are strange and spooky stories, stories that Clarke suggests we should call the uncanny.
 
As is appropriate this year the book starts with uncanny tales of war, such as the Angels of Mons and the disappearing Norfolks from the First World War. If these are well known, much less well known are the stories of death-ray machines which emerged in the inter-war years, promoted by inventors such as Harry Grindell-Matthews. These machines were supposed to use electricity to stop engines, though, of course, no working example was ever constructed. Later the tales influenced much ufolore, in which vehicles were halted in the presence of flying saucers by what were called 'electromagnetic effects', though no persistent evidence of such an effect was ever produced.
 
The death-ray lore was born out of the expectation that new technologies were always round the corner, this was the time of the mass development of radio, the beginnings of television, the spread of the telephone, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, fridge and the rapid spread of electrical house lighting. If there was a fear behind such ideas, there was also a hope, that some technological marvel would prevent the bombers getting through.
 
These technological marvels and modern tales of UFOs exist in the archives along with more traditional motifs, and one can here read of the phantom battle of Edgehill, the ghost ship of HMS Bacchante, the court appearances of ghosts and poltergeists, the prosecution of the 'last witch' Helen Duncan, the use of dowsing to detect corpses, and Britain’s very own remote viewing experiments.
 
The hunt for mystery animals such as the Loch Ness Monster and the mystery big-cats also generates official documents, as do tales of sea serpents. Clarke points out that one of the important things about the original archival sources is that they dispel the many legends and accretions that gather around these topics. A classic example is the loss of Captain Schaffner in a tragic air accident on 9 September 1970. Here official secrecy helped to spread rumours, and an accident on a training exercise became, in the hands of sensation mongering ufologists, a tale of abduction by aliens while chasing a flying saucer.
 
One of the most interesting pieces in this book is the section of the Phantom Helicopter of 1973/4, and here the official records show just how seriously officialdom took these stories, which they feared were evidence of illegal helicopters flown by members of the IRA, either preparing a terrorist act or for another spectacular helicopter-based prison breakout. Some idea of the sort of speculation going on at the time can be found in John Harney’s piece HERE.
 
The material here is likely to be only skimming the surface; there is no doubt much more hidden from view by the 30 year and 100 year rules. Intelligence reports on a number of people such as Aleister Crowley may well be of interest, and there will be the official reports on crop circles, more on the mystery cats, to say nothing of haunted nuclear bunkers (not likely to be released in our lifetime).
A book in the Magonian tradition that we can heartily recommend. - Peter Rogerson
 

26.9.14

FIRST READ: THE WARMINSTER MYSTERY


Arthur Shuttlewood. The Warminster Mystery: Astounding UFO Sightings. Neville Spearman, 1967.  Recalled by John Rimmer

Magonia readers may vaguely remember that quite some time ago I explained that I was working with Dave Simpson on a video project to record the memories of people who were active in ufology at Warminster during the 1960s and 1970s. It's been a major undertaking, and subject to several delays and a couple of false starts. However it is now reaching its conclusion. Over twenty people have been interviewed at length about what they saw, did and heard at Warminster, and we have recorded a long and moving account of Arthur Shuttlewood's life from his daughter.

A couple of weekends ago I revisited Warminster with Dave Simpson to record some introductory sequences and links for the final version of the documentary. Most of these were filmed on Cradle Hill around the entrance to the military area and at the barn in the notorious copse at the top of the Hill. The plethora of recording equipment, mikes, camera, monitors, etc., drew a lot of attention from local dog-walkers, and from one or two members of the military, whose eyes rapidly glazed over when they realised we were just a couple of UFO nuts rather than anything more sinister.

Everything went quite smoothly. There is just a final final wrap-up piece to record, then a lot of work editing the finished product. I will let Magonians know when the final version is available.

I took my copy of Arthur Shuttlewood's first book The Warminster Mystery along with me to read on Cradle Hill, perhaps seeking some sort of mystical communion with the original Warminster era. I first read Shuttlewood's book shortly after its original publication, and at about the time I started getting involved with the original remote ancestor of Magonia, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin.

Unlike most of the other titles which have been reviewed in 'First Read', The Warminster Mystery was not one of the books which originally aroused my interest in UFOs. Those were probably the Keyhoe and Adamski books which I read in my early teen years, but it was one of the titles which refuelled my interest ten years later.

Shuttlewood [right] makes a great deal of his experience as a newspaper reporter, and this is obvious as you read the book: get names and addresses, tell us about the people, the cub reporter is instructed. I open the book at random: “Ted and Gwen Davies live in a thatched cottage at Crockerton They run separate shops in Warminster, she one for teenage fashions and he a fish saloon”; “Mrs Mildred Head, aged 63, is the wife of an ex-policeman and was once a seamstress at Warminster Hospital”; “self-employed Warminster woodworker Robert Payne and his hair stylist wife Wendy”. All in the finest tradition of the local reporter, and all helping to set their remarkable stories firmly in a down-to-earth reality. We even get “Geoffrey Mander, manager of the Palladium Cinema in West Derby Road, Anfield, Liverpool” - my old stamping ground!

But the problem of reporting a UFO flap in the style of a local paper is that no critical voice is allowed. In the Borchester Herald you don't challenge the judges at the local fête when they say that Mrs Grundy's apple chutney is the best in town, any more than you would point out that the local under-10's school football team all seem to have two left feet.

So when Arthur interviews “Major William Hill, of Silver Lane, Trowbridge, a hardened veteran of wartime campaigns [who] fought from 1939-1945 with a beach landing group attached to the Brigade of Guards, and was actively engaged in the Middle East and European theatres of war...” he does not question his account of being subjected to “the down-beating pressure of aerial vibrations .. a rolling motion beneath him as the whole bodywork swayed”. He accepts it in its entirety, after all Major Hill, in civvy street is “sales manager of a big motor garage and showrooms at Trowbridge”.

At least when he's doing this he is quoting people describing what they have experienced. The real problems arise later in the book, when he starts quoting the views of the bizarre gallimaufry of ufologists, 'psychics' and other hangers-on who began to cluster around the Westminster phenomenon. Every letter, every bizarre idea spouted at midnight at a cold skywatch on Cradle Hill is recorded and treated as the unquestionable truth. Characters like John Cleary-Baker and Gordon Creighton get their two-pennyworth relayed uncritically. The later chapters move into worlds of mystery telephone messages (one to the aforementioned Paramount Cinema, Anfield), disappearing phantom pedestrians and Shuttlewood's own mystery visitors from Aenstria. All are presented as a seamless part of one phenomenon.

So is The Warminster Mystery just a collection of uncritical anecdote and rumour? Well, probably, but it is an accurate record of uncritical anecdote and rumour. It tells us not so much what was happening in that small town, as what people thought was happening, and what they were telling others had happened. A few years later John Keel was using the same reportorial techniques, perhaps in a more consciously directed manner, when he described the goings-on in the small Ohio Valley towns that he visited before and during the Mothman scares. Keel had an understanding of the broader social and mythical framework of such phenomena and he was able to draw on a wider range of sources than Shuttlewood, who was trapped into the small-town reporter role, and this makes Keel's books perhaps a more entertaining read.

The Warminster Mystery stands as an almost unique casebook describing the birth of a UFO flap as a social phenomenon. Shuttlewoods subsequent books wander off into rarefied realms of fantasy; no report, no claim, no barmy idea is too extreme not to be included. I tried to review one of them, The Flying Saucerers I think, for the old MUFOB, but couldn't manage it, as it quite literally gave me a headache! But The Warminster Mystery is the ur-text; in Peter Rogerson's memorable phrase it constitutes part of the 'gutter-roots of ufology'. Read it, and read Steve Dewey's In Alien Heat (2006) for some understanding of what happened around this small Wiltshire town in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and what still haunts those clouded hills today.


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS