Saturday, 19 November 2011

Attend the Fortean Times Unconvention (2)

After the previous day's shenanigans, I was back on the Sunday for more. And what better way to start than with a talking mongoose?

Gef the talking mongoose, to be precise, who reportedly terrorised a family's farmhouse in the Isle of Man in the 1930s. Gef seems to have been a stroppy little bugger, demanding food, making claims of having supernatural powers, swearing at people and making occasional threats. All this was related by Christopher Josiffe, who brought along his very own knitted replica Gef. I spot a possible merchandising opportunity here?

He concludes (unsurprisingly) that it was probably a hoax by the family daughter to try to frighten her father into moving back to the mainland. I'm sure Josiffe's right about that, but part of me likes the idea of Gef being out there somewhere, perhaps to return among us some day..

Next were Andy Roberts and Dave Clarke, who gave the quote of the day, "People usually associate us with UFO research, but we only do that to piss off the believers." They weren't talking about UFOs, but cursed stones. They brought along a "cursed" stone head, which is on the chair in the right hand side in the photo below (click to embiggen)

The stone supposedly brought a run of bad luck to the couple who previously owned it, but this has to be treated with scepticism because (a) the couple sold it to Roberts and Clarke, who experienced no misfortune as a result and (b) Roberts and Clarke found out that a local had carved and buried it in the 1970s for a practical joke.

Later on, the cursed head was found in the merchandising and cafe area, where it was promptly desecrated by various attendees.

If it's actually cursed, we're all in a lot of trouble.

Back in the arena, a distinct whiff of bullshit was starting to waft through the air. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince were discussing the influence of hermeticism on the history of science.

Gee, do you think they might have a book to plug?

Picknett began with a slightly paranoid rant about how early scientists like Galileo and Newton were influenced by hermetic thought, and how historians of science could never possibly, possibly accept that this was the origins of science because they're all narrow-minded rationalists and if they told this to Richard Dawkins his head would probably explode or something.

Hang on a minute, it's always been well understood that early scientists believed in stuff like alchemy (which evolved into chemistry), astrology (ditto for astronomy) and Greek philosophy. Richard Dawkins certainly wouldn't like those worldviews, but he probably wouldn't deny that Newton et al believed in them. I was starting to feel quite angry at this point, which wasn't assuaged by the unintentional irony of Picknett declaring that Giordano Bruno had been "airbrushed from history" while pointing to a photo of his monument in Rome.

After Picknett's misreading of the history of science, it was time for Prince to misread quantum physics. He declared that concepts such as the Anthropic Principle demonstrate that modern science is now coming round to a view of the world that resembles hermeticism. In the Q&A session veteran fortean Ian Simmons (who, unlike Picknett and Prince, is an actual scientist) pointed out that quantum physics can only truly be expressed in maths, and hence any verbal description tends to be somewhat metaphorical. Prince's response was, "Yes, er...mumblemumble...anthropic principle...mumblemumble...staggering coincidences...mumble..."

Another questioner made a comment about the status of humans compared to earwigs, to which Prince replied, "Earwigs can't do quantum physics." Neither can you, Mr Prince.

Following that steaming pile of codswallop, there were two excellent talks on art history, with Ted Harrison and Gail-Nina Anderson discussing artistic depictions of the end of the world and Egyptian mummies respectively. Finally, UnCon concluded with a suitably eccentric but also deeply moving screening of the Nina Conti film Her Masters Voice.

The film describes Conti's grief at the death of the theatre maverick Ken Campbell, who became her lover and her mentor in ventriloquism. Conti travels to the Vent Haven convention in the USA to attempt to resolve not only her bereavement but also her feelings about ventriloquism, with the result that a lot of the dialogue is delivered through puppets. Along the way she makes some interesting psychological observations - it seems most ventriloquists are shy people, and tend to use the puppet to say and do things that they wouldn't necessarily do themselves, to the point that the puppet becomes an alter ego. I highly recommend the film, which left me intrigued about an art form that I previously hadn't cared much for.

All in all, a wonderfully quirky weekend. I'll be back next year.


  1. Great review of Picknett and Prince.I was reminded of Douglas Adams on the anthropic principle: ''imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.''

  2. Hi Peter, and thanks for your comment.

    Personally I don't think I know enough about the anthropic principle to comment upon it. Then again, neither do Picknett and Prince.