Sunday, 22 November 2015

An acquisitions fund for the Society for Psychical Research?

From time to time I hear about items for sale that could be of interest to the Society of Psychical Research (SPR) as additions to its archives.  A while back it was a letter by William James concerning the medium Eusapia Palladino, offered directly to the Society by the seller for a sum in the low thousands.  Most recently it was folders compiled by SPR Council member Andrew MacKenzie relating to his Versailles investigation (as described in his 1997 book on retrocognition, Adventures in Time) on a bookselling website, a snip at £400.

While both figures were probably inflated (the latter enormously for what was included, and the SPR actually holds the MacKenzie Collection, so it is a mystery where this came from), I had to say each time that the SPR does not possess a budget for acquisitions so even if these were the best bargains ever it would be difficult for the SPR to purchase them.  Any request would have to be put to the Society’s Council for discussion because the cash would need to come from general funds, inevitably slowing the process down and risking a sale elsewhere in the meantime.

When the Cyril Permutt Collection, which had been on open-ended loan to the SPR, was offered for sale to the Society by Mr Permutt’s family in 2003, the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg stepped in to pay for it on the SPR’s behalf (and later added a further amount for conservation) as the SPR had been helpful in assisting IGPP members prepare the exhibition and book Le troisième oeil : La photographie et l'occulte, published in English as The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  If not for that kind gesture, the albums of photographs gathered by Permutt might have been lost (even though there was a considerable fog over the ownership of many of the photographs, which had been passed to Permutt by the SPR in the first place).*

A way to address the risk of missing out on important items, and to encourage offers of suitable material, would be to set up an acquisitions fund.  This would be a designated fund to reassure contributors that what they gave could not be used for another purpose.   A small standing committee, comprising say the Hon. Archives Liaison Officer, the Hon Treasurer, the Hon. Secretary and the President, could have the delegated responsibility for administering it.  They would be able to call on the expertise of others on a case-by-case basis but theirs would be the final decision.

If a potential purchase came to a sum greater than was in the fund but still represented good value in the committee’s opinion, the sum would be loaned from the general fund but then repaid with the proceeds from later donations.  A surplus in the fund would gather interest, and this would boost the fund.  The SPR has a number of designated and restricted funds, listed separately in its accounts, so this would not be an out-of-the-ordinary manner of utilising its resources.

Having such a mechanism in place would have a number of benefits:

First, should something come onto the market that would enhance the SPR’s archives, the Society could negotiate quickly and confidently knowing that funds were ready, a strong position especially if there were competing interests and the risk that a delay might mean the item went elsewhere.

Secondly, it would act as a focus for people who want to see the Society’s archives strengthened and are happy to give for that specific purpose rather than for general activities. By ring-fencing the money it would reassure potential benefactors that their gifts would be spent in a way that they considered sensible, which they may not always think the case with the general fund.  Purchases could be featured in the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review (as should all acquisitions as a matter of routine anyway) as a reminder of the fund’s existence.  Donors could be named or remain anonymous, as preferred.

Thirdly, it would remind members and non-members that the SPR’s archives are still growing, despite being housed at Cambridge University Library; it is easy to assume that they are now closed but this is not the case.  Anyway, there is always the possibility that one day the Society will be able to retrieve its collections and house them in its own secure facility, though that prospect is some way away and may never be realised, especially as it has just purchased a new headquarters building that is not suitable to house all its holdings, particularly the rare books.

Fourthly, it would act as a beacon for owners and heirs, who might otherwise sell off significant items on the open market, donate them overseas (the Archives for the Unexplained in Sweden is a popular destination) or even throw them away, to consider the SPR as a suitable repository.

Finally, the fund could be used as part of a campaign to publicise the Society.  Promoting the fund would also be a reminder to the wider research community that the SPR has world-class archives, and that should in turn encourage their use.

One disadvantage of a fund is the risk of inflating the market, encouraging people who might otherwise have considered donating to sell instead, thereby making the SPR pay for what it would previously have received free.  That is a risk, but one outweighed by the danger of losing items, and even if there is a value to the object the owner may still decide to donate.  In any case much of it will have little interest for non-specialists so in the absence of competition should not be expensive.

Some things are always going to be beyond the SPR’s resources, however big its budget.  In December 2013 an album of 27 of Canadian Spiritualist Thomas Glendenning Hamilton's photographs taken between 1920 and 1922, put up for auction in New York, went well beyond the $4,000 to $6,000 estimate, going for $93,750 including the buyer’s premium.

There is no way he SPR could compete with that level of expenditure.  Something in the hundreds or low thousands though should not be outside its reach simply because no thought has been given to how it might be paid for.  Such sums could be spent now from general funds, but working against that is inertia and other calls on the money to be weighed against the less tangible value of fresh acquisitions.

It is easy to be complacent about the archives and passively assume that they will expand through donations.  This cannot be guaranteed and opportunities will be missed.  An active collection policy with the finance to back it would help the archives to grow, and generate interest in them.  Appeal funds work very well in the art and museum world, where advertising acquisitions acts to encourage further donations as well as benefiting the institution’s image.  Having a dedicated fund would make it easier to fulfil one of the core functions of an academic organisation – provide the tools for scholarly research.  It is a proposal that is worth considering.

*An article, ‘The SPR Cambridge Archive’, which appeared in the October 2005 issue of Paranormal Review states that ‘ The kindly donation by the Freiburg Institute of the Cyril Permutt Collection has increased the photographic and newspaper cutting archive considerably.’  This is incorrect as the IGPP did not donate the Cyril Permutt Collection but rather the money to buy it.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Eighth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, 6-7 November 2015

It is always a pleasure to attend the annual film festival mounted by Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, a centre in the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge.  Usually at least part of the festival is held in the Arts Picturehouse, but this year both nights were in the Winstanley lecture theatre at Trinity College, serviceable but not quite as plush.   Cambridge Ukrainian Studies director Dr Rory Finin in his introduction explained that while the organisers had managed to fend off the demands for space by the James Bond vehicle Skyfall three years ago, the might of Spectre was too powerful, leaving no space for Carpathian shepherds at the arts cinema; ‘Bond is no lover of Ukrainian documentary film’, he wryly commented.

The eighth annual festival had a different format as well.  Previously there had been a mix of fiction and documentaries, but this time no fiction was included because of a collaboration with ‘Docudays UA International Documentary Human Rights Film Festival’, which had supplied six documentaries of varying kinds as the entire programme.  And six interesting documentaries they were.  Friday night began with two shorts on a theme that is at the heart of recent Ukrainian history, and from which the repercussions are still being felt: EuroMaidan, or the Revolution of Dignity as it is also called.  Last year we saw Maidan, a magisterial portrait of a society in upheaval, showing how idealistic people who yearn for a better life can come together in an effort to effect change.  Maidan is Everywhere (Kateryna Hornostai, 2015, 36 mins) and The Medic Leaves Last (Svitlana Shynko, 2014, 26 mins) are intimate portraits that complement the larger-scale film.

Maidan is Everywhere intersperses the Madian protests with people going about their everyday lives, as life continues even in the face of violent political change.  We follow them at home, at a wedding, even army cadets giving an oath of loyalty, though to what may have been unclear to the young men.  We also see that not everybody supported the protesters wholeheartedly: a group of students gather in a street to the annoyance of a local resident who complains that they are blocking the road.  Surprisingly, the film opens with a couple of young women in an open space, one about to interview the other.  The interviewee is nervous, and they are distracted by a small funfair in the background.  Only at the end, when we return to them, do we realise that actually they are not in Ukraine at all but in Red Square, Moscow.  They unfurl the Ukrainian flag, whereupon a police car smartly rolls up and an officer politely but firmly tells them that they cannot exhibit the flag in the square.  They put it away, but as the Ukrainian interviewee whispers to the camera, ‘Maidan is everywhere’.  A bit of an exaggeration perhaps; Pussy Riot notwithstanding, Putin is rather more popular at home than Viktor Yanukovych was in Ukraine before he was ousted in 2014.

The Medic Leaves Last also has Maidan as its backdrop, but brings the emphasis down to a personal level, that of a volunteer doctor, Tanya, who treats minor injuries sustained in the Maidan protests with very basic equipment.  But this is not just about the protests either because we follow her back for a visit to her home where her ancient widowed mother keeps ducks and worries about her daughter’s safety.  Tanya ironically comments on her ‘beautiful village’ while standing in a bus shelter piled high with rubbish, and expresses her concern at how close it is to the conflict zone in the east of the country.  The film in fact ends with her leaving for the east with other volunteers to help those fighting the pro-Russian rebels.

The final film on Friday night was Living Fire (Ostap Kostiuk, 2013, 80 mins).  It is much more polished than the two shorts which preceded it, following a group of Carpathian shepherds as they take their flocks up the mountains for the summer months, looking after the animals and making cheese.  The film is beautifully shot, gloomy interiors contrasting with the broad open spaces.  It is a masculine way of life, no women participating, and one of the wives left behind complains that it is like being widowed for four months of the year.  An old man, who had been a shepherd, tots up with regret how little time he spent with his late wife in over half a century of marriage.  Somewhat chillingly, he joshes an embarrassed young boy, saying how much alike they are after noting how little education he himself had received.  The boys who help do a rigorous job which must leave little opportunity for studying, a way of life in a remote place that can only hamper their wider life chances.  Some scenes are shot in a school and the teacher asks the pupils to list their talents.  One lad rubs his writing away, and when the teacher picks up the blank sheet the boy says that he has no talent.  It is a stark reminder how hard lives can stunt expectations.  The men say how difficult the job is, and the economics look precarious.  With such conditions it is easy to see why it is a dying way of life, with only one pasture in the mountains still being operated in this way.  It is an open question whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Saturday’s session began with a counterbalance to the Maidan films, examining what happened when the party was over.  Post Maidan (Serhii Andrushko, 2014, 42 mins) follows four individuals from different parts of Ukraine – Kiev, Donetsk, Crimea, Irpin (to the north of the capital) – as they reflect on what had happened and what might be to come, both on a personal and national level.  The period prior to the 2014 presidential elections seem to have brought deflation after the excitement of the Maidan protests and the feeling that anything was possible.  As well as Russia’s interference there was continuing cynicism about the ineffectual process of lustration to reform the old regime, the role the Berkut police force had played during the Maidan occupation, and the domestic political system generally.  The shanty camp was only slowly cleared, the eyesore creating a backlash among sections of the public.  One commentator claimed the reason for the delay was because it would be needed again, the implication being that the root causes of the protests, economic and political corruption, would continue.  One of the four individuals being followed is standing for election, and a passer-by to whom he speaks tells him to his face that he will be like the rest,  once he has their votes he won’t bother with their needs.  On the other hand another becomes an election officer, and is proud of the efficient and fair way in which her polling station operated.  The film displays optimism as well as soul searching and anxiety.  I’m sure there were subtleties that passed over the heads of non-Ukrainians, but it was a superb portrait of a country in flux.

The Place We Call Home (Thora Lorentzen and Sybilla Marie Tuxen, 2014, 30 mins) also turns from a focus on the  broader mass movement to individual lives, and how people are coping with the new reality.  Most of these are vignettes, including a soldier smoking before returning to the conflict in the east, and hunting for a grenade under a mattress, assuring the occupant that the grenade doesn’t have a detonator – thankfully he manages to find it; a mother praying with an Orthodox priest for the country’s sons; an old woman singing a folk song inside a station entrance.  The majority of it is about tattooed young men relaxing and playing music, joking about drugs, their absorption insulating them from the difficulties of life outside.  Noteworthy is singing in English, a nod to western-leaning aspirations and desire to integrate into wider international culture.  The overwhelming feeling of these snapshots is one of anticipation, something round the corner about to happen that can only be faced with apprehension.

The final film was the festival’s highlight for me, Crepuscule (Valentyn Vasianovych, 2014, 61 mins).  On paper it is unpromising: ‘82 year-old Mariia and her son Sashko live in the remote Ukrainian countryside.  Sashko has gone blind, and his mother clings to life to care for him.’  On the screen it was amazing.  It fits with Living Fire as a depiction of a gruelling way of life in a remote rural location, where there is no social support system other than the kindness of neighbours.  Sashko has gone almost completely blind as a result of untreated diabetes, and it is frustrating for him.  He does what he can with his limited sight, and watching him use an extremely large power drill largely by touch is excruciating.  The bulk of the work falls to his mother, a small but tough woman who manages to keep a sense of humour in terrible adversity, whether gathering hay, feeding the cow, dealing with a new-born calf or decapitating a chicken.  The work is arduous and the two bicker but rub along together.  The main enemy is probably boredom.  In one scene Mariia waits in the snow for the milk tanker, staring down a long straight road.  A small dot appears, and slowly gets bigger, to reveal itself as a man and child on a bicycle accompanied by a dog.  We wait further, another dot appears, and gets bigger, and at last the tanker arrives.  Time stretches, and the wait becomes a metaphor for the slowness of progress to make a significant difference here.  Apart from the electricity and motorised transport it seems to be a life that they and their ancestors have lived from time immemorial, so it is a surprise when a local comes to do some hand-ploughing for them and his wife receives a call on her mobile phone.  It is looks like a clash of cultures, until husband and wife climb on board their traditional horse-drawn wagon, at which point it is obvious that having network coverage makes only a small difference when the weight of history is pushing you down.  The film ends with a caption, and it is not the outcome one is expecting from the synopsis, evoking compassion and the realisation that it is too easy to take one’s own comforts for granted.

Once again Rory Finnin and his team have provided a fascinating range of films from Ukraine and they are to be thanked for organising the festival, which is not only free but comes with hospitality.  The event offered ample evidence that there is a thriving documentary movement in the country.  If there is a criticism it is that the films about Maidan share a particular agenda.  It may be justified bearing in mind the conflict with Russia, but as the disgruntled local in Maidan is Everywhere indicates, there are other voices that are not being given weight (it seems unlikely that he was only irritated at people blocking cars, his complaint was more likely a proxy for a wider unhappiness at the situation, of which the students were a convenient target).  As far as I could tell there were no interviews in any of the documentaries with anybody who was avowedly a supporter of Yanukovych or held pro-Russian views.  Perhaps also it is time to examine more deeply systemic problems in Ukrainian society (it is alarming to read Leonid Bershidsky’s 6 November 2015 Bloomberg article ‘Ukraine Is in Danger of Becoming a Failed State’).

While it would have been nice to see more of Ukraine’s feature film production to add variety to the programme, it is always worth being reminded of the difficulties its citizens face politically, socially and economically.  Ukraine may be going through a difficult phase, but at least its documentary movement is thriving, compiling a resource that will be invaluable to future historians.  The Ninth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film will doubtless provide a further instalment in this unfolding story of a country experiencing tremendous stresses.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Watchers, by Neil Spring

Warning: spoilers ahead for both The Watchers and Neil Spring’s previous novel The Ghost Hunters.

Neil Spring, author of the best-selling The Ghost Hunters, a novel about psychical researcher Harry Price, has returned with another doorstop.  The Watchers draws on the 1977 UFO flap in Pembrokeshire which included a close encounter at Broad Haven Primary School, where some of the children said they had seen a spacecraft land and a sliver humanoid emerge.  Mixed in is conspiracy theory; Cold War apprehension and the fear of nuclear annihilation; secret government operations; and covert American military activity on ‘Airstrip One’ with little or no oversight by the British establishment.  It’s the sort of milieu that was mined superbly by Troy Kennedy Martin in Edge of Darkness.

Against this uneasy background, Robert Wilding (Wildling according to the back cover) is an assistant to the Member of Parliament for Pembrokeshire, Paul Bestford.  More importantly Bestford is chairman of the Defence Select Committee and Wilding is using his boss for his own agenda: damaged psychologically because of a traumatic childhood, he wants to uncover what happened to his mother during a peace protest at an American air base in 1963 which left her blind in one eye and with severe memory loss.  In this effort he is being fed information by a retired admiral, Lord Hill Bartlett (the name a nod to Lord Hill Norton, an admiral of the fleet who developed an interest in UFOs).

Wilding’s search for the truth takes him back to Broad Haven, where he grew up with his unsympathetic grandfather after his parents’ untimely deaths there.  Strange goings on suggest it is a hot-spot for alien visitors, and in the process of investigating their meaning Wilding discovers things about himself from his childhood he had suppressed.  Eventually he reveals a sinister conspiracy run by the local Rotarians, one with a supernatural dimension that could mean the end of civilisation as we know it.  The bulk of the book comprises his first-hand testimony as he gets to grips with recalcitrant locals in his search for answers to mysteries past and present and finds out who his friends are.

The story is reminiscent of Nigel Kneale, mixing science fiction and horror tropes, Spring’s silvery aliens actually expressions of a demonic effort to break through from another dimension and take control of our world.  That reverses the premise of Quatermass and the Pit, aliens misidentified as demons becoming demons misidentified as aliens.  It’s an endearingly corny idea, though the special effects will require a more substantial budget than that allocated to the period drama of The Ghost Hunters when Spring sells the film rights.

Surprisingly, despite dissimilar subject matter, The Watchers is actually a companion piece to The Ghost Hunters, with a returning character, Dr Robert Caxton.  His appearances in The Watchers are marginal for most of the narrative, though they include extracts from his book The Mind Possessed: A Personal Investigation into the Broad Haven Triangle, which are interleaved with Wilding’s first-person account.  Both novels too are structured with a frame: in The Ghost Hunters the frame is 1977, looking back to the 1920s; while that in The Watchers is 1979, looking back to 1977.  Another connection: we find out at the end of The Ghost Hunters that Caxton’s father is Harry Price, and although Price’s name is not mentioned explicitly in The Watchers, there are oblique references, until we learn in the denouement – from Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher no less – that Price’s work was funded by the British government before the war. 

Unfortunately there is confusion in the chronology for anyone who reads both books.  The Ghost Hunters begins in October 1977 with Caxton visiting Senate House Library.  But the main events in The Watchers occur in February the same year, and one would expect as traumatic an experience as that undergone by Caxton in Wales to have had more of an impact on the mildly sceptical academic who opens The Ghost Hunters.  But there is an even closer relationship between the two books, with The Watchers directly foreshadowed in The Ghost Hunters.  At the end of the first book, Caxton is shown a letter, dated 6 March 1977.  It was written from Broad Haven where his mother, who had given him up for adoption as a baby, was living.  The writer, Vernon Wall, says that children at a local school had recently ‘witnessed something most bizarre’, and suggests that it needs an expert to dig into it.

This of course links to the action in The Watchers, except that by 6 March events had moved on from children having a weird experience in a playground because complete mayhem, including an extremely high body count, had descended on that corner of West Wales.  How can Caxton be investigating something in February he didn’t hear about until March?  Another, minor, problem in reintroducing Caxton is that there are now two individuals with the same first name.  Spring gets round this by not referring to Caxton in The Watchers as Robert, always calling him either Dr Caxton or just Caxton.  We are only told that his first initial is R.  When he writes to his wife (on 7 and 11 February) he signs the letters ‘Caxton’, a rather odd thing to do when writing to one’s spouse.

The ending of The Watchers looks forward to another significant real-life UFO mystery, that of Rendlesham Forest in December 1980.  The government, Mrs Thatcher explains to Wilding’s and Caxton’s horror, plans to attempt to harness the power which manifested at Broad Haven.  The date for the experiment is December 1980, at RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge, near Rendlesham Forest.  Wilding protests that these forces cannot be controlled, but he and Caxton are effectively blackmailed into assisting in the project (as we are still here it must have worked).  A possible hook to a further novel, or a television series, is Mrs Thatcher’s comment to Wilding and Caxton that while they are waiting for December 1980 to roll round, ‘we have need of your experience elsewhere.  There have been reports of…sightings, all over Britain.  And abductions.’

The Watchers’ epigraph, uncharacteristically ungrammatical, is by the late Ralph Noyes, described simply as a ‘former MOD official’ (coincidentally he retired from the Ministry of Defence in 1977).  As well as being involved with UFOs in an official capacity, he was also for some years the Hon. Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research and its self-appointed éminence grise.  He would not have been impressed to read a reference to the SPR, coming out of nowhere in an extract from Caxton’s book, which begins: ‘After the scandals caused by the Society for Psychical Research’s poor quality control in certain high-profile investigations, anyone operating in this field [presumably meaning UFOs, not a field with which the SPR has been much concerned] is compelled to act in accordance with the highest professional standards…’  What these scandals and high-profile cases are is not specified, but the implication is that the SPR through its ineptitude has made life difficult for other investigators, though why anybody should be ‘compelled’ to act in accordance with the highest professional standards is hard to see.  There is no reason for this puzzlingly gratuitous attack on the SPR to be there.

Leaving aside problems of chronology The Watchers is well constructed but suffers from flat writing and never manages to attain the tension a thriller requires, even when it looks like an ‘ancient evil’ is about to be unleashed at the climax.  With The Ghost Hunters one senses that Spring is really enjoying seeing Price come alive, and while there are infelicities that could have been rectified by an editor, it is an entertaining read.  The Watchers has fewer basic errors (though the page number of one of Dr Caxton’s book extracts jumps backwards) but the author’s emphasis on working out the intricacies of the plot means that Wilding, Caxton and the rest do not lift off the page.  As a result The Watchers does not quite deliver on its promise.  It probably won’t do much for the Pembrokeshire tourist industry either.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

'The SPR and ASSAP: Time to Merge?' by Tom Ruffles and C J Romer


The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) was founded in 1981 as the result of dissatisfaction felt by a few members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  This is ancient history and it is not the present intention to rehearse the issues which created that rupture.  Suffice it to say that the two organisations have existed in parallel for over thirty years, attracting different, though frequently overlapping, memberships but generally standing aloof from one other.  Now that aloofness is dissolving, with each promoting the other’s activities on social media, and there is more interaction than has been the case in the past.  With this improvement in relations, the time has come to ask: why not merge to form a single body?

The first response might be to wonder why they should merge when they have such strong individual identities and do well on their own.  The answer is that they have strengths which are complementary, rather than antagonistic, so that both sets of members would gain from unification.  Another question is that if some members were dissatisfied with the SPR in 1981, could the same happen in the future, leading to yet more friction and possibly a fresh split?  The answer to that is that the current SPR is a long way from its 1981 incarnation, and fully aware of how traumatic such a rupture is in the life of an organisation.

The following sections attempt to answer some more of the questions that will naturally occur in a discussion of the merits of bringing ASSAP and the SPR together.  It is to be hoped that these will generate debate, which may produce further questions.

What are be the benefits of a merger?

The obvious one is a bigger combined membership, with economies of scale and greater resources.  A larger size should increase its punch and authority, both within the field and among the wider public.

The SPR has dedicated premises and a paid full-time administrator which would improve the ad-hoc administration experienced by ASSAP members.  The volunteers who run the latter do a tremendous job, but a dedicated office function has to be more efficient.  ASSAP members would have access to the range of benefits already enjoyed by SPR members.  These include four numbers of both the magazine Paranormal Review and the peer-reviewed Journal (and occasional Proceedings); free access to London lectures, reduced rates to bi-annual study days and the annual conference; a permanent library, archives of international significance, and free access to an online library of publications back to 1882.  ASSAP officers could be brought into the SPR Council structure by means of co-optation.

In terms of research, ASSAP has an energetic and enthusiastic membership, and this injection of energy would be welcome in the SPR.  ASSAP’s spontaneous case network would reinforce the existing SPR Spontaneous Cases Committee and its emphasis on training would be useful in stimulating interest in investigation among SPR members.  A larger combined membership, and therefore increased income, would enable an expansion of the amount given to fund research activities.

Education, a core function for both the SPR and ASSAP, would be improved as well.  Integrating the libraries and archives would provide an enhanced resource (the new SPR premises, bigger than the previous rented accommodation, providing the required space for ASSAP’s books), and ASSAP’s records would find a permanent home.  A single set of periodicals, with a larger circulation than either achieves singly, would attract a wider range of writers.

There would also be benefits in geographical reach: the SPR is often seen as London-centric, whereas ASSAP is successful regionally.  With a combined membership around the country there would be motivation for regional activities, enabling members outside London to participate in their localities.  This is an opportunity to decentralise some of the SPR’s functions, with more grassroots involvement.

What about differences in scope?

The subject-matter of the two organisations is not identical, that of ASSAP covering a wider area than that of the SPR.  ASSAP members might legitimately complain that a merger is likely to squeeze out particular interests, such as ufology, earth mysteries and folklore.  This is not necessarily an impediment, even though such topics in general fall outside the scope of the SPR.   In these days of easy electronic communication it is straightforward for sub-groups to pursue their interests.  The new SPR website will make it possible for members to keep in contact with each other easily, so that even though say ufology is not a significant element of psychical research, those with such an interest can still interact, while enjoying the benefits of their SPR membership.

Membership fees

A stumbling block is that ASSAP’s fees have always been significantly less than the SPR’s.  The standard membership rates are noticeably different, with ASSAP’s being a quarter of that charged by the SPR.  This reflects the different set-ups of the organisations, ASSAP’s lower volunteer-based costs compared to the SPR’s permanent paid staff and building expenses.  ASSAP members would hopefully consider the broader range of benefits enough to justify an increase, but perhaps there could be a transitional arrangement, with incremental rises over several years for existing ASSAP members to bring the two sets into line.  The SPR membership rates are very reasonable, and ASSAP members would hopefully see that the increase was justified.  It is most unlikely that there could be any reduction in the SPR rates to bring them closer to ASSAP’s.


On the other hand, ASSAP members would undoubtedly baulk at the costs of the SPR conference and study days (as do some SPR members).  With ASSAP’s expertise in mounting economically priced study days (notably the extremely popular ‘Seriously…’ series), there is no reason why these could not continue, augmented by the presence of SPR members who had never attended an ASSAP event before.  The status of some of these, such as conferences on vampires and witchcraft, would be problematic under the SPR banner but these could be run in collaboration with other organisations, such as the London Fortean Society; the SPR has participated in joint events with the Scientific and Medical Network so there is precedent for such an approach.

A concern which has to be acknowledged is that the desire to organise events might diminish, with those who had previously volunteered for ASSAP not wanting to make the effort on the grounds that conferences of all kinds should be arranged at the centre.  It is doubtful that the SPR office would be willing to shoulder the extra administrative load.

What about the name?

The name could be a sticking point for ASSAP members.  There is no easy way that the names SPR and ASSAP could be combined, and there would be overwhelming resistance within the SPR to altering an internationally-recognised name that has been in existence since 1882.  The most likely outcome is that the SPR would retain its name, but with ‘incorporating The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena’ on its literature – something that might not appeal to ASSAP members whose first loyalty is to that organisation.  This could be a major obstacle, but one that might be overcome if ASSAP members were convinced that the advantages outweighed the loss.

Mechanisms for reaching an agreement

This article has set out some of the pros and cons of a merger.  Bringing the two together would not be quick as there are a number of steps before that could happen.  In addition to a general debate among both sets of members there would have to be an initial discussion by the officers within the two organisations; a formal process of consultation with members; meetings between the two sets of officers to resolve any contentious issues; then there would have to be a vote, with a criterion for a yes vote agreed in advance.


This long after the event, most of those interested in our subject are not bothered about why ASSAP came into being.  What they want to see is a thriving organisation or organisations that can deliver the means necessary for them to pursue that interest.  Many join both with no sense of conflict, and a number of those who established ASSAP continued to take part in the SPR’s activities, clearly seeing no contradiction in belonging to both.  There is no doctrinal reason why the respective memberships should not combine and work together, and the practical difficulties could surely be overcome with goodwill on both sides.  In delivering their services the two organisations are capable of existing independently, but their combination would strengthen the voice for psychical research.  If that is our aim, then the case for coming together to our mutual benefit, and that of the field, is a strong one.

This article is being published jointly on the authors’ blogs, and publicised on social media, in the hope that it will generate a constructive exchange of views.  The authors are both members of the two organisations, but are not writing in any official capacity.  They welcome feedback of all types, which should be sent to tom.ruffles[at], in order to gauge levels of support for and opposition to the proposal.  This has to be a bottom-up process, with all opinions aired.

Tom Ruffles and C J Romer

10 October 2015

Update 31 October 2015:

On publication I linked this article to the SPR’s Facebook page and Twitter feed, while CJ Romer put a link on ASSAP’s Facebook page and later added the text to his ‘Polterwotsit’ blog.  Neither of us received any private communications, nor did the SPR Facebook page and Twitter links produce any feedback, suggesting a degree of indifference by those whose primary interest is the SPR, whether members or not.  However, the link on the ASSAP Facebook page generated a large number of comments.  These were uniformly negative.  It seems that there is still a considerable degree of mistrust by some ASSAP members towards the SPR, and one comment referred to the rift in the 1980s as ‘an unhealed scar’.  Not one person indicated a willingness to even consider the benefits of a merger.

A major concern in the Facebook debate was the greater resources and longer history of the SPR, which would cause ASSAP’s identity to be submerged.  Another issue, as I suspected it would be, is the difference in scope between the two organisations, particularly the lack of a focus on ufology within the SPR.  The fear was that more fortean activities would be marginalised (though despite it cropping up frequently in the discussion, I haven’t actually seen much evidence of members pursuing ufology with any vigour through ASSAP), and the creation of special interest groups discussing issues online was considered insufficient.  In fact, it was felt that the more limited scope of psychical research was a driver for the creation of ASSAP.  There was a feeling that it would make more sense for the SPR to merge into ASSAP than vice versa, or for the SPR to first change the ‘P’ in its name from Psychical to Paranormal, and expand its remit accordingly.

It was suggested that should the SPR and ASSAP combine, a significant rump would immediately split off to form ASSAP Mark Two; there could even be an exodus from the SPR, leading to three separate bodies (unlikely in my view).  A proposal was put forward that some form of networking between the two organisations, along with others which share a similar outlook, would assist greater collaboration while allowing each to retain its own identity.  It was generally agreed that greater cooperation is a good thing, though it was not specified what form that cooperation might take, apart from participating in each other’s conferences, and the counter-argument is that increased bureaucracy would lead to a loss of interest, making any gains short-lived.

The myth that membership of the SPR is expensive was impossible to eradicate, but then some ASSAP members think that £15 is a bit steep, so it is a matter of perspective.  A strand of the discussion focused on the higher overheads of having a building and paid staff, which does not occur if the administration is done from a volunteer’s home office.  It could be that ASSAP members like to think that SPR membership rates are exorbitant because it reinforces their belief that ASSAP is superior.  There was no acknowledgement of the benefits of SPR membership and its value for money.

A common argument was that ASSAP is in good shape and has no need of the SPR.  I learned that ASSAP’s funds are healthy, whereas I had assumed that they are parlous.  Even so, my main concern has not been the amount of money it has in the bank but organisational failures caused by a reliance on volunteers and erratic direction by its officers.  These deficiencies are now being rectified with an injection of energy (not least C J Romer taking on the task of producing its publications) but there are still problems, and some of those with the loudest voices on ASSAP’s Facebook page are not involved in the management structure and merely assume that ASSAP is strongly placed to face the future.  My suggestion that it might be in long-term decline did not go down well.

Writing the article was a useful exercise, but ASSAP’s core members are fiercely loyal and the conclusion that has to be drawn from the debate, which was generally conducted on respectful terms with minimal snark, is that a merger is unlikely.  There would be net benefits in my opinion, but the obstacles are too great.  The situation could arise at some point that ASSAP has to wind up, but probably not in the short to medium term.  If it does collapse the SPR will be able to offer a home to its members, but there would be no ASSAP to merge with and those subjects that fall outside the SPR’s primary area of interest, such as UFOs, would have to find a home elsewhere.

Tom Ruffles

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The SPR: Making the Most of the Enfield Effect

Poster for The Enfield Haunting

The President’s letter from Prof. John Poynton and the article by John Fraser in the Summer 2015 issue of the Society for Psychical Research’s (SPR) magazine Paranormal Review together show many positive aspects to the SPR’s current situation.  Poynton notes that the substantial Buckmaster legacy is allowing it to fund an online encyclopaedia and improved website, and the financial situation is much sounder than it was a decade ago.  Research and publications in the field are buoyant and the SPR’s image is generally good in an intellectual climate which is increasingly receptive to the issues raised by psychical research.

Fraser points specifically to the ‘Enfield Effect’, the upsurge in membership applications and spontaneous case enquiries which followed in the wake of the recent television dramatisation based on the Enfield case, one linked to the SPR by the figures of Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair.  Yet there is a fly in the psychical ointment.  Both Johns highlight a largely uninterested media, Poynton as an example citing the vigorous campaign to make the press aware of Dr Barrie Colvin’s 2010 paper on poltergeist raps, an effort which was unsuccessful; Fraser to an overall lack of impact by the SPR, at a time when local groups have proliferated and media coverage of the paranormal has actually increased.

Fraser suggests two possibilities that may allow the SPR to capitalise on the Enfield bounce in the longer term.  One is to appoint a media officer, the other to reinstate the long-dormant position of investigations officer.  The latter would be paid, to avoid having to rely on volunteers.  These are both useful ideas though personally I do not think they go far enough.

There used to be a media officer in the form of the immensely energetic Monty Keen.  One of his initiatives was to draw up a list of publications across all relevant subjects, and divide them among Council members who would keep an eye out for negative comments that could be countered, and opportunities for generating publicity.  In the event neither of these tactics proved effective.  Media indifference is not a new phenomenon.

The landscape has changed enormously since then and media enquiries are occasionally received through the website, but while welcome, their general impact seems fairly small.  Coverage often focuses on the early days, which simultaneously tells people the SPR has done noteworthy things while suggesting that these days it is irrelevant.  That is the situation which has to be changed, to show that the SPR still has something valuable to say.

An investigations officer would be beneficial, especially someone with a broad range of skills that encompass both experimental and spontaneous areas, who would be able to dedicate more time than volunteers can and be able to work up the results that could then be publicised.  Again though the impact might be limited, with no greater success with sophisticated material in breaking down the barriers than was the case with Colvin’s raps paper.

In the absence of such a post it should still be possible to conduct meaningful research with the resources available.   Admittedly it is difficult for individuals with other commitments to be able to undertake extended projects, but after all the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee has a large number of individuals on it so there is no reason why it should not be effective in undertaking and promoting research.

At one time John Stiles, as Honorary Liaison Officer for Spontaneous Cases, kept a list of suitable SPR members to whom incoming cases could be referred, depending on location, which he would then follow up.  But he complained that the numbers of cases was getting smaller each year and the position lapsed when he retired from Council in 2003.  With numbers of cases on the rise such a mechanism to draw on members’ expertise would augment the SCC’s numbers and aid its efficiency.

These initiatives alone would probably still not be enough to prevent the surge of interest identified by Messrs Poynton and Fraser from receding.  The core problem underlying the SPR’s inability to overcome media inertia and reach a broader swathe of the sympathetic public I believe is rooted in its approach to research.  The odd high-profile activity (Enfield, the 1999 Scole Report) is not enough to gain the necessary momentum.  The SPR needs a sustained programme of research that is identified with the SPR rather than only the individuals carrying it out.

In the early days of the Society’s existence the undertaking of projects by senior figures in the Society was clearly defined, but nowadays it is likely to award grants to researchers at other institutions whose work is then associated with that institution rather than with the SPR.  It has mainly become a mechanism for administering grants and publicising the work of others rather than promoting work undertaken under its aegis.

Instead of this hands-off approach there is a case for having the SPR’s name closely linked to research, while maintaining its lack of corporate views.  Fraser refers to the Scole Report as achieving an unusually high profile outside the Society, but it is notable in recent years for being closely associated with the Society, rather than a project that was undertaken by a trio of investigators who happened to be members of the Society but were not identified with it.  The SPR needs to encourage researchers, whether funded by it or not, to associate themselves with the organisation in the same way.

Emphasising such linkages was part of the thinking behind the formation of the Research Activities Committee in 1992.  Prof. Bernard Carr outlined its remit in the January 1999 issue of Paranormal Review.  Of its various aims, he said that ‘the RAC's main task is to commission and foster promising research projects, rather than to undertake corporate research itself, although in some cases the Committee has encouraged “in-house” research.’  Unfortunately over the years the committee became moribund until it was wound up in early 2014.  That it was unlamented when it was put out of its misery is suggested by the lack of any reference to its termination in the Society’s 2013-14 Annual Report.

That is a shame because a body like the RAC could act as a focus to stimulate research while closely connecting those researchers to the Society.  It would nurture a symbiotic relationship, with the Society providing the funding (and attention should additionally be turned to increasing the relatively small amounts of money available) while, and this is the key point, the researchers emphasise that their primary affiliation is to the SPR.

That relationship would have a number of mutually reinforcing outcomes.  It would demonstrate the Society’s continuing relevance to the public, the media and other relevant organisations (not least the Parapsychological Association, the parapsychologists’ professional body); it would strengthen the network of researchers in the field and encourage them, whether SPR-funded or not, to publish in its magazines;  its Journal and annual conference would be able to attract the best research in the field; it would encourage membership growth; it would assist the SPR’s educational work, which is part of its charitable obligation; it would encourage passive members to become active and even conduct their own research; and the media might take notice of such a vigorous level of activity.

So the answer to the question in John Fraser’s subtitle – ‘Is the Recent Increased Interest in the Society for Psychical Research a Temporary Blip, or an Unmissable Opportunity?’ – is that the Enfield Effect has been a splendid opportunity which will ripple for a time but will eventually fade into the background.  A single bounce is never going to be enough, however significant it is in itself.  There are initiatives that will help to maintain the SPR’s profile in a sustainable way, notably the online encyclopaedia.  Social media plays a positive role, and an improved website will generate interest.  But more is needed, research that is relevant, done by SPR members who are not afraid to be seen primarily as SPR members and who are happy to promote that affiliation.

Perhaps this approach can be summed up by arguing that the SPR needs to position itself as a research institute as opposed to a learned society.  Whether that is possible will depend on its ability to project confidence in its potential alongside pride in its past achievements.  Above all it needs to possess the self-belief that it can match the heady days of its youth, rather than jog along in the lengthy shadow cast by its founders.  If it can do that it will be said with justice that there is a tide in the affairs of the SPR which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.


Carr, Bernard, ‘Research Activities in the SPR: New Initiatives’, Paranormal Review, issue 9, January 1999, pp. 3-5.

Colvin, Barrie, ‘The Acoustic Properties of Unexplained Rapping Sounds’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 73, April 2010, pp. 65-93.

Fraser, John, ‘The Enfield Effect: Is the Recent Increased Interest in the Society for Psychical Research a Temporary Blip, or an Unmissable Opportunity?’, Paranormal Review, issue 75, Summer 2015, p. 30.

Keen, Montague, Ellison, Arthur and Fontana, David, ‘The Scole Report’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 58, 1999.

Poynton, John, ‘President’s Letter: A Tide in the Affairs of Men’, Paranormal Review, issue 75, Summer 2015, pp. 4-5.