Thursday, 26 March 2015

Why I do not intend to leave money to the Society for Psychical Research

This may seem a surprising statement from someone who has been involved with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) for nearly 30 years, many of those as a Council member.  My affection for the Society and my commitment to its aims have not wavered, but I am concerned that the enormous sum bequeathed by Mr Nigel Buckmaster is not being used as wisely as it might, and I am not confident that any money I might leave would be used wisely either.

In what follows I must stress that I am not divulging any privileged information gleaned through SPR Council meetings.  Matters discussed within them are confidential, and although that principle has not always been honoured by some Council members, I feel I should restrict myself to what has appeared in the public domain – or can be deduced from it.  The necessity for deduction is because the official communications have not always been terribly explicit about how money will be used; you would think that there was some embarrassment about it judging by the lack of detail in the Society’s various announcements.  There is still enough information available to allow me to express my disquiet at some of the things that have occurred since the Buckmaster funds began flowing into the SPR’s coffers.

Exactly a year ago I wrote a couple of blog posts about the Buckmaster bequest, as a result of the publication of the SPR’s 2012-13 Annual Report and Statement of Accounts.  Now that the 2013-14 Report and Accounts (the reporting period ends on 30 September) are available, it is possible to see what further information has been supplied on the matters I wrote about then.  Buckmaster is prominent in the Report, starting with outgoing president Dr Richard Broughton in his own report alluding to the difficulties encountered within Council in deciding what to do with the money.  Unfortunately the Accounts feel very short on detail, and while they are acceptable to the auditors and other official bodies, the interested member might struggle to determine exactly how some of the Society’s resources are being expended.

In addition to the reference in his presidential section in the 2013-14 Annual Report Dr Broughton, who also chairs the Buckmaster Oversight Committee (BOC), contributes the BOC’s first annual report.  In it he briefly lists the four elements of the ‘Buckmaster project’:  1) the online encyclopaedia/books/website upgrade; 2) ‘a research and publication project to develop Systems Methodology as a new tool especially suited to the investigation of spontaneous cases’; 3) ‘updating and upgrading the Lexscien online library’; and 4) the creation of an online open data repository.  What is left goes into a building fund in the hope of finding a freehold property at some point.

Some of the Buckmaster initiatives are to be admired, though it might be felt that more money is being spent on them than should be necessary (some £350,000 on the publishing programme, for example).  In particular, even though the earlier CaseBase proposal promoted by David and Julie Rousseau, which was to gather a collection of what are considered to be the best paradigm-challenging cases, had been withdrawn because it was so controversial, leading to the formation of the BOC, David Rousseau (the Society’s Hon. Treasurer) and Julie Rousseau, also a Council member, seem to loom large in the disbursement of the Buckmaster money.

One sum that went to them – or rather their organisation C-FAR, the Centre for Fundamental and Anomalies Research – was £11,600 for the updating and upgrading of the Lexscien online library, which among other publications houses the SPR’s Proceedings and Journal back to 1882 (item 3 on Dr Broughton’s list of Buckmaster projects).  There had been embarrassing complaints about the online library’s usability for some time which reflected badly on the SPR, and it also stopped at 2008.  The new money will allow it to be brought up to date, but it does seem to be a huge amount of money to support a database that also brings in subscription money to C-FAR from non-SPR members.  A useful comparator is Marc Demarest’s IAPSOP database, which is growing at a phenomenal pace and houses far more content than the relatively static Lexscien.  IAPSOP is clearly done for love by volunteers, Lexscien is a more hard-headed enterprise.  C-FAR by the way does not itself seem to do much research as an organisation, despite its title (though I am happy to be corrected), but it does appear to be a registered company so must be handy for tax purposes.

Number 2 on Dr Broughton’s list is the Systems Methodology project, which Dr Broughton’s report specifies is being conducted by Dr Rousseau.  C-FAR was given £26,000 for this purpose, and as it is a neat third of the £78,000 noted in the SPR Buckmaster announcement of 24 March 2014, it is not difficult to figure out that this is the first of three tranches of £26,000 being paid to Dr Rousseau.  The total amount he is receiving, £78,000, seems clear, but not what he is doing for the money, which is nowhere elaborated.  What can be said with certainty is that despite the Systems Methodology project grant to Dr Rousseau being a grant for a project, it is not as one might have expected administered by the SPR’s Research Grants Committee (RGC), even though one would normally expect such an application to be made to them rather than direct to the BOC, and there is no indication that the BOC would entertain other grant applications.

I have previously noted that the annual sum paid to Dr Rousseau is completely out of scale with the average RGC award.  This year (2013-14) the RGC awarded a mere four grants ranging from £750 to £3,300, averaging £2,050 per applicant.  There were in addition seven grants awarded by the Society’s Survival Research Committee, ranging from three of £1,000 to one of £4,500, the seven averaging £2,663.  The total amount awarded to all eleven by both committees comes to £26,842.87, only slightly more than awarded to Dr Rousseau alone in the same year.  The £78,000 to be given to Dr Rousseau, something like a tenth of the Buckmaster bequest, is totally unlike the grants normally given to applicants.  That must be some Systems Methodology.  What can it possibly contain that is worth so much?  Half way through the 2014-15 reporting year and we are still none the wiser.

Finally, there is one item glaringly missing from the 2013-14 Report: any reference to the Research Activities Committee (RAC), which Dr Rousseau chaired, but which showed little sign of life in recent years apart from the promotion of the CaseBase project (as can be seen from Dr Rousseau’s notes as chair in previous Annual Reports).  I am particularly sorry to see it disappear because I was on Robert Morris’s steering group that resulted in the RAC’s formation in 1992.  Anybody wishing to see what the RAC was intended to do should read Professor Bernard Carr’s article written when he was its chair, ‘Research Activities in the SPR: New Initiatives’, which appeared in the SPR’s Paranormal Review in January 1999.  The committee had a wide remit, but this languished under Dr Rousseau’s chairmanship, and it is now no more.  The cynic might think that, the CaseBase initiative having been shelved, the RAC had fulfilled its function and was of no further interest to Dr Rousseau.  I’m sure it is a coincidence but the conjunction is unfortunate in terms of perception.  Anyway, it would have been nice to see some mention of its demise in the Annual Report, but the loss of a committee specifically dealing with research activities is not something one would necessarily wish to draw attention to as it suggests a certain poverty of ideas and lack of vigour.

To sum up, I had intended to leave money to the SPR.  Not on the scale of Nigel Buckmaster admittedly, but an amount nonetheless.  I shall certainly not do so now, because of the way I feel that the Buckmaster money is being so poorly utilised.  This is not my opinion alone.  I know of a couple of SPR members who feel the same way, and will not remember the SPR in their wills.  That is money that would have come in over the next few decades which will instead go to other homes.  The Society has done very well from legacies in the past, and they have got the organisation through some tough periods when outgoings otherwise outstripped income.  But times change, the profile of the membership has changed with them, and it cannot be assumed that legacies will always flow in as they have in the past.  If potential donors see that money is being frittered, they will look elsewhere.  There are many competing causes, and some who would once have considered putting the SPR in their wills could decide that other charities, such as Cancer Research, or the Alzheimer’s Society, will be more likely to use their money wisely.  That is what I am going to be doing.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Books Lost; Books Regained

I recently read a blog post by Luke McKernan, ‘Lost Books’, in which he discusses his attitude to the ownership of books.  His key point is that the act of reading a book makes it part of the reader, and looking along a shelf of them is a reminder of the intellectual journey to which they have been the accompaniment.  He tells the story of how, when moving house, he gave a quantity of his books, perhaps a couple of hundred, to a charity shop and has regretted it ever since because in a very real way he had disposed of a part of himself.  He can recall where he bought all his books and where he read them, so at a meta level they contain a story over and above that found in the content, which in reading them became part of Luke’s own story.  If they’ve gone, they’ve gone, and not even an identical replacement will carry that sense of having been absorbed; it would be merely a ringer, not the same.  To reinstate the meaning that the original copy had would mean rereading it, and overlaying the first set of associations with a new one.

I can understand this view, but my engagement, while I hope as intense, is somewhat different.  After a time I do not as a rule recall where I bought a book, nor often where in particular I read it, though I do often associate particular books with certain times, usually longer books read in summer holidays when young – War and Peace, Don Quixote and Ulysses spring to mind.  As a rule it’s the words that count, not the book as an object, but it was not always so: at one time (my teens and 20s) I had the ambition of owning every book I read.  This proved impractical but I still built up large sub-collections.  Unfortunately space is the enemy, and I eventually decided I had to weed out some of the things I had read and would probably not need again (a dangerous assumption).  Early victims of this culling process were the poetry pamphlets which I had accumulated during my regular trips to Compendium at Camden Town, and later, when married with a small child, many of my science fiction and crime novels.  It hurt at first, but I found that I gradually became less sentimental, and didn’t consider that I was diminished by their absence.  I certainly don’t feel, as Luke suggests, that their absence tells an incomplete story about me, and if it does, who cares?

In general I still find that I don’t miss the ones that are gone, with exceptions.  Some books I do kick myself about, like the one I got a few pounds for on eBay which I later discovered was worth rather a lot, or the politics books from my student days I sold to a specialist dealer that I wish I had kept (but I really didn’t think at the time I would want to consult Lenin’s What is to Be Done? again, or what must have been everything Trotsky wrote that was in English translation at the time, let alone reread them, and perhaps I mourn the loss of the younger me they represent as much as the volumes themselves).  Mostly I take a pragmatic view, keeping books I think will be useful, notably on cinema, psychical research and the nineteenth century.  I don’t read ebooks for pleasure, but I do have a large collection of PDFs for reference or just-in-case, and some of those have replaced physical copies that I have read and am unlikely to want to reread in their entirety.

I am not a slave to the editions I have read either.  If a more recent version comes out, I’m happy to replace my old one, invariably when I find a cheap second-hand copy.  Thus recently the 2003 revised Penguin edition of Frankenstein, which I haven’t yet read, replaced the 1992 Penguin edition, which in turn replaced the still earlier one I had read, simply because it is more up to date.  On the McKernan system I would either have to eschew the new one,  or else read it in order to make it part of me, overlaying the trace of the old one I had read which had gone.  The latter I may or may not do, but should I need to consult it – and who knows where research will take one – it’s good to know that I have the copy that has been revised and which can be considered more authoritative than its predecessors, including the one I read.

There are some books I won’t part with, such as the battered copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn my father bought me when I was a child and which evoke the original pleasure of reading them whenever I look at the covers.  The Beatrix Potter books I received from relatives fall into the same category.  For most of them though I do not feel that strength of attachment.  I certainly do not regard them as part of me in the way that Luke does his.  I’ve already mentioned, in reviewing Penguin’s compilation of covers, Seven Hundred Penguins, how I once thought nice hardbacks were preferable to Penguins and changed them over as a matter of course when I had the opportunity, only to change them back where appropriate when I came to appreciate that it was the content that mattered, not the format.  These days I divide books into those which are keepers and those which are disposable.  The latter, mostly modern fiction, go off the charity shop when read, yet they often achieve a kind of permanence in my memory through the act of writing about them.  If space were limitless I would have a grand library in which to retain every book I acquire, with no disposal policy, and once something like that was an ambition.  They are wonderful to have about the place, but one has to be practical, and moving thousands of books is a nightmare.  Some balance is required.

One thing I disagree with Luke about is his definition of a bibliophile, which he characterises as someone who collects books or reveres them for their own sake.  He sees the bibliophile fetishizing objects, and by that narrow definition neither am I one.  It is too narrow, and I think we both are really, or else why would we be writing about our books with such affection?  They are obviously important to us both.  We may have different approaches to the books we own but I bet he loves them as much as I do.  I love the texture, the weight, the design, above all the promise contained inside.  Sometimes the promise is unfulfilled, at other times it exceeds expectations.  Bibliophilia is about the attitude one takes to one’s books and what they contain, which is essentially a deep connection.  I feel it, and the fact that Luke mourns those lost paperbacks puts him very firmly in that category as well.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A visit to Kazerne Dossin, Mechelen, Belgium

Mechelen was chosen as a transport hub for the deportation of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis from 1942 to 1944 because it was conveniently located between Brussels and Antwerp and had good railway links.  Kazerne Dossin is a fitting monument to the lives and deaths of the Jews, gypsies, and others who suffered under the Nazi regime before and during the war, in Belgium and elsewhere.  Opened in 2012, it is described in its literature as a ‘Memorial Museum and Documentation Centre about the Holocaust and Human Rights’.

Occupying five floors in a massive purpose-built structure, it covers and contextualises the rise of Nazism in Germany after 1918; Jewish life in Belgium during the same period; the occupation; registration of Jewish citizens and increasing restrictions on their freedom as they were excluded from mainstream society; the often enthusiastic cooperation given by the Belgian authorities, at least in the early stages; the strains of living in hiding for those Jews who chose not to submit;  the theft of property, and the transports East leaving from the Dossin Barracks opposite (after which the museum is named) to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps; the mass murder; and the trauma of those who survived.  Photographs, objects and information panels are interspersed with audio commentaries describing some of the stories of those caught up in this dreadful period that make compelling listening, and films of Holocaust survivors recounting their own experiences.  All information is trilingual, including English.

A video near reception orients the visitor with a brief history of anti-semitism and the way in which those who are seen to be different can be ostracised and bullied.  The main exhibition is divided into three parts, a floor devoted to each: ‘Mass’, creating the environment in which maaltreatment can flourish by taking away a sense of individual responsibility and forming an outgroup to despise; ‘Fear’, the imposition of a state of terror after the German invasion of Belgium in 1940, leading to the deportations; and ‘Death’, the camps and the extermination.  Included here are photographs of SS personnel enjoying themselves, seemingly oblivious of the horrors around them which were all in a day’s work.  As well as the conveyor belt to the gas chambers, the mass executions carried out on the Eastern Front are included, naked individuals lined up and shot at the edges of huge pits.   Importantly in all this it is stressed that the Holocaust did not come out of a vacuum, but built on anti-Semitic attitudes which pre-dated the Third Reich.

Cumulatively the displays show the infliction of terror on an unimaginable scale.  To reinforce that message, one huge wall of the museum is covered with photographs of the deportees, a remarkable and sombre display which is designed to give them back the identities of which they were so cruelly deprived.  The predominant colour of the museum is white, symbolic of purity and innocence, while reminiscent of gravestone marble.  It is a huge building, imposing and functional, with no unnecessary frills to distract from the content, towering over the old barracks that for some 26,000 people was the start of their journey away from Mechelen.  The whole place is an act of commemoration, while asking hard questions about how such an act could happen.

The Belgian state apparatus which collaborated with the Nazi authorities does not on the whole – with notable exceptions – come out well, though the fact that large numbers of Jews remained in hiding is testament to the support of sections of the wider community, and Belgian co-operation decreased as the German persecution became more naked.  This is in contrast to the tolerance Belgium displayed before the invasion, becoming home to many displaced Jews from other countries, notably Poland.  But the focus is not just on those who actively assisted the Nazis; those who stood by passively were also complicit.  The centre is thus an act of remembrance for all Belgians, not just its Jewish citizens.  The top floor is given over to temporary exhibitions about other genocides, broadening the scope from what happened at Mechelen and elsewhere during the Second World War; the one during my visit comprised large-scale photographs dealing with the documentation of the victims and the crimes that were perpetrated against them during the Guatemalan civil war.

Looking at the photographs of those who died in the concentration camps, what struck me was how ordinary they looked.  One that caught my eye was of a casually-dressed man in glasses sitting on a sofa.  He looked much like I do, casually dressed, in glasses, sitting on the sofa.  I couldn’t really see how he was so different from me in any way that someone would want to murder him for no other reason than that he happened to be Jewish.  These are not anonymous individuals, statistics, they are real people, who had hopes and fears like anybody else.  What really made me think how much alike they and we are though was a particular photograph.  It is of two men standing side by side, with cigarettes in their hands, taken outside a Jewish restaurant in Charleois, Belgium, in 1936.  That they are both holding their cigarettes in their left hands suggests that they are brothers. 

 Whether they are or not, the picture reminded me strongly of one of my favourite photographs of my father (on the left), standing outside the Union Tavern, Camberwell New Road, south London, in 1955 with his brother George, the pair similarly holding cigarettes. 

 Different times and circumstances, but still two ordinary men standing in the street with cigarettes.  Was either of those men photographed in 1936 alive a decade later?  We can be thankful that we in the West today are immeasurably more comfortable than are those who suffer oppression, while we are reminded, both from historical and contemporary examples, how fragile that comfort can be.

When we arrived at Kazerne Dossin a party of school students was just finishing a tour and congregating with their mobile phones. It was good to see young people being exposed to these exhibits, though who knows what lessons they took away, but otherwise it was all fairly quiet.  More people should make the trip to Mechelen and see what can happen to ordinary people, little different to anybody else, who are persecuted by those who pursue a ruthless and unbending ideology of hate.  That anti-Semitism is still a problem was demonstrated by the presence of armed soldiers in the foyer (we also visited the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, where four people were murdered in May 2014, and that too has armed guards among other stringent security measures).

The barracks across the road, where deportees gathered to wait for the transports, have been converted into flats, the courtyard landscaped.  The building has been put to positive use, but it still felt a little uncomfortable walking through the doorway and visualising where, based on a photograph we saw in the museum, arrivals had clustered, lorries had stood, and where possessions had been left, symbolic of the soon-to-be absence of those rounded up.  The past suddenly felt very present as we stood there.

 Anybody visiting Brussels or Antwerp should seriously consider visiting Kazerne Dossin.  It deals with specific instances of mass murder but draws out broader lessons which are timeless.  These oblige us to think about the mechanisms that enable such barbarous acts and how we might respond in similar circumstances; how resistant to demagoguery we would be when the entire regime is bent on the systematic annihilation of its opponents and those who, for ideological reasons, it deems unworthy of life.

The Nazis’ victims may be gone, but Kazerne Dossin, for as long as it stands, will perpetuate their memory.