My first experience of the Fortean Times Unconvention was sprung on me this last weekend after Greg offered me a press pass out of the blue. Once domestic leave was negotiated, I couldn’t possibly refuse it – the central London venue of the University of Westminster being a mere hour’s journey from my home counties base.
With simultaneous talks in two lecture theatres (one a little too big and the other a little too small), one was forced to make difficult choices at times. Thankfully though, having heard veteran researcher and Daily Grail blogger Paul Devereux speak earlier in the year, on the topic of ‘Magical Mindscapes’ – the investing of spiritual meaning in the landscape – a favourite topic of mine, mind you, and the subject of his latest book Sacred Geography: Deciphering Hidden Codes in the Landscape (Amazon US/UK), he was not too offended when I opted to attend Mark Pilkington’s talk instead!
With the word ‘Rendlesham’ in the titles of no less than three of the weekend’s talks, and another talk on the Berwyn Mountain UFO case, Mark, with his recently-published Mirage Men: An Adventure into Disinformation, Paranoia and UFOs (Amazon US/UK) , was hard put, in his talk on The Abuses of Enchantment – looking at the use of weapons of mass deception, to avoid the UFO topic in an effort to maintain some balance.
While it’s good to see the results of quality research into UFO cases, and it’s arguably not the fault of open-minded researchers (like mythbusting ‘Rendlesham botherer’ Ian Ridpath) if the ETH turns out to be largely unsupported by the evidence in the cases they study, the dominance of the UFO sceptic theme in this conference was somewhat unfortunate. Having said that, the individual presentations on this theme (that I attended) were all excellent.
Beyond the Ufological, Jan Bondeson’s talk on the Bosom Serpent and its parasitic relatives, and Jeremy Harte’s investigation into the trope of ghostly ‘headlessness’ were highly entertaining forays into the pre-scientific mind, both facilitated by the comic delivery of a moustachioed eccentric. I’d personally like to have seen more of an emphasis on how the symbolic significance of serpents and heads might lie at the root of these traditions though.
Charles Foster, speaking on the topic of his latest book Wired for God?: The Biology of Spiritual Experience (Amazon US/UK), gave a survey of attempts to explain away spiritual experience by reference to neurobiological research, before exposing the weakness of such reductionist arguments and concluding that correlations don’t imply causes.
Gordon Rutter’s talk on A History of Talking to the Dead did what it said on the tin, although largely focusing on the 19th century to the present day.
Feeling a bit under the weather on day 2, Ian Simmons’ account of Fantastic (or is that bad taste) Taxidermy left me feeling rather worse for wear. Walter Potter kitten tableaux and Gunther von Hagens’ plastinated bodies galore.
My powers of concentration impaired, I paid less attention to the Sunday afternoon offerings, although to be honest, they were of less personal interest to me than many of the other talks. Matthew Alford and Robbie Graham discussed their research into several cases of military and government interference in Hollywood. Authors Mark Chadbourn, Natasha Mostert and Adam Nevill discussed Forteana and Fiction, and Peter Brookesmith, David Clarke, Nick Pope, Ian Ridpath and Paul Devereux looked ahead to Ufology in the 21st Century.
While the Unconvention has not maintained a yearly presence, I look forward to the possibility of next year’s event.