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.

– O–

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).  (www.aspsi.org/feat/life_after/a073mt-a-Prof_Archie_E_Roy_interview.php).

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.