Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Asahi Shimbun interview on threats to civil liberties post-9/11

In the run-up to the recent 9/11 anniversary, i was invited to the Holborn offices of Asahi Shimbun, Japan's biggest newspaper, to be interviewed by Sawamura-san, the London bureau chief. It turns out they had me down as an expert on "threats to civil liberties" and wanted to interview me - for over an hour - on threats to civil liberties in the wake of 9/11 in the UK, or whether other factors played a more important role. This was for a planned series of 9/11 anniversary pieces from Asahi Shimbun's various correspondents round the world.

It was a very in-depth interview of the sort they don't do anymore in the UK press, during which it emerged that Japan had had a very nasty post-9/11 civil liberties crackdown all of its own. And they'd already talked to the I'm a Photographer Not a Terrorist people about Section 44 Terrorism Act.

Unfortunately, the Paris and New York bureaus of the paper had "got their features in" ahead of London, so my interview wasn't used - as they'd warned me might be the case. There's a vague chance the interview might live to fight another day as a short section of some future Japanese language-only Asahi feature.

Here Be Dragons - book review

Here Be Dragons - How the study of anima and plant distribution revolutionised our views of life and Earth, Dennis McCarthy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009, paperback, 221 pages bibliography and index £8.99/ $18.95

This review first appeared in Fortean Times issue 281, November 2011

This celebration of biogeography – the study of the “lopsided distribution” of plants and animals, continents and even empires around the world – begins by pointing out that Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, Albert Russell Wallace and continental drift pioneer Alfred Wegener all did ground-breaking work in biogeography, and then went on to work in other fields and revolutionised all of these as well.

Wegener, it seems, was a bit of an adventurer, like most of the great biogeographers. Wounded in action in World War One, Wegener broke the early 20th century world records for ballooning endurance and longest ice cap crossing, before dying in a Greenland blizzard. His views on continental drift – and those of Alexander Du Toit, who followed Wegener, were an “outsiders’ struggle against convention.” Continental drift was dismissed at the time, by an orthodoxy that instead clung to a theory reliant on “miraculous rafters” who crossed oceans on bits of fallen tree, and of vast piles of yet to be discovered fossils that would one day prove that continents were fixed. The continental drifters were finally vindicated by the discovery in the 1960s of a spreading seafloor that was younger than the continents themselves.

McCarthy – a researcher with the humble Buffalo Museum of Science in upstate New York – writes beautifully and his story is compelling. He comes up with one of my all-time favourite chapter headings, “The Bloody Fall of South America and the Last of the Triassic Beak-headed Reptiles”. This gives a passing mention to the fearsome bison-sized “ratzilla,” the prehistoric guinea pig Jesephoartigisia monesi, which weighed a metric tonne.

Biogeography explains why there are bears and foxes in the Arctic but not the Antarctic, and McCarthy devotes much space to the “terminal Eocene event” that resulted in the “death of nearly all vertebrate life in Antarctica.” Compared the very rapid mass extinction of the pre-glacial Antarctic fauna, the demise of the dinosaurs was a picnic. McCarthy comments that there is “beneath the ice-sheets a continent-wide boneyard,” with the stoic penguins as the only surviving year-round Antarctic vertebrates.

Dragons even has a rare illustration of a just pre-glacial verdant Antarctic landscape populated with emu-like birds, sloths, falcons, possum-type creatures, something resembling a small cat, and a hefty hoofed mammal that look like a cross between a horse and an elephant. Pre-glacial Antarctic fauna is sadly neglected in the mountains of books for the general reader on prehistoric life, so it’s nice to see them getting a look-in.

As for the title, the routine appearance of “Here by Dragons” on ancient maps is itself a myth. The Latin phrase appears on only one known artefact, the Hunt-Lenox Globe, made three years after Columbus, and McCarthy says the phrase could have been used to identify the origin of Komodo dragon rumours.

Dragons reveals that Wallace’s line, the world’s “most famous biotic barrier” separating placental mammals from marsupials, is at its narrowest “a mere 25 miles” (40km). The final chapter on the (lack of) genetic variation among humans suggests the reason why the “genetic range of human beings is astonishingly narrow” is that we are “athletic generalists of the first rank” – most geographical barriers to species crossing can be climbed, swum or rafted over by humans.

It also turns out that all the authentic cuisine of “primeval paradise” Hawaii, and the flowers that make up Hawaiian lei garlands, was introduced to the islands by Polynesians some time after 500AD. Hawaiian pigs originated in Vietnam and its sweet potatoes came from a returning Polynesian expedition to Chile, while Captain James Cook brought the pineapples. Meanwhile, there’s one tree-dwelling skink whose “weirdly wide” distribution – on the far-flung islands of Samoa, Tonga and Futura – reflects the “irregular domain” of the 16th and 17th century Tongan monarchs.

It’s hard to find anything wrong with Dragons. You can probably skip the chapters on fish biogeography, which in an otherwise gripping read gets surprisingly dull at times. The date for the demise of Homo florensis seems a little recent. But such quibbles are insignificant. McCarthy tells us it was the fact that the Galapagos Islands “lacked frogs” that first got Darwin thinking that then prevailing “natural theology” may have had holes in it. The author very convincingly argues that biogeography, a relatively easy concept to grasp, is our best ammunition against current “intelligent design” and Creationist nonsense. And he argues this is a riveting and engaging fashion.


SCORE - 8/10

© Matt Salusbury 2011

Sell, sell and sell again - syndicating simplified

This first appeared in The Freelance, August 2011

How can freelances market their work abroad most effectively? Peter Veenhoven and Ole Pijnacker Hordijk, owners of the Amsterdam-based International Features Agency advise on "what works and what doesn't" in syndicating abroad. Read my report here.

Brazil was identified as a particularly interesting market for syndication. Since this talk, the Brazil correspondent of the London-based business-to-business magazine I edit has told me he can't afford to work for us anymore, as the Brazilian real has climbed so much in value against the pound that it's not worth the bother anymore to work for a publication that pays in sterling!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Weird Weekend 2011 video - talk on pygmy elephants of Kerala

A video of my talk from Weird Weekend 2011 on the pygmy elephants of Kerala, India, is now online here. As I point out early on in the talk, "slightly smaller elephants, possibly" would be a better description. Including questions, the talk's just under an hour long, and features a never-before-seen photo of kallana, the alleged pygmy elephant of Kerala, and the Neyyar-Peppara forest tree-crab.

My talk is opened with a somewhat bewildering introduction by the man in the fez ("Barry Tadcaster", in fact the alter ego of the Centre for Fortean Zoology's Richard Freeman) and his "Orang Pendek" puppet. Such bizarre, non-sequiter introductions are a long-established Weird Weekend tradition. Please don't take Freeman's/Tadcaster's comments about me nicking Robocop's bike from behind the Polytechnic literally!

Conventionally-sized elephants feature on the coat of arms on the State of Kerala, seen here on a Kerala Tourism Ministry sign in Kovalum.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Speaking gig at Weird Weekend 2011 - 20 August

I am speaking on "the (alleged) pygmy elephants of Kerala" (or more accurately the lack of them) at the Centre for Fortean Zoology's Weird Weekend 2011 in Woolfardishworthly, North Devon. I'm on at 1.15 on Saturday 20 August, assuming the Tarka Line train from Exeter is reliable. A train line named after an otter hardly inspires confidence! The full Weird Weekend programme is here.

The talk will be an account of my now not-so-recent investigations into the alleged "kallana" pygmy elephants of Kerala, India, and a sneak preview of my forthcoming Pygmy Elephants book.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Support the struggle of the interns!

This first appeared in the Freelance, July 2011

THE NUJ's Cashbacks for Interns campaign, started by London Freelance Branch, was the subject of NUJ London Freelance Branch's June meeting. Our invited star speaker, Keri Hudson, who with the NUJ's help won her back pay for her unpaid work placement at an industrial tribunal, regrettably had to work late at short notice, in her current paid job.

In Keri's absence, Fiona O' Cleirigh, instigator of the Cashback for Interns campaign, said that “If people are working for free, wages go down, there will be only a small pool of talent with money" and urged members to get interns “in union from the start." Read more...

The Star Crossed Stone

This book review first appeared in Fortean Times 278, August 2011

The Star Crossed Stone – The Secret Life, Myths and History of a Fascinating Fossil

$27.50, Kenneth J. McNamara, University of Chicago Press, hardback, 272 pages plus bibliography, index, footnotes.

Even before they were recognisable humans, back in the days of Homo heidelbergensis and H. erectus, people collected fossil sea urchins, took them with them to places where such fossils didn’t naturally occur, and were buried with them.

The current world record-holder for fossil sea urchins found in a single grave is at least 147 fossil sea urchins, and possibly as many as 200, arranged in a ring around “Maud,” a Neolithic woman unearthed in Dunstable Downs in1887. Roughly contemporary with “Maud” is a specimen of Echinolampus africanus – you guessed it, a fossil species of sea urchin – recovered from the tomb of the architect Kha in ancient Egypt’s Heliopolis, carved with an inscription from around 2000 BCE identifying the fossil as “found in the south part of quarry at Sodpu by Tja-Nefer”. McNamara suggests the quarry (possibly in Sinai, and dedicated to a god associated with several star constellations) could have been known for its “star stones.”

A chronologically more recent sea urchin burial featured one clasped in the cold, dead hand of a Saxon woman buried in Bury St Edmunds. Some French barrows from Neolithic times to the Iron Age seem to have been built around fossil sea urchins and nothing else.

Why? The five-pointed star with a hole in the centre, unique in nature to echinoderms (urchins and starfish,) is the only natural example of so many axis of symmetry. Our ancestors started collecting fossil urchins around the time their brains were first beginning to grasp concepts like symmetry, and making leaps into expressions of abstract ideas and “art”. The fossil sea urchin’s mysterious symmetry may have been humankind’s first-ever sacred geometry.

Urchins were modified by early humans – chipped out to take away the matrix around the star, or drilled to make into pendants or necklaces. Axes and scrapers were made from the very earliest days of tool-making from flint rocks with little fossil urchins embedded in it. These were carefully centred on the tool, and sometimes used as a grip.

Once you’ve revealing the fascinating fact that we’ve been collecting fossil sea urchins since before the dawn of humankind, there’s only so much you can say on the subject. McNamara says it over and over, padded out with too much atmospheric detail. While it’s nice to have some flavour of the conditions in which archaeological discoveries were made, the scene-setting of an imagined cold and frosty morning experienced by an archaeologist in 1911 in the South Downs is too much. As are McNamara’s own reminiscences of a childhood spent collecting Brooke Bond Tea cards.

But just when you want him to get to the point, McNamara shines with a mercifully fast-paced potted history of palaeontology, including proto-fortean martyr Bernard Pallisey, who “took a great delight in thumbing his nose” at the “learned writers of the time.” Pallisey announced that fossils were not the results of the Earth’s “plastic virtue” that was supposed to spontaneously produce simulacra of natural forms, but petrified animals. For his pains he died imprisoned in the Bastille.

Other highlights are epic narratives of complex ancient Egyptian cosmology and the fall and rebirth of the gods of Asgard, and where fossil urchins fit into these belief systems. (To the Vikings, fossil urchins were “thunderstones”.)

McNamara relates how sea urchins increasingly became less an object to accompany the dead on into the afterlife and an amulet of good luck or protection for the living, right up to 1929, when folklorist Herbert Toms photographed the collections of urchins that were then common on windowsills across Sussex.

The bibliography, footnotes and index are excellent.


© Matt Salusbury 2011

Monday, 27 June 2011

Counter Terror Expo 2011

I went to Counter Terror Expo in Olympia in May assuming I’d find all sorts of dodgy goings-on involving the transformation of the policing of legitimate protest into some ludicrously over the top ‘counter-terror’ operation, or something, with an industry to match. (The company that runs Counter Terror Expo, Clarion, also does this year’s DSEi arms fair, hence the protesters outside Counter Terror.) But when I got into Counter Terror to take a look, the event’s title seemed a bit of a con.

I had to look quite hard to find in the exhibition for an example of ‘counter-terror’ tech that could be readily abused to crush civil liberties. I can report that it’s a very bad idea indeed to take your smart 3G phone on a demo. Half your life is on it.

“Mobile phone forensics “ is definitely one to be wary of. If Counter Terror is anything to go by, mobile phone forensics is absolutely huge. There are handheld readers that can get everything off your mobile in a second, or possibly even suck in details if it’s nearby through some Bluetooth-type system. Then there’s the software to store and analyse all the data on your mobile, and don’t forget they can now easily cross-reference it with all the other data they got.

And if you ever doubted the ability of the state to find you using your mobile phone as a beacon, Winkelmann sell detectors of ‘electronic devices.’ They’re designed for finding the triggers to IEDs, but their policing and civil liberties implications are obvious.

I heard secondhand reports that the two black blocs on the March 26 demo had left their smartphones at home and taken their old phones from a few years back, that were essentially just phones with text, and the minimum amount of phone contacts stored on them.

Micro Systemation (MSAB) “the leader in mobile device forensics” was flogging its XRY system - software for data recovery for law enforcement, with the expensive support team as well, of course. And training. The not very clear photo on their literature suggests the kit can read credit cards too, and comes with a briefcase full of different phone adaptors.

Then there’s a whole infant industry of “Voice Biometrics” or “voice-based identification.” As described by its cheerleaders at the Speech Technology Centre, this is “a branch of forensic science called ‘audio forensics is being propagated to process such audio evidences.” Its “based on the theory that voice of each person is as unique as fingerprints or DNA.” So the science behind it is still dodgy, and it’s not legally admissible as evidence in UK courts yet, but no doubt lobbyists are on the case ensuring it will be. Expensive training in voice biometrics is on offer, along with exorbitantly-priced voice database management system.

Although the voice biometrics publicity emphasises “suspects,” there are obvious links to mobile forensics, such as voice messages found on a mobile, etc. No doubt it won’t be long before someone is taking your data off your mobile, copying your voice messages, and doing voice identification on them, and build up databases of voice.

The voice biometrics brochure was pushing an infrastructure of regional and national voice databases , with three human operators each in the regional databases, using software that can handle 10 million operations a day. On the diagram, the “Voice IDs” linked to other stuff like photos. The diagram suggests a lot of voice data will come from mobiles.

Two bomb disposal robots entertain bored punters by delicately picking up small water bottles

Other than some scary stuff at the mobile phone end of the spectrum, Counter Terror turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag of corporate counter-espionage, mercenaries, protecting businesses from organised crime, Torture Garden fetish uniforms complete with gas masks, contemporary Japan panic nuclear biological chemical disaster, and really dreary stuff about the integrity of seals on containers coming to airports. Even demonstrations of unbreakable cases being run over by Land Rovers, and a simulated ‘IED’ area, couldn’t disguise the fact that this was an essentially dull event for people flogging security stuff, who’d gathered under the ‘counter-terror’ title in an attempt to look impossibly sexy and glamorous.

It seems the ‘corporates’ and law enforcement have no faith anymore in the vast infrastructure of CCTV that’s grown up. Many exhibitors sell packages that let you set up your own on-the-spot CCTV network instead for whatever occasion it is. There was one stall-holder selling CCTV systems to schools. Terrorism it ain’t, but selling it at a fair called Counter Terror makes it sound way cooler than it is.

CCTV Image magazine for winter 2011 was being given out. In it, a article says the mythical ‘300’ a day number of time you’re captured on CCTV is more like between 42 and 101 with a mean average of 68, based on known cameras in Cheshire and real journeys people took. (According to a Cheshire Constabulary survey.)

There were items for conventional policing on sale – batons, the people who do the warrant cards and police insignia and so on, but there wasn’t even the pretence that it had anything to do with terrorism. It just sounds more glam than policing and boring security and intelligence-gathering. There’s also the intriguing Metropolitan Life, a rather rubbish magazine for and by London coppers. It had a regular Indian cookery column by ex-cop Rayeesa Asghar-Sandys who now runs a cookery school in Herts. More interestingly, who’s advertising on the back? Divorce lawyers. Russell Jones & Walker have a specialist “Family team” called Divorce 4 Police offering a first appointment free, and 35 per cent off for Police Federation members.

Much of the floor space was devoted to the deeply dull but comparatively very big industry in reinforced fences and bollards. The only slightly exciting variation on the vast number of these was a ‘hostile vehicle protection system’ disguised as a strategically-placed large planter for ornamental shrubs or bench in your corporate forecourt. Someone seems to have convinced everyone that people want to ram trucks into their building. The ‘hostile protection vehicle system’ under its ordinary street furniture disguise has steel pillars going several feet into the ground, and is guaranteed to prang any mythical jihadi truck bombers who’ve taken a strong dislike to your corporation.

In the world of boring corporate security, PAS68planters.co.uk frighten their customers with the thought that “unwelcome visitors try to smash their way into your building with a truck”. They prevent them with “highly effective vehicle barriers” discreetly disguised as a plant pot. Competitor company Marshalls Street Furniture have reinforced planters, bollards and benches that continue underground and also stop speeding trucks in the obligatory dramatic crash test photos.

The sexiest item on display was the BCB International "The Buccaneer” a compressed air cannon that hurled ‘golf balls, nets or whatever you want” at pirates. Steel nets caught up in the propellers will take them out. They deliberately don’t provide ammo. The fact that it’s “not pyrotechnics” means you can bring it into any port no bother. The salesman said golf balls will hole a small launch. ‘Non-lethal’ improvised projectiles could include ice cubes or paintball pellets. They also do self-inflating body armour.

This is more anti-piracy on the high seas (the Red Sea in particular) than anti-terror, but the applications for use by Japanese whalers against Greenpeace are obvious.

Back on the boring end of the spectrum, there’s bespoke insurance for places like Libya and the new buzzword is ‘extraction’ – mercenaries to get your expatriate corporate workforce out of this weeks’ Middle Eastern dictatorship that was regarded as the most stable country in the world until last Tuesday.

Your worst paranoia about faceless militarized robo-cops is true after all!

Some of the wares on display were not so much counter-terror but counter espionage. Some were selling kit for encrypted voice calls on smart phones (Cellcrypt). And never mind the tinfoil hat brigade, corporates were being sold a tinfoil communications tent into which you could disappear safe in the knowledge that no one could get at the data held on those leaky electronic devices.

I didn't have time for any of the Counter Terror talks, but what did strike me from reading their brochures was the
frightening number of academics whoring themselves to the security industry.

Another revelation for me is that the ‘security experts’ of the world all agree that Cameron’s policy of cuts, cuts, cuts is wrong, wrong, wrong. Another freebie being handed out was the Intersec fear and security industry magazine. Its take on the Greek riots identified austerity, specifically youth unemployment, and people taking it out on a young immigrant workforce, as the key security problems in the Eurozone. Spain, they said, with a much bigger youth unemployment rate, had handled the crisis well with job creation programmes.

British security services according to magazine’s article ‘Spreading Disorder’ say Britain is four meals away from anarchy. The EU has to address youth unemployment or “immigrant-related racism” and rioting will spread. The professional cynics of the security industry agree that massive cuts are the worst thing you can do in these circumstances. They also say there’s not much else you can do in response to a security crisis, apart from buying in more of that boring perimeter security (fences and razor-wire) to go around your ministry buildings in response to Europe’s “new wave of anti-government protests”.

Maddest of all was the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, who have as their logo a cartoon bomb-throwing anarchist.

Surveillance drones-R-us

Monday, 6 June 2011

Olympics organisers tell local Union branch they can't use the words "London Olympics" to describe the subject of their branch meeting

The London Freelance Branch of the NUJ contacted the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) to request a speaker almost a year ahead of their planned Branch meeting on "reporting the London Olympics", which took place in April 2011.

After some truly bizarre interaction with the various London Olympics bodies, LFB were told they weren't allowed to use the words "London Olympics" to describe their meeting, as the term was copyrighted. (In fact, trademarked. As freelance journalists we know the difference.)

There's a report here on the meeting and the strange story of the Branch's attempts to get a speaker from LOCOG. We also learnt at the meeting that Team USA will be bringing their own food, and their security detail has been in and out of London for the past two years.

Evolution of Island Mammals - book review

This first appeared in Fortean Times

Evolution of Island Mammals: Adaptation and Extinction of Placental Mammals on Islands

Alexandra van der Geer, George Lyras, John de Vos, Michael Dermitzakis
ISBN: 978-1-4051-9009-1
Hardcover, 496pp
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

Here's a challenge. Can an enthusiast with only a biology 'O' level deal with a book pitched at zoology or paleontology postgraduates? There comes a point in pursuing fortean interests where you may have to confront literature so technical it leaves you behind. So I approached Evolution of Island Mammals warily, but found it surprisingly easy going. I only had to look up 'parietal' (bits on the side of your skull), while I called in my sister - an osteopath - to explain what "synostotic fusion" is.

That aside, there's a lot of material in here that’s fascinating to the non-specialist. Much of the research is new, or a new assessment of existing material, the result of admirably painstaking work by the Dutch-Greek authorial team who travelled the world’s obscure museum collections measuring and comparing old bones and teeth.

There's a few laughs in here too. Intrepid British lady naturalist Dorothea Bate arrived in Cyprus at the turn of the twentieth century and revealed that the miraculously preserved relics of the "300 marionites," the legendary founding fathers of Cypriot Christianity on display in churches, were in fact the fossilized bones of pygmy hippos. That discovery can’t have been well received locally.

Some of the larger mainland mammals – especially the good swimmers like hippos, elephants and deer – evolved quite quickly into cute miniature island versions. The smallest of the pygmy elephants, at just under a meter high, was proto-Sicily’s Elephas falconeri, the biggest mammal on an island it shared with mice, rabbits and not much else. The authors consider the controversial pygmy human "hobbits" of the Indonesian island of Flores, Homo floresiensis to be a distinct species. A volcanic eruption 17,000 years ago apparently finished off the "hobbits" and Stegadon sondaari, a dwarf relative of the elephants, and may have killed off the island's giants cave rats too.

Island Mammals concludes most of these island dwarf mammals died out before humans arrived, although Majorca’s early humans may have domesticated the 50cm-high Myotragus balaericus, the “mouse goat”.

The same evolutionary forces that produced cute miniature versions of mainland mega-fauna also drove the evolution of scary giant versions of normally cute fluffy little mainland mammals. The Cretan deer Candiacervus major, at 1.65 m at the shoulder, was slightly larger than the Irish elk. Malta has Leithia, a double-sized dormouse, preyed on by outsize owls. Madagascar once had knuckle-dragging ground lemurs, and Sardinia had Megalenydris barbaricia, a flat-tailed otter that was “truly a giant… much larger than that of a living otter”, although its remains are too fragmentary to tell just how much bigger. What really kept me awake at night was the thought of Diogaronyx, the terrier-sized “monster hedgehog” from a Miocene archipelago that’s now part of Italy.

While the scholarship of Island Mammals’ research is excellent, its presentation and structure is more “postgraduate.” This – and the price tag – make it more a work of reference than bedside reading for forteans to dip into for a pleasant read. The illustrations are mostly black and white, with small colour plates confined to the middle. This is a pity, as the authors have shown they can write a more coffee-table type book on this subject – Island Mammals evolved (excuse the pun) out of the Dutch-language Hoe Dieren op Eilanden Evoluren, a sumptuously-illustrated 2009 Darwin anniversary celebratory work aimed at the general reader. Surely this subject is broad and engaging enough to deserve an English-language work for us non-specialists.

Score: 7 (9 for specialists)

Dwarf Cypriot elephants' teeth from the Bate Collection at the Natural History Museum London. They feature in Evolution of Island Mammals. Photo: Matt Salusbury

Thursday, 26 May 2011

How to hold on to your lifeline

Matt Salusbury on why keeping your passport in the Middle East is more vital than ever

(This first appeared in EL Gazette, May 2011.)

It has long been common practice in some Middle Eastern countries for employers to retain the passports of expatriate teachers. Back in the days when falling out with your boss or being refused a holiday were the worst things that could happen, EFL teachers put up with it.

In the last six months, however, a wave of protests has swept across the Middle East. Expat EFL teachers left Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in droves, though they're now mostly back in Egypt. One British Tefler escaped from Tripoli courtesy of a lift from the South African armed forces, while another hitched a ride with Portuguese diplomats.

Both these teachers - and those who boarded Royal Air Force cargo planes and a Royal Navy warship - only got on board because they had proof of their nationality to hand. Estimates vary for the number of migrant workers stranded in Libya without passports – mostly African, Bengali or Egyptian. There could be almost a million. Meanwhile the US State Department and the British Foreign Office have instructed all nationals to leave both Yemen and Bahrain. Suddenly we’re in an unpredictable Middle East where your passport being locked in the office for 'safekeeping' is very bad news.

The UK and US advise talking employers out of keeping passports if at all possible. The UK says that if you can’t avoid handing in your passport you should make a full, colour copy before you do so and keep it somewhere safe. It’s enough to get you onto a Royal Navy helicopter.

Teachers should also register with their embassies. Canada recently said that because so few of their nationals in the Japan earthquake zone had done so they had no idea how many were there.

Under the laws of most Middle Eastern countries, it is illegal for bosses to retain passports. When expat workers go to court in the Gulf states to get their passports returned, they usually win. Teachers who want their passports back can also say that the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) has declared retaining passports 'forced labour', a form of slavery. Even Saudi Arabia has adopted the ILO conventions.

Saudi employers will briefly need to hold on to the passports of expats to obtain an iqbal (alien registration card and residency permit) for them, but beyond that there is no reason to retain them. Visas that allow expats in Saudi to go on holiday are complicated, though recent reports suggest that getting a temporary exit and re-entry visa is becoming much easier, with payment and paperwork available via an ATM.

The retention of passports continues to be quite common in Saudi Arabia and has in the past led to teachers being put at risk. Back in the Gulf War of 1991 BAE Systems (British Aerospace at the time) retained teachers' passports after classifying them as 'essential personnel'. Many chose to break their contracts rather than live under threat from Iraqi missiles, while reports suggested some were redeployed to undertake 'security duties'.

Saudi courts seem to take a dim view of employers retaining passports. To everybody's surprise, an Indian oil worker who was recently denied his passport by his boss went to the Saudi courts and won. Arab News reported that in January the Jubail and Damman courts ordered the return of the unnamed expatriate’s documents, along with his family's passports, stamped with (eventually) the correct exit visas.

Passport retention seems to be a problem in Kuwait. The US State Department website says, 'There are cases where employers retain passports of foreign nationals resident in Kuwait. You should try to avoid this where possible, but you should always keep a copy of your passport.'

In Oman, employers 'often ask that expatriate employees deposit their passports with the company as a condition of employment - this practice is contrary to Omani law', according to the State Department. While a 2006 Omani Ministry of Manpower circular upholds the employee’s right to retain their passport, it doesn't stipulate penalties for employers, making enforcement difficult. The UK Foreign Office reminds its nationals in Oman that they need their passport (or a copy) at all times to show as ID.

In Qatar a 2009 law forbids bosses from retaining passports 'except for visa and immigration processing'. Labour laws are likely to be tightened due to the international attention focused on the country as its vast expatriate workforce prepares for the football World Cup 2020.

In the UAE it's also against the law for an employer to keep passports. Only a 'competent judge' can do so. This has been upheld by a 2008 Ministry of Labour ruling that companies retaining passports 'will not be tolerated'. A 2002 law imposes fines of 20,000 dhirams (£3,300) or three months' prison for employers who do so. A bigger risk than revolution in the UAE (in the boom-bust Emirate of Dubai, specifically) is your employer suddenly going out of business with your passport still locked in the safe.

Teachers on work visas will need some form of exit visa to get on the plane out of Saudi (a 'letter of no objection' releasing you from employment), Qatar and 'in certain situations' Yemen. But when revolution starts and your country's (or another country’s) armed forces arrive to evacuate you, they couldn't care less about any exit visa, they just want to see your passport in your hand, or at least a copy of it.

Update: Since the article appeared, the British consulate in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) has started issuing 'Emergency Travel Documents' for its nationals who need such documents in order to return to the UK. Reading between the lines, this could be as a result of passports not being released by employers.

I have also recently come across an unconfirmed story of a teacher in an international school 'held hostage' in Qatar. The lack of an exit visa was allegely involved.

This feature was inspired by a source (a teacher who I won't name) who contacted the Gazette about passport retention issues with their employer in Saudi. As they haven't got back to us, we assume it's been sorted and they have their passport. They reported to us that a group of female Egyptian colleagues who went to the manager's office to demand their passports. They got them.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Guardian poster boy for making Data Protection Act requests to the cops

I seem to feature as some sort of poster boy in the Guardian's new guide to making Data Protection Act requests for your 'domestic extremism' files from the cops.

The article also reveals that John Catt, the artist who (along with his daughter) sketches on demos, has been given leave to bring a "lawsuit" (I understand it's an application for a judicial review) on the legality of his data being gathered and retained on the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). John and Linda Catt and myself are to date the Guardian's only case studies of people who've actually got off their arses and used the Data Protection Act to get their police files.

If succesful, the lawsuit could lead to the NPOIU held on a lot of us being deleted. This would include data on myself that I recently got from an NPOIU database via a Data Protection Act disclosure, about which more later. Suffice to say at this point the NPOIU placed me on a demo in 2007 that I didn't go to (in Crawley, of all places!) and have me down as a "domestic extremist" because I was observed by one of their spotters cycling quite close to the ExCel Centre on the day of the G20 Summit being held there in April 2009. Ooooh, scary!

Bizarrely, I've blagged an invite to a "Have your Say" event on the future of the NPOIU being hosted by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary at a posh hotel in Covent Garden tomorrow. A report here will follow.

Besides Mr Catt, I know of one other who's got their NPOIU data through Data Protection Act. And guess what - their data, like mine and Mr Catt's, includes data which is inaccurate and wrong,

Monday, 25 April 2011

Kallana reconnaissance – Kerala, India, March-April 2011

Interim report

Sali Palode (left) and his "tribal" forest tracker Mallan Kani at the spot where they saw in 2010 what they describe as an adult male kallana (pygmy elephant) with tusks

I recently returned from my investigation into alleged “kallana” pygmy elephants in and around Neyyar-Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, South India. These elephants are supposed to have a height of 5ft (1.5m) at the shoulder – or less – in adulthood, and are particularly nimble, scrambling over rocks at great speed. (Conventionally-sized adult Asian elephants on the Indian sub-continent start at around 7ft at the shoulder and up.)

A full write-up of my kallana reconnaissance will appear in my forthcoming book, Pgymy Elephants, to be published by CFZ Press later this year. Meanwhile, I will have to be a bit vague, and refrain from publishing some of my photos, as I’m in talks with BBC Wildlife Magazine about a possible travel piece for their August issue, and they want first dibs on pictures and the story.

My talk on kallana is also part of the programme for the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s Weird Weekend 2011 in Woolfardishworthy, Devon on 19-21 August. I’m provisionally booked for Saturday 20th.

No, I didn’t find any pygmy elephants, nor did I see any conventionally-sized wild elephants. I didn’t expect to see any kallana. I did interview art teacher and multiple award-winning amateur photographer Sali Palode and his “tribal” guide Mallan Kani, of the forest-dwelling Kani people. They have been tracking “kallana” for over a decade, and have had three sightings in that time. They were able to photograph kallana on two of these occasions, in 2005 and 2010. (Sali speaks Mallayalam only, and his agent Balan Madhavan interpreted for me. I hope to have an extract of the interview linked to this blog shortly.)

Sali and Mallan also took me into the Neyyar-Peppara Sanctuary to show me the places where they encountered kallana. It’s thick forest with steep, single-file paths up and down the hills. The paths are elephant tracks, as evidenced by the dung piles with mushrooms growing out of them. The places where Sali and Mallan made their sightings were all on the edge of a small lake at the edge of the forest.

Art teacher, award-winning wildlife photographer and kallana witness Sali Palode, being interviewed in the Trivandrum Press Club

We did have a close encounter with a herd of about 20 gaur (wild forest bison) that Mallan found for us. Mallan’s forestry skills are impressive – he suddenly said, “Gaur! Guar!” although Sali and I saw and heard nothing, and he then disappeared into the forest. Ten minutes later a herd of gaur came stampeding straight at us. Some say that “kallana” are just young elephants playing a short distance from a herd that’s unseen and close by, but if the herd was close by, Mallan would know about it. I had the rare privilege of coconuts for lunch in one of the Kani hamlets in the forest after our trip. Access to “tribal” areas is normally restricted, we had cleared it with Sharma, the Trivandrum Division Chief Wildlife Warden, who knows Sali well.

Sali and Mallan enter the forest

Sali and Mallan on a steep elephant trail in the deep forest of Neyyar-Peppara

I am currently negotiating with Sali’s agent to purchase licenses to use a couple of Sali’s photographs, including one never published of a dead female he found by the lake in 2005. The local wildlife warden certified it as dead, stating it was a young elephant, and it was quickly cremated in line with Forest Department practice. Regional newspaper reports at the time saying a DNA sample had first been taken were incorrect.

I also had a chance to see some young captive elephants having a bath at Kodonad Elephant Camp, and it was good to get up close to them, and to compare young conventionally-sized elephants with the photos of “kallana.”

Up close and personal with young (conventionally-sized) captive elephants at Kodonad, on the Periyar River

I also interviewed two elephant experts. Prof Sukumar Raman is the expert on Asian elephants for the whole world, and I flew to Bangalore to talk to him on the huge Indian Institute of Science campus. I met and interviewed Prof Joseph Cheeran, a vet and an expert on captive elephants, in the Keralan city of Thrissur.

I have to say my initial conclusion is I am more sceptical about kallana then when I first arrived in Kerala. Prof Sukumar and Prof Cheeran said that many of the unique characteristics Sali says distinguish kallana from conventionally-sized Asian elephants are perfectly consistent with young Asian elephants, and there is a big range of size, tusk development and behaviour in young Asian elephants. All the kallana sightings were in the dry season – Kerala misses out on one of the monsoons and has a longer dry season – giving the elephants an emaciated appearance, which could be what Sali and Mallan were seeing.

It turns out that kallana doesn’t go back all that far in time either. Sali said Mallan first drew his attention to kallana “twenty-five years ago” on the summit of Agasthya Mala, south Kerala’s tallest peak, when he saw piles of smaller-sized dung. Prof Sukumar pointed out that younger elephants produce smaller balls of dung. Sukumar is also from South India, and said that “twenty-five years ago” in South India doesn’t necessarily mean 1986, but “a very long time ago,” so long that you can’t remember.

Sukumar also told me that the stories of kallana first arrived in Kerala around the same time, with reports coming over the border with the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu to the East. I wasn’t able to communicate directly beyond single English nouns with Sali and Mallan on our trip into Neyyar-Peppara, as we didn’t really have a language in common, but it’s no longer clear to me whether kallana is an ancient tradition of the Kani, or a secondhand report acquired via local media by the Kani and others in recent times from Tamil Nadu. There are some Kani settlements (and a lot of other forest-dwelling “tribal” settlements) in Tamil Nadu, but the Kani in Kerala seem to be isolated from and unaware of the Kani in Tamil Nadu, who speak a different language. More study of the transmission of kallana reports is needed.

Sukumar was more open to the idea of kallana, and said that, as a scientist, “I wouldn’t rule it out.” He suggested that kallana is an example of “phenotypic plasticity”, variations within any given population, and felt the most likely explanation is that there’s a family group of slightly smaller than usual individuals in the sanctuary. Sukumar pointed out that being smaller would be a good adaptation in negotiating the thick forest slopes of Neyyar-Peppara. Sukumar has studied the elephants of Burma, that also live in thick forests, and they are smaller than Indian elephants, but definitely the same species. While Balan Madhavan, Sali’s agent, was emphasising to him the need to gather dung, hair and other discarded bits of kallana for DNA analysis, Sukumar said not to bother, as any variations unique to the alleged “kallana” family of smaller elephants probably wouldn’t show up in the DNA, as they’re well within the range of what you’d expect in conventional-sized elephants. Sukumar’s team planned to join in the Kerala Forest Department’s elephant survey of Neyyar-Peppara, looking for evidence of kallana, a couple of years ago, but it was rained off by unexpectedly early and heavy rains. He hopes to do it again sometime, considerable academic commitments permitting.

Prof Sukumar Raman in his office at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, at the Bangalore campus of the Indian Institute of Science

Sali also claims to have seen a mystery tree crab in the Neyyar-Peppara reserve, living in gaps in trees that are not particularly anywhere near water. There’s a photo of a tree crab on his website, erroneously filed on the “insects” page. (I’ve yet to get in contact with the naturalist who runs Sali’s website.) Sali drew me a sketch of the tree crab, which looked very different, more like a spider. He also said he’d seen exotic tarantulas in the sanctuary, although it’s not clear whether he was saying they were unknown species. I hope to delve more deeply into the Neyyar-Peppara tree crab mystery.

Balan Madhavan, who’s a well-known wildlife photographer, said he hoped to get a photo of another Keralan cryptid, pogeyan, the grey clouded leopard. He’s spoken to foresters who’ve seen it, and is convinced it’s for real. Pogeyan’s alleged range is in the far north of Kerala, in the tea plantations of Malabar.

In Kerala’s capital, Trivandrum, I encountered several carvings and statues of what were described as “unicorns” or “elephant dragons” – horse-bodied, eagle-clawed beasts with elephant’s heads. Some grasped their trunks in their talons, some had trunks reaching down towards considerably smaller “baby elephants” whose trunks reached up to theirs. Some had small crests or tufts on their heads. Some had multiple tusks growing out of thes sides of their mouth where their teeth should be, like the mouth parts of a monster prawn. They had a Chinese or even Indonesian look to them, and the elephant bits were anatomically very accurate.

Makara ("elephant dragon") at the Maharaja of Travancore's palace, Trivandrum

These “elephant dragons” were in the Maharaja of Travancore’s 18th century palace, in the huge temple nextdoor, and guarding other temples nearby. I talked to the palace and temple guides, who told me the “elephant dragons” were carved by wood and stone carvers from Tamil Nadu in the late eighteenth century, during Travancore’s zenith. The stone dragons were added to the temple at that time. When I went to Bangalore, I saw that the coat of arms of the surrounding state of Karnataka also has “elephant dragons.”

Sukumar told me these are makara, and they’re not exclusive to India. They seem to be an architectural flourish or heraldic beast, at a time when Travancore (South Kerala and bits of Tamil Nadu) were establishing diplomatic relations with European powers. I don’t know how the existence of makara – a mythical elephant dragon often associated with a small elephant – fits in with the tradition of kallana. Sukumar says there’s been little by way of research into the origins of makara. I invite any art historians who don’t mind getting up really early to make calls to India to investigate further.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Strange Stories in a World of Wonder part 1

This first appeared in Fortean Times FT 271 (February 2011) and part 2 in FT 272.

In common with a lot of fellow fortysomething forteans, my interest in strange phenomena was first kindled at a very tender age by a weekly magazine called World of Wonder. Branding itself as “the magazine for every boy and girl”, World of Wonder opened for business in the groovy cool fab bellbottomed days of 1970, when I was still just a bit too young for a chopper bicycle. WoW came through our letterbox every Saturday, and was an essential grounding for kids in interesting facts and “world knowledge” in the days before Wikipedia, and – decades before Facebook – its international penplas page was popular. The WoW of the early 1970s allowed itself occasional flights of futurology – giant walking cities on telescopic legs, and an illustration of what was then a fantasy– the proposed “Channel Tunnel”, its entrance spiraling into the ground like a helter-skelter.

IPC Publications’ World of Wonder (WoW) (not to be confused with an earlier, American World of Wonder magazine from the 1930s) was published by Fleetway, a division of magazines giant IPC. Although it would appear somewhat worthy in tone by today’s standards – its pages often ended up being cut up for school geography projects – what made WoW really cool was a regular feature called ‘Strange Stories’. The editors may have been a little embarrassed by ‘Strange Stories’ – it only even had two cover stories in its entire 258-issue, five-year run. Possibly they were worried that parents would disapprove of any in-your-face delinquent areas of study like yetis, lighthouse-threatening giant octopi, the Oak Island Money Pit or other degeneracy on the cover.

The regular ‘Strange Stories’ feature galloped through all the fortean old chestnuts – and some less well known forteana that since been forgotten – in three sumptuously illustrated pages or less, and packaged anomalous phenomena and high strangeness in easily digestible portions to the children of Britain, the Commonwealth and (in translation) Holland. ‘Strange Stories’ was the crucial factor setting some latter-day forteans onto the path of being rather interested in something a little bit odd.

Canadian Nick Van der Graaf, for example, reminiscing on the 26pigs.com website, said, ‘In WoW, I first heard of Kaspar Hauser, I first read about Spring Heeled Jack, all kinds of exciting and mysterious phenomena. To this day (I'm 38 now) I regret losing those marvellous magazines. I think they were a great influence on me.’

And then there were the pictures! The technology of the time meant it was easier and cheaper to pay illustrators (there were a lot more of them around) to paint illustrations by hand than to source and clear rights for photos from photo libraries. WoW even had an occasional series called “Up and about with our colour camera” in which they showcased the groovy cool fab but still rather fiddly technology of colour photographic printing. All ‘Strange Stories’ illustrations were painted by hand. For some reason probably also to do with the printing processes of the time, ‘Strange Stories’ illustrations were usually in a strange strange two-colour mix of blues and greys. Sea serpents and giant squid and octopi seemed a firm favourite for the WoW illustrators, sometimes rendered in spectacular colour, deep green seas and all. (The illustrators of the time were often either colour or black-and-white specialists.)

Some ‘Strange Stories’ illustrations, it is fair to say, scared the living daylights out of me. I am still haunted by a traumatic formative experience, turning the pages of WoW164 and being confronted with a graphic rendering of one of the many hallucinations that afflicted the inhabitants of the town of Point Saint Esprit, France, in 1951. The illustration showed a resident opening to door to a doctor on a house call, except that in place of the doctor’s face there was a skull beneath his hat. ‘Strange Stories’ identified ergotism, possibly caused by mould on the local flour, as th cause of the hallucinations, rather than any alleged CIA plot to lace the water supply with LSD (FT262;20-21) – further noting that villagers saw ‘processions of historical ghosts,’ that pets went ‘beserk,’ and that it all started after the priest noticed the arm on the village’s statue of the Virgin Mary was missing.

Some ‘Strange Stories’ illustrations were downright baffling. No explanation was given for why (in WoW61) Alexander Selkirk – the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe – was illustrated depicted surrounded by cats on his discovery by sailors on a Pacific Island. Elsewhere in the pages of WoW, the series on Greek mythology and the series on the history of dance provided excuses for the occasional bare nipple on Greek goddesses, sirens and Indian temple dancers – very exciting in those innocent days before the current torrent of filth that is the internet.

The illustrators brought in to ‘do’ WoW were among the best of the best. Many had come from IPC’s more established sister publication, Look & Learn. Dozens of illustrators worked on the magazine, often (like some of its editors) deliberately recruited from the world of comics, in an attempt to give often quite dry history and science features a look that would engage the kids. Some illustrators were imported from Spain and Italy. Among the home-grown British WoW illustration talent was Leslie C. Caswell, a Royal Academy member and World War Two war artist who served in Burma, and who illustrated Women’s Own in the 1950s and became well-known as a medical illustrator, before depicting for WoW Father Dominic Dechaux levitating over a King Philip II of Spain’s startled court for a feature on levitators, part of Strange Stories’ occasionally fortean sister series ‘Talking Point.’

Other WoW illustrators included Angus McBride and Richard Hook, who later went on to illustrate numerous Osprey Men at Arms books on uniforms from obscure ancient and medieval armies and wars. For assignments illustrating eighteenth century feats of derring-do, preferably involving three-corned hats, dashing highwaymen and chases on horseback, Cecil Lane Doughty, veteran of Eagle comic, was the illustrator of choice. For the numerous WoW stories on Spitfires, Concorde and other cool planes, there was aviation specialist Wilfred Hardy, who went on to design the 2009 series of Icelandic ‘legendary animal’ cryptozoology stamps.

Fantastic though the images accompanying ‘Strange Stories’ and ‘Talking Point’ may have been, the accompanying texts were brutally sceptical for a readership of such a tender age.

‘Strange Stories’ scepticism ran to (WoW 61) dismissing UFOs as weather balloons, unusual clouds and, - four decades before they were fashionable explanation – Chinese lanterns. WoW 5 asked, “Was there a King Arthur?” and WoW119 asked “Rope trick or tall story?” WoW 124 speculated that the Cottingley Fairies photos might be fakes at a time when many were still giving them the benefit of the doubt. WoW105 announced “The end of the world is cancelled” – written in 1972, it jokingly identified 1977 as the next predicted Armageddon.

WoW 163 bluntly concluded that one sighting of the bunyip – Australia’s large mystery animal – was just a misidentified musk duck. WoW142 examined the Cheyenne chief Roman Nose's magical invulnerability to bullets, as long as he observed the taboo of starving himself before battle. He survived several horses being shot from under him, before finally being succumbing to a bullet fired by the US Army at a raid at Republican River, Colorado, having forgotten to forgo food that day. ‘Strange Stories’ was of the starkly rational opinion that the sudden contemporary introduction of repeater rifles may have been the real cause of the failure of Roman Nose's magic.

For a publication that set itself the mission of introducing kinds to what was supposed to be a world of “wonder,’ such brutal scepticism aimed at such a young and innocent audience seems almost cruel. Although I suspect that the powers behind “Strange Stories” counted on the nine-year olds ignoring the perfectly rational explanation at the end, and be convinced the whole thing about giant skeletons in Mexico and UFOs was gospel truth. I know I did at the time.

Hoaxes were a common theme, especially hoaxes and scams pulled by professed alchemists. ‘Strange Stories’ told you all a child needs to know about history’s great hoaxes. The very first of ‘Strange Stories’ from WoW issue 1 was Piltdown Man. WoW 68 featured Monsieur Lenoine, 'the man who made diamonds' and who swindled diamond magnate Julius De Beers, who hired a conjurer to expose him. WoW 70 had the fake Shakespeare play Vortigen and Rowena, written by William Henry at the age of 18, and sold to producer Samuel Ireland. Their illustration showed the play being booed off the London stage on its first performance in 1795.

History’s great scam artists – like Perkin Warbeck, who led a rebellion against Henry VII of England after convincing many that he was the elder of the Princes in the Tower – rubbed shoulders on the pages of ‘Strange Stories’ with altogether more curious narratives of hoaxers and forgers. The German Otto Wacher (WoW252) was imprisoned in the 1920s for forging Van Goghs. Except that some experts pointed out that Wacher couldn’t paint, and these experts came to the conclusion that Wacher had obtained ‘real’ Van Goths which the artist had painted in a new, later style.

“Complex fraud” doesn’t get much more complex than Alves Reis, the hoaxer featured in WoW53’s Strange Stories. How nine- and ten-year olds were supposed to be able to follow even a summary of Reis’ byzantine plot is unclear. Reis faked an authorization to banknote printers Waterlow in London to print a special issue of £1 million-worth of high-denomination Portuguese escudo notes for him, for some reason overprinted with the word ‘Angola’ – then a Portuguese colony – and introduced these notes into circulation in Portugal. He started his own bank and was doing well until people spotted there were “too many” such notes circulated. After riots, bank runs and all the governors of the Bank of Portugal being imprisoned, Reis himself got 20 years in 1925.

Then there was archaeology, ‘Strange Stories’ style – WoW21 asked “Who were the yellow long armed giants?” When the Dutch “discovered” Easter Island in 1722, this was how the islanders described to them the builders of the statutes, whom they referred to only as “the others.” Then there was the discovery of lost Nestorian scriptures found shredded in a mouse’s nest in a cave in Mongolia in the 1940s, as the Communists closed in. WoW163 covered 13ft-tall human skeleton discovered in Peru and buildings apparently constructed by giants in Mexico. (And see FT256;58-59 for ‘Strange Stories’ take on the archaeological mystery of ‘Dorak Treasure’ allegedly dug up from Turkey, only to then disappear, if it had ever existed.)

The perpetrators featured in FT’s own occasional round-ups from the annals of inept crime would have been put to shame by ‘Strange Stories’ spectacular narratives of criminal derring-do. These included in WoW45 James Andrews, a Union officer in the American Civil War, who specialised in stealing trains from behind Confederate lines. WoW 206 covered Robert Redru, the French detective who (allegedly) shopped himself after discovering that he himself was a somnambulist murderer, and was sentenced to spending nights in prison until his death in 1939. American gangster Robert James Pitts, (WoW 235,) had his fingerprints surgically removed, only to find that after fingerprinting following a random police stop in Texas, the smudges where there should have been fingerprints fingered him more than ever, making him "the most marked man in America."

Stranger still was the obsessive Vicenzo Perrugia, (WoW100) who somehow seems to have stolen the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, then tipped off a dealer that he had it in his ‘dingy flat in Florence’, from where it recovered two years later, leading to speculation that Perrugia had been paid by the Italian government for this odd art heist. In the dashing highwaymen (and women) department, there was (in WoW48) celebrated Edinburgh ‘female highwayman’ Grizel Cochran, who reached her criminal peak in 1685, while another Edinburgh resident who made it into Strange Stories’ annals of extraordinary crime was William Brodie, mild-mannered Edinburgh city councillor by day, highwayman by night, and apparently the inspiration for Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Look & Learn 698)

Eccentrics – especially Irish eccentrics – were another favourite theme to which ‘Strange Stories’ often returned. But most ‘Strange Stories’ featured eccentrics paled into insignificance compared to amateur mountaineer Maurice Wilson, who froze to death after deliberately crashing a plane into the slopes of Mount Everest as part of his solo attempt to climb it in 1933 (WoW99). Other differently-lifestyled ‘Strange Stories’ subjects were (WoW 72) Rudolph Raspe, creator of Baron Munchausen, and himself almost as weird. A scholar, geologist, compulsive fraudster and thief, Raspe fled from Germany to Cornwall, where he worked in a tin mine assay office before fleeing again to Ireland. Then there was Irishwoman Dervla Murphy’s, showcased in WoW 198. She is best known for her solo 1963 cycle ride to India, whose incidents included being stoned during a religious riot and held by Afghan bandits. Also definitely on the unusual end of the spectrum was tall, blonde Jack Metcalf, (WoW67), point-to-point racing champion of Knaresborough, horse taxi driver in Harrogate, captured by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army in 1745 whilst fiddling for the English at the battle of Culloden, surveyor and builder of the Harrogate to Boroughbridge road, and blind since the age of six.

And what would a fortean series for kids be without the curses? As well as the curse of hallucinated skull-faced doctors in Point Saint Esprit (see above), there was Valentino’s silver ring, (WoW10) which is now somewhere in a bank vault having brought misfortune to so many of its wearers. There was Archduke Ferdinand of Austria’s ‘cursed’ car (WoW 98) that killed many of its owners, and in which the Archduke was being driven for his fateful visit to Sarejevo in August, 1914. And there was the suspiciously unlucky “cursed” Hispania 9th Legion of the Roman Army (WoW25) almost wiped out by ‘Boudicea’ (Boudicca) in her rebellion of 79AD, and which then disappeared North of Hadrian’s wall 20 years later. The legion’s eagle standard top – minus its wings – was found discreetly buried under a villa in Slichester.

Although WoW styled itself as ‘the magazine for every boy and girl’, it was rather skewed in favour of ‘Strange Stories’ from the annals of war, especially World War Two, which still loomed large in the playgrounds of the 1970s. Once such military-flavoured ‘Strange Stories’ entry was that of Arthur Sandeman, who – inspired by The Charge of the Light Brigade – joined the Central Indian Light Horse in the 1930s. When this unit mechanised in 1941, he transferred to the last remaining front-line British unit that actually still used horses, the Burma Frontier Force, and fulfilled his destiny with a last cavalry charge "into the jaws of death" that ended in massacre in defence of Taungoo airfield against the Japanese (WoW 241). Other unusual soldiers in the war against Japan were the ‘Hughies’, the Hong Kong Volunteer Corps, whose spirited defence of Hong Kong's power station against the Japanese was commemorated in WoW253’s Strange Stories. Many of the ‘Hughies’ were in their seventies, some were Boer War veterans.

Other curious Strange Stories episodes from the annals of military history were (WoW175) the USS Arakwe. The ship was patrolling the coast of South America just after the American Civil War, when it was lifted by a tidal wave two miles inland into Chilean soil. The Arakwe had run out of cannonballs so its crew fought off Chilean looters by firing hard cheeses from its cannons. (Or did it? The incident has the feel of one of those tall tales made up in the great tradition of 19th century American local newspapers to fill up space when not much was happening, and an internet search didn’t turn up any ships of that name. Can any FT readers shed light on this?)

Another of the “Strange Stories” in time of war was France’s “Black Legion” of 1,500 convicts in captured British uniforms dyed black (they actually turned out a rather nasty brown, on account of the base red colour of the British red coats they had used). They were sent by a desperate revolutionary French government in 1797 to cause panic in Britain. Commanded by Colonel William Tate, a 70-year old exiled American mercenary, they got blind drunk on their voyage to Britain and were depicted in an illustration in WoW24, on the deck of one of their warships waving bottles in the air. Landing at Fishguard, South Wales, they were beaten back by one Jemima Nichols with her pitchfork, and surrendered to the militia, mistaking the Welsh ladies’ tall hats for the headgear of the brigade of guards.

In the back of the car on the morning school run, there would be intense rivalry between WoW subscribers and those kids who took IPC’s larger format, better-seling, brasher sister publication Look & Learn, which tended to have more illustrations of speedboats and Spitfires, returned to the ‘Great Trek’ of the South African Boers with suspicious frequency, and had the beautifully illustrated Roman-Empire-in-a-parallel universe science fantasy strip ‘The Trigan Empire’, but crucially didn’t have anything like ‘Strange Stories.’ We WoW readers pitied the Look & Learn readers, who didn’t believe my reports about 13-foot high skeletons of Mexican giants, which must have been true, after all, I read it in ‘Strange Stories’. The Look & Learn readers probably ended up growing up more normal as a result. The joke was on us WoW readers, however. As we will see in Part Two next issue, Look and Learn swallowed up WoW and (as it did to seven other publications during its 20-year-reign) and eventually brought to an end the golden age of our beloved “Strange Stories.”

Strange Stories in a World of Wonder - part 2


26pigs.com World of Wonder bibliography

The Bumper Book of Look and Learn, selected by Stephen Pickles, Century/Random House, London, 2007

World of Wonder is held in the British Library serials collection, shelf mark P.993/58. The Fortean Times office holds a complete bound set of World of Wonder.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Strange Stories in a World of Wonder part 2

As self-defined prophet and former newsreader Jeron Criswell King, aka The Amazing Criswell, notes in his bizarre prologue to the 1959 film Plan 9 From Outer Space, “ you are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable, that is why you are here.” For many forteans, there was a catalyst in their early life that first kindled their interest in the world of strange phenomena, and set them on the road to a preoccupation with high strangeness. Asked what that formative experience was, a number of today’s forteans now in their forties – at least those who grew up in the UK, Holland or the Commonwealth – would answer that what first got them hooked on “the mysterious, the unexplainable” was reading World of Wonder’s “Strange Stories”.

World of Wonder (WoW) magazine appeared every Saturday – usually dropped through the letterbox by the paper boy – into many households in the first half of the 1970s. WoW dealt with science, history, geography, technology (especially Spitfires and the latest cutting edge developments in “the mighty transistor”). But by far its strongest section was its “Strange Stories” spot. “Strange Stories” presented the kids of the 1970s with a firm grounding all the usual fortean staples - the Marie Celeste, the “abominable snowman”, sasquatch, the Cardiff giant, Kasper Hauser, Indian wolf children, the “Devil’s footprints “of 1855 Devon, the hollow earth theories of John Clere Symmes and others, Spring-Heeled Jack, the man in the iron mask, the Oak Island money pit, James Churchwald and his alleged lost continent of Mu, the Tunguska explosion. (WoW 156 carried an illustration of alarmed Transiberian Railway passengers in Tsarist Russia period beards, stiff shirt collars and all, witnessing the explosion from afar,) Less well known mysteries that seems to have been forgotten about in the intervening 40 years were also given space in the pages of “Strange Stories”, (see, for example the “Strange Phenomena Involving U-Boats in WWI” below.)

World of Wonder was a slightly text-heavier spin off publication from its sister publication Look & Learn, founded in 1962 by Leonard Matthews, who had launched several children’s comics, and brought in some of the best of the comics illustrators to engage the kids with dynamic illustrations that would draw children in to history, geography and science. Both World of Wonder and Look & Learn had to do this while also somehow remaining acceptable to parents – a tall order, and probably the reason why there were so few appearance of any “Strange Stories” on World of Wonder’s cover.

World of Wonder shared several illustrators with Look & Learn. British childern’s comics expert Steve Holland recalls that World of Wonder came into being in an attempt to produce a format that – it was hoped - could be easily translated to be sold on to publishers in Germany, France, Italy, Holland and Yugoslavia. In the event, there was only an English version – under the editorship of Robert Bartholomew - and a Dutch language edition. After a five-year run, the publisher that bought the Dutch edition of World of Wonder from publishers IPC decided to go it alone, commissioning their own material. As WoW had less of a pedigree than its slightly brasher cousin Look & Learn, publisher Fleetway (a division of IPC) absorbed WoW into a new look L&L with some extra pages, and Strange Stories continued in L&L, for a while, at least…

It was the illustrations that “Strange Stories” – and its occasionally fortean sister series “Talking Point” - particularly excelled at, and which made the biggest impression on its pre-teen audience. (See Part One for more on the usually uncredited WoW artists.) “There Are Giant Serpents in Every Sea” declared WoW 26, depicting a collosal long-necked plesiosaur swimming in bright green seas, dwarfing a sailing ship of the Olden Days, as well as one sea serpent spotted by startled straw-boater and blazer wearing holidaymaker and his wife at the northern English seaside reasort of Skegness in 1966. The fearsome Serrano Cay giant octopus featured on the cover of WoW 179, menacing two Mexican lighthouse keepers when it suddenly came out of the depths in 1905. According to “Strange Stories”, the octopus killed one keeper, Diego Alvez, before his colleague Ferdinand Moxo eventually managed to shoot it with a rifle. Another giant octopus, spotted from the French sailing frigate Alecton. (WoW 76) was depicted in brilliant pinks. There’s also the narrative of James Bartley, (WoW 58), a British harpooner swallowed by a sperm whale off the Falklands in 1891, and cut out alive from its corpse the next day (after his funeral). His hair was bleached by “gastric juices” and he went briefly insane, before he resumed harpooning duties. WoW58 filled a whole page with the gaping mouth of the whale closing in on helpless man overboard Bartley, with the large headline SWALLOWED BY A WHALE.

Other “Strange Stories” from the annals of natural history and cryptozoology included (WoW 35) a decade of disbelief at Sir Harry Johnston discovery of the okapi in the forests of the Congo until he finally came up with photos of it in 1909. The Parisian pet derby of 1909 (WoW 78) was a race involving the exotic pets of decadent fin de siecle Parisian aristocratic ladies – contestants included an Egyptian dung beetle, a goose, the Princess of Lucinge’s lion cub, a tortoise and a monkey, with some prize pets depicted held on leads by the Parisian aristocratic ladies with girly bows round their necks. After a short race which descended into mayhem as runners tried to stangle or eat each other, Madamoiselle Yturbe’s monkey won. The illustrator got a little carried away with some of the French gentlemen’s top hats, some of which obscured part of the text.
Stranger still was WoW’s short and wilfully obscure ‘Birds that cannot fly” series, which covered (WoW 224) the “Emu War” of 1932, in which the Australian Heavy Battery artillery unit of the Australian Army attempts to exterminate a huge, crop-devastating flock of emus was outwitted by the nimble birds running around in all directions. An emu-proof fence eventually proved slightly more effective.
Incredible journeys were favourite theme of Strange Stories. In WoW 141, Apsley Cherry Gerrard made the worst journey in the world across Antarctica over five weeks in 1991 to collect three penguin eggs. Mark Poltorctzky, aged 13, walked 700 miles across Russia in 1714, surviving trees falling on him and exposure in the snow to reach Moscow ands take up hiw post as an Imperial Choirboy in Moscow in WoW 146. The coffin containing the body of actor Charles Coughlan, (WoW 135) who was buried in a coastal cemetery in Galveston, Texas in 1899, was swept out to sea in a hurricane the following year to finally come ashore on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, close to his birthplace on 15 September 1927. Coughlan’s coffin had made a journey in which it averaged 65-80 miles a day.

Former Italian diplomat Felice Benuzzi and two of his compatriots and fellow prisoners of war interned in Camp 354 in Kenya also made a “Strange Stories”-style incredible journey in WoW 92, escaping to undergo an 18-day ordeal ending in a climb to the summit of Mount Kenya, where they planted a homemade Italian flag, then returned to 354 to give themselves up. They were apparently bored in captivitiy. But my favourite incredible journey story has to be the one from WoW 130 of the extraordinary hardships endured by Frenchman Rene Caille, who made a year-long odyssey in 1828, disguised as a runaway Egyptian slave, to become the first white man to gaze on the legendary splendours of the forbidden city of Timbuktu, thereby claiming a 10,000 franc prize. After many life-threatening episodes, he discovered that Timbuktu had become a complete dump.

For those who found school history lessons boring, there was plenty of Strange Stories of historical revisionism. WoW7 speculated on the possible survival of Louis XVII, crown prince who went missing aged nine in the French Revolution. WoW2 asked, was Napoleon poisoned? WoW 108 asked, was American school teacher of French origin Philip Ney really Napoleon’s Marshall Ney, who had emigrated after surviving a firing squad? Look & Learn (L&L) 692 asked whether Joan or Arc had survived, having not been burnt at the stake after all. WoW 33 presented claims that Guy Fawkes was a patsy, an innocent tenant of the Westminster cellars, caught in an anti-Catholic plot to convince James I that ‘Papists’ were trying to blow him up. WoW 46 offered alternative authors of Shakespeare’s plays, while - somewhat more plausibly – WoW 57 suggested that missing American aviatrix Amelia Earhart was a spy who fell into Japanese hands. “Strange Stories” was an advocate of the teaching of what we would now call “critical thinking”. Always gently sceptical, “Strange Stories” gave these revisionist history theories the time of day but suggested to impressionable young minds that such theses should be taken with at least a healthy pinch of salt

“Strange Stories” seemed to have a particular affection for chancers and adventurers who became living gods. These included penniless Irish sailor David O’Keefe, shipwrecked on the South Sea island of Yap, who was welcomed as its king, who displaced the German “agent” active on the island at the time, who built a trading fleet to export coconut kernels direct to Hong Kong, who saw of pirates and Dutch colonists, before a German battleship and troops finally forced him into exile in 1901. “Lawyer Lebeau” tricked onto a prison ship to New France (as the French possessions in Canada were then known), where he was captured by the Iroquois. He persuaded the Iroquois nation he was a messenger from the Great Spirit, convincing them his law degree was a letter from the King of France giving him authority to flatten mountains. The Iroquois eventually lost interest in him (WoW 257). And there was also James Brooke, who “accidentally” became king of the headhunters in 1920s Borneo. Not quite a living god, but certainly a Venezuelan national hero after his work as a “hero doctor” fighting a plague epidemic in Peru was Pierre Bougrat, whose Strange Story featured in WoW 158. Whilst esteemed in Latin America, right up to his death in 1962, Bouget was regarded by the French has an fugitive convicted murderer, having escaped to South America from France’s Devil’s Island penal colony on a small boat with five other convicts.

Are there patterns that can be discerned in high strangeness? There are certainly themes that keep coming up in “Strange Stories.” As we saw in Part One, hoaxers, spectacular criminals and spectacular crimes, hoaxes, amazing scams, archaeological mysteries, extreme eccentrics, curses were popular Strange Stories subjects, as were unusual episodes from the annals of war. Cryptozoology was also a Strange Stories favourite, lending itself as it did to spectacular illustration possibilities. Then there were Strange Stories clusters of incredible journeys filled with hardship, historical revisionism and men who accidentally became prophets or living gods (see text). Timeslips - especially Parisian timeslips - were another theme, including the sighting by two British tourists at Versailles in 1901 of women in the clothing of Marie Antoinette’s time. Then there was the apparent timeslip involving the disappearance – along with all records of her having been there - of a Mrs Randolph staying in room 343 of the Carillon Hotel, Paris with her daughter during the 1899 Paris Exhibition. The ever sceptical “Strange Stories” told its young readers that there was a likely rational explanation – Mrs Randolph disappearing from history, right down to her entry in the hotel register, was actually down to her being discreetly spirited away to hospital by a Parisian health authoritiy conspiracy, they being eager to avoid panic in the streets after being alerted that she had caught “the plague” in India.

But for a bizarrely obscure fortean sub-genres, nothing comes close to Strange Stories apparent pre-occupation with strange phenomena associated with German U-Boats of the First World War. Strange Stories catalogued four such cases, which you don’t read so often about in fortean circles these days.

One “Strange Stories” round-up of maritime mysteries featured U-Boat U236 which survived a mid-Atlantic torpedoing from a British sub in 1917 after one of these malfunctioned and jumped over U236. A year later, another (unnumbered) U-Boat fired a torpedo at the British Q ship Stock Force, only for the torpedo to slew back and blow the U-Boat up. WoW39 described how the U-Boat UB-65, reportedly haunted by the ghost of a dead officer, was beset by inexplicable disasters, and was spotted floating apparently abandoned by an American sub in 1918. (“Strange Stories”, perhaps wisely in view of possible parental surveillance, generally steered clear of ghosts.) WoW 25’s “Talking Point”, alongside better-known sea serpent sightings, had a dramatic illustration of Captain Georg van Forstner, on the bridge of yet another World War One U-Boat, this one while on active service in 1915, witnessing a strange, 60 ft- long “crocodile-like creature” – which in WoW’s illustration more closely resembles a finned Jurassic mososaur - being blown out of the sea and into the air by the boiler of explosion of a sinking British steamer that he’d recently torpedoed.

Normally sceptical WoW refrained from presenting a perfectly logical explanation for the “crocodile-like creature,” but the misidentified, fleetingly-glimpsed thrown up floating decaying corpse of a basking shark of whale as it shot past Captain Forstner before plunging beneath the waves does spring immediately to mind.

Some “Strange Stories” weren’t all that strange at all – Cardinal Wolsey’s rise to power, the invention of jeans by Levi Strauss, Napoleonic prisoners of war making intricate models out of bone – and the only mystery is what they were doing in Strange Stories at all. Just as newspapers have the odd “slow news day,” Strange Stories had the odd low strangeness week in which presumably already commissioned historical features – such as the dramatic yet not particularly strange rescue of Mussolini by powered glider, or the noteworthy but not exactly eyebrow-raised 1944 Operation Valkyrie plot against Hilter - had to be hastily rebranded under a dubious Strange Stories masthead. There is, after all, only so much strangeness out there suitable for a child audience, and “Strange Stories” had to find enough strangness to fill at least a full page every week for over five years.

And indeed, the “Strange Stories” strangeness supply did eventually run dry. WoW was taken over by Look & Learn in February 1975, with only a week’s warning to subscribers. While “Strange Stories” was among the limited number of WoW spots that made the transition, other regular WoW spots finished abruptly in mid-series, when WoW 258 was suddenly followed by L&L 686. L&L is best known for the sci-fi strip The Trigan Empire, which lost is excellent illustrator Don Lawrence soon afterwards and went downhill from there. The first L&L “Strange Stories” was the Turin Shroud, which had already been done as a Strange Story a couple of years before back in the old WoW glory days. “Strange Stories” went into decline in its L&L ownership, it ceased to be a weekly event and became more and more occasional, until it finally stuttered out of existence and faded from view forever around L&L 649 in 1975. The short fortean series “Haunted Britain” (featuring Geoff the talking mongoose and Drury Lane’s numerous theatre ghosts, followed, but L&L was a less nurturing environment for forteana than WoW, and it lived on only in the memories of then young forteans. (And not just the fortysomethings – at least one thirtysometing Strange Stories fan on online blogs recall discovering the series after stumbling across a complete set of WoW back issues in a box in a friend’s attic. Look & Learn, having gobbled up WoW and several other kid’s “knowledge” weeklies – Treasure, Tell Me Why, Speed & Power – finally bit the dust in 1982 – killed off by, of all things, soaring paper prices.

Most “Strange Stories” were presented to a young audience in good faith, and if “Strange Stories” team felt a story was not grounded in some kind of fact, they said so. After all, the “Strange Stories” team would face the wrath of angry parents if they passed off fantasy as sort-of-possibly-fact to the kids. But in retrospect, it seems one or two “Strange Stories” that were in fact groundless tall stories may have slipped through the net, probably copied from other secondary sources that had been unwittingly duped and hoaxed.

In this category of ‘probably made up’ was the alleged Parisian pet derby related above. Did the Parisian aristocratic ladies’ exotic pets derby (WoW 78) really happen?

And, finally… there is the most intriguing Strange Story of the Chinese invasion of Monterrey, California in the 1870s (WoW 228). According to Strange Stories, Imperial China under the Qing Dynasty sent a fleet of junks on a punitive expedition to America, in revenge for the way America cruelly exploited and humiliated Chinese immigrant workers in that country. So hopelessly antiquated was the Chinese invasion fleet that its navigators ran into trouble after underestimating the breadth of the Pacific Ocean, and headed for Monterrey, which had earlier briefly been the state capital of California, but not anymore. On landing, the Chinese invaders could not get the good citizens of Monterrey to understand that they’d come to punish them, and the locals seized them and carried them shoulder-high through the streets in welcome, as depicted by the “Strange Stories” illustrator. The invaders quickly assimilated into the immigrant Chinese community of Monterrey.

The brutal Qing dynasty certainly couldn’t give much of a damn what happened to the hordes of peasants, who were risking life and limb to flee the feudal miseries of China and its rulers in the first place. Qing China’s formidable foreign ministry, the Zongli Yamen, had been in operation since 1861, and its intelligence-gathering section woul have been informed of the correct distance across the Pacific. Any fleet of war junks China could have raised would probably have been blasted out of the sea by the numerous European, American or Japanese fleets that had taken up residence in the “Treaty Ports” they had carved out along China’s coast. And the internet is suspiciously silent on the subject of any alleged 1870s Chinese invasion of Monterrey, California. This begins to look awfully like one of the small town19th century American newspaper tall tales made up to fill space, or a faintly racist satire on contemporary Chinese immigration. Can any FT readers enlighten us on whether this particularly Strange Story really is made up?

As a nine-year old I of course believed every word of it, I had read it in the totally groovy coll fab Strange Stories, after all, so it must be true. I even vigorously defended the veracity of Strange Stories-sourced evidence, 13ft-high Mexican giant skeletons and all, against contemptible doubting Look & Learn readers in the back of the car on the school run.

While there have been compilations of Look & Learn published since its demise, back issues of World of Wonder and “Strange Stories” seem to command little value or interest – so little interest in fact, that I wasn’t even able to find out from ebay how much I could get for the complete bound volumes of WoW that earlier this year were still knocking around the home I grew up in. My mum wanted to throw them out, so I donated them to the offices of Fortean Times for safekeeping – a suitable home for what Charles Fort called “damned data.”


World of Wonder bibliography http://www.26pigs.com/world-wonder/bibliography.html

26pigs.com – reminiscences on World of Wonder http://www.26pigs.com/world-wonder/index.html

Official Look & Learn website http://www.lookandlearn.com

The Bumper Book of Look and Learn, selected by Stephen Pickles, Century/Random House, London, 2007

World of Wonder is held in the British Library serials collection (http://catalogue.bl.uk), shelf mark P.993/58. The Fortean Times office holds a complete bound set of World of Wonder.