In March 2021, the Society for Psychical Research’s Paranormal Review changed its name to The Magazine of the Society for Psychical Research. This is the latest in a succession of titles the SPR’s magazine has had over the course of the last four decades, the production values improving with each iteration. Unfortunately, the first attempt at a more accessible publication to supplement the often rather technical articles in the SPR’s Journal and Proceedings became mired in controversy.
In 1980 a report appeared in the SPR’s Journal ominously headed ‘Activities of the Publications Committee (now suspended)’. This detailed how said committee had embarked on a publishing programme without consulting the SPR’s Council, incurring significant expenditure at a time when the Society was facing financial difficulties, and producing items of poor quality. These items, not actually of poor quality, were a number of introductory booklets, the costs of which went wildly over budget (the committee was also responsible for beginning the project to produce a series of centenary publications, edited by Brian Inglis and released in 1982, which were extremely successful).
A Council working party was set up to examine the Publications Committee’s activities, and the fall-out was in part an impetus for the decision by some members to set up the rival Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), founded in 1981. In the Journal report is a reference to ‘a Newsletter (which was withdrawn as unsuitable before distribution).’ This was the SPR Bulletin, dated Spring 1980. Described in an editorial as ‘something of an experiment,’ it is not difficult to see why the conservative SPR old guard were unhappy.
The Bulletin’s editorial was unsigned but was written by Hugh Pincott, the SPR’s Hon. Secretary, who was to become a founder of ASSAP. It noted that communication within the Society was a concern, and the Bulletin was designed as a ‘meeting-place’ both for members and for a proposed network of regional research groups (it was to assist the anticipated influx of new members resulting from this effort that the publishing programme had been undertaken).
The idea of regional affiliated groups has always been treated with ambivalence by the SPR Council, partly because of potential image damage if a local group generated negative press, and partly because of discomfort with the loss of centralised control. It is not difficult to see why there was unease among some on Council at the prospect of an autonomous national network affiliated to the London organisation but with no regulatory mechanism in place.
The general tone of the four-page newsletter was chatty and approachable. Alongside the editorial was a photograph from a 1927 psychical research congress, with a rather sexist text, and an announcement by the London & Home Counties Poltergeist Group that it welcomed new members. Page two would have caused further discomfort to some of the more staid Council members. Written by Hilary Evans and Kevin McClure, again to be ASSAP stalwarts though Evans continued to serve on the Council, it announced the arrival of ‘The SPR UFO Study Group’. The first paragraph refers to ‘the first formal contact between the SPR and ufology, in the shape of a joint symposium with BUFORA’ held on 3 November 1979.
The study group was established following the circulation of an internal report, The UFO Phenomenon: An Assessment, in January 1979. This was prepared as the result of a conclusion reached by Council at the end of 1978 that, as the opening of The UFO Phenomenon’s introduction states, ‘there was at least a prima facie case for regarding the problem of Unidentified Flying Objects, as least in some of its aspects, as a legitimate area for the Society’s interest.’ In the event interest quickly petered out, the UFO Study Group was never again referred to in SPR literature, and some years later the SPR’s collection of UFO literature was donated to ASSAP as being outside the SPR’s field of interest.
The other two pages of the Bulletin show the type of material it was expected to carry. A proposed ‘true experiences’ column was kicked off by Brian C Nisbet describing ‘an auditory hypnopompic hallucination,’ an experience involving a Goblin Teasmade. ‘Home and Abroad’ recounted the activities of three members, including ghosthunter Andrew Green, who probably needed no introduction to readers, and one in Papua New Guinea.
The final page had columns on a group in Essex; veteran member Zőe Richmond; and the role of the new Research Coordinating Committee, which had consolidated previous research committees, in relation to the regional groups. The emphasis of the new committee was on decentralising the Society’s research activities, and it stated that 18 local groups were in the process of being formed, half of them in London, as well as a number of special interest groups focusing on particular topics, with more in the pipeline.
Sadly, the Bulletin, with its grand aspirations to increase member involvement, never saw the light of day, as indicated by the rough-and-ready banner. Instead, after a gap of nearly a year, the first issue of the SPR Newsletter, dated February 1981, was distributed to members. Edited by Anita Gregory, the style was very different to the Bulletin. Gone was enthusiastic talk about affiliated groups and UFOs. Instead, the focus was top-down, the reader being assured that ‘you will be kept informed about future activities and developments,’ with no suggestion that the readers might be generating those activities themselves.
Still only four pages long, it was divided neatly into topics. Page one contained Gregory’s brief introduction, and reports on a one-day SPR conference in Manchester and a study day in London. Page two was devoted to forthcoming events, including the 1982 centenary conference in Cambridge, and courses offered by Susan Blackmore, Gregory and Archie Roy.
Page three dealt with research being conducted by Arthur Ellison, Blackmore, Carl Sargent, John Beloff, and Julian Isaacs. The final page included a tribute to Ellison’s outreach efforts in lecturing around the country, an extra lecture in the programme, an appeal for information, and a list of some recent scholarly papers by academic members. The difference between this as an information sheet and the concept of the Bulletin as a vehicle for stimulating a more democratic ethos in the Society is clear.
Gregory only intended to edit the first issue. The editor for the second and most of the 35 issues of the Newsletter was Sue Blackmore. She adopted a less patrician manner than Gregory’s, abandoned the neat divisions of activities Gregory had managed, and solicited news about activities being undertaken by members. The pages covered events, research and publications as before, but also had information on spontaneous cases and a visit Blackmore had made to Poland.
Groups were not entirely ignored, even if not unduly emphasised. There were a couple of paragraphs on a ‘Kent SPR’ which had recently been founded, but Blackmore admitted she had not heard from any other groups (this despite the substantial numbers mentioned in the Bulletin) and invited them to get in touch with their news. Peter Hallson took on the role of Regional Groups Administrator, but his was very much a passive role, restricted to phoning local organisations once a year to see if they were still active. ‘Regional groups’ referred to independent groups out in the regions, not regional subsidiaries of the SPR.
Subsequent issues under Blackmore’s editorship maintained the mix of news items, announcements, requests, and reports of events. Julie Milton took over the editorship for two years, improving the production values and increasing the four A4 pages to eight, before handing it back to Blackmore in 1988. A portion of the Newsletter was given over to a Supplement edited by Renée Haynes which was devoted to experiences sent in by readers. This proved a useful feature to help fill space when Milton experienced a period of illness and the length of the Newsletter had to be temporarily reduced.
The SPR Newsletter proved popular with members, and moved from an initial publication schedule of every four months to quarterly, in line with the SPR’s Journal. Eventually Council decided it was time to move to an improved version, with a title that gave a better idea of the contents, that might even sell to the public. After 36 issues of the Newsletter, and 23 of the Supplement, the final one appeared in January 1991. In the preceding issue Blackmore stated that Council had been debating whether to expand the publication or replace it with a glossy magazine, and the final issue announced that an expanded Newsletter would replace it. The replacement was The Psi Researcher, edited by Jane Henry.
Apart from a new banner and a change from two columns per page to four, the first issue of The Psi Researcher, dated April 1991 looked much like its predecessor, with the same number of pages – eight – so hardly an expansion. Henry even assured readers they would find ‘many familiar items’ within. She noted that the new beginning for the publication coincided with a new beginning for the Society, as it was about to move from its secluded premises in Adam and Eve Mews to Marloes Road, a short distance away. This was for financial reasons, so it was not a particularly auspicious time to be starting a new publishing venture. A cover price for non-members was included from issue 2 (£1), but efforts to secure newsstand distribution proved unsuccessful. From issue 3 the number of columns per page settled down to two.
As Henry had said, the mix was indeed much as before, though with less space devoted to event reports and more to features, and the addition of recent research abstracts compiled by Carl Williams. It was well received, and the second fulfilled the promise of an increase in size, moving to 16 pages. In addition to features, news, experiences, abstracts, reports and reviews, there was an account of an interview James Randi had given to Williams. Haynes retained her section, retitled ‘Paranormal Experiences’, editing it for the first three issues until forced to give up through ill health, after which it was consolidated into the magazine, with John Crabbe eventually taking charge.
Blackmore did not disappear entirely, with a ‘Skeptics’ Corner’ in issue 2 (swiftly retitled ‘Sceptics’ Corner in issue 3), thereafter largely fading from view but making the occasional appearance, notably promoting her ‘dying brain’ hypothesis to explain NDEs in issue 6. Mary Rose Barrington began her long-running ‘Archives’ column in issue 4, in which she summarised and discussed a case from the early literature of psychical research (not only the SPR’s; she also covered the Institut Métapsychique International’s Revue Métapsychique).
Production values improved, with colour introduced to the banner with issue 7, and a lavender cover from issue 9, a style it retained for the rest of its life. Cover illustrations were introduced, drawn from the Mary Evans Picture Library with which, through Hilary Evans, the SPR had set up a licencing deal to carry images from its archives. With issue 8 the contents list, hitherto on the cover, moved inside, creating a much cleaner presentation. The magazine initially retained the schedule for the SPR Journal – April, July and October 1991 – but issue 4 was dated Winter 1992, and the seasonal dating (a standard ploy when schedules drift) was used until issue 16.
Henry remained editor for all 23 issues of The Psi researcher, the last dated November 1996, and she greatly improved its look and quality. The development of a lively letters section indicated that the membership was duly appreciative, though a congratulatory letter in issue 3 suggested the title was ‘a bit misleading’ (during Council discussions on what to call the new publication I had argued that The Psi Researcher was too obscure for a magazine Council hoped would reach an audience outside the Society, but the consensus was in favour).
After a run of almost six years, however, the general feeling on Council was that the title was too obscure for a general readership interested in the subject but not necessarily au fait with the technical terminology. Thus it was decided to rename the magazine The Paranormal Review as a more accessible indication of the contents. The cover price for non-members, by now £1.95, remained unchanged but the number of pages was reduced from 28 to 24.
The first issue of the new magazine was dated February 1997, and the guest editor for the first three was Richard Wiseman. The lavender cover was replaced with a blue one, but the Mary Evans Picture Library continued to supply the cover photographs, ensuring continuity of presentation. Inside were the familiar elements: reports, experiences, Mary Rose Barrington’s archive section, and notices. David Fontana instituted a president’s column, a feature which has appeared off and on, depending on the motivation of the president, ever since. Issue 2 saw the first of Guy Lyon Playfair’s ‘Mediawatch’ columns.
Wiseman duly edited the first three issues before handing the reins to Chris Roe. Roe’s first, November 1997 saw the page count return to 28 but there was no significant change in the contents, though issue 7 saw the first of ten crossword competitions, perhaps not the best use of the space. Cover illustrations were drawn from sources other than the Mary Evans Picture Library from issue 6.
The popularity of the new magazine was confirmed with issue 9. The pages increased to 36 (though occasionally dropping to 32, and even 28, when economics dictated), and the paper cover was replaced with a heavier glossy one, printed in three colours; the result was eye-catching if not subtle. The first of these had a question mark, but subsequent issues carried the SPR logo in the middle, with the notable exception of the January 2000 issue, showing a cartoon millennial cracker. The title was shortened to Paranormal Review on the banner, and the number of illustrations gradually increased.
Roe moved on to edit the SPR’s Journal, issue 27 being his last, and he was succeeded by Nicola Holt. In a farewell editorial he revealed that he had agreed to edit two issues but had stayed for 24. There were no significant changes under his successor, though Holt was liberal in her interpretation of ‘psychical’, occasionally including articles of a more fortean nature. Crabbe gave up editing the experiences section after issue 50 in 2009, and John Randall took over, but its appearance became patchy and when Randall died in 2011 it was dropped. In issue 70 Holt announced her departure after a tenure of ten years.
Under its new editor, Leo Ruickbie, issue 71 (July 2014) heralded a radical departure from Paranormal Review’s standardised plain cover. There was also a departure in the editorial style. Ruickbie announced his arrival with a bang: his inaugural issue concentrated on the centenary of the First World War, the list of articles down the side of the cover printed over a detail from C R W Nevinson’s Bursting Shell.
The page layout moved from two columns per page to three, and apart from the ‘Diary’ section compiled by the Secretary the editor took complete control, with no separately-edited sections. Notable among the casualties was the ‘Archive’ section conducted by Barrington; after 90 columns she was happy to retire. Ruickbie took responsibility for the magazine’s design, and not only did the covers continue to be attractive, he introduced colour inside, completing the transition to a modern magazine.
Issues were often themed, and practical aspects of psychical research became more prominent, helping the SPR to appeal to a broader constituency. Ruickbie penned a regular editorial, and his talent as a photographer was frequently on display. The range of contributors increased, and these were often drawn from outside the UK, thereby emphasising psychical research as an international activity. Altogether, Paranormal Review became an attractive package, and a worthy showcase for the Society in the effort to expand its membership.
Other minor changes were a switch from dating by month to using seasons, starting with issue 73, which was called Winter 2015 rather than January (not a universally popular move), and with issue 89, at the beginning of 2019, all dating other than the year was jettisoned. A major change followed issue 96, the final one of 2020. It marked the last appearance of Paranormal Review, as the first issue of 2021 was retitled The Magazine of the Society for Psychical Research.
There were several reasons for this, as Ruickbie explained in issue 2’s editorial. One was to bring it into line with the SPR’s Journal and Proceedings, so they would have uniform titles. More importantly, though, he felt the word paranormal was a loaded term, and the magazine did not particularly review things (though the original justification for the title was the intention to review the field, signalling the breadth of the publication’s scope). He pointed out that as one always had to add ‘the magazine of the Society for Psychical Research’ after Paranormal Review, the latter was redundant anyway. The title was the only thing to change, and the publication continues to be a pleasure to read.
The various publications produced by the SPR over the last 40 years – aimed at an audience that might consider the Journal and Proceedings rather dry, but without sacrificing the values which characterise the SPR – have undergone a remarkable evolution, from a basic utilitarian approach to a glossy magazine, and never relying on paid advertising to subsidise them. Tribute must be paid to the editors who have steered the magazine’s various incarnations for the past 40 years, and also to David Ellis, who has provided proofreading services since the Newsletter days, and acted as production manager for many years.
Combined, the magazines contain a huge quantity of material reflecting on the entire scope of psychical research and parapsychology, always presented in an accessible manner, and they repay study. For older members they also evoke times and people past, and the evolving outlook of the SPR as it adapted to a changing world.
The Psi Researcher, The Paranormal Review and The Magazine of the Society for Psychical Research are available in the Lexscien online library, but not the SPR Newsletter. It would be nice to see these added to the database and made available to a wider audience.