Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Changes at the National Media Museum

On 31 January 2016, Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS, Director-General of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), circulated an important announcement concerning the Society’s Collection.  This had been transferred to the National Media Museum (NMeM) at Bradford from the RPS’s headquarters at Bath in 2003.  However, the NMeM’s remit is undergoing a substantial alteration and the RPS’s holdings will shortly be on the move once more.  As Dr Pritchard put it, ‘The NMeM is refocusing on the science, technology and culture of light and sound and away from the “art” of photography.’ Consequently an agreement has been reached between the Science Museum Group – of which NMeM is part – and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London.  Under this agreement the RPS’s Collection currently housed in Bradford will be transferred to the V&A.  This does not just affect the RPS: anything characterised as ‘art of photography’, will be moving to the V&A.  Dr Pritchard suggests that the operation will take place later this year.

The scale of the task is indicated in the RPS announcement, where it states that more than 400,000 objects will be sent to the V&A: ‘These photographs, cameras, books and manuscript material will join the V&A’s existing collection of 500,000 photographs to create an International Photography Resource Centre. The new Centre will provide the public with a world-class facility to access this consolidated collection, which will become the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world.’  The present limited exhibition space at the V&A devoted to photography will be doubled, which is welcome news in itself, but to enhance access there will be a digitisation programme and touring exhibitions around the country.

Those developments will facilitate greater usage of the RPS’s archives than was the case in either Bath or Bradford.  The RPS has been assured that its Collection will retain its status as a distinct part of the broader V&A holding, as was the case with the NMeM.  The main concern expressed in the RPS press release is the loss of a coherent curatorial approach to photography, with the V&A concentrating on the art of photography rather than its artistic application in conjunction with the technical and scientific aspects that the NMeM was able to supply and consideration of which is vital to a full appreciation of the RPS’s Collection.  In practice one hopes that the RPS and the V&A will work together to ensure that usage is optimised to take into account those aspects which would otherwise fall outside the V&A’s art remit.

Overall the announcement is good news for the V&A and researchers in the south of England, but surely not for the NMeM.  The lengthy announcement on the RPS website highlights the key change: the NMeM is in future going to focus on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  The NMeM will retain more technical items, for example the Kodak Museum collection, those that deal with photography’s cultural impact, such as the Daily Herald archive, and anything specific to Bradford.  A new ‘interactive light and sound gallery’, costing £1.5m, is scheduled to open in March 2017, a valuable initiative for public education, but there will be fewer opportunities to undertake research there than before.  With even less reason to visit the NMeM once its archives have been reduced, its long-term future must be in doubt; after all, it was under threat of closure three years ago when faced with significant public spending cuts.  It is a large and expensive institution to maintain if its core function in the area of photography is going to be to inform school parties and the casual public about the medium’s science and technology.

The NMeM used to be called the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, though as its logo indicates its current scope is broader.  One has to wonder about the long-term future of its non-photographic collections.  Those relating to film and television tend to be more about technology, so they may be safe, but the future must be less certain.  I went to the NMeM to examine Charles Urban’s papers in my research into the early colour process Kinemacolor (and found both staff and surroundings very pleasant); the Urban papers were originally at the Science Museum and could easily go back there, or to the British Film Institute.  Further announcements about the changes will be made in the coming months, but losing such an important part of its offering feels like the thin end of the wedge for the NMeM, however upbeat it tries to be about future developments.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Ed and Lorraine Warren and the Enfield 'Demon'

The Conjuring 2

The Enfield Poltergeist, made famous by Guy Lyon Playfair’s classic book This House is Haunted and recently the subject of a Sky television series, The Enfield Haunting, is back in the news with the forthcoming release of a major feature film, The Conjuring 2 (the title has changed along the way from The Conjuring 2: Enfield Poltergeist).  Unlike This House is Haunted and The Enfield Haunting, The Conjuring 2 does not focus on the investigation of the case conducted by the Society for Psychical Research’s Playfair and Maurice Grosse, but on the American demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.  There has been some confusion about the extent of the Warrens’ involvement at Enfield, which one might assume was considerable given that a feature film has been based on it.  Yet Playfair recently went on record in an interview on ‘Darkness Radio’ to say that the Warrens perhaps visited the house in Enfield once, when Ed talked mostly about making money from the case for Playfair, an attitude which did not impress him.

So what was the Warrens’ involvement at Enfield?  Some indication can be gained from Grosse’s papers, held by the Society for Psychical Research.  Fortunately, Playfair generally kept Grosse informed of activities he was undertaking, so while the available papers are Grosse’s, they do touch on Playfair as well, providing a fairly reliable indication of the situation as far as the two primary investigators are concerned.

The first surprise is how long it took for the Warrens to get in touch.  Bearing in mind the events began in August 1977, Lorraine Warren does not appear on the scene until 8 May 1978.  She handwrote a letter to Grosse on Delta Airlines notepaper in which she said that although she had not been to Enfield, she had been kept informed of developments by a mutual friend, Charles Moses of Psychic Research Associates in California, who had visited the house.  She had planned to fly over to take a look for herself and see what ‘help’ she could give.  For a variety of reasons she had not been able to make the trip, but she and Ed expected to be in England in June, when they hoped to meet Maurice, and through him become acquainted with the ‘Enfield family’ (suggesting that at this point she didn’t know their real names)  or any other current cases they could ‘help’ with.  Then suddenly the letter lurches in tone: ‘Mr Grosse are you aware of Ed’s specialized work in the area of “demonology”?  What are your feelings concerning that particular field?  Do you feel there may be some strong [evidence?] for it in the Enfield case?’  She signs off after assuring Grosse they and he ‘have mutual goals’, and once more saying how they would be able to ‘help’ Grosse.

It would seem Grosse was not fooled by this approach.  He replied politely on 18 May 1978 saying he was sorry Lorraine had not been able to make the trip earlier but looked forward to meeting her and Ed when they were able to do so.  He noted that the case was significant in terms of the variety of phenomena, length of occurrence, and the depth of the investigation (which may have been his way of establishing his primacy in it).  He was probably bemused by the reference to demonology, merely acknowledging he had ‘quite an open mind on the subject’ though he had not seen any ‘signs of “evil forces” at work’.  In fact he concludes that he has not yet found a theory to account satisfactorily for the variety of the phenomena.

The Warrens did indeed turn up at the house the following month because Grosse wrote a report, dated 4 July 1978, which he sent to the SPR’s secretary.  The Warrens had visited the house on 16 June with a colleague, and in Grosse’s presence interviewed Peggy, Janet and Margaret, and Peggy’s brother John Burcombe.  According to Grosse, the visitors said they were impressed with the evidence.  That evening Grosse and members of the Hodgson family participated in a transatlantic telephone discussion from John Burcombe’s house for an unspecified programme ‘produced by a member of President Carter’s Press Corps’.  Lorraine Warren told Grosse later that the programme had been well received.  After the broadcast Mrs Warren went into the Hodgsons’ house and entered a trance state in which she received impressions Mrs Hodgson and Grosse thought related closely to Mrs Hodgson’s ex-husband, though as far as Mrs Hodgson and Grosse were aware, Lorraine Warren had no personal knowledge of Mr Hodgson (the actual impressions were not included in the report).  Mr Warren and the American colleague were left in the house on their own and carried out a ritual they did not describe to Grosse, though they told him it had had no effect.  The three visitors left just after midnight and rang Grosse on 27 June, on their way back to the USA.  They told Grosse there had been so much interest in the broadcast that a television broadcast was possible.  Grosse concludes his report: ‘I personally was very impressed with our visitors’ knowledge of the occult and the manner in which they conducted their limited investigation.’  The reference to ‘limited investigation’ is a sting in the tail, and referring to the occult is possibly a covert way of saying he disagreed with their viewpoint.

So that is one day the Warrens spent at the house.  They did come back though, as indicated in a letter, dated 12 July 1980 and obviously sanctioned by the Warrens, sent by Gerald Brittle to the Executive Editor at Souvenir Press, which was in the process of preparing Playfair’s This House is Haunted for publication.  Brittle was writing his own book, The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren, published the same year.  His letter gives further dates when the Warrens were allegedly present in the house.  It is possible, if surprising, that Playfair and Grosse were unaware of this visit at the time and it was privately arranged with the Hodgsons.  According to Brittle, the Warrens spent 6-9 August 1979 in the house, but the letter is mainly concerned with the content of This House is Haunted, the manuscript of which Brittle had seen.  He said the Warrens had investigated Enfield ‘at the same time’ as Playfair and Grosse (perhaps to imply the Warrens’ one was as extensive, though it clearly was not), hence he had included it in his own book.

Brittle says that during their visit the Warrens and two colleagues had experienced ‘spirit phenomena’; had made 13 hours of audio recordings featuring the ‘entities’ in the house; had photographed levitations of objects, the appearance of excrement, and the ‘spontaneous’ removal of wallpaper in the kitchen; witnessed the materialisation of rocks and the dematerialisation of a bottle of holy water; and interviewed the family.  He adds: ‘On 6 Aug 79, the Warrens also made a live radio broadcast (via telephone) from the home of Mr. Burcombe (the Hodgson’s nearby relative) wherein it is clearly asserted that activity is taking place at the time of the broadcast.’  It is not clear whether he is confusing the Warrens’ visit on 16 June 1978, when a live radio interview was conducted by telephone from the Burcombe house (as noted in Grosse’s report of 4 July 1978), or whether there was a second broadcast.

However , in addition to outlining the Warrens’s findings, Brittle attempts to claim some sort of priority for the Warrens’ short investigation; he claims in his letter that there were ‘pertinent discrepancies of fact’ between the two books which could cause Playfair problems.  One was that the case had not come to an end in April 1979, as Playfair’s book indicated (obviously that would have made the phenomena the Warrens had said they experienced there the following August problematic), hence Playfair’s account was ‘at variance with the real facts.’  Further, while Grosse and Playfair talk about poltergeists, what the Hodgsons were experiencing was ‘an inhuman spirit’ (i.e. a demon), and it was still around because Playfair and Grosse had not ‘permitted’ an exorcism, despite having been told ‘on numerous occasions’ that this was necessary, though Mrs Hodgson had now asked Ed Warren to arrange one.

There were more discrepancies Brittle continues, but these were the major ones, and any comparison of the two books, he suggests, would show Playfair’s work in an unfavourable light.  What Brittle seemed to find particularly galling was that the Warrens were not referred to at all in This House is Haunted, and he even claims its title was taken from something said by one of the spirits Mr Warren recorded in August 1979: ‘This house is haunted.  Kill the ghosties.’  So, bearing in mind the manifest deficiencies of This House is Haunted when compared to The Demonologist, what could Playfair do to go some way to rectify this unfortunate state of affairs?  Brittle has a suggestion: perhaps an epilogue could be appended to future editions ‘which would reflect the actual status’ of the activity, in effect acknowledging that the Warrens’ assessment had priority over Grosse and Playfair’s.  Brittle is confident the Warrens would allow their names to be used for such a purpose.  He concludes by offering helpful remarks on how Playfair might improve the ending of his book by examining its references to Tourette’s syndrome, a connection that, Brittle argues, would be demolished by ‘academic theologians’ in the United States and possibly lead the Hodgsons to sue Playfair for ‘slander’ (presumably he meant libel).  One has to admire Brittle’s chutzpah (Tourette’s stayed in).

Playfair and Grosse, to whom the letter had been forwarded, both replied in dismissive terms, Playfair on 22 July 1980 and Grosse two days later.  The former pointed out that his book’s subtitle: ‘An investigation of the Enfield poltergeist’, indicated that it was about Grosse’s investigation, not the Warrens’ (incidentally I notice that by the 2007 edition of his book the subtitle had changed to ‘The investigation into the Enfield poltergeist’, so perhaps Playfair was paying attention to the Warrens after all, but not in the way they would have preferred).  Playfair adds that as the book had gone to the publishers well before August 1979, it would hardly have been possible to incorporate the Warren’s visit in that month.  As to the case having ended, he did not state so categorically, only it might be over and the poltergeist seemed to have gone, both true statements.  The exorcism?  ‘When you have had time to read the book’ (ouch) Brittle would see that Mrs Hodgson had specifically said she did not want one.  The title?  It was in a remark made by Mrs Hodgson, again reported in the book.  Finally Playfair confirms he met Ed Warren only once at Enfield, and while he found him ‘amiable’, he adds, as he reiterated in the recent interview he gave discussing The Conjuring 2, that Ed spent most of it talking about money.

Grosse was similarly brief, claiming priority as a member of the SPR to be the lead investigator in a difficult case occupying ‘many months’.  Sensibly he noted that definitive statements about the cause of the phenomena could not be made with confidence as there was still no consensus on the causes of poltergeists.  Ed Warren’s conclusion was therefore only his opinion.  Grosse himself was not ‘privy’ to any phenomena as described in Brittle’s letter in August 1979, so did not feel able to comment.  He did say that he had asked John Burcombe about the broadcast from his house, and Mr Burcombe had told him that, to the best of his recollection, no ‘activity’ had occurred during it, contrary to the assertion in Brittle’s letter.  Brittle responded on 5 August 1980.  He had already replied to Playfair, he said, but unfortunately this letter is not among Grosse’s papers.  All he had to add to Grosse was that he was not impressed by the ‘policy statements’ he had received, obviously giving up as a bad job his efforts to piggyback the Warrens on This House is Haunted.  He noted that he had learned from multiple sources, not only the Warrens but also exorcists, ‘professors in the Catholic church’, and witnesses themselves, that a poltergeist is often actually ‘a demonic spirit entity’.  This appears to end Mr Brittle’s engagement with Playfair and Grosse.

Putting together Grosse’s report and Brittle’s letter, it looks like the Warrens were present in the Hodgson’s house for a maximum of four days, assuming Brittle’s dates are correct; it is unlikely to have been more because the Warrens would have told Brittle of any extra visits.  That brevity is in marked contrast to the lengthy investigation conducted by Grosse and Playfair, and one can understand that the pair might have felt patronised, and insulted (though too gentlemanly to say so explicitly) that the Warrens had swanned in for a few days and crudely attempted to impose an interpretation fitting their pet perspective, one at variance with Grosse and Playfair’s experiences, while maintaining (if Brittle’s original letter reflected their views) that their analysis rendered This House is Haunted ‘incorrect to some degree’, as Brittle condescendingly put it.

Needless to say the suggested epilogue was not appended to any edition of This House is Haunted and no reference to the Warrens’ visits was included either.  Playfair did however take on board Brittle’s comments about Tourette’s, though not naming him, in the Afterword to the 2007 edition.  He noted that ‘some critics thought I jumped to a premature conclusion when I suggested that the “poltergeist syndrome” was a rare variety of Tourette’s syndrome…’ before going on to discuss similarities and differences between the two.  The Warrens are not mentioned at all, and The Demonologist is not in the reading list, despite it containing a chapter on Enfield, ‘The Enfield Voices’.

Back to The Conjuring 2.  Playfair’s Darkness Radio interview was the subject of an article by Greg Newkirk on the Week in Weird website (‘Conjuring the Truth: Enfield Poltergeist Investigator Says Ed and Lorraine Warren Never Investigated Case’, 7 January 2016) in which he considers the issue of why a Conjuring sequel would use Enfield as its basis when the Warrens’ contribution to it was minimal.  The reason, he concludes, is because the Warrens probably did not own the media rights to many of their own cases, having sold them; hence Warner Bros, the studio that made The Conjuring, had to mine Brittle’s book, in which Enfield briefly appears (as does the case forming the basis of the Conjuring spin-off Anabelle).  The legal situation is extremely complex, but it does shed some light on why the forthcoming film chose Enfield, a case associated with the SPR rather than the Warrens, and also hints that perhaps there might not be too much life left in the franchise if the producers have to scrape the bottom of the barrel ever further to claim they are using ‘real life’ material.  At least the Hodgson family should gain financially from the project, even if they struggle to recognise its content.

What little information there is about The Conjuring 2 is worth a brief examination.  The trailer begins with a title: ‘Enfield, London, 1977’, and a voiceover with Lorraine asking Janet a series of leading questions that will have serious researchers cringing in disbelief.  Obviously the 1977 date is wrong because the Warrens did not visit the house until June 1978.  Pushing the date back implies the Warrens’ involvement covered the same sort of period as Grosse and Playfair’s, but this is incorrect (we’ll leave aside the fact that the trailer’s opening in the garden is autumnal, with leaves everywhere, and the Warrens visited in June and August).  The bulk of the trailer, apparently filmed through dirty pond water, has the Janet actor wearing a red nightie with white piping, as made famous by Graham Morris’s photographs, but the pop posters so prominent in the Enfield photographs have been replaced by a large number of crosses dotted around the walls.  These rotate upside down after ‘Janet’ finds herself pinned to the ceiling, and to cap it all she is menaced by a supernatural being that seems to have been borrowed from the first Conjuring.  A title at the end proclaims ‘The next true story from the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren’ but if Lorraine Warren has documentary evidence to support such outlandish occurrences it should be produced, along with signed witness statements of the sort Playfair obtained at Enfield to demonstrate that they agreed with the content of This House is Haunted.

Just as Playfair does not mention the Warrens in This House is Haunted Brittle does not mention Playfair and Grosse by name in The Demonologist, but SPR researchers have been cast in The Conjuring 2: Grosse and Anita Gregory (both of whom are now dead).  Gregory also had a walk-on role in The Enfield Haunting as an incredulous sceptic, so perhaps watching that programme was part of James Wan’s homework before he directed the Conjuring sequel.  Gregory was highly critical of the Enfield case, attributing the phenomena to the acts of naughty children, so presumably she will stand in The Conjuring 2 for those ridiculous parapsychologists who still haven’t learned the lesson from Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist that an attempt to formulate a mundane explanation for obviously demonic activity is stupid and will end badly.  Playfair (alive) isn’t in the Conjuring 2 cast list.  At least there will be some nod to Grosse’s investigation in the film, but it will be interesting to see how he is depicted in relation to the Warrens.  James Wan said of The Conjuring 2: ‘The haunting that afflicted the Hodgson family is probably one of the most documented paranormal cases in the world.’  That’s true – just not documented very much by the Warrens.  The film is due out this summer (pushed back from a 2015 release).

Monday, 4 January 2016

Did Ada Deane photograph Ludwig Wittgenstein?

 In March 2010 I was in Cambridge University Library examining a trio of albums containing a large quantity of spirit photographs taken by Ada Deane, dated 1920-23.  These albums are part of the archives of the Society for Psychical Research and contain photographs in which sitters are shown with alleged spirit extras.  While leafing through the first album I was struck by one subject who reminded me of the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  In the drapery above the sitter’s head can be seen a spirit face.  Most of the sitters in the albums are ordinary members of the public, though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does make an appearance, so it seemed odd that someone like Wittgenstein would have consented to have his picture taken in such circumstances.

There were some items in favour of this being Wittgenstein, but more against.  Wittgenstein was born in 1889 so would have been about the right age (c31-34).  The hairstyles were similar, and the Deane subject’s jacket possibly had a continental look.  He was wearing a jumper, and while I have not found a photograph of Wittgenstein so attired, he did dress casually, without a tie; a jumper is the sort of bohemian garment he might have worn.  Above all the mystery man does not look like a typical Deane sitter and stands out.

The mystery sitter in Ada Deane's album

Against this, Wittgenstein lived in Austria after the First World War until 1929, when he moved to Cambridge. The hairstyle is ordinary enough to make it less than compelling evidence.  Most significantly of all, would he have sat for Deane? I asked a friend at the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg for his opinion and he was sceptical that Wittgenstein could have even met Deane, on the grounds that Wittgenstein would have loathed the idea of spirit photography. But we don't know the circumstances in which it was taken.  One does not need a Spiritualist motivation to sit for a spirit photograph, it may be regarded as an intriguing experience: Wittgenstein could have decided to try the process from a sense of adventure, or perhaps he had suffered some trauma during the war and thought that it might have therapeutic benefit.

The following year the University of Cambridge, supported by the Austrian Cultural Forum in London, mounted a small exhibition on Wittgenstein and Photography in its Photographic and Illustration Services to mark the 60th anniversary of his death (later shown at the London School of Economics).  The display included, as well as portraits of him, an exploration of his wider involvement in photography and the connections to his philosophy.  Before I visited it I thought I would see if others saw any resemblance between Wittgenstein and the man in Deane’s photograph.  I had taken a handheld copy and put a cropped version (minus the spirit extra) on Facebook, asking simply if anybody recognised the individual.  Only one person responded (the writer Anthony Peake), and he said he thought it bore a resemblance to Wittgenstein.  The cropped version is at the top of this article.

I had hoped that I would see a portrait of Wittgenstein at the Cambridge University exhibition from the same period as Deane’s photographs to help me decide either way, but unfortunately there was nothing dated about 1923.  One from 1930, when he was a Fellow at Trinity College Cambridge, bore a vague resemblance, and was probably what sprang to mind when I first saw the Deane album.  He is wearing a plain jacket, though of a different style, and while his eyes look more recessed and his eyebrows darker than the Deane sitter, differences in illumination could conceivably account for such discrepancies.  A photograph included in the catalogue from 1920 certainly does not resemble hers, but it is worth bearing in mind that he seems to have aged rather fast over the decade so it is not impossible that he could have looked so much older three years later.

Wittgenstein in 1930

 As the exhibition’s title suggests, Wittgenstein was fascinated by the medium, both as a practitioner and theoretician.  One project included in the show was the construction of a composite photograph made some time during the 1920s, inspired by the work of Francis Galton, which blended his own features with those of his three sisters.  Despite the firm opinion of my friend at IGPP in Freiburg, it felt entirely possible that someone interested in the way images can be manipulated to make a new reality might also be interested in how they can represent the unseen in spirit photographs.

Wittgenstein in 1920

Leaving aside comparisons between the Deane photograph and portraits of Wittgenstein taken at various times, the key question was whether he was actually in England during the period covered by the albums.  An email to the Cambridge Wittgenstein Archive in January 2016 appeared to lay the matter to rest.  After the First World War ended he travelled outside Austria only twice before 1929.  In 1921 he went to Norway, and during the summer of 1925 he visited John Maynard Keynes in Sussex and his friend William Eccles in Manchester.  He finally moved to Cambridge in January 1929.  So he was outside England entirely between 1920 and 1923.  It is possible that there was an undocumented trip between those dates, which seems most unlikely, or that the date in the Deane albums is incorrect and they include photographs taken after 1923, and Wittgenstein dropped into Deane’s studio in London en route to Sussex or Manchester.  Either suggestion feels like clutching at straws.

To conclude, my suspicion is that while I really do wish I had stumbled across a hitherto unknown photograph of Wittgenstein sitting in Ada Deane’s studio, the answer to the question posed in the title is ‘probably not’ as the weight of the evidence is strongly against the possibility.  But you never know, an authenticated picture of Wittgenstein might turn up in which he looks unambiguously the same as the Deane sitter, though the puzzle would still remain when he did it, and why he was there.

Acknowledgement:  I would like to thank the Wittgenstein Archive in Cambridge for the speedy response to my enquiry asking about his travels outside Austria between 1918 and 1929.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter

Spoilers ahead!

The ITV production Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, screened on 27 December, turned out to be about as good as I thought it would from the pre-publicity: the acting was generally fine and the locations and costumes were nice.  The weaknesses were in the concept and the script.  The continuity announcer seemed a little excessive when he proclaimed theatrically that it concerned the man who ‘went by the name of Harry Price, Ghost Hunter’, but he set the tone for what followed.  Initially shown conducting a fake séance, Harry mends his ways when a troubled young soldier commits suicide in front of him on his doorstep.   He is later asked to look into a disturbing case: Grace, the wife of up and coming Liberal MP Edward Goodwin, had been found wandering naked in public and is complaining of experiencing delusions, including that of a ghostly boy, in their sprawling home.  If Harry cannot find a plausible explanation for the incidents Grace may be committed to an institution at the insistence of Edward’s party in order to save his political reputation.  The Goodwin family maid Sarah is seconded to assist Harry, much to her displeasure.

The story is probably set in 1920, as near the beginning Harry walks past pedestrians wearing surgical masks, a scene probably designed to evoke the post-war flu pandemic which had finished by the end of 1920.  There is a reference to the Unemployment Insurance Act, which came into existence in the same year.  It is certainly no later than 1922 because the coalition government is mentioned, and Lloyd George’s peacetime coalition was in power until October of that year.  Home Rule for Ireland is referred to, which would make it earlier than the establishment of the Irish Free State, also in 1922.  Harry breaks into a bogus demonstration of mediumship and gives a cold reading to a bereaved mother during which he says she lost her son, presumably in the war, a year or two before.  So far so authentic, though one would expect to see more disabled and destitute war veterans on the streets so soon after the end of hostilities.

The psychical research aspect is sympathetically treated.  The real Price certainly enjoyed his gadgets, and Harry employs a battery of these around Edward’s house.  There are moments which bring to mind cases, notably the writing on the floor which links to the Borley wall writing.  Instances of internal bells sounding when there is nobody to ring them are known in the literature, for example the 1887 Dixon case, reported in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.*  One wonders exactly how using Graphophones would help when there was no automatic method of starting them (notwithstanding which Sarah hears Grace speak on one when she plays it back), and Harry’s explanation to Edward of how he uses his kit seems more appropriate to the modern ghost-hunting period.  Harry forgets to black out the windows when making photographic prints, though he still gets excellent results.

Despite the efforts to provide historical context and authenticity, the whole thing feels routine.  For a start the clichéd unscrupulous (but with a soft heart really) journalist-on-the-lookout-for-a-scoop depiction of Vernon Wall, in reality the Daily Mirror reporter whose articles did much to publicise the Borley Rectory case, seems to be modelled on Ripper Street’s one-eared hack Fred Best.  Sarah takes a standard journey from hostile opposition to what she sees as Harry’s charlatanism, rooted in her mother’s financially disastrous obsession with Spiritualism, to liking him, with the hint of a budding attraction between them by the end.  The bond is cemented when Harry, in a means justifying the ends ploy, feeds her mother a ‘message’ from her dead father to allow her mother to move on.  This is one piece of fraud of which Sarah approves.  To prevent the audience regarding her as an appendage to Harry we learn that she drove an ambulance during the war so is an independently-minded woman fallen on difficult times.  Fortunately for the plot Harry’s wife Cora is dead, having expired in an asylum, a fate that simultaneously renders him sensitive to Grace’s plight, makes the audience sympathetic towards him because of his guilt, indicates his sincerity in what he is now doing, and leaves open the possibility of romance with Sarah.  In reality Price’s wife Constance (Connie) outlived her husband but it wouldn’t have been dramatically advantageous for the fictional Harry to have a wife. 

Edward’s home looks too grand to have been a workhouse, and the photograph of its inmates we see shows only children, suggesting that it was actually an orphanage.  Calling it that though would have been an unwelcome reminder of the 2007 Spanish film The Orphanage with its own complement of ghost children. There is the hint that, despite the suggestion Grace could have heard about the death of a little boy during the workhouse years and hallucinated him in her drugged state, the boy’s ghost she sees is real because Sarah sees him as well, but then Sarah could be suffering a concussion, having banged her head after Edward’s assault.  The door to the unknown is ajar even when the mystery has apparently been wrapped up and a non-paranormal explanation accepted.

There were humorous touches, such as the sinister Liberal party fixer Sir Charles informing Harry that he had been chosen for his ‘particular set of skills’, surely a nod to Taken, though Rafe Spall is a long way from being an action hero.  At a political meeting Edward informs his audience ‘we are all in this together’, as bogus a sentiment then as it is when the Tories use the phrase today.  These moments are quietly done and do not intrude self-consciously on the drama.

What does intrude is that enormous liberties have been taken with the historical Harry Price (who would probably have loved the programme, though his wife might not have been as happy).  For the historian the problem is that public understanding is filtered through media representations.  Does this much matter as it is only entertainment?  After all, naturally Harry here is a non-smoker, in fact nobody smokes; any non-smoking depiction of the period shown on television has to be phoney but we accept this manipulation and it doesn’t dent our enjoyment when we are aware of such anachronisms.  Unfortunately, as much as one would like to think of history as a self-correcting process, there is a real possibility that those who see this will go away with the misapprehension that Price really did make a living as a fake medium until a young solder shot himself on the doorstep, thereby starting Harry’s career as a debunker, and that he really did entrust his chemical analysis to the fake-voodoo practising Albert.

The credits indicate that the programme is based on Neil Spring’s book, and Spring himself claimed in his promotional activities that ‘Tonight a long awaited dream comes true. At 9pm, ITV will air Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, the chilling adaptation of my début novel, The Ghost Hunters.…  As an author, having your work adapted for the screen is an honour, but especially so when it is done to such a high standard as this.’  That’s almost a trading standards issue because apart from sharing some characters (Harry, Sarah and Vernon) it bears no relationship to the book’s plot.  In fact, what all this has to do with Spring is a puzzle.  The script wasn’t written by him but by Jack Lothian, so all Spring has contributed to the ‘adaptation’ is the fictional character Harry Price as a peg, doing things the historical Price never did, and a couple of other characters, one real (Vernon) and one fictional (Sarah), both changed from the novel.  Fortunately for him, Spring is off the hook and Lothian has to take responsibility for the script’s weaknesses.  For me, the worst thing about the programme is that I correctly predicted the identity of the villain before even seeing it, partly because the teaser synopses released by ITV put me in mind of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight.  I had been half-joking but was confident I was right when Edward gratuitously comments that his father had been a chemist and he had studied it himself.

The key weakness is that the producers want it both ways.  They are trading on the Harry Price connection, which is guaranteed to provide a ready-made audience of Price fans, of which there are a great number even if many do not really know much about the historical character and are now misinformed.  Yet as I have pointed out previously, for all this has to do with the real Price it might as readily have been called Fred Bloggs: Ghost Hunter.  That would have been more honest but offered the ITV publicity department less to work with.  I expect the series the one-off was set up to be the pilot for will be commissioned, but the scriptwriters will have to improve considerably on this effort to bring the plots up to match the rest of the production values.

* See my article. ‘Mr Dixon and the Mysterious Bell Ringing Case of 1887’, The Paranormal Review, Issue 54, April 2010, pp.23-26.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Lexscien: An Opportunity Lost

Lexscien, or to give it its full title Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science, is best known as the online home of the Society for Psychical Research’s publications - its Proceedings, Journal, and magazine Paranormal Review (plus Paranormal Review’s earlier incarnation The Psi Researcher).  It also carries a number of other publications: the Journal of Parapsychology (which is also available free to members of the Parapsychological Association); Research in Parapsychology; the Journal of Scientific Exploration (all issues older than two years are free on the Society for Scientific Exploration’s website); and the European Journal of Parapsychology (which ceased publication in 2010 and for which all issues from 2004 to 2010 are free on its website, with the long-term aim of making the rest freely available as well). Despite being listed as ‘coming soon’, the Institut Métapsychique International’s La Revue Métapsychique seems to be there already.

Also listed as ‘coming soon’ (though soon in Lexscien’s world appears to be a somewhat flexible concept as their status as been so designated for rather a long time) are the Journal of Exceptional Human Experience and Parapsychology Abstracts International.  As the list of journals suggests, Lexscien works with a range of partners apart from the SPR: the Rhine Research Center; the Parapsychological Association; the Society for Scientific Exploration, and the ex-editors of the European Journal of Parapsychology.  When (or perhaps if) the forthcoming publications appear on Lexscien, the Exceptional Human Experiences Network will join the list (founded by the late Rhea White, it is now run by the Parapsychology Foundation and said to publish the Journal of Exceptional Human Experience and Parapsychology Abstracts International, though the EHEN website looks dormant).  Enquiries to the Parapsychology Foundation to learn more of the timescale for the publications’ inclusion failed to elicit a response.  There are also some books on the site: Frederic Myers’ Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore’s Phantasms of the Living (1886), and Eugene Osty’s Supernormal Faculties in Man (1923).

On the face of it this is quite an impressive roster, even if duplicating some items freely available elsewhere, but there are drawbacks to the Lexscien site.  The SPR publications constitute by far the most significant element of Lexscien, to the extent that it may be assumed that Lexscien is an arm of the Society.  However, it is a privately-owned service, the owners operating as C-FAR, The Centre for Fundamental and Anomalies Research.  This is essentially David and Julie Rousseau: David Rousseau is listed on the C-FAR website as ‘Projects Director’ and Julie as ‘Development Director’, with the rest of the ‘research team’ being Dr Zofia Weaver, Dr Richard Broughton, Dr Ed May, Adrian Ryan and Mary Rose Barrington.

Strangely Julie and David Rousseau (at the moment – these things have a habit of changing when flagged up) list themselves on the Lexscien page devoted to C-FAR as financial supporters of C-FAR, along with a number of others, as if C-FAR were an entity independent of them.  The organisation is registered at Companies House (Company number 04352039) with Dr David Rousseau as Secretary and Director, and Julie Rousseau as Director.  The company accounts are available to view online but are singularly uninformative and look to the untutored eye more like a tax reduction vehicle than the statements of an organisation actively engaged in anomalies research.  Lexscien is not included as a separate income stream on C-FAR’s annual statements even though appearing on C-FAR’s website as one of its projects.  Nor does income from C-FAR appear in the SPR’s Annual Report and Accounts, at least not as a separate item.  Despite this reciprocal opacity, the SPR’s 2013-14 Annual Report noted that £11,600 had been given to C-FAR to update and upgrade Lexscien.  Perhaps it would have been wise to insist on some kind of open accounting of any monies owed first before handing over such a large sum.  C-FAR may be not-for-profit, as the Lexscien overview states, but that declaration does not seem to have been tested.

SPR members are entitled to free use of Lexscien as part of their Society membership, but generally it is a subscription site, and is not particularly cheap.  There are two types of subscription, affiliate and standard, costing £18 and £85 per annum respectively.  The affiliate rate is available to members of partner organisations who wish to use the rest of the Lexscien site.  This is certainly cheaper than individual subscriptions to those publications it carries that have to be paid for but is still quite expensive.  The Lexscien ‘pricing’ page states that: ‘At least 65% of proceeds are distributed to the participating organisations, and the rest is (sic) used to expand and improve the library.’  However, the FAQ answer to the question ‘Can I choose which organisation benefits from my subscription?’ is more complicated:

 ‘Not directly. C-FAR takes no more than 35% of gross proceeds to cover the cost of running and expanding the library. Half of the remaining 65% is then divided between the organisations in proportion to the number of pages of literature they have put into the library. The other half is divided in proportion to the pages viewed by users. The net proceeds from downloads are passed directly to the organisation that supplied the downloaded material. This means that the supplier of the literature that is used most, benefits most, although everyone gets a share.’

That sounds like quite a lot of money should be heading the SPR’s way as it is by far the largest ‘partner’.  How much remains to be seen.  In the meantime funds are going the other way.  The £11,600 the SPR gave was a useful boost for Lexscien because there had been complaints about its ease of use with newer browsers, and until that point SPR publications only went up to 2008.  However, there does not seem to be any acknowledgement of the SPR’s grant on the Lexscien home page, nor any reference to grants/donations that might have come from other partners (and if none did the question arises, why only the SPR when improvements to Lexscien benefited all partners?), nor any indication of how far behind other publications are.  Also, the quality of many of the pages is still poor and little, or more likely no, effort has been made to clean up defective scans that introduced noise and which hamper searches of the database.

Bearing in mind how long the SPR update took, and how long the coming soon’ publications have been forthcoming with no appearance yet in sight, it seems that there is little incentive for the owners of Lexscien to expand the content further.  I have suggested to Lexscien’s owners a couple of times that the SPR’s Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lectures, which were produced as booklets (see appendix below), be added to the online library but did not receive a reply.  Which I suppose is fair enough – in Boston Matrix terms Lexscien is a cash cow and ticks along nicely, and if you see market growth as low, why bother to make the investment?  It is a matter of perspective – by contrast The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals sees its digitisation programme as a mission, and works on a shoestring; I suspect its board would love to be given £11,600, considering the huge amount they do on much less – and Lexscien isn’t even expanding, that money was just to stand still.

Looking at the way Lexscien is run, it is a shame the SPR went down this route, effectively ceding control of its own property, but it was a canny move by the C-FAR directors, especially as the source material, for the SPR element at least, was donated by SPR members.  The problem is that having a ring-fenced online library is an asset for the SPR (though unquantifiable) as it acts as an incentive for membership.  It looks like the SPR is locked into an unfavourable deal unless it decides to start again, and given the size of the job, and as David and Julie Rousseau are both SPR Council members, that seems an unlikely proposition.  In the meantime other SPR publications such as the Myers Memorial Lectures, the newsletter that preceded The Psi Researcher, and many ad-hoc booklets, languish in limbo.  C-Far may be doing well out of the arrangement with its partners, but can the same be said for the constituency it is supposed to serve?


The following SPR publications would be valuable additions to a properly-conducted online library, but none of which is at present, as far as I am aware, available electronically.  I doubt if this is a comprehensive list but it gives an idea of some of the publications issued by the SPR that exist in limited quantities, largely unavailable to serious researchers interested in the Society’s history and the evolution of the subject.  They are still worth preserving in an online SPR archive even where they have been superseded by later research:

Telepathy and Allied Phenomena, by Rosalind Heywood, with a section on quantitative experiments by S. G. Soal (1948).

Tests for Extrasensory Perception, by D. J. West (revised edition 1954).

Trance Mediumship: An Introductory Study of Mrs Piper and Mrs Leonard, by W. H. Salter, revised by Margaret Eastman (1962; first published 1950).*

The Society for Psychical Research: An Outline of its History, by W. H, Salter, edited with a new section and a bibliography by Renée Haynes (1970; first published 1948).

SPR Newsletter (36 issues, 1981-91, edited for most of that time by Susan Blackmore).

Tests for Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis: An Introductory Guide, by John L. Randall (n.d.)

Hints on Sitting with Mediums, by E.O, D.P and W.H. S. (1950; this replaced an earlier leaflet, and was further revised in 1965 by D.P, R.H.T and A.G).

Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, by G. W. L. (1955).

Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, by A.D.C and A.G (1968).

Guide to the Investigation of Apparitions, Hauntings, Poltergeists and Kindred Phenomena, by Mary Rose Barrington (ed.) (1996).

The Importance of Psychical Research, by John Beloff (1988).

*The first edition of Trance Mediumship (1948) contains three appendices, by C. Drayton Thomas and ‘Mrs Kenneth Richmond’, plus a reading list.  The 1962 edition was revised, and all three appendices replaced with a new one written by Margaret Eastman.  In probably the late 1960s Salter’s original was reissued by the SPR in new card covers, and it entirely ignored Eastman’s revisions, reinstating the three appendices.  Margaret Eastman’s revised version of the booklet is now very scarce. (The 1960s date is suggested by the revised edition of Hints on Sitting with Mediums which is dated 1965, and Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, which is dated 1968.  Each was issued in an identical white cover.)

SPR Study Guides

These were originally issued in 1980 in plain white paper covers, and were later reissued in stiff coloured card covers.  Series editors were Francis Hitching and Hilary Evans.  An extensive list of guides was envisaged but the costs of the project proved controversial and only the first five seem to have been issued (and there is some doubt about the second as no copies at all are extant as far as I can tell):

1 PSI in the laboratory: 12 Crucial Findings, by Francis Hitching.

2 Glossary of Terms Used in Parapsychology, by Michael Thalbourne.*

3 Apparitions, by Andrew MacKenzie.

4 Books on the Paranormal: An Introductory Guide, by Nicholas Clark-Lowes.

5 Reincarnation, by David Christie-Murray.

*I have not seen a copy and it may have been dropped as the first edition of Michael A Thalbourne’s A Glossary of Terms Used in Parapsychology was published by Heinemann as part of its SPR centenary series in 1982.  On the other hand so was Andrew MacKenzie’s Hauntings and Apparitions, and his study guide was definitely published.

The Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lectures

Conviction of Survival: Two Discourses in Memory of F. W. H. Myers (The First Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Oliver Lodge (1929).

Beneath the Threshold (The Second Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by T. W. Mitchell (1931).

Supernormal Aspects of Energy and Matter (The Third Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Eugène Osty (1933).

The Meaning of ‘Survival’ (The Fourth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by W. Whately Carington (1935).

Supernormal Faculty and the Structure of the Mind (The Fifth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by C. A. Mace (1937).

Psychical Research and Theology (The Sixth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by W. R. Matthews (1940).

Apparitions (The Seventh Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by G. N. M. Tyrrell (1942).

Psychical Research: Where Do We Stand? (The Eighth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Mrs W. H. Salter [Helen Verrall] (1945).

The Experimental Situation in Psychical Research (The Ninth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by S. G. Soal (1947).

Telepathy and Human Personality (The Tenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by J. B. Rhine (1950).

Psychical Research Past and Present (The Eleventh Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Robert H. Thouless (1952).

The Influence of Psychic Phenomena on My Philosophy (The Twelfth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Garbriel Marcel (1955).

Personal Identity and Survival (The Thirteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by C. D. Broad (1958).

The Neurophysiological Aspects of Hallucinations and Illusory Experience (The Fourteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by W. Grey Walter (1960).

Unconscious and Paranormal Factors in Healing and Recovery (The Fifteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Emilio Servadio (1963).

Survival : A Reconsideration (The Sixteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by E. Garth Moore (1966).

Psychology and Psychical Research (The Seventeenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Cyril Burt (1968).