A few days ago in the course of de-constructing the bogus science in a piece in the Daily Fail, regular Raccoonista and general stalwart SadButMadLad made a passing reference to the “Tunguska Event”.
This not very well known but the very real “event” took place in 1908 in one of the remotest parts of Siberia. Something – and what it was is still a matter of debate – exploded with a force which by some calculations was up to 1,000 times the size of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The blast caused detectable atmospheric phenomena all over Asia and Europe, including Britain, but because of the remoteness of the site no proper scientific expedition reached the site of the explosion until the 1920’s, when the scientist were greeted by a scene of utter devastation: over 80 million trees flattened over an area of about 2,000 square kilometres.
The probable cause was some form of comet or meteorite reacting rather violently to the earth’s atmosphere, although wilder theories (including the inevitable crashed UFO) abound.
As it happened, in the course of debate regular commentator JuliaM (who runs her own most excellent blog as Ambush Predator) pointed out that she was familiar with the Tunguska Event because she is a regular reader of “The Fortean Times”.
This pleased me greatly, for I, too, am a Fortean and reader of that publication.
What is a Fortean, and what does this entail?
Charles Fort was an American traveller and writer born in 1874. A small inheritance allowed him to dabble in novel writing and journalism, but Fort’s real genius and legacy was in researching and collating unusual phenomena of all kinds, trawling through books and scientific papers to find the bizarre and unexplained.
The Fortean Times was founded in 1973 to carry on Fort’s tradition, and is now a rather glossy and quite expensive (£4.25) monthly.
To quote from the Fortean Times’ own summary of Fort’s life and approach:
“He marshalled these together and set forth his philosophy in “The Book of the Damned” (1919), “New Lands” (1923), “Lo!” (1931) and “Wild Talents” (1932).
He was sceptical of scientific explanations, observing how scientists argued according to their own beliefs rather than the rules of evidence and that inconvenient data was ignored, suppressed, discredited or explained away. He criticised modern science for its reductionism, its attempts to define, divide and separate…
He had ideas of the Universe-as-organism and the transient nature of all phenomena, coined the term “teleportation”, and was perhaps the first to speculate that the mysterious lights in the sky might be craft from outer space. However, he cut at the very roots of credulity: “I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear for a while…”
The Fortean tradition means then a fascination with the unexplained and unusual, a willingness to think outside the box and not take accepted explanations at face value, to investigate dispassionately but retain a truly open mind, and not to be bound by accepted science, which, as Fort pointed out, is often no more than the present fad.
To take an example, a few weeks ago I heard a radio presenter dismiss ghosts as a nonsense. He strikes me as a rather stupid man, and I will not name him because I think that would be unfair (but please come back Simon Mayo). He then proceeded to be rude, dismissive and patronising to guests invited onto his programme to explain their experiences.
So there is an accepted view: there is no such thing as ghosts. Whereas a Fortean might say: there have been recorded reports of “apparitions” since time immemorial. The Romans and the Greeks wrote about them. For example, there is a particularly cool story from Pliny the Younger about the philosopher Athenodurus.
Athenodorus was pestered by a phantom rattling chains, but being a Stoic he was rather unfazed by this possibly alarming spectacle. He followed when the spectre beckoned to him, and discovered the body on the man who was now the unhappy ghost, wrapped in chains. After a proper funeral for the body, the spectre appeared no more.
So a Fortean may say: What is going on? Are ALL these people who reporting phenomena lying or mistaken? If they are mistaken is there some other form of phenomenon going on, and if what that might it be? Are there different types of phenomenon being recorded here? How can this be investigated? Could some form of sightings be attributable to energy being stored or trapped in some way we do not understand? Could one type of “ghost”, for example, be the memory of some distant event somehow imprinted because of emotions, or for reasons unknown, onto the time and space around so that at the right time it replays, just like a tape cassette produces and produces music (which would certainly be viewed as a form “magic” in days gone by)?
As to the latter theory I always have in mind the story of Harry Martindale, a plumber. Whilst working on a cellar in York Mr Martindale was distracted by the blaring of a horn, and turned round to see a detachment of weary Roman soldiers marching along the line – and at the level – of the old Roman road. Mr Martindale’s description was so accurate that it could not have been produced without a great deal of research. For example, he correctly noted that the Romans wore their short stabbing swords on the right of the waist, contrary to later European practice; that they were small (I believe the average height of a Roman soldier was about five foot tall) and a bit scruffy and very tired. His description of arms, armour and equipment was precise and even contained one apparent anomaly which may actual strengthens his veracity. For anyone who wishes to watch an interview with Mr Martindale, who is seems a down to earth, sensible, salt of the earth sort of chap, a link is here so you can judge for yourself.
Or for those who would like to be entertained as well as informed, there was a seminal programme on the UFO enigma from the late 1970’s which featured both interesting information and the downright eccentric – no, bonkers – but still it makes fascinating viewing. The link to part 1 of 6 is here:
But it’s not all ghosts and ET over at Fortean Towers, by a long chalk. I think JuliaM’s personal area of interest is, very appropriately, “ABC’s”. That’s Anomalous Big Cats, to you.
Stories of strange, panther like carnivores such as The Beast of Bodmin abound in the UK. This forms a sub set of the wider field of “crypto zoology”, the search for lost, “mythical” or un-catagorised species.
There is plenty of social history too, by the way. I see this month’s edition has piece on “Victoriana”, including the weird tale of the Dog Faced Man (a counterpart to the Elephant Man) and an article on Queen Victoria’s stalker, as well as part II of a profile of the Nazi seekers for the Holy Grail.
Flicking through a random copy to my right I find a meticulous investigation into Psychic Spies (the USA’s attempts to develop “remote viewing” – have you seen “The Men Who Stare at Goats”?), a serious archaeological investigation which raises the question of a 100,000 old civilisation of Neanderthals, the usual “Strange Deaths” (dark but funny) and “Konspiracy Korner” columns, and a piece on black magic and the Romanian government. I have learned about the Black Ball of Trundle Hill (an unexplained phenomena that terrified a party of soldiers in Wolf War I). There is a round up of Sea Serpent stories and observations on the Chinese Invasion of California in the 1870’s: yes, there was one, and it didn’t go well. I note that that that legendary Alpine lizard the Tatzelwurm has been active again lately, and an expedition is being mounted to find living pterodactyls in the Congo. Mr Robert G. Cox of Westleton, Suffolk, is perplexed by the behaviour of mice who appear to be either committing suicide or being murdered in his house. There is a picture, too. Hmmm…
Whilst these topics may not be to everyone’s tastes, it strikes me that there should be a natural affinity for Forteans with the ethos of the Anna Raccoon site.
Forteans tend to be individualistic and independent. A Fortean should have an open, inquisitive mind. A Fortean has a willingness to go against the grain of mainstream authority and question the orthodoxy and the accepted status quo. A Fortean should be up for a good debate and take a jaundiced view of the mainstream science.
These are all characteristics which, rightly or wrongly, I associate with this site.
“Forteanism” has on one or two occasions found a reflection in the mainstream. Back in the early 90’s there was even a TV program called Fortean TV presented by the inimitable Reverend Lionel Fanshawe which used to enliven my Friday nights after a few bevies of mead. It was sadly short lived.
But, of course, the ne plus ultra of Forteanism in popular culture was the fantastically successful X Files, with the believer (David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder) and the sceptic (the gorgeous Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully) as his initially sceptic foil.
My final observation is this.
In a sense a Fortean is embarked on both and external and an internal journey of exploration, sensing that the universe on the one hand and the mind, and perhaps soul if that is your belief, on the other are, in the classic phrase, not only more mysterious than we imagine but more mysterious than we can imagine.
But I may perhaps not be a very good Fortean because I am not as dispassionate as I should be.
You see, a bit like Fox Mulder in the excellent X Files, I want to believe.
Gildas the Monk