Category Archives: Strange phenomena

Miracles, Part 2: The skeleton of a dogfish and the resurrection of Jesus Christ

I was surprised when the Turin Shroud was tested in 1988 and allegedly turned out to be a forgery made 1290-1390. I’m still not totally convinced it isn’t the real shroud. But, when the tests were taking place, it got me thinking about the crucifixion of Jesus.

I am no Christian, but it did take me back to the Religious Knowledge lessons at my school where our R.K. teacher was an ex-Army padre and he went into so much physical detail about the crucifixion that I had to leave the class. I was a frail wee soul whenever gross anatomical detail was discussed and prone to nausea at the mere thought of the innards of things. Let’s not even mention the skeleton of the dogfish in the General Science lesson.

But I do remember from R.K. that the reason Roman Citizens were never crucified was that it was such a horrendous way to die. You didn’t die from having nails hammered into your wrists and ankles (they were not hammered into the hands and feet, they were hammered into wrists and ankles to support the weight of the body more and prolong the agony). You died from exhaustion, dehydration etc and it could take a week or more to die.

Jesus, according to the Bible, managed to die in one brief afternoon. A bit of a surprise, that. He was then taken down from the cross. Normally, at this point, the Romans broke people’s arms and/or legs to check they really were dead. This did not happen, according to the Bible. Instead, Jesus’ ‘body’ was taken away by a rich man whose personal physician treated the body not with the normal oils used to anoint dead bodies but with medical oils normally used on live but injured bodies. A bit of a surprise, that.

It seems to me entirely likely that Jesus was not dead when he was taken down from the cross. But, given his body had been scourged, had had a crown of thorns shoved on the head and he had been stabbed in the side with a spear, it might take a bit of time for him to recover – let’s say it might take three days before he was up and able to walk around and talk to people. Let’s say he would rise on the third day.

After three days, the lad could have been talking to people – let’s say he talked to the uneducated and fairly simple fishermen etc who were his disciples – and, if you doubted that the Son of God whom you had seen with your own eyes crucified and die was now resurrected… well,  you could actually put your fingers in the holes made by the nails of the crucifixion. There would be no arguing with that.

If you were a simple fisherman or shepherd or prostitute, that would certainly convince you that a dead person had come back to life just as Lazarus had apparently been brought back to life by Jesus himself and you would be prepared to die yourself in the certain knowledge it was true and you had seen God’s only son re-born.

If Jesus had survived the crucifixion, though, with his injuries, he might only last about a week before he died from his wounds and/or disease from the injuries. After that he would die or, to re-phrase it, join his Father in heaven.

No surprise there.

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Miracles, Part 1: iPads and the high chance of being hit on the head by a falling pig

When I came home in the early hours of Sunday morning, I absentmindedly switched on the TV and BBC2 was screening Fritz Lang’s 1953 film noir classic The Big Heat.

My friend asked, “When was that made? It looks very old.”

“Well,” I said, “it was way before they had an iPad.”

“But,” she replied without the slightest pause, “that woman’s got one!” and she disintegrated into laughter.

Because, at the exact same moment I said the word “iPad”, on the TV screen, a woman walked through the door wearing an eye-pad.

What are the odds of that coincidence happening?

Well quite good, actually.

The odds against unlikely events and coincidences always seem to me to be misquoted.

The odds of me myself being killed by a pig falling on my head are astronomically high. At least, I hope they are.

But if, God forbid, I live until I am 80 or so it is fairly likely that, sometime during my lifetime, several people in different parts of the world will have been killed by a pig falling on their head.

The odds of me being killed by a downwardly-mobile pig are low.

The odds of anyone being killed by a downwardly-mobile pig are high.

Bizarre coincidences happen. Bizarre events happen. All the time.

The odds are often not as high as they seem.

Millions of little events happen every month to every person on the planet. Most of these millions of events are totally forgettable. But, if one unlikely event or coincidence happens to you, you will remember it and the several-million-to-one chance of it happening will seem amazing but it is actually not unlikely given the millions of other times it did not happen.

And then there are the miracles in the Bible.

If you see Lazarus raised from the dead and you are a simple shepherd, fisherman or generic peasant who knows nothing about comas, it seems a rock-solid 100% miracle. But it is not so amazing.

I have read that, with the winds from the right directions, the waters in a tributary of the Red Sea, apparently, really do separate and it is possible, briefly, to literally walk across the sea bed from one side to the other. Something which seems utterly impossible does happen naturally – though very very rarely.

The odds against the Red Sea parting seem so great as to be impossible. And it seems against Nature. But (with a slight geographical adjustment – it’s not really the Red Sea itself) the impossible becomes merely a rarity. What seemed impossible becomes unlikely but possible.

And the unlikely happens all the time.

Which brings us back to iPads and eyepads.

Oh, alright, it’s not profound, but I find it mesmerising.

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A glove on the head in Macclesfield, a pantomime horse race and a new sexual perversion

It was a bit of a surreal weekend.

On Saturday night, Vivienne and Martin Soan‘s regular monthly London club Pull The Other One was playing their second irregular show in an interestingly packed Macclesfield Town Hall.

Interesting because it did not strike me as a regular comedy audience. They appeared to be a middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road audience just out for a good time on a Saturday night. They could have been there for an Agatha Christie play by the local Rep; they could have been there for a Michael McIntyre show. Fair enough.

What surprised me, then, was that they really seemed to appreciate the always very very bizarre, surreal comic, musical and visual talents of Andrew Bailey – who seems never happier than when he has a rubber glove on his head – and the Marmite-odd performances of Holly Burn.

Both are really beyond Alternative comedy; both would have been watched in stunned incomprehension 15 years ago (and Andrew Bailey was); but both were now accepted and appreciated by what seemed to me to be a very mainstream audience. Surprising and somehow reassuring.

But, then, the show had started with full-frontal nudity from Martin Soan with a brown paper bag over his head – so they had a hint up-front it was not going to be a Michael McIntyre show.

This Pull the Other One show in Macclesfield on Saturday night was so odd that when I went to see the first annual Pantomime Horse Race in Greenwich on Sunday afternoon, it seemed a perfectly reasonable and sane event.

Although, in the gents toilet of one Greenwich pub, the normal condom vending machine was joined by another wall-mounted vending machine selling a Viagra substitute, inflatable sheep and inflatable guitars.

Condoms are perfectly normal in a gents toilet vending machine… Viagra is fine… inflatable sheep I can cope with… but inflatable guitars as a sex aid ???? Have I missed a rising perversion ???

All help and advice (preferably with pictures) gratefully received.

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Kate Middleton, Mary Millington, Adolf Hitler, the New York Jew and the British porn baron

Six degrees of separation? Probably less.

I was talking to someone who went to University (UCL, London) with the mother of Kate Middleton, our possibly future Queen. He didn’t know her well, only peripherally. But he also knew peripherally fellow London University student David Sullivan (Queen Mary College) who was captain of a rowing team at the time but who was also chummy with future porn star Mary Millington and who was dipping his toes in what was later to become his vast pornography empire, including the Daily Sport and Sunday Sport newspapers.

This vague link between our possibly future Queen’s mum and one of the UK’s primary purveyors of soft-ish porn reminds me of esteemed American comedian Andrew J Lederer who, a few years ago, built an entire Edinburgh Fringe comedy show round his close link to Adolf Hitler.

Well, one degree of separation (or is it two?)

A few years before, at some movie event in the United States, Andrew had met and shaken the hand of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s famous film director. She, obviously, had shaken Hitler’s hand way back in the 1930s and 1940s. So Andrew, a New York Jew, was only one handshake removed from Adolf Hitler.

All this and I’ve still never met Baby Spice. So near and yet, tragically, so far.

Life.

Tell me about it.

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The manic-depressive comedy act and the fantastic female astronaut phenomenon

Tonight I’m off to see the last of American comic Lewis Schaffer‘s twice-weekly shows Free Until Famous at the Source Below in Soho. The shows should resume in January. As far as my extensive experience goes, “a rollercoaster ride of emotions” is pretty much what Lewis guarantees.

He tells me a psychiatrist friend told him his shows are an exact recreation of a bi-polar, manic-depressive incident. Bloody right. Rollercoasters. Comedy rollercoasters. That’s what they are. He has an extraordinary and mesmerising talent for plucking defeat from the jaws of victory just as often as vice versa. He has perhaps four or five hours of good, solid, funny material and you can never be certain which parts and which configuration will surface in any particular one-hour show… and then you throw into this volatile mix his occasional sudden bouts of self-doubt (which he then analyses as part of the act) and his low boredom threshold… plus he will career off-course if there is any distraction or any good audience interaction. He is a Wikipedia of knowledge. Throw him an audience member from some obscure village in Guatemala and the odds are he will know some bizarre and fascinating fact about it.

“Unpredictable” does not quite do him justice. And then there are the audiences he attracts.

A few weeks ago, he asked an American girl in the audience what she did for a living and it turned out she was USAF Sargent Katie Sparks, a former astronaut on the Mir Space Station. She had spent twelve days up there in space in 2006. Lewis got her up on stage and he and the audience asked her questions about what she’d done and how she’d felt and she answered with fascinating details.

Except that, after the show, Lewis checked out her 2006 trip to Mir and discovered that not only did the Mir space station burn up in 2001 – five years before she claimed to have been in it – but he could find no reference to any female astronaut called Katie Sparks. She had made the whole thing up – whether as an intentional con trick for unknown reasons or as a fantasist’s dream, he could not figure out. There is a photo of “Katie Sparks” on Lewis’ Facebook page.

Lewis won the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe for pulling a publicity stunt so outrageous that the Edinburgh Comedy Awards (showing a remarkable lack of any sense of humour) threatened to take him to court. Could he have been out-stunted and out-witted this time?

He (and I) would be interested to know who “Katie Sparks” is and how and why she managed to persuade Lewis and an entire audience that she was a female astronaut. Born-and-bred New Yorker Lewis is even beginning to doubt that she was American.

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The Three Golden Rules of Comedy

The percentage likelihood of strange things happening is almost always mis-quoted by the media. For example, the odds against any one specific person being killed by a pig falling on his or her head are VERY high. It is very unlikely ever happen to you yourself or to any specific, named individual. But the odds of some one person being killed by a falling pig somewhere in the world at any time during your lifetime are much lower. It is highly likely to happen

Shit happens all the time to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit. Which brings me to comedy improvisation.

I am a tad wary of improvisation groups perhaps because, when I was a student, I used to go most weeks to see shows called Theatre Machine supervised by Keith Johnstone at the Freemason’s Arms pub in Hampstead. Keith later went on to create Theatresports. His earlier Theatre Machine shows were so effective and so entertaining that it arguably ruined me for any other improvisation groups.

The other problem is that, by their nature, improvisation groups are often reliant on their audiences for inspiration.

On Tuesday, I went to see The Couch at The Miller pub behind Guy’s Hospital, near London Bridge. The venue has different impro groups each week and this week there were nine improvisers – possibly four people too many but all very good and – strange but true – they included Mensa’s former financial director Neil Goulder.

They were uniformly good as performers and improvisers, but two of their sketches showed the difficulties of the art. Two good punters suggested two good sketches, but one routine was doomed from the start by its very origin.

The successful one started with pulling one punter out of the audience and asking him about his childhood to provide the bare bones of the sketch. It turned out that, as a child, his hobby was, in all truth, keeping and breeding small creatures – principally snails, butterflies and wood lice. This was a pure gift for the comedy improvisers. It also turned out that the punter’s brother had accidentally trodden on and killed his favourite snail called (I’m not sure this can be true) Eric. Starting from those basic facts, the improvised comedy sketch could almost not fail. And it didn’t.

The other sketch, though, was doomed from the start because its original basis was so deeply bizarre that nothing the troupe could ever improvise could ever have made the story stranger. Funny haha stood no chance of outshining funny peculiar and it reaffirmed my belief that, if you pluck a punter at random from anywhere – a bus queue, a venue audience, the cheese aisle in Tesco – they will have the most extraordinary true stories in them. Because shit happens to everyone. All sorts of unique, bizarre, seemingly impossible shit.

This particular punter was asked what his most disastrous romantic date had been.

There was a pause before he replied: “Oh, there have been soooo many…”

The audience laughed.

He then talked about a date in which he had taken his prospective girlfriend to a restaurant. Halfway through the meal, she had an epileptic fit. He tried to help her as she writhed on the floor. But the other diners and restaurant staff thought he had been in some way responsible for what had happened – they thought perhaps he had given her Rohypnol or some other drug. The police were called and dragged him off into custody.

This sounds like the perfect basis for a dark comedy because it is so bizarre, but it was and is too bizarre. There was and is no way of exaggerating the reality into comedy. The truth was so beyond belief that there is no way of manipulating it and comedy usually requires the re-arrangement of reality. When the improvisers tried to recreate the event in three different movie genre styles it was partly successful but ultimately anti-climactic.

The improvisers had and have my sympathy. They stood no chance, through no fault of theirs, which exposes the odds against improvisational comedy being successful; by its nature, it is always hit-and-miss; you are sometimes totally dependent on the audience. The only thing that might have worked would have been to follow the late Malcolm Hardee’s Three Golden Rules of comedy as expressed on page 173 of his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake:

1. If in doubt, wobble about.

2. If that don’t work, fall over.

3. If that don’t work – knob out!

The third is, perhaps, not a practical option for everyone.

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Sex & poltergeists; the talking mongoose & the vampire rabbit

Day two of the Fortean Times UnConvention brought tales of “Sex and The Poltergeist” from Alan Murdie – by day a lawyer specialising in Intellectual Property legislation and Civil Liberties and by night a former chairman of the Ghost Club who now chairs the Spontaneous Cases Committee of the Society for Psychical Research – an interesting man, one of whose friends has the 4th largest collection of eye baths in private hands (which makes me wonder how many eye baths are in public collections). And he also knows of someone who is making a list of the registration numbers of bassoons.

Alan expounded on the true story of Gef The Talking Mongoose in the Isle of Man – also known as the Dalby Spook – an allegedly talking mongoose in the 1930s who also had the added advantage of psychic abilities… and he was also pretty good at catching rabbits too. The general consensus seems to have been that Gef was a Freudian projection from the mind of his owners’ 18 year old daughter… or possibly an imaginary talking penis as he was long, pink and had hair at one end. A story with a hint of Forbidden Planet about it: monsters from the Id with balls.

You don’t get this sort of stuff at most conventions and the Fortean Times UnConvention was suitably rounded-off by freelance art journalist Gail-Nina Anderson, who lectures on Pre-Raphaelite art. She gave a lively lecture on ‘The Vampire Rabbit’ of Newcastle – a bizarre carving on an early 20th century office block – about which no-one knows anything or, as she put it, “a myth waiting to happen”.

It has all the ingredients for a good myth – or, rather, it could have – it just needs someone to make up plausible – or even interestingly implausible – background stories.

Now… creating a myth… that would be something.

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