25.6.09

SOUTH SHIELDS: THE VIEW FROM THE MINEFIELD

In May, Peter Rogerson reviewed The South Shields Poltergeist, by Michael Hallowell and Darrel Ritson: read his review HERE. In this response Michael Hallowell takes issue with some of Peter’s comments.

Well, it's difficult to know where to start examining Peter Rogerson's review of The South Shields Poltergeist – One Family's Fight Against an Invisible Intruder. Still, as one of the authors of the book I feel I need to take a stab at it.

Lets get the sloppy errors out of the way first. The book was published by Sutton/The History Press, not Tempus. The foreword was written by Guy Lyon Playfair, not Guy Leon Playfair. If you're going to write a review – or anything else for that matter – it helps to get the nomenclature right. Perhaps the reviewer should engage the help of one of the 'large, multi-talented teams' he talks about to help him avoid making such schoolboy howlers in the future. But more about that later. [In fairness to Peter Rogerson, I can’t guarantee that at least one of those errors wasn’t introduced when I transferred the text to my computer. I have now amended the original entry - JR] Comments from Peter's review are in italics:

  • Ghost hunting is a now an increasingly popular hobby and so long as this involves vigils in the likes of stately homes and haunted pubs, it is no doubt an amusing enough activity.
Well, at least the reviewer has left us in no doubt about what he thinks regarding 'vigils'. They are merely 'a hobby' and, it seems, 'amusing'. As long as they're restricted to stately homes and pubs, that is. And the pubs have to be 'haunted', which is also fair-do's, as holding a vigil in a pub that wasn't haunted would be pretty pointless. Mind you, why he should make a difference between these specific types of location and others is not explained.
  • The problems start when various self-styled investigators intervene in the lives of ordinary people.
The reviewer's use of the term 'self-styled investigator' is a loaded one. Is he seriously suggesting that the title 'investigator' is one that can only be conferred upon one by a higher authority? Would he be happy being called a 'self-styled reviewer' perhaps? Methinks not. This type of back-door criticism seems to me to be nothing more than a sly dig at the credibility of those who carry out such research. Labelling someone as 'self-styled' is similar to journalists who refer to witnesses as 'claiming' to have seen something or 'alleging' to be someone. Such phrases aren't direct criticisms, but to those who don't spot them they can subtly but distinctly erode confidence in the mind of the reader. I have to question why the reviewer engages in this sort of tactic, and my suspicion is that he has already made his mind up to approach the issue from a decidedly biased perspective.
As for 'intervening in the lives of ordinary people', the reviewer (self-styled or anointed – bring 'em all on, I say) would, had he read the book properly, have realised that we were asked to 'intervene' by the desperate family concerned. Our intervention was requested, not offered, so – just in case anyone should get the wrong idea – we weren't simply sticking our noses in where they weren't wanted or, for that matter, galloping over the threshold like knights in shining armour to rescue these poor, 'ordinary' people. True, he doesn't specifically say that we weren't asked, but to have read the book and then omitted this important fact from his review is in my opinion at best mischievous. I'd bet my bottom dollar that anyone reading the review and not having read our book would automatically assume that we had offered our services without solicitation. We didn't.
  • For various legal and ethical reasons I do not propose to discuss in detail my concerns about the contents of this particular book…
Well, that's okay, although I'm sure I know what he's getting at. The problem is that because his 'concerns' aren't voiced it becomes impossible for the reader to know whether they are justified or not. This seems tantamount to saying, 'There are bad things about this book…but I can't tell you what they are'. Again, in the minds of unwary readers, this chips away at the credibility of our book without voicing direct criticism. Personally I find it rather unprofessional to whet the readers' appetite and then fail to deliver. It's also unprofessional because it takes away from the authors the opportunity to reply to those implied criticisms as we can't be certain what they are. If you want to criticise something then either do so or simply refrain from making any comment at all.
  • Suffice it to say that it could easily be used as a warning of the sort of minefields that investigators can get themselves into, and that there are situations where the question of whether a particular phenomenon is paranormal or not, ought to be among the least the of the investigators’ concerns.
I'm sure I know what the reviewer is getting at here, too. As for getting into a minefield, he's speaking from his own perception – which seems to be that we really are 'in one' big-style. Of course, as the perceptions that led him to this conclusion are not stated, the reader isn't able to determine the veracity of that notion, either. So far, then, the review of our book hasn't employed one objective criticism based upon what exactly happened at Lock Street but simply espouses the writer's views about the 'amusing' ghost-hunting 'hobby', the implied lack of authority of 'self-styled' investigators and, of course, dark mutterings about things that he isn't able to voice publicly.
  • Like many other writers in this field the authors show a marked tendency to prefer complex paranormal explanations for simple normal ones.
Erm…no we don't. If the reviewer would like to read the book again – and I'm making a huge presumption that he's read it completely in the first place – he'll see that from cover to cover we discuss our thoughts about whether other explanations than paranormal ones were potentially valid. We did not prefer paranormal explanations, but were inevitably drawn to the conclusion that they were the only ones that made sense. We didn't arrive where we did by riding on the back of a 'tendency'; we were carried there by the weight of the evidence. Actually, we made every effort to look for 'simple, normal' explanations before considering more complex paranormal ones. That was also made clear in the book. We'd be happy to hear the reviewer's 'simple, normal' explanations though – although how he can voice them with any authority considering the fact that he was never there to witness anything is truly an enigma.
  • …and to have an almost non-existent boggle factor.
Well, he got that bit right at least, although I'm certainly not giving him any Brownie Points. Although the reviewer refrains from explaining just what he means by 'boggle factor', I'll presume to interpret the phrase the way my colleagues and I have always done: For 'boggle factor' read, 'believability barrier'. This, quite simply is the point where the rational mind leaps into action and screams, like John McEnroe, 'You can't be serious!' Or, if you like, the juncture where something becomes so bizarre it is hard to believe it is really happening.
Personally, I don't rate the boggle factor much. To be blunt, it's just a polite way of describing narrow-mindedness, shortness of vision and a lack of creative thinking. Let me explain why. Once you set a ceiling on believability you immediately disenfranchise yourself – at least potentially – from things that might be true even though they are ostensibly hard to swallow. Space flight, atomic energy, meteorites, airborne pathogens … all of them collided with the boggle factors of the Great and the Good at one time. Then they were proven, and the cynics had to watch with mouths clenched firmly shut as the metaphorical bar was raised once again.
Personally, I prefer not to employ a boggle factor. I choose to think that just about anything can happen, although resolutely accepting that much of it probably won't. This way, it minimises the risk of me criticising something just because I don't understand it or rejecting something just because I want to leave room in my cerebellum for something far more entertaining that may pop up later.
  • Do they really believe that poltergeists have the dexterity to produce messages on blackboards, send text messages, and arrange tableaux?
I must confess that of all the questions that have been addressed to us – and we've had some corkers, believe me – this must rate as one of the least comprehensible. I do not know whether the reviewer actually believes in the existence of poltergeists or poltergeistry, but for a moment I'll presume that he does. What is he suggesting here? That poltergeists can exist, but they are by nature stupid, clumsy, uncreative and of limited ability? If he is suggesting this, on what basis does he do so? Does the reviewer possess some secret knowledge about the phenomenon that the rest of us mere mortals do not? If poltergeists are real, what on earth would lead one to the conclusion that they can't mess around with mobile phones or doodle boards (not blackboards, although I don't want to sound too picky)?
But lets assume for the sake of argument that the reviewer doesn't believe in the existence of poltergeists. What does that lead us to ask about his question? Is he suggesting that if poltergeists did exist – hypothetically, of course – they wouldn't be able to do some of the things Darren and I attribute to them? If so, why does he say this? What is it about the poltergeist phenomenon – real or imaginary – that would prevent the manipulation of household objects? For goodness' sake, that's what poltergeists are infamous for doing! The question says more about the reviewer's lack of vision than it does about either the poltergeist phenomenon or our book.
  • Of course no actual CCTV, video or cine footage is ever produced showing them doing this.
Well, no 'cine footage' has been produced to date, but that's not to say it won't be at some future time. Actually, during the investigation hours of footage were taken, some of it shot within the presence of a dozen witnesses, so the reviewer is in no position to know what we have and what will be released in the future, but the point is taken. Next time we'll ask the polt to give us 24 hours notice so we can prepare better.
At the risk of sounding pedantic, history is replete with things – momentous and trivial – that were not caught on camera. These include (but are not limited to) the Fall of the Roman Empire, the Great Fire of London and the time I smashed a bedroom window at my grandparents' home at the age of eight. None of these were immortalised by camera, but they all occurred. How do we know this? Because, quite simply – and I really shouldn't need to spell this out – capturing events on 'cine footage' isn't the only way of verifying that something really happened. Darren and I have said consistently that the strength of the South Shields case doesn't rest upon one type of evidence alone, but on a multiplicity of kinds. A lack of footage doesn't mean that something didn't happen. It simply means that what might have happened wasn't caught on camera.
What intrigues me about the reviewer's statement is his telling use of the phrase, 'of course'. To me this gives the game away completely regarding his stance, and paints a picture not of someone taking a dispassionate look at the evidence, but of someone who had already made their mind up. The use of the phrase, 'Of course' is just another way of saying, 'Well, what did you expect?'
  • 'Proper’ investigations of such alleged events would require large multi talented teams, including private detectives, crime scene investigators, insurance adjudicators, magicians, family counsellors, forensic psychologists, half a dozen varieties of engineer and a physicist or two.
Great. Find us the funding – a mere £500,000 should get us by on a wing and a prayer - and we'll get cracking. If you're that keen – and clever – you should have no problem coming up with the money. Did you really think about this statement when you were tapping it out on your keyboard? If all investigations into alleged paranormal phenomena were to operate to these criteria do you seriously think anybody would end up investigating anything? Do you employ these criteria when you review books? (Actually, that might not be a bad idea, considering). If these criteria were universally employed, our libraries would be virtually empty and our educational establishments deserted. Obviously, then, any books published in the future by authors who have not employed such a vast army of experts will also receive your criticism in equal measure.
If what the reviewer says is true, how many 'proper' investigations would have been carried out to date? None, I would venture. I'd love to know whether the reviewer has ever carried out an investigation into an alleged paranormal phenomenon himself, and if so whether he employed the vast array of experts he details in his statement. If he has carried out such investigations – sans this vast horde of experts – then, by his own definition, such investigations cannot be deemed as 'proper' and he has effectively sunk to the lower reaches of the pond with the rest of we bumbling amateurs.
  • Findings should be presented in a calm, scientific manner…
Well we aren't scientists and have never claimed to be. Are 'proper' investigations also going to be restricted to members of the scientific community as well, then? Wow, it seems that the list of those deemed to be acceptable investigators is shrinking by the minute. And we were calm – most of the time – which was no mean feat considering the experience overall.
  • The primary concern should be the physical and mental well being of the people involved, especially children. Readers of this book can make up their own minds as to whether this is the case here.
Of course – we wouldn't have it any other way. Lets just hope that those who take up your suggestion a) get their facts right first, b) express considered opinions based upon the facts instead of skewed judgements made at a great distance, and c) ponder upon the mystery of how armchair experts always seem to know better than eyewitness experients 'what really happened'. If you ever qualify as a surgeon – God forbid – remind me to never to let you operate upon me on the basis of your own diagnosis.
In any case, in the book we repeatedly make it crystal clear that our primary objective from the outset was the welfare of the family concerned. Having set out our stall in the book, then, the only conclusion that needs to be reached was whether we were as good as our word. If the reviewer thinks that we weren't, then he should come out and say so and state his reasons why.

In the final analysis, the reviewer is entitled to his opinion – just as I'm entitled to reject it as poorly formulated, rashly thought-out and hopelessly biased. Darren and I, whilst lecturing on the case at a local university, made the admission that now we are far less polite with our critics than we used to be. Sensible, reasoned criticism is fine, but reviews like this, I'm afraid, only serve to justify our stance entirely.

* Mike Hallowell is also the author of Invizikids, about imaginary childhood companions.

1 comment:

  1. peter rogerson25.6.09

    Of course I apologise to Guy Lyon Playfair for the overlooked spell checker error in his name, and to Messers Sutton and Tempus for confusing them (obviously some curious quirk of memory and the connection of both to Stroud) Perhaps I ought to take a leaf out of the authors and blame it on a poltergeist.

    I also apologise to our readers for the loss of the link to the associated web site, where they could find out what I am talking about for themselves

    http://www.mikehallowell.com/shieldspolt/

    Other reviews and comments on this book are welcome. In this case we would especially welcome imput from people with a professional interest in the topic.

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