Friday, 4 April 2014

Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained

I sensed that my mother had begun to worry over my efforts to cultivate paranormal powers. I was about eight or maybe nine, so it's possible that she was simply irritated, and I had interpreted this as her being freaked out by my trying to read minds and move objects with the power of thought alone. I hadn't succeeded, but even so was beginning to freak myself out, so I told her I was done with it all.

'It's okay,' I explained, 'from now on I'll stick to Pekes, Peanuts, and PG Tips.'

These were ordinary, wholesome things to which I would dedicate my time, having turned my back on the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. The Pekes were our four Pekingese dogs, to which I was very much attached; and Peanuts was the Charles M. Schultz cartoon featuring Charlie Brown which appeared on the back page of The Daily Mail newspaper, and which I enjoyed so much that I'd taken to collecting paperback anthologies of the strip published by Coronet books. I never quite understood why The Daily Mail was our newspaper. My mother told me that her choice would have been The Guardian, whereas that of my father would have been The Sun, and so they had met in the middle, compromising with a paper from which they could take equal displeasure.

I'll come to the PG Tips later, but the main feature of my carefully prepared statement were those three P-words lined up in an amusingly alliterative sequence. I imagined my statement would sound worldly and wry, the sort of casual observation that Charlie Brown, Linus, or Schroeder would have made had they too elected to shun the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. The sentence was offered as a knowing wink and a chuckle.

Well, let's just say I guess I've learned my lesson...

My mother failed to collapse into hysterics in response to my wit, although she seemed nevertheless relieved. She once told me that when I'd been much younger, as she was working in the cattle shed on the farm, she'd found herself overcome with a sudden inexplicable wave of horror. She ran back to the house just in time to save me from pouring a pan of boiling water over myself. Whatever the explanation for this, I believe my mother felt that the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained were best left well alone.

My interest probably came from Paul Moorman who was in my class at Ilmington Juniors, and who lived at Wimpstone Fields, the next farm along the main road from where we lived. Stanley Moorman - Paul's father - had care of 75,000 chickens and had a UFO detector in his garden. I recall the poultry quota because Paul would mention it from time to time and with such frequency that Thomas Mahon later proposed that his official school nickname should be changed to 75,000 Chickens from whatever it was at the time. The UFO detector was some mail order device designed to detect the presence of strong magnetic fields, although I never saw the thing, and I have no idea whether it ever detected anything. Stanley Moorman's esoteric interests were shared by his son who would lend me paperback books from the family library purporting to reveal the truth about flying saucers, ghosts, the Bermuda triangle, the Loch Ness monster, the Mothman, alien bases on our moon, telepathy, spoon bending, and so on and so forth. The covers were inevitably slightly lurid, and difficult to resist at the age of eight even given that I found the subject matter a little scary.

I sometimes found it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, particularly when the latter was cleverly presented as the former. For example, I was particularly confused by a biographical feature in the 1974 Dan Dare annual describing the space pilot's formative years and first exploratory mission to Venus as though it had actually happened. Inevitably, the truth about the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained, that which an elusive they had tried to cover up - as revealed in Stanley Moorman's esoteric library - all struck me as entirely plausible, which was unfortunate because I also found it somewhat terrifying.

Tales of spectral black dogs seen in the Cotswold hills were common in the playground, and the notorious witchcraft murders of Meon Hill were even mentioned on television from time to time. To these I added the fear that what had happened to Betty and Barney Hill might just as easily happen to me, and it seemed like the only way to address my fear was to learn as much as I could, to reach an understanding of the subject. This was impressed upon me each night as we all went to bed. Living on a farm in rural Warwickshire, the nights were often absolutely black, particularly during heavy cloud cover. I would look across the fields from my bedroom window and sometimes see lights still on over at Paul's house, but at other times the darkness was absolute, not even the nocturnal orange glow of some distant town or city, as though there was no light anywhere else in the world. I wanted to be able to look out into the darkness without being scared of what I might see; and inevitably, having learned to watch the skies, it wasn't long before I spotted my first saucer.

It was a silver cigar-shaped object of the supposedly classic design with a dark line down the side which I took to be a row of windows. It moved slowly and silently across a sunny, early afternoon sky from south-west, somewhere above Wimpstone Fields, heading north-east in the general direction of Stratford-upon-Avon. I estimated it to be travelling at about one mile distant from our house. Weeks later, during a school art lesson I asked Mr. Davies whether it would be okay if I painted the flying saucer. He seemed irritated, having asked us to paint something we'd seen in the countryside, but conceded that yes, if it was something I had genuinely seen then I should go ahead. I drew the curve of the hill as viewed from my bedroom with a smattering of trees to the right, all coloured green and brown with my pencils, at which point I came up against the fact that my saucer was visually unimpressive, and had almost certainly been a conventional aircraft. A little while later I showed Mr. Davies my artist's impression, a vast silver ship filling the sky, strange triangular modifications on the upper and lower surface with flames belching from the rear. I was barely even aware of his verdict as I came to a sudden and chilling understanding of my own bullshit. I hadn't seen anything even remotely like whatever the hell this was supposed to be; and let's face it, the thing had quite obviously been just a regular plane; and what in the name of God were those triangular things? Part of some sort of intergalactic toast rack?

I understood in that moment that I was almost certainly an idiot, or at least someone with idiotic tendencies, and I felt a little angry with myself. However, my anger wasn't sufficient to instil anything resembling a lesson, and nowhere near sufficient to overcome my addiction to uncovering the truth of the facts of the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. I kept on buying those books, the shocking truth as revealed by Brad Steiger, Charles Berlitz, John Keel and all the greats of the genre; and even when I couldn't bring myself to believe quite so much as I wanted to, I kept on going because some of those books were often hugely entertaining regardless of the strength of one's faith in the mysterious world they described.

My next encounter with the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained was probably 1986 as I was living in an old half-timbered farm cottage in the village of Otham in Kent with a number of other students. I recall stories of the village being haunted, specifically by a ghostly horse-drawn carriage supposed to travel the road running past our house from time to time. Having since failed to find any reference to this tale beyond that preserved within my own memory, it quite easily may have derived from regulars at the local pub taking the piss out of those gullible art students; but I was nevertheless reluctant to dismiss the story as entirely ridiculous at the time, particularly as I headed home from the aforementioned pub, walking back down the unlit country road one evening when I heard heavy breathing directly behind me, so close as to suggest a person about to whisper something terrifying in my ear. There was no-one present but myself, and yet it seemed I could hear a spectral companion. I walked faster but my ghost kept pace. I broke into a run, tearing the five hundred yards down the road to our house. Gibbering with such enthusiasm as to be unable to hear anything but my own terror, I quickly fumbled with my key and ran inside, half-cursing the cold, unlit house for the fact of my being the only person at home. I slammed and locked the door, turned on the light, and sat regaining my breath, reminding myself that electric lighting established my presence in the twentieth century, and in an age of reason. Pursuing this thought, I considered my coat and how the rough material at the collar could easily have rubbed with the rhythm of my walking, creating the illusion of husky breaths close to the ear.

There was a terrific bang, like a single blow delivered to the door from outside by someone hoping one kick of a hobnail boot would be enough to break in. I nearly jumped out of my skin, for a second assuming this really was some malevolent spirit which had followed me back from the pub. I listened, and it was clear that there could be no-one outside. Perhaps I had slammed the door with such haste as to leave it slightly out of whack with the frame, creating tension as I pulled it shut and threw the lock regardless. This being so, the wood may simply have taken a minute to spring dramatically back into proper alignment with the frame. That was what I told myself, although at the same time I couldn't help but resent this rationalisation of the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained to some tiny degree. I later described this occurrence to Clare who lived upstairs, but my account was probably rendered all the more implausible by my being unusually drunk at the time. I vaguely recall telling her how I was worried that I had been possessed by an evil spirit, all the while wishing I could truly believe it and knowing I was talking rubbish in some weird and pathetic bid for sympathy. I was old enough to take a degree, but I hadn't quite grown out of embellishing my flying saucer with intergalactic toast racks.

Eventually I wasn't taking a degree, and by 1988 I'd moved to a crumby bedsit in Chatham, jobless and more impoverished than I'd ever been in my life. I would keep myself entertained with cheap second-hand paperbacks about extraterrestrial cattle mutilation and the men in black, eating whatever I could afford after beer money which was by necessity not very much. I wasn't a great cook, so whilst my culinary ingenuity wasn't an impressive resource, neither did it place unreasonable demands on my ability regarding the standard of what I ate. My signature dish was mystery meat grilled with a sprinkling of sugar served with mashed potato. Mystery meat was the cheapest thing that could be bought from the butcher's stall in the covered market, a tray of loose scraps and offcuts left over after the routine behind the scenes hacking and chopping was done, and from which I would buy a half pound at a time. I think it was pork, or maybe chicken. My friend Carl recalls visiting me during this period, and being served a platter of a half tin's worth of peas served on a bed of nothing else. I'm almost certain I would have garnished the dish with a knob of margarine, but I expect Carl is selectively remembering only the details of the meal which he chooses to remember.

Anyway, the point is that I may not have been getting my recommended five a day, because most fruit is boring and an unlikely first choice when you're poor and budgeting for food which will not only prevent you from dying but may also cheer you up a little. During this time I had a peculiar dream which I described in my notebook dated to 1st of March, 1989, as follows:

I had a rather unpleasant (for no apparent reason) dream about the Elu - they are tall and thin, naked and hairless. Their faces look like those of old men and they have a scratchy, grey and chalky complexion. They look more like animated fossilised etchings or petrified photographs, or even monochrome expressionist paintings (which are as I say animated) than people. Noticeably their shoulders and elbow joints are thinner than the sections of their bodies which they keep attached together. They ride on horseback. I do not remember if they spoke at all. The unpleasant aspect of the dream was simply how strikingly alien they appeared to be. The dream may have been set at night, I think, and if so they were luminescent.

At around the same time I found I'd developed a strong aversion to sugar which lasted a couple of weeks. Up until then I had always taken two spoons in both coffee and tea, but I nevertheless stopped immediately. Just the thought of sugar made me feel nauseous and for no obvious reason put me in mind of some sickly sweet and vaguely fibrous substance which I associated with the dream, and which I later realised resembled halva, a desert I had noticed behind the counter of a kebab shop on Star Hill but had never eaten. I was much later told that the dream and its attendant aversion sounded like an alien abduction experience, particularly the detail of my guys being identified as Elu, which resembled similar names from other abduction accounts, many of which could be related to the Biblical Elohim according to certain scholars of the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. Whilst I liked the idea of having encountered beings from another world, and had even considered the possibility of something along those lines, I couldn't quite bring myself to believe that there weren't many much likelier explanations.

Eventually I grew up, and all it took was fifteen minutes spent reading The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan to convince me that twenty or so years of half-believing roughly whatever came along had mostly been just wishful thinking and a lack of imagination. The real world was actually a lot more interesting than the one promised by literature concerning the Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. All one had to do was to look close, and try not to think anything too stupid.

'It's okay,' I had told my mother many years before, 'from now on I will stick to Pekes, Peanuts, and PG Tips,' except I didn't - although I suppose there was no real harm done - and that may not even have been quite what I said. I'm still unsure of the identity of that final P, although PG Tips seems a possible candidate because PG Tips gave away picture cards with their packets of tea, and I was in the habit of collecting these cards; or it may have stood for patches as I was keen on sew-on patches at the time. I'd spend hours browsing those offered in full page adverts in my Dad's Bike magazine, and I particularly liked the rude ones, for example the cartoon ducks mating in mid-air beneath the caption fly united.

I know, but I was eight.

I had two of these patches sewn onto my jeans, one featuring a rotund creature resembling a walrus jumping in the air beneath an embroidered exclamation of oink! The other featured a gruff, apparently naked ogre addressing a much smaller counterpart whilst pointing, his meaning communicated by the phrase sod off sewn into the top-left corner. I found this hilariously funny, excepting when adults requested a closer inspection, anticipating something cute.

'What is that?' Mr. Harding, who owned the farm on which we lived, squinted at the tiny embroidered letters spelling out sod off. I silently thanked providence that he didn't have his glasses with him, and explained that it was just a small cloud that had been added to the scene for the sake of realism, or something. I wasn't sure.

I had just two patches in all, although a couple of years later I acquired a third, a portrait of Charlie Brown stood gloomily beneath the phrase I need all the friends I can get. Sadly by that time I'd developed beyond wearing anything upon which it could be worn, but I bought it anyway.

My life time sum total of three sew-on patches probably doesn't quite add up to an obsession on the level of, for example, how many vinyl albums I presently own, but as an interest beginning with P, it would have fitted the feeble requirements of my attempted zinger; and as with many other passing fads of being a kid, the self-image of oneself as gripped by an enthusiasm was often more important than that upon which the enthusiasm was focussed. It seemed that one had to effect the appearance of being into things in order to have substance, and I know this to be at least partially true because I now see Junior expressing the same theatrical devotion for toys and games which remain untouched for month after month in the wilder corners of his room. This turned out to be as true of my sew-on patches as of those Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. They did their job, but their appeal was ultimately fleeting, and there's not much point regretting the fact. I wish I'd been a little funnier, that I'd known that alliteration does not necessarily in and of itself constitute wit, but I suppose if you don't go through these things, you never get to the other side.

No comments:

Post a Comment