Sunday, 13 April 2014

A symposium on Gef, the Talking Mongoose

On 10 April 2014, the University of London’s Senate House Library hosted a meeting organised by Christopher Josiffe and Richard Espley, ‘“If you knew what I know, you’d know a hell of a lot!”: A symposium on Gef the Talking Mongoose’, to examine the Isle of Man’s weirdest personality.  A good-sized crowd gathered to hear a range of speakers explore the phenomena surrounding Gef, and to discuss how we might make sense of the bizarre story 80 years on.  The symposium was supported by displays of items connected to the case drawn from the library’s collection.

The first speaker was Christopher Josiffe, who has researched ‘the Dalby Spook’, to give Gef one of his alternative names, and published a well-received article in Fortean Times (January 2011).  He started by saying that he had thought the matter would be easy to resolve, but after a number of years finds that the case is still enigmatic.  He ran through the events at Doarlish Cashen (Manx for Cashen’s Gap), outside the village of Dalby.  These started in Autumn 1931, the family involved comprising James Irving, his wife Margaret and their 12-year old daughter Voirrey (the local variant of Mary).  Their house was isolated, a couple of miles away from the nearest neighbour, with no electricity, radio or telephone.  The family were incomers from England, and were not making a go of life in the harsh terrain, Mr Irving having previously been a commercial traveller, not a farmer.  They were in straightened circumstances and not popular in the insular community.  Against this background, the chatty Gef – a mere 12” long, six of which were occupied by his tail – must have come as a bit of welcome relief to the family, for all his annoying habits
Voirrey and her father at Doarlish Cashen

The following speaker, Robin Klarzynski, discussed connections between Gef and William Burroughs in a talk that was really more about Burroughs than Gef.  Klarzynski did bring in the concept of the trickster, which seems highly relevant here, and was keen to reject a simplistic real/hoax, either/or, binary.  Burrough’s interest in animals, particularly cats, as psychic familiar spirits certainly chimed with Gef.  The notion of the ‘Third Mind’, which results from the meeting of two minds, suggests that an emergent property could have been produced in the febrile atmosphere at Doarlish Cashen, but it is a stretch to consider Gef as a dream reality made manifest, the creature brought into existence by thought.  The exercise in cutting up Gef’s statements á la Burroughs, and putting them through google translate multiple times, did not seem particularly illuminating of the Gef mystery.

Next up was Alan Murdie, chair of the Society for Psychical Research’s Spontaneous Cases Committee, who looked at the case in the context of poltergeists, particularly the role that sex has been shown to play in them.  His starting point was that poltergeists exist as ‘social facts’, the SPR receiving large numbers of such reports from around the world.  Many of these involve animals, or entities that resemble animals, so in that light Gef is not unique.  Murdie also pointed out that while about three-quarters of all poltergeist cases last for under a year, about a quarter (more place- than person-centred) go on longer, sometimes considerably so.  Gef-as-poltergeist should not therefore be ruled out on the grounds that it lasted too long.

Murdie drew on the work of psychical researcher and psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor, who linked sex and poltergeists.  He spent a week on the island investigating Gef, but unfortunately went off the rails somewhat by reaching the conclusion that Gef really was an animal that could talk.  Murdie, taking a more plausible line, speculated that there was an element of incest between Mr Irving and his daughter.  Voirrey later blamed Gef for her failure to marry, but perhaps she was really blaming her father.  Incest does seem to be a possible factor in a considerable proportion of poltergeist cases.  In this scenario Gef might have been Voirrey’s way of gaining a limited measure of control: his rudeness and bad language to Mr Irving giving her licence to be offensive to her father while blaming Gef, a small measure of release.

Harry Price visited the farm in 1935 and wrote a book about what he dryly referred to as the ‘Manx prodigy’ with R. S. Lambert (editor of The Listener), published the following year.  This was The Haunting of Cashen's Gap: A Modern ‘Miracle’ Investigated, a pair of inverted commas that speak volumes.  When Price suggested that he take Voirrey for a ride in his car, Irving became angry and said that Price should look for a girl elsewhere.  In his interpretation of this incident, Fodor thought that as well as protecting Voirrey, Irving probably feared that he would lose his position centre-stage in the drama.  Despite Fodor’s Freudian leanings, Murdie suggested that he had missed the more sinister possibility that Irving feared his daughter might spill the beans if Price was allowed to interrogate her unsupervised.  Fodor concludes in the 1953 book he co-wrote with Hereward Carrington, The Story of the Poltergeist Down the Centuries, in the chapter on Gef just before that of ‘The Poltergeist Psychoanalysed’, that Gef ‘was the missing link between the animal and human intellect…’  Gef was not a poltergeist, Fodor thought, but he had included the case in the book as it exhibited many characteristics associated with poltergeists.

James sitting firmly between Voirrey and Lambert

Mark Russell Bell’s paper was read in his absence by Richard Espley.  Bell compared the Gef phenomena with those of the 1817 Bell Witch case in Tennessee.  Fodor actually has a chapter on the Bell Witch immediately before that of Gef in The Story of the Poltergeist, in which he suggests that Betsy Bell hated her father John because he ‘had taken sexual liberties’ with her.  Perhaps he felt on safer ground making such suggestions once the individuals concerned were all safely dead.  Mark Bell, presumably no relation, finds parallels between Gef and ‘Kate’ in Tennessee, with strange animals featuring in the latter, a disembodied voice, trickery and clairvoyance.  (In addition to speech, Gef developed clairvoyant abilities, picking up gossip from around the island, though despite considering himself ‘just a little extra, extra clever mongoose’, his information and observations tended to be mundane.)  However, Kate was supposed to be the spirit of a human, not an animal, and Kate displayed physical violence that was alien to Gef, though he did have a verbal temper and was supposed to exhibit bad language, though when this was raised as a question nobody could say precisely how bad it had been.

Richard Espley then presented his own paper.  He looked at instances of books being referred to in The Haunting of Cashen's Gap, and noted tensions whenever this happened.  Despite claims of Gef’s literacy, it was apparent that he didn’t actually like books (the Bell Witch on the other hand was knowledgeable about the Bible), on one occasion insisting that a book on ghosts be destroyed.  When a book is mentioned it tends to be along the lines of ‘it was brought into the house’, as if to disavow responsibility.  It was not the sort of household that welcomes books.  Nor was Gef happy to see Mr Irving reading a newspaper.  Espley suggested that this was a preference for orality, Irving both the teller of the tale and its servant and Gef living through ritualised oral retellings of his story.  Gef’s ability to read may have been overstated, and the only evidence of writing that he produced was the letter ‘N’, which Fodor said was an attempt to write his first name.  It is fairly obvious that ‘Gef’ had a problem with spelling.  Price and Lambert on the other side represented a textual culture.  Reading between the lines, Espley thinks that Price and Lambert thought Irving a bore, and Espley sees their book as documenting the uncomprehending encounters of the various participants in the saga.

The final speaker was Craig Wallace, a post-graduate at Queen's University Belfast.  He analysed possible influences of Gef’s story on Nigel Kneale, who lived in Douglas from 1928, when he was 6.  Kneale’s work is full of the supernatural and the idea of digging through layers of the past.  Similarly, Gef was possibly a manifestation of something older, and Wallace mentioned a slab covering a funerary urn being found at Doarlish Cashen.  He focused on the Baby and Special Offer segments of Kneale’s 1976 series Beasts, the former revolving around Something uncategorisable found behind the wall of a cottage, the latter featuring a cartoon creature called ‘Briteway Billy’ used as a marketing device in a shoddy supermarket.  With their interspecies aspects they both have echoes of Gef.  As with Kneale’s The Stone Tape we have with Gef, as Wallace put it, data awaiting interpretation, ‘disturbances in the grid.’  During the discussion, Mark Pilkington from the audience said that he had once attended a BFI interview with Kneale and Kneale had vehemently dismissed the reality of paranormal phenomena, almost too strongly Pilkington thought.  Kneale did not refer to Gef in the conversation.

The Irvings spend a pleasant evening at home

The final event of the afternoon was a screening of Vanished! A Video Seance (1999), a gallery film made by Brian Catling and Tony Grisoni that was based on the case (‘Vanished’ was Gef’s word for goodbye).  The film consisted entirely of close-ups of three actors playing the Irvings talking about Gef. Some artistic licence was taken with the evidence in the monologues, but it did convey the claustrophobia, eccentricity and emotional poverty of life in that isolated cottage.  Catling and Grisoni had gone to the site of the house – demolished sometime in the 1980s we learned – to record the wind, and the film began with it, before we even saw the actors.  We could hear just how exposed it was there, and the viewer had to wonder how living in that place might affect a person’s mental stability.

So did the afternoon shed any new light on the Gef enigma?  Was Gef a poltergeist, some kind of cryptid, a hoax, or a combination of these?  If a hoax, was it by Voirrey alone, a cry for help; with her mother, the two women attempting to force Mr Irving to move to somewhere more congenial; or was he involved as well?  Clearly there was some hoaxing, as evidenced by the dubious casts of paw prints (of which it seems only the photographs now exist) and the hair samples.  Voirrey could have been engaging in ventriloquism, possibly aided by the house’s acoustics, given the gap between the outer walls and the wooden panelling that provided some measure of insulation.  Money does not seem to have been a motive for hoaxing, but the psychology of the family may have provided one.

 The symposium showed how Gef has had a cultural influence and remains a popular Fortean oddity, but we got no closer to working out what was going on in that house.  Whatever it was, Gef petered out along with the 1930s and was gone by 1939, by which time the world had most definitely moved on.  Despite a previous reluctance, Walter McGraw managed to interview Voirrey for Fate magazine in 1970.  She wasn’t terribly forthcoming but affirmed Gef’s reality: ‘Yes, there was a little animal who talked and did all those other things.’  She still did not admit to it being a hoax, which would have helped to dampen interest, and provide the peace she wanted.

I wonder if the story would have been anything more than a curiosity if it had not been for the involvement of Harry Price.  Was it really worth a book-length treatment, one wonders.  There are other strange cases in the annals of psychical research which have faded into obscurity, and there is no particular reason why this one should have become so well known.  But Price has retained a high profile because of his symbiotic relationship with Borley, and his profile has lent itself, along with Christopher Josiffe’s efforts in more recent years, to the maintenance of interest in Gef.  One of the speakers said words to the effect that it was useful to scrutinise the mystery from a variety of angles and that the symposium showed that a multi-disciplinary approach would yield fresh insights.  But the day seemed rather to indicate that Gef is a limited, if entertaining, mystery that does not lend itself to deep analysis or wide extrapolation.  The talks suggested ways of looking at Gef that go beyond Price and Lambert’s narrative, but while the resulting suppositions and insights might be correct, what we are left with is a fantastic story that is not amenable to a solution.  Still, while we may not have come to any conclusions, it was nice to gather in the congenial atmosphere of Senate House Library to discuss that clever little beastie.

There was one question which did not come up during the afternoon: Gef called himself ‘the eighth wonder of the world.’  Was he aware that King Kong had been given that title in the 1933 film?  Was it a coincidence?  Perhaps Gef did read the newspapers and saw a reference.  If so, his humour went over the Irvings’ heads, comparing his tiny body to that of the mighty Kong.  There’s hubris for you.

A possible theory of what Gef was appeared in the pages of a 1976 issue of Look and Learn.  It noted that prior to the First World War a farmer had released a number of mongooses on the island to keep down rabbits.  This is true, and according to Josiffe there are alleged sightings of these animals today.  Look and Learn speculates that if a mongoose had mated with a weasel, ‘its descendants would almost certainly have looked like, well, Gef.’  But would they have had his vocabulary?