I went to the first day of the Fortean Times‘ UnConvention at the University of Westminster today to see comedian Helen Keen’s hour long show It Is Rocket Science! which blends science, comedy and bizarre facts and unusually sat among even more bizarre fare. She was wildly enthusiastic, even by her high standards.
Fortean Times is the self-proclaimed ‘Journal of Strange Phenomena’ which non-readers assume concocts loony stories of crop circles, UFOs and conspiracy theories but which regular readers know casts a sceptical eye on anything strange and apparently inexplicable.
Presentations in today’s UnConvention included Ian Ridpath comprehensively demolishing the so-called Rendelesham Forest UFO Incident by going back to the original sources – US Air Force reports, UK police records and audio tapes actually recorded at the time – to reveal rational and arguably even mundane explanations of allegedly alien events which have escalated into OTT UFO myth – basically, he convincingly argued that the alleged ‘alien craft’ was a combination of a known falling fireball that night and a local lighthouse’s flashing light. It was an interesting dissection of how a myth gathers momentum.
As was Jan Bondeson’s talk on “The Bosom Serpent” – hundreds of years of stories of snakes, frogs and even a hen lurking inside people’s bodies. Jan, a senior lecturer and consultant rheumatologist at Cardiff University by day, came over as a cross between Dr Strangelove and Jimmy Carr with a droll line in dry humour. I was particularly impressed with his telling of the true tale of Catharina Geisslerin, the so-called Toad-Vomiting Woman of Altenburg, and how the cure for another historical figure’s frog-vomiting was to drink three pints of horse urine. Well, I guess that would cure you of complaining about anything else although the alternative remedies of luring snakes out of their lair in people’s stomachs by enticing them with sweet-smelling milk or cheese or even using an improvised fishing rod seem a tad easier.
Then there was Mark Pilkington on myth-making by the world’s Intelligence services and tales of how a Chinese lantern can become a time-travelling Nazi flying saucer and how Communist insurgents in the Philippines were routed by the CIA’s leaked fictional rumours of a winged vampire (something only topped by Helen Keen’s revelation in It Is Rocket Science! of American plans in World War II to attack mainland Japan using thousands of bats with miniature bombs attached to them).
Aside from Mark Pilkington’s tales of the KGB’s First Directorate and their successful plot to spread a false rumour that AIDs resulted from CIA plans to develop a genetic and/or ethnic weapon… and the Rand Corporation’s 1950 paper by Jean M.Hungerford on “The Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare”, I was particularly interested to hear that the US Government’s short-lived Psychological Strategy Board as long ago as the early 1950s had suggested using existing respected cultural organisations to spread stories.
In the 1990s, I knew a Western European who, during the Cold War, had been a deep cover sleeper agent for the Soviets. He had been ‘run’ via the East Germans. When he was caught by the Americans in Germany, they debriefed him in Washington, but not in any CIA or Defense Department building. He was instead debriefed by the CIA in the offices of a major international cultural magazine.
The most fascinating thing I learnt during today’s UnConvention, though, was about Generoso Pope Jnr, a man I had never heard of before. Formerly employed by the CIA’s psychological warfare unit and with links to the Mafia (his son’s godfather was mob boss Frank Costello), Generoso Pope Jnr bought the New York Enquirer in 1952 (allegedly with money from Costello) and re-named it the National Enquirer, spawning future stories which not only claimed that the existence of the Mafia was a myth concocted by the Communists but also, via its sister paper the Weekly World News, publishing stories of an alien face on the Moon, the dead Elvis Presley seen working in local grocery stores and a gay marriage between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden with the happy couple adopting a shaved ape baby named Robert, who posed as a human child.
Now THAT’s what I CALL a conspiracy theory!
And who would have thought either the Mafia or the CIA had a sense of humour?