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.
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.