Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Narrative of John Smith, by Arthur Conan Doyle

I remember once reading a review of a release of studio outtakes by Jimi Hendrix, and the reviewer dismissing it by saying that there would be a market for recordings of Jimi “whistling in the bog”. The sceptic might argue something similar about this juvenilia, that it is unlikely that it would have seen the light of day had it not been for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s reputation. That is probably true, yet while The Narrative of John Smith is never going to be as popular as Sherlock Holmes, it is still worth reading as an insight into the development of a major writer.

The first version was begun in 1883 when Conan Doyle was 23 but lost (“what, no copy, Mr Doyle?”) in the post. He said that he had reconstructed it from memory but there is no guarantee that the reconstruction matches the original particularly closely. The first attempt predates the appearance of Sherlock Holmes by four years, and features an entirely different character – the young Conan Doyle in fact, masquerading as a fifty-year old man, a “grizzly-haired old fellow”, laid up for a week in his boarding-house with a bad attack of gout, and a touch of rheumatism thrown in. Having the hero literally put his feet up allows the tyro novelist to muse on a wide range of scientific, philosophical, theological, political, literary, social, and military issues of the day.

So how, you may be wondering, does the author move the narrative along in this single setting? Is it structured like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the philosophising gives way at regular intervals to some action, for a bit of light relief? Well no, there’s nothing that exciting. The only ‘action’ occurs when the narrator’s internal monologue is broken by the occasional visitor and the monologue becomes a dialogue, that is about as much as you get. There is a strand in which Mr Smith watches a young woman in the house opposite as she paints, but it’s hardly Rear Window. Given Conan Doyle’s facility with action in his later novels, the whole affair is astonishingly static.

Yet, once the sluggish pace is accepted Arthur, sorry John, becomes an amiable companion with whom one would be happy to spend a companionable evening enjoying a pipe and a peg or two of whisky. He is certainly not short of opinions, but manages to convey them without becoming a bore or merely a platform to show off Conan Doyle’s erudition, even though there is plenty on display. The name suggests an everyman, but this John Smith is a singular creation, given his range of views and enquiring mind.

It is tempting to look for evidence of the older Conan Doyle in all this, and there are glimpses of a continuity of interest. There are discussions of reincarnation, telepathy, Theosophy and mesmerism which prefigure his concern with psychical research and Spiritualism. His interest in these subjects is linked to the book’s optimistic and life-affirming tone, and in general he finds goodness and upward progress in existence (while inveighing against the dogmatism to be found in the scientific establishment). He gets quite utopian at times, predicting a universal religion and the abolition of war.

There is a fair bit of futurology, and Conan Doyle was perceptive in forecasting the rise of China, which he assessed likely to be the dominant power of the 24th century, with the US second, the British Empire third and Russia fourth. Yet looking further, to the year 7000, he visualises Antipodean or African archaeologists digging in the mounds which mark all that remains of London. As he wryly notes, the trick is to predict so far ahead that there is no fear of being exposed in error, but even if wrong in particulars, he thought that in the long run all our works, however mighty they once were, will come to seem insignificant. This may not quite square with the general sense of ineluctable progress, but nobody expects a 20-something to be entirely consistent.

Naturally, bearing in mind his professional background, medical matters loom large. At one point Smith assesses the number patient sessions a doctor might have in a lifetime, coming to the astonishing figure of over half a million. This, he thinks, is a huge force for good in the world, more perhaps than the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope can claim. One wonders if the elderly Conan Doyle, looking back over his life, attempted to calculate the relative contributions to the greater good of the medico compared to the literary man. Doubtless he would have concluded that crusading for Spiritualism trumped the lot, given the magnitude of the issues with which it dealt.

The manuscript has been ably edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower (co-editors with Charles Foley of Arthur Conan Doyle; A Life in Letters) and Rachel Foss, Lead Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library. In addition to an informative introduction and note on the structure of the MS, they have supplied copious endnotes which elucidate references that have become obscure with the passage of time. The puzzle that remains is why Conan Doyle spent so much time on the project. By this stage he had writing experience, with articles and short stories under his belt, so he must have realised, even as he put the first manuscript into the post, that it was unpublishable as it stood. In an extract from an April 1884 letter to his mother included in the introduction he wonders if he can extend a plot from the sorts of stories he had been writing without weakening it, but there is no plot to extend, as the editors themselves note. Still, waste not, want not: even though the manuscript would not have found a publisher as it stood, the editors show that Conan Doyle recycled much of this material in later works.

In a sense it could be argued (tentatively) that he was ahead of his time in attempting to write a different kind of novel which privileges internal mental processes over external action, a precursor to Virginia Woolf, if you will. It would be an exaggeration to say that Conan Doyle had modernist tendencies as an author, but there are traces of self-reflexivity in the book. He contemplates the difficulty in beginning a literary career, as he begins his literary career. An amusing section contrasts the sort of smooth unnatural dialogue found in high-flown literary novels with how the same scene would play out in real life; yet The Narrative of John Smith itself is certainly more in line with the former than the latter, effectively providing a critique of itself. To claim that “It is as impertinent as it is inartistic of a novelist to wander away from his story in order to give us his own opinions on this or that subject”, in a book stuffed with opinions, is barefaced cheek as well as tongue-in-cheek criticism of more established novelists.

The British Library’s publication of the manuscript, which was among the collection purchased in 2004, is to be welcomed. It is sad that the auction was bound up with the untimely death of Richard Lancelyn Green, and this can be considered a memorial to him. Conan Doyle himself might have been embarrassed to see unfinished work between hard covers (and to learn that there is a 270-minute audio book adaptation read by Robert Lindsay), but for the rest of us it is good to see his early effort plucked from obscurity.

To add to Conan Doyle’s posthumous discomfort, the British Library have put on a small display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, Arthur Conan Doyle: The Unknown Novel, featuring one of the four notebooks making up the manuscript, plus a few other odds and ends relating to the great man’s activities, such as letters to his mother – including one about the novel being lost in the post (it’s actually rather a paltry exhibition given the volume of the BL’s Conan Doyle holdings). Never mind what he might have thought of it all, John Smith definitely won’t give an hour of joy to the boy who’s half a man, but it is well worth adding to your Conan Doyle shelf as an interesting sidelight on the evolution of an author with abundant talents who did not always use them wisely.

The British Library, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0712358415

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Judge’s Robe: A Victorian Ghost Story

It was a dark and stormy night, appropriate weather as we gathered in the cosy setting of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum to listen to ‘M. Le Frenu’ – French Curator of the Curious and collector of “tainted” objects – tell us his most curious, and spine tingling, tale. The season was appropriate as well, Christmas being the traditional time for such scares. This one wasn’t from the quill of Dickens, the author most associated with the season of good fear, even though his forthcoming bicentenary would have added topicality, but instead from J Sheridan Le Fanu, as the thinly-disguised name of the narrator indicated.

Michelle Golder’s play was adapted from his 1853 story An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street, though the original’s location has been switched from Dublin to Cambridge. The original’s protagonist Richard becomes Bertie (or Albert) and the hanging judge is transformed from Horrocks to Hobbes. Aungier Street is now, we discover, Castle Street. Rather than a straight retelling of Le Fanu’s rather dense text, the story has been opened up to range historically from the judge’s time, the French Revolution, to the present in 1884, with rather more plot than in Le Fanu’s narrative. There is a neat arc in adapting the story for the stage because Richard states at the beginning of Aungier Street that he has told the tale orally many times, and is only now committing it to paper. Michelle has reinstated it to its proper form, told to eager listeners, because as Le Fanu says in the story: “pen, ink, and paper are cold vehicles for the marvellous.”

This was (apart from one non-speaking but extremely effective role) a one-man show, with Robert Jezek, putting on a plausible accent, playing the part of the nervous narrator, back at the scene of a horrendous experience he had had as a Cambridge student. The conceit is that M. Le Frenu has called together investigators from the newly-formed Society for Psychical Research in order to recount that misadventure, hence the audience (not the first time that the SPR has featured in a Golder play; in 2009 it had a role in her Hayton on Homicide, which starred Jezek as George Hayton). It turns out that the haunted building of his story is – quelle horreur! – the one in which we are seated! And the echoes of the dark deeds of the past have not faded, by a long way. Cue creepy sound effects, which certainly made the less than intrepid SPR investigators present jump, as our host gradually unravelled before our eyes.

In style the performance was reminiscent of the similar treatment, in character, which Robert Lloyd Parry has given to M R James’s stories, and the upstairs room of the Folk Museum is reminiscent of the small Corpus Christi Playroom which has been used by Lloyd Parry (though the museum is rather cheerier). An intimate space, with the edgy Frenchman threatening to tread on the toes of the front row as he relived the trauma, is essential for this type of performance to work well. Last year’s one-man Tales of Terror, presented by The Happiness Patrol, tried something similar with authors roughly of Le Fanu’s vintage (notably James), but fell flat in the larger space of the ADC.

The Folk Museum was perfect, and it would be nice to think that they might put on further productions of this nature in future, a live version of the old BBC Christmas ghost stories. The interval mince pie and punch didn’t hurt either. What my fellow 'SPR investigators' listening to Richard Le Frenu’s story made of his doleful account it was hard to say, but I’m sure we stepped round the shadows lurking in the wind-swept streets of Cambridge with more care than usual as we made our way home.

The Judge’s Robe: A Victorian Ghost Story, 7-9 December, 2011.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

A Hankering after Ghosts: Dickens and the Supernatural

It feels somehow appropriate that A Hankering after Ghosts has taken over from the Mervyn Peake exhibition in the Folio Society space at the British Library. Given that people will possibly be sick to the back teeth with Dickens by the end of his bicentenary year in 2012, curator Andrea Lloyd has wisely got in early with this small but fascinating look at the ways in which Dickens was influenced – and influenced in turn – perceptions of the supernatural in the Victorian period. It is also a rather appropriate display for the Christmas period, given the influence of A Christmas Carol’s spectres, while demonstrating that Dickens’s fascination went far further than the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

As that book’s fame suggests, this could easily have been merely a look at the ways in which Dickens utilised supernatural themes, illustrated by his own stories. The exhibition, however, sets the author’s output in the context of contemporary debates about the relationship between the paranormal and scientific advances. Dickens was clearly torn between scepticism on the one hand and his fascination with the supernatural, not to mention its commercial potential, on the other. The resulting tension makes his forays into it all the richer.

The exhibition is divided into four sections. The first briefly examines his childhood influences, such as the horrible stories his nurse told him, and displays a copy of the fabulously-named penny dreadful The Terrific Register: or, Records of Crimes, Judgements, Providences and Calamities, which he devoured as a teenager, along with classics like The Arabian Nights. Dickens’s A Child’s Dream of a Star is shown, his tale inspired by wanderings he undertook as a child in a churchyard with his sister, who died two years before he wrote it and who reappears in the story as an angel, welcomed into Heaven.

The second section deals with mesmerism. Dickens was passionate about it, having witnessed John Elliotson’s demonstrations at University College Hospital, London, in 1838. On display are copies of Ebenezer Sibley’s A Key to the Occult; Gustavus George Zerffi’s Spiritualism and Animal Magnetism; Catherine Crowe’s classic but uncritical The Night Side of Nature (echoed in Harry Stone’s study The Night Side of Dickens), which was reviewed unfavourably by Dickens in The Examiner; and Dickens’s reading copy of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ (labelled by the curator “A contagion of hysteria”).

The influence of mesmerism can be seen in David Copperfield, where Uriah Heep has mesmeric powers. Oliver Twist has a dream in which he clairvoyantly sees Monks and Fagin plotting, one of the ‘higher phenomena’ of mesmerism in action. Unlike ghosts, Dickens saw mesmerism as having a rational basis which was amenable to scientific enquiry. He was open to debates about the power of the human mind and the ability of the will to impose itself on others, not surprising given that audiences commented on Dickens’s own mesmeric force when giving readings. This undoubted charismatic power, plus trials with his wife Catherine, sister-in-law Georgina, and selected friends, gave him the confidence to believe that he too could put subjects into a mesmeric trance.

As an indication of his abilities, Dickens claimed to have assisted A Christmas Carol illustrator John Leech recover after he suffered a head injury. A less happy outcome to another effort is indicated by a letter in the exhibition, sent by Dickens to Catherine in 1853, in which he is still trying to justify himself over his mesmeric treatment of Augusta de la Rue in Italy in 1845 (general tone: “I’m Dickens, it’s what I do”). He had treated Mrs de la Rue’s severe anxiety, which manifested in a variety of distressing physical symptoms, with good results, but with the side-effect, he said, that there developed an intense magnetism between them which allowed him to experience her emotions from afar. The time-consuming and labour-intensive nature, not to mention the intimacy, of the business naturally left Catherine jealous and cannot have helped the parlous state of the marriage.

The third section is called Supernatural Manifestations and displays a rather miscellaneous selection of publications: a a dated history of the Fox Sisters, The Unwilling Martyrs; Table Moving: its Causes and Phenomena; The Fashionable Science of Parlour Magic; and a copy of Dickens’s Household Words, open at ‘Well Authenticated Rappings’. Dickens saw belief in the supernatural having psychological or physiological causes, "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese". He was interested in allegedly true ghost stories as they offered the opportunity of providing a rational explanation for the phenomena. In ‘Well Authenticated Rappings’, published ten years after the Fox sisters made rapping popular, the phenomena turn out to be a thumping hangover rather than a thumping spirit.

He created controversy with spiritualists by questioning the validity of their beliefs, which he satirised, but his scepticism was hedged about by ambiguity. A volume of The Spiritual Magazine from 1860 on display illustrates the problem contemporaries had pigeonholing Dickens (“We can hardly believe that Mr Dickens does really disbelieve in haunted houses, nor in other phases of spiritual phenomena and operation”), his projection of scepticism undermined by common suspicions that his fascination with the subject entailed sympathy towards it, including a prediction that he would eventually embrace its creed. There is some irony to Dickens’s appearances at séances after his death, often with the purpose of explaining the rest of his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (he also assisted Thomas Power James of Vermont complete the novel through automatic writing in 1873). His ghost is supposed to haunt both Rochester and 48 Doughty Street, now home to a Dickens museum and recently seen in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (where a supposed Dickens expert refers to Edward Drood). Included for some reason in this section is a 1930 recording of Conan Doyle discussing Spiritualism.

Part of a serialisation of The Cock-Lane Ghost is shown as Dickens referred to it several times, for example at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities (along with prophetess Joanna Southcott). Dickens was said to have been a member of an early incarnation of the Ghost Club but there are no records from that period so a minute book from the successor organisation started in 1882 is included. Rather curiously there is no mention in the exhibition of Dickens’s illustrator George Cruikshank’s A Discovery Concerning Ghosts: With a Rap at the ‘Spirit-Rappers’, which was actually dedicated to the Ghost Club, though Cruikshank’ name does appear on the label for Sketches by “Boz”, included in the exhibition to indicate the influence of London on Dickens’s development as a writer. Even more tenuous are a couple of examples of spirit photography from Fred Barlow’s collection, with no connection to Dickens; the label merely states “A collection of psychic photographs’, though it is nice to see The Society for Psychical Research (founded in 1882) name-checked.

A book with a beautiful cover, A Wonderful Ghost Story, is labelled “Intuitive precognition” and tells the story of painter Thomas Heaphy’s odd link with Dickens. Dickens had published a story in All the Year Round which corresponded in detail to an experience that Heaphy claimed to have had and had submitted for publication. Understandably he was unhappy at seeing a similar story pre-empting his. Heaphy published his own version, subtitled Being Mr H's Own Narrative: A Recital of Facts, and including correspondence he had had with Dickens, in 1882. (The exhibition label suggests that the offending story was written by Dickens, but a letter from Dickens to Heaphy included in A Wonderful Ghost Story makes it clear that the story was from the pen of a “young writer” and sent to Dickens by “a gentleman of a distinguished position on his behalf”.)

The final section covers Dickens’s own ghostly fiction, both completely spooky tales, and such episodes in longer fictions. On display are A Christmas Carol of course, plus The Lazy Tour of Two idle Apprentices; The Chimes; The Haunted Man; The Signalman; The Ghost in Master B’s Room, in the All the Year Round Christmas number The Haunted House (inspired by a visit to a haunted house; Dickens’s aim was to show that the house was haunted certainly, but by the occupants’ imaginations, not ghosts); The Trial for Murder/To be Taken With a Grain of Salt; Pickwick Papers; To be Read at Dusk; The Lawyer and the Ghost (which asks the very good question why a ghost would choose to revisit places where they had been unhappy during life when the world was, so to speak, their oyster); the Baron of Grogzwig in Nicholas Nickleby, and the spontaneous human combustion of Krook in Bleak House.

Dickens’s talent was to draw on the Gothic for atmosphere and meld it with psychological insight, making him an heir to Ann Radcliffe, who always found a rational explanation for apparently supernatural events. He did though make the genre cosy, transferring the chills of the old ruined castle and abbey to the middle-class setting of the fireside hearth, with the notable exception of the railway tunnel, which unnerves as much as the Castle of Otranto ever did. As with Gothic literature, Dickens showed that if anything, horror generated by the living is worse than anything we might expect from the Beyond. Dickens exemplifies Terry Castle’s somewhat too general notion in The Female Thermometer that ghosts became internalised at the end of the eighteenth century, and his stories can be seen as a foundation for the ambiguity seen most dramatically in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

A Hankering after Ghosts is a small exhibition, but a tasty plum pudding worth a visit if in the neighbourhood. It is usefully supplemented by Louise Henson’s articles, ‘Investigations and Fictions: Charles Darwin and Ghosts’, and ‘”In the Natural Course of Physical Things”: Ghosts and Science in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round’, the latter of which puts his interest in ghosts second only to that of public health reform, which is as it should be.

A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural is on at the British Library 29 November 2011 - 4 March 2012. Entrance is free.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Rabbi’s Spell: A Russo-Jewish Romance

by Stuart C Cumberland, New York: The F M Lupton Publishing Company, 1886.

Stuart Cumberland’s melodrama never reaches anything approaching three-dimensional characterisation but keeps up a cracking pace in its depiction of the sufferings undergone by the Jewish community in late-nineteenth century Tsarist Warsaw (Poland having been partitioned in the eighteenth century by Russia, Prussia and Austria). It tells the travails of a pair of star-crossed lovers when a young Jewish woman’s father, a rich money-lender, is murdered. Her lover, who had been forbidden to marry her by the father, is accused of killing him and thrown into prison. Needless to say all is not as it seems, as we quickly learn.

Published in 1886, this was a period of heavy discrimination towards Jews in the Russian territories, and Cumberland emphasises the harsh treatment meted out to them by supposed Christians, showing how few rights the Jews enjoyed. He also clearly expresses his dislike of the Russians generally and the corruption to be found at all levels of officialdom (the novel actually stops while Cumberland describes his own experience of having to pay bribes when visiting Russia to perform his ‘thought reading’ act).

Tsar Alexander III makes an appearance and Cumberland, always ready to look on the positive side of royalty, suggests that part of the cause of the rampant anti-Semitism was that Alexander’s terror of assassination had led to his isolation from the people, and he was not aware of the violence being meted out to the Jewish population. In reality, Alexander actually supported the pogroms. Not all Russians in the novel are bad, however. The Tsar’s trusted advisor, who plays a key role in freeing the lover from his dungeon, is described as having intense will-power, skill as a mesmerist, and an uncanny ability to see into men’s souls and divine their innermost secrets. He is clearly an idealised self-portrait of Cumberland himself.

The story ends with the lovers and the titular rabbi emigrating to the safety of Canada, home to “the most hospitable people in the world”, while the murderer, who had committed the deed to avoid repayment of a loan made by the father, is driven mad by visions of the dead man and subjected to a justice that by-passes the earthly legal system. The scene where the dead man appears to the terror-stricken murderer is strongly reminiscent of the 1867 play The Polish Jew, a memorable part for Henry Irving, and which Cumberland was likely to know.

While acting as a vehicle for Cumberland’s preoccupations, and betraying his own prejudices, The Rabbi’s Spell performs a service in highlighting the plight of Russian Jews, millions of whom fled to make a new life for themselves in England and North America. Cumberland went on to write two more novels, The Vasty Deep: A Strange Story of To-day and A Fatal Affinity: A Weird Story (both 1889). Presumably though, his friends advised him not to give up the day job.

The Rabbi’s Spell is available on a CD of works by Stuart Cumberland, issued by The Miracle Factory in Los Angeles, called Stuart Cumberland: The Victorian Mind Reader.

The Cambridge Curry Club: Rather bland

Originally published in 2004, Saumya Balsari’s novel was voted Cambridgeshire Book of the Decade in 2010, so my expectations were high. Set largely in the (fictional) IndiaNeed charity shop in (the real) Mill Road, celebrated locally as a Bohemian multi-ethnic area but in fact a rather tatty, down at heel street, this is a welcome change from a focus on the colleges and posh bits of Cambridge. Every Thursday four volunteers gather in the charity shop founded by the irredeemably posh Mrs Diana Wellington-Smythe: three Indian and one (Catholic) Northern Irish; and the plot, such as it is, revolves around them and their nearest and dearest (and frankly not so dearest), with a varied cast passing through the story, both within the shop and outside it.

Sad to say it is unclear what prompted the Book of the Decade judges to award it the prize. It is uneven in tone and feels as if it would have benefited from further development. It has lovely descriptive passages, but the effect of emphasising character over plot is that the whole has the feel of a series of vignettes rather than a novel-length narrative. When drama is introduced towards the end, the book becomes a clumsy relation of Tom Sharpe farces, particularly the ridiculous, and woefully underdeveloped, section in which an elderly lady dies and is propped up in the window, and then palmed off on someone without him noticing he is pushing a corpse in a wheelchair.

Where the book catches fire is not the passages describing the conversations and goings-on in Mill Road but in the long digression describing Durga’s life in India. It feels as if it was inserted to make up the pages to novel length, but this is the best part of the book, at least to this non-Indian. It highlights the rest as stilted and unconvincing, and gives a hint of the book Balsari perhaps should have produced. She writes with an affectionate eye and is probably shrewdly observant about Asian society and relationships, deftly sketching in the Indian trio’s back stories. The ending is particularly poignant, and shows an empathy with the characters and their mores.

Unfortunately, this perceptiveness does not extend to her white characters. The founder of the charity shop, Diana Wellington-Smythe, is as crude a caricature as her name suggests, and Balsari supplies implausible dialogue for her white characters, including an excruciating lor‘ luv-a-duck cockney who seems to have come up from My Fair Lady for the day. The non-Asian characters – Eileen, the Irish charity shop worker with a tenth of her colleagues’ dialogue, Heera’s English husband Bob struggling with his sexuality, Roman the American academic falling in love with Durga on sight – never leave the page. Adam, the gay man who has more time for his parrot than his lovers is the most successful of the non-ethnic characters, but sadly, as with the other white supporting cast, his appearance is a fairly brief one.

Balsari writes well about the Asian ambivalence towards the word ‘home’, perhaps putting her finger on a flaw in multiculturalism, as if living in Cambridge just means acting as if still in Kolkata while wearing extra jumpers. Even Durga, born in London but brought up in India, does not seem at ease with her dual identity. Balsari is presumably trying to show that we are all alike beneath the skin, with similar preoccupations and foibles, but The Cambridge Curry Club undermines that attempt at universality.

One surprising omission in this celebration of diversity is religion. Swarnakumari is admittedly devoted to the teachings of Guru Ma, to the amusement of her co-workers, but there is surprisingly no mention of the mosque and temple which play such a prominent role in the cultural life of Mill Road. It is as if Balsari does not want too much prickly realism to intrude in her cosy vision. The result is probably best described as chick lit with an ensemble cast and an ethnic twist.

I am left puzzled why the Book of the Decade judges shortlisted The Cambridge Curry Club, and have to assume that they simultaneously liked its local flavour – Balsari piles on the local detail, seemingly intent to mention every locality and quite a few of the shops in Cambridge, which will mean nothing to anyone not familiar with the city and its environs – its suggestion of exotic internationalism, and display of getting-along-together. If so, they were guilty of patronising Balsari, displaying a post-colonial condescension that must make her feel uncomfortable. An Arts Council subsidy reinforces the sense that this was a book that needed a helping hand.

As for the purported internationalism, it is ironic that while Balsari wants to present Cambridge as a microcosm of the world, which of course it is, she has made it all seem so provincial and dull, despite the suggestively phallic-looking chilli on the cover. That The Cambridge Curry Club was considered by readers to be the best book produced in the county in the last decade (the ten shortlisted titles were voted on by members of the public) perhaps indicates that many of us cannot bear too much reality. On the other hand, if this really is the Book of the Decade, Cambridge needs to pull up its literary socks sharpish.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Awakening: A solid ghost story

N.B This contains spoilers

Co-scripted by first-time director Nick Murphy and Ghostwatch writer Stephen Volk, The Awakening is set in 1921, in an England still struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of the Great War. The opening sequence, while introducing the film’s main character, shows how the boom in mediumship during the period encouraged charlatans to take advantage of the bereaved. Florence Cathcart, played by Rebecca Hall, is a sceptical investigator, and author of the debunking book Seeing Through Ghosts, who attends the sitting. At this point she is a fictional counterpart to Rose Mackenberg, the “Spook Spy” who worked for Houdini. When she has enough evidence to show how the conjuring tricks are pulled, atypically for a séance involving the killing of a bird for its blood, she abruptly breaks up the proceedings. However, even at this early stage, we can see that underneath her brusquely crusading demeanour there is a vulnerable side. Challenged by a bereaved mother as the fraudsters are led away, Florence admits that she does not have children of her own, her accuser’s implied charge being that Florence cannot hope to understand a mother’s desire for consolation, even if it had been a false hope. For some, it seems, the illusion of contact is more important than the risk of deception. The encounter is clearly an unsettling one for Florence.

Despite her surface confidence and cool rationalism, she is fragile, highly-strung, and haunted by her own ghost, someone close who was killed in the war and whose cigarette case she carries as a totem (her smoking and predilection for trousers mark her as a modern miss). Exhausted by her efforts, depressed at the depths of human perfidy, and perhaps even secretly disappointed that the séance was fraudulent, she is therefore not in a sympathetic frame of mind when schoolteacher Robert Mallory (Dominic West) visits her to say that there has been a sudden death of a boy at his school. The boy had claimed to have seen a ghostly child left over from when the school was a private house, and seems to have died of fright, leaving the other pupils terrified. Robert says that he would like her to investigate. Initially reluctant, assuming deception and contagious hysteria in a hothouse environment, she does go with him, accompanied by a quantity of paraphernalia that would have put ghost-hunter extraordinaire Harry Price to shame.

Having toured the somewhat understaffed premises with Robert and the redoubtable matron, Maud (Imelda Staunton), and seen just how unforgiving a boarding school can be to the sensitive child, she sets up her gear and with Holmesian powers of deduction solves the matter of the pupil’s death in short order, seemingly bringing the mystery – and potentially the film – to an abrupt end. She also establishes that far from being accurate, the school motto, Semper Veritas, is a mark of hypocrisy. However, as one door closes, another opens, and she herself begins to see things which suggest a haunted mind in a haunted house. The school breaks for a week’s half-term, leaving her, Robert, Maud, the creepy war-shirking, gun-toting factotum Edward (Joseph Mawle) and one of the boys, Thomas (Isaac Hempstead Wright), whose parents live too far away for him to go home (only partially true as it transpires). Florence sets about solving the mystery, but as she is sucked into a narrative which ineluctably plays itself out in front of her, she can no longer be sure what is real and what is hallucination. As her certainties unravel, she becomes one of that tribe of sceptics who belatedly realise that there are more things than they had previously acknowledged in their philosophy, and that science is inadequate to understand them.

The influences on Murphy and Volk are many and obvious: The Devil’s Backbone (2001), The Others (2001), The Orphanage (2007), further back, the haunted house aspect of Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). It is reminiscent of The Sixth Sense (1999), with the twist of someone you assume is alive actually being dead. The bouncing ball evokes The Changeling (1980) and The Shining (1980). There is a sense that the ghost wants his sibling to play with him “forever and ever”, like the ‘twins’ want to with Danny in The Shining. The Awakening’s Rockwood School could easily be the twin of The Overlook Hotel. The piles of letters piled neatly on Florence’s study floor may be a reference to the Society for Psychical Research’s Edmund Gurney’s ‘filing’ system when he was working on Phantasms of the Living (1886). The idea of having lived in a house and forgetting was a device Agatha Christie used in her final Miss Marple story, Sleeping Murder (1976).

Clearly though, the work with which The Awakening most resonates is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and the film adaptation The Innocents (1961). Florence’s name echoes that of Flora and there is a parallel brother and sister relationship, with the boy in each coming to a bad end. The set-up between Florence and Maud is similar to that between Miss Giddens and Mrs Grose, and in both the initially sympathetic older woman is shown as alienated by the younger’s behaviour. The history of the protagonists in The Awakening might even be construed as supplying a rationale for how Miles and Flora in The Turn of the Screw come to be in the care of their uncle. A subtle nod to The Innocents is the splash of water on a table, echoing Miss Jessel leaving a tear on the classroom desk, the point in the earlier film at which the psychological interpretation breaks down in favour of the paranormal.

The Awakening does not have the skilful ambiguity of the James story because it is clear early on that the haunting is real rather than in Florence’s mind, although as we find at the climax, much of what we had assumed to be veridical was actually her visions of past events as buried memories resurfaced. The poster’s “Sometimes dead does not mean gone”, is clear and does not help the authors’ intentions. However, the script introduces ambiguity in other ways. The moment when Robert goes to his room and speaks to someone (“she’s downstairs”), leaving us outside the door, implies that there is a plot against her by the other residents. The man in evening dress with a shotgun could be part of the conspiracy – perhaps, one speculates, by disgruntled Spiritualists wanting revenge for her relentless exposure of their practices – until it is shown on the photograph she develops that he is not visible despite her having seen him, tipping towards a possible verdict of derangement. There is a tease at the end of the film as to whether she is alive or dead: she is dressed in white, people she walks past ignore her, including the headmaster who is speaking about her at the time, and when she walks up behind Robert he says that he knows she is there, implying she is not visible. But the fact that she is leaving, by car, and talks of writing another book, seems to allow a single interpretation (Maud’s aim was to keep her there, after all), and the headmaster does only refer to the one death.

As well as a straightforward, or actually not so straightforward, ghost story, the writers have given a convincing portrait of the devastating impact of the war, how those who had survived it, whether at the front or at home, felt guilt and had their own ghosts to face, including coping with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder by self-harm. Even children are not spared, the teachers brutalised veterans, having possibly displaced women brought in for the duration, unable to connect emotionally with their charges and intolerant of perceived weakness. There are suggestions of repressed sexuality as well as repressed emotions, tapping into Freudian theories that were making an impact in the 1920s: Florence spying on Robert through a hole in the bathroom; the suggestion that when she herself is in the bath she is about to masturbate, until she thinks that she is being spied on; and when we find out her familial relationship to the spy it adds another layer to the interpretation. Fortunately, Florence is able to move beyond her mourning with assistance from Robert as they help each other with their emotional scars. The title, despite being much-used for films, is an apt one, representing Florence’s awakening from amnesia, her sexual awakening, and more broadly the slow awakening of the country from its collective nightmare.

There are puzzling weaknesses in the script. One is Maud’s characterisation, as it is unclear why she would have been so vehemently sceptical at the beginning. If her aim was to get Florence to remember her repressed trauma, and to be a companion to Tom, it would have made more sense for her to have been sympathetic to the idea that the place really was haunted. Her scepticism was not required to persuade Florence to visit the school as Robert, far from sceptical, managed to do that. It is also odd that Thomas should display so much fear. One may be surprised that Florence could have been directly responsible for a man’s death, even one who was assaulting her, and show so little emotion over it, when a theme of the film is the lessening of emotional numbness. If lonely children can see Thomas, as Maud suggests, why cannot the teachers, who seem as lonely as the boys, and particularly Robert, who shows some sensitivity, and sympathy to the idea of ghosts? Why does Robert tell Florence that there are only three of them there when there are four adults? On a first viewing these reservations are glossed over by the speed of the exposition in the final section, but they leave a nagging feeling that the bulk of the effort went into keeping the twists coherent at the expense of characterisation, and the suspicion that there may have been a few cheats along the way. This is certainly a film which rewards intense concentration, and a second viewing to see how the twists work.

The film is beautifully shot with good production values. The grey monochrome palette is a clichéd device, but the contrasting warmth introduced at the end when the weight has lifted – we suddenly seem to have changed seasons – works well. The atmosphere created by lighting and camerawork is suitably creepy, using shadows and darkness to generate fear and menace, effectively combining the unease that accompanies going into the dark on your own with jump-in-your-seat scares. Unfortunately the music is distracting, opting for overemphatic when silence and ambient sounds would have worked at least as well (a lesson Murphy could have learned from The Innocents). This is an old-fashioned creepy ghost story, and that is not a pejorative verdict. Despite it being a BBC film, it is worth seeing on the big screen to allow immersion in the gloomy atmosphere. Or wait for it to come on television, and watch it on your own with the lights off.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Scole Report 2011 Reissue

The Scole Report, £15, ISBN 9781908421005

In 1999, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) issued a lengthy Proceedings, part of Volume 58, entitled The Scole Report: An Account of an Investigation into the Genuineness of a range of Physical Phenomena associated with a Mediumistic Group in Norfolk, England, thankfully generally abbreviated to just The Scole Report. The authors, Montague Keen, Arthur Ellison and David Fontana, had compiled the report after an investigation of the mediumship circle sitting at Scole, a village in Norfolk. The circle had been established by Robin and Sandra Foy in 1991, and by 1994 the phenomena were of sufficient interest that Keen, Ellison and Fontana, all senior SPR members with an interest in survival, began a two-year investigation, though other SPR members visited as well. The conclusion reached by all three authors was that the wide-ranging phenomena they witnessed in the “Scole Hole” were genuine and resulted from the actions of discarnate entities.

Unsurprisingly, given the wide range of opinions within the SPR, the Scole Report proved controversial even before it was issued. There was dissent among the SPR’s Council about the worth of the investigation, leading to a series of critical appendices which had to be included as a condition of publication. An anonymous donation to subsidise the printing costs helped to smooth progress. In June 1999, just prior to its release, staff journalist Bryan Appleyard wrote a long article on Scole in the Sunday Times magazine in which he made the SPR as an organisation look foolishly credulous and out of touch with reality. I wrote to Keen, as senior author, and urged at least a delay in publication until the negative impact of Appleyard’s article had dissipated, and preferably its cancellation altogether. Monty did not seem to feel that Appleyard’s article was a problem, and publication went ahead as planned, with little fanfare, though in October the Daily Mail ran a two-part series by Grant and Jane Solomon, extracted from their book written for a popular audience, The Scole Experiment.

The controversy continued in the pages of the SPR’s publications, and at a lively study day, grandly called The Scole Debate, on 23 October 1999. While Scole had its supporters, in general one had the impression that there was an air of embarrassment about the Report, and a feeling that we should put it behind us as a bad experience. The publication had been the Society’s most significant research activity for years, yet the lack of rigorous controls at Scole, and the refusal to allow infrared viewing equipment inside the séance room, implied that no trust could be placed in the results as reported.

Yet as I helped out with the SPR website’s inbox, I regularly noticed emails requesting copies of the Report from people who wanted to examine the accounts of phenomena in greater detail than that provided by The Scole Experiment, sometimes in order, so they said, to try a similar set-up for themselves. Of course the Report was long unavailable, having been distributed only to members at the time, as all Proceedings are, with only a few copies left over. Many members who had joined since 1999 would not have received one. Admittedly it can be found in the SPR’s online library, access to which is free to members, but reading such a long text on a computer screen is inconvenient.

So I thought it might be worth republishing it so that we could both fulfil our educational remit as a registered charity and promote the SPR’s name more widely. It would also show that while opinions diverged over the merits of the Report, we (that is, individual members – the SPR has no corporate views) were not embarrassed by it. It would also be a tribute to the two deceased primary investigators: Arthur Ellison, who had died in 2000, and Monty Keen, who died in 2004. It transpired that there was still some discomfort surrounding the subject, necessitating a lengthy campaign to win acceptance for the proposal, during which David himself died, on 18 October 2010, making it a memorial to all three.

After earlier attempts to find a printer who could produce the Report cost-effectively proved fruitless, David had discussed the project with Ann Harrison of Saturday Night Press Publications, who proved more than willing to take on the job. The result is a new edition, printed on demand and easily obtainable online. It is the same size as the original Proceedings, unabridged, including all the appendices which contain commentaries by Donald West, Tony Cornell and Alan Gauld, along with replies by the authors and further remarks by Maurice Grosse and Crawford Knox.

There are, however, a few minor alterations. The first is that it does not appear as an issue of Proceedings, but in a livelier cover more in keeping with a commercial paperback. (There is a precedent for this rebadging exercise – The Haunting of Borley Rectory by Eric Dingwall, Kathleen Goldney and Trevor Hall, issued as a Proceedings in 1956, was published at the same time by Gerald Duckworth as a mass-market hardback.) The list of officers and Council members in 1999-2000 on the front inside cover, and the contents of other issues of Proceedings inside the back cover, have been removed.

The second is the change from the original colour plates to black and white copies; the only colour now is on the cover. This is a pity, as whatever one’s opinion of the Scole phenomena, the images are extremely beautiful, but the decision was forced by the costs of colour printing, which would have made it uneconomical. Colour versions of the plates can be seen in the online library. The final change is a new preface by Alan Murdie, SPR Council member and chair of the Society’s Spontaneous Cases Committee, providing discussion points for an assessment of what was going on at Scole.

The Report does not cover the entire Scole experiment, as the three SPR investigators were only present at some of the sittings. For a complete account, Robin Foy’s mammoth 570-page Witnessing the Impossible is essential reading. What The Scole Report brings to bear is extensive analysis and discussion, and is a valuable resource for students of physical mediumship. Since the Scole Group disbanded there have been a number of circles attempting to obtain similar phenomena, the best known of which is probably the Felix Experimental Group near Frankfurt. Scole was an important milestone in the history of the subject, and whatever one’s opinion of what happened in that Norfolk cellar, its significance will continue.

Selected further reading (in chronological order)

Robin P Foy, In Pursuit of Physical Mediumship, Janus, London, 1996.

Bryan Appleyard, ‘Four Norfolk people have heard voices, felt flying objects and contacted the afterlife’, the Sunday Times Magazine, 27th June 1999, pp.32-37.

Grant and Jane Solomon, ‘Is this really the proof of life after death?’, Daily Mail, 23 October, 1999, pp.48-50; ‘We had made contact with the dead. Now, were we about to hear voices from the far corners of the universe?’, Daily Mail, 25 October, 1999, pp.32-33.

David Fontana, ‘The Scole Investigation and the Sunday Times’, Paranormal Review No.12, October 1999, pp.12-15.

Alan Gauld and A. D. Cornell, 'The Scole Investigation and the Sunday Times — A Response’, Paranormal Review No.13, January 2000, pp.9-1.

Montague Keen, ‘Assessing Scole in an Unworthy Piece of Journalism’, Paranormal Review No. 14, April 2000, pp.8-9.

David Fontana, ‘The Scole Investigation and the Sunday Times — A Response to Gauld & Cornell’, Paranormal Review No.14, April 2000, pp.9-12.

Rosemary Dinnage, ‘Afterthoughts on Scole’, Paranormal Review No. 15, July 2000, pp.9-12.

Chris A. Roe, ‘Physical Phenomena at the Turn of The Century: A Review of the Scole Study Day’, Paranormal Review No.15, July 2000, pp.30-34.

Grant and Jane Solomon, The Scole Experiment: Scientific Evidence for Life After Death, in association with The Scole Experimental Group, Piatkus, London, 2000 [revised edition, originally published 1999].

Montague Keen, ‘The Scole Investigation: A Study in Critical Analysis of Paranormal Physical Phenomena’, Journal of Scientific Exploration No. 15, 2001, pp.167-182.

Montague Keen and David Fontana, ‘The Scole Report Five Years Later’, Paranormal Review No. 37, January 2006, pp.19-24.

Robin P Foy, Witnessing the Impossible, Torcal Publications, Diss, Norfolk, 2008.

Tom Ruffles, ‘The Case of the Phantom Polaroid’, Fortean Times, No 261, Special issue [April] 2010, pp.64-65. Included on 8 October 2010.

David Fontana, ‘letter to the editor’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 74, October 2010, pp.282-285.

Tim Coleman, The Afterlife Investigations [film], 2010 (

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Real Dracula

The last time I saw Dracula in Cambridge it was in Bryony Lavery’s 2005 adaptation of the story, with the count's hypnotic tones informing us that he was “searching, searching the internet”. The old technology of Bram Stoker’s original had given way to the new, leading naturally to jokes about ‘Love at first byte’. Real Dracula is also a modern take on an old story, but is a far cry from the suave aristocrat, instead eliding the traditional pre-Stoker vampire and present-day Romania into a genuinely spooky experience.

Ileana takes her English boyfriend Jonathan (echoing Jonathan Harker in Dracula) back to her rural village in Transylvania for her beloved uncle Petre’s funeral. They live in Bucharest, where they are both teachers, and this is Jonathan’s first taste of the old ways in a world far removed from the familiar, comfortable city (even if he can get a mobile signal). A stranger in a, to him, very strange land, Jonathan is bemused to find the corpse taking a central place in the home, and horrified at finding himself obliged to kiss it before leaving the room, to ward off bad luck. The bunches of garlic festooning the walls offer no reassurance.

This is a difficult situation too for Ileana, because she has grief and family history to contend with, on top of her mixed emotions at seeing her old flame, Alexandru. To make matters worse, she starts getting headaches, and gradually falls into a lethargic stupor which proves resistant to conventional treatment. Rationalistic Jonathan attributes her deteriorating state to stress, but Alexandru and family friend Dragana are convinced that the cause is Petre, walking again and preying on his unfortunate niece. Their solution is simple though shocking, but unfortunately for Jonathan he is a key player without whom it will not work.

Petre is perhaps the creepiest vampire since Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu, but the play’s fascination hinges on whether he really does walk abroad. The answer to what is wrong with Ileana is finely balanced and exemplifies Tzvetan Todorov’s definition of the fantastic, which he defines as the hesitation experienced by a person confronting an apparently supernatural event. Petre’s appearances have a dream-like quality, so we can never tell whether they are real or a depiction of Ileana’s troubled mind. She goes missing and, when she is found, Alexandru and Dragana search for bites on her neck, but cannot find them among the scratches she has suffered in her wanderings. As she had a history of sleep-walking as a child, it is unclear anyway whether this episode was merely a continuation of that behaviour, or caused by vampiric influence. She seems to attack Jonathan and Alexandru, but is she infected, or merely expressing her psychological distress in ways familiar to her from her upbringing?

Jonathan is never sure either, and although despite protests he goes along with Dragana and Alexandru’s plan, the enormity of what he has to do leaves him with his own set of demons. If Ileana is not suffering from vampiric harassment, the act is a monstrous one. Dragana sums up the ambiguity of the situation by showing him a photograph she took when she thought she had seen a vampire. There is nothing there, so did she see something that could not be photographed, or was the whole thing an hallucination brought on by tiredness and expectation? There is no answer. For Jonathan, Transylvania becomes a kind of waking nightmare in which seemingly ridiculous superstitions may have effects in the real world, undermining his convictions. In the end, he cannot be sure what was worse – for Petre to have been a vampire, or for him not to have been. Ironically, while Ileana has drawn closer, she is for him a constant reminder of the horror.

The small cast convinces, and those with speaking parts (all but one!) maintain their accents well. Pleasant Danger Productions’ David Geasor and Paul Holloway, co-writers and producer and director respectively, have taken events which occurred in 2004 and elaborated them into a subtle and suspenseful play. The publicity’s strapline is, “What would you do to save the one you love?” For Jonathan, a subsidiary question is: “And could you live with the consequences?” Given that the play is based on something that happened so recently, the audience is left wondering how robust our everyday urban certainties actually are, and what may lurk not far beneath them.

Real Dracula, ADC Theatre, Cambridge, 20-24, 30 September, 1 October 2011.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Martyrs’ House, Walsingham, Norfolk


Walsingham – “England’s Nazareth” – became a centre of pilgrimage after Richeldis de Faverches experienced three visions of the Virgin Mary there in 1061, and remained so until the suppression of the monasteries in 1538. It became one again only in the twentieth century when the Shrine was revived. The Martyr’s House is a Grade II* listed building situated in the High Street; its Georgian facade fronts an older building. It takes its name from the fate of Nicholas Mileham, the last sub-prior of Walsingham, and Thomas Guisborough or Gysborough, a layman. They were imprisoned in the cellar the night before they were taken to what became known as Martyrs’ Field close by and executed for their part in the 1537 Walsingham Conspiracy, a plan to defend the monasteries against dissolution which was betrayed before it could be implemented. In 2004 an ecumenical “Chapel of Reparation” was set up in the cellar.

In January 1996 the Anglia Paranormal Research Group approached what was then the ‘Sue Ryder Foundation Retreat House’, which occupied The Martyrs’ House. We had heard reports of strange phenomena at the premises and wanted to find out what substance, if any, there might be to them. The reply we received from the manager stated that while there was nobody living or working there with first-hand experience of anything untoward, guests had in the past reported strange events. One part of the house was more susceptible than any other, and one room in particular. As a consequence I visited on 28 March 1996 and interviewed two members of staff. Below are my notes from the time, with the names of interviewees removed. We did not take the case any further as there seemed to be no current activity, and the accounts I received had little evidential value.

After owning the building for some thirty years, Sue Ryder Care (to which the Foundation had changed its name) took the decision to sell the building as it was making a loss (something that does not surprise me given that in March 1996 the place was entirely empty of guests). They closed it on 23 December 2005, making the staff redundant. A charitable trust was set up to try to raise the £800,000 required to buy the building and retain it as accommodation for pilgrims, but Sue Ryder set a deadline of the end of January 2006. The fundraising effort was unsuccessful and the Martyrs’ House complex was converted (if that is an appropriate expression) into private dwellings. One wonders if any strange occurrences were reported after that.

1996 notes

The Sue Ryder Retreat House – The Martyrs’ House – is opposite the old entrance to St Mary’s Priory, Walsingham, Norfolk. It is a large, sprawling establishment comprising a gift and coffee shop and book and bric-a-brac shops at the front, with the Retreat House at the back. There is accommodation for up to 46 people. Mrs G___ [Deputy in charge of the Retreat House] described the service provided as B&B, but due to the preponderance of religious imagery throughout the building, it is likely that the bulk of guests would be in Walsingham for spiritual purposes; there were no guests during my visit. There is a chapel at the back of the complex for residents’ use. Mrs G___ did not know how long the premises had been owned by Sue Ryder, except that it was at least 15 years. The building shows evidence of much alteration over time, making dating of individual parts difficult. During renovations upstairs, wattle and daub walls were uncovered, and part of one is on show. The tea shop extension at the front had previously been a newsagent, and the gift shop had been a bookshop. The annex at the back was converted cottages.

Mrs G___ is in her sixth year at the House and has not experienced anything paranormal. Her boss, Mrs P___ [the Manager of the Retreat House], has been working there even longer, and neither has she. Anything Mrs G___ told me was second hand.

A presence had been felt in some of the rooms and in one of the bedrooms above the chapel. Rumours particularly attached to room 17, which is at the front, overlooking the high street and Priory walls. This room is different to the others in that it is at the top of the building and has a small oval window and severely sloping roof, the heavy oak beams making it seem dark and oppressive. The other rooms in contrast are small but airy and light. There is just a roof space above, but no attic. A Spiritualist medium had visited the room at some point and felt a presence there. She had blessed the room and pronounced the entity “happier”. Mrs G___ could not say that she had noticed any change in the atmosphere. Another guest, a local writer again known to Mrs G___, had felt a presence in room 17 which he thought to be a terrified monk from the time of the Restoration (or possibly Reformation?).

In room 5 a guest claimed to have seen a light around the door, although there was no light on outside the room, and in any case the door was tight fitting. (Despite the claim that there was no light on, presumably there would have been a light on in the passage all night). Some people then walked through the room and disappeared through the wall. This was before Mrs G___’s time and she had no more details.

Room 4 is directly below room 17. One night a visitor was in bed and felt a presence sit on the foot of the bed.

A visitor had seen a nun going up the stairs who had then disappeared, but Mrs G___ felt that this witness was not reliable and the story might not be true.

Things had frequently gone missing, especially building tools and kitchen implements, but they had always turned up. This could be due to the numbers of people involved. Building work is carried out by volunteers who do short stints, so that there is a high turnover. Although tools are supposed to be kept in a central place, they could easily be mislaid. Similarly there are a large number of kitchen users, so that it would be easy for somebody to put an item in a different place.

On the other hand, it is surprising how many things had gone wrong in the building that were connected with water. For example, pipes leaked, tanks burst, loos did not work, overflows had become blocked. These sorts of things happened more frequently than one would expect. No unusual smells had been reported.

The cellar was reputed to have been used to imprison men overnight prior to their execution at Martyrs’ Field next morning. It is now a store room, tiled floor, low ceiling, recesses in walls. It is not much used, so there would not be much opportunity to ascertain whether any activity had occurred there.

The ecumenical chapel had been a barn [so I was told; the leaflet produced by the Sue Ryder Foundation said that it had been a derelict cottage] which had been doubled in size and converted only last year. It had not had an ecclesiastical use prior to this. It is a functional, not very attractive room. Above it are two guest rooms, and in one of these a visitor claimed to have seen monks walking across the room, but only visible from the waist up, their lower halves being below the level of the floor (presumably therefore visible in the chapel below?). It is possible that the ceiling level had been raised during the conversion, but if so, there is no visible evidence. Mrs G___ did not know which of the rooms it had happened in – room 1 overlooks a small garden and courtyard, room 2 overlooks the annex roof. The lady concerned lived locally and was known to Mrs G___, who would endeavour to see if she would consent to an interview. The only other building at the back is a house occupied by a nun who has been resident there for many years, but had never reported any strange occurrences.

The regular cook in the tea shop, J___, was also interviewed. She said that Walsingham is full of ghost stories. She was in her fifth year at the shop, but had experienced nothing, although she had heard the rumours. She did report that she had had a ghost at home, which she had never seen, but had heard clomping up the stairs before disappearing at the end of the passage. In addition it was always cold upstairs. However, after some rearrangement of the interior, the phenomena had stopped. She also said that there was supposed to have been the ghost of a hanged man seen by the Abbey gates opposite. On the other hand, she had been at Martyrs’ Field in the early hours of the morning, up until 3am, but had never experienced anything.

Friday, 12 August 2011

UFOs Over Russia

This article appeared in the British & Irish Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 2, March/April 1990, pp.7-9. The illustrations which accompanied the article have no credits so I do not know their origin, but they are amusing so I have reproduced them here.

UFOs Over Russia

Are alien visitors taking advantage of glasnost?

There have been numerous reports recently concerning sightings of UFOs in the Soviet Union. The most dramatic have involved aliens perambulating in parks, or even dumping (presumably) unwanted debris from their craft. The bulk of these articles have originated from the official news agency, TASS, which one usually associates with announcements of industrial achievements, or synopses of leadership speeches. As well as fulfilling this prosaic function, it has become a kind of Russian Guardian, chronicling the adventures of aliens, psychic healers and abominable snowmen. This article will examine the Russian UFO stories which have been circulating in recent months.

On 23 June of last year, TASS reported that, according to local newspapers, schoolchildren in the Central European region of Vologda had sighted UFOs on several evenings. On 6 June some children were outside the village of Konantsevo when they saw ‘a fast increasing luminous dot in the sky, which soon turned into a shining sphere.’ The object landed in a meadow and rolled to a nearby river, the children standing no more than half a kilometre away. The sphere split and there appeared ‘something resembling a headless person in dark garb’, its ‘hands’ hanging lower than its ‘knees.’ The craft melted into the air, and the creature headed off to the village. We are not told what became of it. Later, three more spheres touched down in the same meadow, two inhabited. These, like the first sphere, quickly became invisible.

On 11 June, a fiery ball had been seen by one individual above Vologda which ‘showed’ over the city for seventeen minutes but did not attempt to land. Another UFO was spotted by a school pupil the following night. The same TASS report mentions an incident which occurred on 24 April. ‘An enigmatic object allegedly thrice as large as an aircraft flew over the city of Cherepovetsk’, according to a local inhabitant, coasting noiselessly at an altitude of 300 metres, and leaving a ‘large radiant trail.’ It carried blinking red lights.

A remarkable TASS story appeared on 9 July. It referred to an incident the year before when a UFO dumped about 60 kilos of detritus (‘gauzes, balls and glassy pieces’) on a hill near Dalnegorsk in the Soviet Far East. This debris had unusual properties supposedly beyond the capabilities of science on Earth. For example, a gauze heated to 900 degrees centigrade in the open air disappeared, whereas a piece refused to melt in a vacuum even at 2,800 degrees. The material would not conduct electricity when cool, but would when heated. There were other marvels, vaguely reminiscent of the science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, but the UFO proponents did not have it all their own way. There was a dissenting school which claimed that the material was the result of a ‘plasmoid—a plasma product naturally produced by geophysical fields in response to agitation caused by technical experiments or solar-terrestrial physical factors.’ One would have thought that such an important event would have been reported more widely, but there seems to have been no follow up. The story was picked up from the newspaper Socialist Industry. This paper has been one of the main feeds for the TASS UFO stories, which would appear to be an unlikely role for an official organ of the Communist Party’s central committee, mainly covering the Soviet economy.

Socialist Industry is, however, not the only source for TASS’s UFO watch. On 2 August, Trud reported a mysterious burnt spot eight metres in diameter, despite being oval, which had mysteriously appeared on a lawn near Moscow at the end of July. Theories proposed by A. Kuzovkin, chairman of the ‘Ecology of Unknown’ seminar of the Vokrug Sveta magazine, ranged from a UFO landing spot to the site of a lightning strike, although the latter possibility was felt to be shaky due to the fact that the interior of the spot was still green. How this characteristic was consonant with a UFO landing was not made clear. Further happenings were suggestive. A man who took soil samples felt his finger tips burning, and they turned red for several hours. Another fell ill on returning home, and rundown batteries placed on the spot somehow recharged themselves. However, Kuzovkin stressed that although the site could be characterised as that of a UFO landing, ‘that UFO was not a spacecraft with aliens, as many think, but a power plasmoid...’

The following day, TASS quoted Trud’s more mundane suggestion, taken from an interview with the local fire chief, as to how the spot had appeared. Out went power plasmoids, in came a burning haystack, set fire to as a prank (the middle of the spot was unscorched because the fire had been burning from the perimeter and had not had time to reach the inside). The Vologda and Moscow incidents were reported in the Financial Times on 5 August, although the possible solution to the latter was not mentioned.

TASS put out another item on 7 August reiterating the view that the spot was caused by normal means, but using it as a peg on which to hang the views of Vladimir Surdin of Moscow’s Astronautics Institute. He pointed out a few of the human made and natural objects with which UFOs can be confused, and went on to argue that although there might be alien life forms somewhere in the universe, it is odd that no proper contact has been made. ‘It is evident that such a hide and-seek game is meaningless and does not accord with the wisdom of a civilisation, which must be at a higher level of development than our own.’

These reports have been picked up by the US press with great enthusiasm. On 10 August Associated Press carried an article which included a note, gleaned from Socialist Industry, on the experience of a milkmaid in Perm who had been confronted with an alien at 4.30 am. She saw what appeared to be a dark figure riding a motorcycle. When she looked more closely, she realised that there was no bike, instead ‘something resembling a man, but taller than average with short legs.’ It did not possess a proper head, but rather sported a small knob. It became fluorescent and disappeared. A beekeeper saw a pair of fluorescent objects shaped like eggs and as big as aircraft, which hovered at a height of 200-300metres. In mid-July more aliens with no heads were seen by unnamed witnesses.

After a three week gap, TASS carried a short item on 1September concerning a sighting which occurred over the Mangyshlak peninsula in the Caspian Sea. Again Socialist Industry was the source. The report stated that residents had seen a UFO shaped like a cigar but several times bigger than a passenger aircraft, which flew silently over the city until it vanished in clouds above the sea. This one too had tail lights, and these remained in view for a considerable period.

TASS does not have a monopoly in promulgating these stories. On 25 September the British newspaper Today quoted an article from the Soviet Military Review which put forward the view that the US Strategic Defence Initiative should be scrapped because of the possibility of shooting down a UFO by accident: ‘...lack of information on the characteristics and influence of UFOs increases the threat of incorrect identification’, it said. The only way that the danger, with the attendant risk of an alien backlash, could be averted, would be increased international cooperation. An unnamed US Embassy official was asked to respond: ‘It is a novel argument. I am sure the White House will take it onboard in future negotiations.’

But the most famous Soviet UFO incident has to be that which allegedly occurred at Voronezh, 300 miles southeast of Moscow, in October. It received widespread coverage in the western media and highlighted the seeming obsession that the Russians entertain for alien encounters. The story broke in TASS on 9 October, when it announced that a landing in a Voronezh park had been confirmed by scientists. At least three visits had been made, according to eyewitnesses. On one occasion ‘a large shining ball or disk was seen hovering above the park, it then landed, a hatch opened and1,2, or 3 creatures similar to humans and a small robot came out.’ It was claimed that the aliens were three or four metres tall, but with very small heads, as in the Perm encounters. They strolled about near the craft and then went back inside. The experience caused those watching to be filled with fear lasting for some days.

Genrikh Silanov, head of the Voronezh Geophysical Laboratory, was quoted as saying that he had identified the landing site by means of biolocation, discovering a circle twenty metres in diameter, plus two mysterious pieces of rock. These did look like sandstone, but upon analysis it was discovered that they could not have originated on earth, although Silanov did concede that further analysis was needed. Biolocation was also used to track the route taken by the aliens, and it was found that the scientists’ and onlookers’ descriptions coincided. The report ends by saying that there had also been sightings of ‘a banana- shaped object in the sky and a characteristic illuminated sign, as described in the US Saga magazine. It is unlikely that residents of Voronezh could have read the magazine.’ Alas we are given no more information about either the object or the sign, but numerous journalists misread this throwaway ending, and assumed that the aliens who landed did so in a flying banana.

The Associated Press weighed in with a crib of the TASS item on the same day, throwing in references to the Perm milkmaid and Moscow haystack for good measure. Not to be outdone, TASS issued another release on 10 October saying that the reports had been confirmed in the current issue of Soviet Culture. More details, including names of several children who witnessed the events, were given. The aliens had landed on 27 September in a park crowded with people, with several dozen people waiting at a bus stop nearby. At 6.30 ‘they saw a pink shining (sic) in the sky and then spotted a ball of a deep-red colour about ten metres in diameter.’ This ball circled the park, disappeared, reappeared and then hovered. A crowd which rushed across to it saw a hatch open in the lower half of the craft, with a humanoid standing in it. The figure was about three metres high, had three eyes, and was wearing a silver suit with a disc on its chest and bronze boots. The alien seemed to look the place over, the hatch closed and the sphere descended. After it had landed, the hatch reopened and two creatures, one of which seemed to be a robot, came out.

The first one spoke, at which point a triangle, about 30 by 50 centimetres, appeared on the ground. It suddenly disappeared. The alien touched the ‘robot’ and this began moving in a mechanical fashion. One boy screamed but was quelled by a look from the alien, which paralysed him. The alien’s eyes were shining, and the crowd screamed. After a while, both the ball and the creatures disappeared, but we are not told in what manner. In about five minutes, though, they were back, the alien carrying what looked like a gun, a tube about 50cm long, by its side. This was directed at a sixteen year old boy, presumably the one who had been paralysed, and he vanished. The alien went inside the ball, it ascended, and the boy reappeared at the same time.

Later, militia officers and reporters interviewed the witnesses, and found their stories to be consistent. Residents of Putilin Street also took the opportunity to mention the fact that they had seen UFOs between 23 and 29 September, presumably the other two contacts mentioned the previous day. The children at the park were still afraid, the report continued, and the affair was to be investigated by scientists, physicists and biologists. The same day the story circulated widely in the world’s press. The Washington Post used the TASS material, but fleshed out with an interview with a Moscow scientist. After mentioning that the aliens had arrived in a ‘banana-shaped object’, the paper mentioned that the Communist Party’s youth newspaper had published two photographs on its back page, one of a ‘derby-like object’ and the other ‘a bizarre ovoid flying over the flats of the Far East.’ The scientist stated that hitherto the study of UFOs had been seen as an occupation of bourgeois scientists, but recently it had achieved much more popularity, with an increase in the number of sightings. Silanov’s observations were quoted, and the Post journalist added drily, ‘Silanov could not be reached for any further incomprehensible comment.’ An Associated Press release the same day quoted a TASS duty officer as saying ‘it is not April Fool’s today.’ It transpired, though, that Soviet Culture had been the only major national daily in the Soviet Union to publish the story that day.

The Guardian recounted the TASS story but added information on another incident gleaned from Anatoly Listratov of the department studying anomalous phenomena at the All-Union Geodesical Society. He reported a sighting of a UFO by two pilots. One had been blinded, the other later died of cancer. Listratov added that officers engaged on space and missile work had reported a number of sightings. The following day, 11 October, Today provided a profile of The Aetherius Society which mentioned the Voronezh episode, although devoting more space to a South African encounter in which a UFO had been shot down and its two occupants captured alive. Yes, we were being invaded, according to the Aetherius Society, but the aliens were friendly. This was known because the Aetherians’ founder president Sir George King was receiving messages from them by telepathy. Spokesperson Chrissie Aubry called on Britain’s Ministry of Defence to open its UFO files. ‘TASS never jokes and if they take it seriously so should the authorities here,’ she said.

Also on 11 October, Associated Press reported how a drawing by a child who had witnessed the events at Voronezh had been seen by millions on television. The drawing took the form of a ‘glowing two-legged sphere with a smiling stick figure inside.’ Film of the landing site was also broadcast. An eyewitness gave further details of the main alien. It merely had a hump, not a head and shoulders. This it could not turn, but could only swivel its middle eye. It also had two holes rather than a proper nose. An aviation engineer from the area said that he and his colleagues had found intense magnetic activity at the landing site. A list of items detracting from the credibility of the story was also presented in the TV programme. No adult witnesses had appeared, although an apartment block overlooked the park; the story spread only after an article appeared in a local newspaper a week after the event was supposed to have occurred (uncharacteristically TASS had not quoted a source in its 9 October release); and Silanov’s rocks turned out to be terrestrial after all. The TV reporter concluded that more research was needed, distinguishing between experts and ‘Voronezh enthusiasts’. TASS hit back with a release the same day on the US reaction to Voronezh, listing the TV shows which had mentioned it. One critic had been dismissive, saying that glasnost had gone too far, and asking what the Academy of Science thought of it all. Others admitted that the TASS involvement had given the story credibility. There were also questions about biolocation. A NASA representative said that they did not have enough information with which to form an opinion, but pointed out that the Russians had not been in touch with them to discuss the case. The conclusion seemed to be that the story was not taken particularly seriously. It was a very candid release, not at all defensive, considering how much prestige TASS had invested in the story.

The Washington Post the same day rehearsed the main events, and after the banana joke, wondered what had happened to all the people who were supposed to have been waiting for a bus when the UFO landed. It also quoted the Yugoslav news agency Tanjung, which appeared as po-faced as TASS was supposed to be: ‘If the Soviet press and TASS news agency are to be trusted, aliens have carried out a real invasion in the Soviet Union over the past few days.’ In view of this, it wondered, where was a reaction from the Defence Ministry? After this the story seemed to slip from sight.

So from apparently sketchy articles in local newspapers, these alien stories spread until they reached international prominence, and just as suddenly disappeared. Commentators outside explained the UFO fever in the Soviet Union variously as the effects of glasnost or a deep need in the Russian psyche for mystery. Whatever the reason, it is true that Russian UFOs are part of a much livelier paranormal movement than exists in the West. Despite being the homeland of dialectical materialism, these phenomena have always been taken seriously. The difference is that now we can hear about it more easily. The episode still leaves one wondering about TASS, though. During the Voronezh incident especially, people seemed inclined to give the agency the benefit of the doubt, simply because it was TASS. Later, however, an Associated Press article carried a quotation which casts this view into question. Complaining that he had been misquoted, Silanov said: ‘Don’t believe all you hear from TASS’.

Tom Ruffles is a commercial analyst, but finds parapsychology rather more interesting.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Romancing the Stone

This was my first article in The British and Irish Skeptic (shortly to change its name to The Skeptic), edited by Steve Donnelly and Toby Howard. It appeared in Vol. 4, No 1, January/February 1990, pp.16-17. The title was mine, a nod to the 1984 film. The illustration is the one the editors chose to accompany the article.

Romancing the Stone

The lure of alchemy continues...

You might be forgiven for thinking that alchemy had been consigned to the dustbin of history. If the Times Higher Education Supplement [1] is to be believed, it is currently undergoing a resurgence of interest, albeit for its role in the growth of modern-day chemistry rather than any intrinsic merits in its methodology. At the recent annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement’s of Science, its History of Science section held a session on gunpowder. It emerged that alchemy has a respectable pedigree.

There are two variants, stemming from Egypt and China. The former propounded the familiar Aristotelian notion of the elements of earth, air, fire and water, and the possibility of combining them in such a way as to produce gold. The latter, together with Greek ideas, formed a synthesis which was imported into Europe by Arab migrants and gave rise to such words as alkali, alcohol and naphtha. Ironically the Chinese interest in gunpowder originated in alchemical research into immortality. Richard Gregory of Bristol University is quoted as saying that Newton ‘probably spent more time on his alchemical and biblical studies than on his laws of motion, gravity, optics and colour, and mathematics’, although whether he is being admiring or quizzical is not made clear.

The answer may be given in another reference to Professor Gregory, printed in the Daily Telegraph, in an article which also concerns the British Association [2]. It states that CSICOP speakers at the annual meeting would be demonstrating how ‘stories about spoon-benders, ghosts, UFOs and communication with the dead can be exposed. In this context, Professor Richard Gregory, of Bristol University, will describe how, in the light of 17th century science, people stopped believing in alchemy and witchcraft. Superstition faded, and the modern scientific method was born.’ Alas Gregory’s pronouncement seems to be a non sequitur, else CSICOP would not feel compelled to expose cases which flagrantly have not been subjected to current scientific methods.

It does seem that there is a belief in certain religious quarters that alchemical processes can occur, though in this context it can hardly be said that these are precursors to modern science. Two recent news items give details of supposed miraculous transformations in Texas [3], California and Medjugorje in Yugoslavia [4]. The Californians had been on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, where miracles linked to sightings of the Virgin Mary had allegedly occurred. The description of the Texas incident does only state that ‘dozens reported that the silver beads on their rosaries turned to a gold colour’. The participants in the Californian and Yugoslav events appear to have been more specific, and asserted that the metal had changed from silver to gold (or copper). Happily for the owners, who might have had their faith tested by the power of Mammon, a jeweller who examined one such rosary said that the colour change was due to tarnishing.

Perhaps here the matter would rest, except for an odd story which appeared in the Guardian earlier this year [5], concerning a bizarre little organism called Thiobacillus ferro-oxidans. It would seem that it lives, by some unspecified means, on inorganic matter, and can liberate precious metals (including gold) as a by-product of eating spoil heaps containing such small quantities of the desired materials that it would not be economically viable to recover them mechanically. This may not be exactly what ancient alchemists had in mind, but I am sure that it can be seen as the transmutation of something worthless into something valuable. It so happens that the philosopher’s stone turns out to be organic.

There has to be a catch, and not just the possibility that the main beneficiary would be South Africa, the largest gold supplier and therefore the possessor of the biggest spoil heaps. It transpires that T. Ferrooxidans has a very low tolerance of temperature variations, making industrial applications too expensive and complicated. The article largely concerns the efforts of a team at King’s College London to improve the organism so that it will flourish in a much wider temperature range. Unfortunately, it claims, commercial exploitation of the new version had been slow due possibly to an unconscious aversion to the prospect of using organisms in an industrial process(presumably brewing does not count?).

By definition, of course, this loose usage of the term ‘transmutation of elements’ is about the closest one can come to the alteration of one element into another by chemical means. An element is denned as a substance which cannot be changed into or from simpler forms, except by a change in its atomic nucleus. In theory it would be possible to produce gold from cheaper elements, but the energy required to do so would be so expensive that the technique would not be viable whilst substantial stocks could be dug out of the ground.

However, I came across a reference to an alleged Russian process [6] which claimed to be able to turn lead into gold in an atom smasher at a very cheap rate (about $600 per oz) as opposed to previous processes which produced gold at a cost of between $3,000and $3 million per oz, a considerable reduction and one which would have significant consequences for the world market. However, this item appeared in 1980, and nothing seems to have been heard of the process since. Fool’s Gold perhaps?


1. Martin Ince, ‘Rich seam of explosive ideas amid the mumbo-jumbo’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 15 September 1989.

2. Roger Highfield and Adrian Berry, ‘Britain needs major initiative on science’, Dally Telegraph, 11September 1989.

3. ‘Hundreds of people stay in St John Neumann Roman Catholic church, Texas to talk about alleged miracle’, Associated Press, 17 August 1988.

4. Robert Sheaffer, ‘Psychic vibrations’, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 14, No 1, 1989, pp. 23-24.

5. Dan Van Der Vat, ‘Answers lie in the soil—How science is harnessing the microbe to turn base metal into gold’, The Guardian, 28 February 1989.

6. ‘The escalating price of gold could make nuclear transmutation economically sensible, and the Soviets may have a method’, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 27 January1980.

Tom Ruffles is a commercial analyst, but finds parapsychology rather more interesting.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Memories of the Harry Price Library

Sarah Sparkes, who runs a blog detailing The Ghosts of Senate House, has asked for accounts of what it was like to visit the Harry Price Library when access to the room housing it was possible for members of the public. I was just going to email some quick thoughts, but decided that it was worth putting down as much as I can recall from that period. I have found a file of correspondence, plus some photographs, unfortunately in black and white and now a bit scuffed.

I used the Harry Price Library (HPL) for a number of years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Working in the City, it was an easy bike ride to Bloomsbury, and I spent a lot of time in the HPL. This was particularly so in the period 1987-1992, when I was taking a part-time psychology degree at Birkbeck, next door to Senate House, where the HPL is housed. If it had not been for the fact that I had a full-time job and family I would have spent even more time there I’m sure.

The librarian in charge of the HPL, Alan Wesencraft, was extremely welcoming and helpful. He would meet visitors by arrangement and escort them in the lift to the eighth floor where the HPL occupied a surprisingly small space; or he would arrange for visitors to let the main desk know that he was expecting them, and they would ascend on their own. Alan, or Wesey as he was generally known, had actually retired in 1977 and worked only part-time as the HPL’s Honorary Curator, so eventually I, like other regulars, was given a card that enabled me to ask for the key if he was not there and travel up to the HPL where I would work unsupervised and often alone.

The space occupied by the HPL had a cosy feeling (or perhaps that is nostalgia giving it a glow). The wind used to whistle round, which was atmospheric. There was a good view but there was never time to spare for looking out of windows. Sometimes there would be other people working at the small tables and I seem to remember there was only space for three people at any one time. The rest of the floor was very quiet, seemingly unvisited. I remember going for a walk around the deserted stacks, finding it creepy and unnerving in the semi-darkness.

By contrast there was a friendly atmosphere in the HPL, I suppose a sense that we were a select group, though there was never much chit-chat when I was there. Amazingly people used to bring in packed lunches to eat as they worked because once you were in it was a nuisance going back out, so it was wise to come prepared. The hospitable Wesey used to introduce researchers to each other. I remember meeting Ruth Brandon, who was writing her book on Houdini at the time. The library was not merely a monument to Price but was evolving, with new material being added, and Wesey would delight in showing acquisitions, or correspondence he had received.

Despite the cramped environment everything was well organised. There was always a huge feeling of serendipity when browsing the shelves, not knowing what might turn up. You felt like a small child in a toyshop, wanting to see everything as quickly as possible, unable to decide what to look at first, knowing you could spend years in there and only scratch the surface. In addition to the shelves of books there were film canisters on the window ledges, and filing cabinets with photographs, correspondence and clippings. One cabinet housed Eric Dingwall’s files, now sadly embargoed but then freely available to researchers. Had I realised that they would become inaccessible I would have made more use of them when I had the opportunity.

By 1993 Wesey was coming to the library only once a week, and change was in the air, with the University of London authorities tightening up what they saw as a lax situation. Unfortunately it would seem that some people abused Alan’s trust and things went missing. When I asked him for a replacement card for the eighth floor in April 1993 he replied that he was not allowed to issue any more. He also said that his two-year fight to prevent the introduction of charges had been unsuccessful

This restriction on our freedom was naturally unwelcome to the HPL community, and an attempt was made to reach a compromise which would allow readers to retain some rights. Regular users of the HPL received a letter, dated 4 November 1993, floating the idea of a Friends organisation:

We are writing to you and other users of the Harry Price Library, with the support of Mr Wesencraft the Hon Librarian, as he felt that you might be interested in some recent developments concerning the library

You might have heard that over the summer, the Director of Special Collections at University of London Library wrote to some users of the Harry Price Library, stating that the terms of usage would change. Essentially, the library wants to do away with the existing system, by which readers were permitted to collect the key and use the library whenever they chose, whether Mr Wesencraft was present or not.

The library’s intention is that from now on, books from the HPL will be produced for readers in the Palaeography Room and that direct access to the library will be restricted to Wednesdays when Mr Wesencraft is present.

This presents a number of difficulties. To begin with, the Palaeography Room is only open between 10 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. on weekdays. In addition, as you will know, the HPL is not properly catalogued and therefore locating books is more difficult than is usually the case. This will almost certainly cause delays for readers. In addition, as we all know, part of the charm and fascination of this unique collection, is that so much is revealed by simply browsing – something that will largely be denied to us.

In view of all this and with due regard to University of London Library’s concern for the preservation of the antiquarian books, films, photographs and other materials, we have suggested a compromise to the Librarian and the Director of Special Collections.

The central point of our plan is to establish the ‘Friends of the Harry Price Library’. It is proposed that the Friends would assist Mr Wesencraft in his work as Librarian and eventually take over from him. At some point, the Friends would assist the University Library with the cataloguing of the HPL. It has also been suggested that the Friends could also help to raise funds for the upkeep of the collection. In return, the Library would grant the Friends continued direct access, although the details of this have yet to be worked out.

Naturally the proposal will only come to fruition if we have the support of committed users of the Harry Price Library. If you care about the Library and wish to have continued access to it, we would be very grateful for your assistance in this enterprise.

We are arranging an inaugural meeting to establish the Friends of the HPL, to be held at 2.00 pm, on Saturday 4th December 1993. The meeting will be held in the Ecclesiastical History Room of the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1.

We would be most grateful if you could attend this meeting; if however, this is not possible, do please write to us with your views and ideas. Any support that you can give would be of great help.

I attended the meeting, and the agenda for the meeting listed: Welcome and opening remarks; General discussion; Appointment of officers; Date of next meeting; Visit to the HPL. Members of the Society for Psychical Research that I recognised were Hilary Evans, Rosemary Dinnage and Maurice Grosse. Sadly but unsurprisingly the idea came to nothing, and we all knew an era had ended. No future generation of researchers would be able to sit, surrounded by Price’s collection, and soak in its atmosphere.

I certainly missed the HPL, and I felt a frisson of recognition when Michael Aspel used the room as the setting for the first series of Strange but True? in 1994. Camera angles made it look larger than it was, but the location was easily identifiable from the distinctive red and white Bell, Book and Candle poster on the side of a filing cabinet.

My connection with HPL was not quite over though. I became co-coordinator of a small team called the Anglia Paranormal Research Group, and in 1996 (by which time his visits to the HPL had dwindled to once a month) Alan agreed that to help boost our funds we could produce a facsimile – or as close as possible – edition of the famous 1937 Blue Book which Harry Price had given to volunteers helping him to investigate Borley Rectory. This project was a great success and helped to defray the expenses of spontaneous case investigations. Wesey finally retired in November 1998, after an association with the University Library which stretched back sixty-five years.

When he died in late 2007, I was glad to be able to write an obituary, as a mark of respect to a kind, knowledgeable man. He would have been appalled when, in 2008, rumours circulated that the HPL might be broken up in a cost-cutting exercise as a result of the University of London losing some of its funding. I was among those expressing grave concern that this treasure could be lost, and fortunately the feared disposal never materialised.

The University of London Library mounted an exhibition drawn from the HPL in 2004. It showed some gems, but it felt like standing outside the toyshop, staring through the window. Research is now more clinical, and ordering things to be fetched just isn’t the same as having direct contact, even though the reasons for forbidding access are understandable. Sitting in the room, there was a sense of continuity with the past, and one could feel that Harry Price himself might put his head round the door to see how you were getting on, and tell you about the collection of which he was so justifiably proud.


Price, Harry. The Alleged Haunting of B____ Rectory: Instructions for Observers, London: University of London Council for Psychical Investigation, 1937.

Ruffles, Tom. ‘Alan Wesencraft’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 72 (No.892), July 2008, pp.188-90.

The Magical Library of Harry Price: An Exhibition of Books, Archives and Artefacts from the Collection of a Psychic Investigator and Ghost Hunter (19th April – 30th October 2004).