Monday, 21 June 2010

Tony Cornell: An Appreciation

Part of the display at Tony's memorial

Veteran psychical researcher Anthony Donald Cornell died on 10 April 2010.  His memorial service was held at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, on 20 June, on what would have been his 87th birthday.  The event, ably organised by Ali Cornell and Tony’s sons David, Martin and John, was very moving.  We had reminiscences from Alan Gauld, who had known Tony for almost sixty years, and carried out investigations with him (‘Tony as I knew him’), and Bernard Carr, a member of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research (CUSPR) in the late 1960s/early 70s, and a firm family friend ever since (‘Tony Cornell: Psychical researcher, intrepid investigator and mischievous spirit’).  Both Alan and Bernard are of course senior figures in the London-based Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  David Cornell spoke about his father’s role - extremely underrated - as a councillor active in planning matters in Cambridge.  We sang For Those in Peril on the Sea, which tied in with Tony’s wartime naval career, and there were some touching readings.  The chapel was packed with his friends, and while the mood was one of sadness, there was much humour, to reflect Tony’s irrepressible extravert nature.

Along with a buffet afterwards, we were treated to a slide show and display of photographs and articles on Tony’s life and manifold activities, covering his schooldays, his naval service, his travels, his politics, and his psychical research, not to mention his fondness for dressing in silly costumes and headgear.  There was also a loop of his appearances in television programmes discussing ghost hunting, though alas not my favourite, mentioned by Alan, in which Tony set out to test G W Lambert’s ‘underground water’ hypothesis to account for poltergeist phenomena.  It featured Tony, hanging out of an upstairs window while the house was shaken to pieces round him, shouting out that the poltergeist effects, which he argued should have occurred if the theory was valid, had not happened. (Tony’s mad antics, before the days of risk assessments, were great television but of course the sorts of vibrations Lambert suggested were responsible for poltergeists were of a different kind to those produced in this demonstration.)  Obituaries of Tony will appear in the SPR Journal and Fortean Times in due course which will describe his life, and particularly his significant contributions to psychical research, but in the meantime I want to record some personal thoughts of my own.

I first met Tony in 1990, when I was co-opted onto the SPR Council. Eventually I moved to Cambridge and we lived quite close to each other, so I would regularly pop round and spend a couple of hours drinking coffee and eating cake while telling him bits of SPR news and listening to his views on the state of psychical research, notably the lack of cases these days, the absence of decent photographic evidence for the paranormal, and generally whether we were all wasting our time.  I thoroughly enjoyed these visits, mainly because he had a vast amount of experience in the subject he was willing to impart, but also because he was astonishingly indiscreet and had an amazing store of anecdotes, both about psychical research and his life.  We would chat, often with the indoor rabbits underfoot, and I would look out of the window at the birds, mostly feral pigeons, and squirrels in the garden.  He bought seed in large sacks and must have spent a fortune on feeding wildlife over the years (including foxes as we were told at his memorial).

I spent a lot of time with him for an extended period helping to clear decades of possessions and rubbish from the damp-riddled basement of his house in Victoria Street, venue for the CUPSR, and immortalised in the large number of interviews that Tony gave for both television and print media.  I decided that Tony was himself a squirrel of the first order, partly because he had accumulated so much junk over the years, and partly because he remained reluctant to part with a lot of it. I did many trips to the tip with enormous bags of rubbish, but even so I would regularly say, “shall I throw this out Tony?”, and he would frown and reply, “no, it could come in useful,” even though he must have realised it probably never would.  These visits were particularly noteworthy for the drive there and back in his car.  After his stroke he had limited mobility in one arm and although he continued to drive, he tended to disregard the road markings.  At Mitcham’s Corner in particular he would always be on the wrong side of the line and would swoop across at the last moment to take the left turn, occasionally prompting a vigorous honking behind us.

One of my regrets is not having been around during the glory days of the CUSPR.  Those Sunday evenings in Tony’s basement sound as if they were great fun, even though Tony and his colleagues were conducting serious research.  Tony was always disappointed that there was insufficient interest among the university’s undergraduates to keep CUSPR going.  Another disappointment was that his book Investigating the Paranormal was not distributed as widely as its importance merited.  Hopefully now that the rights are in other hands this will be rectified and marketing will be more vigorous.  Who knows, we might one day even see a second edition with the bits that Helix Press cut out the first time round reinstated.

Sadly I never accompanied Tony on a proper investigation; the closest I came was when we went to The Bell at Thetford to participate in the making of a television programme for a series called Ghosthunters.  I was there with my local group, and we tried to simulate a vigil while the room was bathed in bright light aimed in from a cherry picker parked outside.  I also had to describe Tony’s SPIDER (Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder) to camera after Tony had given the background to the case.  Alas while Tony’s contribution remained the rest never made it into the programme. (Rather curiously, as I was typing this the magazine produced by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena arrived, and on opening it the page fell open at an article by Lionel Fanthorpe describing his recent visit to The Bell.  No mention of Tony though.)

The overarching theme of the memorial, which tied together his various interests, was his essential decency.  In his public life he always tried to do the right thing.  David Cornell’s account of his father’s tenacity as chair of the Council’s planning committee – not you would have thought the world’s most exciting topic, but as Tony was involved it was bound to be lively – was punctuated with “…and then there was an almighty row.”  Tony did not curry favour, and although a staunch Conservative, was not a party hack. That could be why, despite his long service to the City, he never obtained the gong which those of lesser achievement often receive.  He was willing to challenge developers and fellow Councillors if he thought they were in the wrong, and Cambridge is the richer for it.  In particular, as David pointed out, Tony was the inspiration for the Cambridge Science Park, an achievement of which he was enormously proud, but for which he never received his due recognition.   It was also this tenacity which led to his long tenure (over twenty years) as Hon Treasurer of the SPR during some financially difficult times.

I last saw Tony two days before he died.  He had come home from Addenbrooke’s and was installed in his room at the front of the house, in a peaceful road with the sun streaming in and spring flowers in the garden.  Ali said that I could hold his hand, but I was reluctant as holding hands with Tony was not something I would normally have done.  He was heavily sedated and although he was conscious I didn’t know if he could understand what I was saying to him.  While Ali made coffee I told him some news about the SPR, and mentioned the names of people I knew annoyed him, hoping that doing so would engage his attention.  If nothing else I thought that he would at least know he was not alone.  Shortly afterwards the nurse came and I felt I was in the way and should leave.  Before doing so I did hold Tony’s hand briefly and said goodbye.  I told Ali I would like to come back to see him again but he died before I could.

After the memorial, resolutely not called that on the programme, but “A celebration of the life of Tony Cornell”, Karen and I walked back to the car which was parked at the front of the college.  I sat in it while Karen changed her shoes, and something on the grass by the car caught my eye.  For a moment I could not work out what it was, and then realised it was a green woodpecker, just a few feet away, on the ground with its wings spread.  I told Karen not to move and for about half a minute we watched it sit there before it flew away through the trees and across the Huntingdon Road. Karen reckoned it had a glint in its eye so was probably Tony, wearing one of the masks of which he was so fond, saying cheerio.