Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
This special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies was published to mark the centenary of William James’s death in 2010 and is dedicated to David Fontana (1934-2010), SPR president during 1995-8 and vigorous promoter of transpersonal psychology. This is especially appropriate as James was himself SPR president 1894-5. Guest edited by Allan Combs, the issue contains a wide variety of articles of mostly excellent quality which will act as a useful springboard for anyone with an interest in the development of psychology in the nineteenth century.
It examines the state of consciousness studies at that time, focusing largely on the work of James, and shows the continuing relevance of ideas developed during the period, such as those on the subconscious, altered states of consciousness, extra-sensory perception and survival of bodily death. While not specifically designed to air issues related to psychical research, the fact that the subject features so extensively indicates the importance of the SPR’s (and the American SPR’s) first two decades in the formation of psychology as a discipline. Collectively, the papers indicate the influence of psychical research on the development of psychology, a neglected past which is at last being rectified in recent scholarship examining the contributions and impact of such thinkers as James, Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers. (Eugene Taylor is surely exaggerating though in referring to Myers as “long forgotten”. He has not exactly been missing from the SPR’s publications during the twentieth century, and the SPR ran a series of ‘Frederic W H Myers Memorial Lectures’ for many years from 1929. Mainstream psychology is not the world.)
After a foreword by the editor there is a commentary by Taylor which is helpful in highlighting some of the topics discussed (and his conclusion is that James at the time of his death was still fifty years ahead of where we are now!). Carlos Alvarado and Stanley Krippner examine dissociation through the work of James on mediumship, hypnosis and debates that were circulating around secondary personalities. G. William Barnard writes crisply about Henri Bergson’s theory of consciousness from Time and Free Will in 1889 to The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932). Although Bergson’s ideas had much in common with James’s, despite his celebrity during his lifetime he is much less well known (at least to Anglophone audiences and outside psychical research) than he should be, and it is to be hoped that Barnard will stimulate fresh interest in this underrated thinker. Jonathan Bricklin, in a complex and wide-ranging paper, deepens the discussion of James’s philosophy by examining his “neutral monism” (with which Taylor disagrees as a “colossal misreading” of James) and the ‘mystical’ question of whether consciousness is pre-existing and needs merely to be uncovered, as opposed to being generated.
Combs himself provides an overview of ‘Neurology and the Mind at the Turn of the [twentieth] Century’, showing how debates then were surprisingly similar to those of today, such as differences between views of mind which were pitched at a neurological level and those focusing on properties of consciousness, and how such differences affected treatment strategies. Combs, Krippner and Taylor combine to look at the mind as a “chaotic attractor”, and ask whether there is awareness outside attention. They examine thinkers such as James, Myers, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Pierre Janet, who all discussed dissociation, a phenomenon which indicated awareness outside attention, and who assisted in establishing where the boundaries of conscious awareness were. The situation was much more complex than historians of the intellectual life of the period have often assumed, and Sigmund Freud has in the past been given undue prominence in this fertile mix.
Arthur Hastings in a brief note ponders the type of radical transformation that happens like a switch being flipped, for example religious conversion. James addressed this phenomenon in The Varieties of Religious Experience, and an understanding of the process is still very relevant. Unfortunately the topic is not here given the dissection it deserves and does not address possible negative consequences of such radical transformations (for example in cults). An essay by Gary Schwartz examines alleged mediumistic communication with James, among others, and is out of place here. Eugene Taylor asks “Who Was Frederic William Henry Myers?”, an addition to the literature on a figure whose significance is being increasingly recognised. Taylor notes resonances between the study of consciousness in the nineteenth century and in the present, and acknowledges that the downgrading of Freudian views has opened up a space for a proper evaluation of other approaches, such as that of Myers (though one might add that it has been slow in coming over the last twenty or thirty years).
Other items of interest to psychical researchers are reviews of Michael Tye,‘s book Consciousness Revisited , Michael N. Marsh’s Out of Body and Near-Death Experiences and Charles Tart’s The End of Materialism. This issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies will be of value to those interested in the intersection of psychical research and psychology when each was new(ish), and the lessons for discussions of consciousness today. Together the articles give a sense of what an amazingly productive period the end of the nineteenth century was for discussions of consciousness (rather like now in fact), and its enduring fascination.
Mark L Cowden’s claim, as indicated by the subtitle, is that in early 2010 he recorded a live two-way conversation between this world and the next. However, the book is more than an account of this event, which comes right at the end. He also covers his previous experiences with the paranormal, the development of his views concerning it, and how one can obtain the optimum conditions for interaction with the afterlife.
In his examination of the field he came across a number of groups of self-styled experts. He writes amusingly of the deficiencies of many of these ghost-hunting teams, their obsession with equipment masking their lack of knowledge – most of which seems to be culled from watching ghost-hunting shows on television and the internet – and usually led by someone whose sole credential is that he had the idea for the group and thought up the name. All that Cowden leaves out is the group medium who never comes up with any information that can be verified.
I have to agree with his assessment. As he suggests, the thought of such groups being unleashed on the vulnerable public is scary. You could say that however much the idea of commercial companies charging large fees to organise ghost hunts which are little more than a social activity feels exploitative, at least they are keeping individuals off the streets who might otherwise be causing extra stress to householders who already have enough problems to keep them busy. Cowden himself avoids such ‘house calls’.
He is an expert at using audio-visual equipment, and inventive in developing technology to improve Instrumental Transcommunication (ITC). He came up with the idea of the ITC Orchestra, adding a violin and cello to his set-up to act as ‘natural amplifiers’ which extended the range of his audio equipment into the infrasound and ultrasound ranges, beyond that which humans can hear.
His approach, in contrast to the one adopted by many groups, is to blend the technology with a spiritual approach. So as well as the hardware he packs a pendulum to dowse a location, and places emphasis on mediation and spiritual development. This allows him to form a psychic connection with a location and any spirits that might be present, rather than adopt a gung-ho approach typical of many investigators who have an obsession with the latest gadgetry. In his work with groups he recognises that, without some psychic sensitivity, they will not be successful in their efforts. While important, the kit is secondary, the intentions and attitude are crucial. More people can achieve results, he argues, but are blocked by the limitations of their approach.
The key event of the book, recording a conversation with spirit voices, occurred during the filming of a paranormal television show, Northern Ireland's Greatest Haunts. This was a rather complicated set-up, with a medium and another colleague sitting in one room attempting to communicate with a spirit, while Cowden and his monitoring equipment were in another room recording both the medium’s and the spirit’s responses, while a camera crew in each location made a visual record. The spirit replies could not be heard in the room in which the medium sat, so Cowden, who could hear them, had to feed them to the medium. He was not able to relay all of the messages at the time, but enough to assist the medium conduct a meaningful conversation, and both sides were available in full for later analysis.
ITC samples are usually difficult to decipher, and there are issues of interpretation. Cowden claims that his spirit voices increased in clarity until they were as clear as the voices of those in the room, and their utterances made sense within the conversation. Whether the voices are real and not artefacts of the recording process, and more to the point there is intelligence behind them, will hopefully be established with further work.
As to whether this really was the first ‘live’ dialogue, well, not really. Father Gemelli’s frustrating experience with a wire recorder in 1952, leading to a brief exchange with his deceased father, and George Meek’s Spiricom spring readily to mind as involving real-time communication. Marcello Bacci’s Direct Radio Voice method, using old valve radios with bits removed to render them useless for their intended purpose, is able to obtain voices on a regular basis which can hold a meaningful conversation (and be recognised by relatives). Bacci can be seen in action in Tim Coleman’s film The Afterlife Investigations.
Cowden’s recording may be superior to these efforts, and he may be implying that all past results, or at least those obtained prior to the beginning of 2010, were fraudulent (and this is certainly a controversial area), but he does not discuss them at all, nor say why he feels he has priority. He appears to have achieved promising results with his set-up, and hopefully he will publish more on his work, with further detail than he has given here. In the meantime this is a very readable account of one person’s journey in the field of paranormal investigation.
Winifred Coombe Tennant (1874-1956) was a compulsive diary-keeper for most of her life, the total amounting to about a million and a quarter words. Of this vast quantity, Peter Lord has selected entries from the years 1909-24 for reproduction here, and the results (200,000 words) represent just over a third of the original for that period. Editorial interpolations bridge the gaps and orient the reader, essential given the complexity of Winifred’s life and times. Lord, author of a companion volume, Winifred Coombe Tennant: A Life through Art, has done a huge service in bringing Winifred to a wider audience, and his annotations to the entries are informative and even-handed. The text is enhanced by a wide range of photographs, many taken from the family collection, supplemented by items drawn from the Tennant papers in the West Glamorgan Archives. He tops and tails the volume with a potted biography of Winifred’s early life and a brief envoi describing her life after 1924.
The diaries are useful background reading for anyone interested in the cross correspondences and the early history of the SPR. Lord has excluded much of the material relating to Winifred’s mediumship as being too complex, but he provides some fascinating context against which to read books like Signe Toksvig’s Swan on a Black Sea: A Study in Automatic Writing – The Cummins-Willett Scripts (1965) and Archie Roy’s The Eager Dead (2008), and papers in the SPR’s Proceedings such as Gerald Balfour’s ‘Some Recent Scripts Affording Evidence of Personal Survival’ (1914) and ‘A Study of the Psychological Aspects of Mrs Willett’s Mediumship, and of the Statements of the Communicators Concerning Process’ (1935).
For those who know Winifred primarily as ‘Mrs Willett’, the more rounded character that emerges from the diaries will come as a surprise. For those who know her primarily as a major figure in the distasteful exercise in ‘spiritual eugenics’ known as The Plan, as expounded in The Eager Dead, she will surely be a more sympathetic character than the one Roy presents. That is not to say she did not have major flaws. One again feels sorry for the collateral damage of her adulterous relationship with Gerald Balfour: Lady Better Balfour, whom Winifred strangely adores until the rupture with Gerald after the death of her son Christopher; and her husband Charles, invariably referred to in her diaries baldly as “CCT”. Her pathologically self-absorbed mourning at the loss of her infant daughter Daphne in 1908, amply demonstrated here, must have been a trial to all round her, at least until she largely switched her obsessive grief to Christopher, killed in 1917 on the Western Front, and she gives no sense of an appreciation that Charles too must have suffered at losing two of his children.
Poor Charles clearly could not gain his wife’s full love, divided unevenly as it was not only between him and Gerald, but also the long-dead Edmund Gurney, who was in regular contact from the Other Side. One is hard put to determine whether Charles was kept in ignorance or was complaisant during the affair with Gerald. Winifred was good at keeping secrets, as the revelation of her identity as Mrs Willett only becoming widely known after her death, in the obituary published in the SPR’s December 1956 Journal, attests. C D Broad in his foreword to Swan on a Black Sea quotes her son Alexander saying that a favourite motto of hers was “Never give unnecessary information!”. Significantly Charles’s Who’s Who entry stated that he had two sons (ie Christopher and Alexander) which implicitly indicates his acknowledgement that Henry was not his.
Even so, it is a shock to realise that Charles was in residence at the time Winifred became pregnant by Balfour, and bizarrely, on the very day she conceived, Charles asked Balfour if he would be the Coombe Tennant’s children’s guardian, to which request Gerald “agreed with pleasure”. Whether ignorant or choosing to look the other way, Charles seems to have generally tolerated his wife’s frequent absences as she pursued her various activities (there is just one incident recorded of him losing his temper, over a trivial incident which was probably stress-related). One gets the impression that he spent a lot of time at the Tennant family home in London, perhaps his way of dealing with a difficult situation. Winifred found him dull and narrow-minded, but one longs to hear his side of the story. The impression is that Charles symbolised restrictions against which she chafed but it is hard to know because he barely figures in the diaries, partly because they led separate lives for much of the time, and partly because she did not find much about him worth recording.
For her part, possibly Balfour’s wife Lady Betty was happy for Winifred to ‘entertain’ her husband. There is a telling entry (9 August, 1909, before Winifred and Gerald commenced their affair) in which Winifred says:
"I had a little talk with Lady Betty and wept in her arms. She is a noble and great woman. She told me she so wanted the bond between Gerald and me to be a source of strength and peace to me, and not an added sorrow ... Lady Betty told me to make use of Gerald to the utmost and that I should always find him the same, unchanging."
Three days later she writes:
"Received divine letter from Betty Balfour. She says ‘Gerald’s friendship for you is a great new joy in his life – a great new tenderness. I rejoice in it’, and she wants me to think of Fisher’s Hill [the Balfours’ residence] as a home where I can come to have ‘free and unfettered intercourse with your friend.’ Wrote to her. I deeply honour her."
However much she dressed it up with frequently-used terms such as honour and nobility, it did not stop Winifred from carrying on with Lady Betty’s husband and taking liberally the injunction to make use of him to the utmost and have free and unfettered intercourse with him. When Winifred writes of Balfour on 15 September 1911 that “Our love is compact of purity and therefore wrongs no-one”, a natural reaction is one of astonishment at such self-serving self-delusion that ignored anyone peripheral to the self-absorbed pair. When Betty had a baby in 1912 Winifred was devastated by what she saw as a betrayal of her – Gerald having sex with his wife – melodramatically outlining the day in the diary in black, but somewhat comforted by Gerald’s declarations that he had no interest in the child whatsoever. Yet even after Betty knew about the liaison and Henry’s paternity, she accepted the situation, and remained on friendly terms with Winifred, partly as a result of their shared interest in women’s suffrage (surely ironic for someone so passive in her domestic arrangements). One wonders if Betty was grateful to have Gerald’s attentions turn elsewhere as he and Winifred do seem to have been two of a kind.
In one way the adulterous relationship was good for Winifred. After Daphne’s death she became obsessed with the idea that her own life was essentially over, and all she longed for was to join her daughter. The mediumship was essentially a way to reinstate he relationship with Daphne and develop her love affair with Edmund Gurney, for whom Balfour was to an extent a proxy (though overlaid with a more earthly element, even if dressed up as The Plan). This allowed Winifred to sublimate her death-drive, though never erase it, in her desire for Balfour. One obvious question is why Winifred and Gerald did not divorce their unsatisfactory spouses and marry each other. They did discuss the possibility but decided against it. Obvious reasons would be the difficulty of divorce and the scandal, especially an issue given Gerald’s brother Arthur’s political career and their own social standing. But there is also the sense that the semi-clandestine nature of the liaison appealed to Winifred’s sense of self-dramatisation.
In these early years Winfred does not appear to be the self-confident figure of Roy’s book, or indeed of Broad’s foreword to Swan on a Black Sea,in which he characterises her as “a somewhat formidable lady”. She is frequently diffident, unsure of herself and prone to hero-worship, whether of Gurney and the equally deceased Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers, or Sir Oliver Lodge and later Gerald, when writing about whom in the early years she seems to dissolve and positively gush; you know their relationship has turned a corner when she refers to him as “Gerald” rather than the habitual “belovèd”. Gerald, reading between the lines, comes across as a seducer from the start, pressing Winifred’s emotional buttons. He cites Dante’s Vita Nuova, which Winifred gladly accepts as symbolic of their relationship, even though the courtly love quickly transformed into a physical one, overlaying any professional relationship based on the cross correspondences.
Her recorded activities turn away from the SPR after the First World War, mainly to politics, but even those whose interest in her primarily revolves around psychical research will find her later life fascinating. The diaries help to project her as a many-faceted person rather than simply one of the names involved in the cross correspondences. She clearly exhibited a great sensitivity to the suffering of others, perhaps a reason for her identification with Gurney, who had felt the same. She cared deeply about the plight of children, and disliked injustice in all its forms. At one point she discovers that an old couple had been given notice to quit their cottage on the Tennant estate because they could not afford the rates and taxes, and she paid them herself. Perhaps typically she can write, after noting that the estate is geared to maximising profit: “I can hardly eat my own good food or look at my comfortable house when I think of where it comes from and how it is paid for!”, while continuing to enjoy the lifestyle that the estate’s income provided for her and her family (the Afterword notes the extent of her picture-buying in her later years so clearly her disposable income was considerable, and she could not have engaged in public life without private means).
She had a deep love for Wales and its cultural life, took a sophisticated interest in politics and social reform, local and national, was a firm supporter of women’s suffrage, and was one of the first female magistrates. Firmly Liberal in inclination, she disliked authoritarianism in politics and expressed anti-monarchist sentiments on occasion. Her administrative work was admirable – the list of committees on which she served during the Great War is extensive and she was to train travel what the frequent flyer is to aircraft. She took an active interest in Tennant estate business at a time when such a role was uncommon for women, spurred on by Charles’s loosening grip, and was clearly a capable administrator. She might have become a Member of Parliament, standing unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Forest of Dean, and doubtless would have done the job well given her energy and attention to detail and shrewd grasp of politics, domestic and international. She was a member of the British delegation to the League of Nations at Geneva and a close friend of Lloyd George.
Of course she had a certain narrowness of view common to her class; it is amusing to read about her shopping for clothes and feeling exhausted (admittedly pre-war), or a sense that her clearly comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle was onerous. She frequently complains about the grind of organising the household, yet enjoys the luxury of a chauffeur-driven car and a full-time nurse for the children. Servants are often a trial, and as she points out after the death of an unsatisfactory land agent, “If one has no agent, underlings try and mount the high horse.” She wrote to the Times in 1935 about the importance of service as training for married life, perhaps not appreciating that its absence in her own life had not done her any harm and that its presence would hardly have caused her to treat Charles more kindly.
In short, she comes across as someone not, as the title of this book indicates, situated between two worlds, but someone who saw herself within two worlds, able to shuttle between them almost at will, and comfortable in both. Small details only to be found within the intimate confines of a diary cast side-lights on her public persona, and little snippets, such as A W Verrall’s bad arthritis, SPR administrator Alice Johnson looking old, Winifred’s own extensive dental problems, her active dislike of her sisters-in-law Eveleen (F W H Myers’s widow) and Dorothy, help to make more human names familiar from the publications and histories of the SPR.
Hopefully the full diaries will eventually be made available to researchers who want to examine the fine detail of her life not available in an abridgement, and follow the trail after 1924: the Darwin Correspondence Project may be a suitable template for Winifred’s diaries. As an example of Between Two Worlds’ limitations, Lord supplies a paragraph following the entry for 12 October 1917, when Winifred had received a letter from Sir Oliver Lodge, which states: “Winifred seems to have had no contact with Lodge since their disagreement nearly three years before. The rapprochement marks the beginning of an estrangement from other SPR colleagues and their methods.” After the first sentence there is a footnote which says: “See the Diary for 6 December 1914.” This is clearly a pivotal moment in her association with the SPR, and as Lord indicates, it marks a diminution in the number of references to psychical research in the diaries thereafter; in fact the entry for 14 October 1917 is highly critical of the SPR strategy of keeping mediums involved in the cross correspondences rigidly separated, and argues for a more collaborative effort (“A clearing house of SPR stuff is what is wanted...”). So one turns eagerly back to the entry for 6 December 1914, to find that the diary skips from Saturday 5 December to the following Tuesday, the 8th. There had been a passing reference to her irritation with Lodge for exerting pressure on her to produce scripts when she was not in a suitable frame of mind, but no sense of a rupture between them. He slips from view as her priorities change, so it is a surprise to read that they had had a serious disagreement that affected their relationship. The full text may hold useful information for the specialist concerned with such matters.
Despite her varied and often high-profile activities, it is easy to forget that until recently Winifred was largely unknown outside the confines of psychical research. The Times did publish an obituary on 1 September 1956 focusing on “A life of Service in South Wales”, even though for much of her life she lived elsewhere, and referring to her as “Mrs Charles Coombe Tennant”, but she was generally neglected outside discussions of mediumship. The Daily Telegraph obituary of Henry, or Dom Joseph as he became (28 November 1989), has no mention of his Coombe Tennant parentage whatsoever, something that certainly could not happen today. Winifred is a figure of some significance in the history of the early twentieth century, and Lord’s skilful editing has given psychical researchers and historians of the period access to an important primary source.
The subtitle does not reflect the analytical approach taken by Gordon Rutter, who replaces Melvyn Willin and Jim Eaton for the latest in David and Charles’s series devoted to ostensibly paranormal (or just plain weird) photographs. Rutter uses his technical knowledge to try to determine the issues at play in a given image, and supplies a reasonable, if not necessarily definitive, explanation for a surprising number of them. This should be helpful to people who find some anomaly in their own snaps, but will perhaps disappoint those expecting the supernatural to be displayed before them.
For as Rutter intimates – and can be confirmed by examples which reach the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee – people are often rather optimistic in interpreting some oddity as paranormal. He covers issues such as orbs, condensing breath, camera straps, slow shutter speeds, pixel noise, pareidolia, and definitely not least, ‘photographer blindness’, which can catch the most consummate professional (always treat the claim “there was nobody else around when I took it” with caution, however sincerely made). Such explanations should help to educate photographers so that they can rule out the normal before proclaiming uncritically that they have evidence of the paranormal. This will surely save psychical researchers some time (though orbs seem remarkably resistant to patient explanations featuring the effects of flash on dust particles).
Many of Willin’s examples were drawn from the SPR’s archives, and Eaton’s from his Ghoststudy.com website. Some of the images included here were passed to Rutter as a result of his talks on paranormal issues and his well-known interest in the subject, but many surfaced as the result of an appeal made as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival in early 2009 for photographs showing anomalies. The project was called Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts and was organised by Rutter with Richard Wiseman and Caroline Watt. The criterion for acceptance was that photographs were previously unpublished, either in print or online.
The response was enthusiastic, and thanks to the nature of the internet, international, with a large quantity, largely taken recently, sent in. Most were easily explained, but there was a small percentage which warranted further investigation. The hundred best were posted online and comments invited, leading to a huge number of hits and an impressive degree of debate, sometimes to a high standard. There was a voting mechanism, with the four options being: genuine ghost, normal explanation but not faked, fraud or uncertain. Totting up the 300,000 votes cast, the five images which voters found most convincing were chosen, and these appear at the end of the book. A summary of the research was given by Wiseman at the SPR’s 2009 conference at Nottingham.
As one would expect, images cover a wide range of effects. Orbs/lights and mobile phones have their own sections, and there are plenty of ghostly figures and faces appearing as extras. Historic locations feature extensively, unsurprising given the number of photographs taken at them. One odd inclusion is the old picture of a small girl in a gingham dress which seems to show a strange little face peering over a wall. This is not quite the same image as the one which can be seen on the Science of Ghosts website. Rutter explains that there were two photographs, one taken after the other. The earlier one is in the book, the one on the website was taken moments later. The one in the book was used presumably because the girl is looking down, and there is no need to superimpose a large oval over her features to shield her identity, as in the website one in which she is looking at the camera,. But in the book there is a red circle to show where the ‘face’ looking over the wall is, and it is in the wrong place, being positioned well in front of the girl, rather than just behind her. As the whole photograph is included in GCOF3, the salient detail is hard to see, especially if the reader is looking in the wrong place. The website version is cropped and the pixieish ‘face’ is much more obvious as a result. It does not appear to be a chance configuration of light, shadow and leaves.
You would think, given the length of photography’s history, and in particular the stupefying numbers of images unleashed by the digital revolution, that there would be a vast supply of convincing examples of the paranormal captured by the camera, and authors would be spoilt for choice. But having looked at all four of David and Charles’s Paranormal/Ghosts Caught on Film volumes, many of those in the SPR’s archives including the ones collected by Maurice Grosse and Cyril Permutt, as well as samples of those submitted to websites, there are fewer decent ones than might be supposed. Rutter is naturally conscious of the problem of fakery on top of technological and cognitive limitations, and with Photoshop, and now phone apps, certainty becomes ever-more elusive. The books put out by David and Charles provide a valuable compendium, produced to a high standard, of historical and contemporary examples, but those taking an open yet critical approach who are hoping for photographic evidence for ghosts must wonder if it will ever be forthcoming. They can only keep looking.
Amberley have published another volume in their useful series of gazetteers, this one linking those two natural bedfellows, paranormal research and pubs. David Taylor is the founder of the West Midlands group Parasearch, and has a wealth of practical experience. Andrew Homer is joint national investigations coordinator for the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena and managing editor of its magazine Anomaly. They are both good communicators and in this book they look at over sixty pubs in the Black Country, providing a readable mix of folklore, archival research and recent investigations.
.An introduction gives a potted outline of the evolution of the pub and theories of ghosts, and is followed by a guide to haunted pubs in the area. These are arranged alphabetically irrespective of location, which is fine when reading straight through, but for field reference a geographical index would have helped.
The authors end with two non-pub appendices, one on local sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack, the other an intriguing phantom hitchhiker case from 2000. The whole is well illustrated and attractively presented, and will be of interest to residents and tourists alike. The term Black Country may not be the greatest marketing name, but Taylor and Homer have provided ample justification, if one were needed, to visit this part of the country and sample its attractions, both earthly and otherwise.
This is not a case book, and psychic detection arrives fairly late on in Robert Cracknell’s career. We begin at the beginning, in 1935, and trace his fractured childhood, including an unhappy period as an evacuee in Nottingham. After an abortive stint in the RAF he became a tramp, living on the edges of society. He had trouble finding a niche, and drifted for many years; as Colin Wilson says in his introduction, Cracknell falls into the category of outsider. This part of the book could very easily have veered into misery memoir territory, but Cracknell’s inner strength and lack of self-pity, plus a determination to learn from every situation in which he finds himself, allow him to write dispassionately about this period. The implication is that his challenging experiences assisted the development of psychic abilities, though he is adamant that these are possessed by all, not a select few, and what he does can be done by anybody.
Cracknell’s explorations of the psychic side of his life make for interesting reading. He tells us about the profound influence Meher Baba had on him, brushes with black magic, a meeting with the witch Alex Sanders, another with a security-obsessed Uri Geller, in love with his own celebrity. A visit to the set of Coronation Street to meet William Roache may have had a calming influence on the place, but clearly not enough, as there were still phenomena there for the Most Haunted team to investigate later.
Psychic detection is less prominent than is promised by the subtitle. There are confidentiality issues, but Cracknell concedes that police forces do not admit to using psychics. Unfortunately this means that there is no independent corroboration of his statements concerning his involvement (and the cynical sceptic will also notice the repeated references to his associations with downmarket newspapers like The News of the World and most notably The Sunday People). He hints that he has been involved in far more cases than he details, but it is unclear why he presents these ones rather than others, and to what extent the ones he does mention were materially assisted by his efforts. Since the police aren’t saying, it is impossible to assess his claims. Cracknell says that some of his predictions were lodged with the SPR but if they were, the files seem to have disappeared. Going by his own accounts here, the results are decidedly patchy, even though he claims something like an 80% success rate overall.
The section on Genette Tate, who vanished in August 1978, age 13, is brief and not particularly informative. After accusing Genette’s father John of abusing Genette, Cracknell says he was “astonished” that John Tate, who “seemingly had an alibi” for the time of her disappearance, was not charged with abuse. The “seemingly” suggests that the alibi was not a strong one, but in his book Genette is Missing, John Tate states that he was in Exeter that afternoon with his wife Violet, Genette’s step-mother. That seems fairly robust. Psychics, including Gerard Croiset and Nella Jones, swarmed all over the case, to the extent that the ubiquitous Colin Wilson contributed a chapter to Tate’s book specifically on the involvement of psychic detectives. Wilson was keen for Cracknell to solve the mystery as he was trying to place Cracknell’s autobiography for him and success would have guaranteed a sale. Business is business.
Wilson devotes rather more space to Genette in The Psychic Detectives than Cracknell does in his book. According to Wilson, Cracknell predicted that Genette’s body would be found within ten days, a prediction missing from Cracknell’s book. Cracknell also omits the information, which Wilson includes, that Violet told Cracknell that her husband was having an affair. This person, it transpired, was Genette’s step-sister, aged nine. John Tate confessed to the police and the story appeared in a Sunday newspaper in May 1980. He was not prosecuted, Wilson says, because of the distress already experienced by the family. Rather different times, one feels. In any case, Wilson is completely satisfied that Tate’s alibi for Genette’s disappearance was genuine, as must have the police. He does not mention Cracknell being involved in Tate’s confession, nor is there any reference to Genette having been abused, but in Cracknell’s version, Tate went to the police as a direct result of Cracknell being hired by the News of the World to reopen the case “some years later“, and confessed to abusing both Genette and her sister.
Melvyn Harris in Sorry, You’ve Been Duped says that almost five hundred psychics supplied information on Genette‘s disappearance, and the police had to deal with some 1,200 letters. He says that one of these individuals, left unnamed, came unbidden from Cornwall to Devon, and “shook like a leaf” at the scene of the abduction. This person said that Genette would be found in two days and the murderer caught the day after that. When these predictions failed to come to pass he disappeared, though later he claimed in a newspaper to have been called in by the police. Cracknell was on holiday in Cornwall when the story broke, so one does wonder if he was the person being described by Harris. Despite all this unsavoury hoopla, Genette is still missing.
Another claim concerns the Yorkshire Ripper. Cracknell says that following an eighteen month lull in murders he was having dinner with Colin Wilson and unspecified others. He told his fellow diners that there would be a final murder, after which the killer would be arrested. The eighteen month figure is wrong: Sutcliffe murdered Barbara Leach on 2 September 1979. The next and penultimate murder victim (others survived in between) was Marguerite Walls, murdered on 20 August 1980. She was not initially considered a Ripper victim as he had changed his MO. Sutcliffe’s last murder victim was Jacqueline Hill, on 17 November 1980. The gap between the deaths of Barbara Leach and Jacqueline Hill was not eighteen months, but was a considerable period. Someone would only think though that the Ripper had not killed in the interval if they were relying on newspapers for their information and missed the death of Marguerite Walls.
At the dinner, Cracknell said that the Ripper would murder again “very soon”, which, he says, is precisely what happened. Colin Wilson’s account in The Psychic Detectives is slightly different. Cracknell is vague on details, but Wilson dates the meal to November 1980, actually with the sales director of the publisher which had accepted Cracknell’s autobiography, and in his version Cracknell specifically predicted that the next murder would be in two weeks. It was actually six days, Wilson says. Melvin Harris has a chapter fittingly entitled ‘The Yorkshire Ripper and the Psychic Circus’ describing the contributions made by psychics to solving the case. Despite Cracknell saying that he will always be associated with the Ripper investigation, Harris seems to have missed him completely.
The longest chapter devoted to a case is that of the kidnap of the eighteen-year old daughter of Oscar Maerth, Gaby. This was Oscar Kiss Maerth, author of the repulsive 1971 book The Beginning was the End, which postulated that human intelligence was caused as a by-product of apes eating the brains of their fellows to increase their sex drive. The family lived in some style on the shores of Lake Como and Cracknell was flown out to try to help find Gaby. Cracknell says that she had been kidnapped six months earlier. He did not like Maerth, whom he found self-absorbed and selfish, pleading that he was not a rich man when he seemed to have substantial wealth. Cracknell says he provided pertinent information, though Gaby’s freedom was not obtained by his efforts or those of the local police, and she was released in rather murky circumstances.
Cracknell tends to be vague about dates anyway, but here he manages to get the year completely wrong. He says the kidnap occurred in 1980, but Gaby was abducted on 7 May 1982 and was released at the beginning of October, five months later. The report in the Times (4 October) said that initially a ransom of £2.2m was demanded but was later reduced to £550,000. A police source suggested that about £70,000 was paid, though an accurate figure was not available. Gaby claimed, somewhat implausibly one feels, that she had been kept drugged in a tent the whole time by her captors. As Cracknell suggests, there is surely a lot here that was never made public, but at least he managed to obtain a nice fee from the Sunday People for his trouble.
This is an expanded version of the autobiography published in 1981, Clues to the Unknown, but some of the text has not been altered since the first edition. We learn that Sue Blackmore is about to take her PhD, and Cracknell wonders if she will follow the sorts of ideas he propounds. The intervening thirty years have shown Blackmore following a very different path to the one that might have been predicted as she put the finishing touches to her thesis on Extrasensory Perception as a Cognitive Process. Uri Geller is referred to as a “relatively” young man, which he must find ’fairly’ flattering. Cracknell is pretty contemptuous of Gordon Higginson, president of the Spiritualists’ National Union for over two decades, but there is now no reason to withhold his name as he died in 1993 (not that his identity was difficult to work out). Cracknell’s hostility to the Spiritualist movement is repeatedly expressed, and from what he says it is mutual. He is an individualist, not suited to the constraints of a movement.
He comes across as a strong personality who has weathered adverse circumstances and emerged stronger for it. Whether he deserves the (presumably self-proclaimed) accolade of being the No 1 Psychic Detective Agency is an open question, as there is not enough here to be able to make an adequate judgment, and no opportunity to evaluate claims from competing psychic detectives who covet the top spot. Given the woeful track records of many psychics in crime detection, particularly considering the high stakes, it is wise to be cautious. But leaving aside uncertainty over Cracknell’s hit rate, this is a very readable account of one person’s spiritual journey.
As I was writing this review, news arrived of the death of Osama Bin Laden, hiding not in a mountain cave but in a suburban compound not too far from Islamabad. This is definitely one situation where accurate information would have been useful, but as far as I am aware, not one psychic detective – including Cracknell – made a firm, unambiguous and verifiable prediction about what was an unlikely location. In Renée Scheltema’s film Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What, Nancy Myer was asked where he was and responded that she would not answer on camera as it would get her killed, presumably by vengeful Al-Qaeda operatives, and Stephan Schwartz was surprisingly uninterested in such a project. Hard information derived psychically that made sense beforehand, and not retrospectively, would have been invaluable. An opportunity to demonstrate the existence of the blue sense lost.
Amberley Publishing continues its series documenting the country’s paranormal heritage. Ross Andrews contributes guides to Oxford and the Forest of Dean to add to his one on Cheltenham (reviewed for the SPR website by C J Romer). Andrews has a great deal of experience as a ghost hunter, including involvement with the Gloucestershire group PARASOC, and his enthusiasm is palpable. The emphasis in both these books is on presenting locations that can be visited, rather than accounts from anonymous premises, and they are organised into geographical sections making them ideal for the visitor with limited time.
The Oxford volume begins with a stroll round some of the city centre’s most haunted spots, including the site of the execution of the Protestant martyrs Latimer and Ridley, whose screams echo down history, the Sheldonian Theatre and Bodleian Library, and the Bridge of Sighs. The second chapter moves inside, taking in the theatres, a pub and an hotel. The third chapter is devoted to haunted colleges, and Oxford Castle has its own. A pair of chapters deals with miscellaneous Oxford ghosts and some further afield in the county.
Andrews notes that a lot of Oxford ghost stories hinge on town vs. gown, religion or the Civil War, so reading up on its ghosts is an opportunity to learn about the history of this beautiful city and the surrounding countryside. One gets the impression though that he has not personally carried out investigations here as the volume is free of case reports, with the stories being collected second-hand rather than resulting from local group activities.
The Forest of Dean volume is different in that respect. It covers mostly that part known as The Royal Forest Route, and unlike the Oxford book Andrews has first-hand experience of investigations in the area. Two chapters describe a variety of haunted locations in the forest, then one focuses on Littledean. Goodrich and Raglan Castles and Tintern Abbey have a chapter to themselves.
The meatiest section, almost half the book, is devoted to St Briavel’s Castle, which Andrews has examined extensively as a member of Phamtomfest, a non-profit group set up specifically to organise investigation there. He goes into considerable detail, outlining a wide range of phenomena. This is fascinating stuff, though it renders the book less useful for someone who wants a general guide to forest locations but does not have a particular interest in St Briavel’s Castle (and as he concedes, the level of detail provided may contaminate future reports). Both books conclude with brief sections of advice for the ghost hunter.
As with other Amberley guides the physical quality of the books is good, but the copy editing on these ones could have been tighter. Andrews writes clearly but the facetious tone does grate after a while. Both are well illustrated, mostly with the author‘s own photographs. If you want to have a handy and relaxed guide to the spookier elements of these places, Ross Andrews’ books are useful companions.
Authors of regional paranormal books generally fall into one of two categories: those who carry out (what in some cases can only be loosely described as) psychical research; and local historians who are strong on library resources but don’t have much if any primary material to share. Frank Meeres (author of Norwich Through Time and Thetford and Breckland Through Time, both from Amberley, as well as a number of books about other aspects of East Anglian history) falls into the latter category, and he has relied heavily on papers in the Norfolk Record Office, where he is a Senior Archivist, for his rather random look at strange Norfolk, a big county with a lot of strangeness in it.
The book kicks off with John Polidori, Lord Byron’s doctor and author of The Vampyre, who happens to have lived in Norwich for a while. Meeres wonders if elements of his novel could have been inspired by his time in the city, a plausible assumption. More substantial is the chapter on Black Shuck, though it adds nothing new to the subject, and does not mention Simon Sherwood, who has been collecting accounts for some years, and who gave a talk on ‘Apparitions of Black Dogs’ to the 2010 SPR conference. A chapter on witches gathers together a few stories from the area.
Ghosts are divided by location: essentially rural, urban, clerical and modern. This is a useful compilation for the casual reader, with many old standards, such as - to take a few at random - the Drummer Boy of Hickling Broad, Blickling Hall, the haunted bridge at Potter Heigham, the ghostly monk seen hanging at St Benet‘s Abbey (though Meeres does not include the information that it is supposed to be a cyclical ghost which appears on 25 May each year; I have been and found the place heaving, but Edric failed to materialise), and more. Raynham Hall is another old standard, but it is disappointing to see the Brown Lady photograph discussed without reference to the recent research which has shown that there is far more to the story than is contained in general ghost books, and with suggestions how it was probably faked. Accounts gathered by local historian W H Cooke are given their own chapter. There is no index, which makes locating a particular story can be awkward as it can be in one of a number of places.
Long chapters are devoted to the Snettisham and Syderstone ghosts. The former relies heavily on Rev. Rowland Maitland’s authoritative booklet, which is credited, and adds further information, but the latter, mostly comprising long screeds of correspondence, could have acknowledged its obvious debt to Eliot O’Donnell‘s Ghostly Phenomena and Haunted Places in England. By the way, if anyone wonders why there appears to be little reference to the Snettisham Ghost in the SPR’s publications (despite Alan Gauld calling it "famous" in an article on Andrew Lang, who covered it in his The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, as did Andrew MacKenzie in Hauntings and Apparitions), that is because (as Maitland notes, but Meeres does not), it was not called Snettisham, Norfolk when details were first published, but instead Meresby, Suffolk. It is Case P. 220 in Frederic Myers’s ‘The Subliminal Self’ in Volume 11 of Proceedings.
Meeres’ primary interest appears to be true crime, and there is a lot of it in the book. On occasion it can obscure any paranormal element - for example, we get quite a long narrative about William Suffolk murdering his mistress when she dumped him in 1797, and his subsequent confession is printed verbatim, but the payoff is merely three lines recounting an anecdote that some unspecified children in the 1980s, playing at the spot where the gibbet which held his body was supposed to have stood, saw a skeleton lying on the grass, but it had disappeared when they returned with their parents. Other stories similarly have a thin paranormal component, though they still make good yarns - an entire chapter on the non-paranormal babes in the wood ends with the information that one may still hear them wailing on dark stormy nights (nothing to do with the wind in the trees of course).
Frank Meeres has produced a nicely illustrated and enjoyable book, on its own terms, one which will be of interest to those seeking an overview of the supernatural in Norfolk, as found in its central archives. It will hopefully encourage readers to find out more about this beautiful part of the country, and perhaps to delve further into its rich paranormal heritage.
Amberley publish a large number of regional guides to the paranormal. Their website is at: http://www.amberleybooks.com.
Veteran ghost hunter Peter Underwood dips into his files and pulls together a collection of haunted gardens. Or rather, with the odd exception, a collection of rather nice buildings which have allegedly haunted gardens attached to them, the accounts tending to focus on the insides as much as the outsides. Underwood is skilful at interweaving ghost stories, indoors or al fresco, with local history, and the book will be useful to those with a general interest in the places, many of which are open to the public, as to those wishing to know about the ghost sightings said to have occurred in them.
Gardens often have an uncanny quality so it does not seem surprising that they should be associated with ghosts. Thirty-seven are included here, the majority in England, but several in the other home countries, a few on the Continent, three in the USA and singletons in Jamaica and Singapore. In general there are no huge surprises. Some are better known than others, some very well indeed, and none more so than Borley Rectory, which is included even though there is nothing new added to the story and nothing left for the pilgrim to see. Entries are in alphabetical order irrespective of country, rather than grouped geographically. The book is well illustrated, mostly from the author’s own collection.
There is a distinct sense of recycling material from previous books, but Underwood always writes well and seems to have known a lot of interesting people, often of an elevated social class, with a huge fund of anecdotes between them. The text is more detailed than is sometimes the case in books of this type, and the whole is attractively packaged by Amberley, making Hunted Gardens a pleasure to read. It is well worth having to hand if you intend to visit, as Underwood is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and his book will inform you about a place as much as about the ghosts that walk there.