Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Big cats on BBC Radio Suffolk

You have less than three weeks to listen to me on the I-player talking about big cats in Suffolk on Jon Walsh's New Year's Day show on BBC Radio Suffolk.

The programme is here (UK only, I'm afraid).


Fast forward through the first 41.00 minutes of banter, cryptic clues and travel news.

There then follows music with a "cat theme" (The Cure's Love Cats, The Eye of the Tiger, etc. etc.) You may, if you wish, pause briefly at 34.51 while Jon Walsh makes gentle fun of my big cat investigator's headgear, which is all over by 36.16.

The actual serious chat about big cats, recorded on Dunwich Heath National Trust reserve in December, doesn't start till 41.00 and is over by around 52.00 (timings not exact, sorry!) We chose Dunwich Heath because it's near my home, and also because the area was the location of several sightings - one by a member of staff at the reserve - of a black big cat around 2008, all of which I describe in the interview. As I point out on air, Dunwich Heath's mix of wetlands, reedbeds and dunes is, apparently, the favoured habitat of Britain's big cats - "big cat country."

At 01.09.36 hours the serious stuff about big cats in Suffolk resumes, including some more recent West Suffolk sightings, until around 01.16.20

At 01.38.40 hours into the show, the big cats in Suffolk theme starts again with witness testimony.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust warden Matt Gooch (I'd talked to him on the phone before) phones in with his account of a January 2011 encounter in the snow with a "big black cat-like creature that loped off in the marshes" near Oulton Dyke, which connects Oulton Broad (near Lowestoft) with the River Waveney, in the Beccles Marshes nature reserve. Matt added that a neighbouring landowner said he saw a big cat (Matt told me earlier the landowner didn't want to be named) and that a letter from the Broads Authority had come round earlier stating that a visitor said they'd seen a big cat.

Matt's testimony is finished by 01.56.00.

Next up is Stanley, a former RSPCA inspector based at South Godson near Ipswich in the 1960s, who described a "glut" of lion cubs kept as pets, whose owners sought advice about vaccinating them. Most of these ended up in local wildlife parks. Stanley also said a friend of his had seen "a very large" black cat near Dedham (a very short distance over the Essex border), and that as an RSPCA inspector he'd had to trap many feral and "semi-feral cats", which were generally "slightly bigger" than domestic cats.

Stanley's finished by 02.07.00, and a couple of minutes after that is my appeal for more information on big cats in Suffolk, especially form Mid-Suffolk, Babeargh, West Suffolk, and also for fairy and Black Shuck anecdotes. No ghosts please, except animal ghosts.

At 02.14.12 David in Bury St Edmunds says he's seen four big cats over the years, including one in Barham (near Thetford) while delivering as a UPS driver, and another jumping over Culford School gates in West Stow, which he saw while working as a taxi driver. As a security guard at Fornham All Saints Golf Club, with a German shepherd dog he saw yet another big cat.

Then (at 02.57.00) Charlie Haylock recounts how "eighteen years ago" (around 1996, the beginning of the first big wave of Suffolk sightings), he saw a black cat, a "big'un" a very short distance away from his car ("We were a couple of feet from each other") when he was driving from Stonham Aspall to Debenham. He reported it to the police station at Debenham. Two police officers went out in a car to investigate.

Then an email is read out from Mark Frost, who saw a shiny big black cat while "combining" (working in a combine harvester) in a field at Hemley near Waldringfield. Mark radioed his colleague, who told him he'd seen it 45 minutes earlier field signs were found - a pawprint, scratch marks and a poo that smelt "like nothing else." Msrk's testimony is over by 03.00.00 on the dot. He adds that a neighbouring landowner reported a calf killed by something big.

Finally, at 03.13.21, Kevin Wood from Woodbridge emailed to say he'd seen "a large black cat that looked at him" at about 5am on Hatcheston Road, one day around 1990 5am, before it "bounded away." Another time, Mark saw "a dead one" (a dead big cat) by the road, the body had been removed when he returned (Kevin's testimony finished at 03.13.54).

It'll all be in Mystery Animals of Suffolk, out in late Spring, from CFZ Press. Meanwhile, updates are here or more info via mysteryanimalsofsuffolk@gn.apc.org





Monday, 29 December 2014

Phantom black dogs alive and well and providing long-term parking on Ipswich Waterfront

Suffolk's phantom black dogs are alive and well and providing long-term parking on Ipswich waterfront. (There's also an Ipswich-based Black Shuck MCC motorcycle club, and Shuck Creative packaging design, just north of Ipswich, and the Hellhound Brewery in Bramford does a Black Shuck Porter "breakfast stout".)Photo: Matt Salusbury


Bungay's Black Dog, which - according to Rev. Abraham Fleming's A Straunge and Terrible Wunder of 1577 - ran through St Mary's Church, Bungay, one Sunday in August of that year, can be found on the "Welcome to Bungay" sign (below) right on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. The current coat of arms (much more recent, from the 1950s) shows the terrifying Black Dog and lightning bolt. The motto translates into English as "Hold to the ancient traditions."


The Black Dog on the Bungay coat of arms, on the "Welcome to Bungay" sign

In A Straunge and Terrible Wunder included the black dog is the Devil in the form of a dog, during a terrible thunderstorm that featured thunder, lightning, hail and "darkness". It killed two men - "wrung the necks of them bothe" - as it ran through the church at Bungay, inflicting strange and terrible burns on other worshippers who survived. The church clock exploded. The same black dog then appeared in Blythburgh, also in Suffolk but to the South, on the same day, jumping onto beams inside the church, before slew "two men and a lad" and others in the congregation were "blasted", before it flew out.

The Bungay black dog seems to be a very different animal to the Black Shuck of East Anglian tradition. Black Shuck, terrifying though it could be, rarely if ever attacked people, and it could sometimes (as in the case of the one around Dunwich) be a protective spirit. The Dunwich variant would fall into step with walkers at night, and as long as they avoided direct eye contact with it, it would see them home safely. Others talked, like the one seen on the road into Woolpit (near Needham Market), which accurately foretold the imminent death of one person it encountered.

In the depression of the 1930s, the black dog from the Straunge and Terrible Wunder was deliberately revived in the hope that tourism would revive the town of Bungay's fortunes, with the black dog and lightning bolt emblem being placed on the town weathervane over the Market Place. It can also be seen on this sign on the door of the town's Waveney District Council offices and on the sign at the Bungay Town FC ("The Bungay Black Dogs") training ground (below), actually just over the Norfolk border in Ditchingham.


Bungay Town FC ("The Bungay Black Dogs") football team's training ground just over the county line in Ditchingham. The town's cricket club and its running club are also The Black Dogs.

There ara also scorch marks on the inside of the door to Blythburgh Church, said to be made by the claws of the Black Dog. A more likely explanation is that these have something to do with Cromwell's New Model Army, who requisitioned the church as a stable for their horses, and probably had some kind of farrier's shop in operation for shoeing horses, in which red hot pokers would have been standard equipment.


Scorch marks on the door of Blythburgh church, attributed to the Black Dog

The only fatalities recorded in any of the parish records that come close to the Straunge and Terrible Wunder story are two burials of men killed by a falling section of the belfry at St Mary's Church, Bungay in 1577, during a thunderstorm. It seems there may well have been a storm in which a lightning strike caused damage that killed people. Some have speculated that the terrible burns inflicted on other worshippers who were "blasted" could have been some kind of exotic ball lighting phenomena that careered through the church.

A similar phenomenon could have been at work in "The Great Thunderstorm" at Widecombe, Devon in 1638, in which a ball of lighting burst through the church window, tore of part of the roof, killed four and injured 60, leaving the vicar's wife in particular "pitifully burnt". (Sound familiar?) A contemporary woodcut shows a dark sky, thunder, hail, bits of the tower falling off and a ball of flame escaping from a cloud and careering towards Widecombe's church, but no Black Dogs in evidence.




The Black Dog Deli in Walberswick. While its sign makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to local Black Shuck traditions, there is a local story about Shuck terrifying a US airman and his wife immediately postwar by repeatedly ramming the wall of the hut where they lived one night.




This animal being slain by St George on a 14th century walnut wood chest in St Andrew's Church, Southwold, is clearly meant to be a dragon. But he does look awfully like a really massive dog!

It's more than possible that the Rev. Fleming made the whole thing up, or considerably embellished a garbled account of the 1577 storm that had reached London, where it was published. Fleming may have chosen Bungay as a place so out of the way (at the time) that he was confident nobody could go and check out the details. (The full title of the pamphlet is A Straunge and Terrible Wunder wrought very late in the parish Church of Bungay, a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, so the Rev. Fleming felt he had to explain where Bungay was to a London audience, so obscure was it.) Fleming - or his sources, if he had any - may have been influenced by local Black Shuck legends. It's noticeable that in the Suffolk witch trails of the seventeenth century, inquisitors took care to insert references to encounters with Black Dogs among all the clearly made up nonsense about imps in the form of headless, bloodsucking babies, exploding mice and ducks, oversized flies and legless horned greyhounds. Slipping in a bit of Black Shuck, an actual local tradition, gave their fantastic testimony extracted under torture a bit of authenticity.



Products by the Black Dog Chilli Company of Martlesham, near Woodbridge. Shown here on the shelves of the Black Dog Deli, Walberswick.

The Rev. Fleming in his introduction rails against "sin", sodomy in particular, and comments that the events in Bungay were "A spectacle no doubt of Gods judgement, which as the fire of our iniquities hath kindled". It has also been suggested that the Rev. Fleming was actually making an allegorical point about God's wrath at a particular juncture of the then unfolding Reformation. But Fleming would have been so terrified of the Queen's commissioners that he hinted at God's wrath at religious reform in such veiled terms that whatever his point was, it's been lost to us.



Blythburgh's scorch marks in close up

All this - and more - in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of Suffolk




Saturday, 27 December 2014

On BBC Radio Suffolk talking about the county's Big Cats - New Year's Day

I'm on BBC Radio Suffolk talking about big cat sightings in the county briefly known as the Curious County on New Year's Day, in (pre-recorded) conversation with Jon Wright. We had a chat about big cats in Suffolk a couple of weeks ago as we wandered around Dunwich Heath (scene of several big cat sightings around 2008). It turned out to be a glorious sunny December day with no wind at all, so Jon had to improvise some "wind in the bracken" sound effects himself by rubbing his microphone up against a patch of the stuff.

You can find details of the broadcast here. It'll be linked from this blog once it's online. Basically, melanistic leopards in the East of the county and along the coast, and between Beccles and Bungay in particular, with a wave of sightings there in the 1990s and another peaking around 2008. More recent sightings have tended to be of sandy, "golden" "tawny", tan or grey coloured pumas in the West of the country, around Mildenhall, Barton Woods and Red Lodge in particular. Police FOIA data suggests a lot of reports of either melanistic leopards or pumas in South Suffolk (Babeargh, Clare area) and crossing a bridge in "Mid-Suffolk South".

Then there are the "lynx-like cats" spotted in the last six years, sometimes black, sometimes dark brown, and sometimes with a "short tail" or just "a tail." As lynxes and bobcats don't have tails beyond the tiniest of stubs, and lynxes don't as far as we know have a melanistic version, this could be a melanistic serval or melanistic caracal, both of which have melanistic versions, and both of which are know to breed with other big cat species. You'll have to wait until Mystery Animals of Suffolk is out in Spring 2015 for the full story.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Location of Eastbridge big cat sighting is perfect ambush site



Shown above is my photo of the location of a Big Cat sighting in Eastbridge, sometime around 2008. The member of staff at Dunwich Heath National Trust reserve who told me about it (they weren't exactly sure of the year) said a visitor came back at the beginning of the season in the following Spring and sought them out to tell them about it. The Dunwich Heath staff member (can't disclose any more about them, I regret) had their own sighting of a black big cat (probably a melanistic leopard or melanistic puma, if there is such a thing) in Dowcra's Ditch on the reserve.

The visitor to the reserve reported walking from the footpath from Minsmere to Eastbridge. (It's just south of the RSPB Minsmere reserve, the other side of the sluice ditch from the southern edge of Minsmere.) They came to a gate on the path, and when he went through the gate and was closing it he saw the black big cat behind him. He described how they sat their watching each other for a short while before the big cat bounded off.

I recently went to take a look at the location. What struck me was that it was the prefect ambush site for a hunting big cat. The path from Minsmere goes through the British Energy estate, with its marshes, where there are otters. Otters are on the big cat's menu, as are pheasant in particular, and any waterbirds they can catch (I saw plenty of duck). I saw tracks of otter and deer when I was there - deer being the favourite food of British big cats. When I came through the gate in the opposite direction - from Eastbridge - I emerged from an open field into a shaded area with trees and a bramble thicket on either side, creating a sort of tunnel either side of the footpath. When I came out of this cover, pheasants on the path ahead took flight. It's the perfect spot for a big cat to sit around all day out of sight and jump out at any passing wildlife.



Otter tracks on the footpath from Minsmere to Eastbridge

Also noteworthy nearby was the spooky-looking field of dead sunflowers. What happened? Did it get flooded, or did the field of sunflowers get turned into a nature reserve?



Big cat sightings local to this area will almost certainly feature in a forthcoming interview I'm doing with Jon Wright of BBC Radio Suffolk on big cats in Suffolk, provisionally to be broadcast on New Year's Day 2015.



Medieval spotted panther at Theberton and a 2008 "black panther" sighting on the nearby road from Westleton



Above is a Medieval spotted panther (15th century?) acting as a drainpipe on the church of St Peter's Theberton, Suffolk. "Panthers" were mythical spotted cats in heraldry and legend. African leopards are also known as "panthers", and North American pumas are also known as "panthers" (and cougars, mountain lions, catamounts - "cat of the mountain"). "Black panthers" are in fact black leopards - only a couple of black pumas have been recorded, and they had light or white undersides. There are no actual big cats called panthers, real big cats (leopards and pumas) seem to have had the name of a mythical beast of Medieval legend and heraldry attached to them, somewhat confusingly. There is a zoological genus of big cat called Panthera, which includes lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars.

There was a sighting of a "black panther" - probably a melanistic leopard, or possibly some kind of dark choclolate-coloured puma, or a variation on a puma not yet described to science - in February 2008 on the road from Westleton to Theberton. From its description it was on the B1124, just before Theberton Hall Farm - the only point on the Theberton to Westleton road where there's a "six-foot verge" - which the "panther" was said to scramble up - and with a wooden fence. Both these features were described in this report of the early morning sighting in East Anglian Daily Times a few months later.

The EADT article also quoted the witnesses as saying their father had seen a "black panther" earlier on the same road, and says that there had been other sightings in villages round there previous to the February 2008 sighting.

All this and more will be revealed in Mystery Animals of Suffolk, to be published by CFZ Press in 2015. I have an interview on big cats in Suffolk - with an appeal for more sightings - on Saturday week for BBC Radio Suffolk. Presenter Jon Wright has just confirmed he plans to broadcast it on New Year's Day 2015.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Fun with Heidegger - Who is Who? The Philosophy of Doctor Who (book review)

This review first appeared in Fortean Times

Who is Who? The Philosophy of Doctor Who, Kevin S. Decker, I.B. Taurus, London/New York, 2013
ISBN 978 1 78076 5532, paperback, 243 pages, bibliography, index

Philosophy lecturer Kevin S. Decker, who recalls being hooked after a chance 1980s daytime TV re-run encounter with Terror of the Zygons, is clearly a Doctor Who fan with a sound working knowledge of the show. The philosophical bits do bring a fresh take on most Who stories. It's nice to hear again all those quotes from the show about the shining mountains of Gallifrey, a reminder that the exposition in Who is often better than its effects. But when the book started going on about Derrida, I thought, oh-oh.

I suspect the Doctor would have cocked a snook at all this philosophizing, reasoning simply that a Time Lord's gotta do what a Time Lord's gotta do. (As his Patrick Troughton incarnation said succinctly of the Cybermen, "They must be fought!")

Over an awful lot of pages I learnt that the first six or so Doctors were positivist, the seventh and eighth doctors Romanticist. From the Ninth "post-Gallifreyan apocalypse" Doctor onwards, the Doctor, we are told, ditched Romanticism and became existentialist in the manner of Heidegger, Sartre and De Beauvoir. (Tomb of the Cybermen was apparently Who's "strongest anti-positivist story," while the classic "base under siege" adventures are "Hegelian".)

Philosophy comes off much worse from its encounter with the Doctor. Conte and the foundations of sociology are regrettably bor-ring. I don't think I was meant to laugh at the treatise on the "existential otherness of the Cybermen", nor Decker's attempt to explain through Sartre why the Doctor left Gallifrey, nor the "dialectical relationship between the Doctor and monsters."

Moderately more interesting is the morality and ethics of the Doctor, which change a little bit with each regeneration. The Doctor's companions aren't just eye-candy after all, but are along to provide some kind of moral compass for a rootless, time-wandering alien exile particularly dangerous when travelling alone.

Who is Who picks up a bit on the "Not the man he was" chapter on identity, the individual and "the self", and what they mean when the body and the mind changes with each regeneration. Apparently, Leibnitz and John Locke both dealt extensively with the philosophy of mind swaps and body swaps. And Bishop Joseph Butler's "philosophical trap" accounts for why in The Three Doctors, Pertwee's Third Doctor doesn't at least have nagging déjà vu about the conversation he's had with Omega when he was the Troughton Second Doctor (standing right next to him at the time.)

The standout "timey-wimey" section raises the intriguingly baroque possibility that the Great Time War is somehow an inevitable consequence of the Time Lords' attempts to tinker with history. There are (were or will be) multiple –even infinite – versions of the Great Time War, with different enemies. I got dizzy (in good way) as we got onto "chronological time" – the order in which things happen to the Doctor, as opposed to "external time" and "personal time" (the Doctor experiencing the duration of a given adventure), itself distinct from to the "continuity of non-time-travel-related events."

The history of the philosophy of time is more engaging too, going all the way back to Parmenides, a student of the Socratic school, and his student Zeno, who postulated that future events were already "true" before they had even happened. Parmenides anticipated the concept of entropy, and regarded time as "unstoppable".

We then enter the intoxicatingly complex realms of the constancy principle – "there is only one history", the mind-boggling Space/Time concept (everything is so pre-destined as to make free will pretty much irrelevant,) to the increasingly mainstream "many worlds hypothesis". The 1970s Pertwee Period Who story Inferno was apparently decades ahead of the curve in that it had the Doctor concluding that an "infinity of universes" meant that "free will is not an illusion after all." In a temporal philosophy finale, Decker concludes that when the Matt Smith Doctor restores the broken universe with his "Big Bang Two", he doesn't actually restore it at all, he just creates a very similar universe from scratch. I even found myself reading the "timey-wimey" section's footnotes just for pleasure.

It's a pity the remainder of Who is Who's whizz through of the history of Western philosophy wasn't so thrilling, After a hundred relentless pages of not enough Doctor and too much Goethe, Locke, Kant, Hegel and Rousseau, I felt like one of those walk-on Who characters at that cliffhanger ending of Episode One who screams "Nooooo!"

VERDICT 6/10 - FAST FORWARD THRU' THE PHILO TO THE WONDERS OF "TIMEY-WIMEY STUFF"

© Matt Salusbury 2014

See also my other Doctor Who related articles:

Copyright of the Daleks (for the Freelance)


The Man Who Invented the Daleks
(Terry Nation biography, book review for Fortean Times)

Curse of the Daleks - Nation and Whittaker's "lost" children's matinee Dalek play - not their best work!

Father of the Cybermen - profile of Dr Kit Pedler, spare-part surgeon and creator of the Cybermen (for Fortean Times)


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Appropriate Big Cat Investigator headgear, and finally face-to-face with Wool I Am




I stopped off in Ipswich today and purchased suitably appropriate Big Cat Investigator headgear (shown above). Although I may pin or stitch back the ears to make it more streamlined when I'm out and about. Stand by for an announcement shortly regarding me talking on Suffolk Big Cats on BBC Radio Suffolk. Watch the Mystery Animals of Suffolk Twitter thing for details.

The stall-holder in the seasonal street market near Ipswich's Town Hall who sold it me said, "I was told to drop my prices because it's Ipswich." There's a slogan waiting to be adopted by the Ipswich Chamber of Commerce there. He was all the way from Kent, and mentioned Big Cats down there, so I referred him to Neil Arnold, the go-to guy for Big Kats in Kent, and also for reports of giant phantom wolves near the Bluewater shopping centre.





I was also finally able to visit Wool I Am, the recently-named full-sized Ipswich mammoth in the Ipswich Museum. I'm afraid I was moving around the museum at a quick march, as I had exactly 1 hour 10 minutes to change trains. The Museum's rhino in its Victorian Natural History gallery now has a replica horn to deter thieves.

Wool I Am would probably not have been around during the brief period between two British Ice Ages which is known as the Ipswichian Interglacial, after strata found around Ipswich.