Friday, 22 November 2013

Preserving the Archives of Psychical Research

Cambridge University Library


Shirley Hitchings and James Clark’s book The Poltergeist Prince of London: The Remarkable True Story of the Battersea Poltergeist (The History Press, 2013) begins with a sad but familiar tale.  The case, concerning alleged poltergeist activity in the 1950s of which the teenage Shirley Hitchings had been the focus, was investigated by a researcher named Harold Chibbett.  He died in 1978, and his wife about sixteen years later.  Their relatives, with no interest in the subject, threw away almost all of his papers.  The ones relating to the Battersea poltergeist only survived because Chibbett had promised Hitchings that she could have them, and the relatives contacted her to say that she should retrieve them before the rest went to the tip:

‘Shirley and her husband Derek raced from the south coast of England to Chibbett’s house in north London.  There they discovered an Aladdin’s Cave of paranormal papers, the repository of Chibbett’s decades of investigation into esoteric subjects.  It was clear, though, that the process of discarding material had already begun and that there would be no time for a return trip.  As tempting as it was simply to grab the entire collection there was far too much to take with them, so with Derek’s help Shirley set about looking for material relating specifically to her and rescuing as much as she could.’

The rest, the years of painstaking investigation (and this book is testament to the pains Harold Chibbett took), was simply thrown away by relatives who were more interested in clearing the house than in preserving papers.  They can’t be blamed for that, but Chibbett I think can for not making adequate provision.*

Relatives faced with clearing out the notes, typescripts, newspaper clippings, cassette tapes, photographs, and all the other bits and pieces accumulated during a case, or at least accumulated before digitisation became commonplace, will not know, because they don’t have the expertise to judge, whether what they have is worth saving.  If the records are concerned with paranormal investigations they may consider the subject embarrassing, or distasteful.  There is the possibility that confidential notes may contain frank opinions about others which could be construed as distressing and/or defamatory to them or their families, or the investigator may be open to charges of credulity that would reflect badly on the relatives.  Better not to take the risk, but to dispose quietly of the lot.  A safe strategy, but the result is the potential loss of invaluable information.

Successes and failures

I have had some first-hand experiences of retrieving collections, and a couple of experiences of trying to track down files only to discover that they have probably been thrown out by heirs for whom they held no interest.  These experiences are I’m sure fairly representative and indicate some of the issues involved.  The first I was instrumental in securing was that of Jim Jameson, who had a large number of automatic writing scripts produced by his mediumistic wife.  They lived at Wymondham, just outside Norwich, and as I was living in Norfolk I went to see them several times to discuss possible donation to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  Dr Jameson said that he wanted to ensure that the scripts, which held enormous personal significance for him and his wife, were going to the best place, and he quizzed me carefully before agreeing to consign them to me for transport to the SPR’s office.  A second, much more extensive, collection was that of the late Mostyn Gilbert.  After some correspondence I and my wife made a couple of visits to Bexhill to discuss its acquisition, conveyed the boxes to the SPR, and then returned a few items that were not relevant to Gilbert’s psychical research pursuits.

In both cases the individuals had expressed a wish that their files should be preserved.  In the first Jameson assigned the papers before death, in the second Gilbert’s wishes were carried out by his family.  A third instance involved the photographic albums of Cyril Permutt which were ‘on loan’ to the SPR, and I negotiated their purchase with his son, the money kindly coming from the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene at Freiburg.  These were success stories, and the SPR has acquired similar collections over the years, mainly from members who had had a long association with the Society and left express instructions in their wills.

Less successful were experiences trying to track down papers produced by two other researchers.  While examining the role of George Albert Smith in the early SPR, I tried to ascertain what had happened to the notes that Trevor Hall must have made while working on his book The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney.  Hall had died in 1991 and I could find nobody who knew where his papers had gone, though I learned that Hall had sold some to Stephen Gray who was writing a book on Smith’s early collaborator Douglas Blackburn (unfortunately Gray’s book deals mainly with Blackburn’s South African novels, not his involvement in psychical research).

Having obtained a copy of Hall’s will, I wrote to his last address in 2007, hoping against hope that his wife or another relative was still there.  The letter was passed on, and I made contact with one of his sons.  Although we had some correspondence he did not seem particularly interested, merely stating baldly that after his father death the papers had been removed by ‘the beneficiary’, but not naming the individual.  Hall had married twice and had families with both wives, and there was little contact between the branches.  I assumed that the beneficiary was a particular name referred to in the will, who I suspected was a step-sister.  When I wrote back asking if the son had an address for her he did not reply, and the trail was effectively dead.  Hall must have made a large number of notes when writing his books on Edmund Gurney and William Crookes.  For example, he conducted interviews with Gurney’s daughter Helen in her old age, and with Smith’s niece Mrs Ford.  Very little of these interviews made it into his book on Gurney, and as Hall tended to include only what would support his thesis and suppress contrary evidence, the files could have contained valuable information he chose not to use.  The files are currently missing, presumed lost.

Also depressing is the example of the files compiled by Fraser Nicol when fighting a libel claim launched against him and the Parapsychology Foundation (PF) by Hall.  In these Nicol in the US and Mostyn Gilbert in England recorded numerous inaccuracies in The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney.  As Gilbert described it in his appreciation of Nicol’s career in the January 1990 issue of the SPR Journal, this was a formidable assemblage of information:

‘By the summer of 1967, if not before, Fraser had provided [his legal] Counsel with a mass of new material to support the defence, voluminous evidence supplemental to much of what he had already written in his review. Following a meeting in the south of France, with Eileen Garrett [of the PF] and Fraser, I spent some months undertaking an in depth study of the early history of the SPR, with particular reference to the events surrounding Smith's relationship with Blackburn and the early telepathic experiments. Forgotten material was unearthed from the SPR archives. The Myers and Sidgwick papers at Trinity College, Cambridge, were examined, foreign publications translated, family correspondence borrowed and assessed for additional evidence, runs of newspapers at Brighton and Tonbridge (where Blackburn worked as a journalist) studied and extracts copied, and finally, perhaps the most exciting of the discoveries, meetings with journalists who as young men had worked with Blackburn.

‘Fraser fitted together, both in draft manuscript and reports for study by Counsel, a scholarly study of events and experiments almost unparalleled in the literature dealing with the early history of the SPR. However, these major and newly-discovered footnotes to history were to be unexpectedly suppressed.’

Gilbert kept flimsies of his letters, but he did not retain copies of documents.   Nicol continued to work on the manuscript even after the legal action was settled, but it was never published.  John Beloff, when editor of the SPR’s Journal, expressed an interest in publishing it, but for some reason that never happened.  Nicol died in 1989, Gilbert in 1992, and Nicol’s wife Betty Humphrey in 1993. In 2004 I wrote to Fraser’s daughter, who told me that after Betty died all the files were thrown out.  Nor had Beloff kept a copy, and an enquiry to the PF yielded nothing.  All that work had simply vanished.  Some of it can be recreated, though often with difficulty, but some cannot because the sources no longer exist.

This problem is not confined to psychical research, but affects it more than archives in other fields because of its marginal nature and a possible feeling by those not in the field that the data are not worth the paper they are written on.  It therefore behoves researchers to ensure that the fruits of their labours are properly organised and the preferred destination specified, because they cannot rely on those arranging for the disposal of their effects to do it for them if they themselves fail to make clear provision.  That means that their wishes are included when they are writing their wills, the executors are clear about it, and preferably the eventual recipients as well.

Current options

So what are the options for ensuring a safe destination for papers and libraries?  The SPR has a still-growing archive, though people might assume that since it went to Cambridge (it is looked after by the University Library, but is still the property of the SPR) it is closed to new acquisitions.  This is not so, but donations have to be negotiated with the archivists there.  That sets the threshold for inclusion higher than it need be if the archives were housed in independent premises because the university has its own space concerns.  Still largely on the drawing board, the Charles Fort Institute (CFI) is an ambitious initiative set up by Bob Rickard, Fortean Times’s Editor Emeritus, which it is hoped will raise money for a study centre that will attract donations.**  However, progress has been slow.  The motivation for the formation of the CFI was the destruction of a collection by uninterested relatives, that of Arthur Constance.

Much further advanced is the Swedish Archives for the Unexplained (AFU), which has been very active.  Among the numerous material that has been donated, much with a ufological slant, it holds the extensive library of Hilary Evans, who had been a Council member of the SPR.  More recently AFU received Rickard’s collection for which he had to find a new home because it was housed in a damp cellar.  As AFU’s website indicates, the organisation has an international reach and it is likely that more loads of books and papers will go there; in October this year its blog stated that ‘Between September 23 and October 5, AFU’s heroic gang has been touring the southern parts of Britain (and Denmark) for new pickups of excellent archives and libraries to be preserved by AFU,’ and these forays are made on a regular basis.

Sending things to Sweden has to be better than throwing them out, but it seems a shame that we are unable to preserve them in England.  I am told by CFI member Gordon Rutter that Rickard’s material is effectively on loan and can be returned on request when suitable facilities are available; in the meantime it is being scanned.  It is highly likely though that much that is shipped off will not return, and there is no reason why organisations here should not be able to organise a similar operation to AFU’s.  A living, growing archive is essential for a subject to thrive.  Without access to previous research and thinking the field is the poorer.

Future possibilities

The obvious organisation to oversee such an operation in this country, because it has the necessary structure already, is the SPR.  The Society has a narrower remit than an organisation like AFU or the CFI, and over the years the SPR has actually given items considered outside its core activities to other organisations: its UFO books went to the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, for example.  But there is no reason in principle why it should not, space and other resources permitting, enlarge its already substantial holdings to cover the entire range of fortean phenomena, fulfilling in essence, if not in name, Bob Rickard’s vision.  That would however entail a radical alteration to the Society’s current arrangements.

One could become somewhat utopian and speculate on the possibility of the SPR purchasing premises large enough to contain the archives and rare books currently housed in Cambridge.  These could be combined with its London administration and library, currently in cramped rented premises in Kensington, plus facilities for conducting research.  It would be a bold step and it would require money, not least to fund a full-time archivist.  The last is imperative because it was due to the lack of security for the rare ‘Z’ books that these and the archives were transferred to Cambridge.

So where would the money come from?  Buying larger premises, not necessarily in Kensington, would require extra funds, but a start could be made by utilising the windfall of the Buckmaster bequest.  Nigel Buckmaster left the SPR more than £600,000 (a figure stated by the Hon. Treasurer Dr David Rousseau in his statement of the Society’s financial position in the SPR’s 2011-12 Accounts).  The provisions of the will fall into three parts.  The first two relate to publications, but the third states:

‘If there is a balance of funds available my preference would be to contribute to the purchase of a freehold headquarters building for the Society where a more extensive library could be housed.’

That would seem to be a sound proposal, using the bulk of the money to help pay for bigger accommodation.  With such a start, and using some of its invested assets, additional funds could be raised by appeal, allowing the SPR to become an even more important centre for researchers than it is at present, and acting as a beacon for donations.  One may have reservations about the methods of Harold Chibbett when investigating the Battersea poltergeist, but without the files that Shirley Hitchings and her husband salvaged it would not have been possible to write The Poltergeist Prince of London.  What other fascinating cases were lost when Mr Chibbett’s relatives threw out the rest of his files after his wife’s death?

Digitisation – will it solve the space problem?

Perhaps in future there will be fewer such scenarios with piles of lever arch files and manila folders, full of yellowing sheets held together by rusty staples, taken to the municipal recycling centre.  It is a fair assumption that such collections will be far less prevalent because much material never sees paper these days.  Inputting records on computer that would once have been typed has its own advantages and disadvantages.  While storage is less of a problem it is even easier to delete electronic files, not to mention email exchanges, than it is to dump the contents of a filing cabinet, and their value is more easily overlooked.  It is imperative that researchers ensure that such files are flagged so that they can be transferred to new owners when the time comes.

Evolving formats is an issue (my personal example being all those WordStar files that are unreadable by the word processing packages I currently own).  Eventually it would be beneficial to see all paper-based archives digitised where possible for ease of access and preservation, but not at the expense of disposing of the originals – not only because digital reproduction standards continually improve but because the history resides in the object as a whole, not just the text on it.  So while digitisation can improve access, if properly managed, it should not be a solution to the space problem, even if readers are relieved of the effort of travelling to the place where the originals are stored.  These, and not digital copies, are the subject’s heritage, and we should ensure that they are maintained, and added to, for the benefit of future generations.

*Update, 26 May 2014:

I heard a rumour earlier this month that more of Harold Chibbett’s papers had survived, and this has now been confirmed.  Fortean Times, issue 315, June 2014, p.71, carries a letter by James Clark which has a surprising, but extremely welcome, announcement about their fate.  Chibbett, it turns out, did make provision for the safekeeping of his papers, so my original assessment of him was somewhat harsh.

Last month Clark received an email from a Mr John Edens who told him that Chibbett had issued instructions for certain of his papers to be destroyed, which presumably was what Shirley Hitchings saw in progress when she arrived to retrieve those relating to her own case.  However, the remaining papers were not thrown out but passed to Mr Edens, who still possesses them.

Why he was made the beneficiary is not clear, though Clark says that Edens told him that his family was involved in the case of ‘Charlie the Basingstoke Poltergeist’, which was also investigated by Chibbett.  It is not clear either what criteria were used for preservation, how much Edens holds, or its condition.  Despite these uncertainties this is marvellous news, and one can only hope that Edens in turn has made adequate provision for the safekeeping of the files.  It would be useful if Clark could elicit further details from him.  Presumably this information only came to light after Edens read The Poltergeist Prince of London.  But for that, Chibbett’s papers would still be in the ‘lost’ category.

Ironically, if I myself had not read the erroneous description in The Poltergeist Prince of London I might not have written this post, but the points in it are still valid, and such success stories are rare.  We need to ensure that provision is made for the preservation of archives, and access ensured for scholars.  When I thought that the papers were lost forever I asked: ‘What other fascinating cases were lost when Mr Chibbett’s relatives threw out the rest of his files after his wife’s death?’  Now we may have the opportunity to find out.

Unfortunately it is clear that my ‘utopian speculation’ that the Society for Psychical Research might utilise the money left it by Mr Nigel Buckmaster to purchase a property that would allow it to accommodate a research centre and be a magnet for future donations cannot now come to pass.  The Buckmaster funds stood at £729,000 in September 2013 (SPR Annual Report 2012-13, p.12), but they have now been allocated elsewhere and my utopian dream will have to remain – for now – just that.

**Update, 25 July 2015

The August 2015 issue of Fortean Times, issue 330, August 2015, pp.46-49, carries an article by Bob Rickard, ‘Saving Private Forteana’.  He begins with a familiar story, the loss of archives after a death.  In this example the files of Flying Saucer Review’s early years were disposed of by the widow of its first editor, Waveney Girvan.  Rickard rightly says that ‘Too many unique collections have been sold off or otherwise dissipated on a researcher’s death, either because they’d had no one to leave them to or had left no instructions or provisions in a will.’

The issue was important for Rickard because as one of the late Steve Moore’s executors he carried the responsibility for locating an appropriate home for Moore’s ‘huge and unique library’.  They had discussed what should happen to such collections generally, not just Moore’s.  Their conclusion echoes my own feelings precisely:

‘We dreamed of a physical repository where books, periodicals, recording media, ephemera and objects can be safely stored, properly catalogued and even digitised, with space enough for future expansion as we gathered more or received bequests.’

Rickard’s efforts had been channelled through the Charles Fort Institute (CFI), comprising items gathered by FT’ over the years plus other acquisitions and donations.  That nucleus acted as an attractor, crucially with promises written into wills rather than being just vaguely expressed intentions.  The plan was that such an institute would not only offer a home to individuals’ collections but also to holdings from large institutions whose acquisition policies changed, plus small organisations without a permanent base whose archives often move between members’ garages.

Unfortunately Rickard had come to the reluctant conclusion that it is unlikely a CFI research centre in the UK would be economically feasible, and he was housing a vast quantity of material in his damp basement.  That is where the Archives for the Unexplained (AFU) at Norrköping, Sweden, came in and in 2013 members travelled over to collect several hundred boxes from Rickard’s house.  AFU is well established, and over the past 35 years it has accumulated enough material to make it a key player internationally.  In addition to Rickard’s collection, AFU has hoovered up a number of others across Europe.

To give an idea of its achievement, the roll-call of donors from this country is astonishing: Hilary Evans, Gordon Creighton, Lionel Beer, Peter Rogerson, Mike Hutchinson, Janet and Colin Bord, Jenny Randles, John Rimmer, Timothy Good, and many others.  Steve Moore’s library will follow shortly.  AFU’s reference collection already contains 30,000 titles, it has 50,000 periodicals and over half a million news clippings on 2.2 km (over one and a third miles) of shelving.  The organisation was originally called Archives for Ufology, hence the current UFO slant in the donors, though as it has expanded the scope to more general fortean subjects that bias will become less prominent.  Funding comes mainly from grants and donations.

Despite the export of a large part of our heritage, Rickard still dreams of a centre that would combine a library, archive, museum, digitisation, publishing, a lecture programme, educational outreach, in short a one-stop shop for scholarly research and dissemination.  How that could happen with so much having been sent abroad is unclear, and in the meantime CFI, which would have fulfilled this vision, is on hold, perhaps to be resurrected eventually ‘as a fortean “think-tank” under the aegis of AFU’, in Rickard’s words.

Gordon Rutter had told me that sending material to AFU was effectively a loan, but the way Rickard writes, and judging by what the AFU website says, it sounds as though it is a gift, though neither provides details of the legal agreement donors presumably sign to transfer custody.  Richard’s article states that AFU have a service whereby, if a donor needs to consult something they had sent, the text will be scanned as priority, with no mention of the item itself being returned on request.  In any case, given his enthusiasm for AFU, it doesn’t sound as though Rickard will be asking for his boxes back any time soon.

He is very upbeat about AFU, exhorting forteans to show support either with their collections or financially, and concludes with this plea: ‘Don’t let our fortean treasures slip away through neglect or leaving it too late.’  My view is that by sending it to Norrköping we are already letting slip away a good chunk of Britain’s heritage in this field.  I understand why Rickard wanted a safe home for his and Moore’s collections, but it strikes me as scandalous that we have reached the position of being happy to send the history of British forteana abroad because there is no viable alternative here.

[Update, and minor revisions throughout, 25 July 2015]

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Life and Death in Gravity

Warning: Major spoilers ahead.

The plot of Gravity (2013) is apparently a simple one (literally a high concept).  A space shuttle orbits Earth.  Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) does a spacewalk in a prototype propulsion pack while first-timer (mission specialist rather than professional astronaut) Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) attempts to repair a faulty communications card on the Hubble Space Telescope.  All is peaceful until they are warned by Mission Control that a Russian satellite has exploded and the debris is heading towards them at very high speed.  In the resulting collision the shuttle is destroyed and contact with the ground lost.  The rest of the film is about the efforts of the two surviving astronauts – the other members of the shuttle crew having died in the catastrophe – to reach safety.  The film looks wonderful, the 3D is superb, and the feeling of jeopardy is palpable.

Stone finds herself drifting after being flung away, but Kowalski retrieves her using his propulsion pack and they set out for the International Space Station.  Trying to get her to calm down he learns that she had a daughter who died in a freak accident at the age of four.  Unfortunately Stone’s oxygen supply is low, as is the power in the propulsion pack, and by the time they approach the station Stone’s tank is empty, leaving her reliant on the oxygen in her suit.  They see that one of the Soyuz reentry modules is missing, indicating that the station has been abandoned, and the other has had its parachute deployed, leaving it incapable of descending to Earth safely.

As they reach the station, they overshoot, with Stone held only by a trailing parachute cable caught around her leg.  Kowalski can see that his inertia will pull her free, leading to their deaths, but without him she can reach the shuttle.  He decides to uncouple himself, and drifts away, telling her that she will not have time to go after him.  Stone is able to enter the station and once there she strips off her suit and floats, curled, in the womblike space of the airlock.

The space station is destroyed in its turn by the debris as it orbits the earth, leaving Stone in the remaining descent module.  Her one hope is to use it to reach a Chinese station a hundred kilometres away, but she finds that it is out of fuel.  All hope seemingly lost, with the debris on its way towards her, she decides to speed up her death by turning off the oxygen while listening to a father with a baby transmitting from the planet’s surface in a foreign language.  There is a knock on the hatch and she sees that Kowalski has managed to get back.  He enters even though she is not wearing a space suit, and they have a conversation during which he reminds her that the module has retro rockets for landing, and these will enable it to reach the Chinese station.  Stone then realises that she is still alone and that Kowalski was an hallucination.

Using the rockets, she heads to the station but it is clear that she is going to bypass it on her trajectory.  She has a fire extinguisher with her so she exits the module and uses the extinguisher as a thruster to reach her target, just as the speeding debris reappears.  While the station is being demolished, she climbs into the Chinese station’s capsule and tries to make sense of the instruments, pressing buttons semi-randomly until she obtains the correct sequence.  As she falls towards the planet she manages to deploy the parachute, and lands in a body of water.  Mission Control makes contact for a few moments as the inside of the module begins to burn, choking Stone with the smoke.  She has to escape, but as she opens the hatch the capsule floods, and even though she gets out she is dragged down by the weight of her space suit.  Fortunately the water is fairly shallow and she is able to remove her suit and swim to the land close by.

After Kowalski uncouples himself Stone reports to Houston, not knowing if they can hear her, that she is the only surviving crew member.   But has she survived?  We are aware that this is not an unproblematic narrative, a sort of Apollo 13-style drama, because of the scene where Kowalski reappears and knocks on the window.  We assume initially that he has somehow managed to return, and there is a tease when he opens the hatch and Stone is shown with her arm over her face, presumably dead after being exposed to space.  We are thrown into uncertainty when she is shown to be still alive, and our hesitation lasts until we are shown that Kowalski was never there.  But was he a ghost, or hallucination?  If the latter, her subconscious was telling her that she could use the retro rockets, but there is still the possibility that Kowalski’s spirit was giving her information.  Whichever is correct, we understand that we cannot trust what we see.

Acknowledging then that this is not documentary realism, Stone’s survival seems astonishing given how many obstacles she has to overcome.   They hint that she too may have died, and that perhaps part of the film shows her fantasy of reaching Earth.  There are a number of points during her frantic attempts to save herself when this might have happened.  She may have died in one of the fierce debris storms which have the power to annihilate space craft, and a piece of which goes straight through the head of the unfortunate colleague sharing their space walk.  Or it is possible that while we see her restore the oxygen supply to the Soyuz module after Kowalski’s sudden appearance and disappearance, she had not in fact turned the oxygen back on, and the remainder of the film is a fantasy, and that she dies there.  We have no way of interpreting whether the Asian father with the transmitter, or Mission Control, which crackles through briefly at the end, are veridical.

Right at the beginning of the film Mission Control notes her physical discomfort while working on the communications card.  What if her medical condition were more serious than that suggests, indeed a fatal condition?  This leads to the unsettling implication that if she died at the outset, then the entire film from that point might be her hallucination, everything we see from then unreliable (a parallel would be with Carnival of Souls).  The Russian satellite might not even have exploded, except in the fantasy of her end of life experience.  There is a moment when we are on the outside of Stone’s helmet, watching her through the visor, then the camera tracks in and suddenly we are inside her helmet with her, very close to her face.  It is possible that this is a clue that we are being taken from a third-person perspective to hers, that from here we are sharing her subjectivity.

There are improbabilities which do not seem to arise merely from sloppy plotting by the filmmakers that do make sense following from these speculations.  Remember that Stone is not a seasoned astronaut but is present on the mission because she has technical expertise in medical instrumentation.  She is not familiar with how space works from personal knowledge, so her dying brain would not necessarily construct a scenario that adhered to scientific principles.  Thus when she is spinning wildly through space after the shuttle is ripped apart it is astonishing that Kowalski is able to locate her, reach her, and stop her.  When he is towing her to the International Space Station she runs out of oxygen, leaving her only what she has in her suit, and it seems remarkable that she is able to reach and enter the space station still conscious.  Using the low-tech fire extinguisher to propel herself backwards in the correct direction while spinning wildly stretches credibility.  While one may concede that the debris from the Russian satellite might circle the planet and catch the space International Space Station, it seems most unlikely that its path could then blast through the Chinese station, which would be in a different orbit.  Stone is extremely lucky to be able to operate a module with instructions in Chinese under enormous stress, and to survive such a steep reentry, with bits flying off the outside and the instruments on fire.  She is even luckier that she lands safely in such shallow water only a few yards from land, rather than the middle of the ocean, and can escape when the capsule fills and sinks, struggle out of her suit, and swim to the shore.  A living Stone might not be able to do these things, but in fantasy they would be possible.

Alive, dying or dead, the arduous journey has been transformative.  Now through her immersion she is reborn, the earlier pessimism about her life after her daughter’s death discarded as she feels the sand between her fingers in her relief.  Stone’s figure in the final shot, walking away from the camera, has a slightly glossy CGI quality, as if the character is no longer part of our world.  What from the publicity sounds like Open Water in space turns possibly into an insight into one person’s vision of the Afterlife.  We don’t know if Stone is dead by the end or has survived, and the film can be read either way, but for her to survive we are asked to believe in an incredible amount of luck.  Our uncertainty is reminiscent of Jacob’s Ladder, in which Jacob may have or may not have died in Vietnam.  He even had a young child who had predeceased him, as Stone has.  Jacob was beset by demons as he struggled to make sense of his reality and learn to let go of life.  Stone struggles in a different way (Gravity’s strapline ‘Don’t let go’ is full of ambiguity) but eventually, one way or another, she overcomes the vacuum that threatened to destroy her.  She reaches a place of peace that feels real to her if not quite to us, one in which she can expect to find her daughter, and possibly Kowalski, waiting for her.

Monday, 30 September 2013

On Seeing a Dead Badger by the Road

On Sunday morning I was surprised to find a dead badger on a piece of grass less than a hundred yards from my house.  Despite the odd bluebottle it looked fairly fresh, perhaps just a little bloated.  The breeze rippling its fur made me wonder as I approached from the back whether it was still breathing.  But I couldn’t think where it had sprung from.  I doubt that there are any badger setts around here, though you can never be completely sure as they are such elusive creatures.  While the housing is fairly low density, and the piece of grass on which the animal lay is situated next to houses that are in an area called ‘The Coppice’ for a good reason, there are no extensive woodlands where badgers would be able to live undisturbed.  On the other hand their presence, otherwise secretive, might explain another mystery that has been puzzling me recently: why I have seen so few slugs this year.

My immediate assumption was that it had been killed by a car but it is unlikely, though possible, that it would have been thrown into that position, and the body appeared relatively undamaged.  It looked like it had been placed there, but that would be an odd thing to do with road kill, unless a mortified driver decided to treat it with more respect than is usually accorded to cats and other small mammals knocked down on the roads.  Getting closer I noticed an abrasion on the side of the head.  It was impossible for me to tell whether it was made pre- or post-mortem and whether it was related to the cause of death.  I didn’t turn the body over to check the other side.

If not by a car, perhaps the badger had been killed by a marksman.  Cambridge is well outside the cull area that is currently operating in the west of England, but that doesn’t mean that they are safe from assassination – remember David in The Archers illegally shooting one unwise enough to wander too close to his cows when he had had several TB reactors.  It transpired at the time that there were a few farmers taking the law into their own hands to protect their herds, and it must still go on discreetly.  The same day I saw the body, David Archer was on air ranting about badgers again in what can only have been a show of support for the National Farmers’ Union’s pro-culling stance.  Even so, an illegal shooter would surely not dump a corpse like that in such a visible place.  Anyway, I don‘t think there are any dairy farms close by, it’s arable in this area on the edge of Cambridge.  Thus cause of death is a mystery, and one not to be solved without an examination by a vet.

I think this is the first time I have ever seen one of these animals in person, alive or dead.  It was a sad sight, and made concrete just what the fierce controversy that I have been reading about in the news really means.  These are superb creatures, and their loss from the landscape, from whatever cause, diminishes us all and degrades our environment.  Whether or not culling badgers will prove to be an effective way of stopping bovine TB in cattle I have no idea but critics argue that there is more hope than science in the effort.  Still, if the NFU figure of 38,000 cattle slaughtered last year alone because of bovine TB is correct, I can understand the desperation behind the act.  Whether the cull is successful or not, seeing the animal lying there, its fur rippling in a warm September breeze, it seemed an emblem that we can be too quick to prioritise our own interests over the other inhabitants of our world.  It may have been shot, run over by a car, or died of age or disease.  Whatever its fate, it made me think of how many badgers are being killed legally every night at present, with such an uncertain outcome, to ensure that we have a ready supply of dairy products on our tables.


We rang the RSPCA when we got home to tell them about the death, and they recorded our statement.  They are taking reports of dead badgers seriously because of the risk of illegal shooting.  In fact, they are taking them so seriously that an inspector came out to examine the body the following day, but by the time he arrived the evidence had vanished, possibly removed by the Council as a health hazard.  Fortunately I was able to show him my photographs and his verdict was that it was likely to have been hit by a car.  The hole in its neck was certainly pre-mortem as the surrounding hair had fallen away because of inflammation, and was probably caused by fighting with another badger.

The distance it was lying from the road could be explained by the species’ robustness.  After a collision with a vehicle they often go under the car rather than bounce off the radiator grill, and are able to get up and walk some distance before collapsing.  As to whether there could be a badger clan in what I assumed was an unpromising area, he thought it entirely possible.  They tend to have a main sett with satellite setts further away, and the latter do not need access to a wide range of food resources to be viable.  We could have badgers fairly close and not realise it, perhaps living by a large lake which isn’t far away, and is across the main road from where the body lay.  So some answers, and while it is sad to think that one of these magnificent creatures was the victim of a car, at least it doesn’t look as if we have a rogue farmer deciding to extend the cull to this neck of Impington.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A Brief Guide to Ghost Hunting, by Leo Ruickbie

In an age when ghost hunting groups proliferate but their standards are often woefully inadequate, solid and reliable information on how to carry out an investigation properly is essential.  In response to that need, Leo Ruickbie has written a useful guide which will assist investigators to conduct meaningful research.  Subtitled ‘How to Identify and Investigate Spirits, Poltergeists, Hauntings and Other Paranormal Activity’, its progression is logical, taking the reader through the process of evaluation, equipment, investigation methods, analysis, and interpretation of results.  In addition he discusses more general issues of psychical research, drawing heavily on the files of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and the Ghost Club.  Supplementing such historical material he conducted two surveys, the ‘Ghost Hunting Survey’, interviewing investigators, and a ‘Preliminary Survey of Hauntings’, the latter examining nearly a thousand reports from across the UK.

Sections look at ghosts in detail, categorising them in terms of factors such as degree of visibility, whether or not they communicate or appear to have purpose, and the sorts of places where they are said to be found, including a roundup of the most famous locations (the SPR is often asked for its ‘Top 10”, but such lists are more about marketing than psychical research).  Methods used to obtain information are covered, such as the Ouija board, mediums, dowsing, Electronic Voice Phenomena, even necromancy (though you will need a bit more information than is provided here if you fancy a go at that).  Then Ruickbie considers what might be going on, looking of course at the spirit hypothesis, but covering other possibilities of varying degrees of plausibility.  These include the environment, such as faulty plumbing, underground water, carbon monoxide poisoning, infrasound, geo- and electromagnetism, the ‘stone tape’ theory and more.  Psychological factors are dealt with: misperception, hallucination, the fantasy-prone personality etc.  Possible causes of poltergeists are covered: spirits, recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, a desire to be rehoused, even stories put about as a cover for criminal activity.

After this wide-ranging tour, the final chapter looks at the perils that can befall the unwary investigator, from hit-and-runs, falling under trains, to being shot (the last one more an American than a British problem these days, but presumably a real danger for those groups foolhardy enough to commit trespass in search of ghosts).  Ruickbie found in his Ghost Hunting Survey that over half of his respondents had been frightened at least once during an investigation.  As he concludes, “ghost hunting is not for the faint-hearted.”  At the very least it requires good social skills, confidence when alone in the dark, and the ability to balance open-mindedness with scepticism.  Completing the package, unlike many publications dealing with spontaneous cases it has an excellent index and detailed endnotes which amply demonstrate the extensive reading that informs the volume.

Unsurprisingly, while it covers the full range of the aspects of investigation, the broad coverage means that the book isn’t comprehensive, and readers wanting a practical nuts-and-bolts technical guide taking them through the stages in further detail should supplement it with information from other sources (my preference is still Rosney et al’s A Beginner’s Guide to Paranormal Investigation, published by Amberley)Ghost Hunting is strong on the environmental factors that need to be taken into account, and forceful on the distinction between assumption-led research, for example that there is a haunting by a discarnate entity which only has to be documented, as opposed to evidence-led research which tries to avoid prior assumptions.  Equipment is dealt with lightly, and Ruickbie questions the appropriateness of much of the ghost hunters’ typical gear as it is frequently misused and cannot provide the evidence for paranormal activity that its users assume.

The book certainly manages to cover a lot of ground and as Ruickbie acknowledges the “Brief guide” in the title is something of a misnomer given that it is over 360 pages. Even so, the very breadth of coverage suggests that depth has had to be sacrificed.  That breadth though means that there is something here for everybody who has an interest in spontaneous case investigation, both the historical context and current best practice.  One can quibble with the book’s title as many researchers do not like the term ‘ghost hunting’, because it can be seen as self-aggrandising, has aggressive connotations, and if consciousness does continue is insulting to the dead.  Unfortunately publishers’ wishes often prevail over authors’ preferences in such matters.

Ruickbie notes (and is not alone in so doing) the widespread influence that television shows have had in shaping perceptions of ghost hunting and encouraging substandard methodologies, making books such as this valuable as an antidote.  Good information has to fight hard to hold its own amongst the dross, a situation made difficult by its relative scarcity, and he has helped to rectify that deficiency most ably.  No doubt there will still be groups who think that they know best with their gadgets, their obsession with orbs and even demons, and their readiness to attribute every unusual occurrence they experience to ghosts.  But with such level-headed books as this readily available, they will have even less excuse for their antics.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Fatality in Fleet Street, by Christopher St John Sprigg

It comes as a surprise to discover that the author of this detective novel was Christopher Caudwell (his mother’s surname), the Communist Party member who wrote on cultural issues from a left-wing perspective, and who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War in February 1937 at the age of 29.  His was a strange, accelerated, career with distinct segments encompassing prolific journalism, poetry and writing on aeronautics in addition to the novels and Marxist polemic.  The posthumous political works by Caudwell are not much read now, the fiction even less so; the seven novels written under his real name have faded from view to such an extent that an MA thesis dealing in part with a couple of them referred to him as Caudwell throughout, as it was better known.

Fatality in Fleet Street was published in 1933, before Sprigg joined the Communist Party.  It concerns a Fleet Street proprietor, Lord Carpenter, the “Governing Director of Affiliated Publications, the biggest newspaper group in the world”.  Carpenter is anti-Soviet and seeks to foment war with the USSR as the latter’s trade balance has become comparable with England’s, making it an economic threat.  The policy is widely opposed among his staff and by the Prime Minister.  Carpenter also happens to be a philandering bully, so that when he is found dead there are plenty of suspects with a wide variety of motives.  Beneath the conventional detective story is a satire on the power of press barons to manipulate public opinion, with even the PM helpless when faced by the ability of the warmongering Carpenter to determine the country’s political actions.  This manipulation is reinforced by Carpenter’s virtual monopoly on news, assisted by the passing of laws circumscribing the discussion of foreign policy on the wireless.

Although the book was published in 1933, for some reason it is set in the future, in the autumn of 1938 (p.2), November 1939 (p.155) or, if the date of Tuesday 12 October is accurate, 1937 (p.32).  Clearly Sprigg was not overly concerned with fine detail.  Whichever date is correct, it leads to one or two departures from history in our time-line, a world in which the Crystal Palace (destroyed by fire in November 1936) is still standing, there is no reference to the rise of Nazism and, if the events are taking place in late 1939, the Second World War hasn’t broken out.  Stalin has gone, replaced with “rulers gentler in political methods”, and the USSR is a great manufacturer thanks to her Twelve-Year Plan (p.153), which reads like science fiction.  The reference to Ukraine as a success story is particularly ironic because the Holodomor took place during 1931-2 (about the time Sprigg was writing his novel), Soviet mismanagement resulting in the deaths of millions through starvation.

The characters are broadly drawn, and there is a suspicion that they have suffered because of hasty writing.  The main one, Charles Venables, with monocle, is a journalist and crime expert on Carpenter’s newspaper who delves into the mystery, which often means going head to head with the police in the shape of the standard issue Inspector Manciple.  Venables appears in four of Sprigg’s books, of which Fatality in Fleet Street is the second.   He evokes Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion, both of whom were well established by 1933, and an unreciprocated love interest (but which promises more) reminds one of Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

A group of Russian revolutionaries hiding out in the East End have apparently dropped in from a discarded draft of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, odd considering Caudwell would so shortly embrace radical politics.  Their clichéd attributes may have been the product of Sprigg’s false consciousness, soon to undergo a far-reaching transformation, or they may represent a dislike of clandestine political action compared to the mass agitation that he would later undertake as a member of the CPGB in Poplar.  Middle class women are generally well-rounded compared to the menfolk, the working class characters tend to be a bit ‘gor blimey’.  The most amusing secondary character is a highly intelligent Chinese journalist, Lee Kum Tong, whose depiction may have been influence by Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan, with his pithy sayings designed to subvert patronising Western notions of Chinese eternal wisdom.  The plotting is reasonable, though the identity of the murderer is not difficult to guess fairly early on.  A large part is taken up by a trial, the outcome of which is not in doubt, and it pads out the novel.  There is a neat twist that is not too far away from a scenario employed by Agatha Christie in Murder on the Orient Express, which appeared at the beginning of 1934.

Even though superficially they seem very different, a certain continuity exists between Fatality in Fleet Street and the political works such as Illusion and Reality and Studies in a Dying Culture.  The connection is the crisis in bourgeois culture; its exploration from a liberal standpoint in the detective novel is examined from a class-based perspective in the non-fiction.  Patriotism is manufactured cynically by Lord Carpenter to promote war for commercial advantage, parliamentary democracy is at risk of subversion by special interests while the public is kept in the dark and persuaded of courses of action on flimsy and exaggerated evidence.  These are linkages with resonance even today.

Sprigg/Caudwell would have been sorry to see the obscurity into which his cultural analyses have sunk with the demise of the Communist Party as a political force and Marx as an influential thinker, but it might have been some consolation to see his novels rediscovered, and Christopher St John Sprigg come out from the shadow cast by Christopher Caudwell.  The range and quantity of Sprigg’s writing shows that he had a formidable intellect, and had he survived the Spanish Civil War who knows what he would have achieved.  One thing seems fairly clear, however:  with the principle of Socialist Realism taking firm hold after the 1934 Soviet Writers’ Congress, Caudwell would not have returned to such a bourgeois form as the detective novel even if he had written more fiction.

It would be good to see all of his books back in print, but sadly Fatality in Fleet Street has not been issued as part of a Sprigg collection but as one of a series with the label ‘London Bound’, classic crime novels all set in the capital.  Oleander have produced an attractive volume, and even though Sprigg’s effort does not quite come up to the level of the best detective fiction of the period, it is still recommended as an enjoyable read, by one of the Golden Age’s most fascinating figures.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Extra Sensory: The Science and Pseudoscience of Telepathy and Other Powers of the Mind, by Brian Clegg

Reading Brian Clegg’s book I felt there was some sleight of hand going on.  He poses as a true sceptic rather than a pseudo-sceptic, the latter being the sort that won’t look at the evidence because it’s all nonsense, but it is obvious on which side of the fence he is going to come down; the reference to pseudoscience in the subtitle gives the game away.  Yet because his stance is that of the disinterested investigator willing to examine the issue from all sides, stressing repeatedly that psychic abilities should not be dismissed out of hand, his verdict is supposed to carry more weight than if he had adopted a partisan standpoint from the outset.  Unfortunately, one of his major criticisms of parapsychologists is cherry-picking, choosing the best results and discarding those not favourable to their hypothesis, and he seems to have done some of that himself.  The casual reader will obtain a very selective view of the field from his book.

It is important to stress that he is not addressing the entire field of psychical research.  As the subtitle suggests, he is investigating alleged “powers of the mind”: telepathy, clairvoyance/remote viewing, psychokinesis (which he consistently calls telekinesis for some reason, though he does not advance any reason for adopting the older usage) and precognition.  Then he takes a close look at the work of J. B. Rhine; the psychic cold war between the USA and USSR, including the Stargate project (naturally referencing The Men Who Stare at Goats); the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab; and Uri Geller and spoon bending.  Clegg does not address survival issues, though he does mention cold reading, and the problem evaluating the Scole sittings because of the spirits’ refusal to allow infrared during séances.  There is nothing on apparitions or poltergeists, the latter not even in terms of Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis – a living individual being the agent – as a possible cause (he would doubtless argue that if there are problems influencing dice, psychokinesis is not likely to work on heavier objects over longer distances).  Even with this focus it is a lot of ground to cover, and Clegg tends not to analyse any of the phenomena he examines in depth.

The root of the problem with the book is that Clegg does not have a parapsychology background but is a popular science writer.  That means he has not immersed himself in the literature, and selectively chooses what he needs to support a point; James Randi in particular looms large as the model of a scientific investigator.  Clegg’s references are embedded in the endnotes, which helps to disguise the limited range of primary sources he has consulted.  While much of what he says is pertinent and should be taken on board by researchers, you feel repeatedly that you are only getting part of the story.  This may be for space reasons, but anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with the literature will start to wonder if he is keen to skate over details that might muddy his narrative.  For example, the chapter on PEAR relies on the project’s website and a 2005 article by Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. There is no mention of their books Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World (2009) and Consciousness and the Source of Reality: The PEAR Odyssey (2011), which would seem to be essential to a reliable scrutiny of their work.  Clegg’s dismissal would carry a lot more weight if it had been based on deeper reading.

There is a selective approach in other chapters too.  He makes great play of the telepathy experiments conducted by the early Society for Psychical Research with George Albert Smith and Douglas Blackburn. (Incidentally anyone looking for the SPR under ‘S’ in the index will be disappointed – as sometimes happens with books published in the United States it is listed under ‘B’ as the ‘British Society for Psychical Research’, an organisation that does not exist, presumably to distinguish it from the American Society for Psychical Research, which does – just about.)  Clegg has taken his information on the Smith-Blackburn trials from C E M Hansel’s sceptical 1966 book ESP: A Scientific Evaluation without attribution, though he does cite Hansel’s book later when discussing J. B Rhine’s laboratory.  The only reference Clegg provides to the Smith-Blackburn trials is an article Blackburn wrote much later for the Daily News, 1 September 1911, a reference to which is included in Hansel, though it was only one of a number of articles Blackburn wrote for both the Daily News and previously for John Bull.  The News article is reprinted in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research – though there is no evidence that Clegg has consulted the SPR’s literature because if he had he would have seen the various responses it provoked, including from Smith himself – as well as in Paul Kurtz’s A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology.  Clegg does not indicate, and possibly does not appreciate, that Blackburn was an unreliable witness with his own agenda.  Further, Clegg does not, as Hansel does not, address the SPR experiments in which Smith was involved after Blackburn’s departure, reported in exhausting detail in its Proceedings.  Clegg would probably have found this series similarly flawed, but to reach a balanced conclusion on the early SPR’s experiments they need to be taken into account.  Unless that is, Clegg merely wished to provide sufficient evidence to support an opinion he had already reached.

There is a chapter on Uri Geller that recounts the well-worn story of his spoon-bending career.  Just to rub in how credulous investigators can be we have a section on the sad business of the mini-Gellers investigated by John Taylor, as recounted in his book Superminds (1975), though not anything about the book Taylor wrote after his change of heart, Science and the Supernatural (1980).  But while we can nod sagely at the ridiculousness of anybody believing that Geller bends spoon and forks using anything other than a bit of manual dexterity, what about that 18mm chrome vanadium combination Snap-On spanner that Geller is said to have bent at the Silverstone Grand Prix in 1998?  To do that required somewhat more force than Geller would have been able to muster with thumb and forefinger.  Admittedly he could have hidden a pre-bent spanner in his underpants and made a switch at an opportune moment, or perhaps achieved the effect with the assistance of a confederate, on the assumption that mechanics wouldn’t necessarily recognise every single spanner they own.  But this is of a different order to manipulating table cutlery, and Clegg should have included it in his account.

He also polarises the issue of reliability into psi proponents vs sceptics, drawing heavily on people like Randi, Hansel and Martin Gardner, though curiously not Richard Wiseman or Chris French, as if they are the guardians of truth against the gullibility of parapsychologists.  That parapsychologists have been gullible is not in doubt, as Clegg is quick to note, but he fails to add that often accusations of fraud come from within the field itself.  In particular he mentions Walter J Levy and Samuel Soal.  Levy was exposed not by a crusading sceptic but by fellow researchers.  Betty Markwick uncovered cheating by Soal, yet Clegg does not mention that she is the longstanding Hon Statistical Advisor of the SPR.  And Clegg’s source for his description of Markwick’s analysis of Soal’s data?  Not her seminal paper ‘The Soal-Goldney Experiments with Basil Shackleton: New Evidence of Data Manipulation’, in the SPR’s Proceedings, but Randi’s Flim-Flam.

Extra Sensory is clearly written, albeit with more on quantum physics than seems strictly necessary for the discussion of possible mechanisms for telepathy.  Clegg covers the principles of the scientific approach, always worth hearing, and the dangers of relying on anecdotal evidence.  His verdict on the banality of much of what passes for parapsychology is sadly true, though his final words seem curious: “It’s time to switch off the life support for parapsychology in its present form and get the researchers to bite the bullet and go for the real thing.”  It was news to me that parapsychology was on life support at the present time and it will probably come as a surprise to practising parapsychologists as well.  He is right though to be wary of experiments that produce only tiny statistical effects that could be attributed to normal causes in both equipment and statistical analyses, because the results are so often ambiguous and unrepresentative of how psi is supposed to work in the real world.  It is also a sad fact of the field that promising avenues of research have a tendency to peter out, often after becoming mired in controversy.

However, while acknowledging that there are methodological problems in parapsychology, it needs to be borne in mind that Clegg is not the open-minded sceptic that he claims to be, and he draws on only a small part of the findings that have accumulated.  Teasingly he keeps the possibility of telepathy open, but rather damned by the grudging “There is some evidence that has not been proved worthless” (“not yet anyway”, he might have added).  The rest of it can, in his opinion, be written off as tainted by issues of coincidence, poor experimental procedure, statistical noise, misperception and selective memory, and of course fraud.  One wonders what grounds for optimism he has for thinking that there might be something in it that is still worth investigation.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Releasing Wadjda

Wadjda is an 11-year old girl living in a grotty part of Riyadh who chafes under the restrictions of life for females in the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where a strict interpretation of religious dogma permeates every aspect of life.  She is friendly with Abdullah, a boy in the neighbourhood, and desperately wants to own a bicycle so that she can beat him in a race.  Doing small deals isn’t going to bring in the cash she needs to buy the new green bike she covets, but then she hears about the Koran-reciting contest at school, the prize money from which would be more than enough to buy her dream machine.  Unfortunately there are two problems with her scheme.  Firstly, the contest requires a lot of memorisation, and the opposition is tough.  Secondly, even if she wins, girls just don’t cycle, so she will face severe opposition if she tries.  Women must be virtuous, and bicycling falls into the category of immodest actions.  Meanwhile Wadjda’s father, disappointed that her mother cannot give him a son, is thinking of taking another wife and is absent for much of the time to show his displeasure at wife number one’s lack of procreative ability.

In a country which forbids to women human rights taken for granted elsewhere, such as to vote or drive, it is impressive that a woman has managed to make a film, especially as she had to obtain permission to do so from the government.  Not that director Haifaa Al Mansour learned her trade in Saudi Arabia.  She had to study film in Australia, and for her film’s outdoor scenes had to direct from a van, watching on a monitor, because of the prohibition on men and women congregating together in public.

Wadjda is the sort of film that Western liberals will coo over, believing that here is a depiction , in a deeply repressive culture, of a positive female role model.  If young Wadjda can follow her dream, there is hope for other women in Saudi Arabia: it won’t always be the bigoted, misogynistic country it is at present, they‘ll think.  Unfortunately that view is somewhat rosy, and Wadjda, and the director who put her adventure on screen, are very much the exceptions that will prove the iron rule.  The achievement is certainly remarkable, but as a piece of social propaganda it will not make a jot of difference to the everyday lives of ordinary Saudi women.  Even if they were able to see it, something that depends on the will of husbands and fathers, how would they relate it to their own lives, and to what extent would the men viewing it consider the power they wield to be unjust and without moral legitimacy?

What is particularly dispiriting is the way in which women are shown to be complicit in their own repression.  Wadjda’s mother, clearly an intelligent woman, is shocked that a friend is working alongside men at the local hospital, and has her face uncovered.  She initially scoffs at Wadjda’s cycling aspiration, and tells her that girls who cycle can’t have babies.  The head teacher at Wadjda’s school, with her sour face, ensures that her charges internalise the restrictive mores of society.  Even Wadjda’s baseball boots are considered transgressive and she is told by the head to wear conventional black shoes.  Wadjda’s response, to colour the white caps with a black felt-tip, is a very minor act of rebelliousness, one that only works by not being noticed.  Yet the boots are seen as emblematic of her defiance of social norms in the English-language poster.  The Italian-language version seems rather more honest in its summation of the film, though pink is impossibly racy even for Saudi girls who, like their elders, stick to regulation black in public.

 What then of Wadjda, and her yearning for independence in a society that prohibits it for women.  By making her pre-pubescent, her actions can be discounted, because what she can get away with would not be acceptable if she were several years older.  Also the film has an easy way out by having her father away from home most of the time, thereby removing him as an authority figure from the house Wadjda shares with her mother.  Waad Mohammed, who plays Wadjda, turns in a fantastic performance, but you wonder how different her life is from that of the character she plays, and how typical is the freedom she enjoyed, given that she was allowed to act in a film at all, compared to her peers.

In real life, if Wadjda carried on in this way she might be expected to be married off as a troublesome daughter (and one of her classmates, not much older, comes to Koran class and says she has been married to a 20-year old man), or even find herself the victim of an ‘honour’ killing.  This is after all the country where a father murdered his daughter for chatting to a man on Facebook, and where a brother shot dead his two sisters for mixing with men to whom they were not related.  Wadjda is a fantasy, a superficially uplifting film that seems to bear little relationship to lives as they are actually lived.

There is a telling moment when Wadjda is looking at her father’s family tree, which is painted on a large piece of board.  There are no women’s names on it because women don’t count so, refusing to be invisible, she writes her name on a piece of paper and pins it on next to her father’s name.  Later she finds that the paper has been torn off and screwed up.  That acts as a metaphor of the invisibility of women in Saudi society.  The film’s concluding shot is of a triumphant Wadjda looking off into the distance.  But it is the same sort of illusory freedom that Antoine experiences on the beach at the end of Les Quatre Cents Coups, and just as Antoine has not escaped, so Wadjda is still a prisoner of her society, and it will surely eventually crush her individualism.  An uplifting ending to a film does not necessarily translate into a happy fulfilled life.

As an example of this illusory freedom, apparently Saudi women can ride bicycles now – but only in restricted recreational areas.  Wadjda’s mother and other local women have to rely on a boorish male driver to get around, both sides well aware of the power he wields over them.  A bicycle is one means of obtaining some autonomy, but not if you can only use it in an area reserved for recreation, and doubtless segregated.  While the Arab Spring has brought radical changes to other countries in the region, on this evidence Saudi Arabia seems remarkably untouched.  Wadjda is not about change, as al Mansour has claimed, it is about stagnation.  There is a reason why the Saudi government allowed it to be made.  They must have thought the subject safe and unthreatening to the status quo, and they were correct.

Much of the press coverage of the film will undoubtedly use the word ‘optimistic’, but I found the experience of watching it deeply pessimistic and depressing, even while amused at Wadjda’s antics.  Al Mansour said in an interview that “I hope it will inspire many girls in Saudi to become filmmakers … That makes me very proud.”  Well that would be good, and one can only hope that her dream is fulfilled and that she herself goes on to make more films about the experience of being a woman in Saudi Arabia.  But she also said, in a chillingly offhand way, “People have contacted me with death threats, but that doesn't matter to me. Everyone in the media business in Saudi receives death threats.”  Wadjda won’t have to get much older before she starts getting death threats too, if she doesn’t mend her ways and remember her modesty.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Archie Roy obituary

 My obituary of Professor Archie Roy appeared in the ‘Necrolog’ section of Fortean Times No 301, May 2013, p.24.  There were the usual minor editorial alterations, but the editor inserted a short section towards the end relating to several of Archie’s activities which he lifted from the Guardian’s obituary.  Their inclusion in FT almost word for word unfortunately made me look like a plagiarist:

Guardian: “He also played the organ, painted and was an adequate amateur magician. His laconic ability as a raconteur and love of poetry also made him a sought-after speaker at Burns suppers.”

FT: “His love of poetry made him a sought-after speaker at Burns suppers.  He played the organ and painted, and was an adequate amateur magician.”

I’m reprinting my FT obituary here as submitted, plus a follow-up letter which appeared two issues later.  I first knew Archie when he was president of the Society for Psychical Research in 1992-5 and we both attended Council meetings.  He was as genial and knowledgeable as the many tributes indicate, and his talks were always thoroughly enjoyable.  The photograph was taken by me at the 2009 SPR conference at Nottingham; Archie is standing on the right.

Archie Roy

Archie Roy made significant contributions to both astronomy and psychical research.  The son of a draughtsman at the Glasgow shipyards, he was educated at Hillhead high school and Glasgow University, obtaining his PhD in 1954.  After initially teaching school science, he joined the university's department of physics and astronomy in 1958 as a lecturer, rising to professor in 1977. He retired in 1989. 

Professionally, he was a distinguished astronomer, an expert on celestial mechanics and astrodynamics, and with an interest in archaeoastronomy.  In the 1960s he worked as a consultant to NASA, helping to calculate trajectories for the Lunar Orbital Program.  He was a member of the International Astronomical Union, which in 1986 named an asteroid after him, 5806 Archieroy, in recognition of his contributions to astronomy.  Among his many achievements, he was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the British Interplanetary Society, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The fascination with space was matched by one with psychical research.  Roy’s interest in the latter began in the 1950s when, as he told it, he was wandering round the old Glasgow University library and came across shelves devoted to psychical research and Spiritualism.  At first dismissive, he glanced at some of the volumes and saw names he recognised, such as William James, Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge.  His curiosity got the better of him and he was hooked.

He joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1973, becoming a frequent contributor to its publications and conferences.  He was President 1992-1995, and afterwards was elected a vice-president.  In 2004 he was awarded the SPR’s rarely-bestowed Myers Memorial Medal in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field.  In 1987 he founded and was the first president of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research, remaining its honorary president.

Roy’s interests included consciousness research and the entire range of psychical phenomena, but particularly life after death.  While cautious in assessing the evidence, he felt that survival of bodily death was the most parsimonious explanation for it.  He was a valuable member of the SPR’s Survival Research Committee and sat with a number of mediums, including a visit to Scole in Norfolk to examine the remarkable phenomena being reported by Robin and Sandra Foy’s circle.  While there, he had a complex discussion with an apparent discarnate entity about astronomy at a level he thought would have been beyond all but a handful of specialists in the country.

A major initiative in which he was involved was PRISM (Psychical Research Involving Selected Mediums), a rare collaboration between Spiritualists and psychical researchers.  With his long-term collaborator Tricia Robertson he conducted a five-year study analysing mediums’ readings, publishing three papers in the SPR’s Journal.  These were generally well received, though the methodology and statistical analyses were subjected to some criticism.

Roy also investigated haunted houses and poltergeist cases, notably a poltergeist at Maxwell Park, Glasgow, in 1974-5, the handling of which influenced the approach adopted by Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair at Enfield.  These activities led him to be dubbed “Glasgow's ghostbuster”.  Always concerned about ethics, he balanced a desire for knowledge with his duty towards vulnerable witnesses, and he brought keen psychological insight to the dynamics of a situation.  His down-to-earth approach was indicated by his self-deprecating description of himself as a “paranormal plumber” in his efforts to resolve cases.

A prolific and versatile writer, he published about twenty books, some on astronomy, but also six novels, which usually included a paranormal element; more than seventy scientific papers; and many articles.  His books on psychical research, A Sense of Something Strange: Investigations into the Paranormal (1992) and Archives of the Mind (1996) were influential, but his last major work, The Eager Dead (2008), ten years in the writing, was something of a bombshell.

This is a lengthy examination of the famous cross-correspondences produced by a number of mediums, widely separated geographically, in the first decades of the twentieth century.  The method essentially was for each medium to receive, independently, parts of messages from a group of deceased communicators.  Only when the pieces were combined would a message become clear, indicating the survival of the message’s communicator.

But the aim went beyond proving an ability to transmit complex classical allusions.  Roy’s book outlines The Plan, hatched by the alleged communicators to create a new Messiah who would usher in world peace.  The scheme resulted in a child, Henry, born in 1913 to Winifred Coombe Tennant (the medium Mrs. Willett) and Gerald Balfour, both of whom happened to be married to other people.  While Henry’s paternity had been known to some, this was the first time it had been made public.  Roy details the ins and outs of the cross-correspondences (necessarily simplified) and The Plan, maintaining a remarkably non-judgemental tone.

Roy was always happy to discuss his activities and was a welcome media guest, appearing regularly on BBC Scotland television and radio programmes.  A clear and witty speaker, for many years he and Robertson gave evening classes in psychical research at Glasgow University's Department of Adult and Continuing Education.  He possessed an outgoing personality and was a noted raconteur.  His sense of humour can be gauged by his remark that “if I die and I find out I have not survived, I will be very surprised!"  One hopes that he is not in a state of surprise, and is still examining celestial mechanics.

Archibald Edminston Roy BSc, PhD, FRAS, FRSE, FBIS, astronomer and psychical researcher, born Yoker, Glasgow 24 June 1924; died Drumchapel Hospital, Glasgow 27 December, 2012, aged 88.

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After publication of the obituary, I read Poltergeist over Scotland by Geoff Holder, reviewing it for the SPR website.  Geoff had a section on the 1974-5 ‘Maxwell Park’ case, and I was surprised to find that it did not occur there at all, but at Balornock, on the other side of Glasgow.  The following correction was printed in the letters section of FT, No 303, p.71, under the heading ‘Glasgow Polt’:

My obituary of Professor Archie Roy [FT301:24] contains an inadvertent error.  I noted that “Roy also investigated haunted houses and poltergeist cases, notably a poltergeist at Maxwell Park, Glasgow, in 1974-5….”  The Maxwell Park case is described in his book A Sense of Something Strange: Investigations into the Paranormal (Glasgow: Dog and Bone, 1990, pp.210-21).  He had collaborated with Rev Max Magee, and he stated that apart from his and Magee’s, the names of those concerned had been changed.  He did not, however, say that ‘Maxwell Park’ was a pseudonym.  As recently as 2008, in an interview he gave to researcher Michael Tymn, he still referred to “the Maxwell Park case” (though incorrectly dating it to 1972).  (

Archie had indeed altered the location: it was not at Maxwell Park, on the south side of Glasgow, but in Northgate Quadrant, Balornock, on the opposite side of the city.  Geoff Holder covers the case in his recent Poltergeist over Scotland, Stroud: The History Press, 2013, pp.158-66.  He supplies the real location and the participants’ names, and provides a number of references for those wishing to pursue this fascinating case in further detail.