I have to say I was more than slightly appalled to receive the news from
Paul Sieveking last Monday that Ken Campbell had died suddenly the
day before at only 66 and seeming so full of vigor and inventiveness
that he looked like he would go on forever, I'd only just been
hearing about how good he'd been in Edinburgh and was about to ring
his agent to book him for my science festival.
In my biographical note I say something like “sorting clippings with
the forteans is the only thing I do now that I was doing 15 years
ago”, since I started this I've lived in 4 different cities, had 4
different jobs, 4 houses, 2 wives, three cats, 5 cars and 2 children,
but every month or so, or as close to that as I can wangle it I have
trundled off down to Paul Sieveking's flat in north London to commune
with the Gang of Fort over a tray of unsorted clippings, and for
something so core to the activities for the Fortean Times what
actually goes on at a clipping sort is remarkably little known by the
majority of readers.
The format of the day has remained delightfully unchanged too. Dramatis
personae usually involves Paul, Bob Rickard, Steve Moore and myself,
and in later years Mark Pilkington, Rachel Carthy and Phil Baker have
joined in, Joe McNally was a regular for a while, and all sorts of
other people have made guest appearances, but the core of sorting
veterans has remained essentially the same. When I first read FT, I
assumed the flow of clippings that came in from all over the world
must be being sorted by a vast army of fortean minions somewhere in
the semi-legendary Fortean Towers, and after sending in my own
clippings for a while thought it would be great to join them so I
could get to see all the stuff the mag didn't have room for, so I got
in touch and volunteered, and was slightly surprised to find it was
just a few stalwarts in a front room somewhere who were pleased to
have another hand to help out.
Central Europe may have its Rat Kings - bundles of rats permanently joined together by their tails; between 30 and 50 examples have turned up in the last 400 years or so depending on who you ask, and preserved ones are to be found in museums in Hamburg, Hamlein, Stuttgart and Gottingen (I borrowed that one for the Fortean exhibition I did in Croydon), but only London has a Rat Queen.
Of all the ghastly trades pursued in Victorian London, few were worse than that of the Toshers, who rummaged about inside the city sewers retrieving anything even vaguely saleable, well, except maybe the "Pure" Collector, who gathered dog shit for the tanning trade - they had a special glove for the task. Given the foulness and danger inherent in their work, it‘s not surprising that toshers were a superstitious lot, and according to one named Jerry Sweetly1, their superstitions featured the mysterious Rat Queen, who could bring a man luck in the pipe, and he claimed to speak from personal experience.
Zapasita Leader Subcommandante Marcos Subgenius deity Bob Dobbs
It's one thing to read about the delusions of elderly professors, long a source of exasperation and amusement to forteans, but dealing with the consequences of their behavior first-hand is quite another,. Nobel Prize winners, though, seem to be in a class of their own when it comes to waywardness, as I have been finding out in recent weeks. Over the years, Nobel laureates have espoused vitamin C as the cure for all ills(Linus Pauling),admitted having regular conversations with talking raccoons (Kary Mullis) and spent years espousing dubious right-wing causes (William Shockley), and this is a far from comprehensive list of outside-the-box ideas either. Most recently, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure , has elevated himself to this dubious pantheon, by opining in a Sunday Times interview that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really". He went on to say there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true" This was subsequently made front-page news by the Independent, who accused Watson of racism. As I was supposed to be running a public interview with him days later and staging an exhibition on his work (already unexpectedly complex due to the Northern Rock banking crisis and chronic vagueness from the exhibition provider) this led to interesting times
Well, mid-August found me visiting my in-laws in the South of France, they live up in the Black Mountains, about an hour north of Carcassonne, a hair-raising drive along roads that are all hair-pin bend, not quite wide enough for two cars and populated by locals whose driving technique tends towards the "drive as fast as possible down the middle and everyone get out the way" approach. This made for interesting times when driving an unfamiliar rented Renault Twingo - my thoughts on transport for the next visit tend towards 4 wheel drive army surplus Tatra trucks. The in-laws actually live just outside a place called Lespinassiere, 15 minutes up an unmade track in a house called Cavaielle that seems to have been there for longer than anyone can trace, and which was once the centre of a farming hamlet, now overgrown once more by the surrounding forest. A strange and atmospheric place. It is also about an hour and a half from Rennes-Le-Chateau, so, as a Fortean, this was an opportunity I could not miss, and sloped off for a day to visit.
It seems appropriate for my first CFI blog to talk a bit about a CFI-related project I've long been seeking an opportunity to get going. It seems scarcely believable that the fortean exhibition I put together with Croydon Clocktower Museum, Of Monsters and Miracles, was almost 12 years ago now, and I'm still amazed we pulled it off. It happened because Bob and Paul were looking to put on an exhibition of some kind to celebrate 21 years of FT, and being a museum curator, I was in a good position to pull it together, but we had no venue or money, so I went off and touted it around adventurous and forward-thinking places that might be willing to go for something a bit left-field, and Croydon went for it. They came up with a sensible budget and a team that "got" forteana instantly, and we put together an enormously pleasing show of material evidence for fortean phenomena. I have photos, so maybe I should see if we can put them up on the CFI site so people can see what it was like, I certainly still have the brilliant CD-ROM catalogue created by the late Roy Stringer, which stands up remarkably well, even today, although it is in a Mac format, which, given the scorched earth policy apple had to backwards compatibility with OSX, makes it increasingly hard to play, and maybe we should see about getting that put on the site too in some form.