Category Archives: Strange phenomena

Last night, I saw toast hanging from trees and children sparkling with light

After what happened last night, I really must go to a Wicker Man festival.

The climax of The Wicker Man (the 1973 version, obviously) was shot at Burrow Head in Wigtownshire. I think my uncle’s ashes were scattered into the sea off Burrow Head; he used to sit there as a teenager and look out to sea. Or maybe it was off some other Head. There are quite a few Heads in the area.

For sure, several Wicker Man scenes were shot in the Isle of Whithorn (which is not an island), where my father was brought up. And several other scenes were shot in Whithorn itself (a totally different place to the Isle of Whithorn) where both my parents went to school and met again during the Second World War (I blogged about their meeting last year).

Nothing in life is ever simple.

There is a speech in The Wicker Man about how paganism is the real religion of Britain and how Christianity is merely a Johnny-come-lately cult.

I paraphrase but, after last night, I am all for paganism.

I went wassailing at orchards in semi-rural Hertfordshire, quite close to where I live. About forty or so adults and children went and blessed the trees. Pieces of toast soaked in cider were hanging from the branches of the trees and cider was poured round the trees’ roots to encourage them to grow and bear fruit in the coming year.

Wassail toast hanging from trees

Much noise was made with bells and horns and spoons on pots and pans to scare away evil spirits; a wassailing song was sung; the children went and told the trees to grow, then waved sparklers around; fireworks soared high into the air from the orchards; there was much cheering and clapping; and then we went inside for soup and bread and cake and cups of mulled wine and cider.

I have been to a local church the last couple of Christmases (avoiding the services) and they provided mulled wine and biscuits. But no toast hanging from trees; no children waving sparklers; and no eccentricity on this scale.

No wonder paganism is on the increase.

This was not a genuine outbreak of paganism in semi-rural Hertfordshire, of course. It was a bit of admirable British jollity.

But Christianity has to pull its socks up.

I think annual human sacrifice (a concept at the very core of Christianity) in Winter or Spring could be the way forward, though the supply of willing virgins might prove something of a problem.

Still, The Wicker Man shows that, where there’s a will, there are ways and means…

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Filed under Eccentrics, Movies, Religion, Scotland, Strange phenomena

The End of the World is nigh… though we might need a wee re-calculation

On the second and final day of this year’s Fortean Times UnConvention, former BBC Religious Affairs correspondent Ted Harrison gave a talk about the end of the world.

He has previously written a novel King Clone about how to start your own religion – worshipping Elvis Presley. And he is currently writing a non-fiction book Apocalypse When about various End of The World scares throughout history.

Well, it’s mostly non-fiction.

Scares about the Apocalypse being imminent have thus far proved to be wrong and crop up with alarming regularity throughout history – sometimes when there is a cluster of natural disasters or astronomical abnormalities; sometimes when people are starting up religions and need a strong selling point to grab people’s attention.

When Joseph Smith started the Mormon church, he expected the Apocalypse to be within his lifetime.

The Seventh Day Adventists were a splinter group of the Millerites, who had expected the world to end on 22nd October 1844 and who had to re-calculate when it did not. Understandably, they called what did not happen on 22nd October 1844 “The Great Disappointment”.

More recently, Harold Camping, boss of the Family Radio network proclaimed that Jesus Christ would return to Earth, the righteous would fly up to heaven and there would be five months of fire, brimstone and plagues on Earth, with millions of people dying each day, culminating on October 21, 2011 with the end of the world.

When this appeared not to have happened, on re-consideration, he re-calculated that, in fact, it had indeed happened, but “on a spiritual level” and that the physical apocalypse when God would destroy the universe was actually going to happen on 21st October 2011.

On that day, I was quite busy.

I went filming with Mr Methane, had a drink with comedian Paco Erhard and then went to the launch of Silver Road Studios in Shepherds Bush. The party in Shepherds Bush was quite noisy and I may have missed something; but I am writing this blog on 14th November 2011 and I suspect I would have noticed the end of the Universe if it had happened.

How Harold Camping has coped with the irritating non-appearance of the Four Horsemen, I do not know, but one of my fondest semi-religious memories is of attending a talk by Benjamin Creme in Holborn around 1984.

In the Spring of 1982, he had paid for ads in the London Times, the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers worldwide. The ads said:

“The Christ is now here”

They announced that Jesus Christ – or, more correctly, the Maitreya – was already walking the Earth and would telepathically reveal himself to the people of the world via television on 21st June 1982.

Alas, this failed to happen and I went to the blessed Benjamin’s talk to see how he had come to terms with this.

Jesus, by the way, was working at this time within the Indian/Bangladeshi community in the Brick Lane area of East London.

Apparently he had been going to reveal his identity in the telepathic television broadcast. Really he had.

The reason Jesus had not kept his appointment with destiny, it turned out, was because the world’s media had not taken that extra small step of trying to find him.

Call me cynical, but I had thought there might be – just perhaps – some financial scam involved in this saga.

When I attended Benjamin’s lecture, though, I realised I was wrong. He was an amiable, totally sane and clear-eyed middle-aged man with no particular financial axe to grind. From memory, the talk was free.

Benjamin came across as a kindly uncle trying to do his best although I was a little taken aback when he told us he was going to electrically charge us.

I think this was to increase our powers of understanding and/or awareness.

His eyes went into a wide-eyed staring trance, he stretched both his arms out towards us with his all his fingers sharply pointing forwards and, standing erect, his body slowly moved in an arc round the room, the invisible power source presumably pulsing into each of us.

After he had helped us thus, his eyes returned to their amiable Uncle Benjamin state and, presumably, I was in a higher state of consciousness though, alas, too stupid to realise it.

Benjamin has occasionally given other dates for what I like to think of as the Second Coming of Christ. So far, this has not happened, though I live in hope of good news.

Benjamin would, I think, disagree with me on the use of the phrase “the Second Coming of Christ”.

In April last year, he wrote in the Guardian that he has “never presented Maitreya as a messiah figure who comes to make all things bright and beautiful for a supine humanity” and (I think rather relevantly) he revealed “I am not a betting man”.

We are, by the way, not yet out of the woods on the End of the World being nigh.

The long-dead Mayan civilisation allegedly calculated the End of The World would take place on 21st December 2012.

That is good news for the London Olympics, but bad news for Christmas card manufacturers and for the organisers of Edinburgh’s 2012 Hogmanay celebrations.

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Never perform comedy with intelligent dogs

The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

The first rule of showbusiness is you never perform on the same bill as animals or children.

Last night, there was a very good line-up in the New Variety Lives! show at the Shaw Theatre in London. But what can you do when, also on the stage, unbilled, is ‘Sid Russell’, a small Jack Russell terrier who has bafflingly had over 1,730,000 hits on YouTube in a month – for just running up and down steps –

and who, last night, kept a blue balloon in the air by death-defying leaps upwards to bop it with his cute nose?

On any other night, top-of-the-bill US comedian David Mills, one of the smoothest new acts on the UK comedy circuit – indeed, he was New Act of the Year 2011 – would have been a difficult act to follow, but even a highly charismatic comedian is no competition for a leaping Jack Russell.

Compere Jo Brand, excellent new female comedian Tania Edwards, Nathaniel Tapley as cast-iron-TV-show-prospect ‘Sir Ian Bowler MP’ and New Zealand comic Javier Jarquin who had an excellent street-theatre-type act which I have never seen before and which built to a cracking climax – all those and more were trumped by an acrobatic Jack Russell terrier…

But then, earlier in the day, I had learned with others at the Fortean Times UnConvention all about the species superiority of Canine Intellectuals and Celebrated Talking Dogs.

Jan Bondeson was plugging his new book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities and, if his book is anything like his one-hour lecture, it must be a cracker.

We had tales of Rolf, the militaristically-inclined German dog who could discuss religion and philosophy but who, at the outbreak of World War One, demanded he should join the German Army despite the fact he was a Yorkshire terrier.

And we had Don, an alleged talking dog who was so intelligent he was earning 12,000 marks per month in German music halls even before he went to the US in July 1912 to perform at Oscar Hammerstein’s famous Roof Garden theatre in New York, where he shared the bill with a man with a 9-foot beard and a troupe of dancing midgets. Don was insured for $50,000, kept profitably touring the US until August 1914 and met Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini and Buster Keaton.

At my school, I never got taught any of this in history lessons.

Apparently Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, taught a dog to say, “How do you do, grandma?”

And even the Nazis took an interest in super-intelligent dogs. When they transported Jews, any ‘innocent’ pet dogs were given to ‘good’ Aryan families and there were even Nazi research institutes for educated dogs.

All this came as enough of a shock to me yesterday without It being topped by ‘Sid Russell’ and his acrobatic, balloon-bopping antics.

I think I need to lie down.

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Filed under Comedy, Dogs, Strange phenomena, Theatre

The very worst visual horrors of life – from Jaffa Cakes to nipples

Last night, I went to a very belated birthday party thrown for Scots comedian Janey Godley by a central London private members’ club whose name, much like Lord Voldemort, cannot be spoken out loud. By “very belated” I mean that Janey’s birthday was actually in January.

There are always interesting conversations to be had at the ‘Voldemort Club’.

Last night, it started with Jaffa Cakes.

Janey’s new agent Triona Adams, a former nun, told me that actor Ian Richardson’s father had created the Jaffa Cake when he was working for McVitie’s in the 1920s.

There was then talk of people laying Jaffa Cakes on graves because artificial flowers turned white, which I did not quite follow.

And I mentioned I used to work with someone at a Soho facilities house who claimed she was terrified of Jaffa Cakes, which I took to be a joke or a mild eccentricity until, many months later, someone actually brought a plate of Jaffa Cakes into the room and she had to leave in quite considerable emotional distress.

She told me afterwards, still upset: “It’s the texture. They’re dark and it’s the way the light reflects off the dark curves of the chocolate.”

Comedian Meryl O’Rourke – who annoyingly told me she has the ability to eat loads yet stay thin – something I miserably fail to do – was able to top this story last night with the tale of an ex-boyfriend who was frightened of buttons.

Not Cadbury’s Chocolate Buttons but the ones on clothing.

Quite how he managed to function in everyday life I cannot imagine.

Apparently he developed the idea as a child that babies came out of the belly-button and I can only imagine as an adult he had visions of a straining button on a shirt suddenly exploding into a new-born baby, much like the chest-buster scene in Alien.

It got worse because he found the visual appearance of women’s nipples reminded him of buttons and, the first time Meryl took her clothes off in front of him, he vomited.

Surprisingly, the relationship carried on for a while and Meryl has now been happily married for twelve years (obviously not to that boyfriend), though her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show is titled Bad Mother.

The show is about Meryl’s relationship to her daughter and to her own mother. Apparently her mother, whose first memory was being beaten by a Nazi officer (she was a German Jew), used to stalk minor British showbiz celebrities with young Meryl in tow. I heard some of the stories last night. The show itself should be a cracker.

Perhaps appropriately, Bad Mother is going to be in the Underbelly.

You certainly meet interesting people at the ‘Voldemort Club’.

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Flower Power! Prince Charles vindicated! – How to receive television signals using an indoor potted plant

When satellite television was first starting up, I remember watching an edition of BBC TV’s late and much-lamented science show Tomorrow’s World. They said you didn’t need a dish to receive satellite television: just a roughly parabolic dish-shaped object aligned towards the satellite and a feed antenna (the little box suspended in front of the satellite dish). They demonstrated this by using a metal dustbin lid and received a perfect television picture. (That’s a trashcan lid, if you are an American.)

Last night, I was standing at the checkouts in a local B&Q store, waiting to pay, when my friend suddenly said:

“Wait here, I’m just going to see if I can find a busy lizzy to use for my TV aerial.”

And off she went.

No explanation.

It seemed a little odd, but I try to be understanding.

She came back a few minutes later, before I reached the till, but she had not managed to find any busy lizzy plants in the B&Q gardening section.

She told me that, in the late 1970s, she saw an edition of Tomorrow’s World in which they demonstrated that, if you connect a wire from the aerial socket of your TV set to an indoor plant, it will receive and display a picture just as good as any normal metal TV aerial.

Tomorrow’s World successfully demonstrated this with a busy lizzy and my friend tried it herself at the time – baring the wire at the end of the lead connected to the aerial socket of her TV and sticking it into the 12-inch high stalk of her presumably slightly surprised busy lizzy.

It worked. She got perfect TV reception.

“You mean you feed the wire right down inside the whole stalk of the plant?” I asked her last night.

“No,” she explained to me. “You just stick the end of the wire into the side of the stalk.”

“At right angles?”

“At right angles. A busy lizzy has quite a fleshy stalk.  You just stick the end of the wire at 90 degrees into the stalk and the plant acts as a TV aerial for the set and receives signals.”

I looked at her.

“It makes me think Prince Charles might be on to something,” I said. “Talking to plants… What about sticking it into a cannabis plant?”

“Too weak and weedy,” she told me.

“I rather like him,” I said.

She looked at me disapprovingly.

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Weird stuff involving a rat, Mr Methane, Iggy Pop and Charlie Chuck

So what is going on at St Pancras station in London?

In my blog yesterday I mentioned weird stuff happening at St Pancras – including a woman talking to a stuffed meerkat.

Today I was at St Pancras again and, blow me down, when I arrived and got off the train there was a group of five men dressed like OTT Chicago gangsters out of Guys and Dolls with striped suits, black shirts, white ties and wide-brimmed hats and one of ‘em had a stuffed rat sitting on his hat. At least I think it was stuffed. Again, no-one but me was giving them a second glance.

Then Mr Methane, the world’s only professional performing farter, phoned me from his theatre dressing room in Crawley. He said he was sitting at a traditional theatrical make-up mirror with light bulbs all round the edges. Very glitzy; very showbiz, you might think. But they were energy-saving bulbs. He said it looked a bit odd. Not really traditional showbiz at all.

I suppose this will spread because of the recession and European legislation.

Then I got a phone call from comedian Charlie Chuck and, almost as a throwaway, he mentioned something so odd I had to ask him to repeat it.

As the late Malcolm Hardee used to say, there is a thin dividing line between genius and madness and like most people I think the long-running SwiftCover car insurance TV ads may have crossed that border in the wrong direction because they are fronted by ‘wild man of rock’ Iggy Pop. It’s a bit like seeing Keith Richards fronting an ad for Tesco.

Even more odd is that, apparently, Charlie Chuck was also in the running to front the SwiftCover ads before Iggy Pop got the gig. I am still trying to get my head round what the already distinctly odd ads might have looked like with Mr Chuck.

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The woman who has stayed in a bedroom cupboard for over two years

Last night I had a somewhat over-priced snack in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a very pleasant place to be with subtle up-lighters to the vaulted brick ceiling and tastefully up-dated modernity out in the corridor plus a very emotionally satisfying circular glass lift up to ground level. It is a very relaxing place to sit and chat although, because this is the crypt of a church built in 1542 and re-built in 1726, the chairs and tables and kitchens stand on headstones and ancient bones including, I think, those of Nell Gwyn.

I sat wondering what Samuel Pepys would have made of this future world if he could see it. Pepys had a nude picture of Nell Gwyn hanging above his desk.

“What am I going to do with my mother?” my friend interrupted.

“What?” I asked, distracted.

“My mother. I don’t know what to do with her. She’ll have to go somewhere.”

“Where is she?” I asked.

“In the bedroom cupboard at home. She’s been there for over two years.”

“I know,” I said, trying to be sympathetic. “I had my father in the kitchen for about 18 months. I didn’t like to bring up the subject with my mother in case it upset her. Is there anywhere your mother liked that had a special place in her heart?”

My friend pondered this long and hard.

Dickens & Jones,” she eventually mused. “She adored Dickens & Jones.”

“They might think it was bad for business,” I said, trying to be practical while remaining sympathetic. “And department stores tend to clean the floors an awful lot. They’d vacuum her up.”

“It’s what she would have wanted,” my friend said quietly. “She was always at her happiest in Dickens & Jones. But it doesn’t exist any more. So, realistically, I would have to scatter her ashes inside John Lewis in Oxford Street. She liked shopping there too.”

“How about St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey?” I suggested.

My friend looked unconvinced.

“She would be among the great and the good of the country,” I re-assured her. “Nelson, Wellington, Chaucer, Charles Dickens, people like that… You could just go in and drop her surreptitiously in a corner when no-one’s looking. It’s all grey stone. They’d never notice and they must only sweep the corners and dust the edges of the floors by the walls every couple of centuries. I’m sure someone must have done it before.”

My friend still looked unconvinced.

“It would be like The Great Escape,” I suggested, trying to get her enthusiasm going. “When they drop the earth from the tunnel down the inside of their trouser legs.”

“Sounds a bit messy,” my friend said.

And that was that.

But I am still convinced it is good idea and deserves further consideration. We live in occasionally surreal times and have to think laterally to keep pace with reality.

Who would have thought a man would try to blow up a plane using a shoe bomb, that MPs would be going to prison for fiddling their expenses and that the European Court’s advisors would reckon it is against basic Human Rights to ban people imprisoned for murder, rape and terrorist offences from voting in an election.

Later, as I was walking through St Pancras station, my eyes accidentally strayed to the Eurostar arrivals board. The next three trains were from Paris, Brussels and Disneyland. I half expected to see Mickey Mouse get off a train hand-in-hand with Pinnochio.

Twenty feet further on, I passed an overweight man in his 40s sitting at a table. He had receding hair at the front of his head and a bald patch at the back. He was eating a croissant and was dressed as a schoolboy. No-one looked at him because no-one thought it odd.

In my train home, a middle-aged woman was talking to a stuffed meerkat. Neither the woman nor the meerkat appeared to have a mobile phone.

What would Samuel Pepys have made of this future world?

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