1 October 2014


David Clarke. Britain’s X-traordinary Files. Bloomsbury, 2014.

There is a perception among many members of the public that archives are rather dull, fusty places full of the property deeds of the rich, or long boring ledgers. David Clarke’s new book shows how wrong this can be. Hidden in the vaults of The National Archives at Kew, the British Library, the Imperial War Museum, and similar institutions are strange and spooky stories, stories that Clarke suggests we should call the uncanny. 
As is appropriate this year the book starts with uncanny tales of war, such as the Angels of Mons and the disappearing Norfolks from the First World War. If these are well known, much less well known are the stories of death-ray machines which emerged in the inter-war years, promoted by inventors such as Harry Grindell-Matthews. These machines were supposed to use electricity to stop engines, though, of course, no working example was ever constructed. Later the tales influenced much ufolore, in which vehicles were halted in the presence of flying saucers by what were called 'electromagnetic effects', though no persistent evidence of such an effect was ever produced.

The death-ray lore was born out of the expectation that new technologies were always round the corner, this was the time of the mass development of radio, the beginnings of television, the spread of the telephone, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, fridge and the rapid spread of electrical house lighting. If there was a fear behind such ideas, there was also a hope, that some technological marvel would prevent the bombers getting through.

These technological marvels and modern tales of UFOs exist in the archives along with more traditional motifs, and one can here read of the phantom battle of Edgehill, the ghost ship of HMS Bacchante, the court appearances of ghosts and poltergeists, the prosecution of the 'last witch' Helen Duncan, the use of dowsing to detect corpses, and Britain’s very own remote viewing experiments.

The hunt for mystery animals such as the Loch Ness Monster and the mystery big-cats also generates official documents, as do tales of sea serpents. Clarke points out that one of the important things about the original archival sources is that they dispel the many legends and accretions that gather around these topics. A classic example is the loss of Captain Schaffner in a tragic air accident on 9 September 1970. Here official secrecy helped to spread rumours, and an accident on a training exercise became, in the hands of sensation mongering ufologists, a tale of abduction by aliens while chasing a flying saucer.

One of the most interesting pieces in this book is the section of the Phantom Helicopter of 1973/4, and here the official records show just how seriously officialdom took these stories, which they feared were evidence of illegal helicopters flown by members of the IRA, either preparing a terrorist act or for another spectacular helicopter-based prison breakout. Some idea of the sort of speculation going on at the time can be found in John Harney’s piece HERE.

The material here is likely to be only skimming the surface; there is no doubt much more hidden from view by the 30 year and 100 year rules. Intelligence reports on a number of people such as Aleister Crowley may well be of interest, and there will be the official reports on crop circles, more on the mystery cats, to say nothing of haunted nuclear bunkers (not likely to be released in our lifetime).

A book in the Magonian tradition that we can heartily recommend.
  • Peter Rogerson

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