I Just Read Different Books

Secrets of the Fort Sort

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.

So, how does it all work? well, clippings from pretty much the entire
universe stream through Paul's letterbox, and he gives them an
initial trawl for things that are likely to make it to Strange Days,
picking up on topical stories and current trends, then piles the
remainder in a wire basket – when the basket gets too full, he
emails the rest of us and we converge on an agreed day (usually a
friday) to wade through them and sort them out. We usually roll up
between 10.00 and 11.00, to be greeted by strong tea and preliminary
chat round the kitchen table, though the earliest arrivals usually
help Paul set the room up for sorting.

While there might not actually be a place called Fortean Towers, Fortean
Towers do exist – they are two towers of home-made pigeonholes
labelled with fortean categories that Paul keeps behind the monster
pitcher plant on his landing that come out for sorts. These get
parked on top of one of his ancestor's trunks in the living room, and
on a side table, while manilla folders for larger categories such as
UFOs, Ghosts and Polts, Cults and Conspiracies get laid out beside
them. The towers each have neatly labelled sections lined with A4
paper to help take the clippings out after the sort, and have titles
such as Tough Shit, Sexual Oddities, Falls and Flows, Human
Behaviour, Stupidity, Inept Crime, Manimals, Good Luck, Vampires,
Marine Mysteries, Sounds, Plants Witchcraft and Occult Crime and so
on – the wire clipping tray balances on a sofa arm and we each
gather handfuls and set to, finding homes for all this anomalous

Paul usually starts a sort by asking us to keep an eye out for topics he
needs for pieces he's writing, and during the last sort these were
weather modification for the Beijing Olympics, Neanderthals and
African magic and witchcraft – if we spot any of these they go on
top of the bookshelf. The rest of the time, we wander the floor,
putting the clippings in their correct slots, a serial sniffer of
womens armpits gets 14 years in prison in Singapore – Sexual
Oddities, The only house on a street not destroyed by a tornado burns
down a day later from a lightning strike – Tough Shit, National
Trust doing a beetle survey at John Lennon's old house – names, and
so on. There are certain foibles of the system to be learned, things
in things always go under teleportation (e.g. bolts in burgers, fish
in tree trunks), exorcism is considered part of witchcraft, so you
can have very pleasing circumstances such as when the last Pope
exorcised someone, the story found its way there. Anything religious
otherwise is Cults and Conspiracies, such as the notorius Archbishop
Marcinkus being accused of ordering the murder of a teenage girl.
Sometimes, this being forteana, there are blurred boundaries, does
the sale of Hitler's drawings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
(yes, really) go under Images, or Archaeology and Anthropology (where
all historical stuff goes)? I think it ended up under Arch and Anth
that one. And so on, a dog learns to escape it's garden by bouncing
over a fence on a kid's trampoline – Animal Behaviour, much
laughter is had over the loopier clippings, such as one that claims
nitrous oxide is known as “hippy crack”, or someone being
prosecuted for having sex with a sheep in Chiselhurst (Sexual
Oddities again).

Middayish we pause for lunch, for time immemorial from the excellent chippy
round the corner, fish, chips, onion rings, wallies, Steve usually
goes for the veg pastie, Bob often brings a sarnie, Mark will rush to
the corner shop to get ketchup if none is in the flat when the food
arrives, and for a long time Paul always offered us some form of
garum-like rotted fish condiment which was always systematically
declined and put away until next time. More tea (sorts tend to run on
tea) people swap their latest books and other productions – at the
last one Steve Moore handed out copies of his excellent Hercules
comic, and often Val turns up to charm us into taking a pile of
review copies to pass judgement on. Once we went out to a new greasy
spoon, and on a more recent occasion, as it was a thursday we had
stuff from the Indian stall in the market, but pretty much every sort
it's the chippy. It wouldn't be quite the same without it somehow.

After a fairly leisurely lunch, it's back to clippings, a fried egg that
looks like the Queen – Images, Lord Byron sending admirers hair
from his Newfoundland dog instead of his own – Arch and Anth,
Someone discovering Lithuanian lorry driver living in their shed -
Human Behaviour, as was an allergy sufferer going berserk with an an
axe in a florist, while cheeses maturing better when played gregorian
chant was Sounds. And so it continues until we empty the tray, or it
reaches about 4.00, when we are generally clippinged out and can't
face the residue of tiny ones which seem to require much more effort
to deal with than larger clippings – they tend to get left till
next time. You find that if you are wrangling a handful of these you
are forever dropping them and running the risk of them vanishing
between floorboards. At one time Paul's cat James was a risk as he
chased them, but older now he tends to be content to doze on the sofa
amidst it all.

As you sort you get to recognise certain clippsters styles, and indeed
fear some, occassionally someone takes it into their head to send in
all the weather reports from their local paper, which have to be
skimmed to see if they refer to anything remotely fortean, then
consigned to the round file, some also seem to think that any report
about anything containing the number 23 is of interest. But on the
other hand some clippsters are touched by genius, bringing us items
of utter wonder, such as virtually anything from the Uganda Star,
which seems to subsist on tales of crazed village witchcraft and
social ostracism, usually resulting from some hideously mistimed or
misplace bowel movement, all written in breathless, lurid African
English, a true glory!

Once an end is reached, all the clippings are gathered into manilla files
which eventually find their way east to Bob's capacious basement,
which does indeed resemble the cartoon on the last page of most FTs,
from where they may be resurrected for future articles, or, in the
days when we got to do them, toilet books. A vast and ever-expanding
array of marvels, probably the most comprehensive clipping collection
on strange phenomena anywhere in the world, it has taken over 30
years to create and deserves to be scanned, preserved and kept as a
resource for future research, hence the Charles Fort Institute and
its efforts at creating a long term home for such things, so that
centuries hence people may have the opportunity to look on the
Chiselhurst Sheep-Shagger and marvel.

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