It's been a couple of years since I went to a Fortean Times UnConvention, and this one was a slightly different format to what I've been accustomed. Although the line-up of speakers was excellent, the location rather limited the programme. Finding a Central London location that does not cost a fortune is becoming increasingly difficult, and the Camden Centre, although well located for accessibility in the shadow of St Pancras Station, is a much smaller building than previous venues, with just one large hall for talks.
This meant that there was only one sequence of talks, and although the two-strand format of previous UnConventions has sometimes meant that you had to choose between two must-see presentations, it also allowed for a wider range of speakers. Space limitations at Camden also meant that the various ancillary attractions, such as ASSAP's experiments, and stalls for other fortean/psychic groups, were reduced to just two or three bookstalls. The limitations of the venue also meant less opportunity for socialising.
OK, that's enough of the griping, let's look at the content. An odd sort of 'speaking animal' theme seemed to be developing, with Jon Bondeson discussing the talking dogs of the early years of the 20th century - which he has written about in the latest (December) Fortean Times - and the German 'New Animal Psychology' movement which promoted it. This eventually mutated into an exotic mixture of show-business and pseudo-science (a bit like ufology when you come to think of it!), with some vaguely sinister links to the Nazis.
Talking animals - 'Hoover the Talking Seal' - also cropped up in Sarah Angliss's exploration of the curious social background to the early days of sound recording; people were apparently quite disturbed at the idea that through the phonograph it would be possible to hear the voices of dead people. Besides the booming sounds of Hoover, we were able to hear the voice of Florence Nightingale marvelling that people would indeed be able to hear her words after she died.
London University librarian Christopher Josiffe (librarians, they get everywhere) outlined the story of Gef the Talking Mongoose from the Isle of Man. Although no sound recordings were available of this prodigy, Christopher did a fair job of recreating the animal's voice as he recounted its often foul-mouthed tirades. As a librarian, the speaker had access to Harry Price's case-notes on Gef, which are stored at London University. One curious byway to this investigation was discovering that there was probably a population of feral Manx mongooses, introduced in the 1910s as a measure to control rabbits, there being no foxes on the Island.
It's impossible to come to any conclusion on this case, and it's clear that much depends on the social background, psychology, and I suspect the sexual dynamics, of the family in the case, but these were issues which were not easily approached in the 1930s.
Dave Clark and Andy Roberts gave two totally UFO-free presentations; Dave Clarke presenting the only recorded case of someone officially being declared to have 'died of fright' on their death certificate, and the duo examining the legends of cursed stones and so-called Celtic Heads which were declared to bring bad luck on anyone who came into contact with them. Dave and Andy brought along their very own Cursed Head in case anyone wished to take a chance with it!
Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince discussed the influence of Hermeticism on the rise of modern science, and considered whether contemporary developments in astronomy and quantum physics heralded a return to a Hermetical view of the universe. This produced some strong reactions from questioners in the audience. For another of Lynn and Clive's theories, check out the YouTube clip below.
Gail-Nina Anderson was as entertaining as ever, taking us through the impact of Egyptian Mummies on popular culture, including the artists' paint called Mummy Brown, which was actually made from ground-up mummies. Discovering this prompted the Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt to bury his tube of the colour in his garden in a simple ceremony. The pigment was apparently in production until the 1960s, when the director of a firm of London colourists found they had run out of mummies: "We might have a few odd limbs lying about", he said.
Ted Harrison, in reviewing apocalyptic predictions reassured us that the world had not ended in September, but alerted us to a few other dates to watch out for. I didn't see Brian Regal's Sasquatch presentation, or Richard Freeman on ape-men (cryptozoology is, I regret, a bit of a blind-spot with me, especially the paws-and-pelt variety) and only caught the end of Jon Ronson on psychopaths.
Despite the limitations of the venue, I think UnCon continued a great tradition, and it was good meeting so many fellow anomalists. And if any of you know of a spacious location in Central London, preferably with two lecture halls, exhibition space, and with a decent bar and cafe, available for hire at an unfeasibly uncommercial price, I'm sure the guys at Fortean Times would be glad to hear from you! -- John Rimmer