27.5.12

WATCH THE SKIES - AND YOUR BACK!

Neil Arnold. Mystery Animals of the British Isles: London. CFZ Press, 2011.
Neil Arnold. Shadows in the Sky: The Haunted Airways of Britain. The History Press, 2012.

Neil Arnold is becoming quite a prolific writer in the Fortean/Paranormal field, and here are two more to add to his collection.

The first book is rather mis-titled, and in honesty is really two quite separate books pushed into one, the first of which should have been called ‘The Exotic Beasts of London’ and is a fascinating history of the place of exotic wild animals in the metropolis. Some of these were bought by a variety of private individuals who obviously had far more money than sense. In the 1950s and 1960s Harrods for example imported all sorts of exotic animals, including lions for those who wanted to make London a little bit wilder.

Wild animals were also introduced into the capital for the Tower Menagerie and other animal shows over the centuries, sometimes with the mayhem to be expected with less than adequate safety and security measures. Escapes from both zoos and private collections were surprisingly common, to say nothing of those which may have been released as a result of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. The result is that London is home to a number of strange beasts in both reality and rumour.

Sharks and piranha fish in the Thames, hyenas, lynx, giant birds, obese urban foxes gorging on thrown away burgers (in competition with oversized rats and stray jungle cats). Perhaps they would have made good breakfasts for the adders that Ken Livingston planned to introduce.

If you think this makes London a rather more edgy place for the Olympic tourists, then add in the supernatural weirdoes of the second part, which should have been entitled The Highgate Vampire and Other Nasty Ghosts of London’. This deals with tales of various phantoms, mainly from the realms of folklore, but mainly features David Farrant and the black spectre of Highgate Cemetery, a place that in the 1970s was the haunt of teenage legend trippers, general weirdoes and people who thought the place was haunted by a phantom which sucked their energy. Into this mix came Farrant and his one-time sidekick, later deadly enemy, who proclaimed the said phantom was a “King Wampyr”. Goths before their time it would seem.

This rather eclectic mix of social history, folklore, allegedly true experiences conjurers up a sort of Peter Ackroyd cityscape of dreams, nightmares and a wilderness in the heart of metropolis.

Shadows in the Sky is a slighter book, it is a compilation of tales of strange things seen in, coming down from, falling out or generally haunting the skies; including phantom ships, phantom aircraft, UFOs, haunted airfields, strange flying creatures including dragons, Fortean falls, urban angels, with much of this inhabiting the debatable ground between fact, folklore and fakelore. It reminds us that even over the city, the skies are still wilderness.

Both books feature our old friend the Brentford Griffin, a tale created by Robert Rankin to advertise an arts festival, but like much fakelore has now gone feral and is heading towards future folklore. A reminder of how much folklore was once the work of individual story tellers and writers and has been conveyed by the medium of print rather than the purists word of mouth. -- Peter Rogerson




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