I’ve been rather busy of late, writing and voicing a series of short films for BBC Education.
I’m pleased with my first effort for BBC Ed (in collaboration with the animation company Once Were Farmers); making 8 short films teaching Maths Problems.
Anyone who went to school with me will find it surprising that I’m teaching Maths but I think my low boredom threshold for the subject qualifies me to attempt to make it interesting for the student. Whether I have is up to you. Apparently the ‘kids’ like the films, and so do the ‘teachers*‘. So, that’s nice.
As an aside: in the Once Were Farmers Studio is a bookkeeper/registered tax consultant (she rents a desk). I’ll not name Grace for fear of … oh dear. Anyway, Grace, despite overhearing us talking about teaching maths for at least 6 weeks, suddenly confessed to being an ex-Maths Teacher. Naturally we were a tad nonplussed at this belated confession. I mean, all this time and we could have been picking Grace’s brain – that is until this exchange:US: Yeah, we’re trying to make Maths interesting. EX-MATHS TEACHER: You can’t.
Anyway, I hope we have made maths interesting and I hope that our current projects end up being as well-received. Apparently these little Maths films have already been shortlisted for some kind of award, which is nice. God. Imagine if I won a prize for teaching maths: can irony be lethal at a high enough dosage? I’ll let you know. Or not.
Anyway, working on another two topics, but I’m not wishing to jinx anything until it’s absolutely signed, sealed and delivered and online – I’ll let you know what the subjects are, where you can find them, and when they go up on the BBC Website.
Here’s a link to the films: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01hmwd5/clips
*The use of inverted commas is sheer cheek, and I …. Do I apologise? Eh. Yes. I do. Sorry Miss. Sorry Si – we never called them Sir. Never!
Many British readers will be familiar with Terry Deary’s popular history books ‘Horrible Histories‘, if not from the books themselves, then from the CBBC Series. To be honest I’ve not seen the TV series, not out of disinterest, but mainly due to seething jealousy: that’s there’s a TV series being made today that teaches history using comedy – and I’ve got nothing to do with it. I’m sure it’s brilliant, but I’m too bitter and twisted to sit down and enjoy it. Really. I am this ungenerous a soul.
Terry Deary’s first ‘Horrible History’ book was published in 1994. Six years before this, the idea of teaching history by focussing on the horrible bits and using comedy to lighten the nastiness was something I employed as a Sunday School Teacher. Now, I bet all history teachers like to skip the boring stuff and concentrate on the gruesome, gossipy details of history, so this tactic of occupying opposing ends of the tonal spectrum to enliven a topic will not be new. I’m not claiming to have invented the genre of horrible historical teaching, I’m just kicking myself that I didn’t continue to develop the idea myself. Alas and alack. Etc.
What may be entirely novel (although, I am interested to know if I am wrong) is using this kind of approach to teach religion within a religious setting: i.e. Sunday School. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a Christian, but even when I was a Christian (and a somewhat evangelical one at that) I was aware that biblical stories, characters and events happened within a wider historical context. And that wider historical context is one of constant warfare, conquest and violence. Sunday School teachers tend to shy away from the more brutal or sexual stories in the bible, and that’s understandable. However, even the bible stories that we do teach children are shocking and brutal enough. It’s just that the way we teach these stories, the victims of God’s wrath (or Israel’s martial prowess) are completely dehumanised. Noah and his ark of jolly animals may be a cute image, but they’re floating on the watery grave of the entire human race, drowned by a jealous deity. It’s not the only act of mass extinction either carried out, or sanctioned by the grim Jahweh. And we teach these stories to children.
I won’t develop this argument any further. I’m actually at ease with my Christian up-bringing and my present spiritual outlook. I really don’t want to turn this blog into an anti-Christian rant – or an anti-Judeaism rant. There are plenty of religious traditions that exist today and have much to offer. The irony is that despite the majority of religions offering personal salvation and the possibility of redemption, it is the religions themselves that need saved from their own traditions and redeemed from their own bloody histories. Religions need to move on.
Anyway, even when I was a Christian, and I was teaching bible stories to children, I wanted to recognise that the Old and New Testament had a darker, more gruesome flip-side. I felt that it was important to set the bible stories in context – and also explain who the Romans were and why they were in charge during Jesus’ lifetime.
Here’s my really horrible history – just a taster of my first lesson – and the notes I also supplied to the teachers.
And the teachers’ notes!
The very talented DJ Frenchbloke was in charge of an FM Radio Transmitter for 24 hours during the opening weekend of the Wigtown Book Festival. His project, The Dark Outside FM captured the imagination of many a DJ, Producer and Musician: the play list for the day was long and impressive. He asked me to supply him with some idents, stings & an occasional dose of spoken word, which I did.
Here is a short piece of spoken word – written to celebrate the location from which the radio station was being broadcast – the Galloway Forest Dark Skies Park. To be honest, I have no idea if this was ever broadcast (I did record it) as much to my shame, I couldn’t make it. There are plenty more pieces, but here’s a taster.
The illustration of Nut and Geb is a team effort: I drew Nut and Penny Sharp drew Geb!
As Celts, Britons or Northern Europeans, we think of the Earth as feminine. Just think how naturally the phrase ‘Earth Goddess’ trips off the tongue.
The Egyptians thought differently. The earth was a God, Geb.
And who did Geb lust after? His sister, the Sky Goddess Nut.
An incestuous pair of divine beings, they once lay together, earth and sky, fascinated by each other, enraptured by their differences, inseparable. Their father, Shu, the God of Cool Air, a little shocked at this incestuous congress, forced them apart and the God Geb, missed his sister so much that he wept oceans and seas in grief.
There is another reading of this cosmic courtship. That Shu approved of this union, but so tight was their embrace that there was simply no room for their children to be born. It was the gulf between earth and sky that not just expressed the longing for new life, but the space for it to exist.
It is in Nut’s arched body, the distant firmament, in which the glittering stars are reborn every night. We stand on Geb’s broken body, and as children of the Earth have inherited his passion for bridging this gap and embracing the sky. In no other religion has such passion for the heavens been expressed – and yet, still we express it: for it is in our embrace with interstellar space that our new cosmic consciousness can be born. And who will the new Gods be?
Here’s yet another chance for you to peruse another pitch that didn’t quite excite the intended audience – in this case a panel of judges for The Wellcome Trust Screenwriters Prize. A worthy organisation and a fine opportunity. The brief is to pitch a film which has biomedicine, medicine or pharmacology as its theme – or at least has a biomedical thread running through it.
Here’s what I came up with: Electric Brae. After the initial rough draft I realised that I had written something akin to a ‘reverse rambo’; but far from being a disadvantage, I think a knowing pseudo-homage makes the pitch stronger.
Photo from the Ayrshire local council website. Thanks!
Your film in one sentence
When his friend is killed, an Army Veteran comes off his medication for PTSD so that he can grieve honestly – with disastrous consequences.
Outline for your screenplay in 800 words
ACT ONE -
In a small bar in a small rural town a couple of miles from the sea, a disheveled man with long hair enters. He holds himself well and is articulate, but there is something about him that unsettles the locals. He drinks too much and too quickly for the landlord and is refused a drink. The stranger becomes agitated and very emotional. When the local toughs try to throw him out, the man defends himself with ease. Then the local Police Sergeant walks in and clears the bar. He recognizes tattoos on the stranger’s arm, when he served for 5 years in the army before joining the Police. He pours him a drink and they talk. The stranger introduces himself as Douglas Black, a retired Warrant Officer in the Infantry. The Police Sergeant, Andy Ramsey, talks about his own time in the Army, and arranges a room for Douglas in a local B&B. Sergeant Ramsey does not arrest the man, and instead, takes him under his wing. Suspecting Douglas Black to have mental health issues he contacts the Veterans Agency and other charities, arranges housing and support for the man. Douglas begins treatment for PSD, and his mood is controlled by drugs. The rest of the community is slow to accept their new neighbour, so Sgt. Ramsey takes the lead and invites Mr Black round for a barbecue, introducing him to the local police and their families (including his own wife Claire and their two kids).
Douglas Black opens up about his experiences to Andy and Claire Ramsey, and reasons that his mood swings and violent outbursts are due to years of suppressed emotion; ‘keeping it together because I’ve got a job to do’. It looks like Douglas Black is on the road to recovery; he stops drinking, becomes far more emotionally stable, is good with Andy and Claire’s kids, and over a year, gains employment as an odd-job man for a local retired RAF Group Captain (who takes him out clay pigeon shooting) and even does a bit of local sight seeing (visiting a local tourist spot – a stretch of road which is an optical illusion; it looks like the road is going downhill, whereas it is actually going uphill – The Electric Brae).
Just when everything seems to be made right, Sergeant Andy Ramsey is killed by a hit and run. His body is found next to his patrol car, at the side of the electric brae. Sgt. Ramsey’s family and the wider community are devastated by this tragedy. Douglas Black feels numb and this disturbs him. He questions his emotional and mental response during Andy’s funeral. He just stands there. Frozen. The uniforms and the ritual seems to stir something in him, and he throws his bottle of pills into his friend’s grave. Douglas becomes very protective of Andy’s family and asks the police if they need any help. He cuts his hair and starts running and weight training. He also spends more time clay pigeon shooting. He is frustrated by the lack of progress in the investigation, and begins to stake out the Electric Brae, suspecting that Andy Ramsey was investigating a drugs ring, or was meeting an informant or…. He begins to question the official verdict – that his friend was killed by a random hit and run.
Spending long nights in the fields by the side of the road with a shotgun, looking at the Electric Brae – W.O.1 Black knows things are not what they seem…
Our obsessed hero begins to trawls bars asking questions and works his way through small drug dealers, asking them if they know anything. After cornering a dealer in his home, Black is arrested by the local police and taken to the local station. There he is met again by Andy’s widow, Claire. She pleads with him to ‘give it up’ and ‘get a grip’. Douglas Black escapes from the jail, screaming ‘None of you care! You’re all anaesthetized! Numb! You feel nothing! People die and you just don’t care!’
The next morning, the retired RAF Group Captain enters the police station to report a missing shotgun and box of shells. A mass search is begun for Douglas Black. We follow Claire Ramsey as she drives to Electric Brae. She parks her car next to the tree surrounding by mounds of wilted floral tributes and messages from the public. Desperate she shouts into the countryside from the road. There is no answer.
We never know if Douglas is near the brae at the end. We never know if Douglas was right about Andy’s death. Like Electric Brae, it’s all a matter of perception.
In many ways this is a knowing rewrite of ‘First Blood’, with a paranoid retelling of ‘Get Carter’ sandwiched in the middle. In the 1982 film, a Vietnam Veteran walks into town and does nothing wrong. The local sadistic Sheriff victimizes him, and the muscular monotone hero Rambo kicks off and escapes into the hills. Then follows a very physical struggle between Rambo and the local Police Force.
In Electric Brae, our army veteran is initially in the wrong. However, the local Police are extremely understanding and helpful. Our veteran’s struggle is with himself and his emotions and thoughts. The idea is to borrow lots of set-ups, scenes and tropes of muscular action movies, but the real battle is mental and emotional: what is a real emotion? How do emotions affect our thoughts? And how do drugs affect our emotions and our thoughts.
For me, I’m also motivated to tell a story that:
- shows the police in a positive light
- shows that society can care about its veterans
- shows medication in a positive, but not uncontroversial light
- shows how the forces of order within our society and ourselves cope with violence and chaos
- shows a story that is still open to interpretation. To respect Douglas Black’s state of mind, we have to be able to see things as he sees them – not dismiss his reasoning as entirely unreasonable!
Where have I been? What have I been up to?
I’m not talking about my whereabouts for the past year – a disgracefully long absence from my blog. I’m so ashamed, that I’m going to provide you with not just a full answer, but a ridiculously in-depth answer, and by deep I mean smelling of sandalwood and surrounded by crystals and tie-dyed cushions. Yes, the kind of deep that induces hallucinations in deep sea divers due to Nitrogen Narcosis – a pleasing deep, as long as you don’t hang around too long and think that the twilight realms of occult tourism are your natural habitat*.
For some years now I’ve had an interest in hypnosis. Especially the possibility that altered states of consciousness enable us to access information normally denied to us during our waking state. Paranormal literature records many ESP experiments carried out with subjects in an altered state; and the two controversial subjects of reincarnation and alien abduction are very much kept alive by hypnotic regression. It’s fair to say that the reason reincarnation and alien abduction are so controversial is because of hypnotic regression: it’s involvement never adds to the believability of an account, only subtracts from it. And the more of a believer the hypnotist is – then the more we can dismiss such accounts as being fantasy driven by the therapist’s own expectations.
So, like I say – I’m not sure about reincarnation, nor alien abduction – not even hypnosis!** I’m fairly sceptical about the whole lot.
But how could I refuse a free sample?
And so it was that I submitted myself to Paisley’s own Svengali***, Jen Treanor. A lady with an interesting back story: she was a mental health nurse working within the NHS and approached the subject with a measure of lofty distain, only to become – not just a believer in ‘complimentary medicine’ – but a practitioner. She’s been trained in hypnosis and all manner of complimentary therapies and her website can be found here. She approached the SSPR and I volunteered to submit myself to her mystic power - in the name of science.
Now, I don’t really believe in past lives, despite it being an attractive way to explain present ‘plot lines’ with ‘past narratives’, and neither am I an enthusiastic flag waver for the unlimited possibilities of hypnosis****, but I have to say that I very much enjoyed my session with Jen*****.
I recorded it and provide you with the transcript below. I found it to be a powerful theraputic experience. I don’t think I was in any kind of altered state (although very relaxed) and there was nothing special or unusual about any of the information I came up with. [Although, at a stretch there may have been an interesting detail- but still probably a coincidence, so much so, that it's not worth repeating]. However, the experience provided me with the time and space to tell myself a story about myself within that realm between wakefulness and sleep. What I said to myself was that I was neglecting my desire for spirituality. That’s it. Which is odd considering where I was (surrounded by candlelight and washed in new-age music). But anyway, here the transcript. I omit most of Jen’s patter as that would be unfair of me to reproduce her methodology. If you’re curious, book yourself a session.
JEN TALKS ME INTO AN INTENSE STATE OF RELAXATION. SHE ASKS ME TO DESCRIBE WHAT MY FEET ARE LIKE ?
Sandals with a flat sole…..
JEN: Any sense of standing? Sitting?
LONG PAUSE. JEN GOES INTO HER RELAXATION ROUTINE AGAIN.
JEN: What about your legs? Are your legs wearing something?
My legs are bare. Something coming down to my knees.
JEN: And the thing down to your knees is it comfortable or uncomfortable?
JEN: And is it heavy or light?
I imagine there’s a lot of material gathered in my lap….
THE FOLLOWING TRANSCRIPT IS ABBREVIATED WITH JEN’S QUESTIONS OMITTED/INCORPORATED INTO MY STATEMENTS
I imagine sitting in what might be a marketplace. In the shade. It’s a square. I’m in a cloister part… It’s quite busy…. Quite confident that my robe is of an orange colour…..It’s quite comfortable. Quite long…. It’s terracotta. Like the colour of a tile. It’s covers my shoulders and gathers in my waist. It hangs from my shoulders… There’s a lot of material….. My hands are in my lap. In the material. … My hair is short. Dark…. I’ve got a beard…. A short beard and moustache… I’m …. young…. My body feels fine…. I’ve got tanned skin….. It’s warm, but the stone is quite cold. …It’s not too quiet. It’s not busy either… It’s like a meeting place. ….. There are a few exits. I’m just watching…. It’s like I’m waiting for something to happen….. The others have got the same sort of colours, togas, and …. curious bits of material on their shoulders. Almost squared off. Almost like sailor suits, but ….the extra length of material is hanging off their shoulders… Theirs seems to be shorter, my toga seems to have more material…. They’re going about their business. ….. It feels like a morning break. ….
I don’t know why I imagine this, but I imagine that someone’s looking for me, someone’s coming to get me. An older man… White robes. I’m guessing a Priest. …It’s like he’s looking for me and he’s not too pleased. ….It seems to be that he’s some kind of official. ….It’s like I’ve got to do something…. And this is a delaying tactic….
I’m in a square with lots of rectangular architecture. There’s a dark passage cut with bright squares of sunlight….. It seems to be that where I am is quite high up. On a ridge. There are more buildings on a slope lower down…. Lots of flat roofs…White stone… Not too high up. I just look down… We’re above the rest of the town. It’s quite a small ….it’s like we’re on a plateau but the town is in a hole in the ground. …
The man is pointing at something. Showing me something. It looks like a ….like a statue. And it looks like it’s gilded….. I feel as if I’m not part of the ~ ….. I feel like I’ve got a job to do. I’m not like a worshipper…. The Statue’s quite large…..
I don’t know. I think it’s human. But with the head of an animal. It’s indoors, but it’s quite dark – but there’s a lot of sunlight at the corner – at the side. There’s yellow candles…. I seem to be doing – I seem to be using clay, or some mush, but I’m doing something. ….Maybe it’s not clay, but it’s like seeds, or some kind of paste. I …I might be making incense, but I don’t know… The older man is supervising. ….It’s like he’s the boss. Not someone I know well. I … I don’t really feel as if I care much….or care about what I’m doing….
It’s like I know I want to fight but I know it’s pointless… (sounding particularly dejected) I just can’t win….
I was brought there…
JEN THEN ASKS ME TO GO BACK TO MY EARLIEST MEMORY OF THAT LIFE
It’s dark. It’s torch light. It’s a campfire…. I’m young-ish. A teenager. There are a few people there. People that I’m familiar with…. It’s like a normal situation. Except there’s an older man is…quite …angry, or something’s annoying him. ….It’s like I’m not yet an adult, but there’s some bigger crisis and I’m being kept out of the loop. They’re talking about things happening….Almost like politics. …These people are like my family. My extended family… I’m just getting the vague notion of war or warfare happening…..
JEN THEN ASKS ME TO MOVE MY ‘MEMORIES’ FORWARD
I feel like I’m a man now. I feel like I’m armed. I’m part of army. I feel good about it. I feel like there’s something to be done. … .I’ve got a shorter tunic. Sandals. A belt. Sword. Shield. That’s it….. The shield’s round, and it extends three quarters, to shoulder length. The swords almost got three points…it’s trapezoid almost. The blade flares out. It’s quite unusual…. I’m marching with other people. I’m armed…. It’s hot and dusty. There’s a river valley with steep rocky cliffs. ….There’s nothing on the shield. There’s about a hundred of us. Not too many. We’re purposeful. Not particularly optimistic. It’s just something that must be done…..
JEN THEN ASKS ME TO MOVE MY ‘MEMORIES’ FORWARD
….I get the feeling that I get injured. I get hit between the eyes. I’ve got a scar on my forehead…. I was hit with a sword. I’m kind of amazed my skull didn’t get fractured….
I’m ashamed to have the scar. It reminds me that I lost…
It’s not just the clothes I wear it’s the fact that everyone can look at me and see that I’ve been beaten…. I was going to say shame…but it’s not shame – it’s frustration…. I can feel that now. That tension in my forehead.
JEN THEN OFFERS TO REMOVE THIS TENSION ASSOCIATED WITH MY PAST LIFE MEMORY******
It just chimes with the feeling of people judging you on looks. How you look….
I NOW GO OFF-PISTE AND IMAGINE ANOTHER PAST-LIFE SCENARIO
I imagine a small girl running through tall grass. She’s nine years old. She’s gasping, gulping. Running desperately. Trying to get somewhere. To a wooden house. I imagine she doesn’t get there.. It’s like she’s shot in the back by a spear or javelin. She’s definitely dead…. I get the feeling this is much later… It looks like she’s wearing a dress, but it looks like she’s got a spear or javelin in her back….
JEN REALISES THAT I’VE WANDERED OFF INTO ANOTHER ‘MEMORY’ AND BRINGS ME BACK TO THE ORIGINAL NARRATIVE
I’m still in the temple. It’s like time passes…. It’s like the God isn’t my God, but this deity ends up being my confessor, because I can’t stand the people… It’s like this God is the only thing that I have a relationship to, because I can’t bond with the people. I end up respecting the God. But not the people….
I don’t know who the God is….
It’s like I end up being quite spiritual despite myself. It’s my job to be there… It’s not my job to worship… It’s like I end up having a strong bond with the deity, but the Priest, who’s job it is to be there, he ~ it’s like he doesn’t ‘get it’. He’s just too….. He’s just too…. He just ….scowls too much….
I think he’s a hypocrite….
I don’t know. I just feel like I’m connected to that God. I feel like….. I feel like God makes me special again…. Instead of me being in the temple looking up at him, that perspective, it’s like me looking out from the perspective of the statue out of the temple ~ and I can see the other end of the temple – it’s not a wall, it’s open. And it’s open to the rest of the… You can see daylight out of it. It’s almost like a shoebox except one of the short ends is open and there’s very small square windows along the topside of the walls. And it’s like…. It’s the feeling that the God in the temple is looking down at the whole town. And so am I…..
It almost feels like me and the God are friends… It sounds ridiculous…
(sounding particularly emotional) My status doesn’t matter anymore….
It’s like I’m em…. The statue is gilded… I’m washing the statue. ….And I’m not washing the statue because I have to, it’s because I want to. And then it’s the thought that … that the statue is empty. That there’s nothing in the statue. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t know…. I don’t know. I just … I just accept that the God’s transcendental and so am I…. It’s not physical. And it doesn’t matter…
IT WAS TIME FOR ME TO GO. JEN SAID THAT WE COULD PICK THAT SESSION UP AGAIN, BUT I REPLIED:
“I feel that that drama has resolved itself”
And I think that it did.
* I feel that metaphors and analogies are like daemons. Powerful things that once summoned demand the respect of at least a lengthy audience. This is why I feel strangely bound to stick to an analogy or metaphor once I’ve started. I could have gone on and on about the paranormal being like nitrogen narcosis. But I’ve spared you that.
** Hypnosis is a controversial subject. Just ask any academic or psychologist. It’s still a hot potato after 200 years or so. Some psychologists say that it’s 100% social compliance. Nothing altered other than our willingness to conform to the expectations of another.
*** Yes, I know, I thought that was me too.
**** Don’t believe me? Read this. Nobody has a clue what’s going on.
***** F’nar f’nar yourself.
****** Oh c’mon. Grow up. This is a serious spiritual journey I’m on here.
I have a thing for things. Mysterious things. Especially monsters. It wasn’t always like this. My interest in the paranormal was genuinely Fortean: all manner of oddities were appreciated equally. Which is apt for a blog called ‘Cabinet of Curiosities‘. Of course, I had preferences; I was more interested in Poltergeists, Hauntings and UFOs, but Monsters did not feature much in my musings. However. Monsters have a well deserved reputation for sneaking up on you, and that’s exactly what cryptozoology did to me.
One evening on the last day of April, 10 years ago, I set off from Glasgow with a Paranormal Investigator Colleague, to investigate a small loch in the Highlands called Loch Ashie. Apocryphal lore suggested that on the shores of this Loch, many people had witnessed a ‘phantom battle’ taking place. Often phantom horsemen would be seen galloping across the moor, or fishermen on the loch would hear the sounds of screams and clashing swords from the misty shores… but see nothing. Our trip promised to be atmospheric at least, with the alleged phenomena being ‘best witnessed at dawn on May the 1st’. So, for this reason, I found myself walking down a muddy track with a torch after midnight on the north shore of Loch Ashie.
Nothing in our maps, or guidebooks, warned us about the new industrial building site now sprawling over the moorland at the head of the loch. High fences branded with ‘Scottish Water’ now straddled the bracken and heather, and I’m sure an obliging grouse or pheasant would have garnished the top of a yellow digger, just to please the tourist board. But there were no tourists. Especially after midnight. Just two paranormal investigators, trudging down a track towards the night watchman’s cabin. I remember seeing his silhouette against the window. Clearly staring at our bobbing twin torchlight and wondering who the f*ck we were, and what the f*cking f*ck we were doing. I thought it best to continue to advance and explain ourselves. My colleague thought otherwise, and we retreated back up the track, jumping round the potholes like kids playing hopscotch.
The Nightwatchman was a credit to his profession and duly called the police. We were met by the Highland Constabulary, and a ponderous and determined Highland Bobby quizzed us as to why we were creeping about a building site after dark? With some embarrassment my colleague explained that we were paranormal investigators, here to investigate the phantom battle of Loch Ashie, and we were really very, very sorry about the inconvenience. Our confession brought two responses: more police arrived for a giggle as apparently it was a quiet night in Inverness, and an earnest response from our first inquisitor. Our main interrogator was a local lad who was very familiar with the stories and didn’t regard them as far fetched or something to automatically ridicule. By now the Nightwatchman had arrived and our mission was understood and appreciated by all. We would proceed with our stakeout with the blessing of Scottish Water and the Highland Constabulary.
By now however, the nerves of my colleague had given out. He can face the horrors of the paranormal with ease apparently, but the grins of PC Donald Macdonald and Sergeant Ranald McRanald were too much to bear. Our run in with the law amused me, but embarrassed him terribly. He decided that we would inconvenience nobody any longer and we would drive back to Glasgow immediately.
I found this a tad disappointing, but as he was driving, I had no choice. However, as we had driven so far, and we had packed flasks and snacks for a long vigil, I suggested that we take a slight detour, and could we drive back via Loch Ness, and maybe have a break next to the shore?
My colleague obliged and we duly chose a suitably promising lay-by on the B852 (on the eastern shore of the loch), opposite Urquhart Castle. He stayed in his car eating sandwiches, whilst I found a track through the mess of trees down to the rocky shore. I took my camera out and wrapped the strap round my right wrist. I poured myself a coffee and rocked on my heels on the beach, gazing out across the loch to the distant lights of Urquhart Bay. A half moon shone a path of white light down the centre of the loch. It was a pleasant night and I was amusing myself with thoughts of Doc Shiels summoning Nessie. Indeed, I remember I was in a particularly good mood; a combination of an instant caffeine and sugar boost mixed with the image of a man prancing about on a beach, waving his magic wand (fnar fnar).
It was then that I saw it. Her. It. Constantly in motion, something between the graceful rise of a swan’s neck out of water and a wiggly worm, an animated question mark (how apt) moving from left to right. I estimated it to be about 6 feet out of water (1.8 metres my metric chums) and it was framed brilliantly by the path of moonlight. My instant reaction was one of joy and I said out loud, ‘no way, no f*cking way‘, and then curiously my brain started to squeeze at least 20 seconds of thought into 0.2 of a second. I reasoned that I was witnessing something that no-one would believe, and yet, here I was with a camera in my right hand (a cup of hot coffee was in my left). I also reasoned that even if I did take a photo, the chances of anything appearing on the film would be negligible (I had no telephoto lens and it was 1 a.m in the morning). However, the mere fact that I would not try, would, I reasoned, count against my credibility, so I decided to take some photos. I took five photographs. With a flash (it is an old automatic 35mm film camera). By the time my eyes had slightly readjusted to the darkness, I could see nothing.
I stood on the beach, elated. To one side was a tree, its roots dipped into the icy waters, and to my other side, a giant boulder, also skirting the water’s edge. I was thrilled. What I had seen was not just brilliant, it was also – and I write this as someone who really has no reputation to lose, so I really don’t give a f*ck – sexy. My Mayday Monster was keeping an appointment with the pagan calendar; there was something very much ‘sap rising‘ about my sighting. However, a few minutes afterwards, my excitement cooled. Large waves began to crash on the shore and a thought began to coalesce in my brain: ‘it’s all very well that monster being 500 metres or so out in the middle of the loch, but what if it appears right next to me..?’
I legged it back up to the car. I told my colleague about what I’d seen. I know he didn’t believe me. I hardly believe myself*. And as a footnote: the photos? A mysterious mist appeared on all the shots. How odd, there was no mist? Maybe I had captured something paranormal after all? …. and then I remembered what I had in my left hand. A cup of steaming hot coffee. I had succeeded in photographing steam from a cup of coffee – brilliantly.
So, 10 years later, I set off to Loch Morar**, Europe’s deepest lake, in the hope of seeing Morag. The joke was, that when I set off to see a bunch of ghosts, I ended up seeing a lake monster. So, if I set off to see a Lake Monster, I’d be guaranteed of getting ~ something else? This time my travelling companion was not a fellow Paranormal Investigator, but my partner Penny. What she lacks in the realm of Paranormal Investigating, she more than makes up for it with looks, and being a talented artist, she’s an uncommonly gifted observer. Not that artists these days are automatically good at looking and remembering, but Penny is.
The landscape around Loch Morar is stunning. It is an ancient landscape, brooding, humbling, a cure for mad dogs. At risk of offending 3 major world religions and appearing as a rabid nationalist, I think there’s something special about the British Isles. Our ancestors clearly did, judging by the quantity and quality of the sacred architecture that still graces our islands. Calling a strip of land on the Eastern Mediterranean the ‘Holy Land’ is not just an ironic misnomer, it’s an insult to the other 98% of the landmass of Planet Earth. Only a desert people could conceive of a world made in six days: all that sand and gravel and a few carelessly placed shrubs, it looks like a building site. But the landscape of Scotland? It was never a rushed job. Giant rocks worn smooth by millennia rise from the cold water like cosmic braille: the Sun God is blind here in Caledonia, his power weak. The sky is humbled, gray, endlessly mourning. This is a land in which the Gods creep and whisper, as to not wake the slumbering earth. Or its Monsters…
On our last night in Morar, I ventured forth to the loch side to see if Morag would be kind enough to appear. On the previous days Penny & I had enjoyed cycling around the north coast of the loch, and picking through the glittering stones on the beach. We had seen plenty of small boats on the loch, and small rocks poking through the grey waters, but no mysterious lumps of monster flesh. I picked an impressive boulder to perch upon, that teetered over the water, some 100 yards or so past the Catholic Church. I picked the site as churches are often sited somewhere ‘for a reason’ (nudge wink) and can be good places to catch a glimpse of the weird and wonderful. So, in not great light some time around 11 pm (there was some light still in the sky, backed up by occasional moonlight through the clouds) Penny and I hunkered down, cracked open some especially fine bramble whisky liqueur and waited.
Penny doesn’t have great night vision, nor does she like the water, so she was feeling particularly uneasy about being perched on a rock with a 1o ft drop into a icy loch beneath her dangling sandshoes. The booze helped, but she was uncomfortable with the thought of a long cold vigil. Morag needed some nudging along. So we decided to do some ‘summoning‘. No invocations or sigils or force of will, just loud drunken singing. However, not so much singing, as droning. After my feeble effort, I have to say that Penny managed to emit a sound so weird that it made my spine tingle. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was if sound had taken me roughly by the collar and was spiritually enlightening me round the back of a dodgy Siberian Nightclub. Without too much thought, Penny understood the Monster Summoning Brief, and responded with a noise that combined all her years of playing bass like Lemmy, taking drugs like Julian Cope and loving aquatic animals like Terry Nutkins.
Loch Morar remained calm. Paths of rippling water would shift and merge across its surface. The Loch looked like a dance-floor for clouds: slow patches of moonlight blinking on and off, the distant mountains, disinterested wallflowers.
Penny and I drained the last of our liqueur and moved onto an especially fine single malt. And it was then that the noise behind us caught our attention. We had been perched on our rock for something like 40 minutes, and now and then the large corrugated iron boat shed, or the parked horse-box in the passing place behind us, would give off a metallic clang. Penny was slightly unnerved by these sounds, but I confidently asserted that metal and wood cool and contract at nighttime, and as such, can be expected to give off the odd ominous clang, creak or twang. Such pat explanations are regularly dished out to clients as part of my Paranormal Investigator repertoire, and are second nature to me. I had dismissed a few of these noises over the past half an hour , but the latest one sounded ~ ?
Like a stone hitting metal. Or something being hit. Or something being hit to get our attention. Something percussive about the noise grabbed our attention and made us think twice. And as we whispered to each other in the half light we heard something distinctly non-metallic. The crunch, crunch, crunch of something walking through the dense undergrowth and bracken of the slope behind the road. It had the familiar rhythm of a bipedal gait taking three long steps in the brush. And that was it. No steps or movement leading up to that noise, or leading away. I asked if anybody was there, and then – fully expecting to fail to capture anything – took 3 photographs of the passing place and slope behind. The flash ruined our night vision and we waited, hunched on the rock for a minute, until the burned afterimage of camera flash diminished enough for us to confidently walk back to our hotel.
Whilst walking back, I discovered that Penny didn’t particularly enjoy Monster Hunting. Curiously, she heard something that I didn’t hear: a growl***.
Back at our hotel we rationalised our experience away, and this rationalisation stands: it was probably a stag. Often four footed animals can sound like they walk on two legs, and stags also make curious low growls and barks. We were in the Highlands after all, and making a bizarre racket. If anything was going to check us out, then a stag is the likeliest candidate. City slickers are handicapped observers in the countryside, and many unfamiliar animal sounds are misinterpreted and misreported by thrill seekers (like ourselves).
However, questions remain. Would we not hear such a beast arrive to make its apparent three strides, then leave? It is possible that the stag/badger/mongoose/whatever stayed motionless in the darkness until we left the scene, then buggered off, but it still doesn’t answer how it got there in the first place (unless of course, it was there, motionless, in the first place). But, thinking back, it did sound like a muscular stride through thick undergrowth: three strides, crunch! crunch! crunch! And, why did only Penny hear the growl? I was listening intensely. Trust me.
Some experiences are diminished through analysis, and if I can pretend not to care about the ontology of it all, I found my monstrous encounters thrilling. If I can dismiss my own rational dismissals****, then I have seen a loch monster and heard a …hairy hominid? Werewolf? Growly Teleporting Tramp of The Highlands? It’s important that I figure this last encounter out, as I need to pursue this enigma next. And you’ll know what’ll happen next time, and what the next title of my incredible anecdote will be: ‘I went werewolf hunting and instead saw... ‘
* It took me six years to talk about this experience in public. It is a very corny story. Totally incredible. I’m fairly certain it was a curious hallucination. An hallucination because I don’t really believe there’s a giant monster in Loch Ness (of the real variety). And curious because my experience matches many other witness statements. It is, of course, possible that I subconsciously absorbed these other anecdotes, only for my brain to produce the goods later on. If one subscribes to crypotamnesia, then this is possible. But the hallucination explanation/dismissal of paranormal phenomena is a curious one in itself: why does this hallucination theory only seemingly apply to ghosts, aliens, monsters et al, and not foxy winking naked ladies? If the brain can rustle up a vision at the whim of expectancy, then why not floating tits? Why not mundane hallucinations? The psychological occurrence of hallucination should therefore be far more common than it actually is. But it isn’t. And yes – we do know it isn’t. “oh yes. but how’d you know?” you ask. Because there would be far, far more accidents in which people would report false perception. An automobile is not antithetical to the current scientific paradigm. But to hallucinate a car would drastically increase the number of accidents on the streets. Just a thought. It seems ‘hallucination’ is a label reserved for the ‘impossible’. Why are they impossible? Because such things are hallucinations. Tautology anyone?
** Our trip to Morar was an especially kind gift from my brother and sister-in-law (for my 40th). Penny and I arrived in the small village with more gifts, of the liquid kind (I can recommend Bramble Whisky Liqueur, available from Demijohn - thanks Graham & Ros). Some people fear the 40th hurdle – but believe me, the kindness of friends and family more than compensates! Thanks to everyone for their tremendous generosity!
*** Penny describes the growl as ‘really deep with a sort of ‘harumph’ at the end‘. She also says it was ‘menacing‘, although reasons that it may have sounded menacing because it was dark and she was scared. ‘It was a weird noise, not like a man’. On reflection, she’s almost certain that it was a stag, but why ruin a good paranormal yarn with a rational explanation?
**** Yup. I’m 95% certain it was a natural hairy highland beast, such as a stag, but I enjoy toying with the remaining 5%. As for my Loch Ness Experience, I found it hard to believe even when I was experiencing it right there and then. I am happy to file it under ‘fun brain error‘. However, that too has an equally marginal 5% of ‘Who knows?‘ I’m not a Paranormal Investigator because I enjoy being dogmatic. I can live with ambiguity and I also recognise ambiguity’s central role in paranormal phenomena: the marginal and ambiguous is where Psi - and Monsters – are to be found.
Picture the scene. A family on holiday in the highlands of Scotland. They have had their dinner in their creaky but comfortable hotel and are now out enjoying the evening air. The aprés dinner stroll on holiday has an air of self-satisfaction to it, unsurpassed by all other activities*. The family are content. They have walked a circuit round the village and are now returning along a road that slopes downwards towards the peripheral houses. To the left of them, the hill slopes upwards into a thick blanket of bracken, moss and heather. To their right, a thick pine forest runs down towards the loch, a hundred yards below.
The sun is low in the sky. The light is a heady mix of peaches and cream and the road is honeycomb orange. The pines cast a shadow down the middle of the road. Unselfconsciously the family walks abreast of the road, confident that they will hear any vehicle behind them, or see anything before them. They chat. Distracted. Happy.
Then up ahead, not far ahead, only five or six yards away, a black cat has walked out into the road and seeing the approaching family, has returned back to the safety and anonymity of the forest. It was a short stroll for the cat, only a matter of seconds. But the family saw it. And the sight of it silenced them.
Because the cat walked on its hind legs. And, it wasn’t a cat.
It couldn’t be. It was a… Well, it couldn’t be. The way it walked. The rhythm of its gait, the way its head was bowed, the curve of its back, and its two arms held out in front of it like, like… It was the same size as a black cat, and the same shade: featureless, an animated silhouette. But it wasn’t a cat. It was a little person.
And the family saw this. Certainly, they reacted as if something had happened, because the talking stopped. Like a switch tripped, the sighting had banished the atmosphere of human discourse and a strange silence descended. A conspiracy of silence. The family just continued back to the hotel without saying a word. As if they had just been threatened by a murderer, or struck by blow to the head. The sighting was never discussed amongst them then, or to this day**.
Only I’ve decided to share this experience now. It was my family and I would have been about 9 or 10 years old at the time.
I’ve had quite a few incredible experiences, which naturally, I’d rather not discuss. I rarely share my own experiences for fear of not being taken seriously. After all, we talk about a witness being credible, so how can a credible witness witness the incredible? They can’t. Experiences outside the norm are stigmatizing. Normality asserts itself through intimidation and ridicule. Paranormal Investigators are usually motivated by proving the existance of the paranormal, by presenting credible witnesses, credible testimony and credible evidence. Their case isn’t helped by the ridiculous and the incredible.
And ‘The Little People‘ out of all paranormal phenomena are quite patently the most ridiculous and the least credible.. But, wouldn’t you know, I have seen ‘a little person‘. This makes me sound like a right nutter, and once you combine that with my ‘I saw the Loch Ness Monster***‘ anecdote, then I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to stop reading now (and forever more). I’m just as sceptical as you are. I find it just as incredible as you do. It’s just that, I’m the person who has had this experience and it’s incumbent on me to rationalise it.
So, who might the ‘Little People’ be? Well, I am now well aware of the folklore, both traditional and modern, regarding the ‘little people’, but I’m going to skip all that. I can do no better than recommend ‘The Fairy Faith‘ by Evans-Wentz, or the work of Katharine Mary Briggs. For myself, I assert no concrete reality to the little people – or indeed, demand that any paranormal experience be accepted as ‘real’. I am happy to accept that my experiences were some kind of extra-subjective experience, not para-normal, but something between real and unreal****.
I think that if it is possible for people to dream of fantastic lands like Atlantis or Hy-Brasil, then so too can the land dream of people. Except the land dreams of people as people should be: discreet, timeless and sparkling with wisdom.
I apologise if this makes me sound as if I’m advocating a conscious universe, a neo-platonic animistic dreamworld, a holographic infoverse, but I am. And if that makes me sound as if I’m away with the fairies, then maybe I am.
Maybe I am.
*Yes, there may be those who swear by their swinging parties in the lofty penthouses of London, but the crunch of gravel beneath my feet in a country lane is my idea of a peak experience. You will note that I particularly enjoy twilight strolls.
**This kind of instantaneous amnesia, or lack of proper conscious reaction to anomalous experience, is well-known to students of Forteana. Indeed, the Fortean Times has regular rounds of correspondence on the subject, with some pretty fascinating examples. Especially when one person in a group shares an observation/experience with others, but then finds themselves in the alarming and unique situation of being the sole person to remember it! The likeliest explanation is that our brains do not cope well with novel or exotic experiences, and as such, bizarre experiences are easily barred by over-zealous concierges of our consciousness*****. My own Mother has heard her own ’concierge‘ speak. She once witnessed a curious hissing sphere of ball lightning floating from one end of her bedroom to the other. She was initially alarmed, then she heard a voice say ‘this is not for you‘ (or words to that effect), which relaxed her and she swiftly fell asleep. The curious footnote to this yarn is that she never mentioned it to my father, as she just assumed it was yet another one of her David Lynch style visions. Yet 20 years later, she found out that my Dad had seen the whole thing (but heard no reassuring voice. It’s just my Mum that has Psychic Satnav). There could be another 20 pages of blog on the subject of my Mystic Mum, but I want to spare you that. I’ve had 40 years of “I knew that plane was going to crash, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah“. Her uncritical acceptance is one of the reasons that I need to investigate the paranormal. I may have bizarre experiences, and have spent my life surrounded by bizarre experiences, but that’s no excuse for sloppy thinking. Or accepting uncritically crazy nonsense******.
***This is another blog entry for another day, but yes – I have seen the Loch Ness Monster. It’s a long story, but I wasn’t really expecting to see Nessie, as I was in the neighbourhood to see a phantom battle instead. But hey ho: phantom battle nil, loch monster one. Recently, I was visiting Loch Morar, with the express intention of seeing ‘Morag‘. Yes, yes, it’s corny but it’s true. Loch Ness has Nessie, Loch Morar had Morag, and even Loch Sheil has …Deborah. Only kidding. Sheila, of course. Anyway, when on a holiday up north recently, my good lady & I didn’t see Morag the monster of Loch Morar, but – true to form – experienced something else… Which in itself is corny and unbelievable. It’s almost as if ‘The Cosmic Trickster‘ is on my case… “Heh heh, here comes Innes Smith… What is he expecting this time!? X? Let’s give him Y!”
****As a terribly serious paranormal investigator that adheres to (and salutes!) the ‘scientific method’, I’m increasingly becoming used to the idea that Ontology is just a big distraction. The obsession of whether something is objectively real or not, may actually be counterproductive to helping people cope with their experience, and be a hurdle towards understanding something central to paranormal phenomena: its innately marginal and undefinable state. The paranormal, after all, rarely submits itself to scientific scrutiny anyway… I probably could end up happily investigating the paranormal with a “who cares if it’s real” attitude – which sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? Yes. Yes it does. But maybe that’s the way for me to go? Like a poet tracking down rogue troubling metaphors. A subjective detective. A Magistrate of The Maybe. A Narrator drafted in to proof read reality and provide convincing copy to cradle rattled readers! ahem To sum up: I think real progress can only be made in psychical research/parapsychology when we learn to grasp that reality might be more complicated than simply dividing everything into ‘real’ and ‘unreal’. The evidence simply doesn’t support the notion that the paranormal is just ‘rarely occuring natural phenomena’. It’s far weirder than that… It irritates me when spiritualists or mystics say ‘the paranormal is not paranormal, it’s just normal’ Something that exists for one person, but not for another, is not ‘real’. Something that exists temporarily is not real. We could end up down a quantum cul-de-sac debating this point, and then get lost in another ontological debate, blathering on about ‘what is reality?’; so I’ll stop before it gets incredible.
*****The other possibility is that the stunned witness had an entirely psychological experience. It’s all in their head: maybe the experience or the remembering of it. All hallucinatory. I am not adverse to this interpretation of my own experience or experiences. After all, I do not dogmatically insist that ‘just because I’ve experienced it, it definitely happened!’ My brain has been marinaded in agnosticism for so long, that I’m at ease with doubt.. Besides, as I said above – I think that reality is not just black and white, but shades of grey too.
******This is a nod to Bobby Henderson’s satirical religion, ‘The Flying Spaghetti Monster’, which is part of his attack on ‘crazy nonsense’. Indeed, the purpose of the Pastafarian Movement is to be ‘anti-crazy nonsense’. The often sheer mind-boggling weirdness of paranormal phenomena is one reason why ‘Athiests/Advocates of Scientism’ are so hostile to it: like Newton, they like reality neat and tidy. One eminent sceptic, Martin Gardiner, so beloved of Athiests everywhere, was actually a Christian. His belief in God was rarely discussed at CSICOP Conferences. He was hostile to the existence of Psi and the Paranormal because of the moral implications of psychic interference and the chaos and anarchy that would follow in Psi’s weird wake. What if we could all influence the roll of a die? Or want a good person to die, or a bad person to live? Psychic anarchy! Clearly, Gardiner’s God was the God of clean white, unfussy Lutheran Churches. A distant God, who wished to limit his intercession for fear of clutter. Often the paranormal is very crazy and very nonsensical. The paranormal’s incredibility and nonsense keeps the credible and sensible person at bay…