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 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

FURTHER READING 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.

No comments: