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Sunday, 26 July 2015

Old Books of the Fortean Kind

Pictured above is a genuine piece of retro-forteana – Phenomena: A Book of Wonders, produced way back in 1977 by John Michell and the founding editor of Fortean Times, Bob Rickard. It’s one of several books I picked up for a pound each from the Bookbarn shop, just off the A37 about half-way between Shepton Mallet and Bristol. Until a few years ago, this was the best bookshop in Somerset – literally a giant warehouse packed with second-hand treasures. Unfortunately the main warehouse was closed to the public after they catalogued all their decent stock and put it online. But visitors can still browse through the leftovers – the books that were too uncommercial to be worth cataloguing – in a smaller warehouse next door. Everything is a pound – which sounds cheap, although I somehow managed to spend a total of £18 on my visit last week!

You can get a pretty good idea of the contents of the Phenomena book from the words on the cover. It’s a pretty standard compendium of all the usual fortean topics – frog and fish falls, spontaneous human combustion, cattle mutilations, levitation, teleportation, cities in the sky, entombed toads, werewolves and so forth. The last two items on the list are rather more cryptic – “Arkeology” is shorthand for the archaeology of Noah’s Ark, while “Accidents to Iconoclasts” refers to mishaps that befall people who dare to interfere with ancient sites. The “Mummy’s Curse” is the best known example of this, but another case described in the book occurred less than five miles from the place where I bought it.

Everyone has heard of Avebury and Stonehenge, but far fewer people know of England’s third largest megalithic site, consisting of three prehistoric stone circles at Stanton Drew in Somerset. The reason for the site’s relative obscurity may be that, in spite of its sprawling size, it’s not really that impressive to the eye – the individual stones are quite small, and the overall plan of the circles is difficult to make out. But perhaps that’s the way it’s meant to be. According to Michell and Rickard, the first person to attempt a detailed survey of the site was the architect John Wood in 1740. The locals told him that merely counting the stones was a bad idea: “Several have attempted to do so, and proceeded until they were either struck dead upon the spot, or with such illness as soon were carried off”. Ignoring such superstitions, Wood continued with his task “and as a great storm accidentally arose just after, and blew down part of a great tree near the body of the work, the people were then thoroughly satisfied that I had disturbed the guardian spirits of the metamorphosised stones.

Here is one of my own pictures of Stanton Drew:

Another of the books I bought for a pound was a 1978 paperback called Explorations of the Marvellous, containing the text of a series of lectures given by various scientists and science fiction writers. Featured among the latter is John Brunner, who I’ve written about on at least one previous occasion. Brunner lived in Somerset for many years prior to his untimely death in 1995, and I suspect that some of his personal library may have found its way to the Bookbarn. On a previous visit there (about ten years ago, before they went onto the internet) I bought a hardback anthology that was neither edited by John Brunner nor had a story by him in it – yet it has his signature inside. So maybe it was his own copy of the book (it was a collection of science fiction erotica, if you must know).

By a further coincidence, Brunner’s lecture is all about forteana. More specifically, it’s about how shockingly sloppy some well-known fortean writers are when it comes to research and fact-checking. One of the most amusing examples he cites relates to a book I’ve never actually read, although it’s a classic of the genre – The Morning of the Magicians, by Pauwels and Bergier. Apparently they make the claim that one Professor Ralph Milne Farley “has drawn attention to the fact that some biologists think that old age is due to the accumulation of heavy water in the organism. The alchemists’ elixir of life might then be a substance that eliminates selectively heavy water.”  Brunner recognised this idea as coming not from a serious scientific treatise but from a science fiction novel he’d devoured when he was 12 or 13! The book in question was called The Immortals, and it was indeed by Ralph Milne Farley... but the latter was neither a professor nor a scientist. In these days of Wikipedia, it’s easy to do the fact-checking that Pauwels and Bergier failed to do:
Roger Sherman Hoar (April 8, 1887 – October 10, 1963) was a state senator and assistant Attorney General, state of Massachusetts. He also wrote science fiction under the pseudonym of “Ralph Milne Farley”.
The other fortean book I acquired last week came via eBay. This was The Fickle Finger of Fate, which I mentioned I’d ordered in last week’s post about Satirical Superheroes. The most fortean thing about the book is its author, John A. Keel – who as I said last time went on to write about Mothman, UFOs and Men in Black. But this novel from 1966 is just a lighthearted superhero parody featuring Keel’s own creation, Satyr-Man. It has a couple of mildly fortean elements – one character believes he is under a “Mummy’s Curse” (see above), and there’s a running joke about swamp gas and weather balloons (the most common ways the authorities used to debunk UFO sightings).

A satyr is a mythological half-man, half-beast with an insatiable sexual appetite. Coupled with the “ADULTS ONLY” warning on the cover, you might imagine this is a somewhat dirty book. But 1966 was still a year before America abolished its obscenity laws (see The Man who Helped to Free the World), so the book is heavily censored. For those who are only interested in such things, here is its one and only explicit sex scene:
“C’mere,” she grunted, pulling him to her as she ****** her **** and ****** ******** until he ***** ******* ***** and they **** *****. He lifted his **** ****** to **** ******, rolling across the rumpled bed with his mouth pressed to her ***** ********. Then she ***** his **** ******* and her hands ***** ***** ***.

“Ooooo,” she said.

“Ahhhhhhhh,” he said.

“Ummmmmmm,” she said.

“Hmmmmmmmmm,” he said.

Finally they **** ********** **** *** ******* **** *******. And then he **** ***** ******* *****. She **** *** ************! Outside the window, the surf continued to pound the beach.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Satirical Superheroes

Michel Parry produced a number of science fiction anthologies in the 1970s, including the one pictured above – Superheroes, dating from 1978. When I saw it in a second-hand shop a few weeks ago I decided to buy it for two reasons – the intriguing cover, and the fact that the back cover blurb (the book was bagged, so I couldn’t look inside) mentioned that one of the contributing authors was the famous Fortean writer John A. Keel (who popularized Mothman and the Men in Black, as well as the “ultraterrestrial” theory of UFOs). I didn’t have high hopes of the book (for some reason superheroes don’t translate well from comics to prose fiction) – but it turned out to be better than I’d expected.

The cover doesn’t relate to any of the stories in the book, but it’s certainly eyecatching. It’s obviously an amalgam of various Marvel heroes – Spider-Man’s mask, Thor’s helmet and hair, and Captain America’s boots and shield. The rest of the costume appears to be modelled on the 1970s Captain Marvel, which seems an odd choice because it’s a lot less iconic than the other three. The globe symbol on the costume and shield is the logo of Sphere Books – one of the more downmarket British paperback imprints of the time, who published the anthology.

As to the stories themselves – the first half of the book is taken up with three pulp novelettes dating from the early 1940s, including one that first appeared in Martin Goodman’s Marvel Tales magazine (a sister publication to the original incarnation of Marvel Comics). These are followed by nine shorter and more recent stories – four reprints (including Keel’s contribution) from the 1960s and early 70s, and six stories original to this anthology. Most of the latter are by “authors” that have no other entries in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database – suggesting they may be pseudonyms of the editor himself. That’s a shame, because there were plenty of well-qualified authors around who would have contributed something if asked. Two names that come to mind are Ron Goulart (who was a historian of comic books as well as a prolific science fiction author) and Gerard F. Conway (better known as Marvel scripter Gerry Conway).

John A. Keel’s contribution is “Satyr-Man”. It isn’t a self-contained story but the first chapter of a novel, The Fickle Finger of Fate, which was originally published in 1966. The excerpt is very good, though – so much so that I sought out a copy of the novel on eBay and ordered it right away! Keel’s story is tongue-in-cheek satire, which is also true of many of the other stories in the book. This reinforces what I said at the beginning, that it’s rare to find a prose fiction story that deals with superheroes in exactly the same way as a comic book. There are a few “serious” stories in the collection – but although they deal with super-powered humans, they’re not superheroes in the sense of having costumes and secret identities etc. The only exception to this rule – and my second favourite story in the book, after Keel’s – is “The Awesome Menace of the Polarizer” by George Alec Effinger. Although it doesn’t take itself too seriously, Efffinger’s story is far from being an outright comedy, and it has a first-class plot featuring a real superhero and a real supervillain.

The other thing that’s worth mentioning is the shop where I bought the book. It’s in Putney (which is a bit out of my way, which is why I’d never been there before) and it’s called 30th Century Comics. That’s an excellent name for a shop, but it would be more accurate to call it “Mid-20th Century Comics”, because their entire stock seems to date from the 1940s to 1970s. It’s also unusual among comic shops in that it sells British back issues as well as American, and it has a large stock of pre-1960 American comics. The downside is that almost nothing is priced below £10! That’s why I restricted myself to buying paperbacks, which were a lot more affordable. Nevertheless, I was sorely tempted by their unique “Alan Class Printing Plate Sets” – which not only contain a 1960s-vintage Alan Class comic (often featuring Marvel reprints) but also the original lead plates that were used to print the cover of that comic!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Ancient Temples of Stourhead

When Henry Hoare II inherited the Stourhead estate on the death of his mother in 1741, he had just returned from a grand tour of Europe. Deeply impressed by the classical architecture he had seen on the continent, with its roots in the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, he determined to recreate as much of it as possible at Stourhead. The result is probably the most highbrow garden in England!

Although I’ve been to Stourhead many times (it’s now owned by the National Trust, and just over the border from Somerset in Wiltshire), it was only on my last visit, six weeks ago, that it occurred to me to take some photographs. At the risk of being confused with Paul Jackson’s blog, Random Encounters with the Unusual, I thought I’d show a selection of them here (Paul hasn’t done Stourhead yet, although he did do a post about King Alfred’s Tower which is close by and dates from the same period).

The largest of Stourhead’s temples is the Pantheon, seen in the picture at the top of this post. As the name suggests, this is a kind of scaled-down version of the Pantheon in Rome (although with a much more picturesque setting). It was built in 1753 to a design by the architect Henry Flitcroft, who was also responsible for King Alfred’s Tower. In literal terms a “pantheon” would be a temple to “all the gods”, but at Stourhead it’s more a case of “all the classical–looking statues Henry Hoare II could get his hands on”. In pride of place at the centre is the Graeco-Roman hero Hercules, flanked by the Roman goddesses Diana, Flora and Ceres, the Greek hero Meleager, the Egyptian goddess Isis and even the Christian heroine St Susanna! Here is my picture of the Isis statue:
Flitcroft also designed Stourhead’s two other classical style temples. The first, built in 1743, was dedicated to the goddess Flora, and the other, dating from 1765, to the god Apollo. The latter is based on a circular temple at Baalbek (Heliopolis). The Temple of Flora is difficult to photograph because it’s right by the lakeside, but here is my picture of the Temple of Apollo:
Not all the constructions at Stourhead are classical in form. The Grotto, dating from 1748, is a kind of artificial cave, housing the statue of an unnamed “river god”. It also has a statue of Ariadne, from Greek mythology, as seen in the following photograph:
Near the grotto is a small Gothic Cottage, which was added to the garden by Henry Hoare’s grandson, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, in 1806. The German tourists in front of me walked straight past it (presumably thinking there was nothing to see on the path from the Pantheon to the Grotto), but luckily for you I stopped to take a photograph:
The other Gothic feature at Stourhead is genuine mediaeval Gothic. It’s called the Bristol High Cross, and it originally stood in the centre of Bristol. It dates from the 14th century, but by the 18th century it was getting in the way of traffic and had to look for a new home. It was moved to Stourhead, where it now stands at the entrance to the garden. Here it is, with the Pantheon visible in the background on the other side of the lake:

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Finnegans Wake

A few days ago I came across a Twitter account called Finnegans Wake and started following it. As far as I can tell, it’s tweeting the entire novel (written by the Irish author James Joyce between 1923 and 1939) a few words at a time. In an earlier post (Literary name-dropping), I mentioned that “I did go through a phase circa 1975 of trying very hard to read Finnegans Wake”. I can’t believe that was 40 years ago! Sounds like a cue for yet more nostalgic rambling...

Finnegans Wake is a difficult book, and I’m not going to pretend that I read more than a few pages here and there. I probably wouldn’t have managed even that without the assistance and encouragement of other books (some of which are pictured above). Back in 1975 I was 17 years old, and as thoroughly ignorant of history, geography, philosophy, religion, literature and linguistics as it’s possible for a human being to be. After four decades of being a boringly bookish bespectacled bachelor I’m a bit less ignorant, and flicking through the novel just now several things jumped out at me that would have gone over my head as a teenager. But the book is still as difficult to understand as ever!

The most obvious factor that makes Finnegans Wake difficult to read is the sheer number of made-up words it contains. But even if it was written in plain English it wouldn’t be an easy book. Basically it’s supposed to be a dream, which means the author can put anything he wants into it, without needing to be too clear or logical about it. It’s a very erudite dream, too, which flits from one arcane subject to another. There are several recurring themes, including some distinctly Fortean ones – for example Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, and the metaphysical philosophy of Giordano Bruno (The man who invented aliens). James Joyce seems to have had a soft spot for Bruno, who was born in the Italian city of Nola – thus making him a Nolan, and hence a kind of honorary Irishman!

I had a look through the book for a suitably Fortean passage, and found the following account of a kind of spiritualist séance:
That was Communicator, a former colonel. A disincarnated spirit, called Sebastion, from the Rivera in Januero, (he is not all hear) may fernspreak shortly with messuages from my dead-ported. Let us cheer him up a little and make an appunkment for a future date. Hello, Commudicate! How’s the buttes? Ever-scepistic! He does not believe in our psychous of the Real Absence, neither miracle wheat nor soulsurgery of P. P. Quemby.
P. P. Quimby was an American faith healer and mesmerist in the 19th century – clearly someone to be deeply “scepistical” about, along with miracle-wheat and soul-surgery!

As I mentioned in my post about Literary name-dropping, Finnegans Wake is one of the many literary works referred to in Robert Silverberg’s novel Dying Inside, which I read in Galaxy magazine (pictured above, middle-left) in 1973. But the reference is only understandable with hindsight (“Joycean dream-gabble” and “Earwicker’s borborygmi”), and it was another two years before a number of other things made me decide Finnegans Wake was a book worth looking into.

The first and most important was James Blish’s science fiction novel A Case of Conscience (1958), which I read early in 1975. A subplot running through the first half of the book concerns the protagonist, a Jesuit priest, tackling a literary “case of conscience” which “the church had never cracked”. It comes from pages 572 and 573 of Finnegans Wake (“The procurator Interrogarius Mealterum presends us this proposer...”). Right on the first page of Blish’s novel, Finnegans Wake is described as “diabolically complex (that adverb was official, precisely chosen, and intended to be taken literally)”. Later he describes James Joyce as having a “mighty intellect, easily the greatest ever devoted to fiction in English and perhaps in any language.

That in itself would probably have been enough to make me check out Joyce’s work, but – by the kind of synchronicity that often happens – I came across several other references to Finnegans Wake in SF stories I read around that time. I can’t remember all of them now, but two that stick in my mind are Philip José Farmer’s novella “Riders of the Purple Wage” (which appeared in Harlan Ellison’s 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions, included in the picture above), and the Brian Aldiss novel Barefoot in the Head (1969, also pictured above). The latter deals with the aftermath of the Acid Head War, in which the population of Europe is suffering the effects of Psychochemical Aerosol Bombs – making some chapters read like a kind of spaced-out sixties version of Finnegans Wake!

With one exception, all the books pictured above are my own copies bought in the 1970s. The exception is The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick, which wasn’t published until 1981. My copy is the first British paperback edition, which I bought as soon as it came out in March 1982 (sadly, in the few days between buying the book and reading it, I heard the news that Dick had died of a stroke at the age of 53).

Finnegans Wake is referred to in the very first chapter of The Divine Invasion. The protagonist, Herb Asher, interprets Joyce’s word “talktape” (in the line “tuck up your sleeves and loosen your talktapes”) to mean “magnetic audio tape” – the invention of which, he believes, postdates the writing of the novel. That isn’t actually true (and from the context it doesn’t sound like Joyce was thinking about a recording device anyway)... but that doesn’t stop Asher launching into some characteristically Dickian speculation:
It’s impossible that James Joyce could have mentioned talktapes in his writing, Asher thought. Some day I’m going to get my article published; I’m going to prove that Finnegans Wake is an information pool based on computer memory systems that didn’t exist until a century after James Joyce’s era; that Joyce was plugged into a cosmic consciousness from which he derived the inspiration for his entire corpus of work.
At another point Dick says “He also has them sitting around a TV set” – and in this case he’s absolutely correct: television plays an important role in Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s portrayal of TV is quite prescient – not in terms of the technology, which already existed when the novel was written, but in terms of its social acceptance. When Dick says “them” he means the customers in a Dublin pub... and pub televisions were still a thing of the future in 1939. So Finnegans Wake was almost certainly the first mainstream novel to portray TV as a commonplace rather than a newfangled novelty.

Joyce made up so many new words in Finnegans Wake you can find almost anything you look for in there. As an example – after a bit of googling (for googling) I found “Feastking of shellies by googling Lovvey” and “One chap googling the holyboy’s thingabib”!

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Dragon Slayers

I didn’t specifically set out to take pictures of dragon slayers last Wednesday, but by the end of the day I realized I had five of them. Together with another four photos I already had, I decided that was enough for a blog post!

There are plenty of dragon-slaying legends, many of them symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. In this sense the ultimate dragon-slayer must be St Michael – the Biblical archangel who defeats “the great dragon, the primeval Serpent, known as the devil or Satan” (Revelation 12:9). Three versions of this story are depicted above. The one in the middle is a picture I took in the Louvre in Paris two years ago, which featured previously in my post Monsters, Mystery and a Monkey. It’s an early work by Raphael, dating from around 1504.

The other two pictures I took in the National Gallery in London last week. The one on the left is by another Italian painter, Piero della Francesca, and dates from 1469. It’s less dramatic than Raphael’s version, and the dragon looks... well, unimpressive to say the least. The picture on the right was painted the previous year, 1468, by the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo. His dragon is the weirdest-looking of the three – the caption describes it as “a monstrous creature, part-reptile, part-bat”.

The other saintly dragon slayer that everyone has heard of is St George (who is the patron saint of England, despite having no historical or legendary connection with the country). The story of George and the Dragon is essentially a Christianized version of the archetypal dragon-slaying legend (cf. my earlier post on Dragons and Dinosaurs), in which a community regularly appeases their local dragon by feeding it young female virgins. Then they suddenly realize the next in line is the King’s daughter, so it’s time to find themselves a dragon-slayer.

Here are three pictorial versions of St George and the Dragon, all by Italian artists:
The one at top left is by Raphael again – it’s a companion piece to his picture of St Michael and hangs next to it in the Louvre. To its right is a later version (circa 1555) by Tintoretto, which I saw in the National Gallery last week. Interestingly this reverses Raphael’s perspective – it has the fleeing princess in the foreground while St George, on horseback, fights the dragon in the background. I think Tintoretto’s version is much more dramatic – a kind of High Renaissance version of a “damsel in distress” pulp magazine cover!

The third picture is also in the National Gallery. It’s by Uccello, dating from around 1470, and has a more cartoony look than the other pictures. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the strange (and rather Fortean-looking) atmospheric phenomenon looming in the background behind St George.

A less well known dragon-slaying legend is that of Apollo and Python. The latter was a giant serpent-like dragon in Greek mythology (after which the snake genus was named), which according to legend was slain by the god Apollo. I have to admit I’d never heard of this legend until I saw Turner’s painting of it in the Tate Gallery last week (I’ve been rude about Turner in the past, but he’s started to grow on me since I saw the film Mr Turner).

At first sight Turner’s “dragon” looks very snake-like, although if you look closely there is a huge claw-like hand visible. Basically it’s difficult to work out exactly what’s going on, which is a generic problem I have with most of Turner’s work (he painted two other “horror” pictures, one of Death on a Pale Horse and one of Sea Monsters, which are even more confusing).

Finally, here are a couple of mediaeval dragon-slayers from Somerset. The one on the left can be seen on the wall of the church in Stoke-sub-Hamdon, and was featured previously in my post on Dragon Symbolism. As I said in that post, it may be intended to represent St Michael, due to its proximity to a hill called St Michael’s Hill.

I saw the dragon-slayer on the right a few weeks ago in Wells Cathedral, on the wall of the staircase leading to the Chapter House. I don’t think he’s meant to be anyone famous – I’ve seen him described variously as a “peasant”, a “priest” or a “pilgrim”. With his right hand he’s holding one of the pillars which support the roof, while casually using his left hand to slay a small dragon with his walking stick!

Sunday, 21 June 2015

More Fortean Fiction from CFZ Books

Pictured above are three recent releases from the CFZ Publishing Group’s “Fortean Fiction” imprint. Although only one of the books has my name on the cover, I had a small hand in the other two as well. The one on the right is Hyakumonogatari by Richard Freeman – a really excellent collection of 25 Japanese-themed horror stories, which is a kind of a fictional spin-off of his Great Yokai Encyclopaedia. The newest book, shown in the middle, is an equally excellent collection of short stories by Kate Kelly called The Scribbling Sea Serpent.

I worked for the same employer as Kate Kelly for almost 20 years, although mostly at different sites so we never really crossed paths. It was only after I went back there a couple of years ago as a part-time contractor that I discovered she is also an aspiring writer. Her first book, a young adult novel called Red Rock, was published in 2013. It’s marketed as “cli-fi” (a new sub-genre of science fiction dealing with climate change), but with a distinctly Fortean twist – the melting icecap reveals evidence of an ancient high-tech civilization that may or may not have known the secret of limitless free energy.

As I mentioned before (in The World’s Weirdest Publishing Group), it was only after CFZ brought out my own short story collection, The Museum of the Future, that I realized how short-staffed they were. I offered to help out in various ways, and one of the first jobs Jon Downes pushed my way was the reissue of Hyakumonogatari. This was originally published in 2012, but had since been re-edited.

My task here was pretty straightforward – simply insert the newly edited text into the existing page template. But for a couple of reasons I ended up redoing the page layouts completely. Partly this was in response to constructive feedback on The Museum of the Future from Brian Clegg, but also because I just didn’t get on with Jon’s choice of software – I found it easier to start from scratch with a program I was more familiar with!

When I told Kate about my work on Hyakumonogatari, she wondered if Jon would also be interested in publishing a collection of her own stories. To cut a long story short he was, and The Scribbling Sea Serpent is the result. The title comes from Kate’s blog, and the book contains a mixture of previously published stories and brand new ones – 22 in total. In terms of genre the stories are a mix of science fiction and weird fiction – all written in a reassuringly traditional style that wouldn’t have been out of place in Weird Tales or Astounding Science Fiction 60 years ago... but often with a modern twist to the subject matter (Kate has a peculiar enthusiasm for global ecological disasters). The book lives up to the “Fortean Fiction” label, too, with ancient mysteries lurking in the rural English landscape, interdimensional portals opened up by shamanic rituals, archaeologists digging up alien artifacts, restless ghosts... and, as the title suggests, sea monsters!

Because it was a new book and not a reissue, I had more to do on The Scribbling Sea Serpent than on Hyakumonogatari. As well as editing the stories for publication and fitting them into the page template, I also had to design the front and back covers (with assistance from Kate and Jon... not to mention public domain clip-art). It was a lot more work than I’d expected – I always thought producing books was easy, but I’ll know better in future! Fortunately it’s a really first-rate book, so I’m happy to have been involved with it (the same is true of Hyakumonogatari).

At this point you’re probably thinking “No matter how good The Scribbling Sea Serpent is, if Andrew May had a hand in it there’s bound to be at least a minor cock-up.” I’m not sure I completely follow your reasoning, but as it happens you’re right. There’s a small error that crept in at the very final stage of production, which is fairly obvious once it’s pointed out to you. On the other hand, I don’t believe anyone will spot the error unless it’s pointed out to them. To prove me wrong you’ll have to buy the book! Here are the links:
(Kindle versions will be available in a few weeks).

Sunday, 14 June 2015

An Astounding Prediction

Astounding Science Fiction started life as a pulp magazine, but by the latter half of the 1940s it had moved upmarket. It was printed on thinner, better quality paper in a smaller paperback-style format. The covers, as you can see from the examples above, were considerably less garish than pulp magazines of the period such as Planet Stories. Astounding’s writers tended to be more thoughtful and sophisticated than their pulp counterparts, too – and so were its readers, to judge from some of the letters printed in the magazine. Perhaps the most famous of these appeared in the November 1948 issue (the one with The Players of Null-A on the cover). I’ve written about it before, in Science Fiction Prophecy – but that was 12 years ago now, and it’s bang on topic for this blog, so I thought I’d mention it again.

The letter in question was written by Richard A. Hoen of the University Club in Buffalo, New York. When I wrote the first piece I knew nothing at all about him, but according to an obituary that appeared in 2010, he was a 20-year old student when he wrote his famous letter. At first sight it was nothing special – just his personal ratings and a few other comments on the stories that featured in a particular issue of the magazine. A lot of “letters to the editor” took that format. The extraordinary thing in Hoen’s case was that the issue he was critiquing was the one dated November 1949 – exactly 12 months after the issue his letter appeared in!

Spookily enough, when November 1949 duly came around, that month’s Astounding bore an uncanny resemblance to Hoen’s description of it. But that wasn’t because of any great precognitive powers – or the possession of a time machine – on Hoen’s part. If that had been the case, then the match between his description and actuality would have been perfect, or nearly so – but in fact there are several major discrepancies. Basically the match is as close as the magazine’s editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., could make it!

Or maybe Hoen “saw” some slightly alternative version of the future. Maybe that was what Campbell was thinking when he printed Hoen’s letter in 1948. His comment at that time was: “Hm-m-m – he must be off on another time-track. ‘Fraid it’s not THIS November ‘49.” But by the time November 1949 came around, Campbell was pretty close to being able to put the issue together the way Hoen had described it. His editorial in that issue, “Science Fiction Prophecy”, makes the point that certain types of prophecy, once they’ve been made, have a tendency to be self-fulfilling: “Generally, a desirable, practically attainable idea, suggested in prophecy, has a chance of forcing itself into reality by its very existence. Like, for example, this particular issue of Astounding Science Fiction.”

So what aspects of his prediction did Hoen “get right”? Quite a few, as it turns out. All three short stories listed by Hoen are there in the actual magazine: “Final Command” by A. E. van Vogt, “Over the Top” by Lester del Rey and “Finished” by L. Sprague de Camp. So is the novelette, “What Dead Men Tell” by Theodore Sturgeon.

Hoen mentions two non-fiction articles, by R. S. Richardson and Willy Ley. There’s nothing in the actual magazine by Willy Ley, but there is an article by R. S. Richardson – although on a different subject from the one mentioned by Hoen.

Hoen scored another near-miss in one of the magazine’s two serialized stories – “Gulf” (part 1 of 2) by Robert A. Heinlein. Hoen doesn’t say the story is serialized, and he gives the author’s byline as Anson MacDonald – although he also refers to him as R. A. Mac H., so it’s clear he meant the story to be written by Heinlein (“Anson MacDonald” was a pseudonym Heinlein used earlier in his career).

Hoen describes the November 1949 cover as being the work of Hubert Rogers, which it is. As you can see from the photograph above, the cover story is “...And Now You Don’t” by Isaac Asimov. This again is a serial, the first of three parts, which was subsequently published in book form as the final two-thirds of Second Foundation (the first third, “Now You See It...” appeared in the January 1948 issue, seen in the bottom left of the photograph).

But Hoen doesn’t mention Asimov at all in his letter. In his version of the magazine, the cover story is “We Hail” by Don A. Stuart – a pseudonym that Campbell himself used on a number of stories back in the 1930s. You might imagine this would be the easiest part of the prophecy for Campbell to make come true, yet he didn’t. Maybe, as a full-time editor, he just didn’t have the time or inclination to write a story himself!

The actual cover story, by Asimov, contains an interesting bit of “prophecy” itself. On the penultimate page of this instalment, one of the characters exclaims “What the black holes of Space are you d...doing aboard this ship?” There’s nothing odd about that, you might think, because black holes are among the most outlandish and exotic things to be found in outer space. But the use of the term “black hole” in this context only dates from the 1960s! Anyone encountering the phrase in the book version of Second Foundation may imagine it’s a later editorial change, but as you can see from the picture below it was there in the original 1949 magazine!

Sunday, 7 June 2015

A Fortean Episode of Columbo

There are two types of 1970s nostalgia: the kind you remember if you were around at the time, and the kind everyone remembers – even people who weren’t born yet. Most of the “TV heroes” featured in the one-shot magazine pictured above (undated, but I would guess 1974 or 1975) fall in the first category, but Columbo is a perfect example of the second. Originally just one of a rotating series of Mystery Movie titles (together with Banacek, The Snoop Sisters, Macmillan & Wife and several others), Columbo episodes continued to be reshown, year after year, long after the others were forgotten. Today in the UK, Columbo reruns can be seen regularly on both ITV and Channel 5.

The original Mystery Movie series ran from 1971 to 1978, but Columbo was sufficiently popular that it was brought back for several more seasons starting in 1989 (the original series aired in the USA on the NBC network and in the UK on ITV; the revival was shown on ABC in America and on Sky in Britain). The first episode of the new series, “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine”, is described at IMDb as follows: “An egocentric psychic murders his old mentor, a magician charged to expose him as fraud, by beheading him while he’s rehearsing his guillotine trick.” That sounds interesting enough, and it’s pretty much how I remembered the episode from having seen it a quarter of a century ago (soon after I acquired a cable TV connection). But having watched a rerun on Channel 5 a few weeks ago, the episode is actually much less clichéd – and far more Fortean – than that brief synopsis suggests.

[Just to state the obvious before going any further, nothing I say here is going to constitute a plot spoiler. As with virtually all Columbo episodes, this one takes the form of an inverted mystery, in which the audience learns the identity of the murderer, and his motive and method, right at the outset. The spoiler would be to say how Columbo disentangles the evidence, and I’m not going to do that.]

The first thing that struck me as Fortean – or at any rate something that’s going to make more sense to someone interested in Forteana, rather than the clichéd expectations of a casual viewer – is that the “psychic” in the story works for a government-funded institute for psychic research, rather than performing his feats in front of a public audience. For me, this is a potentially much more interesting – and realistic – setting. What’s also realistic is that the institute’s director, Paula Hall, is pulled in two opposing directions. On the one hand, she wants to carry out a serious scientific investigation of extra-sensory perception, which (as in the real world) involves looking for small statistical glitches in long, laborious experiments. On the other hand, she needs to keep those government funds coming in – and that requires the kind of impressive, unambiguous results that can only be achieved by cheating.

Her star psychic, Elliott Blake, may or may not have a genuine paranormal talent – but there’s no doubt he’s a highly skilled trickster. The two of them have worked out routines to fool the government observers, but even in private they keep up the pretence that Elliott really does have an underlying extrasensory talent – although it’s one that can’t be relied on to perform to order. In the case of Elliott, this attitude is probably out-and-out charlatanism; in the case of Paula it may be more along the lines of wishful thinking. I thought this was a clever touch, because it reflects a common phenomenon in the Fortean world – some people seem to think it’s OK to falsify evidence as long as it supports something they sincerely believe in (I could stray off the subject here and start talking about Bigfoot bodies and alien autopsy videos, but I won’t).

A relevant quote from the IMDb article (spoken by Elliott Blake): “Our Mr. Harrow is not impressed by statistics. This man is in the market for miracles. I have the power to astonish him, you, and the entire world, Paula, but I am not a dancing dog in a carnival!” Mr Harrow is a shadowy government agent, interested in ESP because of its potential use in espionage: he wants “a demonstration that you can telepathically and precisely intercept the thoughts and actions of an enemy”. This again is a touch of realism; in 1989 the Cold War was still in full swing. Keeping a step ahead of the enemy – by whatever means possible – was the government’s Number One priority.

The opening scene of the episode shows an experiment with Zener cards (circle, cross, wavy lines, square, star) of the kind that really were used in laboratory ESP experiments. When Columbo first sees them they are simply referred to as “ESP cards”, but later he uses the technical term “Zener card”. Perhaps the dumbing-down editor (I assume all TV shows have such a thing) crossed out “Zener” in one part of the script and missed it in another!

Another clear Fortean reference is the “Randi” poster hanging on the wall of the victim’s workshop. The Amazing Randi, of course, is a professional magician who has a sideline in exposing fake psychics. The same description fits the aforementioned victim – Max Dyson, or “Max the Magnificent”. He has two jobs – one is debunking frauds on behalf of the government and other clients, and the other is making magic props such as the guillotine Elliott Blake uses to kill him. But contrary to what you might expect (and what I’d remembered from 25 years ago), Elliott doesn’t kill Max because he was on the point of exposing him as a trickster. The story is a lot cleverer than that... you really ought to check it out next time you see “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine” in the TV schedules.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Project Greenglow

 There’s another book review by myself in the latest issue of Fortean Times magazine (FT 328, pictured above). This time the subject is Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control by Ronald Evans. I also reviewed the same book, from the perspective of a different audience, for Brian Cleggs’s Popular Science website. I gave the book a rating of 8 out of 10 for Fortean Times and (after a bit of negotiation with Brian) three stars for Popular Science, which translates as “Good solid book, well worth reading if you are interested in the topic”.

Having reviewed the book twice, I’ll just refer you to those reviews rather than reviewing it again here. Instead, I thought I’d say a few words about my own peripheral involvement in Project Greenglow (which, if you’ve read one or both of my book reviews, you will know was a long-running “blue skies” research initiative led by Ron Evans when he worked for BAE Systems).

Until a month ago, I’d never seen my name mentioned in a book (apart from ones I wrote or contributed to myself). Now it’s happened twice in quick succession! The first was in the introductory note to David Clarke’s How UFOs Conquered the World, which I wrote about last week (I’m one of a long list of people that David thanks “for their input both past and present”). And then I’m mentioned twice in the Greenglow book – first in the introduction, where Ron says I provided “additional backing for the Greenglow venture” (which is true, albeit only in the form of encouragement from the sidelines, rather than active participation) and again in the acknowledgements at the end, where I’m listed as one of half a dozen people who read and commented on an earlier draft of the book.

In May 1996, around the time Project Greenglow got underway, I was seconded to the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall for three years as a scientific adviser (this was the high point of my career – it’s been downhill ever since then). This put me pretty close to the centre of things. If I crossed the corridor to my boss’s office and looked out of the window, I could see the gates of Downing Street (John Major was still Prime Minister when I arrived, replaced by Tony Blair a year later). For some even more impressive name-dropping, a couple of floors higher up the building, almost immediately over my own office, was none other than Nick Pope himself! As I said in a previous post, “by that time Nick had moved on from his stint on the UFO desk, but he had already become a major celebrity within UK ufology”.

As I also mentioned in that earlier post, my own job was concerned with advanced air vehicle research. Like Nick Pope, I was what they called a “desk officer” – which in my case meant monitoring a large number of other people’s research projects without actually (ahem) doing any real work myself. The most futuristic of the projects in my remit was a collaborative effort with BAE Systems (or British Aerospace, as it was called in those days), and that’s how I met Ron Evans. But as “futuristic” as this project was, it still used well-established textbook physics. That wasn’t the case with another of Ron’s interests, Project Greenglow, which deliberately set out to discover brand new physics in the realm of gravity control. Greenglow was purely a BAE initiative (I mean it was funded and directed by them, and carried out in various university departments around the UK), so I didn’t have any active involvement in it myself. However, I made no secret of my interest in the subject, and Ron was good enough to treat me as a kind of honorary member of the Greenglow team.

As I said in the Fortean Times review:
One of the biggest events in the field of “gravity control” during the Greenglow years was the announcement by the Russian scientist Evgeny Podkletnov of a possible gravity shielding effect caused by rotating superconductors. This made mainstream headlines when the news first broke in 1996, and an attempt to duplicate Podkletnov’s experiment was one of the main strands of Project Greenglow itself.
I was lucky enough to see the latter at first hand, when Ron invited a couple of colleagues and myself to visit the Greenglow experiment at Sheffield University in May 1998. This is certainly the closest thing to “weird science” I’ve ever seen in a university laboratory! Unfortunately the experiment failed to reproduced Podkletnov’s gravity-defying results – although it was done on a shoestring budget, so it wasn’t able to reproduce the original experiment exactly (for example the superconducting disc used in Sheffield was much smaller).

One of the things Ron was very good at was networking, and he put me in touch with a lot of fascinating characters, including several people involved in NASA’s “Breakthrough Propulsion Physics” program – which was similar in its objectives to Project Greenglow, if higher profile. At one point I got a call on my office phone from the American science fiction author – and science speculator – Robert L. Forward (who sadly died a few years later). Definitely the closest thing to a cold call from a celebrity I’ve ever received!

After I moved back to my old job following the temporary posting to MOD, Ron continued to keep me in touch with the Greenglow “network”. I talked about one of the weirder experiences to come out of this a few years ago in Stranger than Fiction. After Ron’s retirement in 2005, he sent me an early draft of his book to look through. It’s taken a long time, but I’m glad to see he finally got it published.

The book may be a little on the technical side for some people, but it ought to be essential reading for anyone who is seriously interested in the subject of “breakthrough physics”. To get your copy, just click on the appropriate link below!

Get Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control from (paperback)

Get Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control from (Kindle)

Get Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control from Amazon UK (paperback)

Get Greenglow and the Search for Gravity Control from Amazon UK (Kindle)

Sunday, 24 May 2015

How UFOs Conquered the World

 As you can see from the photograph, the latest addition to my collection of UFO books is How UFOs Conquered the World by David Clarke. Despite having a picture of a child on the cover, it’s one of the most grown-up books on the subject I’ve ever come across. My review of it appeared on Brian Clegg’s Popular Science site last weekend. At that time I hadn’t read any other reviews of the book, so I was pleased to see on David’s own blog the next day that both the Sunday Times and Magonia described it in very similar terms to myself.

The clever thing about this book is that it’s not about UFOs per se, but about how people think and talk about UFOs, and the way this has become inextricably interwoven with popular culture over the last 70 years. As David Clarke demonstrates, this is a subject that can be analysed methodically, intelligently and – most important of all – constructively. That’s what I was getting at when I described the book as “grown up”. It’s a refreshing antidote to the childish to-ing and fro-ing between uncritical speculation on the one hand and destructive debunking on the other.

The book’s subtitle is “The History of a Modern Myth”. This uses myth, not in its colloquial sense of “popular misconception”, but its original sense of “pre-scientific world-view”. As the author says: “To qualify as a myth a story does not have to be true or false, but it must express a conviction held tenaciously by its adherents. It is a defining characteristic of myths that, like the extraterrestrial hypothesis, they are immune to scientific scrutiny.”

I don’t want to repeat large chunks of what I said in the review, but I will quote one bit which highlights just how “immune to scientific scrutiny” modern ufology has become:
The X-Files went on to provide one of the most powerful tools in the cognitive dissonance arsenal, by popularising the idea that ‘They’ (the government, NASA et al) are actively concealing the truth about UFOs. This hypothesis – which Clarke points out is unfalsifiable – allows any awkward counter-evidence to be dismissed as ‘disinformation’.
One striking thing occurred to me while I was reading the book which I didn’t have space to mention in the review. As far as the extraterrestrial hypothesis is concerned, there is simply too much evidence for it, not too little. I’m not referring to evidence that would convince a court of law or a peer-reviewed scientific journal (neither of which has ever been convinced, of course), but evidence of the type commonly cited by UFO believers. There are too many UFO sightings (750 in the UK alone the year that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released). There are too many Roswell-style “crashed saucer” incidents (more than 200, according to one website). And too many people claim to have been abducted by aliens (2.5 million British citizens, extrapolating from a survey carried out in 2014). Those figures are simply too big to make sense in the context of extraterrestrial visitation. On the other hand, they make perfect sense in the context of a social and/or psychological phenomenon.

Of course, some UFO reports may still be “true” (i.e. real extraterrestrial spacecraft) even if the majority are not. But the extraterrestrial hypothesis remains nothing more than speculation. On the other hand, it's an indisputable fact that there is a fascinating psychosocial phenomenon at play, independent of the truth or otherwise of the ETH. That’s what I meant when I said David Clarke’s book is constructive, not destructive.

You can read my full review here. I gave the book four stars, which in the context of the Popular Science site where it was posted means “Excellent book that any popular science fan would want to read”. From a Fortean perspective, however, the rating would be a resounding five stars – definitely as good as they come. You can get your copy by clicking on the following links:

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Fake News and Lazy Journalism

Earlier this year I wrote about the huge upsurge in Fake News Stories circulating on social media. The Snopes website is very good at identifying and debunking these stories, and a few days ago they had an interesting article on Fake News Sites to Avoid Sharing (from which the above graphic is taken). The first paragraph emphasizes the cynical financial motive behind most of these “fake news” stories:
The sharp increase in popularity of social media networks (primarily Facebook) has created a predatory secondary market among online publishers seeking to profitably exploit the large reach of those networks [...] and a number of frequent offenders regularly fabricate salacious and attention-grabbing tales simply to drive traffic (and revenue) to their site.
There’s another factor at play though, besides deliberate fake news sites. That’s lazy journalism by mainstream media, who often repeat a far-fetched claim without attempting to check up on its background and credibility. There was a good example of this last week (admittedly a slow news week here in the UK, what with the General Election) when several tabloids chose to run the “Roswell Slides” story at face value:
  • “REVEALED: Images of Roswell ALIEN found in wreckage of crashed UFO almost 70 years ago” (Daily Express, 6 May 2015)
  • “Is this evidence of alien life? New Roswell photos prove ‘beyond any doubt’ that ET exists, claim UFO specialists” (Daily Mail, 7 May 2015)
In fact the images in question look less like a dead alien in a government laboratory than a child mummy in a public museum (which is what they almost certainly do show). But if the papers had said that, they wouldn’t have sold as many copies.

The latest issue of Animals & Men magazine (issue 53, May 2015) contains a letter from me on another example of lazy journalism with a Fortean flavour. You can read the whole issue online for free (my letter is on pp. 70-71), but here is the gist of what I said:
[...] The mainstream media appear to judge the newsworthiness of Fortean-type stories not by their credibility but by their outrageousness. A case in point was the “Whitstable giant crab” you mentioned on page 25 of Issue 52. This started out as a whimsical piece of artwork in issue 301 of Fortean Times (May 2013), which was a special tribute issue to the actor Peter Cushing on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Whitstable was Cushing’s adopted home, and the magazine included a lighthearted feature on “Weird Whitstable”. The article was the work of artist Quinton Winter, and the idea that a giant crab can be seen on Google Earth images of Whitstable was just one of his inventions. Sadly, however, it seems that people these days simply aren’t wired up to understand irony. In October 2014, it was reported as a genuine news story in the Sunday Express, soon followed by several other tabloids including the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. Within days, the story of “Crabzilla”, as it became known, had gone viral on social media around the world! (Source: Fortean Times issue 321, December 2014, page 2).

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Lusitania Conspiracy

From a quick glance at the cover of my book Conspiracy History (a close-up of which is shown above) you might think it includes a section about the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912. Actually it doesn’t – although it might have done, since there is no shortage of conspiracy theories associated with that event. But the ship shown on the cover is not the Titanic but her lesser known rival RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat a hundred years ago this month, on 7 May 1915.

I wrote about the basic facts of the case in an online article What Happened to the British Ocean Liner Lusitania? last year. But for the conspiracy angle, here is what I said in the book:
The RMS Lusitania was launched by Cunard in 1907. At 32,000 tons she was one of the largest passenger ships of the time, becoming a regular on the lucrative transatlantic route between Liverpool and New York. By April 1915, some nine months after the outbreak of the First World War, the Lusitania had completed no fewer than 200 Atlantic crossings.

Britain was one of the countries fighting the war. British ships like the Lusitania were prey to German U-boats, particularly in the waters around the British Isles which Germany had declared to be a War Zone. The United States remained neutral in the war, but was happy to supply Britain with arms and ammunition – transported across the Atlantic on whatever ships had space in their holds.

When the Lusitania arrived in New York on 24 April at the end of her 201st transatlantic crossing, she was duly loaded up with shells, machine gun ammo and other explosives in addition to almost 2,000 passengers and crew. Of the passengers, 139 were U.S. citizens – many more Americans had been deterred from travelling by a notice the German embassy had placed in newspapers warning that the ship was a legitimate target for their submarines.

On the last day of the return trip – 7 May 1915 – when the Lusitania was less than a day away from docking in Liverpool, she was torpedoed by a German U-boat near the coast of Ireland. The huge liner sank almost immediately, with the death of more than a thousand people – including 128 of the 139 Americans on board. In light of the German warnings, this tragic outcome seems all but inevitable.

Why did the British allow the Lusitania to sail, without an armed escort, through the very waters the Germans had declared to be a War Zone? There are only two possible answers – either the government was grossly incompetent, or they knew exactly what they were doing. Most conspiracy theorists would put their money on the second of these. Britain didn’t like the fact that America was remaining neutral in the war – they wanted to see Americans fighting alongside them against the Germans. An atrocity like the sinking of a civilian liner was just the sort of thing that could swing American public opinion in their favour. Shortly before the sinking of the Lusitania, Winston Churchill – who at the time was First Lord of the Admiralty – had written to another minister that it was “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” Translating from the deliberately obscure phraseology of the professional politician, this boils down to “the sooner an innocent ship gets sunk, the sooner the Americans will join us in the trenches”.

As it turned out, the ruse – if it was a ruse – was not immediately successful. Instead of joining the war, the Americans secured a promise from the German government that an incident such as the sinking of the Lusitania wouldn’t happen again. It was only when the Germans withdrew this promise, early in 1917, that the United States finally decided it was time to go to war.
That’s just one of the 69 historical conspiracies discussed in the book. At the last count, there were still several billion people in the world who haven’t bought their copy yet, so you might be able to snap one up if you hurry:

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Camelot, maybe

Hill-forts are among the most impressive pre-Roman structures to be found in Britain. They are particularly common in southern England, as Paul Jackson described in his blog post A Handful of Hill Forts. Despite the name, hill-forts weren’t really military structures so much as small, self-contained towns that were defended by artificially built ramparts. An example can be seen in the photograph above, which shows Cadbury Castle in Somerset.

Cadbury Castle was built during the Iron Age, around 500 BC, and was continuously occupied until it was overrun by the Romans in the first century AD, in what seems to have been a particularly brutal and violent event. According to the Somerset County Council website, there is “clear evidence of destruction by fire and the massacre of a group of inhabitants”. However, after the departure of the Romans, the South Cadbury site was reoccupied and redeveloped in the early Middle Ages.

In 1533, a man named John Leland was given a commission by King Henry VIII “to make a search after England’s Antiquities”. This assignment took him to all corners of the country, including the Somerset village of South Cadbury, where he wrote “At the very south end of the church of South Cadbury standeth Camelot, sometime a famous town or castle” and that “The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard say that Arthur much restored to Camelot.

In other words, Leland was saying that Cadbury Castle was nothing less than King Arthur’s Camelot!

Now King Arthur is one of the most frustrating figures in British history. Almost everyone has heard of him, but there is no firm consensus on what century he lived in, what kingdom he ruled over, or even if he existed in the real world at all. As I said last year in The Lost Tomb of King Arthur:
Down here in the south-west, the prevailing opinion is that he was the King of Dumnonia around 500 AD, a century or so after the departure of the Romans. Dumnonia roughly corresponded to modern-day Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, which remained resolutely Celtic while Wessex to the East (Dorset/Wiltshire/Hampshire) adopted the language and culture of the Anglo-Saxons.
According to this view, it’s not that unreasonable to suggest that Cadbury Castle might have been associated with King Arthur – possibly even one of his main courts. It was occupied at the right time, and it’s in the right place. I made this point in my book Bloody British History: Somerset:
Cadbury Castle is one of the best natural defences on what would have been the eastern border of Dumnonia. Although the hillfort had existed for more than a thousand years in Arthur’s time, its modern name dates from precisely that period. Cadbury means ‘Cado’s Fort’... and Cado was king of Dumnonia around the time Arthur was born. Archaeologically, too, the evidence points to the site being an important military installation of the period. It was refortified in the fifth century with massive stone walls, and in the middle of the hilltop a timber-framed Great Hall was built – a splendid palace fit for a King!
These days, the only structure on the top of Cadbury Castle is a stone plinth dated “2000 AD” (see picture below). The plaque on top of this shows the directions and distances to a number of other places in southwest England. I struggled at first to discern a common theme to these, eventually deciding that they're all places dear to the hearts of hippies and New Agers! There are nine places in all, as follows:
  • Two other “Arthurian” sites, Tintagel and Glastonbury
  • Two other hill-forts, Ham Hill and Maiden Castle
  • Another Iron Age site, Hengistbury Head, which was a busy seaport and trading centre
  • Two megalithic sites, Stonehenge and Avebury
  • Lamyatt Beacon, the site of a Romano-Celtic temple
  • Alfred’s Tower, an 18th century folly commemorating Alfred the Great

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Isaac Newton and me

The studious-looking geek in the above photo is me, at the age of 21 in 1979, posing in front of a portrait of Isaac Newton. The picture was taken in Trinity College, Cambridge, at the top of I staircase where I had a room during my third year at university. I staircase is about 200 feet along the east front of Great Court from E staircase, where Newton himself lived for many years (although I staircase, which is a 20th century utilitarian monstrosity, wasn’t there in his time).

Along with Einstein, Newton was one of the scientific heroes of my teenage years. I read a biography of him in 1973 (as I’ve mentioned before, I kept a list of all the books I read) and visited his birthplace in Lincolnshire a year or two after that. So I was pleased to end up at Newton’s college, Trinity, even though I had no say in the matter. The school I went to (a comprehensive in the West Midlands, before you ask) had a tradition of trying to get its best science student into that particular college each year. All I needed to do was get three grade As at A-level (I got four, just to be on the safe side).

After I graduated (the day that photo was taken – I didn’t always dress like that) I went to Manchester University to do a PhD on the computer simulation of galaxy dynamics. That may sound very modern and state-of-the-art, but the only science involved was 100% Newtonian. In three years I never had to use a single equation that isn’t present, either explicitly or implicitly, in the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica that Newton wrote in 1687. So I owe Newton my doctorate, too!

Just over a year ago the History Press (which published my first book, Bloody British History: Somerset) started a new series of short biographies called Pocket Giants. I was intrigued by this idea (as I’ve said before, I like short books) so I contacted the series editor, Tony Morris, to see if there was anything I could do for him. After batting a few ideas around, we eventually zeroed in – perhaps not surprisingly – on Isaac Newton. Tony was as enthusiastic about the project as I was, and with his encouragement and constructive input the proposal was accepted by the History Press, the contract signed and the book written in the space of a few months last year.

Despite being a lifelong fan of Newton, I still learned a lot about him while I was researching and writing the book. Perhaps the oddest thing about him – which is more widely known today than it was in the 1970s – is that he spent less time on the scientific work for which he’s remembered than on pursuing non-scientific interests like alchemy, Hermeticism, theology and ancient history. There’s a common tendency to view the scientific and non-scientific (or even anti-scientific, by modern standards) activities as separate and non-overlapping. Scientists see the non-scientific work as an irrelevance and embarrassment that ought to be ignored and forgotten, while mystics and New Agers see the scientific work as the irrelevance – a kind of smoke-screen of acceptability designed to hide Newton’s real achievements.

I came to the conclusion that both these views miss the point. Everything Newton did stemmed from the same world-view – the idea that the universe was designed, by God, according to a simple code that could be rediscovered if it was searched for carefully enough. Newton looked for the code in the Bible and other ancient writings, and in the work of alchemists and Hermeticists. But he also looked for mathematical relationships that applied to the material world – something that seemed just as mystical and improbable to his contemporaries. But Newton’s “applied mathematics” worked – and worked so well that it’s become synonymous with mainstream science. Both scientists and New Agers have forgotten, or can’t see, what a profoundly mystical notion it is.

This was the point I tried to make in a blog post I wrote last week for the History Press. My original title was “Isaac Newton and the Key to the Universe”, which I thought was quite clever, but they wanted to tie it in with the series so they changed it to Why was Isaac Newton such a giant? (It was meant as a rhetorical question, but one clever lady on Twitter replied “Because he stood on the shoulders of giants”).

Needless to say, all these ideas are explored in more detail in the book itself, together with lots of other fascinating facts about Newton (such as how he perpetrated a UFO hoax as a teenager, predicted the end of the world and became “17th-Century London’s Dirty Harry”). You can order your copy from any good bookseller or from Amazon.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Cerne Giant

The Cerne Giant is one of the best known features of the Dorset landscape. In fact it’s such a familiar image that it’s easy to forget just how bizarre and unique it is. As I pointed out 18 months ago in my post about Phallic Symbols (mostly small ones), “gigantic erections are something you almost never see in mainstream European art”. Although they went to the trouble of inventing a word, ithyphallic, to refer to the artistic depiction of a sexually aroused male, it’s usually limited to ancient cultures and/or other continents. In this part of the world, ithyphallic images disappeared almost completely with the departure of the Romans in the fifth century. Nudity of any kind never really returned to British art, even during the Renaissance period when it was quite common in the rest of Europe (albeit with tiny little dicks).

Also from around 18 months ago is Paul Jackson’s “Armchair Tour of Britain’s Hill Figures”, the first part covering White Horses and the second everything else. In the latter category, there is only one other human figure besides the Cerne Giant – the Long Man of Wilmington. There’s a similarity between the two, in that both are simplistically drawn outline figures, but also an obvious difference – the Long Man of Wilmington hasn’t got his dick out.

A fact about hill figures that isn’t always appreciated is that they require constant maintenance – decade after decade, century after century. Paul gave a first-hand account of what needs to be done in his post Maintaining the Broad Town White Horse last year. The first step is weeding and trimming to prevent the outline from becoming overgrown, followed by re-liming (in the case of Paul’s White Horse, using over a ton of powdered lime) to restore the figure’s whiteness. Without this sort of attention, generation after generation, a hill figure would eventually be lost to sight and forgotten.

This brings us to the most contentious question about the Cerne Giant: How old is it? Only one of the figures in Paul’s survey – the Uffington White Horse – has been accurately dated to prehistoric times, with most of the others being a few centuries old at most (the Broad Town White Horse, for example, was created in the 19th century).

The oldest surviving records of the Cerne Giant date from the second half of the 17th century. As a result, many skeptical websites (Wikipedia among them) assume it must have originated around that time. One theory is that it’s a caricature of Oliver Cromwell – England’s puritanical leader following the Civil War of the 1640s. This makes sense up to a point. The obscene image would certainly have offended Cromwell and his followers (who took the Biblical injunction against graven images very seriously), and it’s placed in clear view of what would have been a busy road between Dorchester and Sherborne. But on closer inspection the theory is ludicrous.

It’s all very well for people in the 21st century to sit at their computer screens and say “maybe it was a 17th century political cartoon”... but does it look like a 17th century political cartoon? As I said at the start, nude figures – let alone rampant erections – were conspicuously absent from British representational art in those days. It’s true that the people who opposed the Puritans (and came back to power with the Restoration of Charles II) sometimes went to the opposite extreme – a notorious example being the satirical entertainment Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery (which includes some great character names like Fuckadilla and Clytoris)... but that was only in discrete private circles, not on public display for everyone to see!

Also, why depict Cromwell bald-headed and whiskerless, when he wasn’t? Why depict him holding a club and not a pistol or musket? Real caricatures of Cromwell are quite different in style, leaving the viewer in no doubt as to his identity. Here is one of him dressed as a king and here he is consorting with the devil. Even crudely drawn cartoons of that period are quite different in style from the Cerne Giant, as you can see from this example or this one. All the adult male figures are shown with long hair and beards, and dressed in the fashion of the times.

The theory that the Cerne Giant is a 17th century caricature seems to be an internet-era thing. I looked in various history books, guidebooks etc that I’ve got (mostly dating from the 20th century) and couldn’t find a single mention of it. Out of 11 books I consulted, one says that nothing is known about the giant’s history, seven suggest it’s a depiction of Hercules from the Romano-British period, and three that it represents a pre-Roman deity.

The association with Hercules is based on similarities of iconography. The ancient Greek hero, who was also popular with the Romans, was often depicted holding a club in one hand and a lion skin in the other – and archaeological evidence does indeed suggest that the Cerne Giant might once have held a lion skin (or something similar) which has since been erased. But Hercules isn’t usually ithyphallic. I said earlier that the Romans often depicted enormous erections, but that was almost always in the context of one specific deity, Priapus. Hercules, on the other hand, usually had a tiny little one (see the second picture in my earlier blog post for a particularly amusing example).

Personally I think it’s more likely that the Cerne Giant originated in pre-Roman times. The artistic style looks pre-Roman, for one thing, and the Uffington White Horse proves that chalk hill figures were not unknown in Iron Age Britain. Maybe it was subsequently adapted by the Romans into a depiction of Hercules, which would explain how it survived into the fifth or sixth century AD. But what happened then?

The full name of the village where the giant is located is Cerne Abbas – the “Abbas” suffix indicating that the village was attached to a mediaeval Christian abbey. At a time when anything pagan was automatically assumed to be the work of the devil, it’s difficult to believe the monks did any proactive maintenance work on the giant (and may even have deliberately tried to obliterate it). So perhaps it was lost to sight and forgotten until the 17th century, when it was rediscovered and restored – hence the misconception that it was actually created at that time.