1937 - 2022
John was born in Bromborough on the Wirral, and attend St Anselm's College in Birkenhead. On leaving school he worked briefly as a bus conductor, while waiting to be called up for National Service, which was with the RAF, where he was directed to the Meteorological Section at a number of RAF stations.
On one occasion whilst serving in the RAF at Biggin Hill he attended a meeting of the Tunbridge Wells UFO Club at the home of Lord Dowding, who commanded Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain and was a strong advocate of exotic explanations for UFOs. He recalls that the presence of an actual uniformed aircraftman in such august company took Lord Dowding by surprise!
After leaving the RAF he continued working with the Met Office, and served three tours of duty on Ocean Weather ships, where he developed an enthusiasm for swimming in the mid-Atlantic! Returning to Merseyside he worked at the Liverpool Port Meteorological Office, collating weather data from ships arriving at the Liverpool docks.
Whilst back home, he joined the newly-founded Merseyside UFO Research Group, first as secretary then in 1966 took over the editorship of the group's bi-monthly bulletin, which he produced on a flat-bed duplicator laboriously inking each page individually through a typed wax stencil, until a more efficient rotary duplicator was donated to the group.
Along with a number of like-minded members, including science teacher and geologist Alan Sharp, he began to take the Bulletin in a direction away from extraterrestrial explanations towards a broader and more sceptical perspective on the phenomenon. Inevitably this produced a backlash, not only within the Group, but from the wider, very conservative British UFO 'Establishment', then centred on BUFORA, the British UFO Research Association. This was dominated by individuals who often had a strongly mystical view of UFOs, seeing them as a weapon against secular modernity, for example dismissing the scientifically oriented Cambridge University students' UFO group as “those white-coated godlings of the laboratory”.
These disagreements inevitably led to John, along with Alan Sharp, breaking away from the local group and establishing the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB) as an independent publication. MUFOB rapidly gained a reputation as a voice for the evolving 'New Ufology'. Originating in the USA with ufological writers like John Keel and Jacques Vallée, this began to extend UFO study into fields such as folklore, psychical phenomena and psychological theories, as well as a greater examination of the historic backgrounds to the phenomenon - particularly the 19th and early 20th century airship reports.
Under John's editorship MUFOB gained a reputation as an often acerbic critic of what editors and contributors saw as unscientific and sensationalist approaches to the subject, and it became a leading proponent of a 'psycho-social' perspective on the UFO mystery. Although MUFOB never had a print circulation of more than a couple of hundred, it had a much wider influence on the subject, presenting not only new ideas, but also acting as a 'test-bed' for a number of ufologists and writers who went on to make their own contributions to the subject. In a tribute when the magazine moved from a printed to a digital format, Fortean Times editor Bob Rickard described it as "FT's older brother".
John was never a member of the UFO 'conference circuit', although he did speak at a few such events; his contribution to the subject being largely through articles and editorials in the Bulletin, and providing a forum for a wide range of opinion.
There was a break in the publication of MUFOB in 1973-4. In 1974 John was transferred from the Liverpool Met Office to the station at Kew Observatory in London, and publication restarted simply under the established acronym 'MUFOB' (the 'Merseyside' description now being redundant). John took a step back from the editorship, transferring it to John Rimmer, although still remaining totally involved with the publication. In 1979 the magazine was renamed Magonia.
A further transfer to the Met Office HQ in Bracknell involved him in the operation of new computer systems which were developing at the time, and working on the Marine Observer, a quarterly journal which published meteorological reports from ships around the world, many of which described phenomena that had very Fortean characteristics. At the same time he took an Open University course, gaining an honours degree in philosophy, which informed many of his later contributions to the magazine. He remained an active partner in the publication of Magonia, making regular contributions until his health began to deteriorate in 2019, and he later moved from Bracknell back to the family home in the Wirral.
Although he maintained that a healthy tolerance for the absurd and a keen bullshit detector was essential for anyone straying into the field of ufology, his approach was always open minded and serious. In an early issue of the Merseyside Bulletin he wrote: "Our attitude is rational, we do not believe anything about UFOs, except that the persistent reports and the more sober speculation concerning them is worthy of serious attention from the scientific community, and that any reasonably intelligent person with an open and enquiring mind, can derive much interest and pleasure from studying the subject"
John Harney, meteorologist and ufologist, born Bromborough, Wirral, 15 July 1937;
died Bromborough, 8 September 2022, aged 85.