28.5.15

NORTHERN ECHOES: MEETING THE SHAMANS

 
A slightly different type of 'Northern Echoes' this time. I thought it might be interesting to discuss an older book which does not fit into the 'First Read' format - at 21 I'd read an awful lot of other stuff by then - but which like the books I'd read as a early teenager, had quite an effect on my thinking about Magonian-type topics, as well as politics and culture generally.
 
Ernest(o) de Martino. Magic: Primitive and Modern. Tom Stacy, 1972.
 
This was a book which had quite an influence on me as a 21 year old student, introducing me to shamanism and to radical ideas of what one might later see as a proto-post modernist nature.
 
Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965) was an Italian anthropologist and philosopher who undertook an intellectual journey from fascism to communism, perhaps seeing both as forms of civic religion.
 
In this book, first written in 1948 de Martino was concerned with the reality of magical powers. Anthropologists had traditionally viewed them as error, fraud and evidence of the “pre-logical thinking” of “primitive” people. De Martino on the contrary argued that they could well be “real”, at least in some cultural and historical contexts. He gave examples from ethnological accounts of shamanism and related phenomenon, and from psychical research, his knowledge of which was, however, rather hazy.
 
De Martino argued that in small scale traditional societies, where human beings were being in danger of being overwhelmed by nature, magic was a means of “preserving ones presence in the world”. In these societies magic was real, it worked. But perhaps not so in modern mass society. De Martino seems to saying if we envisage the world as organic and magical it will be so, but if we think of it as a mechanism, it will act as a mechanism.
 
These kind of radical relativist ideas had quite an appeal to me for a number of years, as witness the notorious Doves Are Just Middle Class Pigeons! They seemed to gel with ideas of people like Thomas Kuhn or even Charles Fort. For a time I entertained the idea that maybe anomalies were not actual things, but as it were “holes in reality”. Some people argued that consciousness created reality, others that society created consciousness, so could society if not create, then at least organise reality.
 
So I constructed an idea that the shaman ventured out of socially constructed reality into the “wilderness” beyond in order to gain access “energy” which could be brought into the community.
Over time these ideas became much less literal, though you can see that the idea of “habitat and wilderness” still informs much of my thinking.
 
Looking back at de Martino’s book after many years, what struck me was how obscure much of it was, something that would be even more true of later post-modernist thinkers. It is never exactly clear what de Martino actually thought. One reason for this, and for its appeal to young people in the 1970s, was that it reflected his own intellectual turmoil. The parapsychology looks a lot less impressive, and one has to be careful about some of the ethnography, compiled by Europeans who wanted to portray non-western cultures as exotic, primitive and instinctual.
 
Yet there is something here in de Martino’s arguments about the nature of the precarious world. In our modern air conditioned society we live in a given world which all seems secure. Yet events, such as the death of person out of time, or a major health or related crisis can lead to the fall of this “given world”, into a chaotic realm where anything now seems possible, and in which magical thinking reasserts itself as a narrative that seeks to restore order and meaning to a chaotic world. 
 

16.5.15

I FOR ONE WELCOME OUR NEW PSYCHOSOCIAL OVERLORDS

David Clarke. How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth. Aurum Press, 2015

In this book David Clarke, Britain’s leading ufologist, through his personal reminiscences and interviews provides a portrait of the rise of the UFO mythology. He recounts how seeing a (particularly dire) UFO documentary sparked his interest in the subject. The result was that he started to consume the literature on the subject and became an avid supporter of the ETH. He became an avid fan of Close Encounters, attended his first UFO meeting in which a speaker (Arthur Tomlinson of DIGAP?) rattled on and on, searched local papers and found reports of airships and other strange things in the skies. He got out his dad’s tape recorder and went to interview his first witness. He decided he wanted to be a reporter when he grew up and specialise in interviewing UFO witnesses. He set up a young people’s UFO group and wrote for the children’s UFO magazine Magic Saucer.

However as time went on he became less enamoured of the ETH and, influenced by Jacques Vallee and John Keel, became interested in local folklore and was intrigued by Paul Devereux’s earthlights hypotheses. However while researching the airships David Clarke came into contact with Nigel Watson, who introduced him to Magonia, “the beacon that shone through the fog'.

The bulk of the book consists of David Clarke’s interviews with a range of people, from true believers to sceptics. In the first chapter Clarke takes us to the beginnings of ufology in Britain, with the earliest (as far as known) UFO club, the Bristol based British Flying Saucer Bureau, with an interview with its then young founder, Dennis Plunkett, now the doyen of British ufologists.
 
The BFSB was affiliated to Albert Bender’s International Flying Saucer Bureau, and the Plunketts, seem to have bought into the whole MIB scenario. Plunkett reports that his family were similarly visited, by the MIB but his mother took them for Russian spies and just sent them away with a flea in their ear! Dennis Plunkett however has stayed true to the UFO faith and showed the same sense of persecution and grandeur that one associates with the field: he is so important that the press have to fabricate a story about his organisation so as to divert attention from some “disclosure conference“ in the US.

David Clarke reminds us that similar views were held by Gordon Creighton of FSR, who believed that 'they' were going around taking UFO books off the shelves of Britain’s libraries. The truth was much simpler, they were either stolen by ufologists who didn’t want to pay for their own copy, or became so filled with added comments in green ink that they had to be withdrawn. But of course I am a retired librarian and therefor am part of the conspiracy.

The discussion of the BFSB leads on to a wider discussion of the early years of ufology, from Kenneth Arnold to Roswell, and the myths that have grown up around them

In chapter two Clarke discusses a local UFO sighting, which turned out to be flock of birds, and this leads to his discussion of the famous pelican explanation for Kenneth Arnold’s seminal experience, and the wild hostility with which this was greeted by even relatively rational UFOlogists, so much so that the term 'pelicanist' must now have turned up in some major dictionary. Clarke shows that critics do not actually come up with alternate explanations; they just want to conserve the mystery. In reality the pelican theory, as Martin Kottmeyer points out, actually makes far more sense that the ETH. Why would space craft fly in formation like birds?

This leads on to a wider discussion of the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, and the ease by which perfectly ordinary things can be anything from just misidentified to completely misperceived or misremembered, using the work of Allan Hendry as a base. One thing, I suspect that my lie behind this is that these days most things we see in the sky are aircraft, so the temptation is to interpret anything that looks odd in the sky as a craft of some sort.

Chapter Three takes us to one of the most dramatic examples of misperception, David Simpson’s famous - or infamous - Warminster photo hoax. Despite having built in clues as to its fake nature this was taken as evidence of the exotic nature of the “object”, not just by the typical wide-eyed amateur ufologist but by the likes of Dr Pierre Guerin, an actual scientist. In fact unknown at the time, and still relatively unknown in the English speaking world, there was an even better example David Clarke could have used; the famous Premanon landing case, endorsed by the likes of Aime Michel, Jacques Vallee and numerous ufologist. It was a hoax, and confessed as such weeks later, by a bright, bored 10 year old boy, who got his little sister on the act. Scientists were fooled because they could not for one moment imagine that they could be fooled by not only a child, but, horror of horrors, a peasant child.

Faced with Simpson’s hoax did ufologists face up to how easily they could be mistaken, of course not, instead Simpson was accused of being a 'government agent' (he worked for the National Physical Laboratory), and when MUFOB, as it then was, published it we were accused of being part of the conspiracy and of betraying ufology.
 
In the following chapter David Clarke looks at the official investigations into UFO reports and interviews some of those involved. On such was Alex Cassie, one of the document forgers for WWII's 'Great Escape'. Cassie's claustrophobia meant that he did not join the escape party, most of the members of which were re-captured and murdered by the Gestapo. Survivor guilt led to his interest in military psychology, and he eventually became the MoD’s chief psychologist.
 
It was in that role that he became involved in investigating UFO reports, including that of Angus Brooks at Moigne Downs in Dorset, which featured in FSR. Cassie found this his most baffling case, but eventually came to the view that some physical trigger, some ordinary object in the sky, or a floater in the eye, had triggered some sort of dream-like experience, and that Brooks extraordinary sense of precise knowledge, was indicative of this.

Delving into the official archives and his involvement with Freedom of Information requests finally got Clarke access to the 'Holy Grail', Britain’s official UFO study, Project Condign. Would this reveal the 'great truth'? Of course not, it turned out to be a naïve, garbage in, garbage out computer study of the sort ufologists undertook in the 1970s, and its talk of UAPs and plasmas seems to be taken straight from the books of Jenny Randles. This reminds me of the for a time notorious US Air Force paper on UFOs written for cadets which simply plagiarised the works of Frank Edwards and Jacques Vallee, but was hailed for a time as proof of inside knowledge

Needless to say these files did not contain the smoking gun; they were collections of stories that were basically the same as those collected by ufologists over the years. This of course does not convince the UFO Truthers, because the only truth they want to find is that the earth has been visited by aliens. Because David Clarke helped to get the files released and eventually curated the collection, he was yet another 'government agent' in the eyes of many ufologists. What the files actually demonstrated was what was already known; reports of UFOs and their occupants changed with fashion and tended to peak at the times when the subject was in the news. The old flying saucers are now replaced to a large extent by flying triangles for example.

One of the seekers is a retired British Transport police officer, Gary Heseltine, who clearly believes that the US government is hiding the truth, backed by the world’s media which are all engaged in a gigantic conspiracy. That the huge amount of documents leaked by the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden contain no reference to UFOs doesn’t faze him; the media are all suppressing it. Heseltine’s arguments boil down to the usual ufologists’ doctrine of the inerrancy of eyewitness testimony “people have been convicted on less”. Indeed, if they are poor and black and live in the USA, but not so much here in the UK now. When I was on a jury the judge went out of his way to advise us to be extremely sceptical of eyewitness testimony.

Clarke then goes on the examine tales of crashed flying saucers and the suggestions that they were either some form of subtle cold war propaganda or a cover for some nasty domestic experiment that went terribly wrong. Fascinating though some of this material is, it lacks proof like other such theories. For example ufologists love to believe that the notorious APEN letters hoax was the work of secret government agents. The truth is much simpler, they were the work of Bryan Jeffrey a Cambridge university student, and seem to have been part of some sociological experiment that got out of control. That is of course just too simple for ufologists to accept.

It is obvious from much of this that ufology is really a religion not a science, albeit a primitive and largely disorganised one, so it is fitting that there are two chapters which are devoted to contrasting religious approaches to ufology; the promotional one of the inevitable Aetherius Society, and the negative one promoted by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians; one such being the former Rev Eric Inglesby, a one-time Church of England vicar who later converted to the Orthodox Church and became Father Paul. Like Gordon Creighton, late of Flying Saucer Review, he thinks they are the work of demons - though not necessarily card carrying communist feminist ones as Creighton maintained. One person who is often accused of promoting the demon theory was John Keel. Magonia have, however, always assumed that his 'ultraterrestrials' were a metaphor for the human imagination and culture, and Keel seems to have confirmed this in conversation with David Clarke and Andy Roberts.

Sandwiched between these chapters is one on alien abductions, and it features perhaps the strangest person ever to have been a local councillor in the history of British local government. His tales of alien abduction, alien ancestry, wild conspiracy theories and the like shows how far the abduction narratives have come from the secular tales of the Villas Boas and the Hills. These stories seem to have more to do with traditional shamanism that any advanced technology.

In his penultimate chapter, Clarke returns to the supposedly scientific ETH, and shows how flawed it is. One of its proponents is Michael Swords, who argues that intelligent humanoids are the almost inevitable outcome of any biosphere, Though Swords argues “almost everyone agrees”, the truth is that very few evolutionary biologists believe this, most believe the contrary. Swords arguments are not basically, scientific, they are religious. He is a devout Roman Catholic opponent of Darwinian evolution, preferring a divinely directed evolution instead. Increasingly astronomers are coming to agree with a view held for long time by many biologists that we may well be the only techno-linguistic species in the galaxy. I suspect if that idea and its true implications became a widespread belief it would be far more destabilising to the world’s power elites than any spaceship landing on the White House Lawn.

One of the most interesting interviews is with the cosmologist Paul Davies, who describes his youthful interest in the subject, sparked by reading a library book by Donald Keyhoe. He thought that it must be true because it was in a library. He continued his interest Into his university days, where for a time he was in effect the British representative on Allen Hynek’s 'Invisible College'. He wrote a letter to Physics Bulletin criticising RV Jones for writing a critical article on the subject, and visited Hynek in Illinois and searched the files, but realised that there was no fundamental difference between the IFOs and UFOs, something that Hendry also came to accept. The reference to the letter sparked a dim and distant memory of writing a similar letter to New Scientist in about 1972.
 
In many ways I could see how David Clarke’s and Paul Davies’ trajectories had much in common, and how similar they are to several other people’s journeys towards a more sceptical position (mine included).

In the end David Clarke comes down firmly in the psycho-social camp, which he summarises as follows;
  • There is no such as the UFO phenomenon, but there are lots of phenomena that cause UFO reports.
  • There is no such thing as “True UFO”.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
  • Accounts of UFO experiences form the core of the syndrome but stories do not constitute “evidence”, they are folklore.
  • Culture not experience creates the UFO interpretation but some experiences are independent of culture.
  • The UFO syndrome fulfils the role of the supernatural “other”.
  • The extraterrestrial hypothesis and other exotic theories cannot explain UFOs.
  • The idea of a superconspiracy to hide the truth about UFOs is unfalsifiable.
  • The common denominator in UFO stories is the human beings and see in believe in them. People want to belief in UFOs.
Summarising one might say that, even if a very tiny proportion of UFO reports were generated by novel physical phenomena or psychological processes, they would not be the UFO phenomenon, which would still exist in their absence. The real UFO Phenomenon is actually a collection of stories around which a huge folklore has accrued, and is a product of the individual and collective human imagination. It tells us about human beings not aliens or unexplained phenomena.

Ufology is a religion not a science, it exists in the realm of personal belief, and is centred around a technologized theology. In a time in which science is often seen as dispiriting, and robbing us a vision of a transcendental 'Other', but traditional religion is seen as antithetical to the modern world, the UFO religion offers an attempt at synthesis, in which the mystical powers are given a technological gloss.

It’s important not to confuse this psycho-social approach with simple debunking. It does not take the view that because UFO reports are essentially human documents and are in some sense or another products of the human imagination they are of no interest and can be just thrown away. Rather it argues that their roots in the human imagination is exactly why they are interesting and important.

I found this a really refreshing change after reading one naïve UFO book after another, and happy at last to read one which Magonia can wholeheartedly recommend. -- Peter Rogerson.


10.5.15

THE NATURAL UNIVERSE

Mary Thomas Crane. Losing Touch with Nature: Literature and the New Science in 16th-Century England. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

This book surprised. From the title I was expecting an academic study of the way in which Elizabethan literature was influenced by new scientific discoveries; perhaps of passing interest for those, like me, with a special interest in the scientific revolution, but hardly earthshattering. But what Mary Thomas Crane presents is something much more significant and with a relevance far beyond its apparent niche.

For me, Losing Touch with Nature didn’t just hold personal interest, but also some satisfaction. In our last book (The Forbidden Universe) Lynn Picknett and I suggested that veiled references to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory in Hamlet – references more readily acknowledged by astronomers, such as the American Peter Usher, than by literary historians – represent more than just Shakespeare playing an intellectual game, but are fundamental to the play’s central themes. We proposed that they reflected the deeply disturbing uncertainty into which Copernicus’ theory had plunged natural philosophers, an uncertainty mirrored in Hamlet’s doubts and vacillation.

But if Mary Thomas Crane is right it’s much bigger than that; such concerns weren’t confined to Shakespeare or the controversy over heliocentricity. From a solidly academic position, Crane, Professor of English at Boston College, argues that many literary and dramatic works of the period intentionally reflected the ‘mingled elation and horror’ generated by a flood of discoveries and theories that ‘seemed to threaten the stability and intelligibility of the universe.’ In her own words, her book is concerned with ‘the period of ferment, confusion, and angst between around 1530 and 1610 in England, when the settled Aristotelian, Galenic, and Ptolemaic accounts of how the universe worked began to fall apart and the new ideas that would replace them were still inchoate and in flux.’

What makes her study really important, and gives it its far wider relevance, is that, in order to show just how that ‘ferment, confusion and angst’ influenced the literature of the period, she first has to establish that it was there – a vital aspect of the cultural and social impact of the scientific revolution that, she argues, has been entirely missed not just by literary historians but by historians in general

Consequently, just over half the book is devoted to the ‘new science’ and reactions to it, exploring the impact of those unsettling new ideas and the ways in which different groups within English society tried to deal with them. 

JOHN DEE
Much of Crane’s study focusses on the circle centred on John Dee and what she describes as the 'educated Londoners’ who were familiar with its members’ work, a group that included important writers such as Shakespeare, Spenser and Marlowe.

Crane first challenges the oft-repeated assertion that, at the beginning of the period in question, science (or natural philosophy as it was then known) was based on Aristotle’s theories simply because he was regarded as the unquestionable authority on all things natural. Rather, she argues, it was because Aristotle’s theories made sense from the perspective of everyday experience and observation. But then came a series of discoveries that didn’t fit into that framework: ‘the intuitive certainty of Aristotelian natural philosophy was being rendered uncertain.’

It wasn’t just Copernicus’ heliocentric theory; improved astronomical observations were undermining other core elements of the old Ptolemaic system. A key event was a supernova that appeared in the heavens in 1572: new methods of observation (by the Dee circle) established the ‘shocking fact’ that it was in the realm of the fixed stars (and not, as initially assumed, between the Earth and the Moon), a region that theory said was eternal and unchanging. The same challenge was presented by growing acceptance of the reality of the precession of the equinoxes.

Then there were new mathematical ideas due to the arrival of the Hindu-Arabic number system, which introduced the concept of zero, along with other radical notions. The theory of atomism was on the rise. In medicine, new discoveries were undermining the traditional Galenic view (itself derived from Aristotle) that all maladies were explicable in terms of the four humours.

One consequence of all this was the loss of the sense of an intuitive connection to the natural world (hence the book’s title), and it was this that was reflected in the literature of the time.

Unlike today, these challenges were not taken as merely showing that traditional theories were incomplete and needed revision or extension. They were seen rather as showing that the established order was changing – Aristotle’s laws had been right up to then, but the universe itself was being re-ordered, or thrown into chaos. It might even presage the end of the world. Therefore understanding what was behind these new phenomena was vital.

The uncomfortable fact was gradually admitted that not everything about natural phenomena lay on the surface: hidden laws and forces were also at work. Thinkers – such as Dee and his circle – tried to find way to ‘bridge the increasing split between the manifest evidence provided by the world and the things that could not be explained in terms of that evidence.’

One approach was the use of experiment to probe the hidden secrets of nature, an approach that paved the way for the modern scientific method. Another – which also encouraged experiment – was to turn to metaphysical and occult traditions that claimed to have identified those hidden principles: ‘This tradition focused on the “secrets” of nature and found different ways to establish some body of knowledge or practice as providing access to those secrets: Platonism, alchemy, Hermeticism, Paracelsanism, Cabala, Geometry and optics were also threads in this tradition, which held that the universe was only intelligible to those who were adept in some specific practice.’ Early science and the occult therefore sprang from the same concerns, and were much closer than science historians would have us believe. (Crane prefers the term ‘secrets traditions’ rather than ‘occult’ to avoid confusion with the modern usage of the latter.)

Having established her ground, Crane then shows how these themes and concerns were incorporated into the period’s literature.

There’s a chapter on The Faerie Queen, demonstrating that Copernican astronomy and new theories of matter were central themes of Spenser’s epic. Crane then passes on to Shakespeare, concentrating on King Lear and the sonnets. Of the former she writes, ‘The dark universe of King Lear is based at least in part on new concepts of nothingness, arising from the introduction of zero and also from the idea that matter is composed of atoms separated by void space, the fabric of the universe literally riddled with nothingness.’ It is, after all, a play in which the plot literally turns on different understandings of the word ‘Nothing.’ Similarly, the sonnets ‘reflect the promise and danger of a newly abstract mathematics.’

Another chapter is devoted to showing how the new science was associated with social and political issues - ‘the projection of power and colonial domination in terms of changing ideas about the cosmos and the elements’ – using as examples Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

DIGGES' HELIOCENTRIC UNIVERSE
Surprisingly – and for me ironically - Crane doesn’t, however, accept the Copernican allusions in Hamlet, which she dismisses in a single sentence and a brief note, on the grounds that there are no ‘unambiguous and direct references to the heliocentric model of the universe’ in the play. True, but, as she herself writes, ‘If we’re going to look for signs of the new science in Shakespeare’s plays, we should not expect to see them dramatized explicitly.’
 
On her own argument, Shakespeare must have been aware of the Copernican controversy, as she includes him among the ‘educated Londoners’ who were interested in the work of Dee’s protégé Thomas Digges, England’s first champion of heliocentricity. The Bard knew Digges personally – Digges’ son even worked at the Globe – and there’s a very specific allusion to his cosmology in one of Hamlet’s speeches. Crane argues that Shakespeare used kingship as a metaphor for the scientific and mathematical theories in Lear, which is exactly what Lynn and I suggested that he did, this time for the astronomical ideas, in Hamlet.

But it hardly matters, since Crane firmly establishes that such concerns were widespread among the intelligentsia and literati of the period.

Ironically, the book’s main point – the literary analysis to demonstrate the presence of these themes in poems and plays – isn’t what makes Losing Touch with Nature important. The truly ground-breaking material is in the foundation that Crane lays for that analysis. She overturns conventional understanding of what the new science meant to those alive at the time, and adds a whole new dimension to the history of the scientific revolution in England.

She also creates a new direction for future research. It would be fascinating, for example, to see if her interpretation, both of the reaction to the new science and its reflection in literature, applied elsewhere in early modern Europe.

Losing Touch with Nature is a stimulating read. Crane gives clear explanations of complex philosophical and scientific subjects – particularly those which are unfamiliar to the modern mind - and sets out her argument lucidly. The view she advances is genuinely ground-breaking, providing a new perspective on an important period of history. Her book deserves a wider readership, both within academia and more generally, than just among literary historians. -- Clive Prince
 

6.5.15

DON'T CALL US

Catherine Clément, The Call of the Trance, Seagull Books, 2014.

If one wants a highly idiosyncratic book in which personal speculation instantly becomes sweeping statement that instantly becomes fact, this is for you. It is also for those who might consider Sigmund Freud the absolute last word in wisdom and acuity.

True, Madame Clément does a sound job of introducing us to the trance state involved in traditional shamanism and trance-based systems such as voodoo, not to mention the demented hysterics of the likes of the ‘possessed’ nuns of Loudun and the Convulsionnairies.

Basically, if she’d stuck with hysteria, or even actual trance, this might not have been the kind of book that one argues with page by page until giving up the unequal battle (with perhaps an appropriately Gallic shrug).

We are treated to a profoundly confused chapter on multiple personality, beginning with the success of the book The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and the fact that after its publication, together with the movie of the same name, therapists received many calls from women complaining of the same symptoms. The author adds, ‘The success created the syndrome’. Perhaps, but then just as likely is the possibility that these women realised they were not alone in suffering from this hideous mental phenomenon.

In discussing the modus operandi of the many personalities that inhabit one body, the author remarks ‘How do they show themselves? By a period of blankness, followed by amnesia. A blackout. A discreet trance, but a trance assuredly.’

One might suggest, on the basis on some actual knowledge about this phenomenon, that while blackouts feature in some cases of multiple personality, it is not a universal occurrence. But sweeping statement and crow-barring virtually all abnormal psychology into her thesis on trance is par for the course here.

Take her rather baffling inclusion of anorexia as an aspect of trance. She attempts to explain – some might say ‘excuse’ – this as follows: ‘The violent coming and going of the alimentary bolus inside the body is a trance. Filling and emptying one’s internal plumbing violently, making the abominable “thing” [food] enter and leave one’s body is an imposed trance.’

Perhaps the only answer to that is ‘Oh come on.’

Then on the next page we’re told that the aim of anorexics is to live forever, to become gods. Although some famous historical anorexics were marathon fasters in nunneries, just because they say on ‘pro-ana’ web sites ‘No way we’re giving in’ and ‘pro-ana for a day, pro-ana for ever’ it doesn’t mean even the most dedicated anorexics see themselves as some kind of saint or goddess-in-waiting.

Sometimes the author edges into gobbledygook, saying of hermaphrodites: ‘They don’t exist, of course, and yet look, they do … one of the oldest fantasies in the world is in rude health…’

Her near-desperation to link certain topics to her alleged theme of trance is sometimes almost too excruciating. For example, in discussing the admittedly weird phenomenon of pregnancy denial she writes, ‘To eclipse yourself in a trance you have to know how to vomit. To wait for a child to arrive too. There’s no vomiting in the denial of pregnancy but there certainly is in phantom pregnancies.’ Then on we go to something else …

The author is very fond of loading symbolism onto everything, then unpicking it to suit herself. True, Madame Clément is presenting the now discredited theories of Margaret Murray about, inter alia, the ‘pagan’ sacrifices of Joan of Arc and her greatest supporter, Gilles de Rais. But she can’t resist adding – in order to make the symbolism as neat as possible – ‘Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais were burnt as sorcerers’. Pity, then, that Gilles de Rais was actually hanged.

She free-ranges over a host of only loosely connected subjects, in a sort of stream of consciousness crow-barring in of symbolism and metaphor, inviting the reader to join in. Discussing how scarring and tattoos ‘in our world spell danger’ she offers up for examples how the Nazis ‘lowered the trousers of Jewish men and boys to find their circumcised victims ….’ And how they ‘conferred a new identity in the accountancy of death’ by tattooing the inmates of the extermination camps, asking whether the adolescents of today know this as they submit to piercings and tattoos? With a quick aside about controls for health reasons, she says ‘But the symbolic rules aren’t fixed at all. They’re fluid and hazy.’

Indeed. Rather like this book. -- Lynn Picknett.


1.5.15

THE MONSTERS OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert. Mediaeval Monsters. British Library, 2015.

The various monsters and mysterious creatures described in this book need not detain cryptozoologists using Brian Parson’s excellent guide to monster hunting that was recently reviewed in Magonia, as these mystery animals exist only in the pages of medieval manuscripts, mostly from the British Library.

But in mediaeval times monsters also lurked in the far places of the earth. Writers like Pliny the Elder described the creatures which dwelt just beyond the edge of the map. Quite literally in the case of the British Library’s Psalter World Map, where the edge of Africa is lined with a slide-show of the imagined inhabitants of the end of the world: headless men with faces on their chests, people with four eyes, one-legged men, and a race known as the Panotti with ears so large they used them as blankets on cold nights!

Although totally fictitious, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was one of the most popular books of the fourteenth century, and Columbus even took a copy of it on his voyages. Mandeville describes ‘pygmies’ who had no mouth or tongue, just a hole through which they sucked in food through a pipe.

The Sciopods were a monstrous race who were supposed to have just one giant foot which they would use as a sunshade. John of Marignolli was a fourteenth century missionary who had actually visited some of the regions where these creatures were supposed to live and was sceptical of the claims. He suggests that the Sciopods were a distorted description of Indians who “are in the habit of carrying a thing like a little tent-roof on a cane handle, which they open out at will as a protection against the rain or sun” - a parasol!

Half-human, half-animal creatures of pagan mythology also lurk in the pages of these manuscripts, and of course the unicorn, often used as a symbol for Christ. There is also useful advice for navigators: any suspiciously convenient islands might be whales floating on the surface of the ocean, so if you happen to land on one, don’t try to light a fire on it. One illustration here shows just what might happen if you do

Many monsters were representations of the Devil and his creatures, who features largely in the illustrations, and it is clear that the illustrators particularly enjoyed depicting the various torments that sinners would undergo as they are swallowed by the fiery, gaping jaws of Hell. The details in some of the drawings suggests that the artists may have had particular individuals in mind for some of the more imaginative tortures.

Now we can look with a degree of detached amusement at pictures of grotesque demons pouring molten lead down the throats of sinners, or men being devoured alive by bestial monsters; but to the people who wrote, drew and read these books this was a literal representation of what they believed might happen to them - or perhaps they hoped more likely to their neighbours! But not all the creatures are quite so fearsome. The men with no heads actually seem quite cheerful, and one small guy depicted appears remarkably like the wise Yoda from Star Wars!

This is a beautifully produced little book, the illustrations have been carefully selected, and the text gives a concise account of the world in which these creatures of the imagination flourished, with excerpts from the manuscripts in which they appear. A delight to look at. -- John Rimmer.


25.4.15

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST COUNTRY

Steve Dewey and Kevin Goodman. History of a Mystery: Fifty Years of the Warminster Thing. Swallowtail Books, 2015.

Steve Dewey and Kevin Goodman are the two people who may reasonably claim to be largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in England's greatest UFO flap, once virtually forgotten except for a few hard-core old-timers.
 
Dewey's In Alien Heat (2006) and Goodman's UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact (2007) were the two titles which kick-started the revival, along with Goodman's 'Weird Wiltshire' events held in Warminster over the August Bank Holiday - that traditional highpoint of the Warminster skywatching year - in 2008 and 2009, and the post-pub skywatches that followed on Cradle Hill. Ironically, it was attending one of these events which finally persuaded me to close Magonia as a print magazine and to continue it in the form of the Magonia Review.

Dewey's Alien Heat is a broad historical account of the Warminster years which looks closely at the social and cultural aspects of the events, and sees Warminster as a part of the sensitivity of 'Deep England' and in tune with the 1960s revival of a pastoral mysticism represented by the rediscovery of the mystical landscape by writers like John Michel, Stonehenge, the New Age Travellers, and the explosion of interest in leys, landscape mysteries and Arthurian legend. Of course all this was studiously ignored by the 'establishment' ufologists who fetched up in the town - at least in much of their published work, although rumours abound of muscularly scientific investigators sitting within patterns of candles on the various hills around the town.

Goodman's Cradle of Contact is a more personal account of his own discovery of the mystery in 1976, a few years after the height of the phenomenon. Much of it is centred on the Fountain Centre which continued the Warminster legend and moved it into a more occult direction. Here Goodman has experiences which lead him to conclude that whatever social and media dynamics there may have been shaping the events, there was something genuinely strange at the core of the Warminster Mystery.

These personal approaches have been mostly set aside in this historical account of the events. It is largely a chronological account of Warminster from the proto-phenomenon - The Thing - in 1965 to the end of major ufological interest in the topic in the early 1980s.

At first the phenomenon was ill-defined, just accounts in the local newspaper of disturbing noises, and rumours of odd happenings. Many of these rumours seem to have centred around the rather enigmatic figure of David Holton, described as a surgical chiropodist, but also as a "naturalist, amateur geologist, homeopathic practitioner and medical herbalist". Many of us who hung around the UFO world at the time came across similar characters!
 
Holton crops up forty years later in 2005, writing to Shuttlewood's old paper, the Warminster Journal, claiming that he had started the Warminster Mystery - which he said should have been called the Crockerton Mystery after the village where he apparently cooked up his plans - as a psychological experiment. He seems he was certainly behind the tales of flocks of birds falling from the sky, and crucial to moving the 'Thing' from an auditory phenomenon to being experienced as something in the sky.

Dewy and Goodman's account gives us an overview of the media coverage of the phenomenon, describing not only the newspaper reports but also details of the TV and radio coverage of the mystery. Here I would add one criticism: the book is enlivened by a number of reproductions of interesting newspaper articles but no details are given of sources or dates. Perhaps this could be rectified in a future edition?

As well as the sightings from 'civilians' much of the phenomenon depended on the actions of a number of local 'faces'. Most prominently of course Arthur Shuttlewood, but when his presence faded as his health declined characters such as John Rosewear, Ken Rogers and Peter and Jane Paget of the Fountain Centre stepped into the vacuum.
 
This Fountain Centre started to become the main focus for visitors after Shuttlewood's departure from the scene, and the enthusiasts' interests moved from a 'nuts-and-bolts' ufological level to a much more mystical and occultist standpoint, encouraged by the wayward movement of Shuttlewood's later books. This trend was perhaps one of the causes of Warminster being expunged from British ufological history for almost thirty years.

The most famous image linked to Warminster is the so-called 'Faulkner photograph' which was the centrepiece of Shuttlewood's major splash story in the Daily Mirror in 1965. Long suspected to be a hoax it emerged in 1992 that it may have been concocted by staff at the Warminster Journal to trick the then editor. However the authors have managed to track down the alleged photographer, and Faulkner's latest account puts a different spin on the story. I'm sure, as the saying goes, this one will run and run. Another notorious photographic hoax, not entirely unconnected with MUFON/Magonia, is also touched upon.

You should read Dewey and Goodman's individual books for deeper and more personal accounts, but History of a Mystery is nicely written, easily devoured in one session, has a useful bibliography and a convenient time-line of the 1965 reports, and makes the perfect introduction to the Warminster affair, managing to be both open-minded and objective. -- John Rimmer.


19.4.15

IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TONIGHT

Brian D. Parsons. Handbook for the Amateur Cryptozoologist. Lulu, 2015. (Second edition)

Michael Newton. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide. McFarland, 2015. (Reprint.)

Brian Parsons in an accomplished investigator who has been involved with a range of anomalous phenomena for twenty years. In Handbook for the Amateur Cryptozoologist he explains the techniques of investigation and warns how to avoid the pitfalls involved in such work. Although the book specifically concerns cryptozoology much of the advice given applies equally to subjects such as ufology or ghost investigation.

He begins by considering one VERY basic question: is cryptozoology actually a science? He explain that cryptozoology certainly involves using the scientific method, and hunting for unknown species can produce scientific discoveries, but concludes that currently cryptozoology cannot yet be considered a true science. This however does not preclude it from being conducted in a scientific manner.

Although cryptozoology is an international pursuit this book is largely written from the perspective of an American researcher and there is an emphasis on Bigfoot and out-of-place big cat sightings, but this does not prevent it from being of value to investigators in Britain as well. In fact his discussion of the North American scene introduces the important distinction between out-of-place animals and the truly anomalous.

A particularly valuable chapter is his discussion of the techniques for interviewing witnesses, giving them the space to fully describe their experiences without either using leading questions, or to limit their responses to a series of yes/no answers. His advice to researchers to ask questions involving events beyond the immediate experience resembles John Keel’s advice that ufologists should find out what witnesses had for breakfast, although Parsons explains the reason for this rather more clearly than Keel ever did!

His analysis of the difference between science and pseudoscience is good advice for fortean researchers generally, and he makes it clear that witnesses' reports can be critically analysed with having to call into question their honesty.

There is a section on the sort of equipment that a cryptozoologist might wish to take with them on investigations, which in some cases is more appropriate for the North American researcher - Britain gives little scope for trekking through deep forest in search of an out-of-place big cat - not in Surrey, anyway! However, the important point which he stresses is that simply using scientific equipment does not make you a scientist.

The book concludes with some examples of investigatory notes and interview questions, but these are not intended as a tick-box exercise, and the methodology behind them is fully explained.

In all an excellent little introduction to cryptozoological research, which would repay reading by those involved in other areas of anomaly research.

A massive paperback of nearly 600 pages and weighing in at over 3lb (1.3 kg) the Encylopedia of Cryptozoology is a contrast to the Handbook’s slim 175 pages. With over 2700 entries the book cannot be described as anything but comprehensive, but many of the entries are just a few lines of uncorroborated and uninvestigated sighting reports, and in some ways they are comparable to the shorter entries in Magonia’s INTCAT listings of ‘entity’ cases. The sources given do not trace back to the earliest available account as with INTCAT, and are usually just a reference to a generally available published source. In many cases it is unclear just how close the version shown here is to the original account.

Nevertheless, for anyone seeking a reference to the broadest possible range of reported cryptids this is an extremely useful guide, with a substantial bibliography for further literary exploration.

As always when confronted with encyclopaedic listings of out-of-place, mysterious and dubious creatures I look first for a reference to the controversial Brentford Griffin. It is indeed here, but the compiler seems too eager to accept the stories put around by some interested parties that it was a crude hoax. If indeed it was a hoax, it was anything but crude!

Both these books will be of great interest to students and potential students of cryptozoology, but I think Parson’s Handbook will be of more immediate value for those seriously interested in direct involvement with the topic. -- John Rimmer.
 

9.4.15

WOOLLY SCIENCE

A lot of weird stuff in the papers lately. I thought this might be of interest to our readers, from the Bath Chronicle, March 27, 2015. Thanks to the ever-informative Angry People in Local Papers website. In the final paragraph Dr Robert Salmon from the University of Durham seems to have nailed it. 
 
Solar eclipse killed my sheep, says Gloucestershire farmer

A farmer from Gloucestershire reckons two of his sheep were killed by the solar eclipse.

Rob Taylor found two of his flock of around 250 ewes dead in one of his fields, which he believes is down to electromagnetic radiation blasting from the phenomenon.

Mr Taylor believes his sheep died on Wednesday - five days after the eclipse - due to a lack of calcium in their blood.

The farmer, who operates 200 acres at his farm in south Gloucestershire, said: "I was walking through my field and saw that two of my sheep were dead.

"I tested them and my results show they died from acute hypo-calcification of the blood. It was brought about by electromagnetic radiation flooding back down to Earth immediately after the eclipse. I thought the eclipse would, of course, change mineral levels in livestock, but I did not think that it would be fatal."

Mr Taylor has spent the last 27 years studying supposed effects of radiation from the Sun on livestock.

During the BSE crisis in the 1990s, Mr Taylor had a number of his herd diagnosed with 'mad cow disease'.


A POSSIBLE TEST SUBJECT FOR DOCTOR SALMON
Mr Taylor runs 'Earthing Therapy' - an alternative website based on unreported effects of minerals on livestock. His website states that he researches "the inherent deficiencies in the trace minerals copper and selenium, that affect the pastures." Mr Taylor also reckons mineral toxicology can be rapid and irreversible.

He said: "The specific relationship between anti-oxidants, derived from these minerals, free radicals and the operation of the natural detoxification systems within mammals, are so critical for both their physiological and psychological well-being. "It is this through investigating this particularly complex, dynamic and confusing area of research, that I have come to study the way in which the body adapts to environmental change and the nature of intolerance syndromes, such as chemical and electrical sensitivities."

But since Mr Taylor does not have accurate calcium level readings in the sheep that died before and after the eclipse, actual scientists would struggle to back up his theory.

Biologist Dr Robert Salmon, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Durham, said: "Without much more empirical scientific research and a large amount of data, this does not seem likely, otherwise scores of sheep across the country may have died.

"The circadian rhythm of the sheep could have been disturbed by the eclipse, but that could be tested by putting a bag on its head during the day and seeing if its calcium levels dropped."
 

MAGONIA RECOMMENDS