Friday, 1 May 2015

Edmund Dawson Rogers and the Society for Psychical Research Website

Edmund Dawson Rogers

The May 2015 issue of Psychic News contains an article by Leslie Price (pp.31-2) on the Spiritualist element in the early Society for Psychical Research.  Part of Price’s article discusses the amendment of the SPR website’s history page in December 2014 to include a reference to Edmund Dawson Rogers, someone who claimed to have had the idea of the Society.  The article is headed boldly, 'Did the Society for Psychical Research deny its Spiritualist origins?: Psychical researcher and historian of Spiritualism Leslie Price sheds light on a disturbing "cover-up".'  Disturbing?  How so?

What happened was this.  Psypioneer, the online journal with which Price is associated, occasionally bangs on about Edmund Dawson Rogers, and the charge that the SPR routinely airbrushes him out of the narrative of its formation in 1882 because he was a Spiritualist, and the SPR wants everyone to think that only respectable people founded it, like Frederic Myers, Henry Sidgwick and Edmund Gurney.

In the November 2014 issue of Psypioneer, Price collated various items of correspondence that had appeared in the magazine Light with Rogers and William Barrett disputing who was responsible for the idea of the SPR (‘New Light on S.P.R. Origins? – LIGHT 1893’, pp.309-16).  At the beginning Price states:

‘When a project is successful, there may be rival claims to have started it. In the first issue of Psypioneer, we noted how the name of Edmund Dawson Rogers, a Spiritualist and mere journalist, had been omitted from the Society for Psychical Research web site – still the case today.  We are currently told only “The SPR, the first learned society of its kind, was founded in London in 1882.”’

The opening article in the premier issue of Psypioneer, in May 2004, is indeed ‘SPR conceived by a Spiritualist’, and is about Rogers and how his ‘name is not used in official SPR publicity’, though it is hard to imagine it being much of a draw.

I was not responsible for the historical text on the SPR website (‘History of The Society for Psychical Research’) that was proving so contentious, but as I had occasionally seen references to the omission of Rogers’ name in Psypioneer I thought that inserting his name into the text would calm down those voices which were keen to play this issue up as some kind of conspiracy to disavow the Spiritualist’ role in the SPR’s formation.  So just before Christmas 2014, with the permission of the original author, I added Rogers’ name, and also the 20 February date of its actual foundation, to the SPR website’s historical overview:

‘The SPR, the first learned society of its kind, was founded in London on 20 February 1882, following initial discussions between William Barrett and Edmund Dawson Rogers, and then a conference convened in London in January to discuss the viability of such a Society.’

I emailed Leslie Price to let him know, so that he could finally allow his Rogers fixation to rest.  Or so I naively thought.  Instead it merely gave him fresh energy to beat up the SPR.

In the February 2015 issue of Psypioneer, in an article triumphantly entitled ‘SPR recognises Dawson Rogers at last’ (p.56), he begins, ‘The Society for Psychical Research has acknowledged Edmund Dawson Rogers as a founder in 1882. This follows a ten-year campaign by Psypioneer.’  Somewhat miffed by the implication that it was solely Psypioneer’s fearless determination to see justice done which had finally overcome the SPR’s equal but ultimately futile determination not to allow any mention the name of Edmund Dawson Rogers to sully its website, I drew attention to the article on the SPR’s Facebook page, which I manage, on 22 March 2015:

‘The latest issue of the ever-excellent free online Psypioneer has just been released (Feb 2015). It includes a short article by Leslie Price ('SPR recognises Dawson Rogers at last'), about the SPR website's section on the history of the Society being revised to include a reference to Edmund Dawson Rogers's role in its formation.

‘The way that this has been posed by Psypioneer, especially referring to a 'ten-year campaign' to have Rogers' name included, suggests that somehow there has been a conspiracy to downplay Rogers' role, and fierce opposition to Psypioneer's valiant efforts to set the record straight.

‘I think the real, and much more mundane, reason for Rogers' omission from the original text (which I didn't write, though I did revise it to include him) is simpler – he just wasn't seen as that significant, in a highly condensed historical overview, to the development of the SPR. But anyway, he's now included, and Psypioneer are happy.’

I added a link to the Psypioneer website at the end.

If I thought that was the end of the matter I was mistaken, as Price has taken the opportunity to have another pop the SPR in the latest Psychic News, citing my Facebook comments (I need to emphasise that the SPR has no corporate views so that it is impossible to speak in the name of the Society and these comments are mine alone).  A box reproduces the February 2015 Psypioneer article, again with the heading 'SPR recognises Dawson Rogers at last'.  Price’s Psychic News article goes on:

‘The SPR’s Facebook editor [i.e. me] responded to this. (The SPR Facebook page serves as an informal daily newspaper for psychical research.)’

Price quotes the second two paragraphs of my 22 March Facebook post and manages to turn it into a concern that the SPR might have a cavalier attitude to evidence:

‘There is, however, a worrying implication from the SPR’s attempts over many years to put a more academic face on its early history.  Suppose in writing up cases and experiments, a similar attitude to the facts had been taken to what was felt to be not “that significant”?’

Sounds bad, doesn’t it.  Leaving something out that isn’t significant?  That’s not very scientific.  Everything should go in, just in case it turns out to be significant later.  So leaving out Rogers’ name from a potted history of the SPR covering 130+ years suggests that the Society could take a similarly slap-dash approach to research.  Price seems to have misunderstood the function of a brief introduction aimed at the general reader visiting the SPR’s website in what is clearly irritation at having Rogers referred to as someone who probably ‘wasn't seen as that significant’ in the eyes of the website article’s author.

It’s possible that even Psychic News’s editor thought that Price’s tone in his article was unfair to the SPR because ‘cover-up’ in the title is in inverted commas.  Why would you do that if you really thought it was a cover-up?  The implication is that it is Price’s phrase, and not one shared by the magazine.  But why is Price so keen to drum up Rogers?  There is a link.  Rogers was involved in the launch of the Spiritualist magazine Light in 1881.  Light is the magazine of the College of Psychic Studies.  Price is the archivist at the College of Psychic Studies.  That may be considered reason enough to want to defend Rogers from perceived slights.

So was there a cover-up, or even a ‘cover-up’?  While I agree that over the course of the SPR’s history there has generally been no great enthusiasm for acknowledging the presence of Spiritualists among its membership, what I don’t think happened was a conspiracy which said ‘let’s not refer to that ghastly Spiritualist and journalist Edmund Dawson Rogers’.  It's not as if he has been ignored in publications associated with the SPR.  He features in both Renée Haynes' centenary The Society for Psychical Research 1882-1982: A History, and the volume edited by Ivor Grattan-Guinness on Psychical Research: A Guide to its History, Principles and Practices, in Celebration of 100 Years of the Society for Psychical Research.

True, Rogers is only referred to a couple of times in each, but then that is to be expected if he was not a significant figure in the early SPR.  Alan Gauld in his The Founders of Psychical Research also fleetingly mentions Rogers a couple of times, in footnotes; that seems to be what his contribution to the SPR deserves, yet somehow he managed to become a cause célèbre in the pages of first Psypioneer and now Psychic News!  Let’s hope that finally Leslie Price has got this out of his system and will find some other interest to engage his attention, preferably one that does not involve the SPR.

Update 9 May 2015

Leslie Price has sent me a depressingly long email (7 May) discussing various items with which he disagrees in this blog post.  It came as something of a surprise because on the same day he linked to the post on his Facebook page with the words ‘My article in the May issue of the magazine Psychic News about SPR pioneer Edmund Dawson Rogers, has drawn adverse comment - and another photo of the man himself!’, which did not seem to suggest he had any problems with it.  Despite these mixed messages I feel that I should respond to the email, though I don’t expect the result to be of interest to many.  I appreciate that I am myself commenting on a communication not in the public domain, not something I would normally do, but Leslie raises some issues that require an answer, and he concludes: ‘Please have a think about your blog, and whether it should be amended.’ which to my mind gives me tacit approval to cite his email, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to explain any amendments made as a result of it.  On reflection perhaps what I wrote does need to be, if not amended (I’ve not touched what I originally wrote, and Leslie has not indicated that I have crossed a legal line), at least amplified to address his concerns.  I’m sure he appreciates that anything I write is my view alone, I do not, and cannot, speak for the SPR, and whatever roles I perform for the SPR are irrelevant to my opinions regarding Edmund Dawson Rogers and the extent of his involvement in the Society’s foundation.

To begin with, Leslie says that his Psypioneer note in the February 2015 issue – the one beginning ‘The Society for Psychical Research has acknowledged Edmund Dawson Rogers as a founder in 1882. This follows a ten-year campaign by Psypioneer’ – was intended merely to announce the alteration to the SPR website to include Rogers’ name, and express appreciation for it.  I’m sure it was both those things, but the conjunction of those sentences right at the start does, at least to me, imply a desire to take credit for having fought a successful decade-long campaign that had finally borne fruit against determined opposition (else why, it suggests, would it have taken ten years to accomplish?).  Psypioneer has, as I said above, referred occasionally since its inception to the omission of Rogers’ name from SPR literature and website, but if this can be called a campaign, the truth is that it was one with only a single combatant, and I suspect it barely registered outside the pages of Psypioneer.  I added Rogers’ name to the SPR website’s historical overview not because I felt any pressure to do so but because there seemed no particular reason not to, and I thought it would please the Rogers camp to see their man included; also I suppose to indicate that his previous omission was not through some cover-up but, as a reflection of his overall importance to the development of the SPR in a compressed online history aimed at the general non-specialist reader.

Leslie goes on to discuss my brief 22 March note on the SPR’s Facebook page, the bulk of which he included in his article in the May 2015 issue of Psychic News.  These were off-the-cuff remarks, in a medium that is by its nature transient, made after reading the Psypioneer article.  I wasn’t pleased to find them enshrined in a more permanent form, albeit semi-anonymously as by ‘The SPR’s Facebook editor’ (semi- because plenty of people know that I look after the SPR’s Facebook presence) in the pages of Psychic News.  He thought they might be construed as ‘condescending’, even though he had happily reproduced them, a charge which surprised me.  They were certainly not intended to be condescending, and probably only seem so to someone who is defensive about Rogers and his small part in forming the SPR.

Leslie claims that the Psychic News article was not designed to beat the SPR despite the reference in it to a cover-up. In any case, he says that the choice of ‘cover-up’ in the Psychic News’s sub-heading was not his but the editor’s.  I can accept that was the case, but even so the sub-heading takes its tone from Leslie’s article, a chunk of which deals with the SPR ignoring Rogers and focusing on ‘Cambridge scholars’.  That sounds like Leslie is accusing the SPR of a cover-up, so the magazine’s editor can be forgiven for thinking it a suitable expression to use.  He quotes the words in Psychic News which I found particularly inflammatory, i.e. the second sentence here:

‘There is, however, a worrying implication from the SPR’s attempts over many years to put a more academic face on its early history.  Suppose in writing up cases and experiments, a similar attitude to the facts had been taken to what was felt to be not “that significant”?’

I interpreted this to mean that a morally dubious wish to impose an academic face on its early history (something which was bogus because it wrote out the likes of Rogers) meant that it would be happy to similarly manipulate ‘the facts’ in other instances to suit its own purpose.  The result of that would be that the Society’s voluminous publications could not be trusted because the results of such cases and experiments had been manipulated to present a particular stance, one that was in particular ill-disposed towards Spiritualism.  Leslie brings up Madame Blavatsky in this context, alluding to the Hodgson Report which has been heavily criticised for bias in recent years.  Such unfortunate things can happen, but while not wishing to get into a further debate about the rights or wrongs of Hodgson’s enquiry I will say that if you have to reach back to 1885 for an example, while making the vague accusation sound like it was the SPR’s standard operating procedure, then it just comes across as innuendo.

In my original blog post I referred to the volumes written or edited by Alan Gauld, Renée Haynes and Ivor Grattan-Guinness, but I did not include Rogers himself.  How much did he have to say about his allegedly seminal contribution to the SPR?  Life and Experiences of Edmund Dawson Rogers: Spiritualist and Journalist, Editor of ‘Light’ and President of the London Spiritualist Alliance (from which the portrait of Rogers above is drawn) reprinted an article from Light as a memorial to him after his death in 1910.  The single page it devotes to the SPR cannot be bothered to get the name right, as it is headed ‘Origin of the Psychical Research Society’.  Even Rogers didn’t consider, on this evidence, that he had made a particularly significant contribution; he describes the famous meeting with William Barrett, but is vague about the date – ‘It so happened that in the year 1882, or perhaps in the last months of 1881 – I cannot now recollect the date – Professor W F Barrett was spending the night with me at my residence in Finchley … I suggested that a society should be started on lines which would be likely to attract some of the best minds which had hitherto held aloof from the pursuit of the inquiry.  Professor Barrett approved of the suggestion, and called a conference …’

I am sorry that Leslie considered me discourteous in my references to him.  Again, that was not intentional, but I can see that using the term ‘fixation’ was an unhappy one.  It simply reflected my bemusement that anybody would actually want to mount an effort over so many years merely to have Rogers’ name included in SPR publicity.  And I simply couldn’t see why he would want to keep worrying at it after Rogers’ name was eventually included on the SPR website, and thus the aim of the Psypioneer’s long lonely crusade achieved.  I certainly wouldn’t have written my original blog post if Leslie hadn’t seen fit to write the article for Psychic News (and sadly far more people read Psychic News and Psypioneer than ever read posts on this blog!).  He also objects to my linkage of him, Rogers, Light and the CPS, pointing out rightly that he was not CPS archivist in 2004 when Psypioneer began its championing of Rogers.  But I believe Leslie was the CPS’s librarian in 1969, so he has had a long association with the College, even if he did not hold a position with it for that entire period.  I don’t know why he should be unhappy with the association; to me it seemed some kind of reason for Leslie’s lengthy promotion of Rogers, and not an ignoble one.

Leslie’s last point relates to my final sentence: ‘… find some other interest to engage his attention, preferably one that does not involve the SPR’, asking if I am suggesting that he should not involve himself in SPR matters.  Of course I was not saying that, I was thinking of this exercise, particularly the Psychic News article, one that has served to reinforce barriers between psychical researchers and Spiritualists rather than break them down.  If Leslie wishes to engage in SPR matters it is to be applauded, but I hope that they are positive efforts.  I was making the point that I did not feel that this particular intervention was a constructive one.

My overall conclusion is that this business has escalated out of all proportion to the original issue, and bad feeling has been engendered.  The saga is best categorised as a good deed gone awry (and if that is felt to be patronising I apologise in advance), but it’s done now.    An irony is that I have previously found myself in Leslie’s shoes, criticising authors in book reviews for omitting Rogers’ name from their examination of the SPR’s origins.  I have never been dismissive of Rogers’ contribution to the SPR, while keeping it in perspective, so it seems odd to find myself in some kind of dispute over him.  I suspect that Leslie will return to this issue in one form or another in either Psypioneer or Psychic News, but I don’t think I will wish to add anything further.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The 'Brother Doli' Poltergeist Case

I recently came across the website of ‘Psychic Science’, subtitled ‘Explore psychic abilities & the paranormal with Michael Daniels PhD’.  On it is a page devoted to ‘Notable Modern Poltergeist Cases’ (modern being after 1960).  Most of these are obvious, if a highly selective assortment: Sauchie, Enfield, Rosenheim, Matthew Manning, plus a few less-well known cases, a couple investigated by William Roll, one from Brazil.  The final one is ‘The Brother Doli Case (1997-2002)’, which was investigated by none other than Michael Daniels himself.  He wrote it up in some detail, heavily illustrated, in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 2002.

The events took place near Mold, North Wales, at the home of David and Rose-Mary Gower.  Living with them was their adopted son John-Paul, born in 1985, who had Down’s Syndrome.  As the ‘Notable Modern Poltergeist Cases’ entry describes it, the phenomena consisted of a variety of aspects:

‘Large numbers of stains and carvings of images and Welsh words, generally of a religious nature, inside and outside the house. Intrusions of Welsh religious words in emails, computer files and printed documents. Noises. Strange smells. Temperature fluctuations. Pools of water. Electrical disturbances. Object  displacements, disappearances and reappearances. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary and of a monk. Photographic anomalies. Scratching of skin. No throwing of objects was reported.’

This doesn’t really do the phenomena justice, but gives a flavour.  ‘Brother Doli (Adolphus) was a nickname given by the family to whatever was causing the events, though the Gowers’ youngest daughter claimed to see the apparition of a young monk, Rose-Mary herself saw a monk-like figure, and a message (we are not told what it said) was found on a notepad signed ‘Doli’.  Following Daniels’ JSPR paper, the Gowers themselves had an article, ‘The 'Brother Doli' Case: Family Perspectives’.  This is unusual, but we rarely hear directly from the witnesses themselves.  Having the two articles next to each other might however raise a question in the reader’s mind about Daniels’ independence.  He feels less like an investigator than an agent.

I was somewhat unimpressed with the case, feeling that it did not stand up to careful scrutiny, and after comparing what Daniels had written with Rose-Mary Gower’s various internet writings on the subject, wrote a letter to the SPR’s Journal which was published in the April 2003 number.  I reprint it here in full, complete with the web references that were in my letter as submitted to the editor but omitted when it appeared in the Journal.

To the Editor

‘Michael Daniels, together with Rose-Mary and David Gower, whose house Dr Daniels investigated for the “Brother Doli Case” (October issue), spend thirty-two pages describing an investigation which seems to evaporate the closer one looks.  Indeed, the discussion rehearses most of the objections which a critic would want to make so clearly that one wonders whether what is left warrants the expenditure of such a large quantity of SPR resources.

‘What is missing is an analysis of the pronouncements by Rose-Mary Gower in her Internet writings.  The alarm bells should sound at David Gower’s remark that the details have evolved to make them into a better (more dramatic?) story, and that “Rose-Mary, like her media contacts, enjoys a good tale”.  This is a key element which Michael Daniels does not address, but which can be appreciated by comparing this account to those found on the Internet.  It can be seen that each is tailored to the appropriate audience.

‘For example a reference to John-Paul seeing Brother Doli patting Aslan, the family’s dead Alsatian dog, in the garden [1], is omitted from the Journal report.  The stone dated 1610 is here said to look new, and the age of the original building unknown, but in her Internet writings Rose-Mary claims that the house dates from the seventeenth century: “We live in a 17th Century farmhouse near Mold in North Wales UK” [2]; “David, my husband, Down’s Syndrome son John-Paul and I moved into Penyffordd Farm, circa 1610, just outside Treuddyn, in February 1997” [3].  Her description of smiley faces appearing on the walls “suggesting that the monk is a happy little spook!” [4] also fails to obtain a mention in the Journal report.

‘Rose-Mary does say that the most likely explanation of the phenomena is a hoax (not by her, of course), but this apparent candour seems to be undermined by the account of the flowers changing into wasps.  Interpretation of the case is a choice between the paranormal and a hoax perpetrated by her alone or in collusion, possibly forming a framework in which mundane occurrences are interpreted as paranormal by others.  One source of evidence, the possessions of visitors which had Welsh words engraved (or embossed, depending on the source) on them, does not appear to have been subject to scrutiny.  These items are not mentioned again, and Michael Daniels has not interviewed anyone outside the immediate family.

‘In short, Dr Daniels lists a number of reasons why this case should not be taken seriously, but is less clear about why it should.  The Gowers are active self-publicists, and this article appears to be one more element in their endeavours, with the added bonus of being written by someone else and appearing in a scholarly journal – hence its sobriety compared to the others that are aimed at a wider audience.  This manipulation fatally damages the case’s credibility.’


The reference to the flowers changing into wasps was an incident recounted in passing on p.195 that I thought should have carried more weight:

‘The next series of phenomena began in August 1997 when Rose-Mary reports that a strange transformation occurred in the kitchen when she was clearing out a vase of dried blue flowers. Having placed the flowers on the floor while she stepped briefly outside, Rose-Mary returned to find that the blue petals had changed into a large group of dead and dying half-drowned wasps.’

The suggestion is that she was alone when this happened (the presence of someone else should have been recorded) and it seems that therefore a hoax by somebody else, or misperception by her, could be ruled out in this instance.  The choice is between such a transformation occurring without (living) human intervention or Rose-Mary making it up.  If the latter, it casts doubt on the rest of her testimony.

I had several reservations that I did not include in the letter, but my major one concerned the possible role of other members of the family.  Apart from John-Paul the children remained shadowy presences in the article.  Though the three daughters were interviewed, no information about them is provided.  It is implied that they were infrequent visitors, yet David Gower says that his early, albeit later discarded, suspicion was that ‘his grown-up children’ were hoaxing the phenomena, suggesting that they were often in the house.  Relatives, friends and acquaintances were said to have witnessed events, but information given to Daniels was channelled through the Gowers, mainly Rose-Mary; David seems to have been fairly disengaged from the business.

Dr Daniels was given the right of reply to my letter in the same issue, and it is worth examining in detail as it is a good indication of his attitude to weighing evidence.  He divides my points into four categories:

1) Daniels’ article does not address Rose-Mary’s various accounts that I claimed were ‘tailored to the appropriate audience’;

2) He had not interviewed anyone outside the family whose possessions had been affected;

3) The case’s credibility is too slight to warrant such lengthy treatment in JSPR;

4) The Gowers are ‘self-publicists’ whose activities are encouraged by coverage in a scholarly journal.

He then responds at double the length of my letter.  To begin with he states that the article ‘provides the reader with addresses of all the main web sites that have featured accounts of the phenomena at the Gowers' home’, which would be good, except that he continues: ‘It is true that I do not critically compare these various accounts’, and that is because some contain inaccuracies by other hands than Rose-Mary, which implies that journalists were making certain things up.  Yet the Gowers did not seem bothered enough to correct the record when they saw these errors, surprising given their readiness to put pen to paper.  Did John-Paul see the ghost of ‘Brother Doli’ patting the dead dog Aslan or did he not?  If so, that would seem to be an important element of the case and Daniels should have included it.  If made up by a third party, how did that happen?  It doesn’t sound the sort of thing to come out of thin air.  In sum, Daniels airily waves away discrepancies with ‘In my opinion it serves no particular purpose to analyse these accounts’, but fails to say why he then included web links to articles that were considered untrustworthy.  Any errors by Rose-Mary he thought could be attributed to normal lapses in memory, as can be found with any witness.

But then he goes on to admit: ‘As was indicated by David Gower in his commentary, and as evidenced by some of the Internet accounts, Rose-Mary does tend to embroider and dramatise her narrations in an attempt to make a good story.’  That’s putting it mildly!  What David had said (expanding on the snippet I included in my letter) is:

‘…we [he and Rose-Mary] differ on the importance of detailed accuracy and chronological precision in reporting them. I think the accounts have changed in narrative detail as events have been re-told to successive friends and acquaintances to make better stories. Rose-Mary, like her media contacts, enjoys a good tale and has made the name 'Brother Doli' part of family folklore. I, too, readily participate in such family fun…’

Is this a problem for Daniels?  Not really, because it might still not necessarily be a hoax, rather ‘the personality and behaviour of someone who wished, for whatever reason, to publicise a case believed to be genuine.’  So why ‘embroider’ (which strikes me as a euphemistic word)?  Is the case not good enough to stand on the facts that it needs to be ‘embroidered’, and the investigator doesn’t feel it worth his while to compare the various accounts to ascertain what may have happened and what didn’t?  By the time Daniels got round to interviewing Rose-Mary, how could he tell what was real from what was inserted to make a good yarn?

The reference to ‘media contacts’ is particularly revealing.  Mary-Rose was clearly happy to get as much publicity as possible with a story that, rogue journalists notwithstanding, could easily change in the retelling.  Daniels notes in his article that the story had been covered by HTV Wales' Weird Wales series and various other television and radio programmes, including This Morning, Kilroy, and twice on John Peel's Radio 4 show Home Truths.  Rose-Mary was clearly keen to get as much publicity as possible and as her husband acknowledged, accuracy was not her primary concern.

At least Daniels concurs that the case is weakened by the lack of independent witnesses, one might feel, in light of the difficulty in getting a reliable account from Rose-Mary, fatally.  He didn’t interview people whose belongings were engraved or embossed, but anyway ‘I doubt that this would add anything of great significance.’  They were important enough to include in the article, now they don’t seem to count for anything.  As for the article’s length, I think Daniels believes I should thank him for it because ‘ironically’ the degree of detail convinced me that the case is flawed, yet a shorter report would have given the case more credibility ‘thus furthering the Gowers' alleged publicist agenda to an even greater extent.’  The logic of that escapes me, given that I can’t see how less detail would have allowed the case to appear more credible.  It was going to be weak whatever the length.

Anyway, Daniels thinks that even if it all turned out to be a hoax, that is fine, because it can help future researchers determine ways hoaxing operates more effectively in order to distinguish genuine phenomena from frauds, making the life of the hoaxer harder.  In what way researchers could make this distinction on the basis of an article like his is not spelled out, nor why the enthusiastic hoaxer would necessarily decide hoaxing was not worthwhile when receiving lots of attention from researchers.  He also alludes to the file drawer effect, the suppression of negative results leading to ‘over-confidence in the reality and extent of psychical phenomena’.  Daniels thinks this applies to the evaluation of spontaneous phenomena as well as laboratory experiments, but it is difficult to see how the discarding of reports such as this one would affect the evaluation of other cases, or by what method the effect could be determined statistically.

Daniels’ final point is that if such accounts were not published, then researchers would not bother to investigate them, or would be biased in favour of a paranormal explanation if that meant that they stood a better chance of publication.  It’s an interesting point, though the archives are full of reports that are thorough (arguably more thorough than this one) but unpublished.  To be fair to Daniels, he does not conclude definitively in his article that the phenomena were genuine, contenting himself by saying that they are ‘extraordinary’ but ‘highly ambiguous’, with no degree of certainty possible.  His Psychic Science website entry goes further, giving it only one star (out of a possible five) plus the comment ‘Paranormal activity is conceivable but unlikely’, which raises the obvious question, what makes it notable?

In his rejoinder to my letter he assumes that I concluded that the case ‘indicates an elaborate hoax’, which he thinks understandable and a distinct possibility, but not the only explanation available.  Oddly I agree with him.  It is possible that there was a genuine poltergeist at work in the Gowers’ home, albeit the details were ‘improved’ over time.  Where I depart from him is in finding his report a useful analysis as it is impossible to know what to trust in it.  The oddest aspect of the entire business may be that sceptics Richard Wiseman and Caroline Watt chose to reprint the Journal article in an Ashgate anthology on parapsychology, unless this was part of a cunning plan to undermine the discipline’s credibility, when it all makes perfect sense.


Daniels, M. (2002) The ‘Brother Doli’ case: Investigation of Apparent Poltergeist-type Manifestations in North Wales. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 66.4, No. 869, 193-221.  (Reprinted in R. Wiseman and C. Watt (eds.) (2005). Parapsychology (The International Library of Psychology). Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing.)

Gower, R-M and Gower D. (2002) ‘The 'Brother Doli' Case: Family Perspectives’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 66.4, No. 869, 222-4.

Ruffles, T. (2003) Letter, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 67.2, No. 871, 158; Michael Daniels’ reply: 159-60.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Why I do not intend to leave money to the Society for Psychical Research

This may seem a surprising statement from someone who has been involved with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) for nearly 30 years, many of those as a Council member.  My affection for the Society and my commitment to its aims have not wavered, but I am concerned that the enormous sum bequeathed by Mr Nigel Buckmaster is not being used as wisely as it might, and I am not confident that any money I might leave would be used wisely either.

In what follows I must stress that I am not divulging any privileged information gleaned through SPR Council meetings.  Matters discussed within them are confidential, and although that principle has not always been honoured by some Council members, I feel I should restrict myself to what has appeared in the public domain – or can be deduced from it.  The necessity for deduction is because the official communications have not always been terribly explicit about how money will be used; you would think that there was some embarrassment about it judging by the lack of detail in the Society’s various announcements.  There is still enough information available to allow me to express my disquiet at some of the things that have occurred since the Buckmaster funds began flowing into the SPR’s coffers.

Exactly a year ago I wrote a couple of blog posts about the Buckmaster bequest, as a result of the publication of the SPR’s 2012-13 Annual Report and Statement of Accounts.  Now that the 2013-14 Report and Accounts (the reporting period ends on 30 September) are available, it is possible to see what further information has been supplied on the matters I wrote about then.  Buckmaster is prominent in the Report, starting with outgoing president Dr Richard Broughton in his own report alluding to the difficulties encountered within Council in deciding what to do with the money.  Unfortunately the Accounts feel very short on detail, and while they are acceptable to the auditors and other official bodies, the interested member might struggle to determine exactly how some of the Society’s resources are being expended.

In addition to the reference in his presidential section in the 2013-14 Annual Report Dr Broughton, who also chairs the Buckmaster Oversight Committee (BOC), contributes the BOC’s first annual report.  In it he briefly lists the four elements of the ‘Buckmaster project’:  1) the online encyclopaedia/books/website upgrade; 2) ‘a research and publication project to develop Systems Methodology as a new tool especially suited to the investigation of spontaneous cases’; 3) ‘updating and upgrading the Lexscien online library’; and 4) the creation of an online open data repository.  What is left goes into a building fund in the hope of finding a freehold property at some point.

Some of the Buckmaster initiatives are to be admired, though it might be felt that more money is being spent on them than should be necessary (some £350,000 on the publishing programme, for example).  In particular, even though the earlier CaseBase proposal promoted by David and Julie Rousseau, which was to gather a collection of what are considered to be the best paradigm-challenging cases, had been withdrawn because it was so controversial, leading to the formation of the BOC, David Rousseau (the Society’s Hon. Treasurer) and Julie Rousseau, also a Council member, seem to loom large in the disbursement of the Buckmaster money.

One sum that went to them – or rather their organisation C-FAR, the Centre for Fundamental and Anomalies Research – was £11,600 for the updating and upgrading of the Lexscien online library, which among other publications houses the SPR’s Proceedings and Journal back to 1882 (item 3 on Dr Broughton’s list of Buckmaster projects).  There had been embarrassing complaints about the online library’s usability for some time which reflected badly on the SPR, and it also stopped at 2008.  The new money will allow it to be brought up to date, but it does seem to be a huge amount of money to support a database that also brings in subscription money to C-FAR from non-SPR members.  A useful comparator is Marc Demarest’s IAPSOP database, which is growing at a phenomenal pace and houses far more content than the relatively static Lexscien.  IAPSOP is clearly done for love by volunteers, Lexscien is a more hard-headed enterprise.  C-FAR by the way does not itself seem to do much research as an organisation, despite its title (though I am happy to be corrected), but it does appear to be a registered company so must be handy for tax purposes.

Number 2 on Dr Broughton’s list is the Systems Methodology project, which Dr Broughton’s report specifies is being conducted by Dr Rousseau.  C-FAR was given £26,000 for this purpose, and as it is a neat third of the £78,000 noted in the SPR Buckmaster announcement of 24 March 2014, it is not difficult to figure out that this is the first of three tranches of £26,000 being paid to Dr Rousseau.  The total amount he is receiving, £78,000, seems clear, but not what he is doing for the money, which is nowhere elaborated.  What can be said with certainty is that despite the Systems Methodology project grant to Dr Rousseau being a grant for a project, it is not as one might have expected administered by the SPR’s Research Grants Committee (RGC), even though one would normally expect such an application to be made to them rather than direct to the BOC, and there is no indication that the BOC would entertain other grant applications.

I have previously noted that the annual sum paid to Dr Rousseau is completely out of scale with the average RGC award.  This year (2013-14) the RGC awarded a mere four grants ranging from £750 to £3,300, averaging £2,050 per applicant.  There were in addition seven grants awarded by the Society’s Survival Research Committee, ranging from three of £1,000 to one of £4,500, the seven averaging £2,663.  The total amount awarded to all eleven by both committees comes to £26,842.87, only slightly more than awarded to Dr Rousseau alone in the same year.  The £78,000 to be given to Dr Rousseau, something like a tenth of the Buckmaster bequest, is totally unlike the grants normally given to applicants.  That must be some Systems Methodology.  What can it possibly contain that is worth so much?  Half way through the 2014-15 reporting year and we are still none the wiser.

Finally, there is one item glaringly missing from the 2013-14 Report: any reference to the Research Activities Committee (RAC), which Dr Rousseau chaired, but which showed little sign of life in recent years apart from the promotion of the CaseBase project (as can be seen from Dr Rousseau’s notes as chair in previous Annual Reports).  I am particularly sorry to see it disappear because I was on Robert Morris’s steering group that resulted in the RAC’s formation in 1992.  Anybody wishing to see what the RAC was intended to do should read Professor Bernard Carr’s article written when he was its chair, ‘Research Activities in the SPR: New Initiatives’, which appeared in the SPR’s Paranormal Review in January 1999.  The committee had a wide remit, but this languished under Dr Rousseau’s chairmanship, and it is now no more.  The cynic might think that, the CaseBase initiative having been shelved, the RAC had fulfilled its function and was of no further interest to Dr Rousseau.  I’m sure it is a coincidence but the conjunction is unfortunate in terms of perception.  Anyway, it would have been nice to see some mention of its demise in the Annual Report, but the loss of a committee specifically dealing with research activities is not something one would necessarily wish to draw attention to as it suggests a certain poverty of ideas and lack of vigour.

To sum up, I had intended to leave money to the SPR.  Not on the scale of Nigel Buckmaster admittedly, but an amount nonetheless.  I shall certainly not do so now, because of the way I feel that the Buckmaster money is being so poorly utilised.  This is not my opinion alone.  I know of a couple of SPR members who feel the same way, and will not remember the SPR in their wills.  That is money that would have come in over the next few decades which will instead go to other homes.  The Society has done very well from legacies in the past, and they have got the organisation through some tough periods when outgoings otherwise outstripped income.  But times change, the profile of the membership has changed with them, and it cannot be assumed that legacies will always flow in as they have in the past.  If potential donors see that money is being frittered, they will look elsewhere.  There are many competing causes, and some who would once have considered putting the SPR in their wills could decide that other charities, such as Cancer Research, or the Alzheimer’s Society, will be more likely to use their money wisely.  That is what I am going to be doing.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Books Lost; Books Regained

I recently read a blog post by Luke McKernan, ‘Lost Books’, in which he discusses his attitude to the ownership of books.  His key point is that the act of reading a book makes it part of the reader, and looking along a shelf of them is a reminder of the intellectual journey to which they have been the accompaniment.  He tells the story of how, when moving house, he gave a quantity of his books, perhaps a couple of hundred, to a charity shop and has regretted it ever since because in a very real way he had disposed of a part of himself.  He can recall where he bought all his books and where he read them, so at a meta level they contain a story over and above that found in the content, which in reading them became part of Luke’s own story.  If they’ve gone, they’ve gone, and not even an identical replacement will carry that sense of having been absorbed; it would be merely a ringer, not the same.  To reinstate the meaning that the original copy had would mean rereading it, and overlaying the first set of associations with a new one.

I can understand this view, but my engagement, while I hope as intense, is somewhat different.  After a time I do not as a rule recall where I bought a book, nor often where in particular I read it, though I do often associate particular books with certain times, usually longer books read in summer holidays when young – War and Peace, Don Quixote and Ulysses spring to mind.  As a rule it’s the words that count, not the book as an object, but it was not always so: at one time (my teens and 20s) I had the ambition of owning every book I read.  This proved impractical but I still built up large sub-collections.  Unfortunately space is the enemy, and I eventually decided I had to weed out some of the things I had read and would probably not need again (a dangerous assumption).  Early victims of this culling process were the poetry pamphlets which I had accumulated during my regular trips to Compendium at Camden Town, and later, when married with a small child, many of my science fiction and crime novels.  It hurt at first, but I found that I gradually became less sentimental, and didn’t consider that I was diminished by their absence.  I certainly don’t feel, as Luke suggests, that their absence tells an incomplete story about me, and if it does, who cares?

In general I still find that I don’t miss the ones that are gone, with exceptions.  Some books I do kick myself about, like the one I got a few pounds for on eBay which I later discovered was worth rather a lot, or the politics books from my student days I sold to a specialist dealer that I wish I had kept (but I really didn’t think at the time I would want to consult Lenin’s What is to Be Done? again, or what must have been everything Trotsky wrote that was in English translation at the time, let alone reread them, and perhaps I mourn the loss of the younger me they represent as much as the volumes themselves).  Mostly I take a pragmatic view, keeping books I think will be useful, notably on cinema, psychical research and the nineteenth century.  I don’t read ebooks for pleasure, but I do have a large collection of PDFs for reference or just-in-case, and some of those have replaced physical copies that I have read and am unlikely to want to reread in their entirety.

I am not a slave to the editions I have read either.  If a more recent version comes out, I’m happy to replace my old one, invariably when I find a cheap second-hand copy.  Thus recently the 2003 revised Penguin edition of Frankenstein, which I haven’t yet read, replaced the 1992 Penguin edition, which in turn replaced the still earlier one I had read, simply because it is more up to date.  On the McKernan system I would either have to eschew the new one,  or else read it in order to make it part of me, overlaying the trace of the old one I had read which had gone.  The latter I may or may not do, but should I need to consult it – and who knows where research will take one – it’s good to know that I have the copy that has been revised and which can be considered more authoritative than its predecessors, including the one I read.

There are some books I won’t part with, such as the battered copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn my father bought me when I was a child and which evoke the original pleasure of reading them whenever I look at the covers.  The Beatrix Potter books I received from relatives fall into the same category.  For most of them though I do not feel that strength of attachment.  I certainly do not regard them as part of me in the way that Luke does his.  I’ve already mentioned, in reviewing Penguin’s compilation of covers, Seven Hundred Penguins, how I once thought nice hardbacks were preferable to Penguins and changed them over as a matter of course when I had the opportunity, only to change them back where appropriate when I came to appreciate that it was the content that mattered, not the format.  These days I divide books into those which are keepers and those which are disposable.  The latter, mostly modern fiction, go off the charity shop when read, yet they often achieve a kind of permanence in my memory through the act of writing about them.  If space were limitless I would have a grand library in which to retain every book I acquire, with no disposal policy, and once something like that was an ambition.  They are wonderful to have about the place, but one has to be practical, and moving thousands of books is a nightmare.  Some balance is required.

One thing I disagree with Luke about is his definition of a bibliophile, which he characterises as someone who collects books or reveres them for their own sake.  He sees the bibliophile fetishizing objects, and by that narrow definition neither am I one.  Really it is too narrow, and I think we both are really, or else why would we be writing about our books with such affection?  They are obviously important to us both.  We may have different approaches to the books we own but I bet he loves them as much as I do.  I love the texture, the weight, the design, above all the promise contained inside.  Sometimes the promise is unfulfilled, at other times it exceeds expectations.  Bibliophilia is about the attitude one takes to one’s books and what they contain, which is essentially a deep connection.  I feel it, and the fact that Luke mourns those lost paperbacks puts him very firmly in that category too.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A visit to Kazerne Dossin, Mechelen, Belgium

Mechelen was chosen as a transport hub for the deportation of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis from 1942 to 1944 because it was conveniently located between Brussels and Antwerp and had good railway links.  Kazerne Dossin is a fitting monument to the lives and deaths of the Jews, gypsies, and others who suffered under the Nazi regime before and during the war, in Belgium and elsewhere.  Opened in 2012, it is described in its literature as a ‘Memorial Museum and Documentation Centre about the Holocaust and Human Rights’.

Occupying five floors in a massive purpose-built structure, it covers and contextualises the rise of Nazism in Germany after 1918; Jewish life in Belgium during the same period; the occupation; registration of Jewish citizens and increasing restrictions on their freedom as they were excluded from mainstream society; the often enthusiastic cooperation given by the Belgian authorities, at least in the early stages; the strains of living in hiding for those Jews who chose not to submit;  the theft of property, and the transports East leaving from the Dossin Barracks opposite (after which the museum is named) to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps; the mass murder; and the trauma of those who survived.  Photographs, objects and information panels are interspersed with audio commentaries describing some of the stories of those caught up in this dreadful period that make compelling listening, and films of Holocaust survivors recounting their own experiences.  All information is trilingual, including English.

A video near reception orients the visitor with a brief history of anti-semitism and the way in which those who are seen to be different can be ostracised and bullied.  The main exhibition is divided into three parts, a floor devoted to each: ‘Mass’, creating the environment in which maaltreatment can flourish by taking away a sense of individual responsibility and forming an outgroup to despise; ‘Fear’, the imposition of a state of terror after the German invasion of Belgium in 1940, leading to the deportations; and ‘Death’, the camps and the extermination.  Included here are photographs of SS personnel enjoying themselves, seemingly oblivious of the horrors around them which were all in a day’s work.  As well as the conveyor belt to the gas chambers, the mass executions carried out on the Eastern Front are included, naked individuals lined up and shot at the edges of huge pits.   Importantly in all this it is stressed that the Holocaust did not come out of a vacuum, but built on anti-Semitic attitudes which pre-dated the Third Reich.

Cumulatively the displays show the infliction of terror on an unimaginable scale.  To reinforce that message, one huge wall of the museum is covered with photographs of the deportees, a remarkable and sombre display which is designed to give them back the identities of which they were so cruelly deprived.  The predominant colour of the museum is white, symbolic of purity and innocence, while reminiscent of gravestone marble.  It is a huge building, imposing and functional, with no unnecessary frills to distract from the content, towering over the old barracks that for some 26,000 people was the start of their journey away from Mechelen.  The whole place is an act of commemoration, while asking hard questions about how such an act could happen.

The Belgian state apparatus which collaborated with the Nazi authorities does not on the whole – with notable exceptions – come out well, though the fact that large numbers of Jews remained in hiding is testament to the support of sections of the wider community, and Belgian co-operation decreased as the German persecution became more naked.  This is in contrast to the tolerance Belgium displayed before the invasion, becoming home to many displaced Jews from other countries, notably Poland.  But the focus is not just on those who actively assisted the Nazis; those who stood by passively were also complicit.  The centre is thus an act of remembrance for all Belgians, not just its Jewish citizens.  The top floor is given over to temporary exhibitions about other genocides, broadening the scope from what happened at Mechelen and elsewhere during the Second World War; the one during my visit comprised large-scale photographs dealing with the documentation of the victims and the crimes that were perpetrated against them during the Guatemalan civil war.

Looking at the photographs of those who died in the concentration camps, what struck me was how ordinary they looked.  One that caught my eye was of a casually-dressed man in glasses sitting on a sofa.  He looked much like I do, casually dressed, in glasses, sitting on the sofa.  I couldn’t really see how he was so different from me in any way that someone would want to murder him for no other reason than that he happened to be Jewish.  These are not anonymous individuals, statistics, they are real people, who had hopes and fears like anybody else.  What really made me think how much alike they and we are though was a particular photograph.  It is of two men standing side by side, with cigarettes in their hands, taken outside a Jewish restaurant in Charleois, Belgium, in 1936.  That they are both holding their cigarettes in their left hands suggests that they are brothers. 

 Whether they are or not, the picture reminded me strongly of one of my favourite photographs of my father (on the left), standing outside the Union Tavern, Camberwell New Road, south London, in 1955 with his brother George, the pair similarly holding cigarettes. 

 Different times and circumstances, but still two ordinary men standing in the street with cigarettes.  Was either of those men photographed in 1936 alive a decade later?  We can be thankful that we in the West today are immeasurably more comfortable than are those who suffer oppression, while we are reminded, both from historical and contemporary examples, how fragile that comfort can be.

When we arrived at Kazerne Dossin a party of school students was just finishing a tour and congregating with their mobile phones. It was good to see young people being exposed to these exhibits, though who knows what lessons they took away, but otherwise it was all fairly quiet.  More people should make the trip to Mechelen and see what can happen to ordinary people, little different to anybody else, who are persecuted by those who pursue a ruthless and unbending ideology of hate.  That anti-Semitism is still a problem was demonstrated by the presence of armed soldiers in the foyer (we also visited the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, where four people were murdered in May 2014, and that too has armed guards among other stringent security measures).

The barracks across the road, where deportees gathered to wait for the transports, have been converted into flats, the courtyard landscaped.  The building has been put to positive use, but it still felt a little uncomfortable walking through the doorway and visualising where, based on a photograph we saw in the museum, arrivals had clustered, lorries had stood, and where possessions had been left, symbolic of the soon-to-be absence of those rounded up.  The past suddenly felt very present as we stood there.

 Anybody visiting Brussels or Antwerp should seriously consider visiting Kazerne Dossin.  It deals with specific instances of mass murder but draws out broader lessons which are timeless.  These oblige us to think about the mechanisms that enable such barbarous acts and how we might respond in similar circumstances; how resistant to demagoguery we would be when the entire regime is bent on the systematic annihilation of its opponents and those who, for ideological reasons, it deems unworthy of life.

The Nazis’ victims may be gone, but Kazerne Dossin, for as long as it stands, will perpetuate their memory.