Thursday, 23 March 2017

The SPR’s photography competition

I’m honoured to have been asked to act as a judge in a photography competition being run by the Society for Psychical Research, details of which appear in the Winter issue of the Society’s magazine Paranormal Review, edited by Dr Leo Ruickbie, and on its website.

The idea is to submit a maximum of three digital images that ‘represent the idea of the paranormal’; the focus is on a strong depiction of the ‘spirit’ of the paranormal – however the entrant chooses to interpret it – rather than on evidentiality.  The photograph need not be offered as evidence of an anomalous event, hence manipulation using photo-editing software is allowed.  Entries can be in any genre and can address any aspect of the subject.  First prize is a rather handsome Olympus Tough TG-Tracker, plus the winning photograph on the magazine’s cover.  Two runners-up will be featured inside.  The competition is open to members and non-members of the SPR.  There is no entry fee and the winners retain copyright (unlike in some competitions).  Entrants will not receive individual assessments.

Apart from me, the judges are Dr Andreas Fischer, one of the authors of The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, the best book on spirit photography ever produced; Dr Michael Pritchard, photographic historian, Director General of the Royal Photographic Society, and owner of the British Photographic History website; Dr Ruickbie, who in addition to editing Paranormal Review and having a number of books to his name is a professional photographer; Shannon Taggart, New York-based photographer whose book Séance: Spiritualist Ritual And The Search For Ectoplasm will be published shortly; and Dr Melvyn Willin, SPR Council member and author of several books on photography and the paranormal.

The competition closes at midnight GMT, Wednesday 31 May.  Anyone contemplating entering should read the terms and conditions carefully.  I hope as many people as possible have a go, to which end please help to spread the word.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Change to SPR social media presence

SPR Facebook page, 17 March 2017

I have been responsible for the social media presence of the Society for Psychical Research since their inception – Facebook in February 2010 and Twitter in July 2013.  My aim when selecting items has been threefold: provide a general source of information on the field; promote the SPR’s activities to reach as wide an audience as possible in order to stimulate interest; and encourage visits to the website, with the aim of demonstrating the Society’s value and hopefully turning casual visitors into members.  Together, the Society’s Facebook and Twitter presence helps to assist the educational remit which is part of its charitable function.

I have tried to post a steady stream of material, and do so as a volunteer activity.  My sources are various – google alerts; an extensive blog reading list; YouTube subscriptions; Facebook and Twitter themselves; messages sent through those mechanisms or to the website; and of course personal contacts.  Scanning these is time-consuming, but something I was happy to do if it translated into increased membership.  Unfortunately it has become clear that my efforts have failed to make a substantial difference to the membership figures.  This is surprising as, at the time of writing, the Facebook page has 11,233 ‘likes’ and the Twitter feed 3,086 followers.  Clearly many people are interested enough in the subject to look at posts, comment, like, and recirculate them, but are not motivated to pay a membership subscription.

Therefore I have decided to scale back those broader efforts and concentrate on aspects of the subject related specifically to the SPR, rather than post links of a general nature.  This is not to say I shall ignore completely psychical research information not directly relevant to the Society, but I shall no longer seek it out.  In addition to Facebook and Twitter I shall continue to put significant news on the website (

I am always happy to receive news, and book suggestions (another function I perform is reviews editor of the Society’s Journal), and these can be sent through any of the mechanisms I have mentioned, plus  I have enjoyed finding items of interest, and seeing the debate they generate on Facebook and Twitter, but looked at in terms of costs and benefits it is not a productive use of my time.

Despite this reduction in effort I shall continue using Facebook and Twitter to urge those interested in psychical research to visit the SPR’s website, and to become members if at all possible.  If they do they will have access to a far greater body of knowledge than is to be found on social media.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Cerys Matthews’ Succulent Sunday Roast

A weekly pleasure is listening to Cerys Matthews’ eclectic Sunday morning show on BBC Radio 6 Music while I potter round the kitchen.  A regular feature is the ‘Sunday Roast’ slot just after 12.00 pm, featuring three tracks chosen by a listener.  The idea is that they are analogous to the three parts of a Sunday dinner: starter, main and dessert – not necessarily related to food but enjoyable songs the person submitting can say something about.   On 23 February I wrote in to the programme:

‘Having read that on 1 March 1966, Gene Clark of The Byrds announced he was leaving the group, due to his fear of flying, I thought 3 tracks related by having fly/flying in the title might be appropriate.  Thus:

‘Starter: Flying Home, Harry James
Main course: Love to Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly), Caravan
Dessert: Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss, Rufus Crisp.’

‘Sadly Gong's Flying Teapot is slightly too long.’

Flying Teapot is nearly 12 minutes, and perhaps a little esoteric for the Sunday Roast (tending possibly to indigestion in some listeners) though it has its charms.  Caravan is a group for whom I have a particular fondness as they have Canterbury roots, where I studied in the late 1970s; the 1971 album In the Land of Grey and Pink on which Love to Love You appears was a favourite, though I only saw them perform later in London.  I was prompted to write because of the irony of a member of The Byrds, co-author of Eight Miles High to boot, being afraid to fly.

Anyway, there I was in the kitchen today dicing carrots or something when Cerys announced she was going to play the tracks I had sent in (adding ‘what a great name’)!  I was surprised as I hadn’t been able to listen to the last two shows; I was away on both weekends and had assumed that if they were played I had missed them.  I suspect there is a lot of competition for this slot and really didn’t expect to be picked.  This was in fact my third attempt.  In September 2014 I submitted the following trio, again thematic:

‘Starter: Rambling Man, The Carter Family
Main: I Got Rambling on My Mind, Otis Spann
Dessert: Rambling Sailor, Bellowhead’,

commenting: ‘they may make you forget about lunch and start checking your passport!’

And in March 2015 I chose a rather peculiar set that stood little chance of being selected:

‘Starter: High on a Hilltop, Nick Lowe
OR if that is thought to be a bit too gentle, an alternative choice:
Totensamba, Santana V. (on Ho! Roady Music from Vietnam, 2000)
Main: The Ghosts of Cable Street, The Men They Couldn't Hang
Dessert: The Ballad of Robert Moore & Betty Coltrane, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.’

So it was third time lucky, and I was chuffed to bits.  Cerys gave some information about the performers and played the songs.  It was lovely to hear her say at the end that I had spoiled the listeners with my choices.

At the time of writing the show is available here, the Sunday Roast segment beginning at 2:10:32.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Of Devils and Darkness: Kaunas, Lithuania

[This is an anecdote from a trip I made with my son Keith in 2008 which took in Lithuania, Belarus and Poland.  I wrote it for a travel competition in 2014.  Keith described the experience in his 2016 book Baltic Lenin: A Journey into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania's Soviet Past.  Unfortunately I didn’t think to photograph the church so have included a snap of Keith surveying the rooftops of Kaunas.]

We were headed to Belarus and only stopped in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, because the cheapest route involved going via Lithuania and that’s where the plane landed.  Potentially a drawback, but Kaunas turned out to be full of surprises.  We started with the Devil Museum, showcasing images of the horned one from around the world in their infinite variety; you wouldn’t want to fall foul of this little lot and have them poke you with their pitchforks.  The museum devoted to folk music and instruments seemed tame in comparison, welcoming as it was, and sadly time was too short to permit a visit to the museum of Lithuanian medicine and pharmacy.

Yet even devils could not compare with our oddest experience in Lithuania.  That wasn’t the lettuce accompanying our fried breakfast, or the loose-leaf tea without a strainer at the Devil Museum (diabolical!) but the crypt of the Garrison Church, dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.  We had strolled in to look at the architecture and splendid decoration, but after a while our attention was attracted by an elderly chap standing near a door in the corner who gestured us over.  He pointed down a spiral staircase and urged us to descend into the darkness below.

His English was as bad as our Lithuanian so he was unable to explain the attraction of going into the bowels of the church with the lights off.  Having seen some of those horror films in which tourists find themselves minus vital organs in out-of-the-way places I hesitated.  Just for a moment though: ‘hell’ I thought (clearly the influence of those wicked devils), ‘Lithuania’s in the EU, what’s likely to happen in a city you can get to by budget airline?’  Two ladies had gone ahead of us and it seemed only right that we should show some of the old bulldog spirit and do the same.

So we descended, expecting to find some light, but instead remained plunged in musty-smelling pitch darkness.  We bumped into something, then something else.  There were all these things hanging down, and wherever you turned they were in your way.  I started thinking about those horror films again, the fear of the unknown.  What were they, what were they made of, and why were they here?  We became disoriented and claustrophobic.  With no idea where we were going, bemusement turned to mild irritation as we wondered how long it would take to find our way out.

Then my companion had a burst of inspiration and took out his mobile phone.  By its illumination we could see that the place was full of white dangling obstacles, like thin punch bags, foam-covered pillars and rubber kitchen gloves sticking out from the walls.  It was surreal, and grubby, but not threatening.  Attracted by the glow, we were shortly joined by the two ladies who had preceded us, equally glad to be able to see what was going on.  Together we found some stairs in the opposite corner to those by which we had entered, and were soon back in the welcome daylight, to the obvious annoyance of the custodian who knew we had cheated.

We were relieved to be out of the stygian gloom, but were left feeling baffled.  Only later did we realise we had been in the Museum of the Blind, an environment designed to show what it is like to be without sight and have to rely on the other senses (stretching the concept of the museum somewhat, we thought).  We had failed the challenge, though had we been aware of what the purpose was we might have met it with more confidence, rather than thinking we were having a trick played on us; in its eccentric fashion it certainly made us aware of the difficulties the blind face every day.  Belarus presented its own variety of strangeness, but nothing to compare with that peculiar crypt.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

‘A Century of Photography, 1840-1940’ at the National Portrait Gallery

Adelaide Passingham, by Eveleen Myers

This one-room exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery presents a small selection of images from its quarter-of-a-million strong collection, supplemented by loans from New York-based dealer and collector Stephan Loewentheil.  The explanatory panel states that they were ‘chosen to illustrate photography’s expressive power’, a rather vague remit which allowed the curators plenty of latitude.

There are photographers famous and not so famous, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Hill and Adamson, Frederick Evans, Alvin Langdon Coburn, George Washington Wilson, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Cecil Beaton and Lucia Moholy.  In a display case is the recently acquired album, containing 70 prints, compiled by Oscar Rejlander.  He is best known for his composites made from multiple negatives but he was an accomplished portraitist and an influence on Cameron and Dodgson.

One of the most striking photographs, from the early 1890s, is of Adelaide Passingham by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), wife of psychical researcher Frederic Myers.  It is done in a style similar to Cameron’s but Passingham looks very modern with her blouse half-unbuttoned and hair loose.  Olive Edis, who recently had a major exhibition at Norwich Castle devoted to her, is represented by one of her delicate autochromes.  In a room that is mostly mono it stands out, but not as much as Madame Yevonde’s remarkable 1932 portrait, employing the Vivex colour process, of redhead Joan Maude wearing a red blouse and red lipstick, photographed against a red backdrop.

Some of those depicted are famous: D H Lawrence, Edward Carpenter, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his outsize chains (perhaps a slightly obvious inclusion), Hallam Tennyson (Rejlander also photographed him but the one on display is by Dodgson), Aubrey Beardsley, Aldous Huxley, Sir Leslie Stephen and his 20-year old daughter Virginia, later Woolf (Cameron’s great-niece), Walter de la Mare, Margot Asquith; while others are less eminent, such as Wilson’s 1854 ‘The Old Gardener Simpson … and his wife’, a title suggesting the wife was a bit of an afterthought and old Simpson did not require a first name.

The exhibition’s introductory panel asserts:

‘The photographs in this room have been chosen to illustrate photography's expressive power. The best photographs show us not just what a person looked like, but also provide a window on their character, giving us a sense of what it might have been like to be in their presence. This is one of the great paradoxes of photographic portraiture – that something of a person's spirit, thought, and feeling might be glimpsed in one, carefully chosen moment in time.’

I doubt they provide a window on character, unless we already have an idea of it from other sources, because the persona an individual projects might be a misleading one and is influenced by the degree of artfulness employed by the photographer.  But even if we cannot gauge their personalities we can imagine what it would have been like to be in the subjects’ presence.  Further, the artefacts themselves possess an aura not available with reproductions, making these photographs worth a visit to the NPG.  I just wish it had been a larger selection.

The free exhibition, in room 29, runs from 17 October 2016 to 1 October 2017.