Friday, 30 December 2016

To Walk Invisible - brief thoughts

Charlotte, Emily and Anne

BBC’s prestige drama To Walk Invisible, written and directed by Sally Wainwright, was a pleasure to watch as it charted the evolution of the Brontë sisters from homebodies with no prospects, concerned about what will happen after their father dies as their house is tied (not a problem in the event as he outlived them all) to published authors.  Admittedly it suffered from the common BBC problem of poor sound quality at times, swelling music over-emphatically directing the viewer’s emotions to the detriment of being able to hear what was being said.  But there was much to admire, particularly in the scenery (cgi very well used), faithfully recreating Haworth and the surrounding moors, and reminding the viewer that the parsonage was not isolated but was part of a thriving, and grimy, industrial district.

Characterisation was plausible, displaying the mingled affection and irritation which comes from living in each other’s pockets.  Charlotte is the shrewd ambitious one who nags a reluctant Emily, seeing how brilliant her poetry is.  Emily though lacks confidence, hiding it behind a facade of prickliness and undertaking the bulk of the household chores while the other two write (there is a lot of the domestic stuff shown, countering the assumption that writers lead rarefied lives while tending to reinforce the grim-up-north stereotype).  Anne wants to keep up creatively yet is conscious, as is Charlotte, she is not quite in the same rank as Emily and Charlotte; perhaps an unfair depiction as Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall have been reassessed in recent years and found to be surprisingly tough-minded.  Useless alcoholic brother Branwell, with delusions of talent, lacks application and is resentful because of it, knowing he can get his own way if he is obnoxious enough.  And father Patrick is long suffering, always naively optimistic with no foundation that Branwell’s latest crisis will be a turning point leading to his recovery, and taking the girls for granted despite his affection for them.  That he is spectacularly unaware of their prodigious literary activities is brought home when Charlotte enters his study and to his astonishment diffidently mentions she is the author of Jane Eyre and it is doing rather well.

The surprisingly deep bond between Emily and Branwell is touching, evident when they sit on a five-bar gate with their heads resting together looking at the moon before baying companionably.  On a Sunday morning the sisters walking to church find Branwell in the lane clutching a wall in a terrible state.  They blank him and continue tight-lipped, suddenly Emily stops and turns round, not to give him a deserved punch in the kidney but to take him back.  The film is full of such touches: I especially liked the moment where Arthur Bell Nicholls has helped to bring an incapable Branwell inside, losing his hat in the passage, and he and Charlotte awkwardly stoop together to pick it up leaving Arthur on his knee, foreshadowing their marriage; by contrast the homage to Henry Wallis’s The Death of Chatterton with Branwell out of it was too studied and the effort to endow him with a tragic aspect unwarranted.  The suggestion Branwell accidentally caused Emily’s death from TB three months after his own by coughing blood into her face as she nursed him is horrifying.  He never gave anything of value to his family, instead bringing chaos and pain into it.

It struck me afterwards that it would be possible to map Wainwright’s depiction of the siblings onto Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (or at least four-fifths of the Famous Five, though the film’s large but mysteriously little-seen dog obviously intended to suggest the model for Pilot in Jane Eyre could stand in for Timmy).  So the go-getting and bossy Charlotte is Julian.  In-your-face Emily is George.  Branwell appropriately is Dick, even if Branwell never follows Charlotte’s orders as Dick does Julian’s.  And pretty Anne Brontë, dragged along in her sisters’ wake, doubles the feminine slightly drippy Blytonian Anne.  Where the Famous Five go adventuring on Kirrin Island the Brontë sisters mount expeditions into their imaginations.

However, the story is not about the novels themselves, though there are glimpses of what inspired them.  Primarily it is about the struggle of the three sisters to make something of their lives in a world which does not look favourably on independent female achievement, and attain on their own behalf the financial security their father’s death would remove and Branwell could never provide.  In true Yorkshire fashion creativity is allied to business sense, as the scene in which Charlotte, Anne in tow, descends on her publisher George Smith in London indicates.  If practical business also entails an element of invisibility, such as assuming the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis and Currer in order for their words to be judged rather than them, so be it.

After a bizarre episode on the moors with the three sisters backlit – godlike – by a triple sun, an almost transcendental experience presumably inserted to remind viewer that notwithstanding all the talk of business their legacy is greater than something merely produced for money, hackwork, the film more or less concludes with Branwell’s death, his sisters’ fates relegated to a brief postscript.  Unfortunately, by stopping when it does it makes their sad ends seem subordinate to that of their feckless and undeserving brother.  If he was the centre of attention in life, there is is no reason he should be in death.

We finish with shots of the parsonage as it is now, concentrating on the shop selling trinkets which would surely have made the Brontës’ toes curl.  The old place is certainly a lot cleaner than it was in the 1840s, and I was pleased to see a healthy ethnic mix looking at the key rings and mugs; as I recall, during my visit to Haworth the clientele was homogeneously white.  But why suddenly insert tacky commercialism into the moving story of this talented set of writers who have enriched our culture so profoundly, botching the last moments of a fine two hours of television?

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Harry Lockhart’s psychic dream


My great-grandfather, Henry James Lockhart, generally known as Harry (1861-1905), was an elephant trainer, as were his two brothers Samuel and George.  Sam and George were far better known than Harry, who has rather been forgotten, perhaps because more of his life was spent in the United States.  Research needs to be done to excavate his career, which may have been as illustrious as his brothers’.

An intriguing anecdote about Harry can be found in the El Paso Herald from 18 January 1904, p. 8, almost exactly a year before his death.  It is headed ‘HARRY LOCKHART, ELEPHANT TRAINER, REACHES MOTHER’S BEDSIDE JUST IN TIME.’  He was in El Paso, Texas, for a few days en route to Mexico City where he was working for Orrin Brothers’ Circus, which had opened a Circus Teatro building in Mexico City in 1894 (Kanellos, p. 98).  El Paso seems to have been his usual stopping-point and he had good friends in the town.

From the article it can be seen that Harry was a popular man, described as ‘The famous elephant trainer and traveler, and prince of good fellows, genial Harry Lockhart’.  Harry was a larger-than-life character: ‘“Business is good" wherever Harry goes’ the journalist claimed, before noting that he had a great reputation as a joker.  On a more serious note, the journalist, who must have sat down with Harry over a few drinks, recounted a dream Harry said he had had:

‘Mr. Lockhart. while traveling through the west recently, dreamed that his mother was ill in Paris. He at once telegraphed to Mrs. Lockhart, who replied that she also had had a similar dream.’

Presumably at this point his mother was not unwell, or she would have said so.  But a dream was enough to set Harry off to Paris: the account concludes:

‘That settled it – Lockhart took the first train for New York, which left in ten minutes, and from there took the first steamer for Europe. arriving in Paris to find his mother seriously ill and praying for him to come. Mr. Lockhart has left a host of warm friends in this city behind him who will be always glad to welcome him back. He intended leaving yesterday, but his friends. Bloom and O'Brien, hid his baggage and he could not get away.’

His mother was Hannah Pinder, through whom the Lockharts are related to the illustrious Anglo-French Pinder circus family.  The dream was most likely precognitive, because when he had it Hannah was apparently not ill.  No more details are given, so the nature of the ailment is unknown.  We do not know how close in time her dream and Harry’s were, nor precisely how similar.

Hannah was born in 1826 so if the dream had occurred in 1903, she was 77, an age when a dutiful son might be worrying about her health.  But that would not explain him making a trip from the western United States to France to see her.  He may have made the entire incident up, but lying about your mother’s health is on a different level to pulling a journalist’s leg.  If he had been telling a yarn, surely it would have been a better one.

The article’s headline implies Harry arrived just in time to witness his mother’s demise, but Hannah outlived Harry.  She died in 1910, while Harry died of pneumonia in Mexico City on 31 January 1905 (family lore says that he had been out in the rain organising shelter for the elephants), and was buried in the city’s English Cemetery (Panteón Inglés, Real del Monte.).  It was almost exactly a year after the spectacular death of his brother George on 24 January 1904, when he was crushed by a runaway elephant at Walthamstow, London.

The El Paso Herald carried a story on 1 February 1905, p. 3: ‘Mrs. Harry Lockhart, wife of the well-known elephant trainer, passed through the city yesterday en route to the City of Mexico to join her husband, who is seriously ill there. “Harry” is well known here and his numerous friends hope that he may pull through and continue to delight the circus goers with his famous trained animals.’  Sadly by the time she arrived he was already dead, and there is a further family story of his wife and young son, also Harry, arriving at the cemetery as the mourners were leaving it.


Reference

Nicolás Kanellos. A History of Hispanic Theatre in the United States: Origins to 1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990).

Friday, 9 December 2016

Are you gay? If so, apparently there’s good chance you are possessed by a ghost


An article appeared in Pink News (primary focus of interest fairly obvious) on 7th December highlighting an article on a website run by the Spiritual Science Research Foundation (SSRF) which asserts that an overwhelming reason for homosexuality is possession by a ghost.  This is not a good thing as it has a deleterious effect on the possessed person’s ‘capacity’.  The SSRF article in question is ‘Symptoms of Ghost Affecting or Possessing a Person’ and it includes figures to back up the argument.  It seems ‘about 30% of the world’s population is possessed by ghosts.’  Only 5% of homosexuality is accounted for by hormonal changes; 10% is psychological, such as a gay encounter that was pleasurable; and a whopping 85% originates in ‘spiritual causes’, largely meaning ghosts.  Ghosts, it should be added, encompass a variety of phenomena, not just the expected discarnate spirits: ‘demons, devils, negative energies, etc.’.  The spiritual perspective is Hindu.

Unfortunately most people don’t realise they have been infected as only saints, characterised by being above the (scale undefined) ‘70% spiritual level’, or those possessing an ‘advanced sixth sense’, can tell.  That leaves a huge number of people possessed by ghosts while unaware of their position.  There are ways to diagnose it, but the symptoms listed are wide-ranging, often vague, and easily confused with other ailments, presumably why ghosts can get away behaving in this outrageous manner with impunity.  When it comes to sex, things get complicated.  Possession by a ghost can lead either to an increase or a decrease in the sexual drive, so that isn’t much help in assessment.  There are however differences according to whether one is possessed by a ghost of the same of a different sex:

‘If a female ghost possesses a woman, it attracts other male ghosts either directly or through the medium of other males possessed by male ghosts. Such women do not feel the need for getting into a formal relationship with the opposite sex like getting married. They come up with some excuse or the other to avoid such relationships.’

So a woman who is single and not in a relationship is a bad sign.  Oddly there is nothing about the effect a male ghost has when inside a man.  Presumably they remain confirmed bachelors.  It gets really interesting when it comes to cross-sex possession.  The main reason behind men being gay is that they are possessed by female ghosts, and the female ghosts are attracted to living men.  Conversely some women are occupied by male ghosts and they are consequently attracted to females.  The ghost’s consciousness is stronger than the living person’s and can control it in the desired direction.

This of course presupposes the ghosts are heterosexual.  Would a male gay ghost inside a woman be attracted to men, and a female gay ghost inside a man be attracted to females, thus from the outside looking exactly like a non-ghost heterosexual situation?  What about bisexuals; is that the result of a bisexual ghost, or one with a low libido unable to exert full control over the host?  Later on there is a reference to ghosts inside married couples, leading to disharmony, but no mention of the differential effect of the ghost’s sex.  Women should either be spinsters or lesbians according to whether they have a female or male ghost in them so there is some faulty logic somewhere.  The good news is that this deplorable situation can be combated by practices such as hypnotherapy, chanting and focusing energy flows.  In this way ‘homosexual tendencies and desires’ can be overcome, though it’s unclear what happens to the invading entity when the homosexual is freed.

So what about these findings from a body with science and research in its name, do they bear scrutiny?  The first thing to say is that offensiveness or peculiarity of a claim does not automatically render it invalid.  One may have a gut feeling about its plausibility, but guts are not reliable indicators; it’s the evidence that counts.  So what is the evidence?  Unsurprisingly, there does not seem to be any.  The methodology has not been included to allow others to follow the process.  As far as I can tell the statistics have been plucked out of the air, perhaps arrived at by a process of meditating and concluding ‘that feels about right’.  If determining the presence of a possessing ghost is so difficult I’m baffled as to how one could conduct any kind of survey that would give an accurate figure, assuming of course the idea of ghosts possessing the living is valid (leaving aside occasional cases where spirits were said to overshadow the living in the psychical research literature).  The data collection, if it exists, should be released immediately to allow independent parties to assess it.

Further, there is a page on the SSRF website which is essentially homophobic, referring to gay parades as becoming more ‘gruesome’ (i.e. flamboyant), gay pride a form of egotism, and homosexuality a sign of society in decline: ‘Indulging in homosexual activity or supporting it invites sin’.  Russian attitudes to gay marches are cited with approval, a stance offensive to anyone keen to uphold liberal values.  The result of all this gayness, we are warned, will be an increase in unhappiness.  (The counter-argument is that if you want to see people having a huge amount of fun you could do worse than witness a gay pride march.)  The suspicion arises that the information presented by the SSRF stems from prejudice, not scientific research.

Following the Pink News article, Hayley Stevens wrote an article for her blog criticising the SSRF.  What was surprising was how, when links were posted on the Society for Psychical Research’s Facebook page, hostility was directed at Pink News and Stevens – not to mention the SPR’s Facebook administrator (OK, me) – rather than at the SSRF.  Some of it seems to have been because there was actually support for the SSRF’s claim, with resentment at seeing it criticised, though the support was not overtly specified.  Others obviously didn’t bother to read beyond the headlines and assumed it was Pink News and Stevens who were saying gay people were possessed by ghosts (it was generally difficult to disentangle whether comments along the lines of ‘this is crap’ referred to the SSRF’s claim or to the coverage by Pink News and Stevens).  There may have been New Age discomfort that an eastern religion could display bigotry.  One or two commenters were firmly of the belief that ‘yeah, demons’.  Possibly others felt such unsavoury matter should not be given an airing whatever the slant.  There was little calm consideration of what should correctly be called the ‘Spiritual’ Pseudoscience Research Foundation’s unsupported statements, which was somewhat depressing.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun


The idea of Victorian entertainments might initially conjure up parlour games of an improving sort, or an evening round the piano exhorting Maud to come into the garden.  The latest free exhibition at the British Library takes a more expansive look at the world of Victorian show business thanks to conjuror Harry Evans, aka the Great Evanion.

In 1895 Evans was on his uppers and was forced by necessity to sell his collection of posters, playbills, sheet music and other ephemera, some 6,000 items in all, to the British Museum for £20.  That was apparently the most the curators could spend on a single transaction without having to seek approval from the trustees, who would probably have turned their noses up at the offer.

British institutions are not particularly noted for having this sort of foresight, but Evans’s loss was a huge gain for our understanding and appreciation of popular entertainment in the late nineteenth century.  If not the greatest show on earth, the British Library has conjured up a wonderful little one to put us in the mood for the festive season.

The exhibition encompasses magic, circus acts, menageries, mesmerism, dioramas, waxworks, panto and more, together giving a splendid insight into the way our forebears spent their hard-earned leisure in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  There are five main sections, devoted to stars of varying kinds, and degrees of celebrity: John Nevil Maskelyne, Dan Leno, ‘Lord’ George Sanger (a distant relative of mine), Annie De Montford and the Great Evanion himself.  Why these five were selected is not made clear, presumably because there is enough available in the archives relevant to each to constitute a cohesive presentation.

Evanion is not very well known today, but it would have been impolite to omit him, considering he has largely made the exhibition possible.  He was a magician who after appearing in front of royalty (there is some dispute about their precise status) thereafter billed himself as the ‘Royal conjuror’.

Maskelyne was manager of the Egyptian Hall in Regent Street, ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, in partnership first with George Cooke and then David Devant.  Egyptian Hall Posters on display tilt at Theosophy in the form of Koot Hoomi and the Mahatmas, hinting that there was often a seriously sceptical intent behind Maskelyne’s magic.

De Montford, ‘the psychological star’, was originally a millworker but carved out a career as a mesmerist, an unusual occupation for a woman, situated on the blurred line between science and entertainment.  To indicate how popular mesmerism was, on display is the music for Harry Castling’s song How I Mesmerise ‘em, as sung by Charles Gardener.

Sanger was the purveyor of ‘something new under the sun, twice daily’, as both a travelling circus impresario and later at Astley’s Amphitheatre.  A copy of his 1908 autobiography is in one of the cases, and its title, Seventy Year a Showman, does not seem an exaggeration.  Next to it is a ‘memoir’ by one of his acts, Toby the learned pig, which I think it can be assumed was ghost-written.

Finally, tucked round the corner is a section devoted to George Wild Galvin, better known as Dan Leno, comic singer and versatile performer, including as a clog dancer and pantomime dame.  He was allegedly the funniest man on earth (in admittedly a fairly small field).

The star attraction of There Will Be Fun has to be the wonderful posters.  They conjure up the greasepaint and sawdust and are marvels of the printer’s art.  Designed to be disposable, it seems a miracle they have survived in such fine condition.

Bulking out the gems from the Great Evanion’s collection there are films, such as one from 1902 of Dan Leno’s family larking about in the garden, and early sound recordings.  Further objects have been loaned by the Magic Circle, including rather oddly the spend-a-penny toilet lock invented by Maskelyne.

As well as the archival material, there are new films of actors recreating the old routines, and supplementing the exhibition is a series of live performances in the library – probably mounted in the name of ‘access’ but all to the good if it focuses attention on the collection.  The curators have dressed the display in a gorgeous red circus-themed paper with evocative gold text to reinforce the Victorian atmosphere.

Performing was one way someone from humble origins, with talent and some luck, could carve a lucrative career in a society where opportunities for social mobility were limited.  Sadly though, a lot of the greats who dedicated their careers to entertaining our ancestors came to unfortunate ends.  Of those showcased here, Annie De Montfort died in 1882 at the age of 46; Dan Leno spent time in an asylum and died in 1904 aged 43; impoverished, Harry Evans died in 1905 in Lambeth infirmary of throat cancer; George Sanger was murdered with an axe in 1911.

However, their legacy lives on in this excellent little exhibition and for anybody dropping in to see it one thing is certain – there will be fun!  It runs until 12 March 2017.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Juergen Teller selects Robert Mapplethorpe

Muffin, by Robert Mapplethorpe

It is easy to forget quite how young Robert Mapplethorpe was when he died in 1989.  The exhibition currently on display at the Alison Jacques Gallery in Berners Street, London, was mounted to commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday.  Juergen Teller has collaborated with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York to choose 48 images. encompassing Polaroids and silver gelatin prints, spread over two floors.  A note at the entrance wisely points out that the contents are not suitable for children, though they can all be found on the gallery’s website.

I can’t make up my mind what I think about Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and my visit didn’t help clarify my opinion.  They were ably selected by Teller (a good choice of curator for such challenging material), but on this showing what mainly distinguishes Mapplethorpe was his indifference to taboos surrounding the explicit depiction of male genitalia and anuses, and I’m not sure the intention to provoke, which must have been an element of his method, is enough to put him in the first rank of photographic artists.

That said, there is a lot more to him than naked men, and this was a welcome reminder of the variety of subjects at which he pointed his camera.  There are still lifes and animals as well as the portraits for which he is best known.  Patti Smith is present of course, but not wearing a shirt, in fact not wearing anything up top at all as she presses her breasts to a window pane, hands up in a pose evoking Maya Derren and so reinforcing Smith’s credentials as a significant artist.

Mapplethorpe is particularly adept at juxtapositions, whether with the contents of an image – a small statue of a devil with a pitchfork about to spear a penis looking like a hotdog – or titles – a classical statue with its arms flexed, as if stretching after sleep, called ‘The Sluggard’.  Gisèle Freund was photographed with one of her pictures of Virginia Woolf on a shelf next to her, rather a startling addition to a Mapplethorpe.  One wonders what Woolf would have made of all this.

In aesthetic terms the still lifes work well: eight frogs on a plate (or is this a portrait? – you don’t expect a still life to have the capability to jump), seedpods, bread in profile at first glance looking unsettlingly like dung; but inevitably they are secondary to the explicit depictions of the human form,  These often have a playfulness and sense of collaboration which neutralises any sense of seediness they might otherwise have had.  If it should seem crude on occasion, most notably in the explicitness of ‘Fist Fuck’, that says more about the prejudices of the viewer than it does about the photographer.

Mapplethorpe clearly had a way with people to earn such trust, and his empathy is revealed in the connection he makes with his subjects, but my favourite of the whole show has to be the dog Muffin pictured looking like an indolent nineteenth-century French courtesan.  Some of the other work is a little obvious or doesn’t quite succeed – ‘Corn’, in which a cob inevitably looks like a penis; a pair of cocoanuts resembling breasts; a grid of apartment windows marred by an ugly shadow that would be frowned on in a club competition; a long exposure making flowing water look velvety (‘Puerto Rico’), already a cliché in 1981 when it was taken.

Such reservations notwithstanding, Teller is to be congratulated on choosing an interesting group, as is Alison Jacques for showing it.  I would have liked to have seen more of Mapplethorpe’s corpus so finely printed, but am grateful these have been made available.  I’m still agnostic on their lasting value, but you could never say Mapplethorpe was a dull personality, nor, with the odd exception (the 1982 one of a television is surprising in its banality), producing boring photographs.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Society for Psychical Research’s fundraising appeal


In March 2015 I outlined the reasons why I did not feel it sensible to leave money to the Society for Psychical Research in my will.  The Society had been the beneficiary of a significant bequest from late Nigel Buckmaster but was not in my opinion using it wisely.  Since writing that, my attitude towards leaving money to the SPR has not changed.  What has changed is that in mid-2015 the organisation moved from its rented premises in Marloes Road, having purchased a three-story building in Vernon Mews, West Kensington.  The move was forced on the Society by the landlord at Marloes Road ending the tenancy, and it made sense to buy rather than carry on renting.  The choice of suitable property was limited but, while far from perfect, the new premises are definitely better than the old cramped office and library.

The latest issue of the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review has an interesting article by the Hon. Treasurer Dr Richard Broughton on the formidable logistics of the move, which had to be done in a very short period to meet the date the landlord had set.  It was a stressful operation, and fitting out the building to suit the Society’s needs was lengthy and expensive.  Broughton’s article states the cost of the move, which is fairly eye-watering: the purchase price was £1.2m, with another £100,000 for fees and the necessary refurbishment.

The Hon. Treasurer concludes by launching an appeal for funds, noting: ‘Our first donor was Mr Nigel Buckmaster who, you might say, foresaw our needs and allocated a portion of his generous bequest to the Society that amounted to £263,000.  That leaves a little over a million pounds to raise and we need your help.’  To facilitate the appeal a ‘Building Fund Committee’ has been established, and a couple of days ago a ‘New Home Campaign’ donate button appeared in a prominent position on the website, though a new home campaign sounds more like something you do to get a new home than start after you have obtained it (and paid for it).  There are enticements to donors in Broughton’s pitch: opportunities to name the library and lecture hall, though no figures are mentioned.

Mr Buckmaster certainly referred to the purchase of a building in his will, but did not specify any particular amount; he could hardly have known precisely how much his estate would be worth after his death.  That £263,000 was what was left after other Buckmaster projects had been allocated from the bequest which, with growth, amounted to some £750,000.  To put it in perspective, from the Buckmaster funds the SPR will have spent more on the new website and online encyclopaedia – a budget of £350,000 – than was allocated to new premises.

The back page of the magazine is devoted to the appeal under the call ‘Help Build Your Society’, noting the symmetry between the £1.3m spent and 1.3 centuries of the SPR’s existence (134 years).  ‘To be able to realise this dream [i.e. a new home] in London’s heated property market we had to dig deep into our financial reserves.  Now we need your help to recoup this ‘advance’ and help us pay for our new home.’

I’m all for the SPR having a healthy financial position of course, but less sanguine about how it spends its money (including how little it spends on supporting research).  It’s good news it has its own spacious property, both a valuable asset and a base to provide a better service than was the case at Marloes Road.  But the appeal subtly suggests that having spent this large sum on the Vernon Mews property, the Society is now a bit strapped for cash.  It doesn’t mention that the last building the SPR owned and rented out for many years, 1 Adam & Eve Mews, just off Kensington High Street, was sold for £800,000.  Nor does it refer to the difference between the proportion from the Bucknmaster bequest allocated to the new home and the amount the bequest was worth in toto, which comes to nearly half a million pounds.

My attitude is still that it would have been better to have used the money the Society already had more wisely than squander it and have to replenish it.  For example, to simply replace the Buckmaster money given to Council member Dr David Rousseau for personal projects yet to show their worth will necessitate raising £78,000.  Perhaps the appeal will bring in the required million, but I am doubtful in the present financial climate, not to mention the fact the Society actually already had the £1.3m necessary without having to ask.  On the other hand someone may fancy having the rather elegant library named after them.


References

Broughton, Richard S., ‘The Society for Psychical Research’s New Home’, Paranormal Review, Issue 80, Autumn 2016, pp. 8-10.

‘Help Build Your Society: 1.3 Centuries of History … £1.3 Million’, Paranormal Review, Issue 80, Autumn 2016, p. 36.

Friday, 18 November 2016

The death of Felix Dzerzhinsky


I have long had an interest in Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926); in 2008 I was photographed standing next to his statue in Minsk, Belarus, then earlier this year standing by his grave at the Kremlin wall near Lenin’s Mausoleum (the plaque marking the final resting place of the remains of Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, is just visible on the left, between the trees).  So I was intrigued by the title of a talk, given on 15 November at the University of Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities by Iain Lauchlan of the University of Edinburgh in the series ‘Conspiracy & Democracy’, called ‘Conspiracy in the Kremlin: Who (or what) killed Felix Dzerzhinsky’.

The talk hinged on Dzerzhinsky’s sudden death after a two-hour speech to the Central Committee on 20 July 1926 in which he had been critical of Stalin.  The cause given was heart attack.  But was it?  Could it have been murder, and if so, who could have been responsible?  Was this an early move by Stalin to remove possible opposition and consolidate his own grip on power?

‘Iron Felix’ is best known for his role in the Soviet revolutionary government as head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, better known as the Cheka, though he was also appointed Commissar for Internal Affairs which I suppose would be the equivalent of the British Home Secretary also being head of MI5.  Trusted by Lenin, he was ruthless in pursuing counter-revolutionaries and other enemies of the Bolsheviks.

Minsk, 2008. Photo: Keith Ruffles

Operating in ways not unlike those of the old Tsarist Okhrana, his approach was not above criticism: Victor Serge argued that a transparent system would have achieved its results as efficiently, but with more justice.  Dzerzhinsky on the other hand felt this was a life-or-death struggle and half measures could lead to disaster.  As Lauchlan put it in noting how dependable Dzerzhinsky was, if you had to break eggs to make an omelette, Dzerzhinsky was a man who could be relied on to break them honestly.  It was a position that could attract a sadist who might go beyond what was necessary whereas he did not like the job so would not use it for personal gratification.  His colleagues did not feel his methods were excessive.

Dzerzhinsky died in the Kremlin in mysterious circumstances and rumours swirled around his death immediately, particularly in the foreign and émigré press, his sudden demise used by opponents of the regime to suggest it was a sign of internal dissension.  There was a Russian tradition of violence in the Kremlin, notably Ivan the Terrible killing his son in 1581, and by evoking that murderous history Dzerzhinsky’s death was bound to create conspiracy theories.

Moscow, 2016. Photo: Karen Ruffles

The suspicion arose that the regime was encountering its Thermidor, a parallel with the situation in France when the Reign of Terror was brought to an end in 1794 and its leading light, Robespierre, guillotined.  By this interpretation Dzerzhinsky was the Soviet Robespierre and his death represented the government, post-Lenin, in crisis (more positively it could have been interpreted as the often arbitrary repression he represented easing as the government stabilised under the New Economic Policy, but from an anti-Bolshevik perspective it made sense to accentuate negative interpretations).

There were a number of colleagues who could have wanted Dzerzhinsky out of the way, representing a variety of shades of opinion.  Suspects included Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin.  They had all had areas of disagreement with their late comrade.  However, Lauchlan emphasised firstly that Dzerzhinsky argued with both wings, putting him in the middle; and while he disagreed on some things, equally he agreed on others.  There was no single aspect of policy which might want someone to have him killed.

Significantly, Stalin was not mentioned at the time as a moving force in a possible murder.  Nor did Stalin accuse any of those he eliminated later of having orchestrated Dzerzhinsky’s death when he could easily have done so, though Lauchlan did mention that Stalin had planned to include the possibility of his murder as part of the allegations in the Doctors’ Plot shortly before his own death.  Stalin was capable of accusing others of acts he had authorised, so it would have been easy for him to point the finger, even if evidence was lacking or had to be manufactured.  Later a rumour circulated that Stalin had had Dzerzhinsky killed because as head of the Cheka the latter had uncovered evidence Stalin had once been an Okhrana agent, though this turned out to be baseless.

So if accusations of a conspiracy were lacking in 1926, why did they emerge later?  Lauchlan argued that it is easy to interpret history backwards, reading motives into events retrospectively because we know what takes place next.  Further, history can become a kind of soap opera in which everything occurs for a reason.  Properly constructed drama does not allow for random forces, it requires motivated individual acts.  From that point of view it is easier to see Dzerzhinsky’s death as part of a wider scheme than acknowledge he just dropped dead from a heart attack.

There were a number of deaths in the senior Soviet hierarchy in the 1920s and 30s which happened at opportune moments, and if one thinks in terms of conspiracies then these could be regarded not as coincidences but acts by the state to purge dissent.  However, Lauchlan’s view is that Stalin’s paranoia only developed after the suicide of his wife in 1932, after which he gradually became insular within a limited clique.  By the time of Sergei Kirov’s murder in 1934 he was ready to implicate a wide range of rivals, and order purges using the pretext of a widespread conspiracy.  The political landscape was entirely different to that of 1926, when Stalin had walked with other leading Bolsheviks behind Dzerzhinsky’s coffin.

Assuming Dzerzhinsky’s death was from natural causes, what more can we say about the man?  For Lauchlan this touches on leadership as performance (curiously Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who happened to be in Moscow at the time, attended his funeral).  With his distinctive beard and sinister reputation, Dzerzhinsky consciously projected himself as a Mephistophelean character.  He admired Robespierre, and saw himself in the same heroic mould.

In pursuit of that image and harbouring a feeling of having a higher purpose, it looks like he had a death wish.  He was not averse to putting himself in dangerous situations and despite a history of ill-health, including previous heart attacks, he effectively worked himself into an early grave, ignoring doctors’ advice to slow down.  He perhaps saw himself as a secular saint, sacrificing himself for the revolution, and there is a remarkable group photo, suppressed until the 1990s, with him in the centre which echoes The Last Supper; he even appears to have a halo behind his head.  It may be relevant that as a youth he had at one point intended to enter a seminary.

Lauchlan outlined a possible cause for this sense Dzerzhinsky possessed that he was somehow destined to martyrdom.  He had had tuberculosis in 1901 which inculcated in him the feeling he was between life and death, engaged in a superhuman struggle with the enemy within, just as he struggled against another kind of enemy within as head of the Cheka.  He wanted his life to have meaning, but turned the desire in a pathological direction.  The irony is that after his death an autopsy, conducted by the foremost authority on TB in the country, revealed no trace of the disease – a conclusion there was no reason to fabricate.  Dzerzhinsky had based his approach to life on a false premise.

For all his faults, Dzerzhinsky created an iconic role model that endures today.  He is still popular in Russia at both official and public levels as a symbol of integrity, and there is a movement to bring his statue, pulled down in 1991 and currently languishing in the fallen statue park at the Central House of Artists, back to its original position outside the Lubyanka.  He is not so popular in Poland (he was an ethnic Pole) and his statue in Dzerzhinsky Square in Warsaw came down in 1989, the square given back its pre-war name.  As the existence of a statue in Belarus attests, the authorities there are quite positive towards his legacy.

The lecture’s title was somewhat misleading in emphasising the ‘who’ over the ‘what’.  One was expecting a surprise contender for Dzerzhinsky’s assassin, perhaps a name hidden in state archives for decades, so it was a slight anti-climax to learn he did actually die of a heart attack after all.  That is an indication of our hankering after conspiracies, life as soap opera.  Despite the disappointment it was still an interesting profile, showing there was more to Dzerzhinsky, and greater nuance, than is suggested by his image as director of the brutal state security apparatus.  Dr Lauchlan has a biography in press – Iron Felix: Death, Tyranny & the Pursuit of Happiness in Revolutionary Russia, 1877-1926 – which will be well worth a look.


Update 18 September 2017

I have expressed a rather optimistic interest in visiting all of the statues of Felix Dzerzhinsky in existence, of which apparently there are a couple of dozen across Russia, but now I find there is another to add to the list.  On 5 September a new statue was unveiled in the Russian city of Kirov (named after the Leningrad party boss who was assassinated in 1934), some 500 miles east of Moscow.  An imposing 8 ft 6 in. tall and weighing 2 tons, it stands in the courtyard of the regional FSB veterans’ association which, while it’s not exactly the Lubyanka, is an appropriate spot.  There is a short YouTube video of the unveiling, with the laying of many flowers at his feet, and a fine statue it looks, Felix standing erect and proud as if he was still set to defend the Revolution from its class enemies.

Kirov may seem an unlikely spot, but the project was the initiative of a group of local FSB ‘veterans’, supported by labour organisations in the area.  The statue was paid for by private donations, though the city was happy for it to be erected, with a strong majority in favour on the local council.  There was already a commemorative plaque to Dzerzhinsky on the veterans’ association building and the addition of a statue was the culmination of a long campaign.  The ostensible reason for the location – that Dzerzhinsky twice visited the city, in 1898 and 1919, when it was known as Vyatka – seems somewhat weak, but the sponsors needed some kind of justification, and they go on in more general terms to praise Felix’s positive contribution to ’the struggle for mankind’s bright future’, as Viktor Kolpakov, the director of the regional FSB veterans’ association, said to the city’s council.  To be fair Dzerzhinsky did stay, with Stalin, in the building which now houses the association while in town during the Civil War.

The new statue has been getting some coverage: Ben Macintyre wrote an article in Saturday’s Times with the alarmist title ‘Lenin’s architect of red terror rises again: Decades after Soviet statues were destroyed it is chilling to see Putin put up a new one of Felix Dzerzhinsky’.  While it is a little unfair to lay this directly at the desk of Mr Putin, it is doubtful it would have happened had he been opposed to the idea, and it is reasonable to assume Putin would have sympathy for Dzerzhinsky’s methods from the days when you didn’t have to bother pretending to be democratic.

Also on Saturday, Radio 4’s ‘Archive on 4’ programme was devoted the current fashion for tearing down statutes that embody values now considered offensive, including those commemorating Confederate leaders in the United States and the mass slaughter of Lenins in Ukraine.  Kirov was given as an unusual counter-example bucking the trend, but of course it shows that if there is a sufficiently strong fan base and limited opposition, you can memorialise anyone.  There are critics in Kirov, such as relatives of those who suffered under the Soviet regime, feeling much the same as people elsewhere for whom such statues are unwelcome reminders of dark times, but their opinions count for little compared to FSB veterans'.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Ninth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, November 2016


Once again the film festival organised by Rory Finin, director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, a centre in the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, has brought Ukraine to the Winstanley lecture theatre at Trinity College in Cambridge for two evenings, 11-12 November.  The past couple of festivals unsurprisingly had a major focus on Maidan and the political turmoil which has racked Ukraine, with the emphasis on documentaries exploring filmmakers’ responses to the crisis.  The ninth festival returned to the more traditional format of mixing documentaries portraying broader perspectives on the lives of contemporary Ukrainians with classic fiction.  The festival was run in collaboration with the Docudays UA International Documentary Human Rights Film Festival and the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre.

The first film on Friday evening was a short, Has-Beens (Olena Moskalchuk and Dmytro Burko, 2015), about the Petrivka book market next to the railway line in Kyiv/Kiev.  Opening with the sounds of the trains as the camera tracks along a passageway lined with books, we are introduced to a world the twenty-first century seems to have forgotten: a market crammed with decaying books, piled high and scattered around, but few customers for them.  One seller sadly notes people don’t read these days, while a smartly dressed man hunts only for books not available as digital versions.

Many of the units are shuttered and it must be a long time since this forlorn space saw any kind of bustle.  One wonders how the market keeps going, with customers haggling over books that are relics from another era, as the one containing pictures of a young and old Lenin amply demonstrates.  Yet the sellers and their customers are in good humour, boasting and telling jokes.  There is even an effort to repair books that might have to wait a long time to find a loving owner.  It is heartening to see the occasional young person browsing, but on this showing the second-hand book trade is not in good health.  A rather sad film for bibliophiles, but more context to allow the viewer to gauge Petrivka’s position in the world of Ukrainian bookselling generally would have been useful.

The second documentary of the evening was feature-length, and also dealt with a vanishing world: Hollywood on the Dnipro: Dreams from Atlantis (Oleh Chornyi, 2014), Rory pointing out that the title is a nod to the Odessa Film Studio’s nickname of ‘Hollywood on the Black Sea’.  Hollywood on the Dnipro charts the rise and decline of the village of Buchak, about 150 km from Kiev, as a destination for filmmaking during the Soviet era.  Alexander Dovzhenko, who proclaimed the area ‘Ukraine’s Switzerland’, planned to shoot his final film, Poem of the Sea, here.  After his death in 1956 his widow Yuliya Solntseva undertook the project, and the association gave Buchak a boost that attracted other projects throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.

Over the years a significant number of directors arrived, taking full advantage of the picturesque rural setting.  Andrei Tarkovsky, who used it to great effect in his debut feature Ivan’s Childhood, may have been the most notable, but there was a roll-call of directors in what seems to have been a renaissance in Ukrainian cinema paralleling New Wave movements elsewhere in Europe.  An enthusiasm hinting at boundless possibilities is on display in these films.  As dyed cows in one suggests, the area somehow lent itself to play, a poetic approach bordering on surrealism.  It could be that the feeling of remoteness from government strictures encouraged a sense of escape, though there could not be total freedom from state censorship.

The filmmakers talked to those who worked on the films, both sides of the camera, as well as locals who remembered the productions and often acted in them as extras.  Tarkovsky’s Ivan himself, Nikolai Burlyayev, discusses the film and its director while Larisa Kadochnikova, who spent a year filming Ivana Kupala Night here in the 1960s, is given a tour as she tries to pick out landmarks half a century later.

The second part of the film’s title comes from the fact that today the village has largely disappeared under water.  In the early 1970s, against fierce local opposition, the Soviet government authorised the Kaniv hydropower plant which entailed building a reservoir.  Some residents moved to abandoned dwellings above the water line but most were relocated to other villages where they had to build their own houses with no government assistance.  As a result Buchak has been left almost completely deserted, its famous windmill which appeared in many films fallen into decay, though it remains home to a handful of bohemians who value the solitude.  Towards the end there is a shift from celebrating Buchak’s cinematic heritage to highlight the fragile ecosystem and the environmental degradation, with activists fighting to prevent further flooding and preserve the natural beauty along with sites of archaeological significance.

The film’s writer Stanislav Tsalyk, who also appeared in the film, was present to introduce it, and do a Q&A afterwards, though the latter turned out to be a single question from Rory and an extremely lengthy answer that covered most of the questions the audience might have asked.  Tsalyk pointed out some of the problems making the film, notably that many of those who had been involved during the village’s golden age had died or moved away, reducing the number of people they could interview.  Memories were fallible because those who had acted in the films only actually saw them once DVDs became available because there were no cinemas close by, and no electricity.  He added that the films discussed are only a slice of those which used Buchak as a location.

This was an important oral history of the Dnieper’s very own dream factory, bringing to light a significant aspect of Ukrainian cinema.  There was undoubtedly an atmosphere of nostalgia and loss hanging over Hollywood on the Dnipro, but it was too an indicator that such excitement and experimentation can once again energise the country’s film making, and reinforce national identity in the process.

Saturday’s screenings, Two Days (Heorhii Stabovyi, 1927) and The Night Coachman (Heorhii Tasin, 1928), were a complete change of pace, two gripping hour-long dramas that were a fascinating alternative to the didacticism of Sergei Eisenstein’s films in the same period (though a shot of a sleeping stone lion in Two Days may have been intended to echo the first of the famous trio of lions in Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin).  Where Eisenstein’s primary concern was the movement of the masses, subordinating the individual and assuming a common motivation based on class, these two films examined the human cost, particularly intergenerational frictions, as a new world was born, leaving those who were stuck firmly in the old in confusion and despondency.  There were commonalities between the two: both show the brutal execution of a child who has joined the Communists – a son in Two Days, a daughter in The Night Coachman – at the hands of the Whites, and the revenge of the aged father, culminating in death or despair.  In each case the father (a widower) is out of sympathy with his offspring’s views, but aghast at the way the Whites, with whom he naturally feels an affinity, behave.  However, in neither case is the retributive act carried out from class consciousness, but from a more visceral hatred of cold-blooded murderers.

The evening began with Two Days.  A wealthy bourgeois family flees before the advancing Reds, leaving their elderly retainer to look after the house.  During the loading of the car a puppy is accidentally killed, a seemingly minor act in the scheme of things but the beginning of a chain of events which drives the tragedy.  The Reds arrive and the old servant is astonished to find his son with them, someone he had thought dead in the war but who is now a commissar.  The young man though makes it clear his loyalty is to the Revolution.  His father is hiding the young son of the family in his attic room, at considerable risk to himself, as the youngster had been left behind in the confusion.  Unfortunately the puppy’s body is dug up by its mother and this leads to the Reds finding a chest with the family’s valuables, buried for safekeeping.  They remove the chest but the boy in hiding mistakenly thinks the old man had told the revolutionaries of its whereabouts, and when the Reds retreat and the Whites come back, he denounces his erstwhile protector.  The commissar had been ordered to remain undercover but the boy betrays his hiding place, the Whites find him and promptly hang him from the tree under which chest and puppy had been buried.  The old man in his agony burns the house, killing everybody in it, including the boy, before himself expiring on the road.

In depicting the conflict Stabovyi does not create the simplistic dichotomy of noble Reds and dastardly Whites one might expect in the 1920s.  The former are a boorish lot with bad manners, whereas the Whites are cultivated and at least know how to play the piano (and don’t put lit cigarettes on it).  But the Whites are ruthless when it comes to dealing with the captured commissar.  The old man’s political sympathies are entirely with them but he still has personal loyalties, and cannot reconcile the two.  Not seeing where his true interest lies is his tragedy.  Thus he experiences false consciousness by allying himself to the bourgeoisie, sheltering an ungrateful youth who symbolically takes his bed while he has to sleep on the floor.  At one point the old man sits in his room and fondles his old Imperial Army cap.  He sighs that those days are long gone, and indeed they are.  Alone, with nothing left to live for, his time is over as a new society rises from the ashes of the old.

The Night Coachman is a story about an elderly coach driver who has worked nights for 30 years, living comfortably with his daughter who is employed, so he thinks, at a printing works.  In fact she is a Communist, secretly producing revolutionary literature.  Her father discovers that she is no longer at the works and is associating with, in his eyes, bad company, a fellow radical.  The pair have stashed printing equipment in the loft above the stable, and thinking to save her, the father brings in a ruthless counterintelligence officer when he believes the young man will be in the loft alone.  Unfortunately the daughter is there instead, with incriminating evidence.  In a chilling scene the officer forces the old man to drive them to the mortuary.  After telling the custodian there is a body for him while the camera shows the daughter sitting passively, the officer shoots her (in practice one would have expected him to interrogate her to find out as much as possible about her network, but the scene is superbly dramatic).

The following day the old man is in a daze, out in his carriage in daylight for the first time in decades. He sees at a street corner the officer interrogating the very person with whom his daughter had associated, and when the man is detained the officer orders the father to drive them to – the mortuary.  The father whips up the horse, tells the young man to jump, and crashes the carriage on some steps.  His impulsive act kills the officer and the horse, and leaves him dazed and injured as the film ends with him reaching for the scarf he had earlier given his daughter as a gift.

Technically the film is a marvel, with a great deal of night shooting done on location in Odessa.  Early on there is a sequence where the old man is driving the officer and the latter sees a pretty woman in another carriage.  He orders the old man to speed up and drive alongside, then he hops into the other vehicle to exercise his charms on the lady.  It is similar to a sequence in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) in which the camera in a car drives next to another car, filming its occupants; perhaps this is where Vertov got the idea.

As is the case in Two Days, an old man furthers the revolutionary cause, but not from radical motives: here it is to atone for causing the death of his daughter.  Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1926 film Mother has a mother and son pitted against each other initially; however, she comes to understand the system’s injustice after seeing the harsh way it treats him, and she adopts his revolutionary outlook.  Both Stabovyi and Tasin by contrast demonstrate that the way individuals respond to reality is not always so neat.  Ultimately, if one cannot change one’s views in accord with the forces of history, the forces of history will roll over you.  The old, as symbolised by the father, will give way to the new, albeit at the cost of great sacrifice on both sides.


Rory Finin is doing a fine job organising the festival and bringing us gems.  As well as familiar faces it consistently attracts those new to Ukrainian film, and the number of students willing to give up the more usual pleasures of weekend nights (or even Radio 4’s Any Questions?, which was being recorded at the Cambridge Union at the same time on Friday evening) is testament to its attractions.  Watching the clips in Hollywood on the Dnipro made me realise just how many films Rory could potentially programme for future festivals.  Next year (coincidentally the centenary of the Russian Revolution) will mark the tenth.  There is no shortage of potential material so there is scope, budgets willing, for an expanded festival, perhaps occupying all day on the Saturday.  The festival has always been free, but I am sure that a charge to help defray the extra costs would not deter attendants.  I hope Rory will consider pushing the човен out and making the tenth festival of Ukrainian film even more enjoyable than the preceding nine.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Society for Psychical Research in the exhibition of Curious Objects


Cambridge University Library (CUL) is currently the venue for an exhibition of curious objects called, appropriately, Curious Objects.  On show are some of the unusual items held by the Library in this second public presentation to mark the institution’s 600th anniversary, the purpose to stress that there is a lot more to the collections for which it has responsibility than books and manuscripts.  Many of the items were accumulated by individuals or picked up as curiosities and came into the library’s possession by chance.  Others were seen as expanding the idea of the library as a repository for the written word to include supplementary material which aided study.  Occasionally the Library has acquired an institutional archive intact, artefacts arriving as a by-product of records.  Sometimes books obtained under the Copyright Act have extra bits bundled in.  Over the years many pieces have been transferred to other repositories within the university, but there is still a lot in the vaults with which to compose a wonderfully eclectic miscellany.

Among the ancient Egyptian pots, facial hair sent to Charles Darwin, Soviet ephemera, footwear and so on is a case devoted to items drawn from the archives of the Society for Psychical Research which, though in the care of CUL, are still the property of the SPR and shown with its permission.  The most eye-catching, and frequently mentioned in publicity, is undoubtedly the ‘ectoplasm’ retrieved from medium Helen Duncan after a séance in Portsmouth.  The soft lighting displays the fabric beautifully even as it undermines any claim to paranormality.  Alongside it is a page from an SPR report of a 1931 séance with Mrs Duncan.

At the other end of the case is a cardboard ‘luminous trumpet’ and its box, as sold by the Two Worlds Publishing Co., Manchester, in the 1920s – British made, 5/- post free.  These were used in séances to amplify spirit voices.  An 1884 slate bears a fine example of spirit writing obtained through the mediumship of William Eglinton, and a photograph by William Crawford has Belfast medium Kathleen Goligher sitting with an ectoplasmic ‘psychic rod’ between her feet.  Next door a photograph of Mina Crandon, the medium ‘Margery’, her face covered by ectoplasm, is accompanied by three wax impressions of thumb prints taken during a séance at the SPR’s premises in London in 1929 that were supposedly from her control, her deceased brother Walter Stinson.

The paper parts of the Society’s holdings are justly famous for their quality, but its other possessions are less well known, and this makes their appearance here noteworthy.  A handsome free booklet has been produced to accompany Curious Objects with 20 high-quality photographs of some of the choicest; it is gratifying to see that two are devoted to the SPR’s contribution, the spirit trumpet and a fine smoky rendition of the Duncan ectoplasm.

It was one of the conditions in the agreement signed by the SPR’s president and the Chairman of the Library Syndicate in 1989 to transfer the SPR’s rare books and archives (other than its audio-visual collection) to Cambridge that CUL would ‘endeavour during the continuance of this agreement to exhibit Society materials whenever possible and to arrange special exhibitions of Society materials as possible.’  This hasn’t happened much in the decades since so CUL are to be congratulated on making the SPR such an important element in their anniversary celebration.  But don’t just visit Curious Objects (open until 21 March 2017) to see the SPR’s treasures – there is much here to enjoy.  Entry is free and if you find yourself in Cambridge it is a fine way to spend an hour, browsing among the stranger things librarians deal with at work.

NB The web pages set up for the exhibition by the university include two items not mentioned above.  These are a cast of the left hand of medium D. D. Home, which has been cleverly rendered in 3D so the viewer can see all round the object; and examples of Harry Price’s ‘Telepatha’ cards with score sheet, his improvement on J. B. Rhine’s Zener cards designed for use in ESP experiments.  These are not in fact among the artefacts in the display but are illustrated on a panel attached to the wall next to it.  Sadly there was not enough room in the case to include the objects themselves.  The panel, headed ‘Spirits, psychics and artefacts’, also gives details of the SPR’s origins and its archives and notes that the Society is still in existence.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Tony Cornell and the SPIDERs from Cambridge

Tony Cornell 'chasing spectres with a Spectrum'

Psychical researchers these days can utilise a wide range of sophisticated instruments when studying spontaneous cases (possible ghosts, poltergeists and the like), even if the theoretical basis for their application is often dubious.  But while the power of the equipment at their disposal has increased enormously over the last decade, attempts to record evidence of paranormal phenomena have long been an important aspect of the field.  A significant figure in applying technology to the detection and documenting of spontaneous cases was Tony Cornell (1924-2010), a Cambridge-based researcher with extensive practical experience.  In his 2002 book Investigating the Paranormal he discusses extensively the use of instrumentation and in particular an innovative method for collecting information.  This was a piece of kit called the ‘Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder’, or SPIDER, which he largely developed with Howard Wilkinson of Nottingham University, and with input from Alan Gauld, who was also at Nottingham, in trialling it.

There have actually been two separate versions of SPIDER.  The prototype was put together by Cornell with help from a technician and a computer programmer in 1982 and was initially housed in a cardboard box.  Modifications were made, then Cornell and Wilkinson unveiled the Mark II, christened SPIDER, in 1984, though Wilkinson continued to improve it.  It is essentially a large black-painted box, accompanied by a smaller brown chest labelled ‘C.U.S.P.R. (Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research, a group Cornell ran for many years), containing an array of devices to monitor an environment.  Controlled originally by a 16K ZX Spectrum computer with DCP Interspec, relay box and Sinclair printer, it could record motion, temperature changes, sound and electromagnetic activity, and included floodlights, an audio recorder, a cine camera (later a camcorder), infrafred video and still 35mm cameras.  These operated for set periods, as selected, or when initiated by the sensors.  Readings were logged automatically so the equipment could be left to operate without any supervision for several days.

The editor of mass-circulation magazine Your Computer deemed the project of sufficient interest to send excitable journalist Meirion Jones to interview Cornell in his basement HQ in Victoria Street, Cambridge; put Cornell on the cover, and devote three pages of the May 1983 issue to ‘Captain Spectre and his Spectrum-powered spook hunt’, though the interview covered more than SPIDER.  There was a more sober status update, co-written by Cornell, in the subsection ‘Notes on the instrumentation of spontaneous cases’ of the article ‘Research report of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research (CUSPR)’, which appeared in the (national) Society for Psychical Research’s June 1984 Journal.  The total cost to date was put at about £850, from which it is clear that over the years Cornell sank a considerable amount of his money into SPIDER.

Cornell used SPIDER on at least a dozen occasions between 1982 and 1996, amounting to about 1,200 hours, and several of these are described in his book.  The Mark I was first employed over a six-week period in 1982-3 in an antique shop storeroom in Cambridge which appeared to be experiencing poltergeist phenomena.  SPIDER was then taken to such diverse locations as Chingle Hall, a Leicestershire stately home, Abbey House in Cambridge, Stirling Castle, Berry Pomeroy, Chillingham Castle, and others.  In 1988 the television network NBC invited Cornell and Wilkinson  to investigate stories of disturbances on RMS Queen Mary, permanently moored as a tourist attraction in Long Beach, California, USA, for its series Unsolved Mysteries (one dreads to think how much the excess baggage charge was).  With poltergeist researcher William Roll, who brought several mediums with him, they made an extensive 10-day examination of the ship (in addition to Cornell’s chapter on the trip Roll refers it in his Journal of Parapsychology review of Investigating the Paranormal, though with more interest in his own participation than in that of his English colleagues).

Cornell and Wilkinson, along with a production company making a television programme, visited the Bell Inn at Thetford with SPIDER in September 1991 to continue an investigation into a haunted bedroom, and Cornell spent further time there the following year.  In 1994 he returned to the Bell with members of a group I was in, Norfolk-based ESPRI, for a programme in Inca Productions’ series Ghosthunters.  Cornell brought SPIDER with him, but it was not operational as that would have taken about 90 minutes to organise and the room was already crowded (and overheated) with people and equipment.  Instead only the video cameras and monitors were set up to simulate how it would look (described by Andy Waters in his 1994 report for the ESPRI newsletter).  With Inca’s cameras rolling Cornell explained the case, I explained how SPIDER worked, and the group pretended to conduct a vigil.  The programme aired in June 1996 but the ESPRI contributions, including mine, were left out, as was the entire visit from Cornell’s book.

It probably wouldn’t have made any difference had SPIDER been operating because little of significance was noted during the hundreds of hours of SPIDER’s deployment. There were electrical failures with no apparent cause which rectified themselves, some object movements which could not be accounted for, and occasional temperature drops which may have had normal causes, but that was it.  However, Wilkinson gave a talk at an SPR combined study day and training event in 1994 which was reported by Peter Flew for the SPR’s magazine The Psi Researcher (forerunner of its current The Paranormal Review).  Wilkinson’s talk, ‘Recording the evidence’, covered SPIDER, later technical elaborations, and the problems involved in using electronic equipment on location.  He pointed out that a police speed camera might be trained on a traffic black spot for hundreds of hours before capturing an accident, and paranormal activity is even rarer than traffic accidents.

Investigating the Paranormal contains several pictures of SPIDER: on p. 6; p. 117 (at the Bell); and p. 197 (the Mark I in the antique shop).  The Your Computer article is also well illustrated.  It is clear that the boxes are rather clunky, but as the above account hopefully indicates, SPIDER’s importance in the evolution of psychical research as a scientific enterprise cannot be underestimated.  Even though superseded by more complex, and much smaller, gadgets, it is still of historical significance.  So what of SPIDER now?  The two boxes are currently sitting in a corner of the meeting room in the SPR’s new headquarters at Vernon Mews in London.  That is not a long-term solution because the space they occupy is required for the installation of AV equipment.  If a home is not found for SPIDER the chances are it will go into a storage unit where it may deteriorate.  It deserves to be where it will be cherished, and preferably displayed to the public.  A tall order certainly, but if anyone has any thoughts on what can be done to preserve SPIDER and make sure it is remembered for the pioneering undertaking it was, I would be interested to hear them.

SPIDER at Vernon Mews, October 2016

References

Cornell, Tony. Investigating the Paranormal, Helix Press, New York, 2002.

Flew, Peter. ‘Investigating Spontaneous Cases’, The Psi Researcher, No. 15, Winter 1994, pp.16-23.

Jones, Meirion. ‘Where micros fear to tread’, Your Computer, May 1983, pp. 50-1, 53.

McLaren, I. P. L., Loosemore, R. P. W, and Cornell, A. D. ‘Research report of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research (CUSPR)’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 52, June 1984, pp. 307-11.

Roll, William. Review of Investigating the Paranormal, Journal of Parapsychology, vol. 67, Spring 2003, pp. 187-203.

Waters, Andy. ‘A Night to Remember’, ESPRI Newsletter, Winter 1994, n.p.



SPIDER update 10 November 2016

There has been a surprising development in the SPIDER saga.  It transpires that the equipment does not actually belong to the SPR!  Through a misunderstanding it was thought that the SPR was to be the ultimate destination.  However, as I have now learned, ownership in fact passed from Tony Cornell to a third party and was finally vested in Dr Melvyn Willin, the SPR’s Archives Liaison Officer.

As a result of this misapprehension the Society thought it had responsibility and was wondering what to do with the big boxes sitting in its Vernon Mews HQ, but now it can rest easy.  Melvyn tells me he is going to collect SPIDER at some point and take it home where it can be conserved and stored in optimal conditions.

So for the foreseeable future it is in safe hands, looked after properly and preserved for future historians as the groundbreaking initiative it was.  I think Tony would have been pleased with this positive outcome.