Speakers at the Fortean Times Uncon know well that there’s nothing that titillates a fan of the Fortean more than a choice new morsel of unlikely freakishness, and they seldom disappoint.
Jon Ronson was on excellent form introducing the topic of his latest book ‘The Psychopath Test’ (Amazon US/UK), exposing insanity at the heart of psychiatry, from the dangers of faking madness too well, to the natural affinity between corporate capitalism and psychopathy, via 24-hour naked ‘crotch eyeballing’ sessions for psychopaths on acid.
Brian Regal, warming up to his main theme, ‘Science and the Sasquatch’, a review of the career of physical anthropologist Grover Krantz, mentioned in passing the dog-headed origins of St Christopher and Linnaeus’ category for cryptic species called the ‘Paradoxa’ and treated the audience to a medieval depiction of various monsters in speedos. While Krantz never achieved his goal of proving the existence of the Sasquatch, there’s no shame in the trying.
Next up, David Clarke reported on his investigation into a Sheffield woman’s death caused by her sighting of a ghostly apparition in an early example of spiritualism in 1855, a year which also featured many Fortean phenomena including Devil’s hoof-marks in snow.
When speaking on his chosen topic of talking dogs and canine intellectuals on German TV, Jan Bondeson (Amazon US/UK) drew complaints from viewers about his lack of respect for Hitler! Jan, with his delightfully dry wit, served up various canine personalities including a reincarnation of Pythagoras, a dog taught to say ‘How do you do Grandmama’ by Alexander Graham Bell and a talking dog named Don, who won over a hostile priest by offering up the word ‘Hallelujah’.
Struggling with his technophobia, the CFZ’s Richard Freeman gave an update on their latest expedition gathering data from local inhabitants in search of the yeti (stumbling upon stories of giant snakes along the way) and the orang pendek. While it must require extraordinary tenaciousness to maintain the slow but steady progress of cryptozoological research, it’s also a challenge to fill an hour’s talk with your latest findings. Who knew that false vampire bats taste like rabbit?
Day one’s talks concluded with Sarah Angliss building on the apparent theme of the weekend – talking animals and voices of the dead – treating us to a spooky 1890 recording of Florence Nightingale (although Otto von Bismarck singing a cowboy song might have been more fun), the New Jersey accent of Hoover the talking seal, and giving an audience member the chance of vocal immortality via the wax cylinder of an Edison phonograph. For her finale, Sarah treated us to the music of the aether, a performance on Theremin accompanied by a ventriloquist doll/automaton, inspired by John Logie Baird’s doll Stooky Bill, who featured in his early televisual experiments.
Day 2 kicked off with Christopher Josiffe’s account of a mysterious phenomenon which gripped the Isle of Man in the 1930s – Gef the talking mongoose – who took up residence in a remote farmhouse, but in his own words “knew a hell of a lot”, including all the gossip from the bus garage in Peel. Josiffe’s impersonations of various choice quotes from the creature were a highlight!
An allegedly cursed (but recently-carved) stone head joined David Clarke and Andy Roberts on stage as they entertained with examples of ancient and more modern rock-based lore, from Tigh na Cailleach, believed to be the oldest known pagan shrine in continual use, home to a stone family who watch over livestock during upland summer grazing, to the Hexham heads of evil repute, eventually discovered to have been cast in concrete as a father’s demonstration of his occupation to his daughter.
This was followed by best-selling authors Picknett and Prince. Lynn put a Hermetic spin on the origins of science, explaining that its pioneers (Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Bacon, Kepler, Tycho Brahe) were all inspired by the occult. Clive followed up with the provocative conclusion that modern physics supports the idea of ‘intelligent design’. Their book, The Forbidden Universe is available from Amazon US/UK).
In Ted Harrison’s history of apocalypse-prediction, he shared just some of the stories behind the apparently 250 predicted apocalypse dates which have already passed, from one found on an Assyrian clay tablet from 2800BC, to Harold Camping’s more recent attempt (which thankfully didn’t dissuade Ted from preparing for his talk). Those seeking further information on the coming apocalypse might wish to refer to the Rapture Index.
Gail-Nina Anderson gave an amusing account of the mummy in popular culture, charting its appropriation and distortion by horror flick and comic book to the point where it has become a comical (and easily-dodged!) monster figure.
As a finale, we were treated to a screening of comedienne and ventriloquist Nina Conti’s film tribute to her irrepressibly eccentric mentor Ken Campbell, who left his vent dolls to Nina in his will. The film follows Nina as she travels to a ventriloquist’s convention, and to Vent Haven in the US (a museum-cum-rest home for bereaved vent dolls). Movingly funny and disturbingly odd.
I must try to make it to the evening event next year. Highly entertaining by all accounts!
Previously on TDG: