Sunday, 8 May 2016

A Demon in Enfield?



With the release imminent of James Wan’s The Conjuring 2, in which Ed and Lorraine Warren fearlessly battle the Forces of Evil in a north London suburb, it is worth examining the contention that the Enfield Poltergeist was really a demon come to persecute the Hodgson family.  The tiny extent of the Warren’s connection with this classic case has already been analysed so it could be argued that whatever they had to say on the matter has little merit, but surprisingly while Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair of the Society for Psychical Research, who had by far the most to do with the case, were quick to dismiss the Warrens’ claim, newspapers at the time did in fact occasionally raise the possibility of a demonic component to the events that were besetting the Hodgsons.


For example, Psychic News of 6 January 1979 devoted considerable coverage to Enfield, including much of the front page.  On p. 3, one of the sub-sections is firmly titled ‘No demon involved’ and Playfair gives his opinion in forthright terms:

‘Guy dismissed any suggestion that the phenomena were demonic.  “I have no time for this devil rubbish,” he said.  “It is an invention of medieval religious dogmatism.  There is no connection with reality.”

‘“I can well understand how some fanatical exorcist would feel he had a whole legion of devils in the house.”

‘”We have had no indication at all of any diabolical activities.”’

Why he should have been asked this question by the Psychic News journalist is curious; possibly the Warrens had been in touch with the paper (they had made a flying visit to the house on 16 June, 1978).  Playfair may have thought that the only behaviour that could be characterised as diabolical in connection with the affair – though not of course demonic – was that of the Warrens.


It is worth pointing out that it was not only the Warrens who considered exorcism to be an appropriate solution for the Hodgsons.  The same idea came from a more surprising quarter.  In This House is Haunted (2007, pp. 238-9) Playfair recounts how he visited the eminent German parapsychologist Hans Bender, who was staying in London, and discussed the matter with him.

‘”I would be inclined to try exorcism,” Professor Bender said, rather to my surprise.  “I’m not convinced that a discarnate agency is involved, but you can never prove it.”

‘”I replied that I was reluctant to get involved with exorcists, as were both Maurice Grosse and Mrs Harper [Mrs Hodgson]…”

‘”Oh, the Catholic rituale is disastrous,” he replied.  “Because it is a mechanical form of applying a rite without the slightest understanding of the psychological background.”’

Bender said that he thought it would be preferable to have a psychologist examine the case, then find a Church of England clergyman willing to help.  Playfair goes on to say that at the same time he and Bender were discussing the advisability of calling in an exorcist, one, an Anglican monk, actually turned up at the house, brought by a journalist from the National Enquirer.  Grosse took him to one side, explained Mrs Hodgson’s attitude to exorcism, and asked him to leave, which he did with good grace.  The fate of the Enquirer hack is unknown.


The Daily Star used the Enfield case to begin a series called ‘The world beyond’.  Playing up the sensationalist angle, its front page on 10 March 1980 was dominated by a large close-up picture of Janet Hodgson with ‘Possessed’ in large letters under it.  It shows her, according to the first paragraph, as she

‘lets out a spine-chilling scream in the dead of night.  She is a girl possessed … by a supernatural force.’ 

She looks as though she could be enjoying herself, but who can tell what form intense fear, let alone possession, might take.  The story covers several pages and while it all sounds dramatic, the case could be explained without recourse to demons despite the paper’s best efforts.  True, the first page of the extended story inside has the headline ‘”The thing” tried to strangle Janet with the curtain’, and ‘Possessed by a devil? Turn over to centre pages’ placed seductively at the bottom.  There is as well an emphasis on the ‘family in fear’ angle.  But even with these cues to orient the reader to a verdict of devilish possession, it is clear that the actual events do not match the claim.

Turning to the centre pages there is the large headline: ‘Was Janet possessed by a devil?’  This part of the spread was written by Daily Mirror photographer Graham Morris, someone who in his own way has done much to make the case famous with his images.  Appended to his by-line is the declaration ‘who shared the family’s nightmare’, indicating that he is someone worth listening to.  He gives a brief account of his experiences in the house in which he says specifically that:

‘Although the word was never mentioned in the house I was sure that we were experiencing “poltergeist” activity.  Experts say awareness to (sic) this phenomenon is experienced more often by pubescent girls so Janet is the obvious suspect.’

Morris does not specifically refer to demonic possession and only makes oblique hints – the reader is informed that ‘In many photographs when the rest of the family look terrified, Janet seems to have an evil grin on her face’, and her nocturnal flying occurred without her being conscious of it, even though on occasion it left her bruised.  Yet he considers the phenomena to be centred on Janet as a typical poltergeist agent, rather than caused by a demonic entity.

Trying hard, the article’s main author, Ellen Petrie, quotes Janet: ‘“Some people say the house is even more haunted than the one in that Amityville Horros (sic) – the American haunted house which became the subject of a book and a film.’ (The final part of that was by Petrie, not Janet; the Star was obviously saving money on sub-editors.)  Sceptics may be sagely nodding at the information that Janet was aware of Amityville (book 1977, film 1979), but considering its high profile in the media at the time it would be more surprising if she had not heard of it.

The evidence for demons on the Star’s showing looks flimsy.  Janet may have been ‘a girl possessed … by a supernatural force’ as the front page trumpets, but ‘supernatural force’ is not synonymous with ‘demonic possession’.  The Star was trying to whip up that angle to increase the drama, but it wasn’t putting heart and soul into it.  Significantly perhaps, Grosse and Playfair are absent from the Star’s coverage; perhaps the editor had read Playfair’s comments to Psychic News on the matter of demons the year before.


It was left to the Weekly World News of 26 April 1983 to really lay out the case for demonic intervention at Enfield.  The front page screams:

‘The most bizarre story of the year… POSSESSED! Top exorcist battles a terrifying demon who makes young children fly across the room.’

That’s more like it.  If you want to argue that there are demons involved, have the courage of your convictions; as long as you don’t go overboard because then it resembles satire.

Seeing that blaring headline the reader might breathe a sigh of relief: ‘the Warrens at last’.  But the article is not about them.  The ‘top exorcist’ is none other than Maurice Grosse!  Was the article making fun of the Warrens’ general approach to such matters without the hazard of being sued by them (the pair not being famous for having a lively sense of humour, Grosse far away and more obscure) – or simply reflecting the fact that their association with the case was barely noticeable?

The article, written by Clifford Montgomery, starts as it means to go on: ‘In a bizarre case that defies sanity, two young girls are being hurled through the air like rag dolls – by demons from hell that have taken control of their bodies.’  There is more of the same, making life in the house sound, well, hellish.  The article continues:

‘Why these two young girls of Enfield, England, have been singled out for such satanic horror is a mystery that has baffled church exorcists who have failed in their efforts to drive the demons out.

‘Now famed demonic investigator Maurice Grosse has taken up the battle to rid the youngsters of their evil captors before their sanity is shattered forever.

‘The man who has been battling the devil all his life thinks this case may be his greatest challenge.’

That the story has bypassed the stringent fact-checking stage can be judged from a supposedly direct quote:

‘”He is the last hope for our daughters,” their anguished mother told The NEWS.  “If God is merciful, he will help Mr. Grosse drive the Dark Angel from their souls before it is too late.

‘Why has Satan done this to us?

‘What does he want with innocent little children?  My babies are being driven mad by fiends from the fires of hell.  Why won’t he leave my children alone?”’

That may all have sounded vaguely plausible in the American Bible Belt, but not to anybody with some knowledge of the case.  Sadly, the paper concludes, ‘Grosse has not yet found the key he needs to drive the demons from the two little girls.’

Grosse’s view of this ridiculous farrago is contained in a letter, dated 27 April, 1983, which he sent to his correspondent who had supplied the article.  He minces no words.  It begins:

‘I was absolutely dumbfounded!  I have never experienced such a monumental case of mis-information in my life … when I read the rubbish he had written about the case, and me being a “demonic investigator”, I didn’t know whether to collapse in laughter or explode.’

One suspects he collapsed in laughter in preference to exploding.  He briefly ponders whether a remedy might be available through the American legal system, but concedes that it is not an area with which he is familiar.  Then he muses that it would probably be better to ignore the article, which is evidently what he did.


Despite these sporadic tabloid efforts there is little evidence to support the contention that a demon was orchestrating events at Enfield.  Playfair and Grosse thought the idea preposterous, and Graham Morris, who had ample opportunity in his Star article, could not bring himself to say outright that he was confronted by a demon rather than psychokinetic energy emanating from Janet.  Even the guttural voice that looms large in any demonic interpretation can be more easily explained in other ways; Grosse and Playfair, who set much store by the voice productions, certainly had no need to invoke a demonic aetiology when analysing the recordings.

There are various explanations for what happened at Enfield, extensively debated in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and other publications, but to argue with no evidence that it has to have been a demon and all alternatives are wrong is irresponsible.  James Wan’s film, by buying into this distorted narrative, will be the cinematic equivalent of that Weekly World News article, with about as much truth in it and with as little respect for those who, unlike Ed Warren, demonologist, experienced it all at first hand.

Monday, 18 April 2016

From Maidan to Netflix: Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire


The subtitle of Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom indicates the stance taken by Evgeny Afineevsky’s 2015 documentary on the astonishing events in Kiev of November 2013 to February 2014.  He traces the escalation from the initial suspension by President Viktor Yanukovych of discussions prior to signing an association agreement with the European Union, prompting peaceful protests and the occupation of the city’s Ma├»dan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square; the passing of draconian legislation to counter the protests and the murderous assaults by the security forces as the confrontations grew uglier; and finally Yanukovych’s undignified flight to sanctuary in Russia leading to the formation of a new government.  Yanukovych made a wise decision to leave because he deserves to appear at The Hague for presiding over this barbarism.

Recorded by 28 camera operators using a variety of equipment, Winter on Fire covers events in the square and other key locations, intercut with interviews by activists given during and after the occupation, and with occasional very brief footage of the wider domestic and international political context.  The focus is the appalling violence inflicted on the demonstrators, making it sometimes hard to watch as the government’s militarised police wield batons and boots on their helpless victims, and later take to shooting them first with plastic bullets then with live ammunition.

In the face of this brutality the square’s occupiers’ sense of purpose remains firm as they face the fascistically-dressed paramilitaries and their hired thug auxiliaries with whatever makeshift weapons are at hand, but most of all with their comradeship and determination to win a better future.  The scenes of heroism and sacrifice cannot leave the viewer unmoved; the visuals were dramatic enough on their own without the need for the intrusive and unnecessarily manipulative dramatic music which was overlaid at times.  The demonstrators display confidence in forming their own ad hoc democratic institutions, sidelining the ineffectual opposition politicians – including Vitali Klitschko – who sought to co-opt the desperate struggle for their own electoral purposes (though Klitschko’s rebuff did not prevent him later becoming mayor of the city).  The film certainly acts as a monument to the people’s unity and indomitable will in the face of seemingly overwhelming force.  However, it also leaves the sense that it is covering familiar territory.

I was fortunate to attend a screening at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge with Afineevsky present for a question and answer session which proved to be as illuminating as what we had just seen.  He rather acted as if Winter on Fire is groundbreaking in capturing Euromaidan as it unfolded, whereas the 93-day protest has been the subject of a number of films already, some of which have been shown in the annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film.  Winter on Fire  is a worthy if flawed addition to the canon, but coming after others on the same subject it feels as if the issues have moved on; in fact the 2015 Cambridge festival showed Serhii Andrushko’s 2014 Post Maidan, which explores the anticlimactic aftermath of the giddy heights of the Maidan occupation.  Perhaps the audience member who asked Afineevsky about the tension between the events depicted in his film, which exhibited such a sense of unity, and the fracturing of the nation which followed (a consequence only briefly touched in in the closing seconds) had this datedness in mind.

Afineevsky has captured some of the variety of those who took part, young and old and from various walks of life, including the significant role of religious leaders, though not those with political affiliations on the far left and right who were directly involved but have been airbrushed here.  When asked about dissenting voices, notably those who supported Yanukovych, he tried to give the impression that the Ukrainian population was overwhelmingly hostile to the President’s actions in distancing the country from closer ties with the EU.  The statistics do not bear that out, as there was widespread support for the competing options of forging ties with Russia or with both Russia and the EU.  To suggest that the situation was unambiguously ‘The People versus Viktor Yanukovych’ is frankly dishonest.  Kiev is not Ukraine.

As an audience member pointed out, even with a flawed electoral process Yanukovych was popular enough to be elected.  The resident in Maidan is Everywhere (2015) complaining about protesters blocking cars is a rare individual in any of the Maidan films in not being fully supportive of the movement against Yanukovych.  It is easy to forget, in marvelling at the numbers involved in the square, how many weren’t there.  In terms of an agenda, it was curious that Afineevsky was accompanied at the Cambridge screening by someone from the Ukrainian embassy, which raises issues about his film’s independence (footage shot from the Berkut police side is included, which possibly came from government sources rather than Afineevsky’s camera operators).  There may be a motive here over and above celebrating the bravery of the Maidan occupiers at a time when the present Ukrainian government in turn is mired in controversy, with a pressing need to stress national unity.

Afineevsky was evasive in many of his responses to question after the Cambridge screening, though to be fair he pointed out he is a filmmaker, not a politician (he has also said in interviews that he is not a journalist, though how one can be a good documentarist without being a journalist at the same time is unclear).  Judging it on its own merits, Winter on Fire is highly polished, as one would expect with Netflix finance involved, and consequently it has received wider distribution than earlier works on the subject which had less marketing clout.  Netflix of course had previously financed The Square, about the 2011 uprising in Egypt which also ended in disappointment.  Winter on Fire deserved its 2016 Oscar nomination (losing to Amy in the documentary feature category), but by concentrating on the highlights it lacked the powerful rawness of Sergei Loznitsa’s 2014 Maidan which better captured the boredom of the occupation as well as the visceral action.  More importantly, now that some time has passed one might have expected a broader perspective on those momentous weeks.  Gripping as it is, Winter on Fire’s simplistic narrative and lack of analysis means that it is far from being the last word on Euromaidan.


I’d like to thank Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, part of the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, for arranging this screening, and Evgeny Afineevsky for giving us his time.




Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Wikipedia and its Prejudices: A Recent Example

 
Not reliable enough for Wikipedia
Wikipedia has a reputation for displaying bias against certain subject areas, and how it can work was demonstrated to me this week.  On 27 March I received a message on my Wikipedia ‘talk’ page headed ‘Information on forgotten members of the SPR’.  Signed by a ‘JuliaHunter’ (sic), it proceeded without preamble:Have you got any information on some of the original council members of the Society for Psychical Research, such as the electrician Desmond G. Fitzgerald (1834-1905)? See the talk page for the SPR.’

This came as a surprise because I had forgotten I had a Wikipedia talk page.  It dates from when, some years ago, I tinkered with a couple of articles on the site, notably the one on the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  Thanks to my edits being consistently reverted by someone who it seemed to me had a strong desire, allied to obsessive patience, that the article should be as unhelpful as possible, I had abandoned the effort and had not participated in Wikipedia editing since.

It happened that I had come across the name JuliaHunter several days previously when I noticed a new, very brief, Wikipedia page on Count Perovsky-Petrovo-Solovovo (1868-1954), described as ‘a Russian psychical investigator and skeptic’.  Compiled by this JuliaHunter, it is entirely inadequate and ignores the lengthy affectionate obituary printed in the May 1954 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR) by ‘W.H.S’ (W. H. Salter), though JSPR papers by the Count are listed.  There was a reason why Salter’s obituary could not be used even if JuliaHunter was aware of it, to which I shall come.

Thinking that JuliaHunter was merely gathering information on early SPR Council members I wrote back, referring to the SPR’s online library, the Psypioneer journal, and various academic books I thought she (assuming the writer was a female, something that is not necessarily the case with an online persona) might find worth looking at for her research.  I was surprised to receive a response which read in part:

‘Thanks for the reply, Unfortunately anything in the SPR journal or the Psypioneer (which I have read) and other parapsychology journals cannot be cited on Wikipedia, because they are not considered reliable sources per WP:FRIND or Wikipedia:RS. Also Wikipedia rules on WP:FRINGE balance forbid this sort of thing, this is a mainstream encyclopaedia that deals with reliable academic sources on such topics. This is why SPR journals or other fringe journals should only be mentioned in the "further reading" sections of articles or cited if they are quoted in secondary independent sources which is rare.

‘I have no problem with citing academic books from the SPR like Alan Gauld's or Archie Roy etc. Academic or scholarly books that can be cited on the history of the SPR are Shane McCorristine, Janet Oppenheim, Roger Luckhurst, Trevor Hamilton etc...’

Hence, in the example above, it was fine for the Wikipedia entry to cite Count Perovsky-Petrovo-Solovovo’s own JSPR papers in a further reading section, but it could not draw on Salter’s obituary, even if it was more informative, and authoritative, than the secondary sources upon which the Wikipedia article was based (after all, Salter knew him personally).

There was quite a lot more in JuliaHunter’s reply to me, but I knew that she had not accessed the SPR’s publications; she referred to an item in the SPR’s Proceedings, Fraser Nicol’s ‘The Founders of the SPR’, March 1972, pp. 341-367, in these terms:  ‘In Frazer Nichol's (sic) 1972 SPR paper (I have limited access on Google books) The Founders of the S.P.R, he says…’ before going on to talk about her uncertainty over resignations by Spiritualists from the Society in the 1880s.  She was struggling with Google Books despite Nicol’s paper being available in its entirety – not some ‘snippet view’ – in the SPR’s online library.  Later she sent an update which astonished me:

‘I finally managed to find some of the early spiritualists who resigned over the Eglinton affair, the list of names is as follows: Stainton Moses, Dr. Stanhope Speer, G. D. Haughton, H. A. Kersey, Mrs E. Cannon and Mrs Brietzcke. JuliaHunter (talk) 22:05, 27 March 2016 (UTC)

‘Do you have an academic book that would qualify as a reliable source (Wikipedia:RS) that mentions the above names that resigned? Oppenheim and other scholars have let us down here by not covering this in detail. Unfortunately we can't use the Nichol paper as it is not a reliable source. JuliaHunter (talk) 22:41, 27 March 2016 (UTC)’

That first paragraph sounded familiar.  Nicol had written the following:

‘Much could be said on this matter, but I need only mention that of 51 S.P.R. members who are known to have had sittings with Eglinton only six resigned: Stainton Moses, Dr Stanhope Speer, G. D. Haughton (Mrs Sidgwick's most ferocious antagonist), H. A. Kersey, Mrs E. Cannon and Mrs Brietzcke. One person who in another sense did retire was Eglinton—into private life.’

So JuliaHunter had managed to track down a list of resignations which must have originated in Nicol’s article, as the individuals are listed in the same order.  It sounds like she had experienced difficulty locating it, though it could have been found in the SPR’s online library in minutes – and I would argue that an editor who feels qualified to create and edit Wikipedia articles on the early history of the SPR should have read it already.  However, it is not good enough for Wikipedia as it appears in a source which is ‘fringe’ and consequently not ‘reliable’.

On the other hand, if Oppenheim et al had not ‘let us down’ and one of them had reprinted Nicol’s list of those who had resigned, it would have been acceptable for inclusion in Wikipedia, coming directly from a scholarly volume, even though the ultimate source and the value of the information would have been exactly the same.  What is particularly ironic is that while the SPR’s Journal and Proceedings are peer-reviewed there is no guarantee that a specialist has checked the contents of a book published by an academic press.  Why is one considered legitimate while the other is not?

As to Nicol being deemed not a ‘reliable source’, I have seen a great deal of private correspondence that passed between Fraser Nicol and his colleague Mostyn Gilbert and can confirm that Nicol was a painstaking scholar (as was Gilbert).  He was steeped in psychical research, unlike a couple of the ‘permitted’ authors JuliaHunter mentions who may have written excellent books but who have moved on to other things and do not possess the range and depth  of knowledge of the subject, gathered during a lengthy career, which he had.  Yet his work does not count even though it is more detailed on this point than the respectable Janet Oppenheim’s The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914.  Oppenheim, it should be added, refers to Nicol’s 1972 paper several times, clearly not sharing JuliaHunter’s reservations about it.

In one of her final messages to me JuliaHunter made a point of demonstrating the trustworthy sources she had employed in her Wikipedia article on CC Massey, then made a suggestion I found easy to ignore:

‘Let me give you an example, I created the page Charles Massey. Do you see what I have done there? Cited academic books, not cited any nonsense. This really shouldn't be up to me creating these pages, but nobody else can be bothered. If you could get anyone on board to create such articles that just cite academic books and don't push any fringe nonsense, then this would be appreciated.’

Leaving aside the condescending tone, I was being invited to ask people to contribute to a project which reflexively considers SPR material, however robust in fact, to be inadmissible ‘nonsense’ in Wikipedia terms.  Why I would do that is beyond me.

I had never heard of JuliaHunter before, but assumed she is new to the field.  It has been suggested to me that she is someone who has posted frequently on Wikipedia under a number of pseudonyms, including ‘GoblinFace’.  This individual swoops in, makes a huge number of changes (and a glance at the edit histories for the SPR and parapsychology articles shows how prolific JuliaHunter has been) then goes quiet before resurfacing later in a new guise.  That identification may or may not be accurate, but I think this episode has provided a small but illuminating insight into Wikipedia’s biased regulations.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

SPR Council Elections April 2016 – Some brief remarks


The Articles of the Society for Psychical Research stipulate that each year six members of its governing Council must stand for re-election, in rotation.  This occurs during the Annual General Meeting held after the April Study Day and is normally a brief formality, with the six standing down and being voted back in.  However, the elections on 30 April 2016 promise to be the most interesting we have had for some time because unusually there are more candidates than places.

Most new Council members join via the co-optation route, being invited on to Council.  When an elected Council member retires, the longest-serving co-optee fills that place, then stands down and is re-elected at the time the person they substituted for would have (unless they decide in the meantime that Council life is not for them, which does happen).  This ensures a smooth continuity, though possibly tending to convey a sense to outsiders that the Council is a static self-perpetuating oligarchy.

Such an arrangement means that there is little incentive for contested elections, so it is rare for more than the six standing down to be nominated.  In any case, it’s not as if there is a huge desire arising from the membership to stand for Council.  This year is different, however, because there are eight people vying for the six places, and it is going to lead to a difficult choice for the Society’s members.

The eight are: Richard Broughton, Bernard Carr, Ciaran Farrell, Guy Lyon Playfair, Leslie Price, David Rousseau, Donald West, and me.  Price and Farrell are the two new candidates standing in opposition to the others, who are fulfilling their obligation to stand for re-election.  The list, with ‘Notes on Candidates’, will be found at the back of the Annual Report and Statement of Accounts.

It’s an interesting field because there are some heavyweights on the list of candidates. notably Broughton, Carr and West, who are all ex-presidents of the Society, and Playfair, who has a considerable reputation as an author in the field.  It is a foregone conclusion that they will all be re-elected, with the other four individuals fighting for the remaining two places.

Mr Farrell I suspect will fail in his electoral ambitions this time because he does not have a track record in the subject.  I certainly hadn’t heard of him before.  Hopefully he will continue his interest, and will perhaps be considered for co-optation at some point.  That leaves Price, Rousseau and Ruffles.

A member since 1967, Price has been on Council in the past, and is well known in the field: he is archivist at the College of Psychic Studies, is closely associated with the online Psypioneer journal, and founded The Christian Parapsychologist and Theosophical History.  Highly principled and knowledgeable, he is likely to garner a wide range of support, particularly from those who have an interest in Spiritualism or Theosophy.  Despite being rivals on the ballot paper, I was happy to second his nomination.

Rousseau has been on Council since 1997 and was for some time the treasurer, as well as being a member of a number of committees (sadly one of these was the Research Activities Committee, which folded after becoming moribund under his chairmanship).  His profile is probably not that strong in the Society.  He is also controversial as he has obtained very significant funding from the SPR for an obscure project on systems methodology which has yet to show its relevance, if any, to psychical research, and this largesse has not endeared him to those who feel the money could have been spent more wisely.

As for Ruffles, what can I say?  My social media work for the SPR might be considered to give me an edge in terms of recognition, but much of this does not bear my name.  Overall though the volume of activity on the Society’s behalf since I joined in 1987 may have had some impact (my election note is identical to my current entry on the publicly-available trustees’page of the SPR website).

So the result is going to be difficult to predict.  Personally I feel it is unfortunate that someone has to be disappointed but I hope that those eligible to vote in the election will examine the candidates’ track records carefully and decide which six of the eight have both the SPR’s interests at heart, and are best placed to contribute to its future development.  Naturally I would be extremely happy to find myself re-elected after 26 years’ continuous service on Council.


Election update: 1 May 2016

The SPR election conducted during the AGM on 30 April 2016 will eventually be reported in the Society’s Journal (and thus be in the public domain), but in the meantime here are the results of the successful candidates:

Richard Broughton: 37
Bernard Carr: 36
Tom Ruffles: 36
Donald West: 35
Guy Lyon Playfair: 32
David Rousseau: 22

All six had stood down according to the SPR’s Articles and offered themselves for re-election.  The two others who had put their names forward, Leslie Price and Ciaran Farrell, were unsuccessful, being some way behind in the poll.

This is a surprising set of numbers for a couple of reasons.  My feeling was that Broughton, Carr, Playfair and West would all receive the same number of votes, forming a tight cluster at the top, with whichever two of the other contenders were elected bringing up the rear.  The span between Broughton and Playfair indicates that a few people voted for some but not all of those four.

The bigger surprise is of course that while my second prediction was partially correct – David Rousseau came sixth, lagging well behind the rest of the successful candidates – my own placing was joint second, equal to Bernard Carr’s, someone who has been President and is highly regarded.  It’s rather embarrassing to have received more votes than Donald West, who has been a member for seventy-five years and President three times, and Guy Lyon Playfair, currently the Society’s best-known figure.

On the face of it the number of votes cast appears to be woefully low as a proportion of the total membership, and suggests that few members not physically present at the AGM bothered to submit a proxy form.  The figures are, however, slightly misleading because of the mechanism that enabled a member to vote against an individual.  This actually allows a candidate to receive a minus score, which did happen in Farrell’s case.

Negative voting is unlikely to have affected Broughton, Carr, Playfair and West, and probably didn’t me, but I suspect it did Rousseau as well as the others, and their scores do not therefore reflect the full extent of their support.  True, it facilitates tactical voting, and allows members to make their displeasure known if they are unhappy with a candidate, but in effect it is disenfranchising members voting for a candidate whose choices are cancelled by someone else voting against.

This method is not specified in the Articles, which simply state that those elected will be the candidates with the greatest numbers of votes.   It is an aspect of the procedure which I feel should be examined, and a more conventional first-past-the-post system introduced for those rare instances where there is a contested election.  I also think that online voting could be considered to encourage greater participation by members, whether elections are contested or not.

In the meantime, I am grateful to all those who voted for me, and I hope I continue to justify their support.  It has been a nerve-wracking time waiting for the AGM to come round as it seemed to me a distinct possibility that I would finish outside the top six.  The field was a strong one, but then, if the SPR is to flourish, who would want it any other way?

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Easter Rising 1916 at the Photographers’ Gallery

The Countess Markievicz confusing armed struggle
 with theatrical posturing (Sean Sexton Collection)

To mark the centenary of the Easter uprising in Dublin, the Photographers’ Gallery in London has put on an exhibition focusing on that historically significant event.  There are about 80 images, including ephemera, drawn from the important collection of Irish photographs owned by Sean Sexton, who lives at Walthamstow in London.  The first part examines early photography in Ireland in order to emphasise the poor living conditions in the rural south, and the British military presence, the asymmetric relationship symbolised by an 1861 photograph of Queen Victoria in a carriage surveying her Irish domain.  The main section deals with the uprising itself, the major personalities involved in its leadership, and the immediate aftermath.  The final section looks at the consequences, the dividend for Sinn Fein despite not having been involved in the uprising, the political fallout as the struggle for independence gave rise to partition, and the bloody civil war which followed.

It is clear that photography had long been used not only as a documentary tool but also to foster a distinctive Irish culture which was Celtic and Catholic.  That could be achieved overtly – photographs of evictions – or implicitly, in photographs of archaeological sites that suggested the continuity of a national identity which pre-dated the presence of outsiders.  In that sense records of the events of 1916 were part of a continuum of photography as propaganda in the Nationalist cause, though clearly qualitatively different in their dramatic impact.

The uprising started on 24 April 1916, taking advantage of British involvement in the European conflict.  As one of the information panels put it, ‘England’s engagement in a protracted war provided the perfect cover for a revolution and resurrected an old adage, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.’   Understandably with the cumbersome technology of the period and wartime censorship, plus the dangers inherent in standing in an exposed spot, the fighting during the six days of the uprising itself was largely unphotographed.  Once the rebels had surrendered and the immediate dangers were over, however, there was a concerted effort to document the damage, which was extensive, and highlight the ham-fisted treatment of the ringleaders which appalled a population that had been to a large extent indifferent to the uprising itself.

The introductory panel refers to the role photography played after the uprising ‘in evolving a set of archetypes – the martyr, the hunger-striker, the rebel, the traitor, the spy – which paved the way for Irish independence and helped to shape the nationalist narratives that informed the Irish Republic.’  In particular there was a religious undercurrent underpinning the uprising, notably the idea of martyrdom for the executed leaders, who achieved fame after death to an extent they had not had while alive.  The images assisted a political transition from the previous emphasis on Home Rule by constitutional means to extra-parliamentary Republicanism.  The ascendency of Catholic influence in the movement is displayed in a photograph of a well-dressed group, those at the front on their knees and Irish flags in evidence, captioned ‘A crowd reciting the Rosary during the Irish Conference at Downing Street 1922’, reminding any who sought the establishment of a secular Republic, with Church and State separated, that they were going to be disappointed, and there are references to the way women in general were discriminated against in the 1937 Constitution.

In a video interview, curator Luke Dodd consistently refers to the rebels as insurgents so it is not difficult to see where his sympathies lie, and this is not an even-handed display – one wall has even been painted green to set off the photographs of the uprising to better effect.  The show couldn’t have been more partisan if selections from the James Connolly Songbook were playing on a loop.  One would be forgiven for thinking when reading the captions that ‘England’ was united in its desire to exploit the Irish, ignoring the fact that large sections of the working class in Britain, both rural and urban, also experienced extreme levels of poverty.

Similarly crude in its analysis, the exhibition pretends to cover both sides of the religious divide but material dedicated to Loyalism is fairly sparse, notably a couple of albums commemorating Edward Carson and the Ulster Volunteers.  One might be forgiven for assuming that the Protestant population outside the industrial North-East consisted entirely of wealthy landowners, and one certainly won’t learn anything here about the ethnic cleansing of Protestants from the Free State.  There are 20,000 images in Sexton’s collection, so this must be a very thin slice of what might have been shown.  It is enough to make the desired political points, certainly, but a more nuanced context would have been welcome.  That would have gone some way to reducing the sense, walking round the gallery, that the propaganda surrounding Easter 1916 in Dublin is still deemed to have currency in 2016 in London.

The exhibition opened on 22 January and runs until 3 April.  I doubt if there are any plans to transfer it to Belfast.