Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fortean Times Uncon - Saturday

Fairly awful journey in but worth it. The problems began the day before when above the sound of my MP3 player I heard an ominous announcement. The gist of it was that the DLR would be closed the whole weekend for "planned" maintenance. The reason I put planned in quotes is, if it was planned, as they said, why am I hearing about it for the first time the evening before?! I am on the email and text lists for DLR travel info, I use it every day, I work for flipping TfL, and have seen no signs, have heard nothing, not even internally. WTF!!! I've said it before, and I'll say it again, the DLR is fucking unprofessional!! Amateurs! But I digress.
The next problem occurred to me later - too late to do anything in fact. The problem being on this day with no DLR there is also a little matter of the Lord Mayor's show which attracts thousands, maybe tens of thousands. sure enough, even in the morning, the trains were infeasibly packed with parents and young kids.
The other problems were all of my own making - the fact that I didn't make my sandwiches on Friday, the fact that I stayed up till 2 am drinking and Tweeting, and finally the fact that when I woke up at 7 am on Saturday morning I could barely move.

So I missed high profile guest Jon Ronson, which disapointed me a little. But this guy saw it:

I also missed:
Science and Sasquatch: the life of Grover Krantz - Brian Regal
Physical anthropologist Grover Krantz (1931-2002) was the most well known scientist to publicly champion the existence of the North American cryptid called Sasquatch—also known as Bigfoot. While he did not originate it, he actively promoted the idea that this creature was an evolutionary descendent of Gigantopithecus. For his efforts, he was dismissed or ignored by academics who viewed the Sasquatch as at best a relic of folklore and at worst a hoax, and also received a negative reaction from amateur Bigfoot researchers, some of whom threatened and abused him. 

At the Camden Centre I only paused to buy myself a coffee before heading into the main hall to see:

Dr Dave Clarke

1855 is best known to Forteans as the year in which the mysterious Devil’s Footprints appeared overnight during a heavy snowfall in Devon. But were supernatural forces also at work in Yorkshire – with fatal consequences? This talk tells the story of a Sheffield woman who died “from fright” following an encounter with a ghost, and the bizarre story that unfolded in the wake of the inquest – a story involving spiritualists, messages from a murder victim, buried treasure and a mysterious young woman with wild talents. Taking a story that would have perplexed the Victorian detective Inspector Jack Whicher, David Clarke follows the clues and asks: was this truly a case of death by supernatural causes?

I walked in while this guy was in full flow - talking about a series of events in Sheffield in 1855 which involved Mormons, seances and a woman who could apparently see the dead. She went into a fit and died - the death certificate recorded she died from fright. I had to work out the story in a backwards sort of way, having missed the beginning. but it was an interesting little insight into Victoriana. These people were clearly obsessed with being able to contact the dead, and with their high mortality rate, its not surprising really. It wasn't the last time we'd be touching upon the morbid fascination of the dead amongst British Victorians.
Dr Clarke linked these events with other events reported that year - such as the Devil's footprints in Devon - which had me quivering under the duvet as a child. How much could the idea of one influenced the other? Would people have read about the footprints in the paper and been in some way made more susceptible to believing in spirits and ghouls?
Scared to Death on Campo Lane…The background:There are certain irrefutable facts about the death of Sheffield Mormon Hannah Rallison in Campo Lane, in 1855. She collapsed in front of several people after entering a cellar said to be haunted. She claimed, as she drifted in and out of consciousness, she had seen a ghost. And experts at an inquest could not find a rational explanation for the healthy 48-year-old’s sudden demise.
“This is one of the most fascinating mysteries I’ve come across,” says David Clarke, former Star journalist, author and all-round expert in the unexplained. “What’s intriguing is that, unlike many of these stories, it is all document in newspaper reports and the inquest – but still no one really knows what happened.”
What we do know is that the Campo Lane cellar – below the home of fellow Mormon John Favell – was said to be haunted after John himself claimed he spotted an old woman there. As neighbours gathered to investigate on February 24, Hannah temporarily entered the cellar alone. There, in front of several witnesses, she was seized by terror, shrieked she had seen a ghost and collapsed. She died in her South Street home the next day.
“This was all recorded as fact,” says David, who has researched the incident for an up coming book on Victorian mysteries. “It fascinated so many people it actually ended up being reported in several national newspapers at the time.”
Research by David shows that within a couple of weeks The Sheffield Independent claimed to have found an explanation. “We have been informed,” it said, “that some of the alleged appearances resulted from the operations of a magic lantern by the occupiers of adjacent premises, who knew that Favell and his family were Mormonites, and determined to have a lark at their expense.”
David asks anyone with possible information about Hannah Rallison or the Favells to email

Cryptozoologist - I've seen him talk 4 times now and he's always entertaining, if somewhat idiosyncratic and  somehwat grouchy. This time he's got two expeditions to talk about. Apparently there's a BBC4 feature length documentary in the pipeline. 

All Ape-men Great and Small - Richard Freeman
The search for unknown hominids continues – from the 10-foot-tall Yeti to the rather les imposing Orang Pendek. In November 2010, the Centre for Fortean Zoology took an expidition into the Garo Hills of Northern India in search of the yeti, or mande burung as it is know locally. They uncovered not only eyewitness reports and tracks but also stories of a monster snake unknown to science. In September of 2011, the CFZ mounted their fourth expedition to Sumatra in search of the Orang Pendek, building on the 2009 trip, where the creature was sighted and hair found. Richard Freeman will be giving full accounts of the results of these latest expeditions.

This is a short clip of Richard explaining what crytpozoology is.

Richard always seems on the edge of some great discovery, but unfortunately so far it seems the evidence collected has come to nothing. Even so, the stories are great. 

Most of the stuff he talked about is in these articles:

This speaker was a Swedish born doctor (and prolific author) who began his career in london, but now works in Cardiff. He looked to me like Michael Palin's mild mannered accountant character, but had a tremendous sense of humour and knows how to tell a story.  He spoke about "clever" dogs and horses; there's a good FT article about this which i'll dig out at some point for a few extra details. This delusion carried on right up to and including the Nazi era.
The press got quite excited about his research a while back, with articles appearing in the mainstream press, however they mostly missed the point of his research and even made stuff up, such as claiming that Hitler was creating a troop of super-intelligent terrorist dogs!!

Jan Bondeson reveals how an early-20th century German obsession with the supposedly superior intelligence of horses and dogs gave birth to a ‘new animal psychology’ and created a host of doggie celebrities noted for their philosophical thought, ardent patriotism and ability to communicate with humans. These canine luminaries included Rolf, the philosophical Airedale Terrier, who kept up a lively correspondence with scientists and thinkers, and Don, the incredible talking Pointer, who enjoyed a spectacular career and spawned a host of imitators around the world.

piano playing dog
performing dogs

it was a period of madness in pseudo science - the claim was that the animals were intelligent but owners were giving their pets unconscious cues for when to stop tapping, barking, etc, when answering questions or "talking". The case reminds me of the more recent fashion for teaching sign language to apes, with simlarly over-blown claims, and ultimately, simlarly discredited. 
Daily Mail take on it

Sarah Angliss
Engineer, scientist, musician, Fortean. This talk was a bit of a mish-mash. Interetsing, entertaining, but ultimately nothing to really get your teeth into. not even sure the content was particularly Fortean to be honest, besides the oft repeated "voices form the dead" reference she made. She demonstrated a genuine wax cylinder set up, both playing and recording.
The programme describes her spot thus:
In December 1877, a journalist writing in Scientific American noted there was now “a startling possibility of recording voices of the dead”. He had just witnessed Edison recording sound on his new invention: the phonograph. In this live demonstration, I’ll explore some of the stranger obsessions of the early adopters of audio recording, as I immortalise a voice from the audience by recording it on wax, using an original Edison Standard Phonograph. Delving into the archives, I’ll also examine a little-known curiosity from the 18th century, one which may have been used to record short segments of sound 150 years before the phonograph. This event will include some short, musical interludes incorporating a few of my own inventions. As I use the theremin to conjure up ‘music from the aether’, I’ll reveal how the first ‘electric servants’ were also seen as tools for paranormal investigation.
The "voice of the dead" we heard was from Florence Nightingale, very much alive when she recorded it - and surprisngly good quality too.
Sarah talked about an old practice of removing birds from wild, isolating them, starving them, and then training them to sing particular tunes. There was even an industry in selling tunes designed specifically for teaching to the birds. It was a pre wax-cylinder era music centre for the home. The practice lasted about 150 years. But cruel apparently.

Sarah recorded a member of the audience, rather bizarrely saying (shouting - you had to shout as amplification was still a thing of the future) "I love you sausage man" and then played it back. Despite the claim of Jan Bondeson in the previous talk, this earliest of all recording technologies sounded remarkably good to these modern ears.

Stookie Bill

Finally she played a tune on her theramin - with robotic vent dummy as vocalist - a replica of John Logie Baird's "Stooky Bill" who appeared on the first ever television transmission.

You won't be surprised to hear that the music Sarah performs sounds rather creepy, and atmospheric. How else would you expect a theramin to sound?

This clip is just a taster for Sarah's music, which she performs with her band Spacedog:


Tom Ruffles said...

Good report of a great weekend. I suspect Jan Bondeson is Dutch, though clearly multilingual.

Laughing Noam said...

Hi Tom, thanks for dropping by. Turns out Jan is Swedish, so I will be amending my blog accordingly.
The entries on Uncon are still a work in progress...

Tom Ruffles said...

A Swede! Anyway, he works in Cardiff, not London. Glad to help.

Laughing Noam said...

I have a vacancy for a proof reader - interested?

Laughing Noam said...

Not really, but do clearly need one!

Tom Ruffles said...

Not until I sort out my Swedes from my Dutchmen!

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.