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 or so 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 and 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 Warminster phenomenon. Every letter, every bizarre idea spouted at midnight on 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. Shuttlewood's subsequent books wander off into rarefied realms of fantasy where 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 then 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.


2 comments:

  1. It might be interesting to compile a list of locations where UFO 'flaps' have occurred in the past. Even in the UK I can think of a few (and there must be many more). There was Warminster, there was the quite recent one in Bonnybridge, in Scotland; there was a flap in Stoke-on-Trent (1967), another in Glamorgan & South Wales (with abductions I believe, c.1977), a Pennine UFO flap, a Peak District UFO flap (flying triangles?), and so on. Each one, apart from Bonnybridge, has resulted in at least one book.

    Do these flaps still occur? If so, why, and if not, why not? Shuttlewood promoted this idea, but others soon followed. Their books are largely forgotten now. Perhaps Warminster was not the first after all.

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  2. There have indeed been a number of UFO flap locations over the decades - often described as some 'triangle' or other. In many of these there is a central character, either a local figure such as Councillor Billy Buchanan in Bonnybridge, or a UFO investigator who became prominent in reporting the phenomenon, such as Randle Jones Pugh in the 'Welsh Triangle' events. I do not think there are any such 'flap' areas any more as the way in which UFO reports are reported has changed so much that there is no need for a mediating figure such as Pugh or Shuttlewood to disseminate the story to a wider public.

    I think Warminster is unique for a couple of reasons. Firstly the town itself: small and quite self contained, yet conveniently close to larger centres such as Bristol or Salisbury, and of course being adjacent to one of the largest military training sites in Britain. Early MUFOB contributor Paul Hopkins makes these points in his article Of Hoaxes and Hoaxing: http://mufobmagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/of-hoaxes-and-hoaxing-paul-hopkins.html

    What also makes Warminster unique is the role of Shuttlewood. As well as being the clearing-house for UFO reports, he was a member of the local community in a way that those who wrote about other flap areas were not. (As a local councillor Buchanan also had this position, but he did not write about and publicise the flap to the extent that Shuttlewood did). As someone firmly in the centre of local life he would be less inclined to take a critical stance towards the people who presented their stories to him. After all, you might be reluctant to suggest to someone that their UFO encounter could be down to 'hypnogogic hallucination' or 'radical misperception' if the next time you met them might be when you were seeking their views on a local planning controversy, or reporting their daughter's wedding. -- John Rimmer.

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