Sunday, 14 February 2010

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 4

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 4 - Winter 1996/Spring 1997


Welcome to the fourth However Improbable. We’ve now completed a year’s worth of issues, and this seems to be a good place to take stock of what we have achieved and where we go now. We began the magazine as means of communication among a widely dispersed membership, experience having shown that meetings were difficult for people to attend. Unfortunately feedback has not been as great as we had hoped. This could mean that people are happy with what they get, and that no news is good news. Or it could mean that they find it not relevant, or boring, and bin it. Or that they enjoy it as far as it goes, but would like to see changes made. We would appreciate any comments you have, and even more some solid contributions. It is often said that this is the most haunted land in the world, so there must be some story associated with every reader’s locale. If you are doing research, please share it with the group.

APRG has had a fair amount of exposure locally, but we have now had coverage in a national magazine, Uri Geller’s Encounters, Issue Three (January 1997). In 1995 we investigated a church in Lincolnshire (see However Improbable 01, Spring 1996) and an article appeared in The Society for Psychical Research’s magazine The Psi Researcher. This article was picked up by a journalist working on Encounters and appeared in a wider discussion of the work of the SPR, complete with a photograph of the church. Some of the Psi Researcher material was quoted without an acknowledgement of the source, and the conclusions were simplified somewhat, but it was nice to see us get credit for an investigation. Hopefully we will get other mentions in the media, so if readers do see us referred to, we would be grateful if they would let us know.

We still have some back issues of The Psi Researcher, price 40p each plus postage, and some facsimile copies of Harry Price’s Blue Book of instructions for investigators at Borley Rectory, at £1 each. Both are available from Andy Waters at the editorial address

The Enigma of Borley Rectory, Ivan Banks, Foulsham, Cippenham, Berkshire, 1996, £9.99.

Borley Rectory will be of interest to many of our members, not only because it is on our patch, but because though the house itself is long gone, the site and its stories still exert a fascination. Whether the rectory was “Britain’s most haunted house” is open to dispute, depending on one’s verdict on the evidence presented, but it is certainly fair to call it “Britain’s most famous allegedly true ghost case”, although that doesn’t have quite the same ring. It is a saga with the characteristics of a detective novel, and Ivan Banks has shown himself to be a thorough investigator of the facts, if more uncertain in his interpretation of them.

This is a book of two halves. In the first, Banks is a painstaking investigator, giving a physical description, complete with photographs, diagrams and elevations, so detailed that you can visualise the building clearly. The history of the house and its residents is also supplied in fine detail, although the structure is somewhat fractured by concentrating on the house and phenomena up to 1945 and then going back to discuss the various incumbents, beginning again at 1863.

The second part of the book is much more speculative, with a reliance on planchette session conducted in the 1920s and ‘30s, and a very long discussion of possible identities for the ghost nun which seems to have wandered in from a different book. The effort to pin down the story of a figure seen clinging to the window sill of the first floor Blue Room involves consideration of a story that didn’t even interest Harry Price, and ignores the fact that to cling to the sill would mean lying on top of the veranda canopy, hardly the most effective way to commit suicide.

This approach, with its long chains of hypotheses, reaches a nadir in unsupported speculation that Henry Bull fathered several illegitimate children, was involved in the murky death of a maid, Kate Boreham, whom he had made pregnant, and died of syphilis. A convoluted house of cards based on possible scenarios is then used to assert that “the death of Kate Boreham ... was the root of some of the psychic disturbances at Borley Rectory.”

It must be said in fairness that Banks is not always ready to plump for a paranormal explanation, deciding, for example, that the fire was probably arson committed for the insurance money. The assessment of Harry Price too is reasonable. Price must feature heavily in any account of Borley, and despite Banks’s valiant attempt to uncouple the history of the house from his personality, one’s final opinion on the events there will probably be coloured by the attitude held about his role in promoting the story, and whether he faked phenomena or not. Banks is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, but criticises him for the deficiencies of the investigation. This is a balanced view with which I am inclined to concur. The assertion that Price would have been physically incapable of trickery due to the severity of his heart condition (which carried him off in 1948) is less convincing.

On the whole though, Banks is sure that paranormal factors have been at work at Borley, to the extent that even the book’s editor seems to have felt uncomfortable, saying that “To some, the author’s ideas and his spiritual interpretations may not easily be acceptable” before going on to congratulate him for “sheer tenacity, persistence and dedication”. Tom Perrott, Chairman of the Ghost Club, who contributed the foreword, doesn’t seem to be persuaded either, and most readers will doubtless be of the same mind.

There are a few deficiencies in this book which can easily be rectified in a new edition, which I am sure interest will warrant. The proof-reading standard could be higher, and it seems wilful to have put the photograph of the famous ‘flying brick’ on page 123 and the enlargement of the brick itself on page 143. Why on earth were they not put side by side? The book would have been even better with a more comprehensive bibliography. Banks does say that so much has been published that to do it justice would take another book the same size as this one, but one page looks extremely paltry. Those who want to examine the literature in greater depth should try to access Vincent O’Neil (Marianne Foyster’s adopted son) World Wide Web site on the Internet (, which has a massive bibliography of books, magazine articles, even letters and film scripts.

Ivan Banks should be congratulated for the depth of his historical research, but the book needs to be read with care, and a sense of perspective maintained when grappling with the many arguments for which evidence is thin. The Enigma of Borley Rectory is not going to become the standard work which Banks probably hoped it would, but it will have to figure large in any subsequent research.

Black Dogs (again)

Black Dogs have been in the news once more. The Eastern Daily Press has been carrying a debate on the proposal by a local sculptor that Bungay should have a Black Dog statue in the town as a way to commemorate the Millennium. Opposition has come in the form of the vicar, who says that while he has no objection to the legend itself, he is against the idea of a statue on the grounds that the beast represents the Devil. “The town might as well put up a statue to someone with a trident, a forked tail and horns on his head” he was reported to have said, rather melodramatically. Instead he suggests that the money should be spent on either a pageant or an Easter Passion Play. Naturally the reverend has generated much controversy, given that the Black Dog motif is inextricably linked with the town, and that he seems to be implicitly insulting all those connected both to the town’s football club, The Black Dogs, and to the annual Black Dog Marathon. This is one fight with the forces of darkness (of the dog variety) he may lose.

The Society for Psychical Research

The Society for Psychical Research has recently announced a new category of membership, for members of local groups which are recognised by the SPR. It is possible to obtain the status of Associate Member for £25 p.a., reduced from £35, with the senior rate reduced from £23 to £18. Normally, at least three people from a group would need to apply, presumably to prevent an individual forming a Mickey Mouse group with a membership of one. There is an upper limit of 20 members, which probably wouldn’t present us with a problem, and only operates for two years, after which the standard rate would be applicable. If anyone would like to take advantage of this offer, please contact me as applications need to be countersigned.

Remote Viewing Competition

In the past couple of issues we have run a caption competition. We’ve got another one this time, but in addition we are going to have a go at a remote viewing (i.e. clairvoyance) experiment. This simply means that at a given time on a particular day, I shall go to a randomly determined location and stay for a period, doing a specific act while there. Your job, gentle reader, is to attempt to determine where I am, supplying as many details, in the form of notes and/or pictures, as possible. You may get the location with no trouble - “You are bungee jumping off the Telecom Tower”, for example, but possibly you will have a series of notes which do not seem to make sense as they stand. Don’t worry, because they will be judged by a panel, and the person who is closest overall will win a [whatever we’re giving away].

A word of warning. There may be a temptation to write as much as possible on the assumption that some of the elements will be hits by chance, though I’m sure none of our members would be so cynical. But it would do no good, because if the description is randomly composed, the amount of noise will increase too, and we will be looking at this as well as possible signals among it.

The day chosen for the experiment is Sunday 9th February, at 12.00 noon. I shall be in a randomly chosen, well within reason, location for at least thirty minutes.

Send your efforts to me at 74 Hall Lane, West Winch, Norfolk, PE33 OQF, by 22nd February and we will announce the winner in our next issue.

Haunted Ely, by Vivienne Doughty and Margaret Haynes, S.B. Publications, Seaford, East Sussex, 1996, £4.50.

This is naturally a book of potential interest to APRG members, as it covers one of the most historic sites in East Anglia. The authors are ex-teachers and Blue Guides in the city, one conducting a regular ghost tour, so they write with considerable knowledge of historic Ely, though not as psychical researchers.

It is short (56 pages), and heavily illustrated, but still the book packs in a great deal of information. Starting with our old friend Black Shuck, subsequent chapters cover the usual fayre of haunting monks, nuns and historical figures, including Oliver Cromwell and Nell Gwynne, as well as more humble ghosts.

The information is a combination of public domain material and statements given by local witnesses. As is typical in this kind of publication, no effort is made to conduct extensive research into their stories, which limits its usefulness for serious students of the paranormal. And there is a lot of historical background, albeit fascinating, in an attempt to fill out what are in some cases somewhat thin stories. However, used as a tour guide, and even a source of places which might merit further investigation, this type of small-scale effort is handy. If you are visiting Ely, and want to know more than just the standard history of the place, this is very good, and well priced, example of the genre.

In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist, Susan Blackmore, Ph.D., Prometheus, Amherst, New York, 1996, £14.50. (Prometheus books are available in the UK from 10 Crescent View, Loughton, Essex IG10 4PZ.)

“In Search of the Light” sounds like the titles of one of Betty Shine’s books, but this is the revised autobiography, first published in 1986, of one of the most interesting figures in contemporary parapsychology.

Critics of psychical research are often charged with sitting in armchairs and failing to examine the evidence thoroughly. That charge cannot be levelled at Sue Blackmore. She has crammed more experiments into her career so far than many in the field. Her conclusions about psi phenomena, although not welcome to her critics, are based on rigorous research into just about every area of the subject.

That is what makes it unfair when her name is used as shorthand, often linked to James Randi’s, for a type of narrow-minded bigot who automatically declares the paranormal to be impossible (see a typical issue of Psychic News’s letters page, for example). They do exist, but she is not one of them, having put in more effort to research the issues than the vast majority of her critics. And as this book shows, the conclusion that there is nothing in it was reached only after much pain and (pun intended) soul-searching.

This type of scientific autobiography is especially interesting because the layperson does not normally see what lies behind the ordinary journal article, the effort, thought and sometimes misery which lie behind the dry prose. That said, some of the personal material reads rather awkwardly (the sentence describing living with Adam Hart-Davis, “with whom I write books, make television programs, and love” really ought to be dropped in the next edition). On the whole though it is very readable, with lots of invented dialogue, and has the added bonus of introducing a great deal of the parapsychological debate in a friendly and non-technical manner. As a portrait of an intellectual journey and a behind-the-scenes look at some of the personalities and the research it is extremely entertaining.

The section covering the last ten years is raced through in less than thirty pages, which is a pity, because that is the period in which she has come to national prominence. On the other hand, it only continues a trend which was clearly marked out before. In her struggle to find some paranormal component to human experience, nothing has changed to alter her attitude that it is unlikely to exist, although she hopes that she is wrong. The final section is valuable for a discussion of the famous expedition to Cambridge, the background to which she could only allude to in the first edition.

During a ‘Start the Week’ discussion on Radio 4 last year, she said that she was interested in conducting research into concepts developed by Richard Dawkins, another name to provoke frothing by Psychic News readers, but the shift clearly signals a move away from parapsychology. After so many years of obtaining results at chance levels it is understandable that she should want a change, but the field will be the poorer for her absence. It also means that we might not get a further instalment of her autobiography in 2006, as In Search of the Light gets its structure from her journey of exploration of the paranormal.

Footnote: On the coincidences front, one relating to Sue Blackmore came my way recently. On 13th January 1997, BBC2 showed a programme presented by Adam Hart-Davis (with whom Dr Blackmore writes books etc.). That was followed by University Challenge. The teams were The University of the West of England, where Sue Blackmore is a senior lecturer, and the University of Surrey, which is where she did her Ph.D. I wonder which team she rooted for.