Going, going, gone!

A giant step?

As someone who is constantly researching some Fortean topic or other, I really appreciate the notes by Mike Dash and Theo Paijmans in their blogs about research resources. I really hope they will continue and the notes build up into a series useful to any Fortean researcher ... and I fully expect to contribute to that series myself.

Here's my first shot, the point of which is that it is well worth monitoring auction catalogues for items of interest. Remember, not too long ago, the well publicised auction of the camera with which the notorious Cottingley fairy pictures were made? Sadly, such items themselves usually fall well beyond what most of us (even collectively?) could afford, but there are good literary gleanings too.

I must thank Phil Baker who, at a recent gathering at Paul Sieveking's home in North London to sort newsclippings, brought to our attention a notice from Christie's auction house of possibly the most famous of all photographs of a footprint of the manimal that westerners referred to as the Abominable Snowman, better known in the Himalayas as the yeti. Closer to the date of the sale, I began to monitor the Christie's website. I had the (daft?) idea of bidding for them myself, but when one newspaper (sorry, lost the clipping) announced that the photos were expected to fetch more than £2000. I wisely let that drop, but I saved the following details from their online catalogue in case they were not available after the auction.

Out of Body, Out of Mind

It has seemed to me that one of the most important questions about our existence is what happens to us at or after death. It is a question with far-reaching implications. If some sort of sentience can have any detectable independence of the human body, either in life or after its death, the proof would affect the fundamentals of morality, psychology and neuroscience, and (I presume) the more obscure realms of physics that deal with multiple dimensions and mysterious quantum energy states.

Besides the challenges it would make to current scientific understanding, the affect on religion and culture in all its forms are almost beyond imagining as it impacts upon every single person alive at the time. The possibility of some sort of survival of death is not just a personal matter, but must extend to all those who have lived and died before us. In turn it would raise questions about the nature of consciousness, personality and society itself. We'd even have to redefine death and what we mean by the 'dead'.

Obviously, we have no idea what such a survival may entail or what form it might take. Yes, we have a wealth of literature purporting to be communications with the deceased, full of accounts of dying and the world beyond, but it is narrative not fact. The best you can say is that they are the experiences of those who think they are in contact with the deceased, for we have no practical way of distinguishing between the real and the imagined here, especially when it might be based upon misperception or misinterpretation.

What I Did on My Holidays

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.

Photograph everywhere

This wonderful view shows the rarely-visited eastern end of monster-haunted Loch Morar, one of the most starkly beautiful, yet utterly inaccessible, places in our overcrowded island.

A century and a half ago, two tiny communities named Oban and Kinlochmorar existed at this end of the 11-mile-long loch, and were home to perhaps score of crofters and ghillies, but there was never any road or even a footpath to connect them to the communities at the western end of Morar and the last inhabitants abandoned their properties shortly after the end of World War I. No one has lived at the head of the loch since then, and it's scarcely surprising that when Elizabeth Montgomery-Campbell and David Solomon wrote The Search For Morag (1972), their ground-breaking study of Morar's lake monster tradition, they recorded only a single sighting from the far end of the loch, nor that I (and I suspect even those with a keen interest in Morar) never had the least idea of what this isolated district actually looked like.

The visions at La Salette

The terrible coach crash in the Alps a few days ago, in which nearly 30 Polish Catholics were killed on their way back from a pilgrimage to La Salette , directed public attention momentarily to a Marian shrine that's long been overshadowed by the better-known and more accessible vision sites at Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and Fatima, in central Portugal.

La Salette first came to notice a little more than 150 years ago, in September 1846, when two illiterate peasant children, 15-year-old Melanie Mathieu and Maximin Giraud, 11, reported a remarkable vision they claimed to have experienced while herding cattle on a bleak mountainside some 6,000 feet above sea level. According to one early account, set down by the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, William Ullathorne, some eight years after the events they described, the children had just woken from a lunchtime nap when Melanie

Seven Fortean Wonders of the World

If you've been to the CFI homepage or read the editorial section of issue 226 of Fortean Times you'll notice one of our projects is now up and running: the Seven Fortean Wonders of the World.

A recent large scale project 07.07.07 involved the public voting for a list of modern day Seven Wonders of the World. And basically we would like to do the same.

The first stage of the Seven Fortean Wonders of the World is to collect nominations and this stage is open until the end of September 2007. There are two categories, merely to help focus the mind as there are so many things that could be nominated. The two categories are Fortean places and Fortean artefacts. The only thing excluded are people, so Charles Fort is out. However artefacts relating to people are allowable so the two skulls of John the Baptist would be allowable.

The nominations have to be emailed to the CFI address.

Fiery objects rising from the ocean

" Very largely we shall concern ourselves with enormous fiery objects that have either plunged into the ocean or risen from the ocean", writes Fort in his The Book of the Damned. Among the many examples that he cites of luminous wheels, luminous bodies rising from the sea or hurthling through the skies, Fort tells of "...an object, described as "a large ball of fire", seen to rise from the sea, near Cape Race. We are told that it rose to a height of fifty feet, and then advanced close to the ship, then moving away, remaining visible about five minutes..."(1)

Interestingly, when scanning several 19th century Dutch newspapers for Fortean items of interest, I found that the incident that had occurred in 1887, was published beginning of the next year in the Netherlands. Sofar I located the item in two Dutch newspapers, the Texelse Courant, of March 11, 1888 and Nieuwe Amersfoortsche Courant of March 24, 1888. These clippings and my translations follow.

Texelse Courant, March 11, 1888

Texelse Courant, 1888-03-11

Buggered by Art

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.

Yowies in Spaaaaaace

Caught an interesting little factoid in the Curious Snail print edition this morning. The article should be here.

For those of you who don't want to check it out, a near Earth object out somewhere between Mars and Jupiter has been named Girraween, after a quite beautiful national park to the southwest of Brisneyland (here). Girraween is well known for its large granite outcrops and precariously balanced rocks which just make you want to clamber over them dressed in a pretty white dress screeching MIRANDAAAAA at the top of your lungs. I guess it's not the worst name for a chunk of rock floating out in space.

I last went there almost a year ago when Bron and I spent our anniversary at the Girraween Environmental Lodge. Not enough time to really explore (especially since one whole day was taken up with a wine tour), however we went on a bushwalk through the park 5 or 6 years ago to "Captain Thunderbolt's Hideout" and was surprised to see some local grafitti on the rocks depicting Yowies. Now I can't seem to find any recorded sightings of Yowies in the area, but at least some of the locals seem to think they're about.

I think I might have some pics recorded somewhere in the bowels of Bron's digital files - might take some digging though.

Sceptical Fortean or Fortean Skeptic?

And, several weeks later, he finally gets his bum ino gear to post his second ever blog entry . . .

Sorry if any of you have been waiting with bated breath to see the latest instalment of Forteana Australis - it's been a hectic couple of weeks here in Wormman's Wild Kingdom. Now we have a long weekend, the worst of the marking is completed, the rain has stopped and it's a rather pleasant Monday afternoon to sit out on the deck in the remains of my tropical garden while the silvereyes forage for bugs in my bromeliads and tap idly away on a keyboard.

In my last entry I promised a short piece on my personal path to fortean. I think it's probably a good idea to get this out of the way before I disappoint anyone.

I am a scientist. I'm certainly not getting paid to be one anymore, but I think that the way I view the universe has a lot more in common with the scientific way of doing things than any other philosophy. I love evidence, you see. I've never been really good at religion because to my mind it involves way too much faith in things that aren't backed up
by evidence. I love the tools of good science - testable hypotheses, controls and double blind tests, because I know that humans are fallible beings who let their feelings and preconceptions get in the way of finding answers.

Most Haunted

Most Haunted has a lot to answer for.

All around the UK paranormal groups are popping up. It seems all you need to do paranormal investigations nowadays is a camera with infrared facilities and you can call yourself a paranormal investigator. From personal experience some groups are there for the right reasons - they see a mystery and they want to try to solve it. Others are there merely because they want to become famous. And some of these latter groups are the ones with the loudest voices. They get noticed by the press and usually held up to ridicule, thus ridiculing the whole field of Fortean research. It's a sad state of affairs but true. I've recently been out with an excellent group and I've been to some locations with them.

I've always had an interest in evp ever since issue 1 of The Unexplained (a weekly part work from Orbis publications) gave a free flexi disc of evp voices. I've tried it myself a number of times with very little success it must be said. I've listened to the Ghost Orchid CD until my brain has melted and I even have a copy of Konstatin Raudives original book, in German no less.

But now I'm about to take it one stage further with the purchase of a dictaphone specifically for evp. Previously I've just made do with what tape or minidisc recorder I have happened to have to hand at the time. But now I'm buying a recommended dictaphone - the Sony i300 as recommended by Ghost Finders and the American Association of EVP. Can't be bad.

Battle of the Search Engines

Like most people in the UK - and I suspect elsewhere - I've been bombarded for the past few weeks by a plethora of TV and poster ads for the ask.com search engine. And like many people - I suppose - I've logged on to give the revamped site a second chance. (It was once "Ask Jeeves", and boasted, too ambitiously as it turned out, of returning industry-standard results to queries entered in plain English.)

And is it any good? Ask certainly produces more results than Google, but that's seldom a good thing. And the results themselves can be surprisingly different: type "Charles Fort Institute" into Google and you get 609 hits, the first three of which are the CFI homepage, a Wikipedia entry, and a mention on Dave Walsh's Blather blogsite. Type the same search into ask.com and it comes up with 1,180 hits, the third of which is a credit report concerning the CFI's financial solvency - which is certainly a novelty in my experience.

In the end, the thing that damns ask.com for me is its intrusive way with ads. Type in anything that registers as a keyword with the site and it produces search results bookended top and bottom with at least half a dozen sponsored sites that are difficult to distinguish from the genuine returns. To me, that's confusing and intrusive, and the quality of results ask.com returns is far from spectacularly good enough to make up for that problem.

I may run an ask.com search from time to time, on topics I'm concerned to cover properly, but on the current evidence I'm not going to be switching permanently from Google any time soon.

For Good or Evil? Google Books

It's hard to think of a major web-based archive initiative that's been quite so controversial as Google Books. This project - which Google itself announces as an effort to scan and index every book, in every language, ever published, and to make the results freely available to readers over the internet - has enthralled researchers, to whom it promises untold intellectual riches, while sending publishers racing to their lawyers screaming copyright infringement.

It's easy - and I speak here as an author - to see why the industry is worried. Aggressively or badly managed, Google Books plainly does have the potential to impact on publishers' revenues and writers' copyright. If it became possible, for instance, to download or print , free of charge, sections of books, or books in whole, Google would at the very least have succeeded in revolutionising the industry as fundamentally as Gutenberg. Scraping a living from one's writing is an uncertain enough business at the best of times, without worrying about the collapse of the financial underpinnings of a business that's seldom been a beacon of either profit or efficiency.

We're here!

After some excellent work from Dino we're up and running. Many thanks to the guinea pigs Tim Chapman and Dave McMann who gave valuable feedback during the testing phase of the blog. Now that we're up and running it's up to you all to let us know what you think.

Enjoy!

Gordon

Serendipity and Spring-heeled Jack

Delware Devil

(Click image to read the article in Adobe PDF format)

As if to prove the point that good things do sometimes fall into the lap of those who search long and hard enough, this clipping caught my eye in the Washington Times of 28 April 1909, p.6.

I was searching for something else entirely, but who could resist at least glancing at a headline like that? As it turns out, the article describes a long-forgotten "phantom prowler" case from the little town of Georgetown, Delaware (current population: 5,000) which has some obvious parallels with that of the renowned British bogeyman Spring-heeled Jack. Jack's the subject of my longest-running research project (25 years and counting). Which makes today a good day so far as I'm concerned.

Eccentric Orbit

I never set out to be a blogger. I write slowly and don't like launching opinions without first applying a protective coating of footnotes and qualifiers. Nevertheless when asked to contribute to CFI, I immediately said yes.

It's not for the salary (they're paying me in cowry shells), or the groupies, or the glamour of the thing. Neither is it an urge to pontificate or promote an agenda. Most likely it's the same impulse that drives children to share their discoveries with anyone who'll listen. When I was just a larva, I chased my mother around the house reading factoids out of Grolier's Encyclopedia or Stranger than Science; 36 years later, technology has made it possible for me to harass a much larger audience with odds and ends about vampires, monsters, haunted houses, psychic phenomena and flying saucers. Other people feel the urge to do this, perhaps even the man whose name is carved over the Institute's door, Charles Hoy Fort.

Since this a fortean blog, let me say a few words about our founder. I came to Fort's work long after being weaned on Ivan Sanderson, Brad Steiger and countless cheap strange-but-true paperbacks. When I finally read The Book of the Damned, the anomalies and outrageous theories felt familiar but the style was jarring and the larger concepts escaped me. I've had to rely on other writers to explain Fort's viewpoint, which seems to be that reality is a sort of lava-lamp with everything in a state of flux and flow. That sounds as reasonable as any other theory I've heard about the nature of reality, but grand ideas don't hold my attention- I'm here for the anomalies or, to be precise, the stories about anomalies.

The Welcome Tent

Let me guess! You're either a long-time well-wisher of the CFI or simply curious. Either way, I'm glad you've found this blog site where you - all of you, and for whatever reason - are very welcome.

In its decade or more of slow gestation, the Charles Fort Institute (CFI) has been more of an idea than a reality. Progress has met many obstacles - shortage of funds, of time, tedious consultations on charities law, and so on - but the central idea and goals of the CFI have inspired a kind of dogged determination in those who know of it to see it through.

So, after detours and delays, here we are with something tangible ... and from this small step we hope to grow an institution that will benefit every fortean researcher, the general public and posterity.

There is so much to discuss - so many ideas, enthusiasms, projects, aims and goals - that mentioning them all here would clog this inaugural message. After all, our growing list of bloggers, their topics and the discussions they hope to provoke, is the main point of these pages.

Our ultimate aim, though, is to progress towards a thoroughly 21st century resource, attracting whatever funding we can to function fully and professionally. The core will be an archive of materials on fortean and related topics, which will include both physical media (books, periodicals, video, etc) and digitised data, so that our holdings will be accessible from anywhere in the world via the Internet. We already have a few collections donated with more promised in wills; their storage and cataloguing, therefore, will be one of our first priorities.

Now that we have this site up and running - and work is going on in the background to overhaul the main CFI home site- the chief obstacle to dissemination knowledge of the CFI has been overcome. We can conduct our affairs openly and invite anyone who thinks our aims have merit to
join us.

Welcome Tent Annexe

Bob has welcomed everyone and said a bit about the reason for the CFI being here, so I'd just like to make a personal addition to that.

After seeing the CFI through it's birth and first stages Bob decided to step aside and asked me if I would be interested in taking over the reigns as head of the CFI. I said yes and instantly gave myself lots of headaches. Thankfully they are now gone and the future of the CFI looks exciting. We've had and continue to have a lot of people working away in the background and they have all done excellent jobs. I'd just like to quickly publicly thank three of them - Dino, Craig and Paul. Thanks guys.

Creative energies have been channeled into the website and blog area that you see before you, now that this is up and running Stew and I will get back to the next newsletter - we still aim to keep that going, just another way to join in the fun that is the CFI!

Thanks everyone.

A View from the Antipodes

Ahem . . . Is this thing on ?

Greetings one and all and welcome to the Antipodean branch of the CFI Blog. I will be your host for this journey, and I ask for your patience and forgiveness as I finally shamble blindly into the blogosphere.

Oz has a long history of phenomena which can be shoe-horned into the catchall which is "Forteana" - the beasties which European settlers borrowed from the original inhabitants (the Min Mins, the Bunyips, the Yowies and the Yarries) as well as those which they bought with them. We've started Fortean trends (the Tully Saucer Nests for example, are often cited as the precursors to crop circles) and we've maintained the favourites (like the Cloncurry fish fall or the Coogee Virgin). As a result, we have a goodly collection of reserchers into these phenomena - Tony Healy and Paul Crowther, Malcolm Smith and even Rex Gilroy to name but a few, not to mention the hard-working collective that is Ghostwatch.

Against this backdrop, what hope do I have to contribute to this body of knowledge ? I'll be honest and state that the only bit of "investigation" I have managed to do is getting in contact with a journalist who was trying to track down the Beast of Buderim in the mid-nineties, as well as maintaining the aforementioned critter's unofficial webpage until it was wiped from the QUT servers. Not an impressive resume, I'll admit.

Small town, big help

Strange but true: the most useful single resource available to researchers hunting for newspaper stories from the period 1855-1946 is an obscure daily published in a central Minnesota town most people have never heard of.

The Winona Daily Republican wasn't a large paper. In the nineteenth century it sold a couple of thousand copies. Even today, its successor-paper, the Daily News, has a circulation of a mere 11,000. But, published as it was in what seems to have been the archetypal slow-news town, it did print a huge number of wire stories from around the world. It is these that give the archive its value - for everyone other than present-day Winona residents, that is.

It's hard to over-state how unusual the Daily Republican seems to have been in this respect. Increasing numbers of local newspapers are coming online - Northern New York Historical Newspapers (which has one of the most awkward, cumbersome and time-consuming user interfaces I've ever encountered) lists 24 titles and contains more than 600,000 pages; the Historical Missouri Newspaper Project has 13 more. But sample searches soon reveal that all 37 of these newspapers concentrated almost entirely on local news. That makes them very useful for people interested in the minutiae of life in Rolla, Missouri, or Ogdensburg, New York, but of distinctly limited value to everyone else.

The Affairs of Dame Rumor

According to the Independent, 6 April 2007, the opening of the Primark clothing chain's new flagship on Oxford Street last week descended into chaos as several hundred shoppers, drawn to the opening by wild, fast-spreading rumours of spectacular bargains, formed such a crush that the store had to be opened early and customers restricted to a 25-minute time slot to prevent the risk of injury.

As is so often the case, the exact nature of the mysterious "rumours" that had drawn so many people to the store proved difficult to pin down‚ though some, inevitably, suspected Primark's own PR agents of hatching a stunt. The Independent reported that many of those queuing to get in had heard that the opening would be marked by a half-price sale. BBC News, meanwhile, said that a number of those drawn to the store had come in the belief that every item in the store would be on sale for a mere £1, for a limited time, at least. In fact no special discounts were available at all, and many shoppers left hot, tired and disappointed.

The speed with which tall tales of this sort can travel never ceases to startle me, and there's no doubt that modern technology, not least text messaging and the internet‚ can play a key part in their spread. But it's also worth remembering that wild and influential rumours are by no means a purely twenty-first century phenomenon.

Chronicling America

Newspaper digitisation is going to be so important to Fortean researchers that I can see myself touching on the topic frequently for the foreseeable future. Right now, though, it’s enough to note that a project with the potential to become the most important and most accessed of all online newspaper repositories was launched a few days ago by the Library of Congress.

    It's called Chronicling America and it’s an offshoot of the old United States Newspaper Program, a cataloguing project that’s been running since 1980. The long-term aim is to digitise and make freely available complete runs of representative newspapers from all parts of the United States. For now, the project consists of a prototype site containing runs of only two dozen titles, and it covers only the years 1900-1910.

Stiffkey Revisited

There can't be many rural graveyards that boast the remains of a vicar who was mauled to death by lions, but I saw one this week, thanks to my daughter.

It was her birthday recently - she's hit 11 - and to celebrate we agreed to fulfil one of her three lifetime ambitions. These are [i] to cycle to India; [ii] to read a newspaper while floating on the Dead Sea; and [iii] to tour England in a VW camper van. Number three seemed by some distance the cheapest and least life-threatening, so we hired a van and headed for East Anglia.

We had no particular route in mind but, glancing at the map, I was surprised to see that the A149 coast road passes right through the Norfolk village of Stiffkey. The chance to see the place where the unfortunate Reverend Harold Davidson once lived (at least on Sundays) was simply too good to miss, and at three on the afternoon of our second day we pulled up beside a picture-postcard rural church to discover what trace, if any, remained of the place's most infamous incumbent.

Harold Davidson became notorious in the early 1930s when the newspapers latched onto his efforts to 'rescue' London prostitutes - work that became so all-consuming that he frequently spent six days of each week in the East End, hurrying home to Norfolk just in time to take Sunday Communion. On Remembrance Sunday 1930, however, Davidson failed to make it back to his parish in time (rumour had it that he dallied too long in town and missed a train), and an angry parishioner reported him to the church authorities for immoralty.

The Ghost Ship and the President

Chance can be a fine thing.

The darker recesses of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library would never top most people's lists of likely sources of Fortean material, but, leafing through the catalogue of the Lawrence Richey papers held there yesterday, I stumbled across a name I hadn't heard in quite a while: that of the Carroll A. Deering.

The Deering was an elegant five-masted schooner that went aground on Diamond Shoals, off the coast of North Carolina, back in January 1921, and her name still crops up frequently in the literature of mysteries of the sea. At the time of her stranding, she was on the return leg of a voyage from her home port in Virginia to Brazil, and, as was the case with the Mary Celeste, to which she has often been compared, she seems to have been, at least until going aground on the shoals, in a sound, sailable condition despite a recent brush with foul weather. To make matters more intriguing, the first men to board the wreck found an evening meal sitting, uneaten, on the stove. The Deering's crew of 11 men were nowhere to be seen (and neither were the ship's boats, another thing this ghost ship has in common with the Mary Celeste). None of them were ever seen alive again.

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