Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter

Spoilers ahead!

The ITV production Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, screened on 27 December, turned out to be about as good as I thought it would from the pre-publicity: the acting was generally fine and the locations and costumes were nice.  The weaknesses were in the concept and the script.  The continuity announcer seemed a little excessive when he proclaimed theatrically that it concerned the man who ‘went by the name of Harry Price, Ghost Hunter’, but he set the tone for what followed.  Initially shown conducting a fake séance, Harry mends his ways when a troubled young soldier commits suicide in front of him on his doorstep.   He is later asked to look into a disturbing case: Grace, the wife of up and coming Liberal MP Edward Goodwin, had been found wandering naked in public and is complaining of experiencing delusions, including that of a ghostly boy, in their sprawling home.  If Harry cannot find a plausible explanation for the incidents Grace may be committed to an institution at the insistence of Edward’s party in order to save his political reputation.  The Goodwin family maid Sarah is seconded to assist Harry, much to her displeasure.

The story is probably set in 1920, as near the beginning Harry walks past pedestrians wearing surgical masks, a scene probably designed to evoke the post-war flu pandemic which had finished by the end of 1920.  There is a reference to the Unemployment Insurance Act, which came into existence in the same year.  It is certainly no later than 1922 because the coalition government is mentioned, and Lloyd George’s peacetime coalition was in power until October of that year.  Home Rule for Ireland is referred to, which would make it earlier than the establishment of the Irish Free State, also in 1922.  Harry breaks into a bogus demonstration of mediumship and gives a cold reading to a bereaved mother during which he says she lost her son, presumably in the war, a year or two before.  So far so authentic, though one would expect to see more disabled and destitute war veterans on the streets so soon after the end of hostilities.

The psychical research aspect is sympathetically treated.  The real Price certainly enjoyed his gadgets, and Harry employs a battery of these around Edward’s house.  There are moments which bring to mind cases, notably the writing on the floor which links to the Borley wall writing.  Instances of internal bells sounding when there is nobody to ring them are known in the literature, for example the 1887 Dixon case, reported in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.*  One wonders exactly how using Graphophones would help when there was no automatic method of starting them (notwithstanding which Sarah hears Grace speak on one when she plays it back), and Harry’s explanation to Edward of how he uses his kit seems more appropriate to the modern ghost-hunting period.  Harry forgets to black out the windows when making photographic prints, though he still gets excellent results.

Despite the efforts to provide historical context and authenticity, the whole thing feels routine.  For a start the clichéd unscrupulous (but with a soft heart really) journalist-on-the-lookout-for-a-scoop depiction of Vernon Wall, in reality the Daily Mirror reporter whose articles did much to publicise the Borley Rectory case, seems to be modelled on Ripper Street’s one-eared hack Fred Best.  Sarah takes a standard journey from hostile opposition to what she sees as Harry’s charlatanism, rooted in her mother’s financially disastrous obsession with Spiritualism, to liking him, with the hint of a budding attraction between them by the end.  The bond is cemented when Harry, in a means justifying the ends ploy, feeds her mother a ‘message’ from her dead father to allow her mother to move on.  This is one piece of fraud of which Sarah approves.  To prevent the audience regarding her as an appendage to Harry we learn that she drove an ambulance during the war so is an independently-minded woman fallen on difficult times.  Fortunately for the plot Harry’s wife Cora is dead, having expired in an asylum, a fate that simultaneously renders him sensitive to Grace’s plight, makes the audience sympathetic towards him because of his guilt, indicates his sincerity in what he is now doing, and leaves open the possibility of romance with Sarah.  In reality Price’s wife Constance (Connie) outlived her husband but it wouldn’t have been dramatically advantageous for the fictional Harry to have a wife. 

Edward’s home looks too grand to have been a workhouse, and the photograph of its inmates we see shows only children, suggesting that it was actually an orphanage.  Calling it that though would have been an unwelcome reminder of the 2007 Spanish film The Orphanage with its own complement of ghost children. There is the hint that, despite the suggestion Grace could have heard about the death of a little boy during the workhouse years and hallucinated him in her drugged state, the boy’s ghost she sees is real because Sarah sees him as well, but then Sarah could be suffering a concussion, having banged her head after Edward’s assault.  The door to the unknown is ajar even when the mystery has apparently been wrapped up and a non-paranormal explanation accepted.

There were humorous touches, such as the sinister Liberal party fixer Sir Charles informing Harry that he had been chosen for his ‘particular set of skills’, surely a nod to Taken, though Rafe Spall is a long way from being an action hero.  At a political meeting Edward informs his audience ‘we are all in this together’, as bogus a sentiment then as it is when the Tories use the phrase today.  These moments are quietly done and do not intrude self-consciously on the drama.

What does intrude is that enormous liberties have been taken with the historical Harry Price (who would probably have loved the programme, though his wife might not have been as happy).  For the historian the problem is that public understanding is filtered through media representations.  Does this much matter as it is only entertainment?  After all, naturally Harry here is a non-smoker, in fact nobody smokes; any non-smoking depiction of the period shown on television has to be phoney but we accept this manipulation and it doesn’t dent our enjoyment when we are aware of such anachronisms.  Unfortunately, as much as one would like to think of history as a self-correcting process, there is a real possibility that those who see this will go away with the misapprehension that Price really did make a living as a fake medium until a young solder shot himself on the doorstep, thereby starting Harry’s career as a debunker, and that he really did entrust his chemical analysis to the fake-voodoo practising Albert.

The credits indicate that the programme is based on Neil Spring’s book, and Spring himself claimed in his promotional activities that ‘Tonight a long awaited dream comes true. At 9pm, ITV will air Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, the chilling adaptation of my début novel, The Ghost Hunters.…  As an author, having your work adapted for the screen is an honour, but especially so when it is done to such a high standard as this.’  That’s almost a trading standards issue because apart from sharing some characters (Harry, Sarah and Vernon) it bears no relationship to the book’s plot.  In fact, what all this has to do with Spring is a puzzle.  The script wasn’t written by him but by Jack Lothian, so all Spring has contributed to the ‘adaptation’ is the fictional character Harry Price as a peg, doing things the historical Price never did, and a couple of other characters, one real (Vernon) and one fictional (Sarah), both changed from the novel.  Fortunately for him, Spring is off the hook and Lothian has to take responsibility for the script’s weaknesses.  For me, the worst thing about the programme is that I correctly predicted the identity of the villain before even seeing it, partly because the teaser synopses released by ITV put me in mind of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight.  I had been half-joking but was confident I was right when Edward gratuitously comments that his father had been a chemist and he had studied it himself.

The key weakness is that the producers want it both ways.  They are trading on the Harry Price connection, which is guaranteed to provide a ready-made audience of Price fans, of which there are a great number even if many do not really know much about the historical character and are now misinformed.  Yet as I have pointed out previously, for all this has to do with the real Price it might as readily have been called Fred Bloggs: Ghost Hunter.  That would have been more honest but offered the ITV publicity department less to work with.  I expect the series the one-off was set up to be the pilot for will be commissioned, but the scriptwriters will have to improve considerably on this effort to bring the plots up to match the rest of the production values.

* See my article. ‘Mr Dixon and the Mysterious Bell Ringing Case of 1887’, The Paranormal Review, Issue 54, April 2010, pp.23-26.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Lexscien: An Opportunity Lost

Lexscien, or to give it its full title Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science, is best known as the online home of the Society for Psychical Research’s publications – its Proceedings, Journal, and magazine Paranormal Review (plus Paranormal Review’s earlier incarnation The Psi Researcher).  It also carries a number of other publications: the Journal of Parapsychology (which is available free to members of the Parapsychological Association); Research in Parapsychology; the Journal of Scientific Exploration (all issues older than two years are free on the Society for Scientific Exploration’s website); and the European Journal of Parapsychology (which ceased publication in 2010 and for which all issues from 2004 to 2010 are free on its website, with the long-term aim of adding the rest back to its foundation in 1975). Despite being listed as ‘coming soon’, the Institut Métapsychique International’s La Revue Métapsychique seems to be there already.

Also ‘coming soon’ (though ‘soon’ in Lexscien’s world appears to be a somewhat flexible concept because their status has been so designated for rather a long time) are the Journal of Exceptional Human Experience and Parapsychology Abstracts International.  As the list of journals suggests, Lexscien works with a range of partners apart from the SPR: the Rhine Research Center; the Parapsychological Association; the Society for Scientific Exploration, and the ex-editors of the European Journal of Parapsychology.  When (or perhaps if) the forthcoming publications appear on Lexscien, the Exceptional Human Experiences Network will join the list (founded by the late Rhea White, it is now run by the Parapsychology Foundation and said to publish the Journal of Exceptional Human Experience and Parapsychology Abstracts International, though the EHEN website looks dormant).  Enquiries to the Parapsychology Foundation to learn more of the timescale for the publications’ inclusion failed to elicit a response.  There are also some books on the site: Frederic Myers’ Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore’s Phantasms of the Living (1886), and Eugene Osty’s Supernormal Faculties in Man (1923).

On the face of it this is quite an impressive roster, albeit duplicating some items freely available elsewhere, but there are drawbacks to the Lexscien site.  The SPR publications constitute by far the most significant element of Lexscien, to the extent that it may be assumed that Lexscien is an arm of the Society.  However, it is a privately-owned service, the owners operating as C-FAR, The Centre for Fundamental and Anomalies Research.  This is essentially David and Julie Rousseau: David Rousseau is listed on the C-FAR website as ‘Projects Director’ and Julie ‘Development Director’, with the rest of the ‘research team’ being Dr Zofia Weaver, Dr Richard Broughton, Dr Ed May, Adrian Ryan and Mary Rose Barrington.

Strangely Julie and David Rousseau (at the moment – these things have a habit of changing when flagged up) list themselves on the Lexscien page devoted to C-FAR as financial supporters of C-FAR, along with a number of others, as if C-FAR were an entity independent of them.  The organisation is registered at Companies House (Company number 04352039) with Dr David Rousseau as Secretary and Director, and Julie Rousseau as Director.  The company accounts are available to view online but are singularly uninformative and look to the untutored eye more like a tax reduction vehicle than the statements of an organisation actively engaged in anomalies research.  Lexscien is not included as a separate income stream on C-FAR’s annual statements even though appearing on C-FAR’s website as one of its projects.  Nor does income from C-FAR appear in the SPR’s Annual Report and Accounts, at least not as a separate item.  Despite this reciprocal opacity, the SPR’s 2013-14 Annual Report noted that £11,600 had been given to C-FAR to update and upgrade Lexscien.  Perhaps it would have been wise to insist on some kind of open accounting of any monies owed first before handing over such a large sum.  C-FAR may be not-for-profit, as the Lexscien overview states, but that declaration does not seem to have been tested.

SPR members are entitled to free use of Lexscien as part of their Society membership, but generally it is a subscription site, and is not particularly cheap.  There are two types of subscription, affiliate and standard, costing £18 and £85 per annum respectively.  The affiliate rate is available to members of partner organisations who wish to use the rest of the Lexscien site.  This is certainly cheaper than individual subscriptions to those publications it carries that have to be paid for but is still quite expensive.  The Lexscien ‘pricing’ page states that: ‘At least 65% of proceeds are distributed to the participating organisations, and the rest is (sic) used to expand and improve the library.’  However, the FAQ answer to the question ‘Can I choose which organisation benefits from my subscription?’ is more complicated:

 ‘Not directly. C-FAR takes no more than 35% of gross proceeds to cover the cost of running and expanding the library. Half of the remaining 65% is then divided between the organisations in proportion to the number of pages of literature they have put into the library. The other half is divided in proportion to the pages viewed by users. The net proceeds from downloads are passed directly to the organisation that supplied the downloaded material. This means that the supplier of the literature that is used most, benefits most, although everyone gets a share.’

That sounds like quite a lot of money should be heading the SPR’s way as it is by far the largest ‘partner’.  How much remains to be seen.  In the meantime funds are going the other way.  The £11,600 the SPR gave was a useful boost for Lexscien because there had been complaints about its ease of use with newer browsers, and until that point SPR publications only went up to 2008.  However, there is no acknowledgement of the SPR’s grant on the Lexscien home page, nor any reference to grants/donations that might have come from other partners (and if none did the question arises, why only the SPR when improvements to Lexscien benefited all partners?), nor any indication of how far behind other publications are.  Also, the quality of many of the pages is still poor and little, or more likely no, effort has been made to clean up defective scans that introduced noise and which hamper searches of the database.

Bearing in mind how long the SPR update took, and how long the coming soon’ publications have been forthcoming with no appearance yet in sight, it seems that there is little incentive for the owners of Lexscien to expand the content further.  I have suggested to Lexscien’s owners a couple of times that the SPR’s Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lectures, which were produced as booklets (see appendix below), be added to the online library but did not receive a reply.  Which I suppose is fair enough – in Boston Matrix terms Lexscien is a cash cow and ticks along nicely, and if market growth is low why bother to make the investment?  It is a matter of perspective – by contrast The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals sees its digitisation programme as a mission, and works on a shoestring; I suspect its board would love to be given £11,600, considering the huge amount they do on much less; and Lexscien isn’t expanding, that money was just to stand still.

Looking at the way Lexscien is run, it is a shame the SPR went down this route, effectively ceding control of its own property, but it was a canny move by the C-FAR directors, especially as the source material, for the SPR element at least, was donated by SPR members.  The problem is that even a ring-fenced online library is seen as an asset for the SPR (though unquantifiable) as it acts as an incentive for membership.  It looks like the SPR is locked into an unfavourable deal unless it decides to start again, and given the size of the job, and as David and Julie Rousseau are both SPR Council members, that is an unlikely proposition.  In the meantime other SPR publications such as the Myers Memorial Lectures, the newsletter that preceded The Psi Researcher, and many ad-hoc booklets, languish in limbo.  C-Far may be doing well out of the arrangement with its partners, but can the same be said for the constituency it is supposed to serve?


The following SPR publications would be valuable additions to a properly-conducted online library, but none of which is at present, as far as I am aware, available electronically.  I doubt if this is a comprehensive list but it gives an idea of some of the publications issued by the SPR that exist in limited quantities, largely unavailable to serious researchers interested in the Society’s history and the evolution of the subject.  They are worth preserving in an online SPR archive even where they have been superseded by later research:

The Society for Psychical Research: Its Rise & Progress & a Sketch of its Work, by Edward T. Benett (R. Brimley Johnson, 1903).

Telepathy and Allied Phenomena, by Rosalind Heywood, with a section on quantitative experiments by S. G. Soal (1948).

Tests for Extrasensory Perception, by D. J. West (1953, revised edition 1954).

Trance Mediumship: An Introductory Study of Mrs Piper and Mrs Leonard, by W. H. Salter, revised by Margaret Eastman (1950, revised edition 1962).*

The Society for Psychical Research: An Outline of its History, by W. H. Salter, edited with a new section and a bibliography by Renée Haynes (1970; first published 1948).  The 1948 edition replaced The Society for Psychical Research: What it is, what it has accomplished, why its work is so important, no author, 1945.

SPR Newsletter (36 issues, 1981-91, edited for most of that time by Susan Blackmore).

Tests for Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis: An Introductory Guide, by John L. Randall (n.d.)

Hints on Sitting with Mediums, by E.O, D.P and W.H. S. [Edward Osborn, Denys Parsons and W. H. Salter] (1950; this replaced an earlier leaflet, and was further revised in 1965 by D.P, R.H.T and A.G [Denys Parsons, Robert Thouless and Alan Gauld]).

Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, by G. W. L. [Guy Lambert] (1955).

‘Spirit’ Photography, by Simeon Edmunds (1965). [The complete text of ‘Spirit’ Photography (1965) was reprinted as part of an issue of the Journal of the London Institute of ’Pataphysics, number 12, February 2016.  It is accompanied by illustrations of photographs taken by some of those Edmunds mentions.]

Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, by A.D.C and A.G [A. D. Cornell and Alan Gauld] (1968).

Guide to the Investigation of Apparitions, Hauntings, Poltergeists and Kindred Phenomena, by Mary Rose Barrington (ed.) (1996).

The Importance of Psychical Research, by John Beloff (1988).

*The first edition of Trance Mediumship (1950) contains three appendices – ‘Personal Control in Trance Sittings’ by C. Drayton Thomas and ‘Telepathy from the Sitter’ by Mrs Kenneth Richmond [Zoë Richmond], plus a reading list.  The 1962 revision replaced all three appendices with a new one written by Margaret Eastman.  Probably between 1965 and 1968 Salter’s 1950 original was reissued and it entirely ignored Eastman’s revisions, reinstating the three original appendices.  Margaret Eastman’s short-lived version is now scarce.  The 1965-8 date for Trance Mediumship is suggested by the fact that the SPR republished its booklets in a uniform design with white gloss card covers during that period: ‘Spirit’ Photography and Hints on Sitting with Mediums in 1965 and Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases in 1968.  Like Trance Mediumship, Tests for Extrasensory Perception was reissued without a date, but contained the text of the 1954 revision.

SPR Study Guides

These were originally issued in 1980 in plain white paper covers, and were later reissued in stiff coloured card covers.  Series editors were Francis Hitching and Hilary Evans.  An extensive list of guides was envisaged but the costs of the project proved controversial and only the first five seem to have been issued (and there is some doubt about the second as no copies at all are extant as far as I can tell):

1 PSI in the laboratory: 12 Crucial Findings, by Francis Hitching.

2 Glossary of Terms Used in Parapsychology, by Michael Thalbourne.**

3 Apparitions, by Andrew MacKenzie.

4 Books on the Paranormal: An Introductory Guide, by Nicholas Clark-Lowes.

5 Reincarnation, by David Christie-Murray.

**I have not seen a copy and it may have been dropped as the first edition of Michael A. Thalbourne’s A Glossary of Terms Used in Parapsychology was published by Heinemann as part of its SPR centenary series in 1982.  On the other hand so was Andrew MacKenzie’s Hauntings and Apparitions, and his study guide was definitely published.

The Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lectures

Conviction of Survival: Two Discourses in Memory of F. W. H. Myers (The First Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Oliver Lodge (1929).

Beneath the Threshold (The Second Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by T. W. Mitchell (1931).

Supernormal Aspects of Energy and Matter (The Third Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Eugène Osty (1933).

The Meaning of ‘Survival’ (The Fourth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by W. Whately Carington (1935).

Supernormal Faculty and the Structure of the Mind (The Fifth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by C. A. Mace (1937).

Psychical Research and Theology (The Sixth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by W. R. Matthews (1940).

Apparitions (The Seventh Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by G. N. M. Tyrrell (1942).

Psychical Research: Where Do We Stand? (The Eighth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Mrs W. H. Salter [Helen Verrall] (1945).

The Experimental Situation in Psychical Research (The Ninth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by S. G. Soal (1947).

Telepathy and Human Personality (The Tenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by J. B. Rhine (1950).

Psychical Research Past and Present (The Eleventh Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Robert H. Thouless (1952).

The Influence of Psychic Phenomena on My Philosophy (The Twelfth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Garbriel Marcel (1955).

Personal Identity and Survival (The Thirteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by C. D. Broad (1958).

The Neurophysiological Aspects of Hallucinations and Illusory Experience (The Fourteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by W. Grey Walter (1960).

Unconscious and Paranormal Factors in Healing and Recovery (The Fifteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Emilio Servadio (1963).

Survival : A Reconsideration (The Sixteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by E. Garth Moore (1966).

Psychology and Psychical Research (The Seventeenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Cyril Burt (1968).

The Psychical Experiences series published by G. Bell & Sons

In 1937-9, G. Bell published a series of books based on the files of the SPR.  These are out of print and would be worth having in an online library.  This may not be a complete list:

Hypnosis: Its Meaning and Practice, by Eric Cuddon (1938, revised 1957).

Some Cases of Prediction: A Study, by Edith Lyttelton (1937).

Evidence of Identity, by Kenneth Richmond (1939).

Evidence of Purpose, by Zoë Richmond (1938).

Ghosts and Apparitions, by W. H. Salter (1938).

Evidence of Personal Survival from Cross Correspondences, by H. F. Saltmarsh (1938).

Foreknowledge, by H. F. Saltmarsh (1938).

(Appendix revised and updated 19 May 2016.)

Thursday, 10 December 2015

How Others See Us - Or At Least Our Novels

Middlemarch: So good I bought it twice

Lists of the allegedly best British novels crop up from time to time but the most recent poll (7 December 2015) gives us ‘The 100 greatest British novels’ as seen by foreign critics.  Jane Ciabattari, who contributes to BBC Culture, asked critics ‘from Australia to Zimbabwe’, but not the UK, to nominate their favourite British novel.  According to the BBC Culture article, she polled 82 critics, but it seems more likely that that was the number who responded.  The terms of reference were specific.  As Ciabattari puts it: ‘This list includes no nonfiction, no plays, no narrative or epic poems (no Paradise Lost or Beowulf), no short story collections (no Morte D’Arthur) – novels only, by British authors (which means no James Joyce).’

That seems reasonable, and there is a little about the critics as well:

‘The critics we polled live and work all over the world, from the United States and continental Europe to Australia, Africa, Asia, India and the Middle East. Some of the critics we invited to participate are regular book reviewers or editors at newspapers, magazines or literary blogs – Lev Grossman (Time), Mary Ann Gwinn (Seattle Times), Ainehi Edoro (Brittle Paper), Mark Medley (Toronto Globe and Mail), Fintan O’Toole (The Irish Times), Stephen Romei and Geordie Williamson (The Australian), Sam Sacks (The Wall Street Journal) and Claiborne Smith (Kirkus Reviews).  Others are literary scholars, including Terry Castle, Morris Dickstein, Michael Gorra, Carsten Jensen, Amitava Kumar, Rohan Maitzen, Geoffrey O’Brien, Nilanjana Roy and Benjamin Taylor. Each who participated submitted a list of 10 British novels, with their pick for the greatest novel receiving 10 points. The points were added up to produce the final list.  The critics named 228 novels in all. These are the top 100.’

The first sentence sounds comprehensively global, but we are not given a breakdown by region.  The set of names, if representative, answers one question I had, but poses another.  A concern had been that critics would have been reading the books in translation, which raises the issue of availability, the danger that only selected titles have been translated into that particular critic’s language and skewing the sample in favour of a narrow range of classic titles; that is aside from the possibility that the evaluation of a book is affected by the competence of the translation.  That was not the case, as judging by the names listed they would generally have been reading the books in English.  The fact that they were though creates an anglophone bias; there is no indication here of how many respondents primarily spoke a language other than English.  How many of them were German, French, Italian, or Igbo for that matter?  How big was the Latin American contingent?  This is a selection of mostly English-speaking critics (and some academics), probably those who could respond to Ciabattari’s invitation emailed in English.

Considering the statistically dubious start, the resulting 100 titles are generally familiar, with a few surprises thrown in.  Middlemarch comes out on top, and I can see why a group of foreign critics would consider it a quintessentially English novel (Daniel Deronda is also present further down).  Middlemarch won by a ‘landslide’, with 42% of the critics including it.  That and numerous others sound the sorts of books that appear in university English literature courses, probably where a lot of these were read.

Female authors are well represented throughout and take the top three slots, Virginia Woolf punching above her weight at numbers two and three with To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway respectively.  I like both those enormously, but if you locked me in a room and threatened me with death if I didn’t name the writer of the second and third greatest British novels, I can’t imagine Woolf would immediately spring to mind.  The Waves and Orlando also make the list.  Naturally the Victorians are heavily represented, particularly in the top half, with Dickens (Great Expectations, Bleak House and David Copperfield) in the top ten, along with Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Vanity Fair.  Dickens also has Dombey and Son, not normally considered one of his finest, on the list.  Austen appears four times, otherwise the pre-Victorians are fairly sparse –  Frankenstein (in the top ten), The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Clarissa, Gulliver’s Travels, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe.

Some of the entries one suspects are better known from their film adaptations and that may have led them to be top of mind (Atonement, Never Let Me Go – not even Ishiguro’s best, let alone in the top 100 British novels – and The Buddha of Suburbia stand out in that respect).  The presence of The Remains of the Day compensates for Never Let Me Go.  There are some curious choices, including for my money the tedious Under the Volcano, and recent books that have not had the chance to establish a consensus on their value (four date from 2011-12).  Jeanette Winterson and Zadie Smith both appear twice – does that make them among the most significant British novelists who have ever lived, and will their reputations stand the test of time?  Some plumb the depths of obscurity, such as Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth.  On the other hand it is nice to see titles which deserve to be better known, such as Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy, Henry Green’s Loving and (Dublin born) Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.

Anyway, what criteria do you use to decide on how ‘great’ something is?  Is it how it moves you, how it lingers in the memory, was it something that stayed with you from a formative period, was it influential on the literature that followed (in which case how does one assess fairly recent novels?); is how much it has been written about by previous critics a useful guide, or the extent to which it has captured the zeitgeist, how ‘real’ it seems, how ingenious the plot, how subtle the characterisation, how fresh its view of the world….  Taking all these potential elements of greatness into account the value of such a list must be dubious, but if it sparks discussion, and encourages readers to try something they hadn’t thought about before, it has to be worthwhile.

Of course I went through and totted up the ones I had read, and was a little embarrassed at how many I have yet to get round to, and there were more than a couple of which I had never even heard.  We can grouse about novels we deem less worthy included at the expense of writers who have been omitted or underrepresented, or about writers who are represented by what we consider to be the wrong book(s), and there are a few of all those in this list, but it is still an interesting snapshot of what springs to mind when critics put their collective feet up with a cup of coffee and jot down what at that moment they think are their top (however defined) British novels.  Sometimes it helps to have an outsider’s perspective to refresh our own.  With all its flaws they have nominated a collection of novels to be proud of, as well as a timely incentive to pull my finger out and cross a few more off my list of those books I really should get round to reading.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

An acquisitions fund for the Society for Psychical Research?

From time to time I hear about items for sale that could be of interest to the Society of Psychical Research (SPR) as additions to its archives.  A while back it was a letter by William James concerning the medium Eusapia Palladino, offered directly to the Society by the seller for a sum in the low thousands.  Most recently it was folders compiled by SPR Council member Andrew MacKenzie relating to his Versailles investigation (as described in his 1997 book on retrocognition, Adventures in Time) on a bookselling website, a snip at £400.

While both figures were probably inflated (the latter enormously for what was included, and the SPR actually holds the MacKenzie Collection, so it is a mystery where this came from), I had to say each time that the SPR does not possess a budget for acquisitions so even if these were the best bargains ever it would be difficult for the SPR to purchase them.  Any request would have to be put to the Society’s Council for discussion because the cash would need to come from general funds, inevitably slowing the process down and risking a sale elsewhere in the meantime.

When the Cyril Permutt Collection, which had been on open-ended loan to the SPR, was offered for sale to the Society by Mr Permutt’s family in 2003, the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg stepped in to pay for it on the SPR’s behalf (and later added a further amount for conservation) as the SPR had been helpful in assisting IGPP members prepare the exhibition and book Le troisième oeil : La photographie et l'occulte, published in English as The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  If not for that kind gesture, the albums of photographs gathered by Permutt might have been lost (even though there was a considerable fog over the ownership of many of the photographs, which had been passed to Permutt by the SPR in the first place).*

A way to address the risk of missing out on important items, and to encourage offers of suitable material, would be to set up an acquisitions fund.  This would be a designated fund to reassure contributors that what they gave could not be used for another purpose.   A small standing committee, comprising say the Hon. Archives Liaison Officer, the Hon Treasurer, the Hon. Secretary and the President, could have the delegated responsibility for administering it.  They would be able to call on the expertise of others on a case-by-case basis but theirs would be the final decision.

If a potential purchase came to a sum greater than was in the fund but still represented good value in the committee’s opinion, the sum would be loaned from the general fund but then repaid with the proceeds from later donations.  A surplus in the fund would gather interest, and this would boost the fund.  The SPR has a number of designated and restricted funds, listed separately in its accounts, so this would not be an out-of-the-ordinary manner of utilising its resources.

Having such a mechanism in place would have a number of benefits:

First, should something come onto the market that would enhance the SPR’s archives, the Society could negotiate quickly and confidently knowing that funds were ready, a strong position especially if there were competing interests and the risk that a delay might mean the item went elsewhere.

Secondly, it would act as a focus for people who want to see the Society’s archives strengthened and are happy to give for that specific purpose rather than for general activities. By ring-fencing the money it would reassure potential benefactors that their gifts would be spent in a way that they considered sensible, which they may not always think the case with the general fund.  Purchases could be featured in the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review (as should all acquisitions as a matter of routine anyway) as a reminder of the fund’s existence.  Donors could be named or remain anonymous, as preferred.

Thirdly, it would remind members and non-members that the SPR’s archives are still growing, despite being housed at Cambridge University Library; it is easy to assume that they are now closed but this is not the case.  Anyway, there is always the possibility that one day the Society will be able to retrieve its collections and house them in its own secure facility, though that prospect is some way away and may never be realised, especially as it has just purchased a new headquarters building that is not suitable to house all its holdings, particularly the rare books.

Fourthly, it would act as a beacon for owners and heirs, who might otherwise sell off significant items on the open market, donate them overseas (the Archives for the Unexplained in Sweden is a popular destination) or even throw them away, to consider the SPR as a suitable repository.

Finally, the fund could be used as part of a campaign to publicise the Society.  Promoting the fund would also be a reminder to the wider research community that the SPR has world-class archives, and that should in turn encourage their use.

One disadvantage of a fund is the risk of inflating the market, encouraging people who might otherwise have considered donating to sell instead, thereby making the SPR pay for what it would previously have received free.  That is a risk, but one outweighed by the danger of losing items, and even if there is a value to the object the owner may still decide to donate.  In any case much of it will have little interest for non-specialists so in the absence of competition should not be expensive.

Some things are always going to be beyond the SPR’s resources, however big its budget.  In December 2013 an album of 27 of Canadian Spiritualist Thomas Glendenning Hamilton's photographs taken between 1920 and 1922, put up for auction in New York, went well beyond the $4,000 to $6,000 estimate, going for $93,750 including the buyer’s premium.

There is no way he SPR could compete with that level of expenditure.  Something in the hundreds or low thousands though should not be outside its reach simply because no thought has been given to how it might be paid for.  Such sums could be spent now from general funds, but working against that is inertia and other calls on the money to be weighed against the less tangible value of fresh acquisitions.

It is easy to be complacent about the archives and passively assume that they will expand through donations.  This cannot be guaranteed and opportunities will be missed.  An active collection policy with the finance to back it would help the archives to grow, and generate interest in them.  Appeal funds work very well in the art and museum world, where advertising acquisitions acts to encourage further donations as well as benefiting the institution’s image.  Having a dedicated fund would make it easier to fulfil one of the core functions of an academic organisation – provide the tools for scholarly research.  It is a proposal that is worth considering.

*An article, ‘The SPR Cambridge Archive’, which appeared in the October 2005 issue of Paranormal Review states that ‘ The kindly donation by the Freiburg Institute of the Cyril Permutt Collection has increased the photographic and newspaper cutting archive considerably.’  This is incorrect as the IGPP did not donate the Cyril Permutt Collection but rather the money to buy it.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Eighth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, 6-7 November 2015

It is always a pleasure to attend the annual film festival mounted by Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, a centre in the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge.  Usually at least part of the festival is held in the Arts Picturehouse, but this year both nights were in the Winstanley lecture theatre at Trinity College, serviceable but not quite as plush.   Cambridge Ukrainian Studies director Dr Rory Finin in his introduction explained that while the organisers had managed to fend off the demands for space by the James Bond vehicle Skyfall three years ago, the might of Spectre was too powerful, leaving no space for Carpathian shepherds at the arts cinema; ‘Bond is no lover of Ukrainian documentary film’, he wryly commented.

The eighth annual festival had a different format as well.  Previously there had been a mix of fiction and documentaries, but this time no fiction was included because of a collaboration with ‘Docudays UA International Documentary Human Rights Film Festival’, which had supplied six documentaries of varying kinds as the entire programme.  And six interesting documentaries they were.  Friday night began with two shorts on a theme that is at the heart of recent Ukrainian history, and from which the repercussions are still being felt: EuroMaidan, or the Revolution of Dignity as it is also called.  Last year we saw Maidan, a magisterial portrait of a society in upheaval, showing how idealistic people who yearn for a better life can come together in an effort to effect change.  Maidan is Everywhere (Kateryna Hornostai, 2015, 36 mins) and The Medic Leaves Last (Svitlana Shynko, 2014, 26 mins) are intimate portraits that complement the larger-scale film.

Maidan is Everywhere intersperses the Madian protests with people going about their everyday lives, as life continues even in the face of violent political change.  We follow them at home, at a wedding, even army cadets giving an oath of loyalty, though to what may have been unclear to the young men.  We also see that not everybody supported the protesters wholeheartedly: a group of students gather in a street to the annoyance of a local resident who complains that they are blocking the road.  Surprisingly, the film opens with a couple of young women in an open space, one about to interview the other.  The interviewee is nervous, and they are distracted by a small funfair in the background.  Only at the end, when we return to them, do we realise that actually they are not in Ukraine at all but in Red Square, Moscow.  They unfurl the Ukrainian flag, whereupon a police car smartly rolls up and an officer politely but firmly tells them that they cannot exhibit the flag in the square.  They put it away, but as the Ukrainian interviewee whispers to the camera, ‘Maidan is everywhere’.  A bit of an exaggeration perhaps; Pussy Riot notwithstanding, Putin is rather more popular at home than Viktor Yanukovych was in Ukraine before he was ousted in 2014.

The Medic Leaves Last also has Maidan as its backdrop, but brings the emphasis down to a personal level, that of a volunteer doctor, Tanya, who treats minor injuries sustained in the Maidan protests with very basic equipment.  But this is not just about the protests either because we follow her back for a visit to her home where her ancient widowed mother keeps ducks and worries about her daughter’s safety.  Tanya ironically comments on her ‘beautiful village’ while standing in a bus shelter piled high with rubbish, and expresses her concern at how close it is to the conflict zone in the east of the country.  The film in fact ends with her leaving for the east with other volunteers to help those fighting the pro-Russian rebels.

The final film on Friday night was Living Fire (Ostap Kostiuk, 2013, 80 mins).  It is much more polished than the two shorts which preceded it, following a group of Carpathian shepherds as they take their flocks up the mountains for the summer months, looking after the animals and making cheese.  The film is beautifully shot, gloomy interiors contrasting with the broad open spaces.  It is a masculine way of life, no women participating, and one of the wives left behind complains that it is like being widowed for four months of the year.  An old man, who had been a shepherd, tots up with regret how little time he spent with his late wife in over half a century of marriage.  Somewhat chillingly, he joshes an embarrassed young boy, saying how much alike they are after noting how little education he himself had received.  The boys who help do a rigorous job which must leave little opportunity for studying, a way of life in a remote place that can only hamper their wider life chances.  Some scenes are shot in a school and the teacher asks the pupils to list their talents.  One lad rubs his writing away, and when the teacher picks up the blank sheet the boy says that he has no talent.  It is a stark reminder how hard lives can stunt expectations.  The men say how difficult the job is, and the economics look precarious.  With such conditions it is easy to see why it is a dying way of life, with only one pasture in the mountains still being operated in this way.  It is an open question whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Saturday’s session began with a counterbalance to the Maidan films, examining what happened when the party was over.  Post Maidan (Serhii Andrushko, 2014, 42 mins) follows four individuals from different parts of Ukraine – Kiev, Donetsk, Crimea, Irpin (to the north of the capital) – as they reflect on what had happened and what might be to come, both on a personal and national level.  The period prior to the 2014 presidential elections seem to have brought deflation after the excitement of the Maidan protests and the feeling that anything was possible.  As well as Russia’s interference there was continuing cynicism about the ineffectual process of lustration to reform the old regime, the role the Berkut police force had played during the Maidan occupation, and the domestic political system generally.  The shanty camp was only slowly cleared, the eyesore creating a backlash among sections of the public.  One commentator claimed the reason for the delay was because it would be needed again, the implication being that the root causes of the protests, economic and political corruption, would continue.  One of the four individuals being followed is standing for election, and a passer-by to whom he speaks tells him to his face that he will be like the rest,  once he has their votes he won’t bother with their needs.  On the other hand another becomes an election officer, and is proud of the efficient and fair way in which her polling station operated.  The film displays optimism as well as soul searching and anxiety.  I’m sure there were subtleties that passed over the heads of non-Ukrainians, but it was a superb portrait of a country in flux.

The Place We Call Home (Thora Lorentzen and Sybilla Marie Tuxen, 2014, 30 mins) also turns from a focus on the  broader mass movement to individual lives, and how people are coping with the new reality.  Most of these are vignettes, including a soldier smoking before returning to the conflict in the east, and hunting for a grenade under a mattress, assuring the occupant that the grenade doesn’t have a detonator – thankfully he manages to find it; a mother praying with an Orthodox priest for the country’s sons; an old woman singing a folk song inside a station entrance.  The majority of it is about tattooed young men relaxing and playing music, joking about drugs, their absorption insulating them from the difficulties of life outside.  Noteworthy is singing in English, a nod to western-leaning aspirations and desire to integrate into wider international culture.  The overwhelming feeling of these snapshots is one of anticipation, something round the corner about to happen that can only be faced with apprehension.

The final film was the festival’s highlight for me, Crepuscule (Valentyn Vasianovych, 2014, 61 mins).  On paper it is unpromising: ‘82 year-old Mariia and her son Sashko live in the remote Ukrainian countryside.  Sashko has gone blind, and his mother clings to life to care for him.’  On the screen it was amazing.  It fits with Living Fire as a depiction of a gruelling way of life in a remote rural location, where there is no social support system other than the kindness of neighbours.  Sashko has gone almost completely blind as a result of untreated diabetes, and it is frustrating for him.  He does what he can with his limited sight, and watching him use an extremely large power drill largely by touch is excruciating.  The bulk of the work falls to his mother, a small but tough woman who manages to keep a sense of humour in terrible adversity, whether gathering hay, feeding the cow, dealing with a new-born calf or decapitating a chicken.  The work is arduous and the two bicker but rub along together.  The main enemy is probably boredom.  In one scene Mariia waits in the snow for the milk tanker, staring down a long straight road.  A small dot appears, and slowly gets bigger, to reveal itself as a man and child on a bicycle accompanied by a dog.  We wait further, another dot appears, and gets bigger, and at last the tanker arrives.  Time stretches, and the wait becomes a metaphor for the slowness of progress to make a significant difference here.  Apart from the electricity and motorised transport it seems to be a life that they and their ancestors have lived from time immemorial, so it is a surprise when a local comes to do some hand-ploughing for them and his wife receives a call on her mobile phone.  It is looks like a clash of cultures, until husband and wife climb on board their traditional horse-drawn wagon, at which point it is obvious that having network coverage makes only a small difference when the weight of history is pushing you down.  The film ends with a caption, and it is not the outcome one is expecting from the synopsis, evoking compassion and the realisation that it is too easy to take one’s own comforts for granted.

Once again Rory Finnin and his team have provided a fascinating range of films from Ukraine and they are to be thanked for organising the festival, which is not only free but comes with hospitality.  The event offered ample evidence that there is a thriving documentary movement in the country.  If there is a criticism it is that the films about Maidan share a particular agenda.  It may be justified bearing in mind the conflict with Russia, but as the disgruntled local in Maidan is Everywhere indicates, there are other voices that are not being given weight (it seems unlikely that he was only irritated at people blocking cars, his complaint was more likely a proxy for a wider unhappiness at the situation, of which the students were a convenient target).  As far as I could tell there were no interviews in any of the documentaries with anybody who was avowedly a supporter of Yanukovych or held pro-Russian views.  Perhaps also it is time to examine more deeply systemic problems in Ukrainian society (it is alarming to read Leonid Bershidsky’s 6 November 2015 Bloomberg article ‘Ukraine Is in Danger of Becoming a Failed State’).

While it would have been nice to see more of Ukraine’s feature film production to add variety to the programme, it is always worth being reminded of the difficulties its citizens face politically, socially and economically.  Ukraine may be going through a difficult phase, but at least its documentary movement is thriving, compiling a resource that will be invaluable to future historians.  The Ninth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film will doubtless provide a further instalment in this unfolding story of a country experiencing tremendous stresses.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Watchers, by Neil Spring

Warning: spoilers ahead for both The Watchers and Neil Spring’s previous novel The Ghost Hunters.

Neil Spring, author of the best-selling The Ghost Hunters, a novel about psychical researcher Harry Price, has returned with another doorstop.  The Watchers draws on the 1977 UFO flap in Pembrokeshire which included a close encounter at Broad Haven Primary School, where some of the children said they had seen a spacecraft land and a sliver humanoid emerge.  Mixed in is conspiracy theory; Cold War apprehension and the fear of nuclear annihilation; secret government operations; and covert American military activity on ‘Airstrip One’ with little or no oversight by the British establishment.  It’s the sort of milieu that was mined superbly by Troy Kennedy Martin in Edge of Darkness.

Against this uneasy background, Robert Wilding (Wildling according to the back cover) is an assistant to the Member of Parliament for Pembrokeshire, Paul Bestford.  More importantly Bestford is chairman of the Defence Select Committee and Wilding is using his boss for his own agenda: damaged psychologically because of a traumatic childhood, he wants to uncover what happened to his mother during a peace protest at an American air base in 1963 which left her blind in one eye and with severe memory loss.  In this effort he is being fed information by a retired admiral, Lord Hill Bartlett (the name a nod to Lord Hill Norton, an admiral of the fleet who developed an interest in UFOs).

Wilding’s search for the truth takes him back to Broad Haven, where he grew up with his unsympathetic grandfather after his parents’ untimely deaths there.  Strange goings on suggest it is a hot-spot for alien visitors, and in the process of investigating their meaning Wilding discovers things about himself from his childhood he had suppressed.  Eventually he reveals a sinister conspiracy run by the local Rotarians, one with a supernatural dimension that could mean the end of civilisation as we know it.  The bulk of the book comprises his first-hand testimony as he gets to grips with recalcitrant locals in his search for answers to mysteries past and present and finds out who his friends are.

The story is reminiscent of Nigel Kneale, mixing science fiction and horror tropes, Spring’s silvery aliens actually expressions of a demonic effort to break through from another dimension and take control of our world.  That reverses the premise of Quatermass and the Pit, aliens misidentified as demons becoming demons misidentified as aliens.  It’s an endearingly corny idea, though the special effects will require a more substantial budget than that allocated to the period drama of The Ghost Hunters when Spring sells the film rights.

Surprisingly, despite dissimilar subject matter, The Watchers is actually a companion piece to The Ghost Hunters, with a returning character, Dr Robert Caxton.  His appearances in The Watchers are marginal for most of the narrative, though they include extracts from his book The Mind Possessed: A Personal Investigation into the Broad Haven Triangle, which are interleaved with Wilding’s first-person account.  Both novels too are structured with a frame: in The Ghost Hunters the frame is 1977, looking back to the 1920s; while that in The Watchers is 1979, looking back to 1977.  Another connection: we find out at the end of The Ghost Hunters that Caxton’s father is Harry Price, and although Price’s name is not mentioned explicitly in The Watchers, there are oblique references, until we learn in the denouement – from Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher no less – that Price’s work was funded by the British government before the war. 

Unfortunately there is confusion in the chronology for anyone who reads both books.  The Ghost Hunters begins in October 1977 with Caxton visiting Senate House Library.  But the main events in The Watchers occur in February the same year, and one would expect as traumatic an experience as that undergone by Caxton in Wales to have had more of an impact on the mildly sceptical academic who opens The Ghost Hunters.  But there is an even closer relationship between the two books, with The Watchers directly foreshadowed in The Ghost Hunters.  At the end of the first book, Caxton is shown a letter, dated 6 March 1977.  It was written from Broad Haven where his mother, who had given him up for adoption as a baby, was living.  The writer, Vernon Wall, says that children at a local school had recently ‘witnessed something most bizarre’, and suggests that it needs an expert to dig into it.

This of course links to the action in The Watchers, except that by 6 March events had moved on from children having a weird experience in a playground because complete mayhem, including an extremely high body count, had descended on that corner of West Wales.  How can Caxton be investigating something in February he didn’t hear about until March?  Another, minor, problem in reintroducing Caxton is that there are now two individuals with the same first name.  Spring gets round this by not referring to Caxton in The Watchers as Robert, always calling him either Dr Caxton or just Caxton.  We are only told that his first initial is R.  When he writes to his wife (on 7 and 11 February) he signs the letters ‘Caxton’, a rather odd thing to do when writing to one’s spouse.

The ending of The Watchers looks forward to another significant real-life UFO mystery, that of Rendlesham Forest in December 1980.  The government, Mrs Thatcher explains to Wilding’s and Caxton’s horror, plans to attempt to harness the power which manifested at Broad Haven.  The date for the experiment is December 1980, at RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge, near Rendlesham Forest.  Wilding protests that these forces cannot be controlled, but he and Caxton are effectively blackmailed into assisting in the project (as we are still here it must have worked).  A possible hook to a further novel, or a television series, is Mrs Thatcher’s comment to Wilding and Caxton that while they are waiting for December 1980 to roll round, ‘we have need of your experience elsewhere.  There have been reports of…sightings, all over Britain.  And abductions.’

The Watchers’ epigraph, uncharacteristically ungrammatical, is by the late Ralph Noyes, described simply as a ‘former MOD official’ (coincidentally he retired from the Ministry of Defence in 1977).  As well as being involved with UFOs in an official capacity, he was also for some years the Hon. Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research and its self-appointed éminence grise.  He would not have been impressed to read a reference to the SPR, coming out of nowhere in an extract from Caxton’s book, which begins: ‘After the scandals caused by the Society for Psychical Research’s poor quality control in certain high-profile investigations, anyone operating in this field [presumably meaning UFOs, not a field with which the SPR has been much concerned] is compelled to act in accordance with the highest professional standards…’  What these scandals and high-profile cases are is not specified, but the implication is that the SPR through its ineptitude has made life difficult for other investigators, though why anybody should be ‘compelled’ to act in accordance with the highest professional standards is hard to see.  There is no reason for this puzzlingly gratuitous attack on the SPR to be there.

Leaving aside problems of chronology The Watchers is well constructed but suffers from flat writing and never manages to attain the tension a thriller requires, even when it looks like an ‘ancient evil’ is about to be unleashed at the climax.  With The Ghost Hunters one senses that Spring is really enjoying seeing Price come alive, and while there are infelicities that could have been rectified by an editor, it is an entertaining read.  The Watchers has fewer basic errors (though the page number of one of Dr Caxton’s book extracts jumps backwards) but the author’s emphasis on working out the intricacies of the plot means that Wilding, Caxton and the rest do not lift off the page.  As a result The Watchers does not quite deliver on its promise.  It probably won’t do much for the Pembrokeshire tourist industry either.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

'The SPR and ASSAP: Time to Merge?' by Tom Ruffles and C J Romer


The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) was founded in 1981 as the result of dissatisfaction felt by a few members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  This is ancient history and it is not the present intention to rehearse the issues which created that rupture.  Suffice it to say that the two organisations have existed in parallel for over thirty years, attracting different, though frequently overlapping, memberships but generally standing aloof from one other.  Now that aloofness is dissolving, with each promoting the other’s activities on social media, and there is more interaction than has been the case in the past.  With this improvement in relations, the time has come to ask: why not merge to form a single body?

The first response might be to wonder why they should merge when they have such strong individual identities and do well on their own.  The answer is that they have strengths which are complementary, rather than antagonistic, so that both sets of members would gain from unification.  Another question is that if some members were dissatisfied with the SPR in 1981, could the same happen in the future, leading to yet more friction and possibly a fresh split?  The answer to that is that the current SPR is a long way from its 1981 incarnation, and fully aware of how traumatic such a rupture is in the life of an organisation.

The following sections attempt to answer some more of the questions that will naturally occur in a discussion of the merits of bringing ASSAP and the SPR together.  It is to be hoped that these will generate debate, which may produce further questions.

What are be the benefits of a merger?

The obvious one is a bigger combined membership, with economies of scale and greater resources.  A larger size should increase its punch and authority, both within the field and among the wider public.

The SPR has dedicated premises and a paid full-time administrator which would improve the ad-hoc administration experienced by ASSAP members.  The volunteers who run the latter do a tremendous job, but a dedicated office function has to be more efficient.  ASSAP members would have access to the range of benefits already enjoyed by SPR members.  These include four numbers of both the magazine Paranormal Review and the peer-reviewed Journal (and occasional Proceedings); free access to London lectures, reduced rates to bi-annual study days and the annual conference; a permanent library, archives of international significance, and free access to an online library of publications back to 1882.  ASSAP officers could be brought into the SPR Council structure by means of co-optation.

In terms of research, ASSAP has an energetic and enthusiastic membership, and this injection of energy would be welcome in the SPR.  ASSAP’s spontaneous case network would reinforce the existing SPR Spontaneous Cases Committee and its emphasis on training would be useful in stimulating interest in investigation among SPR members.  A larger combined membership, and therefore increased income, would enable an expansion of the amount given to fund research activities.

Education, a core function for both the SPR and ASSAP, would be improved as well.  Integrating the libraries and archives would provide an enhanced resource (the new SPR premises, bigger than the previous rented accommodation, providing the required space for ASSAP’s books), and ASSAP’s records would find a permanent home.  A single set of periodicals, with a larger circulation than either achieves singly, would attract a wider range of writers.

There would also be benefits in geographical reach: the SPR is often seen as London-centric, whereas ASSAP is successful regionally.  With a combined membership around the country there would be motivation for regional activities, enabling members outside London to participate in their localities.  This is an opportunity to decentralise some of the SPR’s functions, with more grassroots involvement.

What about differences in scope?

The subject-matter of the two organisations is not identical, that of ASSAP covering a wider area than that of the SPR.  ASSAP members might legitimately complain that a merger is likely to squeeze out particular interests, such as ufology, earth mysteries and folklore.  This is not necessarily an impediment, even though such topics in general fall outside the scope of the SPR.   In these days of easy electronic communication it is straightforward for sub-groups to pursue their interests.  The new SPR website will make it possible for members to keep in contact with each other easily, so that even though say ufology is not a significant element of psychical research, those with such an interest can still interact, while enjoying the benefits of their SPR membership.

Membership fees

A stumbling block is that ASSAP’s fees have always been significantly less than the SPR’s.  The standard membership rates are noticeably different, with ASSAP’s being a quarter of that charged by the SPR.  This reflects the different set-ups of the organisations, ASSAP’s lower volunteer-based costs compared to the SPR’s permanent paid staff and building expenses.  ASSAP members would hopefully consider the broader range of benefits enough to justify an increase, but perhaps there could be a transitional arrangement, with incremental rises over several years for existing ASSAP members to bring the two sets into line.  The SPR membership rates are very reasonable, and ASSAP members would hopefully see that the increase was justified.  It is most unlikely that there could be any reduction in the SPR rates to bring them closer to ASSAP’s.


On the other hand, ASSAP members would undoubtedly baulk at the costs of the SPR conference and study days (as do some SPR members).  With ASSAP’s expertise in mounting economically priced study days (notably the extremely popular ‘Seriously…’ series), there is no reason why these could not continue, augmented by the presence of SPR members who had never attended an ASSAP event before.  The status of some of these, such as conferences on vampires and witchcraft, would be problematic under the SPR banner but these could be run in collaboration with other organisations, such as the London Fortean Society; the SPR has participated in joint events with the Scientific and Medical Network so there is precedent for such an approach.

A concern which has to be acknowledged is that the desire to organise events might diminish, with those who had previously volunteered for ASSAP not wanting to make the effort on the grounds that conferences of all kinds should be arranged at the centre.  It is doubtful that the SPR office would be willing to shoulder the extra administrative load.

What about the name?

The name could be a sticking point for ASSAP members.  There is no easy way that the names SPR and ASSAP could be combined, and there would be overwhelming resistance within the SPR to altering an internationally-recognised name that has been in existence since 1882.  The most likely outcome is that the SPR would retain its name, but with ‘incorporating The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena’ on its literature – something that might not appeal to ASSAP members whose first loyalty is to that organisation.  This could be a major obstacle, but one that might be overcome if ASSAP members were convinced that the advantages outweighed the loss.

Mechanisms for reaching an agreement

This article has set out some of the pros and cons of a merger.  Bringing the two together would not be quick as there are a number of steps before that could happen.  In addition to a general debate among both sets of members there would have to be an initial discussion by the officers within the two organisations; a formal process of consultation with members; meetings between the two sets of officers to resolve any contentious issues; then there would have to be a vote, with a criterion for a yes vote agreed in advance.


This long after the event, most of those interested in our subject are not bothered about why ASSAP came into being.  What they want to see is a thriving organisation or organisations that can deliver the means necessary for them to pursue that interest.  Many join both with no sense of conflict, and a number of those who established ASSAP continued to take part in the SPR’s activities, clearly seeing no contradiction in belonging to both.  There is no doctrinal reason why the respective memberships should not combine and work together, and the practical difficulties could surely be overcome with goodwill on both sides.  In delivering their services the two organisations are capable of existing independently, but their combination would strengthen the voice for psychical research.  If that is our aim, then the case for coming together to our mutual benefit, and that of the field, is a strong one.

This article is being published jointly on the authors’ blogs, and publicised on social media, in the hope that it will generate a constructive exchange of views.  The authors are both members of the two organisations, but are not writing in any official capacity.  They welcome feedback of all types, which should be sent to tom.ruffles[at]yahoo.co.uk, in order to gauge levels of support for and opposition to the proposal.  This has to be a bottom-up process, with all opinions aired.

Tom Ruffles and C J Romer

10 October 2015

Update 31 October 2015:

On publication I linked this article to the SPR’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, while CJ Romer put a link on ASSAP’s Facebook page and later added the text to his ‘Polterwotsit’ blog.  Neither of us received any private communications, nor did the SPR Facebook page and Twitter links produce any feedback, suggesting a degree of indifference by those whose primary interest is the SPR, whether members or not.  However, the link on the ASSAP Facebook page generated a large number of comments.  These were uniformly negative.  It seems that there is still a considerable degree of mistrust by some ASSAP members towards the SPR, and one comment referred to the rift in the 1980s as ‘an unhealed scar’.  Not one person indicated a willingness to even consider the benefits of a merger.

A major concern in the Facebook debate was the greater resources and longer history of the SPR, which would cause ASSAP’s identity to be submerged.  Another issue, as I suspected it would be, is the difference in scope between the two organisations, particularly the lack of a focus on ufology within the SPR.  The fear was that more fortean activities would be marginalised (though despite it cropping up frequently in the discussion, I haven’t actually seen much evidence of members pursuing ufology with any vigour through ASSAP), and the creation of special interest groups discussing issues online was considered insufficient.  In fact, it was felt that the more limited scope of psychical research was a driver for the creation of ASSAP.  There was a feeling that it would make more sense for the SPR to merge into ASSAP than vice versa, or for the SPR to first change the ‘P’ in its name from Psychical to Paranormal, and expand its remit accordingly.

It was suggested that should the SPR and ASSAP combine, a significant rump would immediately split off to form ASSAP Mark Two; there could even be an exodus from the SPR, leading to three separate bodies (unlikely in my view).  A proposal was put forward that some form of networking between the two organisations, along with others which share a similar outlook, would assist greater collaboration while allowing each to retain its own identity.  It was generally agreed that greater cooperation is a good thing, though it was not specified what form that cooperation might take, apart from participating in each other’s conferences, and the counter-argument is that increased bureaucracy would lead to a loss of interest, making any gains short-lived.

The myth that membership of the SPR is expensive was impossible to eradicate, but then some ASSAP members think that £15 is a bit steep, so it is a matter of perspective.  A strand of the discussion focused on the higher overheads of having a building and paid staff, which does not occur if the administration is done from a volunteer’s home office.  It could be that ASSAP members like to think that SPR membership rates are exorbitant because it reinforces their belief that ASSAP is superior.  There was no acknowledgement of the benefits of SPR membership and its value for money.

A common argument was that ASSAP is in good shape and has no need of the SPR.  I learned that ASSAP’s funds are healthy, whereas I had assumed that they are parlous.  Even so, my main concern has not been the amount of money it has in the bank but organisational failures caused by a reliance on volunteers and erratic direction by its officers.  These deficiencies are now being rectified with an injection of energy (not least C J Romer taking on the task of producing its publications) but there are still problems, and some of those with the loudest voices on ASSAP’s Facebook page are not involved in the management structure and merely assume that ASSAP is strongly placed to face the future.  My suggestion that it might be in long-term decline did not go down well.

Writing the article was a useful exercise, but ASSAP’s core members are fiercely loyal and the conclusion that has to be drawn from the debate, which was generally conducted on respectful terms with minimal snark, is that a merger is unlikely.  There would be net benefits in my opinion, but the obstacles are too great.  The situation could arise at some point that ASSAP has to wind up, but probably not in the short to medium term.  If it does collapse the SPR will be able to offer a home to its members, but there would be no ASSAP to merge with and those subjects that fall outside the SPR’s primary area of interest, such as UFOs, would have to find a home elsewhere.

Tom Ruffles