Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Coming soon - Fortean film gossip

Fortean Times assure me that my 'Forum' (opinion) piece on movie gossip surrounding the 'optioning' by Universal studios of a certain Fortean book will be in the next issue, FT 229 , due out in 18 October. I seem to have made the inadvertent leap into some kind of one-off ''Hollywood Confidential' scandal-mongery. Other forthcoming FT articles of mine include the Natural History Museum's freakshow (issue after next), nipple-tassle twirling Queen of Burlesque, fetish model and parapsychologist Kittie Klaw on... er... parapsychology (in time for Christmas) and the long-awaited long feature on pygmy elephants, whenever the hell I get the time to write it. All of these will be on my website as soon as the 'First British Serial' (ie the issue they're in) has run its course, after which copyright reverts to me.

DSEi Arms Fair 2007 close up

I was surprised how easy it was to cycle up to the docks opposite the DSEi arms fair last Tuesday (11th September) - with a rucksack on - and take this picture of the DSEi delegates in the Excel Centre from across the docks, despite the Terrorism Act being in force throughout London for the event. The rubber dinghy full of RIver Police that pottered by didn't seem too bothered by me either.

Dsei Arms Fair 2007

Despite an unfortunately policing incident on the way in - which I've taken up with my union - policing of Europe's biggest arms fair - DSEi - was relatively chilled this year. There was a kind of protest pen outside Custom House station, but people seemed able to walk in and out of it without too much hassle from the cops. A protester told me, though, that one protester was being held inside the station under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and the station was closed to everyone including press.
There were a lot of corporate media who wore their accreditation to get into the arms fair, but who were out mingling among the protesters and photographing and interviewing them, as if they were the coolest thing about the fair.
Councillor Alan Craig, opposition Christian People's Alliance member of Newham Council, whose ward includes half of the Excel Centre, venue for DSEi, was there. (Second picture.) He said he'd been elected pretty much on a close down the arms fair ticket. Soon after his election, he'd got the Labour-dominated council to pass his motion condemning the arms fair, but so far he hadn't got them to actually do anything about it beyond 'warm words.'
Sargeant MD51 from Peckham nick was kind enough to escort me over the busy Connaught Road Bridge to photograph the cool-looking state of the art stealth warships parked at the docks outside the Excel Centre. Their jagged profile is presumably something to do with their radar signature. (Top picture.)
I was really there looking for the Space Hijackers' tank, which they planned to sell to the highest bidder outside DSEi. A protester told me 'the police have rumbled where it is, so I don't think it's going anywhere.' Sargeant MD51 had been briefed about the Space Hijakcers' tank, and commented with a smile, 'it's not the easiest thing in London to keep hidden, is it?'
I gave up wating for a tank that wouldn't now be showing up, and went home.
It turns out that the Space Hijackers had spent an additonal £2000 on a decoy tank - the one the police had found - and turned up in a spectacular armoured personnel carrier, still in its white UN colours.
I didn't manage to interest any of my usual media outlet clients in a DSEi report this time, but I was encouraged by the reason given. Previously, none could be bothered to cover it, but now they all told me they had their regular people on the case already.

Weird Weekend – 40 years of the Patterson-Gimlin film

Paul Vella, a forensic expert witness on computers, gave a talk at the CFZ’s Weird Weekend on 40 years of the Patterson/Gimlin film, the definitive Bigfoot film. This year is the 40th anniversary of the Patterson/Gimlin film of Bigfoot. In forty years there hasn’t been a better film, which is ammunition for the sceptics. If it’s there, why isn’t there a better film?
It’s a good quality 16mm in the right place in the right time film. To put this in context, there were over 590 drive-by shootings in LA last year, and only one of them was filmed.
The Bluff Creek sighting wasn’t a one off, there were many sightings in the area before. In 1958 there was a sighting and a lot of disturbances, huge oil drums were being thrown over the side of a gulley where they were building a bridge. Casts made in concrete by the the crew, and that’s around the time the term ‘Bigfoot’ was coined when it made the local paper.
In 1964 a forestry worker found similar tracks on a forestry road in the same area. Al Hodgeson found more prints the following year in nearby Willow Creek while hunting.
Roger Patterson died in 1972 of Hodgekinson’s disease, at the time he made the film he was in remission, but he knew he was ill. He had the reputation for being a bit of a drifter, funded by his brother-in-law.
Bob Gimlin is still alive, works in a garage in Yakima, Washington State, and if drunk will tell you about his work with stunt motorcyclist ‘Evil’ Kenevel. He made very little money from the film, just a $10,000 pay-off from Mrs Patterson.
On Friday October 20th 1967 they filmed Bigfoot at about 1.30 pm. They shot a total of 59.5 seconds of film of the Bigfoot (if we have the film speed right), part of a documentary they filmed when they had been in the area for three weeks.
They’d seen three sets of tracks earlier on the day of the sighting. After the sighting they went back to their truck a mile away to get casting material, and changed the film. A second film was lost by the BBC, which shows the tracks that they cast.

Patterson and Gimlin drove back with the truck and the horsebox. They got the film to Eureka to mail the film to be processed, and rang the Yakima Times. Gimlin rang some people over the Canadian border in British Columbia he knew, trying to get tracking dogs, they refused.
The next day it kept raining, Gimlin went to the site again, ripped bark off the trees to protect the tracks, he was ill, he’d been up at 5am and he was exhausted.
On Sunday, Patterson and his friends Green, Dahinden and McClarin viewed film over and over again, knackering it in the process.In 1967 it cost a fair bit of money to process a film, while most Washington shops closed in the afternoon. How do you process it on a Saturday? Patterson’s brother in law may have thrown money at it and got it done out of hours? The film ran out after 59 seconds, only 26ft left.
There was other stuff on the film, footage of themselves, trees, from the previous few days. It was a very sandy area at the time. You can see footprints in the film behind the thing they filmed.
There are bulging calf muscles in several frames. Gorilla suits don’t have muscles. The sand’s been washed away over the years, there’s gravel now. People still find footprints in the area, although not so many. It’s an unbelievably dusty drive from Willow Creek to Bluff Creek. It takes three hours to do thirty miles.
The first few minutes of the film is very shaky. The camera’s got no zoom, and Patterson is running after the thing.
John Green’s height calculation have used Patterson’s height, the prints, the camera angles to calculate the height of the creature in the Patterson-Gimlin film, between 6 ft 6 and 7ft.
The distance between your middle finger to middle finger arms outstretched pretty much gives your height if you’re a human.The arms of the Patterson/Gimlin film are too long. They don’t fit that ratio.
On the film you see a flexing hand – if the arms are too long for a human, how can there be a man in a suit with a hand in the glove that’s flexing? It flexes its hand in several frames.
The Kodak K-100 Patterson and Gimlin used has film speeds. He said he always used Said he always used 24 frames per second, but that after filming the Bigfoot he found it was on 18 frames per second, which isn’t a setting (16 is). At 24 frames per second, many people say the creature is moving too fast for a human.
Some surviving stills from the second reel – the one shot after the reel in which they filmed Bigfoot - show Patterson and Gimlin casting Bigfoot prints. Looks at half past five at the time, judging by the light.
Film director John Landis says what Patterson Gimlin shows is a suit made by Chambers, the make-up artist on Planet of the Apes. Chambers denied it, saying his suit wasn’t that good. Filming on Planet of the Apes finished a month before the Patterson-Gimlin film. The alleged suit would have been Hollywood cutting edge, but in Planet of the Apes there were no actual ape suits, only heads and hands.
The Bigfoot never locks his knees, humans always do. Possible bald patches you can see on the Bigfoot in the film,
Sceptic Karl Korff – claimed in his documentary, World’s Greatest Hoaxes – that Jerry Romeny was the man in the suit, that an insurance agent conned Patricia Patterson, that it was all a Mormon conspiracy to portray their version of the Bible. He says apes don’t have a hairline down his back, but gorillas do, as Vella demonstrated with photos.
Greg Long wrote a book called The Making of Bigfoot, in which he said there was a Patterson contract to make a a Bigfoot film. There was – it was a badly typed document about lending $500 to make their documentary. Patterson did work in an old ghost train before the film.
Patterson knew he was ill, but still ploughed all the money from the film back into Bigfoot research.
In Greg Long’s book – Bob Heironymous – who is supposed to be the man in the suit – describes a completely different suit to the one the man who made it described. Bob describes a leisurely five-mile drive and a dry Bluff Creek, but Vella has been to Bluff Creek and it’s never dry. Bob is just over 6ft, an not broad shouldered enough to be the creature in the film.
Philip Morris claims he made the suit, but he describes a differently-made suit to the suit Bob describes putting on.
And why, in America in 1967, would you put breasts on a kid’s film if you’re hoaxing it?
We normally see a third generation poor quality copy on TV.We’re told at the time that you’d need to have sent off the film to Kodak, but we believe there were copycat processors around that could have done it.
Cliff Cook said he saw the end of a zip on the creature in the film. It could be a clump of mud dried to the coat. The colour of the foliage in the film suggests it’s around October.
Vella first saw the Patterson-Gimlin film on the BBC in 1972 and really wanted to see one. He was disappointed that there wasn’t one at London Zoo on his fifth birthday, but he’s been obsessed by Bigfoot ever since.
Nobody knows where the original film is, there were five copies made, Vella knows where two are and suspects where the third is. The other two are missing.

Giant flightless barn owls of the Bahamas

Palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish was at the CFZ's Weird Weekend (August 19 2007) on the overlap between crytozoology and the mainstream. He pointed out that former 'cryptids' (mystery animals not known to science) include the lowland gorilla - a mythical creature until 1840, the mountain gorilla - a mystery until 1901, the okapi - the stuff of legend until 1900 and the komodo dragon, not formally described until 1912, but with reports collected since 1840. Over 45 new primate species have been described in the last 20 years.

Darren described some of the weird island fauna that the fossil record has thrown up. These include the pointy-head horned tortoises of New Caledonia, and chickhairnie - a group of large bipedal Carribean tree-dwelling animals like giant barn owls that could turn their heads right round, and similar flightless Bahamian running owls encountered by early humans in the islands.

Darren 'fessed up to having a collection of toy dinosaurs which he said numbered a thousand, see pictures of Darren's toy dinosaur collection here, which certainly puts my dinosaur collection of a mere 300-odd in the shade.

Weird Weekend's newest year-old instant tradition is to finish up with a humorous talk by Ronan Coughlan, which wasn't really about cryptozoology at all, indeed, it was so bizarre I don't know what it was about. CFZ Director Jon Downes rounded off by quoting the father of cryptozoology Bernard Heuvelmans, 'The great days of zoology are not yet done.'

Redfern on Ranton - the Man-Monkey

Nick Redfern, one of very few Forteans who makes a full-time living on the subject, gave a talk at the CFZ's Weird Weekend (Sunday 19 August 2007) on one of those 'zooform phenomena' - a term that describes animals that are way to weird to possibly be able to exist, but which are nonetheless still being reported - the Man-Monkey of Ranton, Staffordshire, near where Redfern comes from.

There are reports from England, Scotland and Wales that broadly fit the description of a Bigfoot-type creature, but these reports are 'not as straightforward as they seem' - there are weird folk stories around these creatures about ghostly attacks, disasters that they bring about, objects passing straight through them. And how come they've never been caught? Is this thing a real animal or an apparition?

Redfern has uncovered 20-30 descriptions of this phantom Man-Monkey creature from around the UK, including interviews with eyewitnesses.

The classic Man-Monkey sighting comes from 1879, when a skinny monkey jumped onto a cart at Ranton along the Shropshire Canal, at a point where a worker on the canal had earlier died. The victim of the Man-Monkey attack struck the creature with a whip, but it went right through him, as if it was somehow spectral. The area around Renton was the scene of UFO sightings in 1954, and Ranton seems to be a 'window area for strange activity.' Nearby Camelford Chase is a folklore hotspot. The local 'German Cemetery - where German POWs killed in the 1918 'flu epidemic were buried - has seen a recent spate of 'werewolf' sightings. Nearby Shugborough Hall - the name comes from 'shug', a mythical cross between a mastiff and a monkey - saw a sighting of a 'wildly running' man-monkey creature in the garden in 1981.

Also in the area is Cannock Chase - where animals have been found dead and mutilated, including dead foxes arranged in a circle among candles - there have been reports of 'animal sacrifices' and 'ritual activity.' I was interested to see during Redfern's talk a slide of BT's Telecom tower in Cannock Chase, and asked Redfern whether the electronic pollution from a microwave transmitter like this one could be somehow inducing visions or other weirdness. I discussed this with Redfern over dinner in Wolfordisworthy's Farmers Arms pub afterwards, and another area of weirdness with a microwave transmitter in the middle of it - Highgate in North London, scene of the 'Highgate Vampire' events of the 1970s, including reported attacks by ghostly entities.

I later ran microwave towers as a possible hallucination generator past my brother, who has a civil service background. He commented, 'Sigh. Done to death, at length. Call the press officer at the Radio Communications
Agency. There is lots of data on the harmlessness of microwaves. But it doesn't matter what us scientists say - people will still claim that LittleJohnny is sick because there is a mobile phone antenna 250 meters from his bedroom. Mind you, the early microwave techies building the Post Office Tower (opened in 1966, now BT's Telecom Tower) used to warm their hands in the focal point of the beams...'

Nick Redfern's latest book, Man-Monkey: In search of the British Bigfoot, is published by CFZ Press.

The CFZ's Lake District gig

It was the final stretch of Weird Weekend 2007, (Sunday 19 August 2007), traditionally the time for the CFZ's expedition reports.

The CFZ's trip to the Lake District had not all been 'Chorley cakes, the Beatrix Potter Museum and interesting tea,' assured CFZ Director Jon Downes. They had been intrigued by a photo of Lake Windermere in the Westmoreland Gazette last year. Its photographer, Steve Burnip, described seeing something large and eel-like swimming 'very fast for over 60 seconds.' The publication of the photograph led to a letter from Mark Plant, who said he'd seen something weird on Windermere back in his twenties in 1959, while in a dinghy on the lake.

Reports from the 1980s and 1990s began to come in, with 1959 as the earliest. Local diver Kevin Boyd joined in with the CFZ investigation, doing night dives 60ft down, but he didn't see a single live eel on these dives. He did say he thought he saw a 4ft hump which he thought was a coil of an 'eel-like' creature. Boyd had also seen very big eels on previous dives.

The length record for an UK is 4ft 2 1/2 inches. There have been eye witness reports of eels of five, six, eight or nearly 10ft on various British and Irish lakes over the last 15 years.

There are two shapes of the common eel, two variants or 'morphs' of the same species. There is the round-face eel that predates on other fish, and the pointy-faced eel that eats worms. Boyd described having once seen a 'carpet' of eels in the lake, with both morphs present.

Eels are very weird indeed. Until quite recently, we had no idea how they bred. There were some tiny, leaf-like fish around called leptocephali, which we thought for years were a completely different animal, until they turned out to be the larvae of the common eel.

Lyndon Adams rang the CFZ in February. He'd caught an image like Burnip's - only clearer. In May, John Harker saw a snake-like thing in the lake leaving a wash, although the CFZ's Richard Freeman thinks his pictures show the wash of a boat.

Dr Charles Paxton says there's also a recent video doing the rounds which also shows a 'thing' on the lake.

There's a theory that there are sterile eels - called 'eunuch eels' that don't go out to see like normal eels. There's a report of a 25ft eel in the Birmingham Ship Canal in the 1990s, and a recent film of Loch Ness shows what looks like a 25ft eel. Isaac Walton, author of the classic Compleat Angler, talked about a third type of eel morph in the Thames, that had bright red fins. Could eels throw up new morphs?

In the deep lakes of the Northern hemisphere there are many stories of massive 'horse eels,' particularly in Ireland.

Then the CFZ got a report of an eel that had been in the Blackpool Aquarium in the Blackpool Tower for many years, which was over 4ft long. They went to take a look, and found - in a very small tank - a pointy-faced morph eel that was over 4ft long. It had been there since the early 1960s. They went round the corner and saw a tank with two round-faced fresh water eels that were 5ft long.

The Times in the late 19th century reported eels of 8 or 12 ft long in deep lakes in South Wales, and that 'reputable gentlemen' at around the same time reported eels giving birth to live young in a bucket.

Clearly there's a lot about eels that we don't really know.

Dr Paxton's adjusted curve for sea creatures over two meters yet to be discovered

My own very crude drawing of Dr Paxton’s adjusted curve of sea creatures over two meters yet to be discovered, from my notes on his talk. (See here.)

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

A5 envelope shortage shock!

The sci-fi fanzine This Way Up formerly known as Antenna, has folded after many years of publication for the most bizarre of reasons - an apparent national shortage of A5 envelopes! This Way Up was posted for free to anyone who sent the price of a stamp, in an A5 envelope as it was a nice, handy A5 format.

However, This Way Up's editor John Connors tells me they've finally jacked it in, because he can't get A5 envelopes for love or money. This may have something to do with the Post Office's decision last year to encourage even less people to use snail mail by making it as complicated as possible. The This Way Up team "can only find C5 envelopes which look the same as A5,
act the same as C5 but cost more to send in the post thanks to the PO's strange charging scheme introduced last year."

John Connors' "slightly sinister fanzine empire" (TWU's own words) will shortly launch two new publishing projects and I hope to be on board in some way. Started primarily as a vechicle for long, rambling rants about Doctor Who, a programme which at the time hadn't be on TV for over a decade, This Way Up was frequently "Fanzine of the Month" in the column of the same name by SFX, Europe's biggest sci-fi magazine. I used to admire its "no editing" policy, which let people go on and on about Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon for fifteen pages and the pants Tom Baker-era story Horns of the Nimon for another ten pages after that, with an apparent decision made not to bother with any kind of layout. In an age of increasingly all style and no content, you just had to respect it's "we don't care" attitude to writing, and only writing. And then, just when I was getting tired of the no-layout no-editing policy, voila! Out of nowhere pops a layout artist and designer who does a nice job of design, layout and cutting stuff to fit. This Way Up, casualty of the national A5 envelope shortage, you will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

London Underground with NO ADVERTISING! (again)

In November 2005, I photographed London Underground’s Turnpike Lane station transformed into some kind of Communist-era Dada absurdist guerrilla art surreal canvas, its platforms and tunnels hung with empty spaces where there was NO ADVERTISING. See my website gallery. Sadly, Turnpike Lane is back in full-on advertising mode. However, I recently spotted the Bakerloo Line platforms at Oxford Circus, presumably in mid-refit, also WITHOUT ADVERTISING! The Waterloo and City Line, also known as ‘the Drain’, is also free of advertising. But this is for no other reason other than that the Waterloo and City Line is officially a No Fun Zone. It exists purely to move commuter drones between their place of work and their London train terminus serving their commuter suburbs during rush hours, and the one time I used it, everyone was in a totally foul mood. The Drain has nothing to do with any possible leisure, pleasure or fun application, which is presumably why they don’t even bother advertising on its platforms or trains.

Photo: Oxford Circus Bakerloo Line platform with NO ADVERTISING! Copyright Matt Salusbury 2007

“Large sea animals of over two meters that remain to be discovered”

Dr Charles Paxton’s interest in marine biology has led him to move into what he calls “the dark side” – statistics and statistical ecology. He currently works at the Maths Department of the University of St Andrews, home of the government sea mammal research unit. At St Andrews, Dr Paxton is developing statistical models and curves on graphs to predict sea animals over two meters long yet to be discovered, which was the subject of his talk at the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s Weird Weekend 2007 conference.
“Professional scientists have lost sense their sense of wonder", laments Dr Paxton whose own survey showed that less than 5 per cent of scientists cite “wonder” as a motivation for their career choice.
Dr Paxton says eyewitness reports are unreliable, and that cryptozoologists are wrong to approach the evidence for “sea monsters” on a case-by-case basis. Mainstream biologists aren’t going to be influenced by individual case reports, it’s the clear signals send by the patterns in statistical data sets that will convince them there could still be undiscovered “sea monsters” out there.
To investigate how bad (or how good) eyewitness reports are, Dr Paxton placed a small, deliberately rubbish monster model in Windermere, a 2.33m tall black ‘F’-shaped black monster made of plastic pipes. People get the size and shape right, but they got its distance from them all wrong. Distance is the least reliable thing in eyewitness testimony over water. ‘Newbies’ on well-resourced marine mammal surveys are introduced to buoys at set distances to train them to estimate distances, as it’s so important for marine surveys.
Children in Dr Paxton’s rubbish sea monster model survey turned out to be lousy witnesses, females significantly underestimate sizes, males significantly over-estimate them. Women do more accurate drawings.
Dr Paxton’s statistical model for “large sea animals of over two meters that remain to be discovered” is based on a graph that plots a curve with the dates of discovery of sea animals over time, to see if that tells us anything about what still is to be found. The graph starts from 1758 and goes up to the present, 1758 being the tenth edition of Carolus Linneaus’ Systema Naturae, the book which established today’s classification system for species. Dr Paxton took the years in which species were formally described by scientists. There were 35 large marine mammals in the tenth edition Linneaus, there are 306 now.

Dr Paxton admitted there were some problems with the first version of his ‘large sea animals of over two meters that remain to be discovered’ curve. The first version predicted minus 1 (-1) animals waiting to be discovered. Dr Paxton’s conclusion was, ‘my model is rubbish.’ An earlier model predicted 47 animals waiting to be discovered. The problem with the first model is that it assumed the ‘search effort for monsters’ has been constant since 1758. There are now more professional marine biologists, more universities and more scientific journals than in 1758. Cheap camera traps have also speeded up the discovery of any remaining animals.
Some people say there were a lot more discoveries going on then, because of whaling. But there are a lot of whale surveys going on now, which means there’s about the same level of activity going on as earlier.
There are other variables. Not all monsters are equally easy to detect. Animals found most recently are the less easy to find ones. We can’t measure ‘detectibility.’ We can factor in the level of the ‘search effort’ through looking at the indexes of scientific journals.
There’s also the population size. Animals that turn out to rare are less likely to be discovered sooner than the more common ones.
Taking all these factors into account, Dr Paxton has now adjusted his statistical model and come up with a revised figure of 306 already known sea animals over two meters, and the curve predicts a total of 321 of these, meaning there are 15 of these creatures yet to be discovered, with a margin of error of plus or minus five.
Dr Paxton has made curves based on the rate of discovery so far for different types of sea creatures over two meters, and come up with three remaining sharks yet to be discovered (with a margin of error factored in of plus or minus two), three yet to be discovered whales (plus or minus three, which may mean there aren’t any whales left to be found,) two bony fish species over two meters out there waiting for us to find them, and one invertebrate. The margin of error in each of these last two categories may mean we’ve found all of these already, although recent film of what might be a 7-foot worm in the Pacific may mean we’ll have to adjust the total for yet to be discovered invertebrates upwards. Dr Paxton’s survey of the indexes of marine biology journals suggests we are still finding new large species at regular intervals. He warned that we should treat all these figures for animals awaiting discovery as underestimates, as there are some variables that just can’t be factored in using statistical models.

Cryptozoology museum update

Emile, a Swedish death metaller who came with his dad, and Steve Jones, Britain’s only openly pagan magistrate, were among the punters at the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s Weird Weekend 2007. Mr Jones made an appeal for any information on sightings of monk-like hooded entities and animal ghosts. He’d already heard of the ghost of Francis Bacon’s frozen chicken in Highgate.
Sunday’s Weird Weekend session (19 August) included a report by Greham Inglis, one of the ever-expanding cryptozoologist colony that live in Mrytle Cottage, Wolfordishworthy on the CFZ Museum, which he is now building in an old chicken shed at the bottom of the cottage’s garden. The museum, with big tanks for marine life, an aviary and greenhouses with ‘habitats’, has been delayed by bad weather, but should be opening in late 2008.

Rendlesham revisited, sea serpents, whale penises and alleged living dinosaurs of the Congo

Peter Roberts and Larry Warren, were both US servicemen serving at the RAF Rendlesham air base in Suffolk on that fateful Boxing Day 1980 night when something descended and fired ‘pencil beams’ into the sheds containing the nukes they were guarding. In their talk at Centre for Fortean Zoology’s Weird Weekend 2007, they described how samples of soil taken in the area of Rendlesham Forest where whatever-it-was landed showed that the sand in the sandy earth had been turned to glass. Peter Roberts then went on the deliver a workshop on UFOs especially for kids, with 15 attendees as part of the first Weird Weekend that has its own child-friendly events on the programme. There was also the now traditional mad hatter’s tea party – Richard Freeman in his everyday top hat, joined by Corrina Downes as the Red Queen, resplendent in a red Renaissance-style dress.
Child-friendly though Weird Weekend may be, parental advisory was in force for Dr Charles Paxton’s ‘cetacean porn’ half hour, in which he demonstrated how an eighteenth century sea serpent sighting off Greenland, and some other such sightings, could be explained as misidentified whale penises. ‘We first told our IT support people we were going to do a Google search on “whale penises”,’ explained Dr Paxton, before demonstrating with several slides of sinuous, serpentine whale willies from pilot whales and grey whales.
Adam Davies went looking for ‘mokele-mbembe’, the cut-down sauropod (diplodicus-type long necked dinosaur) that allegedly lives in Lake Tele, a spectacularly remote and inaccessible part of Congo Brazzaville in Central Africa. Reports from the local pygmies go back to the early days of colonial exploration.
Davies’ first expedition was ill-fated. He arrived in Kinshasa in the neighbouring Zaire, just as it was becoming the hilariously-named Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the rebellion that brought President Laurent Kabila to power breaking out in the capital just as Davies landed. He was shot at, and even had an rocket launcher pointed at his stomach at the airport. It took him an extra £1000 of his own money to fly him the hell out of there, from which he learnt that ‘you can’t wing it,’ you have to do your homework for expeditions.
Davies also learnt that you can get stuck in Brazzaville for a month getting a permit. But with its civil war over, Brazzaville is becoming safer. Child soldiers have pretty much disappeared, and you can wander round Brazzaville at night. Davies met Marcel Magnana, Minister of Forests, who told him he’d seen a brontosaurus-like creature in a hunter’s camp just south of Lake Tele. He also met pygmy lady with her teeth filed into points in the traditional manner. She smiled all the time, except when he wanted to take a picture.
There followed a trip by pick up, with a monkey on Davie’s lap, to the pygmy town of Infondo, where pygmies who spoke the Barka language told him, through a translator, that mokele-mbembe could shoot lightning from its eyes. He then went to the Boa villages, 20 km from Lake Tele. The Boa, regarded as the gatekeepers to Lake Tele, have a bad reputation locally but turned out to be friendly and hospitable. Theirs is a stratified society, with hereditary ‘notables’, (heads of the families) and chiefs elected every five years. The notables carried spears to hunt crocodiles. For them, seeing the mokele-mbembe is almost a rite of passage. They said the male mokele-mbembe has a horn on its head.
After a monkey for his Christmas dinner, and termites making a nest on his boxer shorts, Davies finally arrived at Lake Tele. ‘God, it’s so beautiful!’ he said, showing us some of the very few photos ever taken of the lake, which looks likes it’s been pretty much unchanged in the last 20 million years.
Davies didn’t see mokele-mbembe. ‘I have no definite evidence, but I’m a believer,’ he says. He’s an interrogator for the Home Office in his day job, which he says makes him ‘good on credibility.’ Locals nearer the lake told him that the creature bonds for life with a mate and goes around in pairs, and spends most of the time in the forest, and occasionally swims across the lake, which is only 8km by 5km and is shallow, ‘up to your waist’ in most places. While palaeontologists first thought that sauropods lived in lakes, their great bulk buoyed up by water, we have since discovered they were more forest and flood plain dwelling animals, so the reported lifestyle of mokele-mbembe fits the fossil record better.
Following local tip offs, Davies intends to come back, but to the nearby Lake Macule, about the size of Swtizerland and apparently a better place to see mokele-mbembe.

‘Almasti’, mystery hominid of the Caucuses

Some Hollywood types from Universal Studios had come to the village of Wolfordisworthy, North Devon, to meet the Centre for Fortean Zoology people during their Weird Weekend 2007 conference. Nick Redfern’s book Three Men Seeking Monsters had been ‘optioned’ by Universal. As it was about Redfern and his CFZ colleagues Jonathan Downes and Richard Freeman (see below), Universal wanted to meet the three men, just in case the script ‘option’ ever got as far as having a film treatment that needed to be written. Downes said of his previous TV appearances, “Thank God for Harry Potter - everyone thinks I’m Hagrid.’
The Saturday session of Weird Weekend is always a twelve-hour endurance marathon, and this year’s (Saturday 18 August) was no exception, with an overwhelming parade of speakers.
Dr Karl Shuker, a shining star in cryptozoology’s firmament, showed up to launch Extraordinary Animals Revisited, an update of his classic book on mystery animals. ‘Crypto-books have a habit of becoming as elusive as the animals in them,’ said Dr Shuker of the tendency of cryptozoology books to go out of print. When I got back to London later, there was an email from Amazon telling me about Extraordinary Animals Revisited, which it wrongly attributed to Downes not Dr Shuker.
Despite being held at Zurich Airport in the belief that his ‘hand exercisers’ were some kind of weapons of mass destruction, star speaker Grigory Panchenko was on next, the first Weird Weekend speaker from outside the English-speaking world.
Mr Panchenko works as a recruiter of Russian science personnel in Hanover, although his background is genetics. Science in his native Ukraine, he says, “is dead.” In his spare time he is the president of a Ukrainian cryptozoological organisation. His talk was advertised as The Russian Snowman, but the Russian snowman he is hunting is, in fact, neither Russian, nor a snowman. It lives in the Caucuses, mostly in Georgia, and is known locally as ‘almasti.’
Unlike the ‘almas’ hairy man reported in Mongolia, or the apparently similar ‘aubasti’ reported in Central Asia, which are supposed to be like yetis, the almasti mystery humanoid that Mr Panchenko is pursuing is ‘more advanced…. Like Home Erectus, of the genus Homo, but not Homo Sapiens.’ It uses tools and makes basic clothes, like belts, out of natural materials, and has been known to steal clothes of washing lines or from rubbish dumps, and to wear them. Mr Panchenko described reports of almasti wearing a pair of trousers, holding the waist with one hand and stuffing potatoes it was digging up down the waist with the other hand, using the trousers as a sort of sack to carry off potatoes. He ever heard of an almasti seen around for several years that was wearing a discarded military hat.
Unlike the vast forests of the Pacific Northwestern USA, that are supposed to hide Bigfoot, or the empty snowfields of the Himalayas, allegedly home to the Yeti, the almasti are ‘forced to live next to humans’ in the Caucuses mountain chain that stretches between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea for 1200km, an area populated by modern humans for a very long time. ‘How can it (the almasti) eat in such an unusual environment?’ asks Mr Panchenko. It occupies the ‘same niche as a bear, it’s omnivorous, plants are the leading part of its food.’ Almastis often ‘borrow food from human neighbours.’ As well as neatly digging out potatoes, they eat nuts, almonds, horse manure (for its vitamins) and sometimes steal newborn foals and cows. They sometimes milk cows or mares into their mouths, although there are fewer horses that are left to graze freely in the region now. Frogs, lizards, toads, rats, hares, salt left out by shepherds for sheep to lick, and eggs stolen from chicken coops are also part of the almasti diet. Apart from foals and calves, it doesn’t seem to hunt much.
The almasti don’t seem to need much food to stay alive either. A pilfered loaf of bread will last an adult almasti three days, and it drinks rarely and little. It can live of cornfields for two or three days at a time. The almasti are ‘much more mobile than chimpanzees’ and ‘wander seasonally’ – they disappear from some territories for the winter months, reappearing around harvest time. They are ‘mainly evening, night creatures’ and Mr Panchenko says that ‘if you saw an almasti yesterday, you won’t see them for a year.’ It hides from humans and moves ‘slowly, not in a hurry.’ The almasti seem to smell human scents, and then stay away from it. ‘You hear them a lot, females and juveniles avoid you a lot… Forceful adult males sometimes throw stones if you approach them.’ The almasti is ‘very shy despite its great strength’ and sometimes ‘treats humans friendly.’ The almasti makes a noise like a male chimpanzee, and it also whistles. Mr Panchenko has heard its screams and whistles four times on three expeditions, and says that, when afraid, the almasti has a high-pitched scream that ‘sounds like a woman who saw a mouse.’ Several witnesses have ‘heard them murmuring.’
Mr Panchenko and his team have found almasti remains, mostly in caves, including a shin bone and ‘a very large, very strange collar bone’, and he has talked to locals who told him they found a ‘very strange skull with picanthropus characteristics.’ The shin bone is currently at the University of Paris for DNA analysis. Some locals have promised him they will give him some alleged almasti teeth for investigation, but Mr Panchenko feels these may turn out to be bear’s teeth. He’s come within 10 ft of a teenage almasti, who didn’t know he was there, but says his camera was out of batteries at the time. He first started hearing about the almasti on his military service in 1986, when he met Georgians who had seen it.
Mr Panchenko’s team have heard over 2,000 stories of almasti sightings, but the animals are rare. Even in the thinly-populated Caucus mountains, there is ‘one almasti to 100 or 1000 people.’
Post-Soviet Georgia has many abandoned collective farms, and encounters with almasti often happen in these, and other, abandoned building in the Caucuses, as almasti shelter in them. There’s a report of a farmer who left his horse alone in a big stable, and next morning he found that his horse had moved to the other side of the stable, and a great pile of hay near where the horse had stood had been beaten down. Some people in remote communities have come home and found that jewellry and other items have been picked up and put back again, apparently by almasti.
Young almasti look ‘almost like human children’. Around the late 1990s, there were only reports of older almasti, and there were fears that the species was nearing extinction, but this threat appears to have been averted, with reports starting up again of ‘children and teenage’ almasti. A recent German expedition by Marojan Kaufman heard almasti stories which they realized were about almasti children seen earlier who had now grown up, and heard reports of new almasti children having being born.
The almasti also share the Caucuses with three cryptid reptiles, much to the fascination of the CFZ’s reptile specialist Richard Freeman, who is a former chief keeper for reptiles at Twycross Zoo. There’s a giant 30ft-long Caucasian snake like a boa constrictor that mostly lives near water. With disastrous Soviet agricultural policies in Central Asia, this may be dying out. Mr Pachenko feels this creature may have given rise to Central Asian lake monster stories. There are also stories of a crocodile-like monitor lizard – smaller than a Komodo dragon – and a hairy snake with hairy scales.
Mr Pachenko emphasized that, even though an adult male almasti could be as tall as a ‘medium-sized Bigfoot’, it was ‘more progressive’ than such Yeti-like animals, and had ‘burials without rituals – like chimpanzees with grass and stone’, although it often died alone, leaving its bones in caves. He’s convinced that the Yeti-like almas in Mongolia also exist, with a population of about 200, but equally convinced that ‘in our lifetime they will all be gone.’

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Welsh Lake Monsters - Giant pike

Up and coming cryptozoology researcher Oll Lewis spoke at the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s eighth Weird Weekend conference of cryptozoology Saturday session (18 August) on lake monsters in his native Wales.
There are Welsh water monsters in folklore and fact, and some of them have attacked people in the last ten years. Garbled mistranslating from the Welsh doesn’t clarify the picture.
Wyverns (dragon-like winged snakes) used to attack sheep a lot in the Penllyn region, an area so isolated from the rest of the world that farmers wiped them out, thinking they were fairly common, and only then realized they were anything unusual.

The avanq, also spelled ufanc and with five other spellings, was some kind of crocodile thing. Stories about it are confused by the fact that the word is the same or very similar to the word for ‘beaver’ and ‘dwarf’ in Welsh, with its many non-standard old spellings. The local kings around Llangorse Lake, also called Brecknock Meer are supposed to have worn a tartan which represents the avanq. There are records of something in the lake going back to Roman times.
Huge 68lb pikes have been fished out of the lake. In 1987 a local, Mike Tunnicliffe, met the ufance when out shooting on the lake. One of his three labradors attacked a ‘basking pike’ in shallow waters, which darted off. Witnesses have seen wildfowl ‘taken’ by something under the water on the lake. A 5-6ft long pike attacked a man in 1997, and he was hospitalized with bites to his foot. Large pikes can look crocodilian in appearance.
Tuncliffe found the rotting mask (skull) of a dead pike in Llangorse Lake. It was 18 inches long, which would mean a pike of an estimated 70lb, 6-8ft long. Olly is going to Llangorse Lake in October. I’m down to help with archive research of Brecon and Powys newspapers in the Newspaper Library, and possibly down for ‘stake out’ duty on the shore during toe October expedition.
Two years ago the ‘Welsh water wolf,’ whatever that is, attacked sheep and killed them with two puncture marks around Newport.
Jonathan Downes announced The CFZ is involved in the defence of Marshall Farm, a local beauty spot near their village of Wolfordisworthy, North Devon, threatened by a Center Parcs-style development of 94 chalets planned for the area. Discovering dormice, rare moths, rare vegetation or – possibly – great crested newts not normally native to Devon, but reported locally, could save the site. The CFZ will do a survey.

Introduction to cryptozoology

The Centre for Fortean Zoology’s eighth Weird Weekend conference of cryptozoology began its Saturday session (18 August) with ‘parish announcements’ and then an introduction to cryptozoology, the science of 'hidden' animals. This was mainly for the benefit of the citizens of Woolfordishworthy, North Devon, who while they had thrown themselves into helping out with WW with great enthusiasm, aren’t cryptzoological insiders.
Goth zoologist and former zookeeper Richard Freeman pointed out that ‘gorrillas were ogres from native folklore until about 1904.’ Before then, it was believed they ‘carried off women to rape them, and used clubs to battle elephants.’
The giant squid has been known since 1861, but only sick ones and dying ones have been filmed. They were mixed up with the Scandinavian folklore of the Kraken. There’s now known to be an even bigger version in the Southern Ocean – the Colossal Squid. Which, says Freeman, “begs the question – what else is down there?”
Prehistoric Australia had some very bizarre animals, including Nototherium – the fossil marsupial rhino, and a gaint flightless predatory duck. The early European settlers encountered the thylacine, also called the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf. This dog-like marsupial was seen as a mythical vampire creature by early European settlers, because it ripped into sheep and drank their blood. It was demonized as a vampiric entity, which helped speed up its extinction. The last one died in a zoo in the 1930s. The mystery animal known locally as ‘dob senga,’ reported in New Guinea fits the thylacine’s description, and there have been recent thylacine sightings in mainland Australia and Tasmania. There could well be surviving thylacines.
An CFZ expedition to Guyana is planned for November, in search of the giant bull eating anaconda ‘manatora’ (literally ‘eater of bulls’) and the Dee Dee, an upright clawed creature that could be a ground sloth.
Alien Big Cat (ABC) sightings in Britain have been up in the last 30 years. Wolves, brown bears, lynxes, wild boars and wolverines were hunted to extinction, and the ABCs are filling these empty niches in the environment. There was a 1980s fad for wild boar sausages, followed by a 1987 hurricane that flattened the fences of the wild boar enclosures. There’s now a population on Dartmoor. Big black cats have been seen in woods two miles from Wolfordisworthy village.
There are cave paintings and ancient Babylonian sculptures of sea serpents. CFZ director Jonathan Downes says of the CFZ’s work, “we have good humour, we have funs while we’re doing it, but we do it in a scientific way.”

Britain’s secret wildlife – two new species of lizard, Alien Big Cats

Weird Weekend's Friday evening session (Friday 17 August, see below) was kicked off by Jon McGowan, who says he has seen puma cubs playing in a deserted quarry in Wales – twice. He’s also been on the trail of two new types of lizard on the Bournemouth cliff tops. Whether or not they are native is not clear. Britain officially has four species of lizard - the common lizard, the sand lizard, the wall lizard and a legless lizard - the slowworm. The wall lizard is found in the Isle of Wight, Sussex and Dorset, and has a more boring brown colour than continental variants.
In the 1970s, there was the discovery in Bournemouth of brighter wall lizards. They could have bred with the brighter coloured ‘races’ (variants) of continental wall lizards, that may have been introduced. These wall lizards live in the unusual environment of the cliff heathlands of Bournemouth.
The Bournemouth wall lizards have a black head, like a Northern Italian variant. This type is now common on the Bournemouth cliff. There are also a yellowish Bournemouth variant that doesn’t match any of the 30 or so races and 20 recognised species of continental wall lizard. McGowan thinks these yellowish version must have originated from pet lizards that had been released. Female lizards in all their varieties are generally not colourful, but in Bournemouth they are.
Another species not generally accepted to live in England is the Western green lizard, is also seen in the tiny area around Bournemouth. It’s very large, typically 35-45cm, with one example found at 49cm. They are much larger than sand lizards. Western green lizards were first described 120 years ago. They are green, unlike other UK lizards.
Some of the ones seen at Bournemouth could be of another species, the Eastern green lizard. They were seen for a couple of years, then they disappeared in a very cold winter. The contemporary Western green lizards have probably been reintroduced into the area sometime in the last 120 years.
On the subjects of Alien Big Cats (ABCs) in Britain, McGowan says that there definitely seem to be some ‘mega-sized’ domestic cats out there that have gone feral and evolved to a giant size, as they are known to have done in Australia. There are some footprints in Britain that are almost the size of a leopard’s, but with domestic-cat footprint characteristics.
McGowan has himself seen a Scottish wildcat in Dorset. ‘Small zoos keep them and they breed prolifically,’ some of them are clearly being released, as there are more and more sightings of them over a bigger and bigger geographical range in England.
McGowan’s own study of (known) big cats on heathland in India shows that several different species of big cats share the heathland, and they all find their own niches in it.
Cats could easily survive in a cool climate like England’s. They like cool climates. They suffer in climates of over 80 degrees in Asia and Africa. Ocelots live in mountains in the wild, where they grow longer fur. Several ocelots have been shot in the UK, with photographs of the shot carcasses taken.
‘Cats are masters of disguise, cats can keep themselves hidden,’ says McGowan. In Johannesburg, something was coming down from the mountains and killing dogs – they put out six traps in a night and caught six leopards.
Chris Moiser, of the group Big Cats in Britain, turned up late for his Alien Big Cats talk but by way of apology explained he’d been buying a zoo – Tropiquaria in Minehead. Mr Moiser has been acclimatizing to ‘First Gibbon,’ a rescued young gibbon whose loud whoops he suspects are not actually the usual gibbon calls, but his impression of the sirens of the ambulances that frequently speed past the main road next to the zoo on their way to Minehead Hospital.
When he eventually got to give his report on behalf of Big Cats in Britain, Mr Moiser revealed there have been several Alien Big Cat (ABC) reports from Cornwall over the past year, and that near Lyton, a big ram, with a reputation for chasing away dogs, had been savaged by something and received ‘horrendous’ wounds. South of Bodmin, a Shetland pony was killed by long vertical slash down its side, which seems to have been done by ‘human agency’ not an ABC. There are plans for a Beast of Bodmin theme park, which will feature a live black leopard. In Lodiswell, there has been a sighting of a black cat, which bared its ‘small, sharp teeth.’ In Leicester there have been raccoon sightings, with raccoon sounds recorded. At the Biblical-themed Noah’s Ark Zoo near Bristol, ‘the only zoo closed on a Sunday,’ two sheep were lost from the petting zoo despite a five-meter high fence around the property.‘ Paw mark slashes’ were found on a slashed horse in a field next door to Exmouth Zoo.
Moiser commented on the recent series of five or six photos of the mystery Beast of Dartmoor, some of which appeared in The Sun and Fortean Times. It was variously interpreted as a bear, a wolverine, a pony, or even a shape-shifting animal that changed from one animal to another from one shot to another. The CFZ outed it as a fairly obvious Newfoundland dog, ‘like the one in the old Dulux paint adverts’, according to Mr Downes. Moiser noted that ‘slightly eased quarantine regulations mean we’re beginning to see unfamiliar ‘giant’ European (continental) dog breeds’ that could be mistaken for something else. The Beast of Dartmoor was shot with a camera-phone designed for close ups, and we may be seeing weird distortions on out of focus camera phones of a sort that we’re not yet used to interpreting as just that, because camera phones are still quite new.
Moiser also reported the release of data following Paul Lyons’ Freedom of Information Act request on how much ‘licensed keeping of exotic cats’ has been granted permission, which revealed that number to be an alarming high, around 800 in the UK.

Weird Weekend 2007 – Weird FridayWeird Weekend 2007 – Weird Friday

The Centre for Fortean Zoology’s eighth Weird Weekend conference of cryptozoology opened (on Friday 17 August) with a dragon dance featuring the children of the North Devon village of Wolfordisworthy (aka Woolserey) carrying a huge Chinese-style red dragon. CFZ director and former music journalist Jon Downes (he used to specialise in writing about anarcho punk band Crass) said, ‘I think this is going to be a very weird weekend… People come from all over the world come to it, people from all the village get involved.’
A series of disasters dogged the run-up to WW 07.
‘Gregory (the star speaker who flew in from the Ukraine) got held in Zurich with hand-exercisers – they are weapons of mass destruction… Then one of the turtle tanks burst its banks’ and Goth former zoo keeper and curator of reptiles Richard Freeman twisted his ankle slipping in the ensuing slime. Downes twisted his ankle too, at the Thursday night pre-WW cocktail party. Champagne and margaritas flowed freely at the cocktail party, which I left around 11 at night to cycle back to my campsite. Only when I was out of the village did it become apparent how very drunk I was. Two falls from my bike and half an hour spent staring at the starry sky trying desperately to sober up, afflicted by a paranoia attack in which I believed all the village were vampires and would come flying after me, I somehow made it back down the A38 and to the campsite alive, after a diversion in which I went the wrong way to Clovelley. I blame the margaritas.
My near death experience was nothing compared to the Friday afternoon open day. Punters arriving at the CFZ’s office and soon-to-be museum were greeted with the words ‘Sorry, medical emergency.’ An exhibitor had been taken seriously ill, and an ambulance had to be called.

A casual tourist's visit to the Climate Change Camp

I paid a lazy, day-tripper tourist’s visit to the Camp for Climate Change just north of Heathrow last Wednesday (15th August). It was a nice easy journey on which I didn’t even have to change trains on the Tube, in contrast to so much activism that demands a lot of hard work and sacrifice and hassle.
I knew I was approaching the site when I saw the string of cars parked in the lane, which all had bored looking corporate news journalists checking their emails on laptops plugged into the cigarette lighter. The Sky News lady was powdering her nose, and a Canadian journo at the ‘gate’ (it’s just a piece of thin rope strung across posts in some places) was asking if there were any Canadians in there he could interview. There was one guy in a car with a jacket over his head. Either he was one of the few photographers who still uses film, or he was the Evening Standard’s undercover reporter trying to keep a low profile.
There was none of the anticipated hassle from the cops getting in, apart from being photographed by the Forward Intelligence Team – the FIT team of the Metropolitan police. Happy campers told me that thirty ‘FIT’ officers – which is about the total strength of the FIT, had barged onto the site the night before. About two hundred campers ‘kept pouring out of tents’ and pushed them back off the site, according to this source. At about this time, ‘silver,’ the copper in operational command of the whole operation on the ground, reportedly showed up and ordered the FIT to withdraw. It seems as if the FIT’s action was not authorized by their overall command. This is an accusation that activists often been make against FIT by – that they deliberately wade in, sometimes against specific orders from on high.
By the time I arrived, it was a happy peaceful camp with a really nice vibe. Old sofas were out by the ‘gate’, and a pair of police constables were taking a slow stroll around the camp with their Climate Camp minders. It didn’t seem to be any kind of inspection or search, just a ‘routine’ foot patrol. I was told that Commander Richard Broadhurst – the man in charge of public order for the entire Met – had come to take a stroll around the site. Broadhurst is ‘gold’ for the Climate Change Camp operation, meaning the buck ultimately stops with him, and it’s highly unusual to see him on site. ‘Gold’ is usually to be found no closer to the operation than Scotland Yard’s control room.

It’s possible ‘gold’s’ appearance had something to do with damage control of the ongoing Climate Camp media disaster. This being the silly season, there’s been an enormous amount of coverage of the site, much of it positive towards the campers, and the letter pages were full of nothing else. Everyone’s having a laugh at the expense of the British Airport Authority (BAA), who ‘run’ Heathrow, and who demonstrated their incompetence to me last Christmas, when I spent a day in a freezing cold tent with a thousand stranded passengers whom they wouldn’t even let into the Terminal 2 building, and all because of a little bit of fog.
BAA’s bizarre application for an injunction of the protesters demanded that every member of the National Trust be arrested, and it was heavily watered down at court. The local people of Harlington and Hayes have suddenly found their houses have become worthless overnight due to plans to build a new runway on the site where the camp now is. The Harlington people had already set up their own ‘barrio’ (miniature neighbourhood) in the camp, and their banners mentioned BAA by name.
Two coppers seemed to have nothing better to do than to stand around at the entrance to the next field to stop the camp expanding onto it. Imperial College, owners of the land, had put up signs instructing campers that they owned the freehold to the land, but it’s a dubious argument, as a camp paralegal advised me that in law the tenant is the landowner for eviction purposes, and there is a mysterious tenant who leases the site, and who hadn’t yet identified themselves.
The scruffy anarchists at the Camp could probably make a better job of running Heathrow than BAA. It was a beautifully organised camp, with 12 different types of recycling bin, compost toilets and wind turbines. It was the perfect size, small enough that you could still meet people, and big enough that there was always something going on. The cheap food was excellent, and it all had more the air of a festival than a heavy serious activist event. The Lancaster posse had a bike library where you could sign out a free bike to cycle around on, and the Bicycology tent’s workshop on fitting brake blocks to your bike was so busy I couldn’t see what they were doing through the press of punters. And I was back home in an hour. There was a steady trickle of arrivals as I left, two of them all the way from Chile via Manchester. The Climate Camp could well become a major London tourist attraction.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

What do we want, convenient protest camps now!

I am encouraged by the appearance of several very convenient environmental protest camps this year - one near Heathrow in the second week of August, and one near Gatwick in early September. Protest camps have usually been in the middle of bloody nowhere half way up Snowdonia, or an hour's walk away from the nearest bus stop in the Peak District in Derbyshire. When I visited the Nine Ladies protest camp against quarrying in Matlock, Derbyshire, one resident told me there were very few alcohol-related incidents on site due to the 'very long walk to the nearest off licence.'

Now the Climate Change camp, somewhere near Heathrow, is easily accesible on the tube (us North London people don't even have to change). We can go and hang out and do our protesty thing, and then come back for a shower at the end of the day. The No Borders camp against the construction of a new immigration prison ('removal centre') near Gatwick is also nice and easy for us Londoners to get too - the Gatwick Express may be a bit more pricey but you can get the cheapo train from Victoria, and then be back in time for tea.

Why should anti-capitalist protest be such a struggle. What do we want, convenient protest camps now!

The image is from a flyer for the very convenient Climate Change camp near Heathrow.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Pornagraphic Edwardian hospital buildings of London, No 1

The Edwardians had some very strange and repressed ideas, as can be seen from this raunchy hospital facade at the Stamford Street end of Waterloo roundabout. (It's now an American university.) Female Edwardian patients going for gynaecology check ups would no doubt have preferred a nicely discreet, featureless building with a small sign on it that you couldn't see from the other side of the street, and which wouldn't draw too much attention to you as you were going in. Instead, they got this thing that screams 'soft porn!' at you from across the street! Even more scandalously for Edwardian times, the ladies on the facade of the Women's Hospital haven't even got their hair done up.
One has to wonder what the architects were thinking.

Sudden outbreak of gardening by Lebanese and Turkish hookah cafes

The shops in Turnpike Lane in North London have once again been re-arranging themselves. At the western end, more and more properties are being taken over by sari shops, but at the eastern extremity, the Lebanese cafe has marched across Burgheigh Road and moved three doors down, with the space left being taken over by the Beirut Gate Lebanese food shop, which has the same owner as the Lebanese cafe.
The reason for all these movements became clear on Sunday. The new premises has a GARDEN, which means that under new smoke-free regulations, the cafe's 40+ flavour hookah (waterpipe, aka nargileh, shisha pipe) operation can stay in business. Murat at the Mirage Cafe, who only has half a dozen flavours in hish nargileh operation, has also laid out a garden round the back of his internet cafe.
It remains to be seen what will happen at the Lebanese cafes on West London's Queensway, where some of the nargileh-using public are so serious about their habit that they BRING THEIR OWN nargilehs.

Spiderman blows cover shock!

Superhero crimefighter Spiderman has been unpadonably slack of late, breaking the first rule of superhero crimefighting - never reveal your secret identity!
I spotted Spiderman a couple of weeks ago, walking down the street in plain view, wearing the famous blue and red suit, but he'd TAKEN HIS MASK OFF. He was also wearing a pair of very ordinary looking trainers.
More amazing still, Spiderman seems to be, under his mask, a TEN-YEAR OLD BOY! He appeared to be walking along with what seemed to be his mother, and a younger sibling in a pushchair, and was heading for a very ordinary looking Islington house, which had pink and blue balloons hanging on the door, at about 12 noon on a Sunday afternoon.
What the evil supervillains of this city are supposed to make of all this I don't know. One can imagine it's only a matter of time before the likes of The Goblin and Dr. Octopus find out that Spiderman is just a ten-year old, and a slack, security-poor one at that. Look out London!

ESOL students end of term outing to see Gordon Brown

One of the first delegations to be received by brand new Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who started work on Thursday, was a group of students and teachers of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) on Friday 29 June protesting the introduction of fees for courses and cuts to the sector (See blog entries on ESOL below). The demo opposite parliament and the delegation to Downing Street followed a cursed and ill-fated 'ESOL protest picnic' by ESOL students from London Further Education colleges.
This was originally planned as a march and rally for Saturday 30 June, but this clashed with London Gay Pride, and the idea of lots of veiled Muslim ladies turning up at the end of the Pride parade was not one the organisers wanted to try out. The weather - after a week of floods and severe weather warnings - just about held on the day of the picnic, but in the event, at least one college withdrew its permission for its students to go on a school trip that morning, following the two bomb alerts right down the road from the St James's Park picnic venue.
ESOL students who are trying to register for courses next year are already being turned away in droves by the few colleges that have already opened registration. The government announced as part of concessions made in teh Spring that ESOL students on benefits (including Housing Benefit) or spouses of those working but on a low income who produced their wage slips would get full "fee remission" for ESOL courses. But no advice or guidlines seem to have filtered down yet to the college admissions departments, which means that they're still turning these students away based on old criteria that hasn't yet been updated. One class at a North London college, that would normally be full already for next year, has only three students who are able to enroll for next year.
Teachers in the lecturers' union UCU are planning a "public ESOL lesson" for the start of term in the second week of September, in which they threaten to teach ESOL classes in the street outside colleges for those students who have been turned away because they can't pay fees.
The photo shows the delegation preparing to enter Downing Street: UCU Associate General Secretary Paul Mackney (white hair, glasses), Aylin (curly brown hair, black top), an Hourly Paid Lecturer (HPL) on a temporary contract, a category of teacher likely to bear the brunt of the coming cuts in further education, and ESOL students from London further education colleges. The second photo shows the ESOL demo by students and teachers over the road from Downing Street.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Spontaneous street party in Highbury New Park

Those of us who are nostalgic for the street parties of the 1990s - long ago pronounced dead - were pleasantly surprised when a street party broke out in North London's Highbury New Park last Sunday (10th June 2007) at the end of the Stokefest festival.

Around 8pm the festival in Clissold Park started to wind down, and the police closed the exit on Green Lanes opposite the White House pub. This could possibly have been to stop the Rythmns of Resistance samba band getting in, so they did a set on the green in front of the housing estate at the corner of Highbury New Park, with much dancing and football kick-abouts. When they finished, the large truck with posters advertising the forthcoming Secret Garden Festival fired up their soundsystem, and with a bit of ineffectual arm-waving from some yellow-jacket community cops, started off down Highbury New Park, squeezing through the traffic calming features and roadworks, with a couple of hundred party people bouncing after them, some on bikes.

To the tune of Blue Monday and Underworld's Born Slippery, they partied down Highbury New Park, with some punters dancing on top of garden walls. Some punters, wineglasses in hand, appeared to have come out of parties in local back gardens, and the lady who asked me where they were going seemed quite good natured about the giant sound system having woken her baby up.

About half way down the long Highbury New Park road, the truck attempted to turn, gave up, and then punters lay down in front of the truck in the road and demanded "More music!" as the sound system crew pleaded, "We've got to be back in Brighton tonight!" Some very efficient crowd control was carried out by a man with a megaphone wearing a tall black top hat with a peacock feather in it, who somehow talked the crowd into getting out of the way and letting them drive off at speed (without the sound system on) in the Brighton direction after about half an hour or partying. An improvised on-street percussion workshop followed as darkness fell.

Apart from the opening minutes, there was not a cop in sight. Street parties like this are the sort of thing we're not supposed to be allowed to get away with anymore in our modern 21st century surveillance world with lots and lots of public order police. But it happened.

Brunel's cheroot remains despite imminent smoking ban

It's only 18 days 'till the smoking ban takes effect in England, so I was somewhat surprised to see that recently minted two pound coins by the Royal Mint, struck only last year, have not 'airbrushed' out Victorian engineer Isembard Kingdom Brunel's cheroot, seen sticking out of the left side of his mouth in the photo above. This is in contrast to the US Postal Service's policy of airbrushing the ciggies out of images on stamps commemorating Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and others.

The Royal Mint's decision is particularly odd considering that Brunel's fatal collapse on the deck of the SS Great Western on its maiden voyage was caused by a combination of the stress of the project, a bottle of port or red wine a day, and chainsmoking cheroots. But then the Royal Mint is a bit odd. There have apparently been complaints that they haven't minted enough two pound coins, and have instead continued to mint mountains of pennies that nobody wants.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

King's Cross Tube announcments by Black Adder narrator shock!

Is it just me, or had anybody noticed that the stern, authoritative and slightly hectoring tone of the very serious announcer at King's Cross tube is the same voice as the narrator on the original set-in-Medieval-times first series of The Black Adder? I absolutely swear that the disembodied voice who says 'Ladies and gentlemen, there is now a good service on the Piccadilly Line," with such gravitas is the same guy who introduced The Black Adder with all that cod Shakespeare nonsense about "out of the mists of history..."
I'm afraid this means I just can't take the recorded announcements by Patrick Allen (not credited in the original transmission of the series) at all seriously, as I half expect it to degenerate into some prologue about the "Witchsniffer Persuivant".

Pygmy elephants

I went backstage at the Natural History Museum last Thursday (10th May) to check out the Bate Collection, a dawn of the twentieth century collection of the remains of the pygmy elephants that used to inhabit the islands of the Meditarranean. We reckon they were about three foot at the shoulder, and the babies may have been the size of large cats.

I was researching for a future Fortean Times feature on pygmy elephants, including reports of living ones in Kerala State, India, and Congo Brazaville. Victoria Herridge, who's studying the evolutionary biology of dwarf elephants and who was my guide to the Bate Collection, was surprisingly unbothered at the suggestion of living very small elephants out in the Congo, saying that we know so little about the forest elephants that live there, they're retiring, they live in the deep forest, there are wars going on there, nobody can get out there, so she felt it was quite possible. She added that there is a big known size range in known living species of elephant anyway.

The article will be out sometime this year hopefully, and in the event of any speakers dropping out of the Centre for Fortean Zoology's Weird Weekend conference this August, I am on the substitute bench to deliver a talk on this myself.

The pictures show an adult tooth of elephas antiqus falconeri from Cyprus (by comparision, modern African elephant cheek teeth are well over a foot long, the "Micromammals" label on the drawer in which specimens are kept, and an open drawer of Cypriot adult pygmy elephant teeth. We saw a fossil "milk tusk" -baby elephants have an early set of tusks that they shed. The pygmy milk tusk was about the size of one of those short pencils you get in IKEA.

My pictures are rubbish compared to those of my colleague Isabelle Merimond, a pro, whose much better pics will illustrate the feature.

Islamic muppets

Now I've seen everything. This video I spotted for sale in an Islamic bookshop in Brick Lane appears to be aimed at children, and bears the title Finding Courage. I may be completely wrong, but it appears to show an Islamic muppet diligantly studying the Koran. Older readers will note his resemblance to Scooter from The Muppet Show.

Photo © Matt Salusbury 2007

More pictures Save ESOL rally 28 4 07

Pictures: Hackney College Principal Ian Ashman, banners at Hackney Town Hall, the crowd. All pics: Copyright © Matt Salusbury 2007. See also my articles in English Language Gazette (www.elgazette.com)

Report from Save ESOL march and rally, London, 28 April 2007

Save ESOL march and rally, 28 April 2007

About 800 people - mostly students and teachers of ESOL (English as a Second Language) attended three feeder marches and a rally in protest against cuts to free ESOL provision in England generally, and London in particular.

The push to get migrants to sign up to ESOL classes, delivered free of charge using the Basic Skills Agency Skills for Life curriculum, has been the most successful educational intitiative of the Labour government, with ESOL tripling in both the numbers of students entrolled and the total budget since 2000. So there was widespread bemusement when, in October, Minister for Lifelong Learning Bill Rammell declared that the demand for ESOL classes was "unsustainable" and announced that ESOL students not eligable for Working Tax Credits would have to pay at least a third of course fees, and that asylum seekers would no longer be eligible at all for ESOL classes.

A concerted lobbying campaign followed, with many ESOL teachers taking advantage of the so-called Citizenship strand embedded in the ESOL curriculum to get their students to write their first ever letter to their MP (in class time) to protest these changes. There followed a huge lobby of Parliament (about 1,000-strong) by ESOL students and teachers in late February by ESOL students and teachers, big enough to overwhelm Parliamentary security who shut down the visitor's entrance to the House of Commons. And there were debates on ESOL in the Lords and the Commons.

Concessions followed, with Minister Rammell announcing that the much more straightforward Housing Benefits form would be used as an indicator of 'low income' in deciding whether students for free evening classes, and that asylum seekers who had been awaiting a decision for over six months could get on ESOL classes. But these concessions were pretty much cancelled by recent news that London, where over half of all UK ESOL classes take place, would see a £25 million cut in Further Education (FE) for 2007-2008, which would mean that ESOL teachers would be laid off and some classes closed. This was the background to the march and rally.

There were three feeder marches - Highbury (which included students and teachers from City and Islington College, and Haringey's College of North East London) which marched along the Balls Pond Road to meet two more feeder marches from Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

Latin American cleaners working around Canary Wharf and organised in Justice for Cleaners, a group set up by the Transport and General Workers Union, were a noticeable contingent on the Highbury march. Jake from Justice for Cleaners told me that they were starting up ESOL classes for cleaners through the union's new Migrant Support Unit (earlier attempts at starting up ESOL classes for their membership through an FE College were "confounded by bureaucracy"). He addes that promotion to supervisor level among cleaners seems to be entirely down to their level of English.

There was also a large Somali presence on the march. Many Somali women couldn't read or write only a few years ago, and are now becoming much more confident in expressing their needs. For many of them, this was their first demo, and when a petition came round, some asked what it was - they'd never seen one before.

Many of the banners and placards emphasised the contrast between the money available for the war in Iraq with the lack of money available for education. A early teenage street gang from Highbury joined in the march for a laugh, joining in chants of "Tony Blair, it's not fair!"

At Hackney Town Hall, a brass band struck up The Red Flag. Hackney Council officials ordered demonstrators off the steps - their was a wedding coming out. Hackney Mayor Jules Pipes had reportedly telephoned the police earlier asking them to ban the march completely from the square in front of the Town Hall, but the police had refused, and stewarding was low-key.

The "2008 ESOL Choir" paraded with their mouth duct-taped up. With local elections approaching in other parts of the country, activists from Respect and the Green Party both told me they had propaganda leaflets about ESOL printed up for the elections. Oli Rahman, a Respect councillor in Tower Hamlets who spoke on behalf of George Galloway MP, who couldn't make it, said he would put up a motion in the Council opposing the ESOL cuts.

Trish Smith, of the Adult Learning Service and the Learning Trust, said it had been proven time and time again that "children will do better if their parents can support their education" for which they needed English, and that cuts to ESOL would affect the "skills targets" London had set itself for the 2012 Olympics.

College managements rarely stick their necks out in opposition to government policy, but the star speaker was Ian Ashman, Principal of the local Hackney College. He pointed out that the money from the ESOL cuts would be shifted into workplace learning scheme Train to Gain, and that "60 % of Train to Gain money is not being spent."

Turkish-Kurdish groups were well-represented on the march, including the Anatolian Peoples Association whose banner read: Free English Language Tuition is a Right. One Turkish woman had a placard which read Inglizce Ogrenmek Hakkimizdir, which she translated as Learning English is Our Right. There were many bilingual or multilingual banners.

Documentary maker Nick Broomfield, who made "Ghosts", an investigation into the Whitley Bay Chinese cocklers, sent a message of support in which he said, "While making Ghosts I realised that one of the biggest problems was language. Many did not have enough English to have a conversation. Many illegal Chinese are skilled doctors and jewellers but they cannot make their skills known." Jeremy Corbyn MP (Lab, Islington North) described the policy on ESOL as "a no-brainer" and demanded that "if the government insists the people should have a reasonable standard of English - give then to tools to do it!"

Last week, London Mayor Ken Livingstone made a surprise announcment that he had found £15 million to "save" ESOL in London, £10 million from the local development agencies and £5 million of the Mayor of London's budget. The Mayor of London doesn't even have a formal responsibility for education, and it's the biggest Mayor of London spend on education yet. Some see his intervention as a power struggle with the London Learning and Skills Council, an attempt to take it over and put it under Mayor of London control. (It's a central government agency at the moment.) College Principals began announcing redundancies among ESOL staff that week, and some have since had to announce that these are delayed.

Then later in the week, the Department for Education and Skills announced £35 million for ESOL in London. £15 turned out to be Livingstone's money already pledged, and the remaining £10 million was split between the already dodgy-looking Train to Gain and "new" ESOL classes. In any event, ESOL has suddenly become very political.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Under construction

Save ESOL march, Hackney April 21 2007. Report follows shortly.