17.2.18

SCIENCE SAYS ...

Donald R. Prothero and Timothy D. Callahan. UFOs, Chemtrails and Aliens: What Science Says. Indiana University Press, 2017.

Despite the pretentious ‘What Science Says’ subtitle, which rather suggests that Prothero and Callahan have somehow been appointed official spokespersons for ‘Science’ - whatever that may be as a single entity – this book is actually a pretty fair review of the sceptical approach to the subjects listed in the title. The counter-augments to the mystery-proponents are presented with a great deal of evidence, and there is less of the de haut en bas sneering which distinguishes some sceptical writers’ arguments.

Prothero has taught geology and palaeontology and Callahan is an artist who has worked in the film industry, so they are equally as qualified to discuss UFOs and aliens as a Chartered Librarian, or someone who worked in the computer section of the Meteorological Office. But what is lacking is any indication that the writers have done any actual fieldwork, and they are working entirely from what we must now refer to as ‘texts’. The exception is their revealing accounts of visits to the US Government's 'top secret' bases like Area 51.

I have often thought that one of the most significant differences between American ‘skeptics’ and British sceptics – in the UFO field at least – is that the majority of British UFO sceptics have ‘worked their passage’ as UFO investigators and have come to their sceptical positions via the evidence, or lack of, that they uncovered in their investigations. This has also allowed them to maintain a tolerance of the ambiguity inherent in the subject, and thus avoid the ‘k’ in skeptic.

Many US skeptics seem, like Prothero and Callahan, to have emerged, fully formed, from academia. This seems to mean that they are less aware of the existing sceptical attitudes present throughout the fields they are discussing. In his Fortean Times review of this title, Ian Simmons pointed out the total lack of any recognition of British sceptical ufologists such as Jenny Randles or Dave Clarke. I would add to that the notable absence of sceptical American researchers working from inside the field, such as Allan Hendry, Dennis Stillings and even Jerome Clark.

It is only by ignoring such writers that the authors have needed to spend so much time debunking the claims of figures such as Adamski, von Daniken, Claude ‘Rael’ Verilhon, and Eduard Meier, who is subjected to a detailed but entirely unnecessary debunking of his bizarre claims. These people are almost totally ignored by today’s UFO researchers, even the eager-believers, and, it all seems a little bit passé. The amount of space devoted to claimed ‘alien skulls’ is totally disproportionate to their importance to serious UFO research.

What is scarcely touched upon is why and how various individuals come up with their claims, and just why such ridiculous claims have attracted so many believers, other than that people are ‘unscientific’ and need to be better educated, presumably by books like this.

Throughout the assumption is made that if you are able to show how ‘the science’ disproves a claim then it can be safely filed away as ‘explained’, and there is no need to search for the reason why that claim was made in the first place. Now I suppose it could be argued that looking for the ‘bigger picture’, especially the psychological or sociological background, was not the authors’ main remit, and to be fair they do present a comprehensive account of how popular culture, mass media and the UFO narrative have fed off each other over the past century. Much of this seems to be based on the work of Martin Kottmeyer, and at least result in Magonia getting a couple of mentions in the book’s references!

I would take issue with some of the propped explanations for UFO close encounters. The account of the Travis Walters case is very over-simplified and although conscious fraud remains a possibility – even probability – exactly who was perpetrating a fraud against whom is still very much open to debate. Similarly the Cash-Landrum case needs more careful treatment than is given here.

I wonder who exactly this book is aimed at. It might perhaps be a useful reference for a college course on critical thinking, although I can’t help thinking it is a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut (pun probably intended). Although there is nothing very much that I would disagree with in this book as a whole, I cannot help but think that there are other better – and shorter - sceptical analyses of the UFO phenomenon, written by people who have a more nuanced view of the whole UFO field. – John Rimmer.

11.2.18

SPECULATIVE OR SPECULATION?

R. William Weisberger. Speculative Freemasonry and the Enlightenment: A Study of the Craft in London, Paris, Prague, Vienna and Philadelphia, McFarland & Company, 2017.

The title and subtitle succinctly encapsulates this book’s subject matter and sets the tone for what is a solidly academic and strait-laced work. It’s the second edition of a book that began life as the author’s doctoral dissertation in 1980, R. William Weisberger now being a professor of history in Pennsylvania - and a proud Freemason.

The major change from the first, 1993, edition is the addition, as appendices, of two previously-published papers examining Benjamin Franklin’s Masonic activities in Paris and Freemasonry’s role in the campaign for Jewish civic rights in Habsburg Austria and the fledgling USA. It is, in Weisberger’s words, "a comparative analysis of the Craft or Freemasonry in four European urban centers and one American city during the eighteenth century," which aims to establish the contribution made to the Enlightenment by Speculative Freemasonry - the funny handshakes and apron-wearing kind as opposed to the ‘operative’ form of actual stonemasons, i.e. what most of us think of as ‘Freemasonry’ pure and simple.

The cities are London, where it all began, Paris, the two Habsburg cultural centres of Prague and Vienna, and Philadelphia – although the last isn’t given as full a treatment as the others, only being discussed in an appendix in relation to one of that city’s lodge’s part in the campaign for Jewish citizenship. There are chapters detailing the organisation, activities, membership and social composition of Masonic lodges in the four European cities, followed by an analysis of their common features and how they differed as a result the varying social and political environments.

It’s a book written by a historian for historians, assuming a fairly detailed knowledge of the period, the reader being expected to be familiar with the work of scholars whose last names are dropped in casually, and with terms such as ‘Whigs, in the Harringtonian sense’, ‘Anglican Latitudinarians’ and ‘Thèse Nobilaire’.

For Weisberger, Speculative Freemasonry isn’t something that just happened to emerge at the time but was deliberately created in the 1720s as ‘a vehicle for the promotion of Newtonian ideas and other tenets associated with the Enlightenment’, being a repurposing of the operative guilds that were much in evidence in post-Great Fire London. The two prime movers – the ‘high priests of Speculative Freemasonry’ - were Newton’s former assistant Jean Desaguliers [left] and John Anderson, both Protestant clergymen, who according to Weisberger devised the rituals and symbols of the three basic Masonic degrees as ‘suitable teaching instruments’ and ‘to explain salient Enlightenment ideas’.

I’m not sure it’s quite as straightforward as that, as there’s evidence (not dealt with by Weisberger) that Freemasonry in its speculative form was around at least 70 years earlier; because of the lack of available records, distinguishing what went before from what was an innovation of the 1720s can only remain a matter for speculation (no pun intended, probably).

Be that as it may, for Weisberger Freemasonry was all about the Enlightenment, being invented to spread key Enlightenment ideals and values that were based on the application of reason to all areas of knowledge – scientific, religious, social and political: "The rites, legends, symbols and teachings of the order offered vivid explanations of salient doctrines of the Enlightenment… Its rites, also, contained explications of the tenets of classicism, deism, religious toleration, and humanitarianism," as well as concepts of constitutional government and civil liberties. Weisberger frequently speaks of Freemasonry as an attempt to create a ‘civil religion’.

However, beyond showing that Freemasonry swam in the intellectual and social current of a vibrant era of change that we now label the Enlightenment – how could it not? - it’s unclear exactly what Weisberger is claiming for it. He doesn’t establish that it was the driving force of the age or that the Enlightenment couldn’t have happened without it. While he shows that some lodges were set up or used to nurture and disseminate Enlightenment ideals, many lodges weren’t, and those ideals were being spread by individuals and organisations outside the lodges; it was, after all, the spirit of the age.

As Weisberger notes, there were many other societies – learned, literary, cultural – and meeting-places for networking and the discussion of ideas – coffee houses, taverns, clubs – that performed the same function as Masonic lodges. While it’s true that Freemasons made major contributions to the Enlightenment, that’s not necessarily to say that they did so because they were Masons – and there were non-Masons who made contributions that were just as important. In short, although Weisberger demonstrates that the Enlightenment influenced Freemasonry, he doesn’t, despite his best efforts, show that Freemasonry had a special influence on the Enlightenment.

I frequently got the impression that Weisberger’s enthusiasm for Freemasonry and pride in its heritage has lead him to overstate his case. For example, he notes that some Masons in London who belonged to learned societies were also members of academies in other European cities, and from this concludes that through these individuals ‘Masonry served as an important channel through which the Enlightenment could develop in other places’. It’s odd logic and claims rather too much for Freemasonry: wasn’t it rather the learned societies and academies that were the channels?

SEAL OF THE LODGE OF THE NINE SISTERS
Similarly, there’s an element of self-fulfilment in Weisberger’s concentrating on Masonic lodges that were explicitly set up to champion Enlightenment ideals, even though they were the exception rather than the rule. For example, in the chapter on Paris he focuses on the Lodge of the Nine Sisters, founded in 1776 by the astronomer Jerome Lalande explicitly to discuss and promote the new Enlightenment ideas, and whose membership included Voltaire, Dr Guillotin, Benjamin Franklin and the Montgolfier brothers. However, he notes that it was looked at askance by Paris’s Masonic authorities – who eventually closed it down in 1792 - precisely because its functions and activities were so different from those of other lodges.

The same applies to his singling out of the True Harmony Lodge of Vienna, which – because that city didn’t have the learned societies that flourished in London and Paris – was established in 1781 by the ex-Jesuit geologist Ignatz von Born explicitly as such a society, for example sponsoring literary and scientific journals. Weisberger makes much of the fact that many of its members were active supporters of political and religious reform. However, this was a famous period of reforms of the state and legal system – including its relationship with the Church and moves to grant greater rights to Jews - that were initiated by Emperor Joseph II (who wasn’t a Mason).

So those reforms were already happening anyway, and it’s not surprising that members of the Viennese intelligentsia and literati who were attracted to True Harmony should espouse them. In any case, the lodge was only active for four years, being closed down by Joseph in 1785 in the wake of the Illuminati scare. (Confusingly, Weisberger gives as one of the reasons for Joseph’s change in attitude to Freemasonry ‘the strident criticisms of other members of the True Harmony Lodge against the emperor’s reform program’.)



This selectivity – highlighting only examples the fit the thesis and ignoring what doesn’t - is largely a consequence of Weisberger’s adherence to the traditional view of the Enlightenment as a period in which reason triumphed over the irrational forces of religion and superstition, a view that is increasingly being challenged by historians of the period, for example John V. Fleming and Paul Kléber Monod, who see it as an example of later historians rewriting the past to make it what they think it should have been: the ‘Enlightenment’ label was, after all, given to that era in hindsight in the late nineteenth century. Scholars such as Fleming and Monod argue that ‘irrational’ thinking, especially that of the occult philosophies, made just as important a contribution to the Enlightenment, and that there wasn’t the clear distinction - or even clash – between science and the esoteric that later generations of historians assumed.

Weisberger, on the other hand, treats the Enlightenment not only as if it was about scientific and rational thinking but also as if it was a specific ideology, a movement or campaign to which thinkers of the time signed up and to which they tried to convert others; he refers to the Enlightenment as a ‘cause’, and the individuals he discusses ‘enlighteners’ as if they had consciously taken on the task of spreading this new creed.

Weisberger’s maintaining of this old-school perception of the Enlightenment also produces a selective depiction of Freemasonry itself. In emphasising the influence of the scientific and rational he makes it seem that that was all Freemasonry was about. He ignores its esoteric aspect, and the ‘occult’ pursuits – alchemy, Mesmerism, and so on - of many Masons, including those of some of his ‘enlighteners’. Even Weisberger’s putative inventor of Speculative Freemasonry, Desaguliers himself, wasn’t solely the ‘gospeler of mechanism’ that Weisberger dubs him, rather one of what Monod calls the ‘Newtonian magi’ who followed Newton’s blend of experimental science and occult philosophy.

While the big picture might be flawed, when it comes to the detail there’s a lot of fascinating information, as much in the context-setting of the scientific, cultural and political environments of the cities discussed as about the early history of Speculative Freemasonry. -- Clive Prince


7.2.18

FAIRYLAND REVISITED

Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook. Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present. Gibson Square, 2018.

This is a thought-provoking collection of data. Most people have heard of fairies, but few realise quite how much they have infiltrated our folklore; and even more surprisingly, how many modern sighting reports are still being recorded. This series of essays by people who have special knowledge of different aspects of fairy lore in Britain aims to cover the past 1,500 years, but even this tightly packed offering can barely scratch the surface. So it acts as a taster for the vast treasure trove of fairy lore.

The contents cannot easily be summarised, but there are chapters on Sussex, Worcestershire, Devon, Yorkshire (especially the Cottingley fairies), Dorset and Cumbria in the first section on English fairies; Celtic and Norse fairies in Ireland, Scotland, Orkney and Shetland, Wales, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and Cornwall feature in the second section; and there is a final section covering New England, Atlantic Canada, and Irish America, demonstrating how British fairy lore has spread overseas with emigrants.

The authors are all respected folklorists and so they write with authority, yet there is no aura of academic superiority, and the book is very readable. Elsewhere numerous attempts have been made to explain what fairy lore actually signifies, but I am not sure that anyone has truly managed to unravel all the strands that have combined under the heading of fairy lore. The fact that the nature of the lore varies from area to area demonstrates that there are many origins, with ‘fairies’ perhaps being a catch-all explanation for many different phenomena. It’s also clear that we cannot simply accept these very strange stories as representing any normal kind of reality (if there is such a thing anyway).

The first step in interpreting the ‘evidence’ must be to separate handed-down fairy lore from first-hand accounts of fairies being seen in recent times – as I myself tried to do in my own book published twenty years ago. Because of my own interest in contemporary encounters with fairies, the most exciting recent news has been the compilation of the Fairy Census of 21st century fairy sightings, most never before published, with many being included in this collection.

The first-hand sightings are perhaps the strangest of all, and they may tell us more about the human psyche than about an imagined race of ‘little people’ living secretly among us. Any serious researcher has to give the witness the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t help thinking, when I read of a fairy sighting, what would I have seen if I had been there? There is no certainty that multiple witnesses would all see the same thing, or even anything at all, and so a sighting report is nothing more than an individual’s interpretation of something that may or may not have had a physical reality, an interpretation that will inevitably be affected by their own belief system.

As, I hope, an unbiased researcher, I confess to being as puzzled today by reports of fairies as I ever was; no amount of reading and thinking has been able to bring me to a satisfactory conclusion as to what the stories and reports actually mean. This book may not help in finding answers, but it will certainly set the reader thinking!

Because this book is a serious attempt to demonstrate the wide-ranging nature of fairy lore, without any intention to ‘sex it up’, the cover illustration of a heavily made-up young woman seems to me to be inappropriate as it appears to have no connection to the book’s content, since this is not what fairies look like. But I suppose a ‘tiny man in brown’ or ‘small green figures’ would not be quite as eye-catching! – Janet Bord

4.2.18

NORTHERN ECHOES - FIFTY YEARS ON

This will probably be Peter Rogerson’s last contribution to Magonia. He is currently receiving treatment from the Christie Hospital in Manchester for throat cancer, and it is unlikely, whatever happens, that he will be able to resume writing the stream of informed, entertaining and sometimes controversial contributions that he has made to Magonia over the past decades. Today, February 4th, is World Cancer Day, and Magonians may, in appreciation of all that Peter has contributed to our fields of interest over so many years, wish to make a donation to Cancer Research UK.




Here we are, more than fifty years after the great British UFO flap of November 1967, half a century from the stories of Socorro, the Warminster Thing and the great Stoke-on-Trent flap. Such stirring times seem much closer than half a century ago, half way from Passchendaele to today. These were the times that many young people became interested in the subject, and our own Editor Emeritus John Harney first edited the Merseyside UFO Research Group Newsletter, subsequently fifty years ago this February, published the first issue of the Merseyside UFO Bulletin, which morphed into MUFOB and then Magonia.

Our editor John Rimmer was one of those who were attracted to the subject at this time and was introduced to John Harney, through I believe the good offices of Charles Bowen of Flying Saucer Review [Yes, I am eternally grateful that in my enquiring after a UFO organisation in Liverpool, Bowen referred me to MUFOB rather than MUFORG - JR]. John started writing for the bulletin and designing its covers. As a librarian at Liverpool Libraries some of John’s earliest articles were about how his profession could aid the subject. More importantly he became one of the first people to look to the folkloric roots of ufology.

So John has now been at the centre of the MUFOB/Magonia family for 50 years, taking on the editorship of the magazine in 1975. It is a considerable achievement that I don’t think anyone else has beaten or is likely to in the foreseeable future and I am sure that all our readers will join me in congratulating him on this.

I first became aware of MUFORG as a teenager in 1968, nearly being thrown out of a UFO club meeting for laughing at some of the satirical articles. I got my first 1/- old money (5p) issue in Spring of 1969, when I was still in the sixth form, I wrote my first teenage-angst letter to the Bulletin a couple of months later,

I first met John in Manchester at meeting of the  local DIGAP UFO club in June 1970 and it was clear we had a number of ideas in common, so I eventually joined the MUFOB team in 1971. I have therefore known John and had the immeasurable pleasure of his friendship for the whole of my adult life. Circumstances have made it largely a telephone friendship and our Sunday evening phone calls must have greatly improved the profits of British Telecom. Thank you John for those years of friendship. If I have given anything back, it must have been introducing John to our friend Roger Sandell, still sadly missed.

Over the years MUFOB/Magonia has mutated from being a regional UFO magazine to one dealing with a much wider selection of visions and beliefs, explored in the website and blog, now devoted to an ever widening selection of book reviews by a small but very diverse ‘Magonia community’ which expresses very diverse and often diverging opinions. That is because John revels in such diversity. He is one of those people who is automatically friends with everybody, especially some of the stranger characters encountered in English pubs, being of course, a great real ale enthusiast!

Magonia is a website devoted to visions and beliefs, particularly those on the intellectual and cultural fringe, and study of these becomes ever more urgent. It is unlikely that any of us original Magonians will still be around in 50 years’ time, but there will still be visions, beliefs and anomalous experiences, some not even imaginable at present, and there will be still a need for chroniclers and critics. Magonia has kept a critical eye on many topics and perhaps our campaigns against the related ‘Satanic abuse’ and ‘alien abduction’ panics - the ideas that even unknown to yourself in the secret interstices of your life, terrible things are being done to you – have been amongst our most significant contributions.

There are, of course, many even more dangerous ideas. I think ‘Purity’ is pretty much top of the list. The anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote a book called Purity and Danger but a book called ‘Purity is Danger’ would be more apposite, for surely all the worst crimes are committed in the name of purity and pure lands: pure religion, pure nation, pure race, new model pure people, a pure world cleared of ‘human pollutant’, pure souls freed from organic bodies, pure lands that no actual-existing human being is ever pure enough to inhabit. Even within our own liberal West there are those who want ever more pure bodies and pure minds. At the most extreme are the self and everybody else hating nihilist bandits who slaughter little children dancing for joy as ‘impure’.

Behind these nightmares of purity lies the old gnostic lie that this Good Earth and all its rich diversity of life is somehow not our home and that we are not part of it. If we could see that human beings and all human culture is an integral part of a unitary natural world from which nothing is excluded we might learn wisdom and humility. --Peter Rogerson

3.2.18

ROCK AND ROOTS

Christopher Hill. Into The Mystic: The Visionary and Ecstatic Roots of 1960’s Rock and Roll. Park Street Press (2017)

For those hoping for a scholarly examination of the 'visionary and ecstatic roots of Rock and Roll', this book will prove to be a disappointment. There is very little attempt to delve into the complexities of Eastern or Western mysticism, whether by reference to the origins of Buddhist or Hindu mysticism in the Vedas, or Christian mysticism originating in the writings of St. Dionysus the Aereopagite, and maintained in the monastic meditative tradition to the present day. 

More surprisingly there is very little examination of more modern strands of twentieth century mysticism, where principally one thinks of Aldous Huxley’s writings; in particular The Doors of Perception was only noted en passant. Perhaps a greater omission is Herman Hesse, many of whose works (notably Steppenwolf) written earlier in the century, proved a hit with the 1960’s generation whose acid-fuelled trips seem reminiscent of the experiences of Steppenwolf himself. Also some mention could, perhaps should, have been made of the Indian gurus of the century, so that an idea could have been given of their influence.

However if you want to be entertained by an often knowledgeable exegesis of the ecstatic and mystic content of the music of the 1960’s, then this is the book for you. Helped by a flowing style, the author has an excellent feel for the music, which, somehow, he manages to convey into words (no mean feat). You will be taken on an enjoyable romp through the British Invasion, and there are excellent treatments of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison. The author goes back to their roots, and I particularly enjoyed the lengthy examination of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; here the language is spot on, with fine descriptions of the background to the song Penny Lane, which somehow convey the feeling the song has of both the ethereal and the mundane. 

The rise of Van Morrison in Northern Ireland has a similar treatment, with an in-depth look at the album Astral Weeks; its roots are seen as arising in the contrast between the industrial smoke of Belfast and places of calm and beauty, such as Cyprus Avenue (inspiration of the eponymous song). With the Stones, we get a snippet or two of information from the band itself; for example an entertaining tale is given about the origins of Jumping Jack Flash (both the song and the persona). 

The author returns to home waters with his treatment of MC5, but the raucous nature of the band’s music seems to fit less easily into the author’s general thesis: that the Rock and Roll movement belonged, or claimed to belong, to a new consciousness, which has proved to be a watershed moment in the history of mankind, and that this moment “is not a lost golden era, it’s a way marker, a pointer to the work ahead, to the next convergence of two worlds, inner and outer, imagination and history, ecstasy and politics, heaven and earth”. Robin Carlile

29.1.18

SHIFTING SANDS AT SOCORRO

Kevin D. Randle. Encounter in the Desert; The Case for Alien Contact at Socorro. New Page, 2017.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. Despite the sub-title this book does not make ‘the case for alien contact at Socorro’, but I do not think that Kevin Randle really expected it to. Randle is an interesting and pleasantly undogmatic character amongst American UFO researchers. Although he believes that extraterrestrial contact is a likely explanation for some UFO reports – notably Roswell and Shag Harbour – he finds most of the alleged evidence unconvincing, especially for close encounter and abduction reports.

In this book he examines the investigation of the Socorro case, a reported landing of a structured craft near the New Mexico town of that name on April 24th, 1964. This was a sighting of just a few moments, reported by Lonnie Zamora [right], an officer of the town’s small police force. While chasing a speeding driver he was diverted by the sound of an explosion, which he thought may have been at a dynamite store in the neighbourhood. As he drove over the crest of a hill to investigate he saw ahead of him an oval object, settled on legs, and attended by two ‘normal looking’ but quite small humanoid figures.

He lost sight of the object for a moment, his view obscured by another hill. When he saw it again the figures appeared to enter the object, which then took off with a blast of flame and a roaring noise, and rapidly disappeared into the distance. In the few moments that he saw it Zamora noted some sort of symbol on the side of the object. The nature of this became a source of controversy in the subsequent investigations.

Zamora radioed the Socorro police headquarters and a fellow officer, Sam Chavez, rushed to the scene. Chavez arrived too late to see the object, but was able to confirm the ‘physical evidence’ found there, comprising small areas where the objects supposed ‘legs’ had compressed the earth, and some smouldering vegetation where Zamora had seen flames when the object took off. Later other officers arrived and photographs of the site were taken.

By any standards this is a ‘good’ UFO report. The witness was a well-regarded police officer, the physical evidence was examined by a second officer and photographed before it could be interfered with by subsequent investigators. The incident itself was, compared to many other UFO reports, quite low-key with no complexities: a physical craft was seen on the ground, two humanoids were seen, it took off. The End.

But of course that was not the end. The one thing that stopped this case from being an even better case was the lack of any corroborating witness to Zamora’s initial report. However as news of the report spread investigators turned up one or two rather speculative potential witnesses, and others came forward.

Opal Grinder – that’s his name rather than his occupation – was the manager of a petrol station on the main north-south highway through Socorro. He reported that on the evening of April 24th a car with five people stopped at his station and while he was serving them the driver commented “your aircraft sure fly low around here”, explaining to Grinder that they had earlier been ‘buzzed’ by a low-flying craft which he described as being egg-shaped, with “smooth aluminum sides” and about the size of a large car. It’s notable that Zamora at first thought the object he had seen might have been a crashed vehicle.

The problem with this report is that it did not come to light until Grinder read the account of Zamora’s experience published in the local paper some days later, and the car and alleged witnesses proved to be untraceable. Subsequently other claims of additional witnesses were presented by investigators, but none of these were ever adequately followed up and remain just vague rumours.

By now other people were getting involved. Richard Holder, an army captain from the nearby (in New Mexico terms) White Sands Missile Range, and an FBI agent Robert Byres turned up within a day, although it is not clear exactly how they were informed of the incident. Soon the UFO organisations, in the form of the Lorenzens for APRO and Ray Stanford for NICAP arrived in town, later Project Bluebook arrived in the person of J. Allen Hynek, at that time still in his official ‘skepical’ persona.

THE OBJECT AND INSIGNIA AS DRAWN BY ZAMORA

The investigation storyline now starts to become very messy. Initially anxious to co-operate in the investigation, Zamora was soon beginning to regret even reporting the incident as the UFO circus unfolded around him. Pretty soon allegations of hoax were being thrown around, at Zamora, at the mayor of Socorro, and at students from a nearby technical college who had been involved in studenty conflicts with Zamora in the past. None of these seems to Randle to be in the least bit plausible, nor, I must say, to me. Neither does the idea of a secret project from White Sands seem any more likely, although if you put me up against a wall that is probably what I would choose.

I feel that Randle wastes too much space outlining the background to the UFO scene from 1947 onwards, and he introduces too many cases which have little if any relevance to Socorro. For instance he presents lengthy descriptions of the Hopkinsville ‘goblins’ case and the Flatwoods Monster as examples of possibly psychologically induced encounters. I cannot see many lessons from either of them which are relevant to the incident under review, although the reports are in themselves well summarised.

He does however explain fully the confusion caused by the numerous investigators and organisations involved, sometimes contradicting each other, sometimes contradicting themselves. The insignia that Zamora saw on the object, and which he drew almost immediately afterwards would seem to be quite clear and his drawing is reproduced in this book, but at the time its exact design occasioned quite bitter controversy amongst investigators.

This book is not so much an investigation of a UFO incident, but rather an investigation of a UFO investigation, and it is a very thorough and comprehensive account of just how, historically, UFO investigations have ultimately been destined to fail. Randles’ long slog through the documentation of this case is meticulous, and the flaws in the investigation, and the investigators, are candidly demonstrated.

One by one, as we go through the book, the possible explanations are whittled down and Randle leads us - cautiously - to suggest a possible extraterrestrial solution. However he is too experienced and sophisticated a reporter and investigator to leave it at that. The Socorro case does seem to be a genuine mystery. It is impossible that after this time any new information will come to light which will allow it to be classified as anything but ‘unidentified – insufficient information’.

Randle's last words sum it up well: “We don’t know what it was, but we know what it wasn’t. And though that does not take us immediately to the extraterrestrial, it gets us very close to it. This is one of the defining cases of UFO history and it deserved better than it got. It is the very definition of Unidentified’.” – John Rimmer

26.1.18

THE STREAM OF LIFE

Catriona Hastings. City of Streams - Galway Folklore and Folklife in the 1930s. The History Press Ireland, 2017.

It would be an understatement to say that Ireland was very different in the 1930s than it is today. Then there was great poverty and hardship for a large part of the population. Life was hard for the many, and for some it was a matter of just surviving. Most rural areas and villages did not yet have electricity. This meant that in the 1930s there was still a strong oral tradition for the country people to tell stories for amusement and education. This was the last decade before the whole way of life began to change.

In anticipation of the changes that were inevitably coming, some enlightened officials within the Irish government launched a nationwide scheme to collect and set down in writing as much as possible of the extant oral Irish folklore. The Irish Folklore Commission was set up in 1935 for this purpose. In 1937 two inspectors from the Department of Education addressed a national conference of teachers to invite their participation in the Schools' Folklore Scheme.

This ambitious project, which lasted for eighteen months, was to involve all national school pupils aged 11 - 14. With the assistance and guidance of their teachers, they were asked to gather as much material as they could from their parents, grandparents and other older members of their families and communities. Every week they would write down the material in their school copy books. Apart from the value of oral tradition and stories thus recorded for posterity, the children would greatly benefit from the process of interviewing their relations and neighbours who would be glad to share their memories and knowledge.




City of Streams is an entertaining survey of the Galway Schools' Collection taken from the original copy books. The title comes from an old Gaelic name for the city, and implies the "streams of living tradition" that sustained communities and held them together. In the 1930s Irish Gaelic was spoken in many parts of Ireland, especially in the West, and was officially taught as part of the curriculum. Most of the selected texts are written in English, but a large proportion are in Gaelic. The author, Catriona Hastings, is a former lecturer in Irish Studies at the University of Ulster. Now retired and living in Galway, she accessed the written material in the local library and online. All of the Schools' Collection for the whole of Ireland is gradually being digitised, and Galway's is already available. Where the original writing is in Gaelic, the author provides the original text and then her own translation in English.

In her Introduction, the author quotes from the handbook distributed to all schools, inviting pupils to "participate in the task of rescuing from oblivion the traditions which, in spite of the vicissitudes of the historic Irish nation, have.....been preserved with loving care by our ancestors. The task is an urgent one, for in our own time most of this important natural oral heritage will have passed away for ever." This was a very well planned operation. The handbook gave a list of topics to be covered as well as a range of questions to be asked for each topic. A few examples from the extensive list are: Lost Treasure, Local Place Names, Weather Lore, Home-made Toys, Childrens' Games,Holy Wells, Local Fairs, Festivals,Food in Olden Times, Old Irish Tales, Buying and Selling, Local Ruins, Old Graveyards, A Collection of Prayers, and there are many more.

The first Chapter, 'My Home Place', appropriately opens with reports written by children living in The Claddagh, which means 'shore' in Gaelic. It was formerly a fishing village of thatched cottages just outside the old city walls of Galway. In some ways it is representative of the changes that were about to sweep through Ireland. There are a few nostalgic black and white photos that show how utterly charming and picturesque it was, at least on the outside. Sadly, the 1930s was the decade when the village was demolished, to be replaced by a council-housing scheme. One child's report refers to the demolition of the old houses, and says that many people from there "went to America long ago."

THE CLADDAGH

Another child reports :"When Cromwell was coming ashore the people buried gold there. Claddagh people are descended from Spaniards and so they have a special ring. It is called the 'heart and hand'". The Claddagh ring, internationally famous as a symbol of love, friendship and loyalty, goes back at least 400 years to a master goldsmith who worked in the village. Rings of this type are known from Roman times. The Spanish reference is not historically accurate, but there was certainly some trading with Spain and the Basque region over centuries, and there may have been a few settlers from there. It is worth mentioning for the record that there would not have been any settlers from the Spanish Armada in 1588. Many hundreds of them survived shipwreck on the rocky west coast of Ireland, only to be ruthlessly executed after any valuables had been taken. It is certainly possible that gold and other treasure could have been taken and buried by lucky finders.

Throughout City of Streams there are vivid impressions of the old way of life. From a young age children would be expected to work and be useful. Some families made a living by picking winkles all day and selling them at a market. Often there was bartering with no cash involved. Twenty eggs could get you a pound of tea. The very poor people had no lamps but would make their own candles or tapers from rushes dipped in animal fat.

Children had to make their own toys. There are examples of balls made from bottle corks bound with cloth and tied around with woollen knitting thread, 'marbles' made from tar or candle grease rolled into a ball, catapults, bird traps, a fife made from an old bicycle pump with holes bored into the side, and hurley sticks. One child describes in detail how to make a rabbit snare and where to set it to choke the rabbit when he goes into it. This could provide food for the family, or a rabbit could be sold for a half crown which would be a good amount of pocket money.

Many people went barefoot in the summer. Water used for washing the feet should not be thrown out after midnight for fear of hitting the fairies. Some people wore wooden clogs, others wrapped animal skins around their feet, tied with thongs. It seems there was no leather tanning. Families made their own baskets from rushes and reeds. There might be only one blacksmith in the whole parish who shoed horses and made ploughs.

Sellers and buyers of livestock at markets would clap hands after reaching agreement, some 'luck money' would be given back to the buyer, and then they would invariably go to a local bar. Proceeds of sales mightoften get spent on drink. There is a factual account of three brothers who "were evicted from their house a long time ago. They were living comfortably in a small house in Foramoile. The soldiers evicted them one cold winter's day. They had gone to the fair a week before that. They sold a cow and drank her price. A man came at the end of the week to collect the rent. The poor creatures hadn't a penny to give him. Next day, eight soldiers came and knocked down the house. They didn't leave the house quietly." One can easily imagine it.

Fairies and superstitions were an important feature of everyday life. When milking a cow you would make a mark of the cross on her back using her milk to bless her. A mark of the cross on the side of a churn would be lucky for making butter. A burning ember might be put under the churn to stop the fairies from interfering or stealing the butter, which was a most precious commodity like gold. If all you had to eat was potatoes, a generous amount of butter and some milk could make it seem like a feast.

It cannot be overemphasized how important to rural Irish people was the whole idea of 'luck', balanced with the concept of consequences for your actions. It was a common practice to nail a horseshoe on the door of a stable or hang one in the house to bring good luck. There was folk-magic for any kind of disease or ailment, and all manner of little rituals to ward off harm. It was believed that putting some salt in your mouth would keep the fairies away from you, especially at a wake. All of this indicates that there was a real fear of fairies and the mischief they might do.

Oral tradition and wisdom is often conveyed in stories and riddles. In these old Irish stories there is very often a supernatural or religious element, with a moral lesson to be conveyed. Several stories concern grown-up children leaving home to make their way in the world. The mother might offer them half a loaf with her blessing, or a whole loaf with no blessing. Needless to say, various horrible things happened to those who were greedy, and rewards came to those who took the blessing.

Wisdom was often found in the ready Irish wit in conversation. A man who was exasperated by his son's refusal to get up before noon told him a story "that he thought would change him. 'There was a man,' he said, 'who got up early one day and he found a purse with a lot of money in it.' The son answered, 'The man who found the purse wasn't up as early as the person who lost it!'" And I like the story of an uneducated man on a train who could not read but accepted a newspaper from another passenger who had finished with it. "He turned the paper upside down and began to look at it. The first man said to him, 'If you were to turn it up the other way , you'd be able to read it better.' 'Oh,' said the second, 'Wouldn't anyone be able to read it like that?'"

City of Streams is a delightful read and is well laid out with an abundance of original black and white photos of Galway and the surrounding area. Catriona Hastings is to be congratulated for her thoughtful selection and presentation of this material from the Schools Folklore Scheme. There are many class photos of the schoolchildren themselves, arranged in rows, and others of children dressed up for their first communions. Looking at their faces, some staring and serious before the camera's lens, others smiling innocently or mischievously, it is sobering to think that most of them will have passed away by now, but a few will still be alive, possibly telling their tales to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We can be grateful to all of them. --  Kevin Murphy


21.1.18

AN EVERYDAY STORY OF COUNTRY FOLK

Helen J. Nicholson, The Everyday Life of the Templars: The Knights Templar at Home. Fonthill, 2017.

Full marks to whoever came up with the title, which gives colour and promise to what is a fairly arid academic study of the routine and domestic side of the Knights Templar.

Helen Nicholson is a professor of history, currently at Cardiff University, who since 2003 has been working her way through the records made by Edward I’s officials during the round-up of Templars in England, Ireland and Scotland and its aftermath. She’s produced several scholarly books based on those archives, most notably an account of the trial of Templars in the British Isles. In this new work, she’s combined the records relating to the administration of the Order’s estates by Edward’s men, from the arrests in 1308 until they were handed over to the rival Knights Hospitaller five years later, with research by other scholars into Templar establishments elsewhere in Europe, to give as full account as possible of what those lands and properties were like, how they were run, and of the day to day life on them.

Those extensive holdings across Europe represent the major, if less glamorous, part of the Templars’ activities and occupied the majority of the personnel; as Nicholson sums up, ‘most of the Order’s members lived away from the frontier on the Order’s wide-reaching estates in Europe; they never visited the Holy Land and their warfare was in prayer, not physical weapons.’ However, ‘The Templars’ estates were the background to the Templars’ military achievements, without which they could not have operated as a military force.’

It’s a fairly specialist work, assuming familiarity with the Order’s history, and isn’t for those only interested in the sexier side of the Templars. It doesn’t deal with their military activities or their involvement in medieval Europe’s power politics, let alone the lurid accusations surrounding their demise. It does, however, give valuable perspective to those aspects of the Templar story.

The study opens with a chapter examining the collective and individual rhythm of Templar life as laid down in the Order’s rule – the regime of prayers, meals and so on. Chapters then follow on how the estates were organised and run, the kind of work that went on in them, the religious and spiritual life, the business and financial side (including the Order’s celebrated banking activities), and finally the lifecycle of the individual Templar, from recruitment through initiation and career progression to death. The book is quite short, around 100 pages of main text, with 30 of notes and references and an extensive bibliography. There’s also a large section of colour and black and white illustrations.

It’s all properly academic, with a lot of minutiae - for example, tables showing percentages of the grain harvest given to estate workers in England broken down by county – but it all gives texture to the life of the Order, with sometimes unexpected facts emerging. For example, it seems that very few Templars ever moved from the area in which they were recruited.

Naturally, running their numerous estates required a vast staff of workers and servants, the majority of whom were not members of the Order, with no more than two or three actual Templars present in most establishments. Agreeing with previous estimates, Nicholson calculates that there were around 1500 members of the Order proper – i.e. those who’d been through the initiation ceremony and taken the vows - at the time of the suppression.

The most eye-opening aspect, with the most potential for changing our image of the Templars, relates to the involvement of women. From isolated references, there has long been speculation – particularly among we ‘alternative’ researchers – that the Order wasn’t entirely the all-male organisation of popular perception. But given the facts presented here it’s a wonder that there was ever any mystery about it.

Given that the Templar holdings were not any different to other feudal estates – carrying on the same business with just a couple of brothers to oversee it - it’s not surprising that the Order employed female servants and workers, such as milkmaids. However, the records make it clear that women could and did get more deeply involved, taking the same vows as the men and being considered full members of the Order.

King Baldwin II of Jerusalem ceding the Temple to Hugues de Payens and Godfrey de Saint-Omer

Nicholson notes that the earliest surviving form of the Templar Rule, from its formal establishment at the Council of Troyes in 1129, which abolished the (now lost) original set by the embryonic Order’s founder, Hugues de Payns, a decade earlier, decreed that ‘it is no longer permitted to have sisters’ – clearly implying that originally it was permitted. Strangely, however, it’s clear that despite this prohibition sisters continued to be admitted throughout the Templars’ history.

A document of 1198 from a Templar preceptory in Tarragona in Spain identifies its head (preceptrix) as Lady Ermengard de Oluya, ‘sister of the knighthood of the Temple’, and names other sisters among its complement (including one quaintly-named Sister Titborgs). A house of Templar nuns is recorded at Mühlen in the diocese of Worms. This situation prevailed until the very end: at the time of the arrests ordered by the Pope, special arrangements had to be made in some areas for accommodating the sisters found in Templar properties (none of whom were arrested or tried).

As it's outside the book’s scope, there’s no discussion of the accusations of heresy and idol-worship that brought about the Order’s downfall and which have fuelled controversy ever since, the couple of references Nicholson does make expressing scepticism. She speculates that the charge brought by the Inquisition against the Order that its initiation ceremonies were ‘clandestine’ merely meant that they didn’t follow the correct procedures laid down by Church law, rather than implying secrecy - which isn’t particularly persuasive, given what the Inquisition alleged went on in those ceremonies. Similarly, her statement that, given that most Templar houses were open to non-members, ‘The heretical practices alleged against the Templars in 1307 could not have taken place in reality, because public outcry would have stopped them very quickly’ is rather disingenuous; nobody, from the Inquisition onward, has suggested that the alleged blasphemous rites were indulged in by every member, or that they took place anywhere but behind closed doors.

Overall, however, The Everyday Life of the Templars is a valuable contribution to Templar studies, both academic and alternative, giving background and perspective to the Order, and grounding the Templars in the real world of the Middle Ages. – Clive Prince