Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
That’s a strong claim by Alex Tsakiris; ‘almost’ doesn’t leave very much that science appears to be doing right. Even those who feel that science’s boundaries have been drawn too tightly, and orthodoxy imposes a too-rigid limit on what should be considered acceptable subject-matter, may take issue, finding science pretty useful for everyday life. In fact Rupert Sheldrake, who wrote the foreword, felt uncomfortable with the title. While characterising Tsakiris as a ‘fearless investigator’ he considered it went ‘too far’, as science was right about ‘a great many things.’ Sheldrake thought that the title should have restricted itself to science’s failings in investigating consciousness.
Even the endorsement by Dean Radin, who would agree with much of what Tsakiris says and who is treated positively in the book, begins: ‘There’s nothing wrong with science itself.’ The problem, as Radin continues, is with scientists who misrepresent the evidence. Tsakiris, presumably for marketing purposes, preferred his original title, but his provocative strategy may backfire. While he will get a number to pick up the book because they are intrigued by its title, he is as likely to deter others who might agree with some of his sentiments but who feel that such a title is merely a stick that opponents can use to beat them with as scientific illiterates, or that someone who takes such an extreme stance is going to be an unreliable commentator.
Tsakiris is of course no stranger to controversy. His Skeptiko podcast has carried interviews with researchers and thinkers of diverse persuasions. He began in 2007 and at the time of writing this his show has clocked up over 260 interviews. Why Science is Wrong contains extracts from a selection of these, a tiny fraction of the total, grouped thematically, and they demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of his agenda.
Science, according to the chapter titles, is wrong about all sorts of things. It is wrong about … consciousness, quantum physics (five pages that barely touch on the topic), near-death experiences, psychics and mediums, telepathy (including the canine variety), psychic detectives, healing and medicine, atheism, Darwin and evolution, even science itself. Tsakiris admits he is not a scientist and his persona is that of a keenly interested fast-learning autodidact able to talk with ease on the same level as experts who may have spent decades studying a subject (though he has an MBA, so he is no slouch intellectually).
He has a robust – putting it mildly – interviewing style. At his best, with a subject he knows a lot about (notably NDEs) and with a sympathetic interviewee, his conversations can be illuminating. Conversely he can pick out the weaknesses of his interviewees’ arguments in a way that is merciless. He is adept at showing how little sceptics (or rather pseudo-sceptics) have often thought about the ramifications of the subject they are on to talk about. In that sense Tsakiris provides a useful service in showing that simply because someone expresses a view strongly, it does not necessarily mean it is based on deep research. On the other hand he has a tendency to take an inability to provide a counter-argument as evidence for his own position, and he is not even-handed when debating those whose ideas he finds uncongenial.
The book is billed as ‘A rollcking assault on science’s inability to answer life’s most important questions’. I’m not sure it counts as rollicking, but an assault it certainly is. The section on consciousness attacks the premise that consciousness is solely a product of the brain. It seems that the reason why Tsakiris chose his title, and spends so much time discussing consciousness, is because he views it as the key area where science has failed, and catastrophically so: ‘If my consciousness is something – anything – other than a product of my brain’ (and he is convinced it isn’t a product of his brain) ‘then science is out of business until it figure out exactly how my consciousness interacts with this world.’ Without an understanding of how consciousness fits into the picture, he argues, science can never give a complete picture of any subject to which it is applied.
Instead, to cover up its deficiencies, we get what he calls the ‘Dopey Science Creed’ characterising mainstream science which makes bold claims that there is no purpose to anything, free will is an illusion, we are nothing more than our physical brains and the death of the brain means the death of the person, the paranormal is bunk, and so on. By contrast, Tsakiris has concluded from his interviews that the evidence strongly supports the contention that consciousness is not constrained by the brain, we survive death, and our existence has meaning.
In fleshing out this thesis the book’s first half is by far the strongest, but it feels weaker as it proceeds. The chapters on consciousness, NDEs, mediumship, telepathy and healing go into as much detail as space will allow, and while the reader may not shift from a sceptical position as a result, the interviews are stimulating and challenging. That on psychic detection descends into a ‘he said she said’ which shows the lengths critics will go to in splitting hairs to try to prove a point, but doesn’t go beyond hearsay in discussing the reality of psychic detection.
The chapter on atheism is confusing and unconvincing as Tsakiris has an image of atheists that they uniformly believe life to be ‘a meaningless illusion created by biologic (sic) robots.’ While there may be those who think it, though I’ve not met one, or at least one willing to admit to such a bizarre belief, it is a crude generalisation to lump all atheists in that category. Such a broad claim should be backed by evidence, but there is none here.
The interviews on evolution and Charles Darwin are mostly about charges that Darwin plagiarised Alfred Russel Wallace, the true ‘discover’ of evolution, with no dissenting opinions. Tsakiris considers evolution a ‘reasonable approximation of how living organisms change’, but seems to feel that the problem with Darwinism is that it promotes a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality inimical to broader spiritual values. This may be deemed a curious attitude from someone who has an MBA and describes himself as ‘a successful entrepreneur’, but one can see why he might be unhappy with a lack of meaning within Darwinian evolution. Although Tsakiris does not mention Russell’s interest in Spiritualism, he considers Russell’s brand of evolutionary theory to be superior because it ‘isn’t about survival of the individual, but survival of the group.’ Presumably that involves the notion of existence containing meaning so lamentably absent in Darwinism; it’s really hard to tell.
Tsakiris’s introduction is, as is his website, subtitled ‘Science at the tipping point’, the tipping point being science’s move away from crass materialism to give the role of consciousness its due. He comes back to this issue towards the end when he characterises science as it is currently conceptualised as the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ and argues that we need to move beyond the restrictive approach which says, in his words, that ‘we’re just an illusion created by this meaningless electrochemical reaction going on inside our brain.’
On the contrary, Tsakiris vehemently protests that we are not ‘meaningless’, while acknowledging that he does not know what that meaning is. But it’s really not clear to me on what basis he concludes that there is meaning to existence, other than wishful thinking. As a consequence it’s an interesting yet ultimately unsatisfying book, too short and bitty to do justice to the richness of the Skeptiko archive, too often concerned with point-scoring, and not pulling the interview extracts into a coherent narrative. Instead he jumps around, with a tendency to stray from the subject of a particular chapter.
Even so, the book should provide a service in directing readers to his website so that they can listen to the podcast interviews themselves. Used with care they are a valuable resource, with some fine researchers given space to expound, but the listener needs to be aware that Tsakiris has an agenda, and make allowances accordingly.
Now that he has a higher profile, it is possible that people not in tune with his views will be increasingly reluctant to appear on his show, so the range of interviewees may decrease in future. Those who are invited on and are fooled by the ‘Skeptiko’ tag into thinking that they are dealing with a host who is in sympathy with the aims of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and who fail to do due diligence on what they could be getting themselves into, will only have themselves to blame for a bruising encounter.
Is the term ‘Skeptiko’ misleading? Yes, in a way, but only because ‘scepticism’ has been co-opted by an approach that Tsakiris would claim isn’t sceptical at all, because it represents a narrow materialist status quo. He sees himself as truly an iconoclastic sceptic because he takes on those vested interests, but he has a problem distinguishing the baby from its bathwater.
NB Alex Tsakiris has posted a response on the Skeptiko website:
Karen Harrison has compiled a readable guide to developing and using a range of psychic abilities, complete with exercises that will benefit both novices and by those with more experience. She covers theory and first steps before going on to a variety of techniques. Subsequent chapters examine clairvoyance, various types of spirit guides, dreaming, past lives, automatic writing, psychometry, communicating with animals, and conclude with guidance on good practices to ensure that these abilities are utilised in a safe and productive manner.
The key message is admirably simple: being psychic is about listening to and trusting your inner voice in order to evaluate information received without the use of the recognised senses. The book presents variations on this theme, showing the variety of techniques available to assist in that reception. Harrison has a lively informal style, and anyone wishing to try these activities will find the book packed with good advice, not least that we have responsibility for ourselves and our actions, and decisions about one’s life cannot be delegated to someone else.
In theory the target audience is everybody because we are told that these abilities are in all of us, even if dormant (or suppressed) in most. In practice the book is not going to be to everyone’s taste because some of it will pass an individual’s boggle threshold: contacting ascended masters and descriptions of various species of angels for example, interpreting the colours of clairvoyance, or communicating with dead pets. That’s fine because those not in tune with particular aspects, and who still feel that they would like to cultivate other areas of possible psychic functioning, can cherry-pick those parts of the book that are in tune with their views and which they feel comfortable attempting, while ignoring the rest.
It’s easy to be dismissive of books like this. You will not find double-blind experiments that rule out alternative explanations for the psychic’s information, and you can’t be sure that your recently-deceased cat has been reincarnated in a kitten (something Harrison believes happened to her pet), or that you really are communicating with the spirit world through your dreams, and not essentially engaging in wishful thinking or simply talking to yourself.
But at worst these exercises encourage sensitivity to the world around us, and empathy with others, even if we do not in fact have spirit guides, we do not communicate telepathically, and objects do not carry energy from their history that can be read. At best, who knows, there may be something in it all, and expending effort on psychic development may result in an enhanced awareness of a greater reality, and our part in it. Charging others for such services, however, is another matter entirely.
Greg Taylor is owner of The Daily Grail website and editor of the Darklore anthologies. In Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife he draws together evidence which suggests that the mind is not simply a by-product of the brain and may exist independently of it, even after the brain itself dies. Strands include near-death experiences, particularly those that provide accurate information which could not have been obtained through normal sensory routes; mediumship, particularly mental mediumship and the cross-correspondences (the latter involving several mediums receiving communications of a complex character that only make sense when the information is consolidated); ‘Peak in Darien’ experiences, where someone who is dying has a vision of someone thought to be alive but who is later found to have died before the vision occurred; strange death bed phenomena, such as unexplained lights or music, experienced by relatives and carers around the dying person’s bed (hard to explain in terms of biological processes); terminal lucidity in a dying patient; then there is a chapter on quantum theories of consciousness, necessarily simplified but suggestive of possible explanations for the relationship of mind to brain and for the survival of personality.
Taylor covers a great deal of ground, which means that he cannot go into any one topic in depth, but there is enough to open up avenues for the interested reader to explore further. Chapters range from the early days of psychical research, with the pioneering work of the SPR, and come so far up to date that Sam Parnia’s AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study is included, even though at the time of writing only preliminary results were available. There are snippets of interviews with academic researchers, and it is interesting to hear them talk informally about their work, outside the confines of books and journal articles. The presentation is well balanced, mixing case studies with theory and indicating the strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches. Taylor has found a good representative number of examples which show that there are commonalities across time and cultures, together forming a case for survival that requires more from sceptics than a reflexive dismissal of the evidence and the bald unsupported assertion that death equals extinction.
Well, that’s the idea. In practice, as Taylor is aware, critics tend not to shift their prior opinions very easily, even when it appears that experiments have been conducted under rigorously controlled conditions. There are numerous instances of sceptical arguments that are superficial and distort the evidence in order to dismiss it (as a case in point, Taylor has analysed in depth Martin Gardner’s hatchet job on Leonora Piper in his Darklore article ‘How Martin Gardner Bamboozled the Skeptics: A Lesson in Trusting a Magician’). But as the probably in Stop Worrying!’s title indicates, Taylor himself is not dogmatic, and presents those who are dubious about the likelihood of our survival of bodily death with an array of phenomena deserving of consideration, even if ultimately there are no definitive answers.
Together these findings suggest the possibility that consciousness – in some form or other – survives the death of the body. That this is an area which needs much more investigation than it has received hitherto is indicated by the underreporting of NDE experiences, making them seem rarer than they are; experients are often frightened of ridicule, or being labelled disturbed, and keep what happened to themselves. Even without these additional data, the book’s conclusion is that while the research described may not be able to prove the continuation of consciousness, the various types of evidence examined hint that our comprehension of reality is limited at present, so we should keep our minds open. Those who believe that they have returned from the edge of the afterlife often feel that they have been transformed by the journey, and that they may have had a tiny glimpse into a future life that awaits everyone.
In sum, the title and cover may give the impression that this is not going to be a serious book, but actually it is a thoughtful, and extremely accessible, overview of past and current survival research. Those who are new to the subject, who have perhaps been prompted by the death of a loved one to wonder if they will meet on the other side, and are not satisfied with either reductionist materialist theories that see the cessation of brain function as the end point of our existence, nor religious doctrines that require belief in the existence of the afterlife as simply a matter of faith, will find it an excellent introduction. The references are thorough, but I wish Taylor had added an index. And if he decides to bring out a new edition, he might consider issuing it with a more sober cover.
A longer review, by Robert A. Charman, appears in the October 2014 issue of the SPR’s Journal.
Haunted Farnham, by Peter Underwood
After producing well over fifty titles it's odd to think that the late Peter Underwood’s writing days are over. Haunted Farnham, one of his last, draws on research conducted over several decades, despite which it has a cursory feel, clocking in at fewer than 90 pages. Its strength is that Underwood was a local resident for many years and has a clear love for Farnham and its surroundings, with good reason as it is a lovely part of the world.
He begins his tour at Farnham Castle before moving on to Castle Street and Castle Hill, including the old Castle Theatre. Then he ranges more generally over ghosts associated with Farnham’s pubs, hotels and other buildings (often left unspecified to preserve the occupants’ privacy). After that he looks at places in the vicinity of the town, including the house he once lived in – The White House at Bentley – just outside Farnham. Throughout he is erudite on matters historical, even when the actual ghost stories feel flimsy. Some of the accounts are based on personal interviews, but unfortunately he is cavalier about saying when the interviews took place, and the lack of a date reduces their value as a historical record. Hopefully Underwood’s papers will be donated to a suitable repository, and the primary records with fuller information will be available to researchers.
Like all of the History Press volumes Haunted Farnham is well illustrated with black and white photographs, many of which include Underwood himself more than modesty should allow. Quite a few feel unnecessary and are there to pad out the book’s length. The reader may be puzzled by snaps of a group described as belonging to ‘The original Ghost Club’, as the reason it has been labelled original is not explained – the Ghost Club has gone through a number of manifestations, but the ‘original’ Club was formed in the 1860s, so it is a confusing description. You would need to know about Underwood’s acrimonious break with the Club in 1993 after 30-odd years as its President, and his formation of the Ghost Club Society, for his idiosyncratic use of the term original to make sense: in his mind the Ghost Club Society was merely the new Ghost Club, as opposed to the ‘original’ one of which he had been President for so long.
Underwood’s books are always readable, and his clubbable persona was ideally suited to gain his interviewees’ confidence. It is a surprise on to learn that Farnham has been claimed (who by Underwood does not say) as Britain’s most haunted town, to which he would add that Bentley is possibly the most haunted village. This kind of ranking is always open to dispute, but on the evidence here Farnham seems no more haunted than many an English market town is alleged to be. Tributes following Underwood’s death noted how influential his books have been in introducing people to the subject, and while it is wonderful that Underwood was still writing at his great age, Haunted Farnham is not among his finest work.
The Little Book of Ghosts, by Paul Adams
Paul Adams is well known for his books on ghosts, some in collaboration with Peter Underwood, such as The Borley Rectory Companion and Shadows in the Nave. His latest is a compilation of ‘true’ ghosts stories (with a few that he concedes are not, but are entertaining anyway) aimed at the Christmas stocking market, and many of the anecdotes in it are of the type that often crop up in the sorts of regional ghost guides that publishers like The History Press produce.
Despite the ‘little’ in its title, the book covers a lot of ground geographically, overseas as well as in Britain. We meet different types of ghosts and some iconic hauntings, albeit briefly; little time is spent on any one account but that allows space for a large number, showing how flexible, and context-determined, the ghost is. There are ghostly animals and haunted objects as well as ghostly figures, and Adams includes poltergeists as a species of ‘violent ghost’. The stories are drawn from a variety of sources, historical, folklore, and recent ‘it happened to me’ narratives. Some of the most notable ghost researchers make an appearance: Harry Price of course, but other significant figures in the field too, and coming more up to date some who have appeared on shows like Most Haunted and TAPS, though they may find their fame to be more ephemeral than that of the greats of the past.
The blurb tries hard to sell the collection as ‘spine-chilling’, but truth is that it is most unlikely that anyone will experience any kind of frisson from these tales, in the way they might from a carefully crafted horror story, if only because there is no opportunity to build up tension. However, the book may encourage the reader who picks it up because of a vague interest to delve further in the subject. To assist any such aim, Adams has included a lengthy bibliography and a chapter on the major organisations involved with the subject, including the SPR. From such small beginnings great interest, and the potential to contribute to the subject, may develop.
Anyway, it turns out that ghosts might not always attract researchers because of a desire to address serious issues surrounding life after death. Adams notes that ‘Sightings of a blonde female figure wearing a white dress that vanishes in mysterious circumstances have been reported with some regularity.’ Well, a ghost whose dress vanishes in any circumstances would be a definite draw for a certain kind of ‘ghost hunter’.
White Crow Books have reissued Brian Inglis’s Natural and Supernatural, which was first published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1977. It was the first part of what was envisaged as an ambitious trilogy encompassing the entire history of the paranormal. The second volume, Science and Parascience appeared in 1984, and covered the years 1914 to 1939 (it too has been reissued by White Crow Books, but only in ebook format). Sadly Inglis’s death in 1993 prevented the completion of the project.
Inglis was a prolific author on the paranormal, and as a professional journalist as well as a historian his books are always readable and informative. Natural and Supernatural brought together a wealth of material that had previously been scattered in specialist publications and made it available to a wide audience. It runs chronologically through the following periods, from which it can be seen that a huge amount of compression has gone on to fit the subject into 500 pages: ‘Tribal communities’; ‘Early civilisations’; ‘Christianity’; ‘From the Renaissance to the Age of Reason’; ‘Mesmerism’; ‘Spiritualism’; ‘Psychical research’; ‘The Society for Psychical Research’; ‘Psychical research in decline’; and ‘The unknown guest’ (i.e. concluding remarks).
As the chapter headings indicate, the book has a broad historical sweep, and it tracks the ways that claims of ‘paranormal’ phenomena have been interpreted within diverse belief systems. Inglis also examines differences among psychical researchers in deciding between explanations involving spirit communication, and psi processes emanating from the living. The Society for Psychical Research plays a major role in the later chapters but Inglis is not always kind to it, seeing some of its members – notably Richard Hodgson and Frank Podmore – as having fostered a critical climate inimical to the fair discussion of psychic claims, and having not only failed as an organisation to counter its subject matter’s opponents, but actually often being in sympathy with them.
The key question is whether Natural and Supernatural holds up nearly forty years after its first appearance. The answer is yes, it does, though it needs to be treated cautiously. Inglis has his biases, which he is not shy about displaying, and while for example he concedes that mediumship has had some fraudulent activity, he is firmly convinced that by and large its physical phenomena were genuine and we can generally rely on the contemporary accounts of them. His standard approach is to confront the reader with the sheer volume of cases, and suggest that the evidence is sound because of its consistency and cumulative effect. The critic will naturally retort that an accumulation of nonsense is still nonsense, or more charitably that much that is not accounted for by fraud can be attributed to the psychological processes that have been gathered in recent years under the umbrella of Anomalous Psychology.
The readership may therefore divide into three sections: those who agree with Inglis that an explanation which posits widespread fraud and misperception is even more unlikely than the paranormality of the phenomena that are described; those who marvel that so much deception and self-deception can be taken this seriously, believe that Inglis lets some dubious practitioners off the hook rather easily, and conclude that he is too ready to accept historical records when we cannot vouch for their accuracy at this distance; and those holding a middle position who feel that there may be something in some of it, but that Inglis frequently overstates his case. While the reader may not necessarily be in sympathy with Inglis’s views, that does not detract from the usefulness of his historical synthesis. Much scholarship has been focused on these matters since the late 1970s, but Natural and Supernatural’s wide range and accessibility means that it is still of value as a starting point for further exploration.
A note on editions: the White Crow Books reissue has a new introduction by Inglis’s son Neil L. Inglis which gives an affectionate overview of his father’s career and the development of his interest in the paranormal. Neil is candid about bias in Natural and Supernatural (or ‘a clear authorial point of view’ as he delicately puts it). However, Brian’s text has not been thoroughly edited to correct errors. More of an issue is the fact that it is based on the 1977 Hodder and Stoughton edition, and not the one that was published by Prism in 1992. For some reason the first edition omitted the references, and these were reinstated in the Prism reissue, amounting to an extra 19 pages. As White Crow have used the original edition as the basis for theirs, the references have disappeared again. While this is fine for the general reader, those who wish to follow up the sources in more detail may prefer to find a second-hand Prism copy. Even with this caveat, it’s good to see it back in print.
A review of the 1977 edition, by Anita Gregory, appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 49, no. 776, June 1978, pp.826-28.
There was a time when regional ghost guides flew thick and fast from publishers’ offices, mainly Amberley and The History Press. They seem to be less frequent these days, presumably because the country is approaching saturation point. However we aren’t quite there yet, as this 2013 selection from Amberley demonstrates.
Ghosts of Edinburgh, by Rob Kirkup
Rob Kirkup and his three team members, after descending on York’s ghost scene for an earlier book turn their attention to Edinburgh and conduct first-hand investigations over the course of a year. Edinburgh has a well-honed ghost industry, so do the lads add anything new?
The book covers eight venues: Edinburgh Dungeon; the Covenanters’ Prison and Greyfriars Kirkyard; Mary King’s Close (twice); Dalhousie Castle Hotel and Spa; the South Bridge Vaults; Bedlam Theatre; and the Cammo Estate. If you’ve read the York book you will know what to expect with this one as the recipe is much the same: pursue an enjoyable hobby with some mates that may turn up something significant for our view of life after death, and which offers ample opportunity to employ gadgets on investigations. On occasion they hook up with commercial tours, but prefer to have a location to themselves in order to retain the fullest control possible.
The result is a record of their activities with the same level of often unnecessary detail as in the earlier one (Kirkup can spend a page picking the guys up before they even begin the trip to Edinburgh). Then when they arrive there is a lot of ‘we were startled to hear/see something, but it turned out to be [something mundane]’. There are some unusual occurrences, notably a sweary session with a ‘Frank’s Box’ (that’s the Frank’s Box swearing, not the team), but it’s difficult to know what significance to attach to these incidents.
On the other hand we get plenty of information about where they eat, drink and sleep, and the focus is on what they do and how they respond to their environment, with the sort of historical context for the venues that can be gleaned from an internet search. A bibliography isn’t required because they don’t pay much attention to what other people have written (Jan-Andrew Henderson’s The Ghost that Haunted Itself: The Story of the Mackenzie Poltergeist is an exception, but then Henderson contributed a foreword to Kirkup’s book).
There is a revealing moment when Kirkup concedes that his fellow investigators might not know about the Covenanters’ Prison’s ‘notoriety’, which suggests a lack of preparation on their part, and indeed he gives them a mini-lecture on its history and the Mackenzie Poltergeist. The description of their amusing visit to Mary King’s Close as part of a public tour makes no reference to Richard Wiseman’s 2005 investigation which examined non-paranormal explanations for people’s experiences there, nor does the chapter on their second visit, when they secured the place for a private investigation.
There are two main aspects to the book. The first relates to its title, ostensibly a general study of Edinburgh’s ghosts, and the unsuspecting may expect it to be a wide-ranging survey. Unfortunately the reader will not come away with a comprehensive knowledge of its ghosts, so anyone wanting a tourist-style guide to the city’s paranormal heritage should look elsewhere. The second aspect is the description of how the group conducts investigations which has wider applicability, though not everybody will want to emulate the style of this particular group. There are useful accounts of how the commercial ghost tours they go on operate, which may turn out to be the most valuable aspect of the book historically.
It is nice to see a small independent group going out and doing investigations, but the places they go to are well-worn for the most part. I notice that the running header is ‘Paranormal Edinburgh’. That may have been the intended title, changed because it had already been taken by Gordon Rutter’s offering on the city, published by the History Press. History Press also publish Alan Murdie’s Haunted Edinburgh, so there are readily-available alternatives for those who want less on the eating habits of ‘Team Kirkup’ and more on Edinburgh’s ghost stories.
Paranormal Merseyside, by S. D. Tucker
The Merseyside area has a rich and proud history, and S. D. Tucker has given it the consideration it deserves. It’s a substantial book, over 250 pages, much chunkier than many paranormal guides. As a consequence it covers a lot of ground, geographically and in subject matter, and still has the space to examine topics in depth. It contains the familiar mix of paranormal, folkloric, fortean and generally weird that one expects from a book with such a broad title, and it is well researched, with an insider’s perspective. Tucker approaches the subject with humour, but also respect. As a bonus he’s a dab hand with a pencil, and the book is illustrated with his own light-hearted sketches in addition to the usual photographs.
As well as the usual ghost sightings and poltergeists, there are UFOs and encounters with aliens. There are extraordinary, allegedly, human powers, and such bizarreness as appearances by Spring-heeled Jack and the kindred but somewhat more obscure Ghastly Galosher Man, favouring galoshes rather than spring-loaded shoes (as far as I’m aware galoshes are not school pumps, or plimsolls/gym shoes as Tucker suggests, but are rubber overboots that probably wouldn’t have much spring in them to facilitate a quick getaway). There are social panics and rumours, the best being the 1964 leprechaun ‘invasion’ that had children running around in search of ‘little green men with white hats’ and generally having a great time doing so.
There is clearly an Irish connection with the leprechauns, but Tucker thinks that the link is overstated. He points out that the height of immigration from Ireland was in the mid-nineteenth century, and argues that children in 1960s Liverpool with Irish heritage would be a long way from their Celtic roots and stories of little people. Yet in the 1950s and 60s, with the UK booming economically and becoming increasingly socially relaxed, and Ireland doing not so much of either, over three-quarters of a million Irish citizens arrived in Britain seeking a better life. The youngsters using the notion of the leprechaun as a peg for their antics might have been closer to the traditional folklore – or traditional leg-pulling – of the Emerald Isle than Tucker suggests.
Underneath the sometimes less than credible tales he recounts, Tucker also uncovers a kind of magic in the mundane. The book is topped and tailed by an account of a 1927 dream that Carl Jung had in which he found himself in Liverpool and from which he concluded that symbolically Liverpool was ‘the pool of life’, an event commemorated by a bust of the thinker that stands in the city centre. Jung saw beneath the surface of our everyday reality to a more profound level, and similarly Tucker sees in these stories something deeper; they are narratives that possess a transformative power which can enrich our lives.
I have an attachment to the area as my father was born in the West Derby district of Liverpool, so I read the book with particular interest. Steven Tucker has made a good job of uncovering the mysterious side of a part of the country that does not always get a good press, but which as this book demonstrates has a colourful and fascinating history behind it, and a more complex one than might be deduced from ignorantly dismissive stereotypes.
Supernatural Wales, by Alvin Nicholas
Supernatural Wales comes with a foreword by Lionel Fanthorpe, so expectations by the reader are naturally high. The result though is a mixed bag. It is organised as an A-Z, and unusually it has an index of places to aid the traveller, something that is too often missing in books organised thematically. Rather than black and white illustrations dropped in throughout the text, there is a separate section of colour images of sites photographed by the author. Caerphilly resident Alvin Nicholas is not a paranormal investigator but has a love of the Welsh countryside, working in heritage and nature conservation. He has mostly trawled secondary sources and includes ghosts, folklore, earth mysteries, accounts of little people, monsters, black dogs, big cats, dragons of course, UFOs and general forteana.
The book is quite short, but even so a lot of the space is taken up with cross-references telling the reader to look somewhere else in the volume. Most of the entries are fairly brief, and are not always relevant to the book’s title. For example, there is a section on alien big cats, which is useful, but a page on what to do if one happens to meet one, and how to collect evidence, seems out of place, as does a list of prehistoric periods from the Paleolithic onwards. Nor does a reference to An American Werewolf in London, merely because scenes were filmed in the Brecon Beacons, seem particularly relevant, nor is a page on types of UFO. These all feel like filler in a book that could do with a more substantial filling. On the other hand the Cardiff poltergeist case investigated by the SPR’s David Fontana is noted very briefly in passing, in the section on ghosts (poltergeists don’t merit one), but few details are given, and no references.
The blurb claims that this is ‘the definitive guide to Welsh ghosts, hauntings, monsters and mysteries’, but it is far from being that. Wales is not short on books about its paranormal aspects, so a new volume has to justify its existence. If I had to choose the best of the bunch, I’m afraid it definitely wouldn’t be this one. It’s not enough to live in, or have an interest in, a place to put together a book on ‘supernatural Wales’, or supernatural anywhere else.
Paranormal Devon, by Daniel Codd
Daniel Codd is an experienced compiler of local paranormal guides, and though not a resident of Devon his extensive research has resulted in a fascinating tour of this beautiful but often wild county, full as it is of mystery and historical interest. It has its share of bleak places, notably treacherous moorland, yet by contrast it has bustling urban areas. It is a place of great variety, and that is reflected in Codd’s book. He has a rich heritage to draw on, and he presents a wide range of ghost stories and fortean topics from earliest to recent times.
Some inclusions are predictable – there is the usual crop of pubs, but including one run by owners who are non-believers in the paranormal and do not welcome ghost-hunting groups, which must be a first. The longest section is on ghosts, but Devon has a lot more to offer; as Codd picturesquely puts it, ‘In some ways, stories of long-ago Devon can almost depict the county as a kind of Tolkien-esque land of fairytale sprites, ghouls, demons and mythical creatures’, and that’s before you get to the giants. What a great place for a holiday. Throw in the UFO sightings and a bit of sun and this is a paranormalist’s dream.
If you want creepiness on your visit you need look no further than the bleak moorlands. Conan Doyle didn’t when writing The Hound of the Baskervilles, and those canny marketeers talk of Dartmoor as ‘Baskerville country’, to cash in. That ‘gigantic hound’ is not alone and Devon has its fair share of black dogs, but they are far from being the only members of a peculiar menagerie: mystery animals abound, both supernatural and out-of-place (including alien big cats, most famously the Beast of Exmoor), so it is appropriate that the Centre for Fortean Zoology is based at Bideford.
Rather worryingly, the Devil seems to spend a lot of time in Devon, with or without whisht hounds when on Dartmoor. There are also a lot of wicked witches, and, not necessarily any more benign, there are pixies on Exmoor. Vampires and werewolves have found Devon a congenial place to settle, alongside its extensive population of pensioners. Even Spring-heeled Jack gets a mention, taking a break from the north-west. Naturally Devon has a strong maritime tradition, a pursuit that tends to breed its fair share of superstitions. Sea-related ghosts are covered and Codd notes that there are linkages between ghost stories and criminal activities, with fake ghosts used as a Scooby-Dooish cover for smuggling. There are legends connected to Sir Francis Drake, plus accounts of mermaids and sea monsters off the coast.
The book’s thematic structure makes it awkward to use as a guidebook for the visitor, but there are sections devoted to specific places. Berry Pomeroy has one, as does Exeter, but most references are scattered throughout the text, so the lack of an index is a drawback. Plympton is mentioned, but not its most famous son – Cyril Hoskin, better known as T. Lobsang Rampa. (I once made a pilgrimage to Plympton in homage to Rampa. There was nothing to show that the great lama had ever been there, in fact there was nothing much at all.) But Plympton is not Devon, and on the whole it is a great place to visit. While Codd concedes that the county contains even more strangeness than he had space to include, having his book in hand will add an extra dimension, whether one is there physically, walking its streets, lanes and moors, or sitting at home in an armchair dreaming of Glorious Devon.
As his subtitle indicates, Oliver Tearle looks at the ways in which fiction writers at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries utilised hallucinations in their work; more precisely he looks at how the phenomenon lent itself to those authors who were exploring uncanny themes. In this the Society for Psychical Research’s data collection and analyses are shown to have been particularly influential, even if authors often ignored its dry theoretical leanings to increase the dramatic effect of their stories. Ghostly fiction had been growing in popularity during the Victorian period, but the ghosts generally had lives, as it were, of their own. The ghost was being reconceptualised by the SPR, and if no consensus had been reached on its status, it had moved a long way from clanking chains to something more subtle, summed up in the title of Frank Podmore’s 1909 book (not used by Tearle), Telepathic Hallucinations: The New View of Ghosts.
Once these debates within the SPR began to percolate through the wider culture (something else Tearle does not mention is that versions of many of the articles which appeared in the SPR’s Proceedings were first published in the periodical press, thereby reaching a wide audience), there was a similar process of the ghostly shifting from something perceived as external to the viewer to it as an internal process. The resulting fictions, either based on or reacting to the SPR’s case studies and theoretical debates, played on the ambiguities of perception and the difficulties in discriminating between what is ‘in here’ and what is ‘out there’, capitalising on the tension between them to construct suspenseful narratives. There was still the possibility of an external cause, often leading the reader to hesitate between explanations, a hesitation that was not always resolvable one way or the other.
Tearle begins with an overview of how the ghost story relates to the fantastic, problems of interpretation, and the ways in which the notion of hallucination developed within literature during the nineteenth century, with examples of authors who utilised its dramatic potential. The heart of the book is a detailed discussion of five stories, relating each, where relevant, to other works by their authors. The stories are ‘Markheim’ (1885), by Robert Louis Stevenson; ‘A Wicked Voice’ (1887), by Vernon Lee; ‘The Friends of the Friends’ (1896), by Henry James (not the obvious choice); The Hill of Dreams (1907), by Arthur Machen; and ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ (1911), by Oliver Onions. In a coda, Tearle suggests that the indeterminacy in these stories helped to lay the foundations for literary modernism’s emphasis on subjectivity after the First World War, while hallucination’s connection to the ghost story loosened as literary hallucination came to signify a pathological state, but one not necessarily with paranormal overtones.
The importance of the SPR’s work for the writers under consideration makes it all the more disappointing that Tearle tends to rely on secondary sources rather than going directly to the pages of the Society’s Journal and Proceedings. His background is in literature, so that is perhaps understandable, but it does feel that his scrupulously close readings of the novels are not matched by an engagement with the psychical research literature. For example, there are only two references to the SPR’s 1894 ‘Report on the Census of Hallucinations’, which one might consider a key text, and both are referenced by secondary sources: Roger Luckhurst’s The Invention of Telepathy (2002) for one, and an essay in Ivor Grattan-Guinness’s edited collection published to celebrate the SPR’s centenary in 1982 for the other. The Report does not appear in the bibliography. There is a similar paucity of material put out by the SPR’s early researchers – no papers by Myers or Gurney, for example, though Phantasms of the Living is present. Moving outside the SPR, one would have thought that the 1894 book by a critic of the Census, Edmund Parish – Ueber die Trugwahrnehmung, translated and expanded as Hallucinations and Illusions: A Study of the Fallacies of Perception (1897), would have been worth at least a mention.
There is some sniffiness about psychical research present, often the case with scholars who use it as their subject matter but who want to demonstrate that they do not have sympathy with its methods and that they harbour no trace of gullibility. So we get Phantasms of the Living’s ‘quasi-scientific approach’ and several references to the ‘pseudoscience’ of psychical research in general and the SPR in particular. Most strikingly, we get Arthur Machen ‘looking forward to a more sophisticated understanding of the human mind than the Society [for Psychical Research] could offer.’ Yet a sustained reading of the papers of Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers indicates that, whatever one might think about their validity, they were certainly sophisticated, as attested by the resurgence of attention that Myers in particular has received in recent years.
Bewilderments of Vision is adapted from a PhD thesis, and its origin shows in the denseness of the prose, but reading it is worth the effort for the way it illuminates the relationship between the pioneers of psychical research as they grappled with issues of veridicality and hallucination in attempting to tease out the complexities of our understanding of life after death, and the writers who drew on the SPR’s publications as a resource. It will be of value both to those primarily interested in the literature of the period who want to deepen their knowledge of its intellectual context, and to those tracing the ways in which seemingly narrow and rarefied psychical research preoccupations had a broader effect on the culture. The latter group may chafe at the limited number of psychical research sources utilised, but Tearle achieves his aim of examining the role of hallucination in a number of texts, thereby enriching our understanding of them.
Much has been said about the First World War in this the centenary year of its start, but little, at least yet, about the role of Spiritualism in the conflict. Michael Tymn has an established reputation in examining aspects of survival of bodily death and his latest book anthologises five volumes (plus two sequels) which claim to consist of communications from those who passed over in the service of their country during the Great War. To the extracts he has contributed an introduction in which he outlines the nature of mediumship, difficulties posed by transmissions between planes, and the possible role of the medium’s subconscious in colouring the style of what they transmitted. There is commentary on each selection in which he describes the circumstances of the book’s production, and he draws out commonalities between the spirit messages. Gladys Osborne Leonard, one of the most successful mediums of the period, played a role in three of the books under consideration and Tymn discusses her mediumship, and her control ‘Feda’.
The chosen texts which have been excerpted are: Raymond or Life and Death and Raymond Revised (1916), by Sir Oliver Lodge; Thy Son Liveth: Messages from a Soldier to his Mother (1918), by Grace Duffie Boylan; Claude’s Book I (1918) and Claude’s Book II (1920), by L. Kelway-Bamber; Private Dowding (1917), by Wellesley Tudor Pole; and Rolf ’s Life in the Spirit World (c.1920), by ‘His Mother’. The five communicating spirits were, respectively, ‘Raymond’, ‘Bob’, ‘Claude’, ‘Thomas’, and ‘Rolf’. The first four had been killed during battle, while Rolf had died of pneumonia in a training camp. Method of communication was either trance mediumship or automatic writing.
The best known of these titles is Lodge’s Raymond, which was enormously popular both on first publication and in later years. Lodge was a President of the SPR, prominent in psychical research, and author of a number of books on the subject. The fame of this particular book has overshadowed others of a similar nature which appeared during and after the war. The crucial element of each is the survival of the personality after death. Fundamental to these accounts is the consolation provided to bereaved relatives that their loved ones did not face extinction upon death; in fact there is no death, merely a transition, and those left behind need not grieve because in due course all will be reunited.
In general, the deceased makes a seamless transition, feeling so little discomfort on passing that he cannot at first believe that he is dead. There follows a process in which the strangeness wears off as the individual adjusts to the new situation, which is nothing like the stereotypical images of heaven and hell. It is rather for most a kind of idealised facsimile of earth, Summerland, in which they can be active in pursuit of their interests, in particular helping those who have come over after them. They can also sometimes help those on earth, though in a selective way – ‘Bob’ says that he ‘nudged’ a soldier to keep him from harm, and when he asked why, he was told that the man he had helped was an inventor whose work would be of importance – which makes one wonder what criteria were used for such assistance when so much talent was wasted in the grinder of war. Even those whose unsatisfactory lives have consigned them to a lower plane have the wherewithal to leave it as they grow in spiritual understanding. The Afterlife is couched in Christian terms, and all have the expectation of progressing, as a result of spiritual growth, to higher planes of existence, difficult to describe in terms understandable to those left behind, as they move ever-closer to God.
If one takes these books at face value they appear to support the contention that the five individuals made the transition to the Afterlife with their personalities intact, and were reporting, under difficult circumstances, what their present situation was like. However, it cannot be assumed that, because the accounts supplied by the discarnate communicators have elements that cohere, this is cumulative evidence their personalities have survived and their descriptions are veridical. Spiritualists and mediums talked and wrote to each other, read the same literature. As a consequence they could develop a common conception of what life after death might be like which they then used as the framework for their own mediumistic productions. A common theme is the difficulty in conveying accurate, specific information (and the difficulties mean that it is futile to attempt a point-by-point comparison to try to show that the messages cannot be genuine, because there is no pretence that they are accurate in every detail). When attempting to interpret what they were producing, which might have been couched in symbolic terms, it is plausible that the mediums would have utilised a repertoire of existing knowledge, rather than say something contradicting the image of the Afterlife which already existed. Similarly, part of the assessment is the plausibility of the complex descriptions of the Afterlife that suggest a degree of familiarity unlikely from newcomers to that sphere, and the possibility exists that the medium is drawing on an existing set of assumptions that have been built up over the years, while Tymn considers the possibility that the ostensible communicator was sometimes a conduit for ‘higher’ spirits acting in harmony.
For the general reader this is a useful compilation, showing how such texts were popular at a difficult time when so many young men had been lost, their futures snatched away from them. Tymn is convinced of the reality of these messages and by inference that of the life beyond which they describe: ‘unless one simply does not want to believe in a spirit world, it is difficult to accept Raymond, Bob, Claude, Thomas, and Rolf, the chief communicators in this anthology, as anything other than spirits’ (p.xxx). Critics, on the contrary, may consider what they have to say as banal, stereotyped and more likely to originate in a collective exercise of wishful thinking by medium and sitters than from a discarnate entity.
It could be argued that if these accounts were genuine, there would be more interaction with enemy combatants, all superficial differences such as nationalism having been rendered irrelevant. Stories of fraternisation with Germans, Austro-Hungarians or Turks are notable by their absence; Claude is unusual in reporting a meeting between English and German soldiers who had killed each other: ‘The Englishman held out his hand. His erstwhile enemy, taking it, said, “What d— fools we have been!”’ On the other hand, the conflict was so raw that perhaps it would be too much to expect foes to embrace each other completely so soon afterwards, that was work for higher planes. Who can say?
As these differing interpretations suggest, it is unlikely that anybody will alter their views on the basis of the evidence presented here. What is important though is the lesson that how we progress in the Afterlife is determined partly by how we behaved in life. Our beliefs are less important than our actions, and while we are never damned, we will make slower progress if while alive we act in a way that does not abide by clear ethical values and respect for others. If we have led good lives, our spiritual evolution will be the more rapid. It is an assumption that can do no harm, whether or not the five sets of communications gathered here are veridical, and it is a welcome alternative to belief systems, built on ideological subservience, that at their extremes are permeated with violence. Raymond, Bob, Claude, Thomas and Rolf all show us violence’s ultimate pointlessness.
A review by Brian Steel appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
NB The SPR does not possess corporate views. All opinions expressed are the reviewer’s, not the Society’s.
Craig Weiler is well-known from his blog The Weiler Psi and he has brought together his thoughts on the state of scepticism and the ways in which it attempts to control the public discourse over topics it deems to be pseudoscience (acting as arbiters of what falls into that category). He uses as his main pegs two controversies: the long-simmering one over the distortions injected into Wikipedia pages that deal with psi-related matters; and the one which occurred when the TED organisation found itself in hot water for trying to drop from its website videos by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock after some critical voices raised questions about their scientific validity, a hasty and ill-thought out series of acts that showed it to be unprepared for the resulting backlash.
As well as these more obvious manifestations of the friction between the two sides Weiler covers some examples of what he considers to be sound parapsychological research - Ganzfeld, Sheldrake’s staring studies and RNG studies. On the other side he considers in depth the flaws of the Randi Million Dollar Challenge, an analysis which refutes those sceptics who wonder aloud why, if psychic abilities exist, nobody has claimed the money. He also looks at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the website The Skeptic’s Dictionary (actually more an encyclopaedia), the last a good example of the sort of one-sided account that the uninitiated can unfortunately assume to be authoritative when putting a term into a search engine. In giving these examples, plus others which exhibit the seamier side of scepticism, he paints a picture of distortion, evasion, cherry-picking, ignorance of the subject being criticised and frequently extreme contempt for the subject and its defenders. He also shows how efficient organisation allows pseudo-sceptics to use these resources so that they feed off each other, thereby creating a spurious sense of authority.
In the case of Wikipedia he shows how they have a lock on pages they consider pseudo-scientific, which they will maintain against any efforts to improve them by trying to include other perspectives. (As a basic example the Wikipedia page for Sheldrake currently begins: ‘Alfred Rupert Sheldrake is an English author, lecturer, and researcher in the field of parapsychology known for advocating his pseudoscientific “morphic resonance” concept.’ Try removing the word ‘pseudoscientific’ and see how long you wait before it is changed back.) Even worse, editors whose methods are considered unsound will find themselves first frustrated as they try to make edits, then characterised as trolls, and then blocked, their complaints dismissed as manufactured.
Weiler even had the surreal experience when trying his hand at editing of being accused of stealing the identity of the ‘real’ Craig Weiler and trying to make him ‘look bad’! Experts find themselves on a level playing field with non-specialist editors, their expertise considered to be no more valid (you can check out the examples by looking in the index under ‘nincompoops’). I feel sympathy because I too have had personal experience of the frustrations of dealing with Wikipedia, when C J Romer and I tried to improve the SPR page and found ourselves dealing with an anonymous editor who reversed every alteration we made. The aim seemed to be to maintain the page in an uninformative state, and despite a great deal of effort by us our opponent won by being more obsessive than we had the patience to be.
The TED fiasco showed how things can so easily get out of hand but it points, Weiler feels, to a changed landscape in the conflict. The TED administrators who caved in to critics and removed the talks that Sheldrake and Hancock had given at TEDxWhitechapel must have thought that the controversy would somehow resolve itself, or else when they did eventually intervene they would have approached it with greater subtlety instead of just charging in without assessing the implications of their actions. Even when the assumption that there would be no come-back was proved wrong and their critics kept up the pressure, they thought that simply quarantining the talks on the TED website, away from the ‘proper’ videos, would solve their difficulty. Instead they were wrong-footed at every step, and their lack of confidence in their position is clear from their silence when both Sheldrake and Hancock offered to debate with either TED boss Chris Anderson or the anonymous science board behind whom TED executives were hiding when trying to manage the crisis. Weiler provides a useful summary of the lengthy, convoluted and often ill-tempered debate that occurred mostly on web discussion boards and which one had to have a particular interest in to follow with any degree of energy.
However, TED’s shabby treatment of Sheldrake and Hancock wasn’t the end of it. Weiler climaxes the book with an account of the last-minute withdrawal of TED’s support for a TEDxWestHollywood event called ‘Brother Can You Spare a Paradigm’, an act even worse than the Whitechapel debacle. Sheldrake and Hancock weren’t put to any loss (in fact their reputations probably benefited), whereas after a year of discussions and preparation the organisers of the Hollywood event were informed that they could not use the name a mere two weeks before it took place because TED had concerns about some of the speakers who ‘didn’t meet their guidelines’. The resulting loss of sponsorship would have left the organiser Suzanne Taylor seriously out of pocket. Weiler reprints email exchanges between TED and Taylor which show that they thought she would just go away, whereas she held out for some compensation, and the show went ahead. Once more TED comes out of it very badly. One might usefully modify its proud boast - ‘ideas worth spreading’ to ‘as long as they don’t frighten the horses’. As a result of these scandals the TED brand was tainted and in the eyes of many has not fully recovered.
This is all useful information but when Weiler is being particularly combative his passion can run away with him: it isn’t helpful to say of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia that ‘much of what they do is fairly evil’, whatever one thinks of their approach. There is also scope for misunderstanding. He is talking throughout about pseudo-sceptics rather than the moderate sceptics who adhere to what scepticism should be, i.e. an open-minded and impartial enquiry. Unfortunately for brevity he usually simply refers to his target pseudo-sceptics simply as sceptics, and it may come to seem to the inattentive reader that he is lumping together all varieties of scepticism. Those not aware of the shades within that term might think that Weiler is treating them all equally as members of an unreasonable group out to put parapsychology down as an assault on reason. He is on safer ground when he refers to ideologues, those who consider that they do not need to look at any evidence that might be contrary to their views because they already know it is rubbish, as this encompasses a narrow, but disproportionately influential, section of sceptical opinion.
Weiler is probably over-optimistic about the prospects for a collapse of pseudo-scepticism. The positions are as polarised as ever, and it may be quite some time before any kind of consensus is achieved. In the meantime the same rhetorical tricks will be used to demean anyone considered to be purveying ‘woo’, and marginalise their arguments. Both sides are stuck in an ingroup/outgroup perspective in which it is easy to see those on the other side of the fence as sharing more characteristics than possessing ones that differentiate them. Such a situation is not conducive to balanced discussion.
An obvious question is, if those nasty pseudo-sceptics are so good at this, why aren’t the other side? Why moan about the unfairness, why not do something? One answer is that parapsychologists spend time doing parapsychology rather than editing Wikipedia pages, so the ideologues have greater leisure that they use to ensure they remain in control. There may also be personality variables at work which make them more efficient at repetitive tasks. In any case, there are moves to side-step the problem by setting up channels of information immune to this type of interference. One that is already running is WISE, the World Institute for Scientific Exploration, which is producing what it calls a WISEWiki, an alternative to Wikipedia that will use vetted contributors rather than allow a free-for-all. The SPR has a similar encyclopaedia idea on the drawing board, but with invited contributions.
Such resources will act as a more reliable counterpoint to what is currently available, though it is hard to see how they will ever beat Wikipedia in the search engine rankings and reach a large number of readers. Even so, the future is looking more promising for those who would like to see evidence stand on its own, rather than be filtered through biased lenses. While we wait for these initiatives to bear fruit, Weiler’s book is a valuable exposé which shows that what the casual browser might think is ideologically-neutral scientific information is anything but. In order to take full advantage of the links with which the book is crammed, it is one that is best read in its e-version.
Born in 1920, Dr Lawrence LeShan has had a long and very distinguished career in psychology and parapsychology especially with regard to research into psychic healing, psychic readings and mediumship. He holds a PhD in Human Development from the University of Chicago, and worked as a clinical and research psychologist for over 50 years, including six years as a psychologist in the US Army. He has authored over 150 papers and written 20 books on a wide range of topics including psychotherapy, parapsychology, meditation, medicine, mind-body medicine in the treatment of cancer and the psychology of Nazi racial philosophy. I can still remember reading The Medium, the Mystic and the Physicist (1974, reissued as Clairvoyant Reality in 1980) with total fascination.
With his mind as sharp as ever, LeShan has distilled his inquiry into the different ways that we interpret the world and how adoption of this or that interpretation as a World Picture determines the boundaries of what type of event(s) or experience(s) we consider to be possible or impossible. Each World Picture determines the ‘boggle threshold’ of believability in what is possible, beyond which point each of us will say ‘No matter what you present to me as evidence for claimed event X or experience Y it just could not have happened as described. There must be some other explanation because the universe just doesn’t work like that.’ What LeShan has proposed is that in the same way that the botanist Linnaeus created a taxonomy of living things by dividing them first into Kingdoms of Animal and Vegetable and then, for animals, into Realms of animals with backbones and animals without backbones, and then into genera and specie subdivisions, so a taxonomy of World Pictures can be drawn up, each representing a particular interpretation of reality that allows different degrees of freedom as to the possible. Each of us may adopt a different World Picture and therefore different boundaries of the possible, according to personal circumstance at the time such as danger, or an everyday acceptance of a World Picture advocated by our particular society as the correct norm for all ‘right thinking people’.
What he has proposed is that there are two fundamentally different Kingdoms of interpretative World Pictures distinguished by what he terms the observables appropriate to them. I will use italics to help distinguish between them with a brief summary according to my understanding.
KINGDOMS ONE (K1) and TWO (K2).
K1. QUANTITATIVE. This is the world picture of consensual external reality shared by science and practical commonsense concerning anything that can be detected, defined and measured using equations and formulae. It consists of quantifiable observables. K1 is centered upon an objective universe that exists in its own right and is therefore independent of ourselves as observers. In K1 an observable is real only if it has a quantifiable effect on other quantifiable entities. It deals with what, where, when, who and how. In K1 claims for the existence of psi and the possibility that subjective intention can have an objective effect are rejected as impossible in principle so impossible in practice. For K1 a quantifiable attic has an independent reality but a non-quantifiable ghost said to dwell within it has not.
K2, NON-QUANTITATIVE. This is the non-quantitative world picture of mental reality, the components of which are not physically detectable so are not physically measurable and therefore not amenable to equations and formulae. K2 is the world picture of a subjective universe that is separate and different from the consensual external universe consisting of non-quantifiable observables such as self, love, hate, imagination, morals, ethics ,images, thoughts, desires and emotions whether of humans, animals or other types of being. In K2 an entity is real if it can be conceived as in a claim that there is a ghost in the attic. In this reality a ghost or apparition can assume equal status with K1 objectivity. K1 deals with why?
These two Kingdoms can then be divided into two Realms each:
K1i. QUANTITATIVE DISCRETE as in separate objects such as mountains, houses, cars, planets, stars together with shape, size and distance.
K1ii. QUANTITATIVE CONTINUOUS as in hydrodynamics, weather patterns, electromagnetic fields, space and gravity. Also as in gas pressure where pressure, temperature and volume cannot be separated and measured independent of each other as they are mutually interactive.
The realms of K1i and K1ii are the realms of external reality as determined by our sensory systems together with observational extensions supplied by scientific equipment from electron microscopes to radio telescopes. In this world cause-and-effect, or its quantum equivalent of statistical probability of change, reign supreme. The underlying logic in K1 is induction from the observed particular to the general. An apple falling from the tree is a particular example of a general gravitational attraction between bodies that applies equally to all bodies across the universe according to mass and distance apart. In inductive logic the general remains conditional subject to modification as particular observations change. To use LeShan’s analogy, enjoying three or more excellent meals in restaurant X implies the generality that X is a consistently excellent restaurant. One poor meal revises that generality to X usually being an excellent restaurant and more poor meals revises that generality further to ‘We never go there now’.
K2i. NON-QUANTITATIVE DISCRETE as in individual selves and fictional characters in novels and plays, and in myths, sagas and fairy tales where each character is instantly recognisable because of their fixed characters and behaviour within the whole story of which they part. All such beings are separate observables. In fairytales stepmothers are wicked because that is what stepmothers are. First born Princes and Princesses find love and live ever after while Third born Princes go on quests because (apparently) that is what Third born Princes do. In K2i Nazi philosophy white Aryans were (and are) pure human beings whereas Jews were subhuman because that is what Jews were (and are). The same status of sub humanity applied (and applies) to gypsies and Slavs who could no more be decent human beings than, as LeShan observes, the Wicked Witch could change character and open a women’s refuge. In K2i individuals can demonstrate psi abilities such as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition.
K2ii. NON-QUANTATIVE CONTINUOUS as in the flow of emotions, memories, thoughts and in transcendental states of Cosmic Consciousness, Satori, Nirvana where individual minds merge into the continuous Oneness of One Mind in which, as LeShan says, you are no longer your brother’s keeper but are as one with him. K2i and K2ii World Pictures often interpret the world from a mythic viewpoint.
In K2 the logic is deductive from a given general which is held to remain true despite particulars running counter to it. If the chosen general is a monotheistic Almighty God then the lucky survivor of a disaster will thank God for personally ensuring his or her survival but the priest will exonerate that same God from any blame concerning the unlucky non survivors because ‘He/She works in mysterious ways’. God still remains Almighty. K2 deals not with K1 ‘how to’ practicalities, as in catching and eating food, but the ‘why to’ of using K1 because, in this case, we need to eat to stay alive. K2 often deals with questions ‘why’ through the language of symbolism where flag and country are as one.
In a peacetime World Picture of K1 and K2 all agree that we are as one with another despite holding different viewpoints and values and being different nationalities and sexes. Concepts of Good and Evil are open to interpretation, tomorrow will be very much like today, representative committees are set up and K1 practicalities chosen to implement recommendations for the common good. If war breaks out then for both sets of combatants the World Picture of K2 will change completely as each side now redefines itself as representing Good (us) and Evil (them), invokes God to fight on our side to help defeat them, and agree that tomorrow will be very different from today depending upon who wins. In K2 peacetime killing another person of whatever nationality, race or creed is a crime, but in K2 war time killing as many of the enemy as possible, whether members of their armed forces or the women and children who obviously support them is not a crime. In fact, not killing them when you have the opportunity to do so might become a punishable offence. Each opposing K2 now employs every K1 means at its disposal in its attempt to defeat the other.
LeShan quotes as an example of an irreconcilable clash between K1 realities and K2 realities the occasion when Ehud Barak, then prime Minister of Israel, attempted during the 2000 Camp David Summit held under President Bill Clinton to end the blood-stained years of Palestinian-Israeli conflict by offering to return large tracts of conquered land to the Palestinians in exchange for an agreement for peaceful cooperation. On behalf of the Palestinians Yasser Arafat rejected the offer and hostilities such as suicide bombings, rocket attacks and mass stone throwing was renewed. As LeShan interprets their respective taxonomic positions, Israel was using the World Picture of K1 in which it was willing to give up a large area of land as a reasonable basis for K1 type negotiations and expected the Palestinians to respond in the same way, whereas Yasser Arafat was using a K2 World Picture of absolutism in which the Israelis, by definition, were treacherous, evil and would never give up anything unless weakened by war. Therefore their offer should be rejected in favour of inflicting more death and destruction, thus weakening them further and maybe even destroying Israel completely. Each was speaking past each other using different World Pictures without even realising it. LeShan says that it is much more difficult to move from a K2 World Picture of mythic absolutism where the other side are ‘terrorists’ or whatever, to a K1 World Picture, but the latter may more easily understand the former and find a way out by proposing that both sides should combine to help a neutral entity in desperate need, such as starving children, which may then lead to a relaxing of a K2 mythical absolute. I am not so sure that this proposal would be as K1-neutral as it sounds. For those with an absolute K2 World Picture, surviving children of opposite nationalities or faiths would represent a future threat.
LeShan describes at a personal level how a person may adopt realities implicit in different World Pictures as appropriate to a particular situation. When Mr Smith is running his engineering business K1 is his World Picture in which solutions are quantitative and it is no use wishing to God or anyone else that the steel rods delivered this morning were stronger because even divine wishing won’t make them so. At home he reads that there is a local epidemic of encephalitis amongst 4 year olds and hears his daughter suddenly crying upstairs. As he races upstairs he converts from K1 to a K2i World Picture in which he prays to God and is willing to make any bargain with Him to save his daughter because, unlike strengthening steel rods, this is something that God really can do. He finds that his daughter has had a bad dream so he comforts her, saying that she will be alright because they are together in a universe where love is all and nothing bad can happen to them, whereas in K1 he knows they will both die no matter what they do. Later that evening he goes dancing with his wife; on this evening something very special happens and he moves into a K2ii state of reality in which he, his wife, the music and the dance all become as one with no beginning and no end as everything flows together.
As LeShan points out, how consciousness is defined and explained depends upon which World Picture, and therefore which observables, has been chosen to examine it. From a K1i neuroscience perspective consciousness is a phenomenon that is generated by synaptic activity within the brain, is localised within the brain and dies with the brain, so consciousness differs in degree but not in kind. From a K2i perspective consciousness is an entity that can be correlated with brain activity but exists in its own space, has totally different properties, and may continue to exist after brain death. It is different in kind not degree. In a K1i into a K2ii perspective each individual consciousness may be analogous to a holographic pixel in the screen of a universal Mind (my interpretation here, not LeShan’s). In this book LeShan offers a huge amount of reasoning and examples to support this taxonomic approach which, as he says, is a work in progress, and I do recommend it as a very stimulating read.
An odd title that might put one in mind of the film Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, or Beetlejuice’s Handbook for the Recently Deceased, or the Spiritualist literature which describes conditions in Summerland. But as the subtitle suggests, and the Introduction points out, despite the title’s flippancy the contents are serious, and Tricia Robertson lucidly presents evidence for psychical phenomena drawn both from her own personal experience and from the wider literature. Robertson is a Vice-President and past President of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research who has been investigating the paranormal for the best part of thirty years, both alone and in company with the late Professor Archie Roy, so she has a wide range of material upon which to call.
The book is aimed at the general public and those new to the field, but experienced researchers will find it of interest as well. It is divided into chapters covering: apparitions; poltergeist activity; mixed ghost/poltergeist cases; mediumship; drop-in communicators; reincarnation and healing, the last focusing on Nina Knowland and Gary Mannion. Each chapter is short and written in an accessible style. A number of the cases are famous – Enfield and the R101 for example – and some which she investigated have since become well known; but a few taken from Robertson’s case files will be new to most readers.
One that has been publicised with which she was involved with Archie Roy was that of ‘Captain Bob’, in which an airline captain, Robert Hambleton-Jones, arrived at Glasgow airport as a passenger from an overseas trip and spotted an old flying colleague, ‘Jack’, whom he had not seen for some months. The two chatted before Jack said he had to go and dashed to the end of a check-in line. The following day Bob saw an obituary for Jack and learned that he had died in Edinburgh two days before, aged only 38. Even odder, at about the same time that the two spoke at the airport, the body of an airline pilot was in the airport, being transferred from Edinburgh to be taken to Jack’s home town. Another case that has attracted a lot of interest is an instance of possible reincarnation, in which a young Glaswegian boy, Cameron Macaulay, said that he recalled a previous life on Barra, an island in the Outer Hebrides. The media attention the case has achieved includes a documentary which took him (back) to Barra. While some of Cameron’s statements about his alleged previous life could not be verified, others were.
The chapter on mediumship throws up the issue of how little we can rely on a common-sense view of the limits of the possible when evaluating extraordinary claims. In the section giving examples of the work of medium Gordon Smith, Robertson says:
‘I have also heard him inform people that they have a newspaper cutting in a handbag or wallet with a photograph of a specific person in the cutting. Often he also provides the date of the newspaper cutting and the recipient has to check to see if that is correct.’
That is certainly a remarkable feat, but no more so than the performances of mentalist Joseph Dunninger, and he was adamant that he did not possess paranormal ability or utilise confederates. It must be added that sceptics, as Robertson notes in a list of the objections that they make to paranormal claims, will dismiss a medium with ‘A magician could do the same’, but simply because what Smith did might resemble what Dunninger did, one cannot assume that they employed the same methods, and derived their information from the same source. What it does mean is that one cannot assume that because a medium can produce precise and startling information it has to have a paranormal source, when one cannot easily say what the limits to obtaining it by normal means are.
There is a surprising omission in the book. Robertson was involved in PRISM, Psychical Research Involving Selected Mediums, which operated from 1994-2008. It involved some of the biggest names in psychical research in their time: Roy of course, but also Arthur Ellison, Maurice Grosse, David Fontana, Ralph Noyes and Montague Keen. This association is barely mentioned, as is the work that Robertson carried out with Roy which they reported in three articles in the SPR’s Journal. They investigated twenty-seven mediums over a period of five years, examining the mediums’ statements statistically to see if they had provided information specific to sitters, or if it could apply to anyone. This mammoth undertaking would have been worth a much lengthier discussion. It is also worth pointing out that the Maxwell Park case, which was investigated in part by Archie Roy, did not actually take place in Maxwell Park in south Glasgow, but at Balornock on the far side of the city. Roy had muddied the waters in A Sense of Something Strange (1990) by omitting to mention that Maxwell Park was a pseudonym, and this mislocation was perpetuated in the literature until corrected by Geoff Holder in his Poltergeist over Scotland.
These minor caveats aside, the book contains case studies which show that such experiences are commoner than one might suppose. Robertson has examined them with a great deal of empathy, describing ordinary people coping in strange situations. At a time when psychical research seems in danger of losing its way, she has shown that useful investigations can still be done and valuable data collected.
Steve Volk (not to be confused with English screenwriter Stephen Volk) is an American investigative journalist who, having experienced strange poltergeist-like phenomena in his childhood home which resisted normal explanations, decided to investigate the paranormal and the range of attitudes held towards it. In Fringe-ology he acts as participant observer, conducting dispassionate enquiries with the same attempt at objectivity as when covering any other story. His investigations are wide-ranging – or a miscellaneous mixed bag the contents of which do not quite gel satisfactorily, depending on your starting point.
Chapters discuss extra-sensory perception; Stuart Hameroff and theories about consciousness and the mind-brain relationship; the sad story of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her work on near-death experiences and death-bed visions, and how her reputation was damaged by her association with dubious characters later in her career; ghosts and poltergeists; a case study of a small town in Texas which became briefly famous as a UFO hotspot, focusing on how the townsfolk handled the situation; spirituality, prayer and meditation; lucid dreaming; the possible paranormal aspect of Allan Botkin’s ‘Induced After-Death Communication’ technique, and much else. Volk interviewed a large number of people, some very well known in the field, and presents their ideas lucidly, even when talking about such arcane subjects as quantum mechanics and microtubules.
The aim is to try to make sense of what is going on and chart a way forward that acknowledges the radically different conclusions reached by ‘sceptics’ and ‘believers’. This highlights consensus-building to find a middle way between two sides that often appear irreconcilable, a kind of ‘tertium quid’ if you will, to borrow the phrase Edmund Gurney used for one of his books (Gurney’s subtitle, ‘Chapters on various disputed questions’, would have suited Fringe-ology as well). During his research Volk saw intellectual communities largely isolated from each other looking at the same subject from different standpoints, reflexive emotion all too often taking the place of reason, each side speaking but not listening and thereby failing to engage in fruitful dialogue.
He found that far from having a monopoly on the forces of neutral logic, the supposedly supremely rational sceptics are as invested emotionally in their beliefs as those in the opposite camp. As he points out, one just needs to look at a typical copy of Skeptical Inquirer: he quotes Elizabeth Mayer likening it to a ‘fundamentalist religious tract’. (The problem with using the sceptic/believer shorthand is that it suggests a binary divide between objective investigators versus credulous types who rely on belief and intuition rather than an assessment of the evidence, when the situation is more complex.) The media compound the situation by unhelpfully trivialising stories, seeking opinions at the extreme ends of the spectrum in a bid to create controversy rather than examining a story in a nuanced way.
Volk notes the low tolerance we have for ambiguity that creates a narrowing of our vision: we see what we expect to see, interpret it to fit in with existing schema, and downplay alternatives lacking conformity with our view of the world. According to his analysis the bit of our brain at fault is the amygdala, which once held huge importance for our survival by processing potentially dangerous stimuli. Now, in modern civilisation, it is mostly confined to mundane matters yet it still generates an emotionally-laden defensiveness towards ideas that we find uncomfortable. The result is an inclination to seek confirmatory data, reinforcing our beliefs as an integral part of our self-identity while ignoring anything that contradicts them, because contradiction creates anxiety and our cognitive processes strive to reduce anxiety. Reduction is always easier by rejecting conflicting information than by attempting to combine it with an established outlook.
Volk’s key point is that broadening perspectives will help us to arrive at a more profound understanding. That’s the theory anyway. In practice he concedes it is hard to achieve such a delicate balance, especially as there is a propensity in society to be dismissive of anything associated with what he terms ‘paranormal taint’. Despite these difficulties, we can keep looking, and it is important not to stop asking questions because the worst thing we can do is assume that we are in possession of all the answers. What we need to appreciate is that our knowledge is always provisional and subject to amendment in the light of fresh evidence. We have to retain a balance between an open mind and a careful evaluation of the evidence. Doing so will allow a greater tolerance of diverging opinions, even when we are uncertain about their relative merits and the amygdala is sending frantic signals that it isn’t very happy about it.
A desire for a rapprochement between the two sides in the dispute is admirable, but it is fairly certain that Volk will appeal more to what he calls the believers than he will to what he doesn’t call the pseudo-sceptics, because their situations are not symmetrical. If you think that paranormal forces are active in the word you will be happy to see scientific principles underpin them and so will welcome an attempt at synthesis, co-opting what you need; whereas if you repudiate the possibility of the paranormal you will already consider science a sufficient method for comprehending the world with no necessity for the addition of non-scientific elements (or woo-woo if you want to be really contemptuous). The difficulty can be seen in the respective approaches to quantum mechanics, an area to which Volk devotes a fair amount of space.
Further, I’m not sure the book’s subtitle, ‘How I tried to explain away the unexplainable – and couldn’t’, makes sense because if something is unexplainable then it can’t be explained, or explained away for that matter, but lies outside rational enquiry. Rather, the intention is to examine the unexplained, which may turn out to be unexplainable; but may eventually be explained and become part of our standard world view. Volk is clearly aware of this, which suggests that the subtitle is the result of carelessness rather than some epistemological position on the subjects under scrutiny.
There is too a problem lumping so many disparate subjects together and then sliding from psychical to spiritual to religious as if they are all on same level. This is apparent in his account of the 2009 Parapsychological Association convention at which Charles Tart made many of the delegates fidget at his talk of spirituality and God. Volk shifts glibly between a discussion of topics like exceptional human abilities and whether the personality survives bodily death to talking about religion. But matters which are the subjects of scientific investigation (such as psi and survival) do not necessitate a religious, or for that matter spiritual, underpinning because they are not matters of faith, which is why ‘believer’ is an inappropriate term. Having said that, Volk’s open-handedness makes it difficult to disagree with him and not suspect some illiberal activity on the part of one’s amygdala to be the cause. If I think that, for argument’s sake, spirituality does not provide a useful way of understanding reality, or NDEs cannot provide strong evidence for survival of bodily death, am I closing down debate and excluding the possibility that their supporters might be on to something?
Fringe-ology is clearly written and covers a large amount of ground in an accessible non-technical manner and would make a useful introductory reader. A drawback to the breadth is that Volk cannot deal with any topic in great depth, but there is an extensive reading list for further exploration If he can help in some measure to make the debates (which can be intensely hostile) less heated and more civil, he will have done a useful service to those engaged in exploring the world of, to use another of his favourite expressions, ‘hoo-ha’. It’s either that or find a way to perform amydgalectomies on the entire population to make it more tolerant of contradictory opinions.
A separate review by Robert A Charman, appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, July 2013.
Shirley Hitchings has collaborated with James Clark, an established author of south London ghost guides, to provide an account of what looked like poltergeist phenomena in her Battersea home in the 1950s and 60s. They have been fortunate in having the case files that a dedicated researcher, Harold Chibbett, gathered throughout the period of activity. Chibbett’s papers have been supplemented by notes made by the family at the time, and Shirley’s own recollections.
At the beginning of 1956 the downstairs at No 63 Wycliffe Road Battersea, a rented property, was occupied by Walter (Wally) Hitchens, 47, who worked as a tube driver; his wife Catherine (Kitty), 51, who was disabled by chronic arthritis, and their daughter Shirley, just turned 15. Upstairs lived Wally’s mother Ethel, 73, a retired nurse and midwife, plus a 20-something relative, ‘Mark’ (the only pseudonym of the participants). It was an extended family, with Wally’s two sisters living in the same road, which was in an unremarkable working-class neighbourhood. Ethel was a dominant matriarch, Walter by contrast seems to have been rather unassertive. The downstairs setup was unusual because even though Shirley was 15, she still shared her parents’ bedroom, the door of which was locked at night because of a fear of Shirley sleepwalking. This inevitably meant that she had little privacy.
The strange events began innocuously in January 1956: Shirley found a key on her bed that nobody in the family recognised, and which did not fit any lock in the house. This was shortly followed by tapping sounds which seemed to be connected to Shirley, but which she did not appear to be causing herself, followed by objects found moved to a different place. These low-level events might have petered out if ignored but Wally talked about it at work, which led to an offer to visit by a fellow train driver who was also a part-time medium. They held a séance at which the medium admitted he could not make contact with any entities, but afterwards the taps and bangs steadily got worse. The noises started following Shirley to work, forcing her to leave the job. Someone had the idea of trying to communicate with whatever was making the knocking sounds and they received replies which indicated an intelligence.
Soon after, the goings-on started attracting public attention (an attempted ‘exorcism’ by the medium at which the police turned up didn’t help), and coverage by the local media. The entity was christened Donald, and Donald became a dominant element in the house for some years (another claiming to be James Dean manifested for a while). As usually happens with these things, media interest waned, but investigation was taken up by Chibbett who gained the family’s trust and remarkably stayed with the story until the end, even writing a book that he was never able to get published.
Messages developed from taps to written correspondence. ‘Donald’ eventually identified himself as Louis-Charles, the short-lived Louis XVII, around whom rumours swirled that he had escaped captivity during the French Revolution, rather than dying a prisoner at the age of 10 as the official records had claimed. Donald said that he had drowned while en route to exile in England, a fate of which history was unaware. The patrician Donald took control of the house, even sending out Christmas cards. Enormous efforts were made to keep him sweet in case he created problems for the family, which regularly included the threat of arson.
Meanwhile ‘Chibb’, as Donald called him, made heroic efforts attempting to square the impossible task of verifying Donald’s statements. The problem, interpreting Donald’s hilariously garbled Franglais, was that he kept changing his story, and tying himself up in contradictions. Chibbett must be given enormous credit for sticking with the business despite all its frustrations, even though it seems likely that by giving it so much attention he was assisting in its perpetuation.
‘Donald’ does not hang together as a credible personality and the most likely choices seem to divide between a drop-in communicator having a laugh or a living individual taking bits of information from encyclopaedias and TV and radio programmes and cobbling it all together, throwing whatever came to hand into the mix, and being evasive or silent when attempts were made to pin the claims down. On balance it feels like someone with a smattering of historical knowledge was trying to play a part. Crude it may have been, but it served its purpose. However, by the time Shirley married, in 1965, Donald’s presence was waning. She left her parents’ house, and in 1967 left London. Donald, no longer serving any purpose, gradually disappeared, and had gone for good by 1968.
Shirley comes across as a glamour-struck family girl, not particularly well educated, immature, rather sheltered and socially naive, with cultural aspirations but lacking the motivation to persevere with them. Instead she found herself shuttled into tedious low-skilled jobs in which she had no interest. Born on 18 December 1940, by January 1956 she had already left school, so without taking any qualifications, and was working as a dress cutter in the alterations department of a store in the West End. This rather mechanical work may have been stifling to someone who had artistic aspirations.
What emerges is how Donald’s demands work to Shirley’s advantage. Through his offices she is able to move out of her parents’ room into one of her own (and sleep walking isn’t a problem); she is prevented from taking jobs that she doesn’t want to do, but instead is given carte blanche to stay at home dressing dolls, justified as expressing an interest in costumes; at his ‘suggestion’ she is given money for clothes and make-up and is able to adopt a more fashionable hairstyle. In short she is able to lead a leisurely life in marked contrast to most other girls of her age and class. She even gets to appear on BBC television. People visit and pay attention to her, and Donald takes a keen interest in the welfare of young men who might be of interest also to a teenage girl, notably the actor Jeremy Spenser who is an obsession of Donald’s. Donald is able to make negative remarks about Shirley’s family, and especially her grandmother – who was particularly victimised by the phenomena to the extent that she moved out for a spell – that Shirley might have thought but could not say openly.
Generally Donald acted as a proxy to ensure that household affairs were ordered for her convenience. He even dictated when the family went to bed. Remarkably Shirley’s parents went along with it for a quiet life, though Ethel evidently had her own suspicions. Her relationship with Shirley was poor, to the extent that on 9 July 1957 the old lady tried to hit her granddaughter with her stick as she suspected the teenager of stealing 5/- from her. The result was a row between Ethel and Kitty, presumably Kitty defending Shirley. Ethel’s room was then turned upside down twice, on 13 and 24 July, and one has to wonder whether her death from a stroke on 27 July was a direct result of the stress.
Chibbett concluded that Donald was a spirit, not a hoax or some manifestation of Shirley’s subconscious. Andrew Green, a much better known psychical researcher than Chibbett, visited and made himself unpopular by focusing on Shirley’s mental state, presumably not telling the family what they wanted to hear, but also by giving the impression to Wally and Kitty that he looked down on the family for being working class. His conclusion was that the raps and knocks were externalised creations of Shirley’s psyche, in tandem with Donald’s historical scenario as her fantasising (which would explain its lack of coherence), and that the letters and notes were written by her in a dissociated state. That is claiming a lot for Shirley’s subconscious powers, and even Green was mystified by hearing knocks coming from locations some feet from where he and Shirley were standing.
And it is true that while Shirley was the focus, there seems to have been a general view that she could not have hoaxed all of the phenomena. Even so it is possible that she hoaxed some, despite her protestations to the contrary, while other events, particularly after she moved out, were ordinary everyday occurrences which were misinterpreted by family and visitors. In the chaotic atmosphere that Donald’s presence was creating it would not have been surprising if others jumped to unwarranted conclusions. Or it is possible that Shirley had some help. An obvious candidate is Kitty, who may have experienced a lack of fulfilment, frustrated by her disability and made unhappy by her fall into poverty as a girl, with a domineering mother-in-law upstairs and sister-in-laws down the road to outnumber her. Hoaxing some of the events may have acted as much of a release for her as for her daughter. This is all supposition, but has more plausibility than the reality of Donald as ‘he’ presented himself.
James Clark must have felt somewhat constrained in what he could say by having Shirley as co-author, but he has done a clear job setting out the narrative. He does not, and cannot at this remove, reach any definitive conclusions, but he does set out the possibilities, from Donald as a discarnate entity or entities, either of Louis-Charles or a drop-in communicator, to Green’s idea of the poltergeist as a psychokinetic creation of Shirley’s subconscious, to fraud (the last naturally dealt with somewhat cautiously). The result is a fascinating case study, though one has to wonder why Shirley, who owns the files upon which the book is based, agreed to it being written. An epilogue refers to her disinclination to rake the matter up in later years after she and her husband left London, so one has to wonder what has changed to cause her to want the matter raked over now.
As is the way of such cases one can never say for sure what went on in 63 Wycliffe Road for a decade, and it may be a massive injustice to point the finger at Shirley, but, using that handy razor, it seems more likely that she was actively – and consciously – involved in perpetuating the situation that brought misery and massive inconvenience to her relatives than that Donald was the surviving consciousness of a member of the French royal family.
Clark has painted a picture of a maturing teenager living in a tense, overprotective, family at what was a rather dreary time to be growing up in south London, in a cold decaying and soon-to-be-demolished house, in which the best room was kept unoccupied for the occasional visitor, a period of conflict between the strict mores of the past and their loosening with the growth of youth culture in the late 1950s. It was a pivotal moment in society, and one likely to create friction in a traditional household where opportunities for a bit of fun were limited. What was a girl to do?
2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (the Metropolitan Railway Company opened the Metropolitan Line between Paddington and Farringdon Street on 10th January 1863), so it is apposite that Polar Media has reissued the documentary ‘Ghosts on the Underground’, first broadcast on Channel 5 in 2005. Beautifully shot, it captures the eerie quality that arises from the disjuncture between the Tube’s image of utilitarian busyness and its eeriness when deserted. Ezra Pound may have been thinking of the Paris Metro, but his words are even more relevant to London:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.
In this alienated, atomised, world we are all apparitions to each other. With its tracking shots along deserted corridors, roaming ticket halls and escalators as well as the places the public never sees, the film amply demonstrates the network’s uncanniness. Think what it must be like for the employees who look after the deserted stations and track at night. It takes a strong nerve to go alone into tunnels, with no-one else – at least no-one living – around.
According to the stories presented here, there seem to be three main sources of ghosts in the Underground: those of workers killed in its construction and maintenance; those whose remains, long buried, were disturbed during excavations; and those of passengers, some murdered, some suicides, some the victims of accidents. The film, soothingly narrated by Paul McGann, takes us on a tour of a few of these stories, recounted by those to whom they occurred. They are down to earth Londoners, not it would seem given to flights of fancy, who struggle to understand what happened. Given the limited time available to the filmmakers, and the emphasis on including eyewitness accounts, this has to be a small proportion of all the anecdotal evidence available, but it is a useful sample.
Experiences have ranged from a sense of presence, hearing footsteps, and seeing the evidence of invisible feet sinking into ballast in front of the witness’s eyes (but would cindery ballast hold the imprint of a footstep?), to seeing apparitions and even chatting with them on occasion. In one peculiar instance, an employee investigating a report that someone was on the platform at night, when the station was closed, failed to see anything unusual even though his colleague in the control room said there was a person standing next to him on the platform, visible on his CCTV monitor. Occasionally corroboration is supplied by different individuals, unknown to each other, filing similar reports, thereby strengthening their evidential value.
One of most unnerving experiences, which was auditory, happened to an employee who was in his office when he heard what he took to be children crying followed by screams and sounds of general mayhem, lasting for 10-15 minutes. This was at Bethnal Green, which had been the site of the 1943 disaster in which 173 people, mostly women and children, were killed on the staircase, the largest loss of civilian lives in a single incident during the war. Customers are not immune as witnesses: passengers on the Bakerloo have reported seeing a person sitting beside them reflected in the window opposite, though the seat next to them is vacant.
As well as first-hand experiences by employees past and present, there were contributions by two well known researchers, both sadly no longer with us. The main one was Vic Tandy, who died in July 2005 (the same month as the 7 July Islamist bombings in London, three out of four of which were detonated aboard tube trains). Tandy appeared at several points discussing infrasound, the theory that very low-frequency sounds, below the level of human hearing, can generate a range of physiological effects that may be misinterpreted as paranormal. (For more on Tandy’s work on infrasound see Tandy V. & Lawrence, T. (1998). ‘The Ghost in the Machine’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62, 360-364; Tandy, V. (2000), ‘Something in the Cellar’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 129-140.)
While infrasound remains a possible factor in generating emotional states that may then lead to a particular interpretation, it is clear that such an explanation cannot account for the full extent of phenomena described in the documentary, and raises the question why, if infrasound is ubiquitous in the system, sightings are not more common. Inhibition in coming forward with a story cannot be the sole explanation. Tandy also shows that at Bethnal Green loud voices from the street can carry into the station, perhaps explaining the experience reported there, but as recounted, it seemed to be of an entirely different order to hearing a distant ruckus in the street.
The other investigator interviewed was Maurice Grosse, who died in 2006. He was on discussing the ‘Bruno Hauptmann’ photograph. The figure in the electric chair which appears in a family snapshot taken in a carriage in 1983 corresponds to a photograph of a waxwork at Madame Tussauds of Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted of the murder of Charles’ Lindbergh’s son, though with the addition of sparks coming from the hands to symbolise the act of electrocution. The photographer, Karen Collett, was interviewed, as was an expert from what was then the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, now the National Media Museum. He examined the 110-format negative and ruled out tampering with the image.
Maurice used to show this one regularly in his slide shows of anomalous photographs. It always looked like a poster seen through the window, though one remarkably well lined up inside the window frame, which argued against an accidental conjunction. Yet Madame Tussauds say they have no knowledge of such a poster and nobody has produced a copy since. The biggest question remains unanswered – if one were to expend time and effort on a hoax, why create one which looks exactly like a poster seen through the window? Given these uncertainties over the image’s status and meaning, while one can see why the filmmakers wanted to include a tangible piece of evidence, rather than rely on eyewitness statements, this is not really strong support for the thesis that the Underground is haunted.
Since 1863 the network has grown enormously, and continues to evolve, in a sense a giant organism pulsing beneath the feet of Londoners (it is a mark of our preoccupation with this subterranean aspect that we easily forget how much of it is actually above ground). It is no accident that two horror films set there (Death Line and Creep) are effective chillers; not forgetting the role Hobbs End tube station played in Quatermass and the Pit. The London Underground is an amalgam of the strange and the prosaic which is always ready to surprise.
According to the documentary, ghost reports are increasing, a phenomenon it suggests is linked to the number of bodies disturbed during construction work. It concludes that the Underground may be ‘possibly one of the most haunted places in the world.’ It certainly has the power to evoke strong emotions, and these are long-lasting, in one’s own lifetime and perhaps beyond. Travelling on the system shields one from the stimulations of ordinary life, perhaps creating the conditions required to perceive ghosts around us, or alternatively allowing the imagination freer rein than it enjoys in the workaday world above. Mind the gap.