"And sometimes he's so nameless"

The Festival Revisited (A Lovecraftian Pastiche)

Posted in Dreadful attempts at humour, Fiction, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on July 1, 2013

What follows is a very rough first draft of a short story, hacked out in three hours when I got in tonight. It’s not really a Cthulhu Mythos story – in fact it is not – but it is I hope a very very  Lovecraftian story, and a slightly weird if not horrific tale. I think it was S.T.Joshi who pointed out that apprentice writers often do bad Lovecraftian pastiches – well I thought I’d do just that, and arguably it crosses the line in to self conscious parody. I think I understand though the motifs and themes Lovecraft wrote about, perhaps better than some who do write excellent horror tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and my attempt to address those themes from a different (playful) perspective reflecting the Britain of today, and the culture I know and live within may, I hope amuse a little, though doubtless my attempt to barbecue the Sacred Cows of the Mythos will cause indignation in some, despite the fact I hope my affection for it all shines through.

The Festival (Revisited)

The Autumn term at Brichester University saw the brief and glorious sun of Fresher’s Week soon driven off by the humid dirty drizzle. On this day I was to go on a walk round the Goatswood Sculpture Trail; the slime of decaying leaves on the narrow pavements of town persuaded me to seek new pleasures closer to home. Brichester, where “variety is a life of vice”,  had to offer something better on this humid cloying evening than kicking around Non-Euclidean art strung between ancient trees in the darkest of the hillside thickets. The hills rise wild west of town, and I could imagine my dorm mates returning caked in the primal muck of those rain soaked slopes.

The drugs available just weren’t new, effective, or interesting enough; those who remained on campus seemed to drift with a listless, jaded air. Then I realised just how quiet everything was: one by one, the flitting figures huddled against drizzle or entangled in frantic fumbling embraces were vanishing, until I began to fear I was the last person on the planet. My mind turned to a film I had caught late one night on YOUTUBE, in which God had swept the faithful from Earth, leaving nothing but neatly folded piles of clothes where the righteous had been seconds before. Maybe the Devil had learned that trick?

Laughing,humming an old Blondie tune, I turned my stride to town. I went walking through this city’s neon lights, trying so hard to find what was –wrong — or affordable. The dull crunch underfoot of discarded hypos reminded me how easy it was to become lost, seeking solace in dreamquests. I cursed the carpet of decaying leaves, and turned on to some avenue of sin, face sleek with the endless steamy drizzle. Lavinia’s Sex Dungeon, all velvet ropes and musclebound door staff offered the tortures of the past reinvented as the sensual pleasures of today; I barely smiled, and walked quickly past the parade of lap dancing clubs and pretentious boutiques, moving to the town square.

For a moment the sounds of techno from the Starry Wisdom Vodka Bar tempted me. The place is a converted church, but now a student hang out, filled with joy and licentiousness where once there was only condemnation and cold empty pews. On a good night in there the spirit, er spirits, really move you, scouring away virtue and inhibitions like the paint stripper it chemically resembles.  “Blurred Lines” blared out, an anthem for a generation who observe no limits, indeed fail to recognise the very concept of limits, yet the place seemed curiously empty.

And then I saw the lights, and heard the music, and realised what I had not before. A constant shuffling, hopping crowd of well dressed adults and neatly groomed children, little Tarquins and Henrietta’s pulled by savagely right on dads clutching The Guardian were inexorably moving towards Campbell Park, where several large marquees clattered against the sulky breeze.

Brichester Science Festival! A thousand tweets had brought it to my attention, not one had I truly  noticed. If I ever pieced together the thousands of isolated tweets and emails I recieve daily, Facebook updates and texts, I would surely go mad from information overload, or become a mad cat chap, or a consumer junkie. I ignore almost all of them, even a few dozen I robotically like to establish I am still friends with folk I have not seen in years, and who make my social media a book of dead names. They exist in electronic limbo, all flesh stripped away and living, breathing, all too human persons reduced to web of electronic dalliances and fleshless poking that would do a Greek god proud. 

I was delighted. The Festival is all that is best in modern culture. The BBC, Channel 4, the broadsheets, the literati, all would be clustered here, and I ‘m happy for my mounting student debt could take a severe hit if I get to see my heroes, and maybe see a few benighted fools put in their places. I strolled up, passed the hyena pens where a lady biologist (you might know her from TV? Esme Pabham?) was breastfeeding a particularly snarly little cub, up to the Exhibition tent where an animated display from the Gilman Annexe of the great new particle accelerator showed how Higg’s Boson heralds the collapse of our current reality at some unspecified future. I moved around fantastic videos showing the heat death of  the universe, the Big Crunch, and some daring work on possible evidence of impacts with with other universes, alls mashed together like a shapeless conglomeration of bubbles,  and smiled brightly at the display on branes and the eleven dimensional universe.

  I’m no physicist, but I take reassurance that everything one day must inevitably end, just as my brief human existence will. All around me stand a crowd of hungry ghosts, who don’t realise what they are yet. Everyone of us is an apparition; we all appear briefly, haunt fleetingly those locations we wander blindly through all the days of our lives, madly acting out our passions and trivial desires; and then one day we fade away again in to nothingness as the cosmic cock crow calls in the daybreak of our deaths. There is something of the ghost about us all. “Even this must pass away”.

I cursed the fact I had missed the live recording of my favourite radio comedy show, you know the one  that  combines up to the minute science with a panel of wits mocking the benighted and bewildered the superstitious and the naive. Oh Brave New World! I am glad that I was born in an age of reason, of progress, of optimism – an age of “Whoosh!” to use the term H.G.Wells used to describe the halcyon era of scientific progress that was the Edwardian age. Sod it, I missed the show, but I could catch the panel later for the talk about Darwin, and how he saved us all from ignorance by vanishing forever the wicked mythology of purpose and meaning. So what could I get in to? Everything was packed?

Then I noticed a few pamphlet wielding cultists, their minds mired in ancient mythology, adherents of that cursed book of lies and bigotry, whose very essence corrupts and enslaves men’s minds. Clutching their King James Versions like wards against reason and sanity they were being escorted off the site, having apparently tried to preach their venomous Bronze Age mythology to the Great Man himself, the Professor. The Professor is Cambridge Chair for the Public Understanding of Futility, one of the greatest writers on Evolution, the mechanistic universe, and the bigotry and intolerance of (and need to do away with) religion.  He won’t debate Creationists, or Faith-Heads, won’t have any thing to do with them, or even acknowledge their madness. “They thrive on the oxygen of publicity” as he had written in one New Scientist piece – he denies them that. And why would a man of Science wish to even discuss the terrible mythologies of some remote, savage past?

Now they were thrown out I saw my chance – “room for one more?” The security guy shrugged and let me through – after all there were seven more seats now. “Jesus Freaks” he muttered, with an admirable contempt, spitting after them. “Hurry up lad, the Prof has finished on why Evolution shows human life is meaningless and is about to show the Total Perspective Vortex film”. I nodded in glee, and ran in, joining steamy crowds of enthralled students, cord wearing academics and pretty much every middle class resident of the county, and hundreds who had flocked here from every nation to hear the Truth: that we are cosmically insignificant specks of life on a tiny backwater planet, nothing more than a pale blue dot, no a grain of sand, no not even that, the tiniest speck of dust, in an immense universe of trillions of galaxies.  I am pretty sure those were the Prof’s words, and seeing this swarthy joyous man of languorous athleticism declare it, the whole tent exploded in strange joy, applauding our complete absence of meaning, and his utter dismissal of all human values as embodying more than relative truths. All our morality he explained, is nothing more than comforting lies we tell ourselves to hide from the facts.

There was some commotion at the back of the tent, and just as I was expecting more bearded sandal wearing cultists to start singing choruses, I was surprised to see two of the lady biologist’s hyenas bounding on to the stage. The Professor looked at them with disinterest, and suddenly the wild beasts fell on their stomachs, fawning in some strange exultant terror as they crawled forwards, and then reaching up their ugly muzzles, their rough tongues caressed his hands. A little girl in front of me wet herself in sheer joy, and clutching her cuddly Cthulhu tight in mingled ecstasy and embarrassment , cried out out to her spellbound mother “It’s all meaningless mummy! The doggies know it and they worship him! None of it matters!” 

Then I saw the Preacher. Most students know him – not the Chaplain, who exemplifies what is best in the Anglican tradition, lacking all conviction like most of his ilk – no some wild pastor of some cultish house church up in the hills, teaching ancient myths with a power to damn from that accursed book, always in the terrible English translation of Tyndale, or perhaps the vile Authorized Version of King James. It was his ilk who burned the witches and his heavy brow and dark beard testified somehow to the wife-beating chauvinistic soul that burned within his black and ignorant heart. He stands most market days by the cross, calling out for us to repent, and turn away from sin and embrace his dead-yet-living God.

I had as  a young boy taken a peak within the accursed Gideon’s Bible; in later years I  had sought out for my amusement and kicks such terrible blasphemous works as Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, a Roman Catholic missal, and the asinine but creepy works of Francis Collins. At night I had laughed at these old collections of mumbo jumbo and fractured remnants of a long dead myth cycle, yet while some I know could study this stuff, at least through the rational lens of Robert M. Price or the demythologizing gaze of Bultmann, I could not ever read those old awful stories without a shudder.

And this wild eyed fanatic now gazed straight in to my eyes, and said “we must leave – now!” I looked upon him in shock: something in the terribly earnest way he said it made my blood run cold.  “No” I retorted “the Professor is about to show his multi-media presentation; after that he will show us Science experiments and tricks with electrical apparatus – I do not fear truth, science or knowledge, unlike you!” The Preacher just laughed, and said “keen to hear his big announcement? They have found a tenth planet, behind Pluto. God made that as surely as he made everything else. I know because the Holy Spirit told me. Now let’s get out of here.” Trembling, frothing with anger, I somehow allowed myself to be led out, even as the opening slide exploded in to a Crawling Chaos of the Cosmic Microwave Radiation Background, and the exultant crowd oohed and ahhed like it was a firework. I passed out in to the night, a cold refreshing rain now washing my face clean of the sweat and grime of the marquee.

I was ready to strike the Preacher; yet I have always sought after strange and uncanny corners of human knowledge, and it seemed I may as well listen to that this crazed mongrel had to say. I allowed myself to be walked to a pub, and looked disgusted at the cheap gassy beer he bought (without as much  as a wink at the rather pneumatic barmaid). As he settled opposite me I gazed at him in mingled pity and disgust, this sinister death cultist of a barbaric Levantine mythos. “So you are proud of your ignorance?” I spat at the fool.

“Ignorance?” he laughed with horrible sincerity “The Fool has said in his heart there is no God. Psalm 14. You think I, who believe the universe is alive with meaning beyond dead matter and soulless voids, am the ignorant one?”

I snorted. “Science has shown…”

His rejoinder was fast. “Science? What do you know of science? You think our science can approach truth? Why? Why can we even rationally understand the Cosmos? How can we know anything? What makes our Natural Laws of a nature for our fragile human brains to comprehend?” A slow smirk crossed his saturnine bearded features, his sharp white teeth glinting through the froth of his beer. “Is Truth something that adaptive advantage would select for? Why if we are evolved creatures should Cosmic truth, and real knowledge be important to our ancestors in the struggle for survival?  Did they help us in the savannah when a sabre tooth came a prowlin’? Course not.  Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, never bought Natural Selection you know. Despised it. Let me read you something he did write though…”

He reached in to that blasphemous book of fables, whole passages underlined in heavy pencil, ancient formulae shaded in a dozen highlighters, whole passages ringed with exclamation marks. To my relief he uttered not one of the hoary old formulae, but took out a crumpled piece of ancient newspaper.

“The teleology which supposes that the eye, such as we see it in man, or one of the higher vertebrata,  was made with the precise structure it exhibits, for the purpose of enabling the animal which possesses it to see, has undoubtedly received its death-blow. Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that there is a wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but is actually based upon the fundamental proposition of Evolution. This proposition is that the whole world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed. If this be true, it is no less certain that the existing world lay potentially in the cosmic vapour, and that a sufficient intelligence could, from a knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say the state of the fauna of Britain in 1869, with as much certainty as one can say what will happen to the vapour of the breath on a cold winter’s day …”

I laughed. “So Huxley was a fool, who could give up the old superstitions, and accept the Cosmic Insignificance of man, and the loss of all meaning in the face of a hostile and amoral universe. Why I know enough to know that Alfred Russel Wallace was a Spiritualist – do you expect to entertain me next with table turning?”

The preacher laughed again, in an unsettling way. A deep baritone laugh, that seemed to have far too much of the human in it. “And Lord Kelvin told Darwin his evolutionary theory broke the laws of physics; and was quite right too – until we understood Fusion. Just wasn’t enough time in a solar system when the sun was a hot ball of burning gas. Scientists rejected Darwin in his day because ‘ya cannae break the laws of physics’ – did you know that boy? No you didn’t because you have rejected your heritage, your grandmother’s prayers, your pious forefathers for a mess of pottage. Yet I can tell boy, you are one of us – saved by the Blood. That was why I had to get you out of there. His Blood has anointed you; you are one of the few, to be sure.”
 
I spun in sudden horror. My mad old gran, still in her dementia rabbiting on about the Good Lord, and the Book, and saying she would pray for me. How could he know? How could he know I came from a  long line of clergy and pious do-gooders, who had brought their madness and the flame of the Inquisition to who knows how may men and women of Science in the benighted past? Did some trace of this ancient madness still run in my genes? Was that what I felt my pulse racing now, felt the blood pounding in my ears?

“How do you know the world was not made in seven days, boy?” he snorted. “If almighty God had done it yesterday, you would be none the wiser, if you were created with all your cocky ideas already in that addled head of yours?” There was something terribly familiar, haunting, about his way of speaking. I found myself nodding a quick assent. “Ok, Ok, so philosophically – yet science tells us…” I retorted, sensing I was losing the fight. Yiy can’t argue with the true cultist – all their sanity is gone.

He once again laughed, and placed his hand in my shoulder, in a manner that awakened dim ancient memories within me, of days long dead, of meanings long forgotten. “Science is founded upon Natural Law being consistent and observable; it can’t deal with violations of Natual Law, because if so all our so called Science would fall victim to the Problem of Induction. The barmaid is Irish: we observe that. Are all barmaids Irish? No. Yet we generalise from our experiments to assume the whole universe works on the same Laws that apply here. We assume God can not suspend arbitrarily our natural laws, despite that being exactly the quality a Creating Being outside of Time & Space would logically possess – the ability to suspend our law, and reprogram them, as surely as a programmer can reprogram say Grand Theft Auto, or mod it so cars are invulnerable or fly without reference to the ground? Methodological Naturalism is an axiom of Science – that it can say nothing of the supernatural, or of God. To say there is no scientific evidence for God is a tautology”. He leaned closer, and I could smell the beer on his breath, feel the sweat of his awful earnestness.

“You know who he is, the Professor? H.P.Lovecraft knew, he saw it, as God revealed it to him – and being blinded by his atheistic fervour he misunderstood it all. This was his dream – he fumbled for a moment, and drew out another piece of yellowed paper from his ancient Bible. Gazing fondly now it seemed upon me, he read in hushed tones…

“I had never heard the name NYARLATHOTEP before, but seemed to understand the allusion. Nyarlathotep was a kind of itinerant showman or lecturer who held forth in public halls and aroused widespread fear and discussion with his exhibitions. These exhibitions consisted of two parts — first, a horrible — possibly prophetic — cinema reel; and later some extraordinary experiments with scientific and electrical apparatus.”

“That is your Professor: Nyarlathoptep, the Bringer of Strange Joy to Yuggoth. Oh he is a clever one, and all the world will embrace his gospel of Cosmic Insignificance, and the loss of all Human Values in the face of an Uncaring Universe — but you won’t, because you are one of the Chosen, saved by the Blood of the Lamb.”

And then he leaned forward, though open that accursed Book, and slowly read the couplet sometimes attributed to the mad visionary, John of Patmos, and as he said those words, a terrible thrill ran through me, as if I heard them for the very first time

“Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and I am the life: whosoever believeth in me, though he perish, yet shall he live”.

And then I saw the watch he wore, the one given to my Grandfather on his retirement in 1968, and I realised in that moment that I was of his flesh, and that I accepted the truth of the Gospel. I fell on my knees, saved by the blood that flowed on the Cross, and made a vow to rectify my life, and called out for forgiveness. My whole past sinful life was suddenly a horror I can not and must not recall, as I was born  again in that joyous moment.

He gently took me by the hand, and led me out in to the cold rain of that Autumn Brichester night, and  together we cried out praise to the skies  in a strange tongue. Slowly, overhead, without any fuss, one by one the stars were coming out. and each one sang out the old, old song of Glory to the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth, the eternal music of the spheres that our petty human Science can never, ever, comprehend.
 

Do the Rolling Stones still matter? Watching Glastonbury on TV

OK, I know you can’t review a gig you only saw 45% of, and that on TV. (The BBC screened 9 out of 20 tracks in the set they performed last night). I know you can’t understand the Glastonbury Festival experience while sitting at home on your sofa fending off hungry cats and distracted by texts from friends. Many of my friends are at Glastonbury as punters or working, and I’ll doubtless hear more when they get back;  I’ve never even been to the Festival – been to Glastonbury and Pilton many times, and climbed the Tor and explored the abbey dreaming of Frederick Bligh Bond, but never seen a band there. (In fact just had an idea for an offbeat rpg scenario – is it a coincidence that the excellent Michael Eavis first name is actually Athelstan? Combine the Festival’s founding with Bligh Bond’s communicators and you have a really way out plot for your players to explore? Obviously I don’t really believe the festival is run by the monks who found Arthur’s grave! :D).

I’m not even going to try and review what I did see – for the record, I guess it was an OK performance as the Stones go these days I think, good in places, excellent in others – Start Me Up was perhaps the highlight, though one of my least favourite Stones tracks, and the two encores were great performances, and none of it was to my mind poor, but then I’m neither a huge Stones fan nor a critic. It was enjoyable stuff. I’m glad I actually sought out a TV set and watched it, something really unusual for me (watching TV that is). I trotted out all the old jokes on my FB account, about Mick have “childbearing lips”, the usual tosh — and a few of my own, which I am probably not proud of today. :)

I watched a bit more of the Festival – was stuck on the sofa so saw  the whole Example set shown on the Beeb, and it was actually I thought possibly better than the Stones. I’m no Example fan – I knew two of his songs off the radio, have been told he is a “cock”, and was utterly disinterested, but actually after watching a lot of “meh” bands it was a breath of fresh air and I actually started to pay attention. He is undoubtedly a colossal cock – not as an insult, but in the sense of a metaphor — strutting like a rooster, a bit laddish, and generally a braggart “satisfied with his endowment” to quote the PPI mis-selling ads.  I thought he was actually one of the Festival Highlights, which given my lack of enthusiasm normally for this style of music is saying something. He will go far.

Obviously I did not see Public Enemy – I’m told by many (but especially Greg Carter) their set was excellent, so I’ll check it out. Which leads to the obvious question – if I was there would I have gone to see the Stones, or Public Enemy? I don’t know. I think the Stones, because ,,, well why?

An incredible number of people wanted to see the Stones. Yet a friend of a friend posted something really true on Facebook last night, which I hope he won’t mind me citing here

I’d like to see the country’s major rock festival headlined by a band that I’m too old to have heard of or care about.”

I’m 43 – when I was old enough to first really pay attention to music the Stones were already 20 years in to their career. Brian Jones had been dead  a very long time, and until I moved to Cheltenham and saw his grave I knew little about him beyond seeing footage of Mick releasing white butterflies at the concert in Hyde Park. The Stones had always part of the music playing on the radio, and I loved and still do the dirty fuzzy musky and violent sound of Satisfaction, but I always thought of the Stones as a 60′s band – I knew they were one f the biggest acts of the 70′s and 80′s, but in my head that was all inferior to tracks like We Love You, which is still absolutely stunning today, at least if green carnations mean anything to you: not till maybe George Michael did Oustide did anyone take “the mick” quite like this of as court case in a video…

OK, OK, I guess I liked the Stones a lot more than I realised! Still do the Stones still matter? Obviously to the fans, immensely. To the British Music Scene? Almost all the commentators I have seen mention them have also mentioned The Beatles, and I can see why, but it immediately makes me think of the Bowie penned Mott the Hoople lyrics from All the Young Dudes

And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
We never got it off on that revolution stuff
What a drag; too many snags

So maybe there is a clue there;

even as late as 1972 the Stones are seen as revolutionary: they were also seen as irrelevant to a new generation. They reinvented themselves, and proved they were relevant. I’m not really surprised, but they were never as overtly radically counter-cultural as the US bands like Jefferson Airplane

All your private property is
Target for your enemy
And your enemy is
We
We are forces of chaos and anarchy
Everything they say we are we are
And we are very
Proud of ourselves

- Jefferson Airplane, Volunteers.

Nope, the Stones in the late 60′s always struck me as exemplifying not so much working class macho bravado or political outsiderism or even psychedelic politics, but the intrusion of those themes, those motifs, those forces, in to the Establishment, The Stones took rebellion right in to the heart of British Society, and with the busts, arrests and cases won popular support I think. As outsiders the Establishment eventually come to lionize, I think they are a classic example. Only Amy Winehouse has perhaps achieved this so completely in recent years: Kate Bush, The Cure and Nirvana in previous decades. I think the influence of the Beatles and the Stones was actually primarily not in music, oddly enough, but in Society as a whole.

And they are Iconic – even if they were absolutely awful last night, to see the Stones is like making a pilgrimage, or seeing a filthy hermit in a cave levitate – you go do it because you must. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Beatles, The Stones, (and again arguably The Sex Pistols)– rock dinosaurs maybe, but people who changed the world. Even if they were utterly crap, you need to be able to say you saw them. (I didn’t; and haven’t. I wish I was at Glastonbury watching PIL now though!)

I guess I think the Stones are bigger than the music now – and therefore perfect Glastonbury headliners. You may well disagree strongly though, and I’d be interested in your comments. Still I can make a strong case the stones are a myth, a metaphor, and the music less important to our current musical scene. Let’s start with …

or

And if you hate the Stones? Well I think Cher Lloyd in this track, that I described at the time, rather cruelly as “more Merkin than Wigga” says it all… ;)

cj x

Scandinavian LARP/Freeform in England – A New Approach?

OK this post is about one of my hobbies, games, and more specifically live action roleplaying games and Freeforms. I’ll return to my usual subjects soon I expect, though my blog is always a bit of a hodge podge of whatever is interesting me today. If you are interested enough to read on, I must say I’m not really going to explain Freeforms and LARPS except to briefly say they are games in which you normally take on a character and try and solve a plot or scheme your way to a mystery, while dressing up and acting with other players, There is a very useful page here if you want to learn more.

The UK freeforms scene maintains an active mailing list community, and there is also an annual dedicated convention called Consequences in November (which I heartily recommend)  where many games of this type are run, though they also occur at other UK RPG conventions.  Freeform seems to have arisen out of tabletop roleplaying games  in various countries and at various times, and the history of the genre is both complex and contentious, but the UK Freeforms community have determined a particular style and tone of game, though with cross-pollination with US based freeforms *where the form is often called Theatre Style Gaming).

Today however I’m going to talk a little about Scandinavian LARP, which has evolved its own distinctive styles and emphases. I’m in the unhappy position of knowing almost nothing about “Nordic LARP” despite being a Dane living in England – almost all of my life has been in the UK, so I really can claim no special knowledge, and absolutely zero practical experience. Luckily my Danish name and occasional mutterings about Scandinavia obviously gave long time LARP writer Nathan Hook the wrong idea, and he invited me to a very small event to explore Scandinavian LARP ideas in Bristol a few weeks back. It was a very exclusive event – on the day I was able to attend, there were only four of us present, including Nathan!emsworth

I have only played two of Nathan’s games before – a short and excellent little scenario called “And Not To Yield…” he ran at Grand Tribunal the Ars Magica Convention many years back now, which I enjoyed immensely, and an earlier Ars Magica Tribunal based game in Bristol which I think it only fair to say I did not, sometime around the turn of the Millennium. I took a lot more form the game I did not enjoy as much though: mainly my conviction that Tribunals are very dull settings for Ars Magica adventures, and that in turn led to me experimenting after a couple of tries at running Tribunal based freeforms (basically big meetings of wizards)  in doing something different, which I finally managed effectively with my “Puck’s Dell” freeform.

I don’t know Nathan well, despite the fact we only live fifty miles apart, but I did buy and read through his first book on Psychodramatic roleplay, The Green Book. I was actually quite surprised by it: whereas “And Not To Yield” is for as I recall seven characters and a GM (referee), most of the scenarios in The Green Book are I think best suited to 2-4 players. I normally write freeforms which feature between 15 and 30 characters, though I have written a few for ten or less players over the years, and modern classics of the genre like Sword Day and The Linfarn Run  have shown small freeforms can be extremely exciting, engaging and immersive. My earliest LARPS (1985-2000) were not freeforms, they took place over a weekend with a whole county often used, a dozen or more locations and up to 24 non-player characters and were Cthulhu Live style games, which drew heavily on RPG motifs – they only had 5 or 6 players, and while Fest style larping nowadays often seems to involve a thousand people in a field, I am now personally exploring writing my first Freeform for 30 – 40 players (more on that later).

So I have played a wide variety of LARPS (never been to a Fest Larp like Maelstrom or Empire though). I play almost entirely freeforms nowadays, and know little about what is happening in the UK scene outside of freeforming – though there is a handy calendar here.

I actually know almost nothing about Nordic Larp, apart from the fact it is very diverse as well. Years ago I read the Turku Manifesto, a document that emerged from Finnish larp/rpg – and almost everyone I knew who read it was outraged by it. This actually made me smile – I am as some of you will know a great admirer of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, and the whole point of an artistic manifesto is to make a bold hyperbolic statement and spark controversy, discussion and reaction. Turku did this, but by the early 2000′s rumours were emerging of sex, drugs, mechanical dragons and girl-whipping dwarf-baiting orgies of Bacchanalian debauchery being spawned in Scandinavia with incredible budgets and incredible pretension in the name of Art and LARP. I have no idea if any of that was actually true, but it sounded like I should return home and take a look!

Unfortunately in my current situation I am about as likely to make it back to Denmark any time soon as I am to the moon; for more than a decade now I have planned to go and see Knudepunkt  (or Solmukohta, Knutepunkt, Knutpunkt, depending on which country it is held in that year) and become debauched, depraved and … sorry, explore new perspectives in LARP. I was vaguely aware as I say that Nathan Hook regularly attended for the last decade or more the Scandinavian con, but I don’t actually know Nathan all that well, and I would need some money to make it. So every year it has been put off, and maybe one day I will go. My morbid fear of flying meaning I insist on taking the Harwich to Esbjerg ferry will not help either – DFDS, no matter how much I love it, is not cheap.

Knudepunkt is a very large Scandinavian freeform/rpg event that has been pushing boundaries, exploring game theory and having all kinds of fun events run at it since I believe 1997. It’s important enough to have its own Wikipedia article, something Consequences probably should have, and the impressive list of books and publications there will tell you far more about Nordic LARP than someone as ignorant as me ever can. There is also the splendid sounding Fastaval, about which I know even less!

Back to Bristol

Let’s return to the main plot. So a few weeks ago I had a quick trip to Bristol, to learn more about freeforms influenced by one particular form (some might say “brand” of Nordic LARP) that Nathan is interested in: the Jeepform. I am not Jeep — I know nobody in the Jeep, and I make no claim to  have more than a very cursory idea of what the Jeepform is, gleaned from reading the webpages.

I noticed when Nathan talked about the people involved that day he did not identify any of us, so I won’t either. (This was not because of utter depravity – in that respect alone I was disappointed!) Suffice to say there was Nathan, I, and two more charming folks, one chap and one lady, both of whom had far far more experience than I of these things and who had attended Nordic Larp events. I get the impression Nordic Larp is more youthful than most English Larp, and less an umiddle aged & middle class pursuit than it is here in the Freeforms community. That may be an unfair judgement of both communities though, and certainly there are exceptions all over. The uK Freeforms community have all sorts from diverse backgrounds, but our manners are quintessentially English I feel, and our outlook rather conservative with a small ‘c’. I was a bit worried I might be drugged, emotionally scarred and forced to sit through the Freeform equivalent of Derek Jarman’s Blue

One of the things that concerned me was the concept of “bleed”. 

Sure art should effect one, be transforming, invoke epiphanies, challenge values, and radically shift ones perspectives. It is why I find art uncomfortable but stimulating. I like to be challenged. I am however aware that I can be negatively effected by things, and upset, and that a movie or play can effect me for days: so I was really not sure about “bleed”. Surely of the boundaries between me and my character were blurred, and game entered life, then I was not playing a character, but being me? In the UK tradition good character roleplaying is often defined as being a completely seperate persona to your normal character, and the idea of letting the to carry over – anyway I may be misunderstanding bleed. Go look at the definition.

Also Nathan and I have both professionally been involved in working in therapy/counselling type settings (as practitioners, not clients) and I had a vision of something between Encounter or Rogerian therapy and Performing Arts Workshops – Psychodrama meets Art. I had strong reservations, because the UK emphasis is on a game as fun, not  a game as art or psychodrama.

Maybe because I’m crap at it (more on this in a while) none of this really came up at all. On arrival I listened to the others discuss the influence and scope of the Jeepform as one type of Nordic Larp for a while, and they made me in my utter ignorance very welcome. I mentally resolved one day to seek out the Jeep, and learn more. (As I say, I had read the We Go By Jeep site – I think my sole criteria other than an accident of Nationality for my invitation to Bristol by Nathan!)

Now for a quick summary of some of the things I learned. I had recently run a game with multiple players playing the same protagonist at different life stages – that seems to be a similar approach to some of what we did. Traditional ownership of characters was discarded, and in the first game we played the various discrete scenes saw me play the main protagonist (and everyone else play him too) and his Father, his ex-Wife’s solicitor, his mate down the pub, a Cafe owner, and a number of other roles.

gb2

There were no character sheets, and only the main protagonist who we all helped define was established before the game started, and that by us each contributing one theme — “wannabe musician”, “wants to be though wealthier than he is”, “lone parent”, and “social life based on online communities” were the defining traits we came up with. All other characters were improvised on the spot, invented as needed for play as we went in a fairly fluid dynamic.

The scenario, Black Dog, is about depression, which Nathan understands in terms of loss of self-identity. We each played Tony in three scenes (there was no GM), and played other people in his life in the other 9 scenes. Each scene was a snapshot of something assaulting his sense of identity, and challenging one of the above traits. We negotiated what they would be about before playing the scene out: there was far more “Out of Character” time than I am used to in a normal Freeform, where a unity of time & space is normal and a game proceeds in roughly real time, chronologically, and in usually only a single location or a few locations represented by one room. We were able to move backwards and forward in time, to explore the emotional impact of a particular scene, or how something came about. Tony could give voice to internal monologues so the others could see what he was thinking. In practice I think the events depicted took place in a short period of only a couple of years, and they were, perhaps unfortunately screamingly funny at times, despite involving bereavement, loss of custody over his child,  breakdown of his relationship, criminal charges, loss of his home, public humiliation and career collapse.

I say unfortunately because a response like this according to Nathan, where we found black humour in awful situations I see all too often in real life here, in the lives of my friends and community, is a very English (and perhaps US response). I don’t want to get in to stereotypical jokes about gloomy Scandinavians (if you want that see my earlier blog post on why ABBA was a goth band), Lars Von Trier, Ingmar Bergman or Lukas Moodysson – I am above such things – but I did suggest that perhaps us Brits, the English at least, use black humour as a defence mechanism. (See British TV Comedy for countless examples over the decades)  Making light of the awful prevents the horrible emotional scarring we might otherwise endure, so we put a brave face on it and develop a Blitz spirit of the blackest humour? Sure, we might not engage in the way Nathan thought others might, but one must  have a heart of stone to sit through all this tragedy without laughing! (And from my father and the other Danes I know, I think they would find it just as funny as any Brit). Besides, laughter is a very real emotional reaction to it all. 

So what did I think of the game? Very simple mechanic used to set up the scenes, enjoyable, and quite probable to act as a Trigger for all sorts of emotional catharsis or a truly horrible time. I really enjoyed this, one of the finest games I have played, but I can see it being the stuff of some players nightmares. With people you know well and trust, in a relaxed mood, it may be safer – for me playing it far from home in a fairly anxious state (I had just left a friend seriously ill in hospital)  with 2 complete strangers and the sinister Mr Hook made it all the more fun. I missed the second day when they played a game about Genetic Illnesses – perhaps just as well as that might have effected me more at that point – but Black Dog, which is in The Green Book 1 is a superb introduction to a very different style of freeform.  It did not change me as a person at all as far as I can see, except to open me up to new possibilities in Freeform, and how the Jeep approach can liberate us as authors to share the creative process and engage players in a different way.

My biggest complaint about Black Dog was it felt less like a game and more like a psychodrama improve workshop in places – yet actually no, it also felt like a game. To work, all the players have to throw away comfort, inhibitions and go for it I suspect – but I may be wrong. I don’t know yet!

The second scenario Crossed Roads was far more “game like”. Again we defined our roles – a young lady who had to make three difficult life decisions, and her three advisers, one of whom offered her advice based upon following her dreams and spiritual/aesthetic/artistic values, one sensible/pragmatic/prosaic values (the most disturbing line spoken by  another player in the game was “aborting your baby is the pragmatic & sensible option” I think, but a lot of this stuff was hard hitting) and the other player, who happened to be me in this scenario, had to offer advice based on the best for the lady. All the advisers had limited knowledge of the likely results of the decisions results in terms future outcomes which were assigned by cards.

The catch was she did not know which adviser was which (nor did we, the roles were assigned secretly) and had to make decisions based upon how we roleplayed out the scenes. The first scene (should she go to stage school or stay at home and get a job in a bank) defined the whole set up, and introduced various characters who while they did not appear were frequently referred to, like the unfortunate Aunt Doris). We say the protagonist leaving home at 18, pregnant in her mid-20′s, and deciding if to send her teenage son to stage school many years later. Ignoring my sensible advice, and indeed at times refusing to really tell me what the decision she faced actually was, but skirting around it in the way all children do when parental guidance is utterly unwelcome, her life was an unmitigated disaster, and superb dramatic performances by the lady and chap from London made this an immensely pleasurable and memorable game. It was absolutely first rate, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone, if they feel they can handle it.

green-book

We all have triggers that can deeply upset us, and you are I think it is supposed best to play through them and stay in character if they arise – I don’t know for sure, ask Nathan, or read the Green books, or look at the website of other Larp writers – but seriously, these games see designed to actually invoke these things that in other larps you might discretely write on the casting form you wish to avoid as themes at all costs. OK, it’s not GR – I’m not going to discuss that game here, because of the kind of attention it will provoke, so please discuss it elsewhere if you want to  – but both Black Dogs and Crossed Roads have the potential to I think explode and maybe damage some – which is after all a kind of psychodynamic exploration -  I seem to recall from an old Jefferson Airplane recording someone saying “there is not such thing as a bad trip”, and yeah, that may be the logic here. Dunno. I can’t imagine anyone who was there playing these games actually having an awful time, but they should not be tagged “Trigger Warning”, but “Trigger Invite”. It’s not  a matter of maturity, or being bad ass to play these – because the risks of emotional upset are insidious, and possibly unavoidable, and could apply to anyone.  I’m a deeply (over)sensitive person and I had a blast, but who knows? I can theoretically see that playing “Fat Man Down” or similar COULD upset me badly, though I doubt it.  Who knows? And besides, I might need to or want to be upset, deeply challenged and torn apart emotionally. That might be my idea of a good game. I don’t actually know yet!

OK, so I have probably made all this sound very risky. Far from it. Everything was negotiated out of character before scenes I think, and yet they still surprised me.  The games we played were a bit darker than most UK Freeforms  I guess, but the mechanisms used in storytelling, some of the ideas and mechanics, and the general ethos would certainly be worth adapting and exploring. I’m not actually a very radical and artistic kind of guy, far from it I’m a pretty staid academic, but I can see huge potential in experimenting with these new larp forms. They are certainly “darker” in a different way to the often to my mind juvenile horror/vampire tropes we do see in larps here  a bit: I know form working on it for yeas that psychological horror is hard to evoke in a game. Real world issues arise in these games, and I don’t know ultimately how far my exploration will go – a week before I went to Bristol I was voicing my grave reservations about trying Jeep inspired larp to Charlie Paull at GamesExpo, and I’m glad to be able to report I was very wrong, had a wonderful time, met a couple of fine new people and learned a huge amount: but still I tend to be cautious!

The Consequences

This November I am off to Consequences where I am running a large freeform called Something Wicked, assuming anyone signs up for it. It’s not in anyway influenced at the moment by the Jeep inspired or Nordic Larp games, but I will discuss it briefly at the end of this piece.

I have noticed with interest that What Happened in Blackpool  by Mo Holkar, Heidi Kaye, Cat Tobin, Alli Mawhinney, Traci Whitehead , all first rate UK Freeforms stalwarts and freeform authors is running, and this sounds very much in the style of the games I have been discussing and experimenting with here recently since my Bristol trip –

This is a character based game in which all the plot and action will come out of the first part of the session in which the game is set up. No pre-casting, no casting questionnaires, no advanced reading. The game will be generated using a guided workshop.

I’m really hoping to get to play in it in November. It does seem to me that there has been an explosion of interest in the last few months in various forms of Nordic Larp in the UK: I have watched the scene rather warily and read lots of theory over the years, but now many more people seem to be embracing the possibilities, and I am sure UK Freeforms will provide a very safe way to explore what is best in these games in a British context. I’ll wait and see what develops! It’s about 5 years since I played “To Yield…” in which Nathan introduced me to what I now realise were influences of Nordic Larp, but it has taken me this long to feel I can offer ideas myself which draw from these games without automatically making myself seem to be trying to foist avant garde risqué material (not really my style) on players.

Still this year I am going for something rather more traditional – Something Wicked. Something Wicked was inspired by a Cthulhu freeform I played in last year at Consequences, and which got me thinking about what I did and did not enjoy about it.  This has been carefully crafted since last November, and I’m really looking forward to when the Consequences website goes live and I can see if it gets enough players or not. Some ideas I have had to drop: one was the use of signature scents and perfumes or colognes for different characters, which has been ruled out because of the risk of triggering asthma, and Hugh and I have to carefully think through how to use theatrical minimalism for effective set dressing, yet still gibe the feel of a funfair. I have to work out out if  I can find a way to make candyfloss there, and toffee apples etc too. Can I use real flowers? I think fake ones will have to suffice, but flower girls need flowers!

The actual pitch is here –

Something Wicked; A Gothic Melodrama set in Old London Town

Something Wicked is a game about Mythic London – the London of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian popular imagination.The funfair is filled with seductive secrets, painful passions and secret vices, along with a strange cast derived from the folklore of London. This is a world of Spring Heeled Jack, where Sweeney Todd runs the pie stand and Jonathan Wild has not let a trip to Tyburn end his thief taking career.This is the London that stirs as the sun sets in dusty attics, sending the beetles scurrying as strange denizens emerge from houses long left locked and apparently un-tenanted. This is a game about why the nightingale sings in Berkeley Square, and why the pearly queen and king must do the Lambeth Walk, and why the ravens never leave the Tower…

Everyone loves the Fair! There goes nice dashing Harry Flashman with his medical friend Watson — and there goes Carnacki, the famous ghost finder, talking to the famous courtesan Ouida! Wait — what was that strange shadow that scuttled after them? And what is that haunting melody the fairground music keeps returning to, surely not “Cousin Theresa and the Big Borzoi?” You will ask Clovis Sangril, once he has stopped arguing politics with Emmeline Pankhurst. Oh look, is that actually the Prince of Wales, walking out with a common flower-seller? You can be your ‘at it is!

Costume for any period from 1780-1914 and you won’t be out of place. This is London as seen through the Strawberry Gothic, so as bright coloured as the musical Oliver! or My Fair Lady!

The game is designed to be fast, sending you whirling, cascading, groping a dance through the fairground where encounters with beguiling strangers offer both strange rewards and exquisite dangers: where stories become truths, and where we all face the scalding blast of scented temptations of the city of dreadful delight as amoral stars gaze scornfully on our brief pleasures…

Author(s): Chris Jensen Romer
Game EMail: chrisjensenromer AT hotmail DOT com
GM(s):
Christian “CJ” Jensen Romer chrisjensenromer AT hotmail DOT com
Lead GM: Christian Jensen Romer
Organization: Cheltenham Freeforms
Game System: designed for game
Information for Players: Character sheets are 4-7 pages maximum, and mainly 2-3.We encourage players to frock to excess, and ignore actual historical exactitude to make bold statements. Strawberry Gothic mixes the Chivalric Middle Ages and Medieval Gothic with the Victorian. In our game add a dash of polka dot, bright colours and Baroque/dayglo punk and you have the correct sensibility.

Despite the strong emphasis on Sin and Virtue, all illicit liaisons are merely hinted at – no physical contact allowed in the game. Not in front of the servants, ma’am! However corsetry and lace, ribbon and boots,perfectly acceptable for either gender!

There will be no use of strobe lights or other known epilepsy hazards, though I do plan to use extensively coloured lights for theatrical minimalism. Background music will fade in and out at certain points, but briefly, to prevent causing hearing issues, and for actual plot reasons. I am happy to produce audio versions of character sheets, large print versions and with adequate notice and where possible translations for those not-comfortable with English, though the translations may be laughably bad given my poor language skills.

If you have questions do feel free to drop me a line or a comment!

G_Web_banner

All the best

cj x

Lazy Sunday Afternoon: Should We Still Observe the Sabbath?

Posted in Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on June 23, 2013

I don’t know how many people bother to read my blog, and the religious bit at the beginning of this piece might turn some people off immediately, but please stick with it if you can, skipping the bible verses if you want. It is not about religion. I’m actually thinking about what Sunday means to us, and if the shops should shut, and many associated matters. So please do have a quick look, and given it is something we all seem to feel strongly about one way or the other, express your opinion with a comment.

While wandering through Cheltenham this morning my thoughts turned, as they so often do in town, to the Reverend Frances Close. I called in to the 99p cafe for a cheap breakfast, while planning all the things I should do this week.  Half finished reviews to complete and post, a dozen writing commitments, things I NEED to do: all clustered in on this lazy Sunday afternoon.  (I almost wanted to ask Mrs Jones how’s her Bert’s lumbago?!)

I mused on how Dean Close would have disapproved, and thought – well I’m not doing any paid work today, so am I actually breaking the Sabbath?

If you are looking for Christian devotional ideas, or how to see Ozzy’s next tour, move on now. I’m reflecting on the larger meaning of the Sabbath, in my case as an Anglican Christian Sunday, and what it means to observe the Sabbath.  Do many of my friends even know what the Sabbath is? I’m going to quote the Bible quite a bit to explain what it means first, but please bear in mind this is not a Scripture lesson, and whether you are a Christian, Atheist or follower of another faith is not what I’m interested in: no conversion planned here, and if you are Jewish or Muslim you have your own traditions on these matters anyway. I’m mainly going to focus on what it could and should mean for a secular multi-cultural Britain – as you may have guessed it might all get a bit political by the end…

It all starts in Genesis, whatever view you take on that book. There we read –

Genesis Chapter 2.

And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made.

And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made.

So God rests. A very odd idea; theologically however we can assume that rest here is more than just recovering from six days of hectic work. The Sabbath is something more than mere respite from physical labour, a chance to recover from a hard week of the 9 to 5. I’m no expert on Biblical Hebrew (a rather colossal understatement, along the lines of “I’m no expert on American Football”), and I’m not going to go in to the theology of all this — just going to say our Sabbath is not about resting because our bosses have worked us in to the ground. Or it shouldn’t be.  Still perhaps for us mortals it is partly that – never forget the old motto “God gave us Sundays; the unions gave us the weekend”!

Now many of my friends would be horrified if I pointed out the were breaking one of the Ten Commandments (and others proud, and tick another box I expect) but the Sabbath is in there. Yep, really.

Exodus 20: 8-11.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made Heaven and Earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

moses

In the past in England the Sabbath was a big deal, at least in theory. It gave people one day off, and the right to some free time. It is an immensely liberating idea, and a fascinating one. You might be sent by the government to work in a bargain shop on a scheme for no pay for six days a week (or labour in a dark  satanic mill in 19th century Manchester, or slave over a keyboard writing RPG supplements, or whatever form of awful labour your boss imposes upon you) but one day a week is yours, to do what you want. And I really do think it means to do what you want, because if servants and “sojourners within our gates” get it, and they are probably not of your your religion,  it seems to apply to the whole community. On Sunday you rest. What exactly that means however is what I am thinking through right now.

Now the Ancient Hebrews took this very seriously, and so does the Bible –

Exodus 31.

”‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested’”

I’m really glad no one is actually putting to death doctors, nurses, shop staff and the ladies who served my breakfast for working this Sunday. I won’t go in to details here about how this changes, but some of you will know the stories of how David and his companions picked grain and ate it on the Sabbath, or how Jesus cured on the Sabbath, and his wise words on the matter. Instead I’ll just cite the following New Testament passage –

Colossians 2:16 -17

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Remember that verse, and enjoy your Sunday how you please.  This is NOT a Bible lesson despite all the quotes: if you want to know what the Church says, or the theological positions on it, try a priest, vicar or Wikipedia :D Now we’ve had the heavy stuff, it’s time for afternoon maniac ranting!

So what does Sunday mean to you? A very few of my friends go to Church, others go to garden centres, watch DVDs, play roleplaying or boardgames or just chill out. For many it is a family day: a time for the whole brood to gather and spend time together. Some people love Sundays, and many people I know hate them, mainly because everything they want to do on one of their two days off is deeply restricted because a lot of businesses, call centres and attractions are shut. They are not going to settle in for a day of devotional reading, or eat a hearty roast dinner with a gravy advert beaming family, they are going to sit on their own, be thoroughly bored, put out, and irritated that even in the 21st century a lot of things stop dead on Sunday. What if my mouse fails? Lucky that Wilko’s is open so I can finish this post!

Now Sundays for me as a child were even bleaker than those faced by people today. Until I was 25 (1994), pretty much everything as I recall was closed, barring hospitals, railway stations, ports and airports, chemists and the occasional newsagents.  At least that is how I recall it: and the Sunday Trading Laws were utterly ridiculous, the classic example often cited being one could legally buy a pornographic magazine on a Sunday, but not a Bible, and that Fish & Chip shops could open as long as they did not sell any fish. :D

In fact I’m old enough to remember Early Closing Day, Wednesday afternoons I think in Bury St. Edmunds, which was a midweek version of Sunday, an afternoon for prim shopgirls to go on saucy dates with jaunty clerks, don’t you know? All the shops shut, and discarded newspapers blew like tumbleweed through deserted streets. Oh nostalgia! It was pretty awful, but part of life then — I thought it always would be.

 

A ghastly business. Yet is there a secular case for observing Sunday? Today most of my friends as I often cynically note are NOT being worked to death – in reality the problem they face is finding enough hours paid work to pay their rents or mortgages, and earn a liveable wage. So surely it would be insane to place further restrictions on trading hours, especially as we live now in a 24/7 world, where everything rushes on at a frenetic pace. I have to link an xkcd cartoon here. :D

Well the Lord’s Day Observance Society still campaigns on the issue, from a Christian perspective.  If you actually have a religious belief that means you can not work in good conscience on Sundays, you are not protected by law and can it seems be fired.   I actually have a serious issues with this, as I would if the religious observance of any other faith was impeded by legislation.  Mr Justice Langstaff ruled that observing the Sabbath was not a “core component” of Christian belief. So the Ten Commandments are not core components of Christian belief? That is rather surprising news to me.  In fact in this case, where the health needs of others depended upon the lady working Sunday’s I think Langstaff could have argued that her Christian duty was to make herself available as required, using the healing on the Sabbath analogy, and I don’t object to the ruling in this circumstance particularly, but the precedent is certainly worrying. I was also not aware British Courts had jurisdiction over theological matters and what constitutes a core aspect of Christian belief, but now I know different! A chap who worked in a quarry was dismissed for refusing Sunday working. That is a nonsense, especially given the Flexible Working Time regulations. In Scotland, the The Sunday Working (Scotland) Act 2003 (c 18) gave Scottish workers the legal right to refuse to work Sundays – something the Sunday Trading Act 1994 supposedly guarantees English and Welsh workers?

I’m pretty hot on rights of conscience, as the liberal I am, but you may well disagree strongly. The question I put though is it good for families at least to have a day when everyone can gather together and not have to work, unless in a “reserved occupation” like pharmacy, medicine or essential services? Is it bad for couples to not have a single day they can count on to do things together, without the risk one of them may be expected to work?  Even the singles among my friend need some time to relax and play games with friends, but how easy is it to schedule sports or a long running Call of Cthulhu or Ars Magica campaign when half the players may suffer enforced absence? (You may subtly detect my personal biases here!) Should a secular society still respect the Sabbath?

I’m partly concerned that we have engaged in a large scale social experiment that is altering the complexion of British society without much in the way of understanding of the consequences. Does Sunday working lead to family breakdown, divorce, murder, dogs & cats living together and rains of frogs? I doubt it, but I don’t actually know. What I do know is we have given employers unprecedented power, it seems with hardly a squeak from the unions (with the honourable exception of shop workers union USDAW) .  When you sign up to the police, fire brigade, or like me many years ago nursing you know Sunday working is part of the deal. I guess the same is true for retail workers now.  Sundays may become a middle class privilege of office workers and the Scots.

Still with society changing rapidly, and may of us working far longer than ever before, answering emails on smart phones, teleconferencing at midnight and catching up on work at all kinds of odd hours (usually 3am in the morning it seems) perhaps the loss of “traditional Sundays” is no big deal, and for many of us we are just delighted we can buy sushi on a Sunday, rather than reverting to the bad old days of my childhood.  I don’t have any answer, just loads of questions. Can we compete with economies where Sundays are not observed if we suddenly decide to let people have that day off? And what about those who observe their religious day on another day, be it Wednesday for Wotanists, Thursday for Jupiter’s devotees or Saturday for Seventh Day Adventists and Jews? Why privilege Sunday rather than say Monday in a secular society?

When the 1994 Act came in USDAW achieved a concession – Sunday working should be purely voluntary. They also asked for premium pay for Sundays, something that historically was widely observed for those who had worked that day – time and a half, or even double pay. I know for a fact very few of my friends get that now, if they ever have, and in fact I recall one business I know pays normal time even on Easter and other bank holidays, or did a few years back, something I was appalled for. Yes it is necessary for some staff to work bank holidays, but surely they should be compensated better? Maybe not. What do you think? Whatever the case, both these rights seems to have been lost, and I need to go and read the Act to see what the legal framework actually says.

OK, so enough for today. Does blogging count as work? What does constitute work in a modern context? What do you think we should do about Sundays? Please, just this once, if you have read this far, do comment. I think people have strong opinions on this issue and I’m pretty open minded and would like to hear them. Until then, enjoy your Sunday.

CJ x

Libelling Sally Morgan: the Hitler Connection.

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on June 20, 2013

OK, today Sally Morgan won a reported £125,000 damages from The Daily Mail in an out of court settlement. Those people who have said “The UK courts have endorsed psychic powerz!” are more out of touch than the wackiest woo-filled spoonbender — people the clue is in the “out of”!?! The settlement simply shows that what the Mail alleged about the facts on a certain occasion were untrue, or could not be shown to be true, and I suspect the actual bone of contention was the claim Sally wore an earpiece.  Now if you have no idea what any of this is about, firstly go read the  Guardian piece on the libel result. Then come back, and I’ll make it more interesting :)

Right, assuming you saw that, then you may wish to acquaint yourself with my first piece on the whole business here.  How Sally Met Infamy? 

The libel case appears directly related to the RTE radio broadcast and the accusations made on that day. Given it could have gone to court, and Sue and Dorrie could have testified, as I understand they made contact with Simon Singh – or did I get the wrong end of a Twitter stick here -  why did the Mail settle out of court?  I actually don’t get it at all, unless there was substantial doubt that the witnesses were correct and the earpiece ploy was in use. Maybe Stuart McKeown and Mick Skelly were willing to testify? I have been uncertain about the claims since the start, and have expressed my reasons for caution.  I’m not sure if we ever get tot the bottom of this now, and I am no closer to believing Sally is psychic, but not much more convinced than I was she is a conscious fraud either. I wish she would just do some actual tests: not Randi’s challenge, I mean something with Tricia Robertson and PRISM or the SPR.

So far I have not really libelled Sally Morgan, and the truth is I have no intention of doing so, but now Hitler enters our story, along with Derek Acorah (OK, not physically, though “Hitler, Acorah, and Morgan walked in to a bar…” could be the start of the second most unfunny joke in history. In 1939 Hitler could have saved us from the endless pain of the most unfunny joke in history.  And he tried, he tried.

Now physical humour can be repetitive.

That is still mildly amusing: however this isn’t. Last week Derek Acorah cancelled a show in a Scottish theatre, and rescheduled the venue, and the management put out the most tired, most unfunny joke I know “Psychic cancels show owing to unforeseen circumstances”.  Today pretty much every paper has had some “should have seen it coming” psychic joke, as have half the users on Twitter – the half not too busy frothing over Bieber to know Sally Morgan exists.

I hear a lot of righteous cant about sick psychics preying on the bereaved: folks you are missing the real problem. If only these folks would turn some of that indignant anger to hunting down people writing shite headlines like this with “seen it coming… psychic” and dealing with them as they deserve! These are villains who are fully deserving of adding to the sum total of bereavement by being hastily despatched. “Kill them all: Acorah conjure up his own!” to update Arnaud de Amaury’s famous words.

Why is this joke so bad? Because psychics are not mediums, (unless like Acorah they call themselves “psychic mediums”) and purported mediums like Sally Morgan are not supposed to be able to predict the future.

And that bit is actually Hitler’s fault….

hitler

In September 1939 Spiritualist circles all over Britain and America were predicting that despite the growing international crisis, war would be averted, and Hitler would back down. And guess what? He did, and a golden age of peace— oh no, sorry he invaded Poland and France and England promptly declared war plunging us in to World War 2.

This led to a bit of a theological crisis for Spiritualism. The spirits had spoken, at length, in detail, about “peace in our time”. They had been shown to be completely wrong, as wicked old Hitler had carried on exactly as he wanted and ignored their prophecies. In the UK both Two Worlds and Psychic News debated the issue, and eventually a new doctrine came forth – that Spirit has no certain knowledge of the future. So mediums are not fortune tellers, and are not able to predict what will happen to you.

Now one day I will write up a little history of Spiritualism, Spiritism, the Christian Spiritualists and all the other groups and denominations. I’m not a spiritualist, I don’t approve of mediumship and I am generalising wildly, and I do  not know exactly what type of medium Sally Morgan is. Furthermore, a recent statement has started to revise things back a bit –

An inhabitant of the Spirit World can, to a degree, predict future events with greater or less accuracy, according to conditions. This is done by reasoning based on observation of past and present conditions and events, and is more accurate than is the same process as used by us, because the Spirit reasoner is not hampered by a physical body, nor by the conventional and set ideas that go with the limitations of such a body — National Association of Spiritualist Churches

So they can’t actually see the future, just make a better guess than us, based on current conditions. That is really not very exciting, but it is  a lot further than some late C20th mediums would go.

So in short:  these Mediums and “Psychics” are not claiming to predict the future, or if they are they are not “orthodox” Spiritualists, and this “did not see it coming joke” deserves to die. No court has found psychics genuine, and for the first time ever I have seen the excellent Ben Goldacre talking utter shite – see Hayley’s excellent blog for the details.

Finally a little whine. The people talking about Sally Morgan on Twitter are generally not, with the obvious exceptions of Prof Chris French or Ciaran  O’Keeffe (or Tricia Robertson if she uses Twitter) knowledgeable about testing psychics. They do  not know the literature, have never read Robertson & Roy, and certainly have no idea of the wider issues. They don’t invoke Flew or Braude against personal survival of death – they say “it can’t happen because it’s rubbish”. This strikes me as the most dangerous fundamentalism of them all – when individuals decide all of their own unexamined beliefs are simply true, and use that naive world-view as a way to just say Sally is a fraud. I’m not convinced by her, but you need to do a lot better than this. Sure I’m an arrogant elitist tosspot who wants you to read books, do experiments and test and critically examine claims. I’m a real wanker in your eyes I’m sure to insult your fond fundamentalism like this  – yet I am also a real sceptic. If you are going to be a champion of science, rationality and warrior against woo take the time and effort to learn the facts and major issues in the field. Otherwise you are just another frothing fundie, albeit from a denomination of just one! So go read up a bit on all the issues. Here is a good place to start – Jensen & Cardena testing a professional medium (who failed the test) — great bibliography, free access. http://ejp.wyrdwise.com/EJP%20v24-1.pdf

And please, stop getting so angry about Sally Morgan, :D I’ll discuss why in a future post. It is not like it will make much difference for reasons I discussed last year. :)

Anyway life is too short to get angry about this. Have a great evening!

cj x

Benefiting Society: Why We Need More Welfare not Less?

Posted in Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on May 31, 2013

Almost thirty years ago I sat on a sunny afternoon, not unlike this one, in a classroom. Miss Clarke’s Geography Lesson: I was probably paying little attention, doodling dragons and thinking about my next game, but who knows? I recall one thing she said, one thing that stood out, in all those years of Plate Tectonics, Population Growth, Rainfall patterns and Economic Hinterlands. “In the future, when you are forty, most people will work only three days a week, and the biggest problem we will face is to how to manage our increased leisure time.” Her words struck me forcefully: this was the kind of problem I could get interested in!

Image

Dad was always his own boss: I don’t think he ever wanted to work for anyone else, or could have. Sure he would subcontract on other building sites from time to time, but mainly he worked as a small independent builder, with a handful of employees. However him and mum worked long, hard hours, and I knew it wore them out. Five days a week they would go off to work, and work hard, but they seemed to enjoy it. I asked them about Miss Clarke’s prediction, and they both looked glum. They thought “increased leisure time” might well equate to mass unemployment. They are old style socialist, to whom a “fair days work for a fair days pay” was a maxim, but they believed in full employment as an ideal, and they believed in “jobs for life” culture I think. They still do, actually. They regard having a job as a blessing not a curse, something that lets you better yourself, something that gives you both money and self-respect

A strong principle I adhere to is that in prosperous societies like ours where malnutrition, slum housing and desperate absolute poverty are FAR less common than sixty years ago, the biggest problem with having no job, no money and no credit is not starvation — few people will die of that with the NHS – but lack  of opportunity. It’s simple: having money gives you options in a capitalist society, it lets you increase your choices, and responsibility. The poorest elements, and I have lived there in the past, make few choices. The Benefits Agency might pay your rent, and give you enough money to live, but your choices dwindle to lesser of two evils all too often – do I pay the gas bill, the water bill or the electric bill this month? Do I maintain an internet connection in the hope of finding a new contract, or switch it off and use the money to buy a second-hand suit jacket from OXFAM and pair of Primark trousers to match, in the hope I will get that job on Friday’s interview? Do I buy a ream of A4 for the printer, or do I spend that cash on  a packet of razors or cheap haircut? Such paltry decisions are actually gratifying: you retain some tiny amount of free will, even in adversity.

Once you take your income up to my current level, the choices become MUCH wider. Your diet is no longer a sack of potatoes and twelve cans of tuna fish to last for a while, with a loaf of bread and some pasta for variation. I can choose where to shop, what to buy, whether to fund myself for a night class or buy some books. Get a good job, and you can make meaningful lifestyle choices. People used to talk about affording to get married, saving up to buy a home: they had disposable income that covered the basics, so money gave them choices. Jobs are good, proper jobs though, jobs that let you afford to live and make choices.

I was chatting last night to a fellow I know, who does work in my ward here, which is one of the twenty most deprived council wards in England in terms of absolute poverty and social deprivation. Yes really, it actually is; I live in the VERY nice part (by comparison) of it, but we have stark miserable levels of deprivation in absolute not relative terms in a couple of our wards in the borough. He was greatly unsure what could be done to help the community he serves and loves, and we got to the issue of aspiration, and the fact no matter how much one tries a lot of people don’t want to get out of the cycle of benefit dependency and poverty that follows.

I agree with him: they don’t. And that is because they are rational. It is s a tremendous risk, and a dangerous one. You may starve in the month before you are paid, you may get sacked and not be able to claim benefits for six weeks to six months. And you know what? The very poor are risk averse, because they have no savings, and no fall back plan.  Well at least not these days…Image

Firstly, I am forty now, forty three in fact; Mrs Clarke was wrong! The marvellous 3 day week we face is actually because an awful lot of people can only get part time work. Work, well paid decent work, has become concentrated in the hands of, well still a majority I guess, but it’s not evenly distributed. Self Employment and start ups appeal at times like this, because you can work as much as you want. For many of my friends, they are not trying to get better pay or conditions, but more working hours, so they can make ends meet.  Still an awful lot of people I know are desperate to work. So why do I say some want to remain dependent on benefits, and rationally so?

Well there are people in our society who for all kinds of reasons, from caring for dependants, including children, the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable, can’t realistically work. There are people who can’t for plenty of other reasons, including a tiny percentage who have severe personality issues, or just while lovely are not bright at all and might endanger themselves or others, and who a decent society will recognise as needing help. There are those who are ill, those who mentally handicapped, those who lack basic skills, those who have background issues that make it hard for them to “fit in” in many jobs (Ex-Cambridge Professors of Classics, former child Movie Stars and folks who have spent many years in mental institutions  for example are unlikely to be employed by many companies). Those people need a just and fair benefits system, and specialist help. I think few would deny them that?

What interests me more is those who dare not leave the benefits system, and the many who do leave the benefits system and take work, despite being far worse off through it.  “Better Off In Work” the slogans say: they lie. Sure, if you have 40 hours a week, at minimum wage, you will be significantly better off I guess, providing you are lucky enough to live somewhere where your rents are not ludicrous. Here that will mean you will earn enough to pay rent on a flat, which will be about 45% of your income, or 55% – 60% after tax and NI I think. Pay Council Tax, and maybe 65-70% of your earnings have gone on housing, and you can start working on bills and food. Given many people are mortgaged at that kind of level (though for most home-owners remember paying a mortgage is much cheaper than paying rent for an equivalent property) that is fair enough. On 40 hours a week you get those options I talk about, and you can start to plan your life, rather than drifting from crisis to crisis and making worst-case decisions if you make decisions at all.

However, this is based on forty hours, for an honest reliable employer. Unfortunately there are often potential employers who fall in neither category: the work is part-time, or you don’t earn what you signed up for. and I am seeing more and more of this, sadly. A lot of people are doing a few shifts a week – one friend has a “zero hours contract”, and is no better off than casual labourers throughout history, waiting for the call from his employers to days they have a couple of shifts for him. At least contractors like me are responsible for finding/making/negotiating their income sources – he has all the disadvantages of both employment and unemployment rolled together. Get more than 16 hours work, he must sign off, then sign on again losing a few days JSA – get no work, and then he has once or twice has his benefits stopped by the Benefits Decision agency while they “investigate” his claim and ask for pay slips for zero pounds zero pence his employer refuses to give him, leaving him desperate.

Another friend works arduous but part-time night shifts, and the fly by night company he works for have “mislaid” his pay slips – HMRC and the Benefits agency are not going to be sympathetic. Another has just started a decent job, but for the next 6 weeks has no money for food or rent, because she missed the payroll date while her company tries to sort her contract out and add her to the systems – and she has to pay almost £120 in bus fares just to get to her job in that period. Sure she will get paid well in July – but that is not helping right now. This looks like a better option for them right now…

Image

OK, so successive governments have spouted rhetoric about making people “better off working”. What they fail to realise is that however thick they may think the welfare dependent are, and however enticing my notion that it is better to have work and thus money and choices than not, they can add up. If you hit 30 hours you can get Working Tax Credits, which are great, but unfortunately if you have between 16 hours (when you lose entitlement to JSA) and 29 hours, you are absolutely stuffed. We subsidize the retail  giants low wage Part-Time culture by Housing Benefit payments, something I have written about before, but we don’t seem to have found a system yet that actually ensures people are really better off working.

The easy way to address that is to cut benefits and make being on the dole so horrendous that any person would rather do any work than stay on it. This is the punitive approach to unemployment relief: the Victorian Workhouses adopted this approach, and it’s part of our history that people are uncomfortable with. We see few museums of the Poor Laws, few visitors centres in old Workhouses, because we are profoundly sensitive to the scale of human tragedy they represent.  We learn about them in History, but we don’t dwell on them. The closest many of us may ever come to thinking about them is the musical Oliver!

Image

I contend that despite the popularity of the appeal to many of this approach, it is not only immoral, because some find themselves in this situation for reasons that are absolutely outside their control – laid off, genuinely unable to find work – and because some are vulnerable and unable to, like the sick and dying who cluttered the workhouses. No, the actual problem is  it represents a race to the bottom.

Employers exploit the system to use Housing Benefit to subsidize their workforces, but we can’t maintain our Housing prices if we allow rents to fall to a natural level, and when that happens we see a massive bust like 2008 when the sub-prime US market collapsed with global ramifications.   Punishing the poor, by reducing in real terms welfare payments like this administration might motivate individuals, but it does not increase the overall amount of work or desire of employers to pay. (It might possibly lead to deflation, but that is another story).

I believe, maybe wrongly, based on my reading over the years that about 10% working age unemployment is structurally necessary, perhaps even economically desirable, Randomly cutting off folk’s benefits, especially those who are declaring part-time work as has now happened to seven of my friends since Christmas (all working, all having no money for weeks) does not make people rush out and take part-time work if that work and associated travels costs will mean they can’t pay their rent or eat. People want jobs that will let them live comfortably, not £80 a month worse off than they were on benefits because the £40 improvement is gobbled up in commuting costs and they need to pay three times that to get to where the work is.

So what are the structural issues, and where might we see light at the end of the tunnel?

Four main problems and possibilities occur –

A. Second and third jobs are taxed at a much higher rate. There is no incentive to try to juggle two jobs, because you simply lose out and can’t make that pay. You need to make this work by reducing tax and NI for second jobs.

B. Rents are too high in relation to wages, because house prices and hence landlords’ mortgages were so high, and housing supply is restricted, so people can’t afford to get off H.B. Employers subsidize low pay part-time work by making their employees dependent on Housing Benefit and Council Tax relief, of which the majority of claimants of are working. We can’t do much about this but what Labour did – give P/T employees the same rights, pro rata, as F/T employees, to try to increase full-time employment.  You have to build more affordable housing – but realistically affordable, so social housing, not for profit housing.

C. You need to give people enough money to take risks: and that means increasing welfare payments to the point where people can afford to risk getting a job. Why? Because if you try the rewarding unemployment route,  wages must increase or people will leave their work en masse, and no one will do these P/T jobs that don’t pay the rent. Increasing wages is something economists are wary of, as driving inflation, but looking at deflationary economies and theory we know that wage inflation does stimulate demand and hence CAN lead to economic growth. As a Fiscal Stimulus increasing the level of welfare benefits till my friends would be genuinely able to live on benefits would force wages and real jobs of the full-time variety to become available, and see wages actually rise to a liveable standard as the workforce sees they have an option. People who want to work will be able to make something of themselves, and people who want to  claim dole and look after granny or paint pictures of sunsets can do just that, but the wages will at least rise to a level where one can pay the rent without state handouts. Secondly you need the unemployed to be able to save a little for the inevitable costs of starting work. Against our more vicious humans instincts, I think this is actually  better than punitive unemployment relief –

D. Finally, and most vitally, we need to pay HB and JSA for a full month after people take a job. If you start work tomorrow, and won’t be paid for 4 weeks minimum, you need to know you can pay your rent and buy food and pay the bus fare to work. People DO NOT always have that much money put away – any amount of the time on the dole will rapidly erode savings and any cash you have. Likewise, if you leave a job right now it is six weeks before we pay dole – an insane situation as so many people can’t afford to live that long with no income, and feed their kids, so they would rather not risk leaving a terrible low paid job that they can’t survive on than return to the security of the benefits, so they never risk taking a job. We need to pay people who get jobs money to set them up, and remove the penalty for leaving a job which is unrealistic in terms of your pay and conditions.

I’m no economist, I’ve never claimed to be an economist, and I may be talking nonsense. However my “work lies among the poor”, like the mother of one of Saki’s characters, and is have seen human misery up close. I know the system isn’t working, and I think that economic growth is only one aspect of the problems Britain faces. Perhaps Mrs Clark was right, and we should legislate for the three-day week, that quaint echo of 1970′s Britain, where people could not get work, and make it compulsory, like the leisure driven paradise she told me about that day. Until then, let’s reward people for working, and you can’t do that by punishing those on benefits – more welfare may mean more work, less welfare just perpetuates this endless spiral of misery.

cj x

UKGamesExpo 2013

OK, so I went to UKGamesExpo today, the board, card and rpg games convention in Birmingham, held at the NEC Hilton Metropole in Birmingham: first year in that location, ion previous years it has been held near Edgbaston as I recall. My friends Lorna and Dan gave me a lift up, and  was only there for about seven hours, but I must admit despite severe reservations, I had a wonderful time. It’s on tomorrow Sunday 26th May, and if you can I would encourage you to go, despite the £8 admission charge for a day ticket.

So why the reservations? I have not been for a few years, but last time I went I like now was short on cash. The nature of the event feels like a Trade Fair, and I guess it is in some ways our UK version of Essen.

I felt like time I went it was a great event, but I needed money to spend: all of the rpg and boardgames events seemed booked solid long in advance, and the event seemed more focussed on buying than playing. I am very happy to report that this year that was totally untrue – there was every opportunity to buy, a huge range of vendors, with only Mongoose notably absent — yet there was also a tremendous array of demo games on offer, and not all required you to have pre-booked.

It felt much more like a convention this year to me, with large numbers of delegates staying on site. £100 a night is beyond my budget this year, but hey, I think I would have liked to be there the whole three days.

A few notes — I did not buy much, though a cup of coffee set me back a fiver, and bar prices are similarly astronomical. By the time I arrived programmes had run out, and I did not realise the organisers had sensibly organised a wonderfully cheap and cheerful cafeteria for attendees in one room, where food can be bought (and soft drinks and coffee) at realistic prices :D  I should have read the website, where all this was explained, before setting off!

I took a few photos, but I am a truly lousy photographer and only had a phone. Still here we go…

Giant Pandemic Boardgame

Giant Pandemic Boardgame

OK, that was amazing! And they really tried to get me to play, and as Pandemic is a classic cooperative boardgame i VERY nearly did, only stopped by the need to find Wordplay Games who I had come specifically to look for. I stopped off to see Charlie and Alan Paull at Surprised Stare Games, makers of wonderful boardgames including of course Snowdonia, and after a long chat I went and talked to Larry Roznai, President of Mayfair Games, for at least an hour outside, and learned a lot about logistical and distribution questions. Really fascinating chap, I’m peeved I missed his seminars, and that of Angus Anbrrason from Chronicle City.

I did catch who I went to see, Graham Spearing of Wordplay Games; I’m interested after playing his Worlds of Wordplay game that I really like in writing some material for his new FATE based Age of Arthur game, and maybe now that will happen. Great bloke, and very, very welcoming and kind to spend so long talking to me. I’m very excited about Age of Arthur!

Then off to Pelgrane Land!

Image

Pelgrane Press stand

I was able to pick up at last a copy of Trail of Cthulhu from the Pelgrane Press stand: so sanity blasting was this I was still shaking when I took the blurry photo of amorphous horrors above.  (At least said Amorphous Horror will have to wait till Consequences in November to punch me now! :) )

It was only in my closing minutes at the con that I discovered there was another huge demo hall I had somehow missed: I was twice horribly disorientated and confused by the layout of the building, and am sure I missed loads owing to the non-Euclidean weird angles – OK – my lack of a sense of direction.

Image

Friendly con-goers!

Well apart from “find the cheap cafeteria” what else can I say? Well parking is free, it’s certainly worth the admission and I had a great time, so go play games!

oh yes: the UK GAMES EXPO AWARDS! No idea who won, presumably not announced till voting ends tomorrow, and I finally chose not to vote in most categories because I did not know all (or even most) of the games.

 The Nominations were:

BEST BOARD GAME: Aeroplanes (Mayfair); Escape (Queen); Exodus Proxima Centauri (NSKN Legendary); Fighting for Virginia (Nigel Lambert/Print, Play); Keyflower (Coiled Spring); Mice & Mystics (Plaid Hat); Road Rally USA (mayfair); Rome & Carthage (Grosso Modo Editions/Coiledspring); Snowdonia (Surprised Stare); String Railway (Asmodee); Urbania (Mayfair).

BEST RPG: Achtung Cthuhlu [Hero of the Sea/Three Kings] (Modiphius); Age of Arthur (Wordplay); Cold & Dark (Wicked World); Draconian Rhapsody (Ulisses Spiele/Chronicle City); Dungeon Slayers (Chronicle City); Eldritch Skies (Battlefield Press/ Chronicle City); Hellfrost: Land & Fire (Triple Ace); The Island of the Pirahnamen (Ulisses Spiele/Chronicle City); Shadows of Esteren (Agrate); Squadron UK (Simon Burley); Star Wars Edge of the Empire fantasy (Flight) Yggdrasil (Zerne Cercle Sarl/Cubicle 7).

Particularly great, especially in Brum to see Simon “Golden Heroes” Burley back in there! I can commend his work, and also Snowdonia and Age of Arthur, but I don’t know any of the other nominations, which probably explains why I did not vote in the end as a bit unfair to vote for the only games you know! If anyone is really interested i can outline the other nominations in Best Family Game, Best Miniatures Game, Best Strategic Card Game, Best General Board Game and Best Abstract Game categories.

 

EDIT: Since writing this Richard Denning, one of the organisers has offered us his fascinating perspective on the event. Well worth reading!

cj x

Watching Most Haunted: Series 3, Ep. 1 East Kirkby Airfield

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Paranormal, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on May 25, 2013

This post was written in respectful memory of “LOUP GAROU”, long time poster on the Living TV Most Haunted  forum, and a fine teller of the chilling tale. We miss you mate…

It is perhaps ironic that despite having worked for several companies involved with Most Haunted, appeared on the show, and (as CJ.23) been for several years one of the most vocal commentators on the Most Haunted Forum (now sadly defunct) I actually watched very few episodes of the show at the time it was transmitted, or indeed subsequently. I used to joke this was because I lacked a ready supply of tranquilizers: in reality I actually lacked a TV set, and later I had a TV set but no cable. However when friends invited me to watch the show I usually found an excuse to be elsewhere, that much is true, and while I did watch the first two series eventually it was because Living TV were kind enough to send me the episodes so I could comment! :D

In this piece I am going to (after my rambling intro) look at one episode of Most Haunted: Series 3, episode 1, where the team visit East Kirkby airfield in Lincolnshire, a disused WW2 airbase now a museum.   I selected the episode at random form a pile of Most Haunted DVDs I acquired at a charity shop: watched it through and made a few rough notes as I went. Owing to pressure of time I will not be research extensively the airbase and history involved, but I will briefly summarise and provide links.  It would probably have made more sense if I had selected an episode I actually wrote a research brief for, and used that, but apart from the MHL episodes I worked on I don’t think such notes were very extensive, and it would arguably be unprofessional.

Still I can lay one myth to rest – it was often said by skeptics that everyone involved with MH,  even quite tangentially, signed masses of non-disclosure agreements and had gagging orders in their contracts. I never had a contract with either ANTIX or HanrahanMedia for anything I did, and signed no such paperwork. I am not aware, or at all convinced, that it existed. Given how vocal some of the actual stars of the show have been on leaving, I find it very unlikely. It is also noteworthy that other than the allegations levelled at Derek Acorah, no one involved seems to have claimed the majority of “phenomena” the team witnesses was faked, though everyone I have spoken to has a different opinion on who threw the spoon in the infamous Falstaff Centre episode. This matches my general belief that the majority of the crew (and the show blurs the usual talent/crew distinction in TV, so the whole crew pretty much are the stars here) , and in particular Yvette, responded naturally to what they believed to be happening.

My approach to psychical research differs quite a bit from the Most Haunted “vigil” model. I feel I am closer to David Taylor, Andrew Homer and others who take a long time and historical/investigative approach, rather than emphasising trying to witness the phenomena myself. However my time working for Richard Felix, and the twenty odd “MH style” ghost hunts I organised myself have given me a few insights in to how it works, and more importantly how it feels to be part of such an vigil based night.  I used to joke that this was all the commodification  of “legend tripping“, but hey, it was certainly more exciting than any show about my research would ever be. :D

I have in the past despite my seeming overwhelming cynicism, and arguments that Most Haunted may have seriously set back spontaneous case research in parapsychology,  also defended the show. I still think it was a brilliant creation, and Karl and Yvette pioneered not a single show, but a whole genre of reality TV programming. Also, I have argued that in some ways the much vilified Most Haunted represents something nearer to what actually occurs in ‘real world’ cases of haunting than the rather more austere accounts of apparitions in say the classic SPR literature. For now, however, let us turn from theoretical issues to an actual episode, and watch Most Haunted.  Obviously it is probably more interesting if you actually watch the episode as well: at the time of writing it is available in a number of parts on YouTube, with the first part here. You can find the other parts listed on that page. I don’t know if it is a legal version, and how long it will be up, and I in no way endorse copyright violation, but for a reviewer it is rather useful, and I think what follows will make more sense if you watch the episode.

TV.com provide a useful summary taken from the opening of the episode that introduces the location:

Work started on the construction of the airfield in 1942 and by the middle of 1943 East Kirkby’s runways were operational and 57 Squadron, equipped with Lancasters, arrived. During November 1943, 630 Squadron was formed and also remained at East Kirkby for the duration of the war. The number of servicemen and women stationed at East Kirkby soon exceeded the 2,000 level. East Kirkby’s aircraft suffered losses in the Berlin and Nuremberg raids, but its worst night was 21 June 1944 when 11 aircraft were lost in an attack. Towards the end of the war, in April 1945, a Lancaster caught fire while being bombed up, resulting in a huge explosion which set off further bombs. Four people were killed, six Lancasters totally destroyed, and a further fourteen damaged. In the post-war period, the airfield was used for trials and for a short time during the mid-1950s it was occupied by United States Air Force. Eventually closing in 1958, the RAF finally disposed of the site in 1970. In recent years due to the work of Fred and Harold Panton, East Kirkby is now home to the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.

There is a short but useful wikipedia entry on the location as well.

OK, so what actually happens in the show?

ACT ONE: SETTING THE SCENE

…is the introduction, setting the scene. We are given the information above about the airfield, and of course there is a stress on the large number of planes and aircrews lost. Richard Felix clearly invokes the supposed link between death and tragedy and ghosts, repeatedly stressing the violent and horrific nature of the “passing” of the crews lost here. he refers to the supposed spooks as “unfortunate tormented souls”. The narrative is similar to that offered by Derek Acorah in the episode – ghosts are spirits of the dead, unable to pass over to the “other side”, unhappily earthbound by unresolved business.  I have spent so long on the SPR group theorists hypotheses about apparitions it actually came as a shock to me to realise that I used to think this was juts a normal common sense definition of what a spook is: a dead guy or gal, lingering in our world.  To be fair, having looked at the ideas of Gurney, Myers, Tyrell, Hart etc on telepathic projections, based upon the supposed evidence for telepathy, I’m actually not of the opinion those theories are better evidenced in any way than the one Derek and Richard favour. The “dead guys” hypothesis may actually have greater explanatory power than many of the parapsychological theories, and rests on assumptions that seem little greater to me than invoking ESP to account for spooks.

Anyway, now what could have been the most interesting bit of the show: Fred and David Panton briefly talk about their experiences. And here we have in a nutshell  my critique of Most Haunted -  Fred and David, the owners of the museum, clearly know the place inside out. Furthermore they have been there for many years — so we might expect them to have witnesses a great deal more “phenomena” than the MH team can hope to in one night, and furthermore to be able to discount those supposedly paranormal phenomena that are actually caused by unusual natural causes. Their testimony seems vital to me. We could dedicate the whole show to them explaining how and why the ghost stories developed, what they saw, where and when? All the other staff and visitors could be brought in. A cumulative picture of the evidence could be produced.

Most Haunted is not that kind of show. MH is about the crew having an adventure: about a vigil in a haunted location. The show takes place in a bubble of its own, with the events that have gone before merely providing a pretext and direction for what happens in tonight’s investigation. No wonder vigils are now the standard procedure for investigating spooks in Britain’s ghost hunting community, and so little effort and emphasis seems to be placed in to interviewing witnesses, recording and analysing testimony, and collecting supporting evidence. I think this is the single greatest weakness of MH: far more so than the use of psychics, or the questionable assumptions at times at play — it removes the ghost experience from human and historical experience, and renders it an isolated theme park thrill ride for one night only.

It also seems to me to  make little mathematical sense. 5 separate apparitional experiences would be enough, in a thirty year period, to give any place a good reputation for being haunted.  I make that roughly 2,190 to 1 therefore against anything major happening on the night the team are present. Of course it could be that events are far more common – but even at one a week it’s still 52 to 1 clearly. I may however be greatly exaggerating how rare these things are: wherever MH go, something seems to happen. (And it’s worth noting  Karl personally assured me he would do an episode where nothing at all happened if that was the case; in some cases in all fairness it comes very close! The inherent drama of the situation and the interaction between the team actually makes up for it well, so it could and did work.)

OK: so what actually happens? I tried to note down the phenomena

* figure believed to be deceased American airman seen walking toward the control tower.

* murmuring voices heard.

* telephones ring, despite being disconnected (Control Tower)

* green lights observed in control tower (from outside).

* Strange feeling of being watched.

We don’t get enough information to really say much about any of the above sadly. Was the figure seen at night or in the daytime? (My notes don’t say: the episode might). The one thing I did note was that the green lights were seen from a nearby caravan park, so I did for a moment wonder if they were in high summer and possibly fireflies, however unlikely that may be. Again, murmuring voice type noises MIGHT be caused by the wind hitting the hangars, and a low vibration. The telephones ringing however is beyond me, but there may be an explanation.

Actually many years ago while conducting an investigation at the Old Bell Hotel, Dursley, Gloucestershire, my colleague Derek and myself were both asleep in a room when we were woken by the phone ringing.  It was 3 or 4am, I forget which, but the time when a ghostly maid is said to have given visitors a wake up call through their door.  We got the phone – I answered it, and sure enough the phoneline was dead, and on examination the phone was disconnected at he wall (itself rather mysterious in a working hotel!).  Not sure what the cause was, but thought I’d mention it here.  Also rather amusing that back in those days we tried to sleep at night during an investigation rather than sit up and look for ghosts. :)

There follows an explanation about a couple of famous crashed in the rough district of the airfield. One was of a fighter plane that never made it back, the other of a B17 bomber that was refused permission to land despite being badly shot up, and eventually crashed near the runway killing all ten on board, having suffered a catastrophic malfunction or simply run out of fuel while circling in a holding pattern. The suggestion was the figure seen approaching the Control Tower as the pilot of the B17 off to “have it out” with the Control Tower staff.    The plane burned on impact, and Dave Panton gave his fascinating memories of the tragedy he witnessed.

The suggestion throughout the episode was that a mistake was made, and the plane SHOULD have been given permission to land.  The runway today is combined grass/tarmac at 950m, and the fact it was home to a bomber group suggest to me that in 1944 the runway could have landed a B-17 could have landed, but the runway now may be shorter than it was, given the length these planes needed to take off.  However RAF East Kirkby could handle big planes no problem — so that was not why it was denied permission to land.  I feel it more likely that other planes were taxiing, or on the runway at the time.

A B17 Flying Fortress: USAF image.

A B17 Flying Fortress: USAF image.

I tried to find out, quickly identifying the name of the plane, the names of all killed, and the date and location of the crash. Now I have a problem. I don’t want relatives to Google any of that, and find me talking about ghosts. It was nearly 70 years ago, but no I feel bad about the possibility. So instead, I shall explain briefly what I found – you can easily work it out for yourselves if you want to check.  One site says the pilot suffered engine problems on take off, and tried to land. He overshot the runway, was going round again to try a second time and crashed on the hillside. (Would have to be serious problems given these are multi engine planes, but perhaps a fire?)  Yet another site which appears more reliable says it crashed after sustaining damage over Germany on the return from a bombing raid on the Bullay railway bridge at Koblenz, and gives the Mission number. So we are no closer to establishing what happened, but the plane existed and crashed while trying to land.

This pretty much wraps up the first part of the show, where the setting is introduced. We see fragments of the wreckage of the B17 on display, and another small section of a fighter plane. We are told the pilot should have been on leave. Then it cuts to Phil Whyman who has apparently been taking baseline readings with an EMF meter, and checking out “the residual energy” of the location.  Phil was well aware by this time of my cynicism about EMF meters – we had talked about it several times, both in forums and in bars.  Still it was what he had to do, part of the format, I think introduced by Jason Karl in series 1.

ACT 2: THE PSYCHIC ANGLE

One can say a great deal about the use of psychics in an investigation, and even more about Derek Acorah. I don’t intend to get too involved in these discussion, but in this episode Derek is much like in most. For many people this is probably the key part of the show, and what it does is to expand upon material already discussed, with Derek purporting to make contact with a number of spirit entities, and providing a number of names and facts that correspond with the historical record. IN the brief time I chose locations for the show I felt I had good reason to believe Derek could not know in advance the locations, but Ciaran O Keeffe has suggested a way round this; I am not going to concentrate on these issues here. One thing I think that is important is that Derek is filmed for a long period off time, and presumably edited for material that fits the correct framework, and I certainly do not believe that Karl and Yvette colluded in briefing Derek for reasons I am unable to discuss.  One could simply argue Derek could easily have said much that was wrong but not shown — I do  not believe that is the case however, for various reasons, notably that his hit rate does not decline in the live broadcasts.  I have discussed my thoughts on Derek’s mediumship after witnessing his stage show elsewhere, and will simply ignore the issue here for time reasons, concentrating on other aspects.

Firstly, I must return to ethics. As I noted above, there are very likely living loved ones of those deceased individuals purported to appear in the episode. For that reasons it is not my intention to name the individuals Derek mentions; and for that reason I am unable to do justice to any discussion of the accuracy or otherwise of Derek’s statements with regards to known historical fact. I ill say that Derek gives a number of names, and seems to be  accurate with those names, but also gives some curious names; curious in that they are not mentioned in the sources, or indeed known to the ANTIX research team, Richard Felix, and presumably the Pantons.

So does that actually add to the credibility of the psychic testimony, or are they simply wild guesses? There is nothing of the “I’m getting a P… Peter” extremely vagueness and generalised statements about Derek’s performance. He is either genuinely an astonishing psychic who talks to spirits, a complete fraud and actor, or has rather amazingly good ESP and actually picks garbled and occasionally wrong information from those around him.  I’ll let the reader decide: however these names that are mentioned but not confirmed fascinated me.  While most of the material fits in the framework of stories mentioned in “Act One”, there was some interesting additional material, including spirits watching over the work on a Lancaster bomber with one engine still to be repaired, something Derek noted as coming from “spirit” information.

However — one of the names Derek gives for a spirit, while of a real airman, was of one who actually we learn from Richard subsequently died only in 1989 in Canada. That spirit apparently only visits briefly to watch over things. Whether you regard this as a spectacular cock up or convincing proof of the nature of the afterlife will depend on how you feel about Derek Acorah. Another name given by Derek was certainly that of a real US airman killed after the war in a training accident in the USA, but as the fellow was well known it could be cryptomnesia: I was surprised Richard could not locate it, but then why would he? There is no connection with the UK!

Another interesting aspect is the identity of the apparition said to be seen walking towards the Control Tower. Act One frames this as related to the crew of the downed B17 denied permission to land. Here Derek creates an alternative scenario, where the ghostly pilot is associated with another famous crash the wreckage of which can be seen in the museum, and which is really quite moving. I have discovered the chap in questions relatives are alive, and are very happy it would seem with the Panton’s commemoration of the chaps death, but again I’m going to withhold the name.  Those interested can easily find that out from the websites linked above: Suffice to say  the plane recovered from a Fen in 1989 after forty years of lying there possibly had with it the pilots wallet (though the body was recovered at the time, and therefore it may have simply been collected then and donated when his Spitfire was discovered) , and it is clear from papers within he was not meant to fly that day, but cancelled his leave. Derek specifically mentions the wallet and leave being cancelled, before they are produced, clearly impressing Yvette.  He then ascribes the ghost approaching the control tower to this fellow, and says he was denied permission to land ran out of fuel and crashed.

Derek Acorah at East Kirkby

Derek Acorah at East Kirkby

Except.. this is the story normally ascribed to the B-17 pilot, whose identity is normally given to the ghost approaching the Control Tower. On one experiment under controlled conditions many years ago, a medium, Ms. Morven Alexander gave me a piece of historical information I believed to be wrong, which subsequently turned out to be correct. Could that be the case here? Have people been assigning the wrong identity to the spook? Did both pilots run out of fuel?

On the whole I do  not believe the B-17 did. It was either damaged on take off with an engine flame out and failed to perform an emergency landing, or suffered battle damage in the raid over Koblenz and crashed on landing. I have played the card game B17 Queen of the Sky enough to believe the latter is a realistic scenario, but why do  I not think there was  fuel on board? Because the older Panton recalls the terrific fire when it crashed, and immediately exploded. This does sound closer to the take off, circle and crash on second approach scenario, as the plane may well have been fully fuelled. However if it had a full bomb load I think things may have gone worse with the would be rescuers, so I can’t say for certain.

Did the spitfire crash through running out of fuel after being denied permission to land at East Kirkby? Nope. Thirty minutes in to a training flight out of RAF Digby the plane spun out of cloud, entered an inverted dive, and crashed in to the Fen. It could have been a mechanical fault, a stall, but I’m inclined to think it was spatial disorientation and vertigo, but I would really not pay heed to my thoughts (I have never flown a plane). Horrible, tragic business, watched by the two other RCAF Spitfires flying alongside. No question of fuel, no chance for an attempted landing at RAF East Kirkby, and no reason for an irate pilot to seek out the Control Tower. In fact the Spitfire did not fly from East Kirkby, but RCAF Digby, about ten miles or so away.  None of these facts that seem to throw doubt on Derek’s account were mentioned on the programme, whether because Richard did not know them or because of editing I can not say.

spitfire

Spitfire

As usual, one can make allowances. I was quite confused about who Derek was “talking” to in terms of his spirits in various points in the show, and perhaps I misunderstand. The Spitfire is at East Kirkby today, a fitting tribute to a young pilot lost in the war, but perhaps Derek intended us to think of the B-17 pilot all along. Maybe the psychic channels were confused. Whatever the reason, the account must be compared with the plain facts of the accident. Now there is probably someone out there who thinks “typical debunker, hiding behind supposed ethical issues to make up critiques.” If you do think I would stoop that low (and I must say I LIKE Derek as a person, whatever I think of his mediumship), here you go. The plane was Spitfire Mk.Vb BL655 FJ – B  Go check for yourselves what I assert.

And yes, I really do have ethical qualms about naming the alleged spirit communicators on a TV show. The problem of course is that without doing so, the evidence is simply non-existent. I’m sure MH often handled these things with tact and sensitivity, but on at least one occasion I felt they got it badly wrong (in another episode).  Whatever one feels, I’m not going to take any chances, as I must live with my own conscience, and feel better safe than sorry.

There is of course far more one could say about the nature of the alleged spirit communications, what conclusions one could draw from them, and so forth. I do not intend to pursue that here, because much of it could refer to any episode. Perhaps I will discuss it in a future blog post. Instead I will concentrate on what to me was the more interesting “third act”, by my arbitrary division of the programme.

ACT 3: The Vigil.

The team soon finds itself on the actual vigil. This begins with  a bang – well several of hem actually. Loud banging noises are clearly heard on the soundtrack. What are they? Phil mentions the possibility of the wind striking the aerodrome, but nope this sounds — metallic? Then Karl runs in, with the owners grandson Jonathan.  They explain they have seen the apparition of the officer wearing his cap outside, looking towards one of the bombers! The mysterious banging is quickly forgotten, as Karl takes the crew out, and explains what happened.

I’d encourage the interested reader to watch this scene carefully. It seems the two of them outside both saw the same thing, though curiously Jonathan reports seeing a large “orb first”, that then becomes the apparition. I’m reminded of the opinion expressed by a psychic on MHL4 that “orbs are the first stages of a spirit manifestation” – not an opinion I tend to share, being inclined strongly to believe orbs are nothing but artefacts of digital camera processing. There are plenty of sites these days that explain perfectly normally orbs:  however hang on, Jonathan was not as far as I can tell looking through a camera? So what did he see? A ball of light? A mist? Or was he looking through Karl’s viewfinder? Whatever happens the image seems to resolve in to a black silhouette of a pointing figure – was this just a shadow, or something more?

This takes me back to when we were filming for MHL4, as “overnighters”. I was camped out at Woodchester Mansion (with permission), and was standing in the very early hours alone near the side of the building when I suddenly saw what looked like three very tall grey robed figures staring at me. Shadows? Bushes seen in the darkness? Tired eyes? I walked away, rubbed my eyes and returned. Bushes I think, and looking from different angles suggested I was right, even if I could not recreate the illusion.. Hard to say – but the original vision had looked like something from an M.R.James tale, or Swinburne’s dark ladies. Maybe something like this befell Karl and Jonathan: or maybe they actually saw a spook, or … Actually, who knows? The problem is the apparitional sighting does not sound like many I have read about in the literature, but it could be genuine. Bizarrely no one seems all that interested. They never do on MH, when an actually apparition is supposedly seen. I have no idea why!

Derek then asks for more noise, because according to him spirits are greatly concerned with demonstrating their presence to us, and providing evidence for their survival of death. On cue, the banging starts up again.

Then it gets really odd. Jonathan the owners grandson starts to “burn up” — apparently actually experiencing a physiological temperature increase, well at least of his surface temperature. His forehead feels hot to the touch. He feels unwell, and appears a little distressed. Derek “confirms” by touch the temperature increase, but as an ex-nurse I’d say this is harder than it sounds.  Maybe the lad was feverish, or suffering some other affliction – acute embarrassment? I dunno!

We are suddenly distracted by a couple of pebbles apparently thrown or fallen from (through?) the roof – a common alleged paranormal phenomenon — but before we learn more, things get weirder. Karl appears, announcing he has the same kind of symptoms as Jonathan – a burning sensation, in Karl’s case limited to his left arm. Do ghosts emit some kind of irritant energy?I rather doubt it, yet you could speculate thus, and think that Karl would from what I can make out have had his left side to the apparition which was by Jonathan when they saw it: or you could suspect lighter fluid as someone mentioned! Or it could be auto-suggestion, a somatic effect. Once again we know nothing. Everyone was distracted by the pebbles, and anything could have happened. The problem with a fraud hypothesis is that Jonathan would have had to be in on it – I find that inherently absurd. If Karl faked things that blatantly with outsiders, he would have been exposed and court very quickly. These things also upset Yvette – which I think Karl would be loathe to do, unless she was in on it. Yet Yvette seems genuine in every way here.  Nope, I have little idea what is going on…

Yvette Fielding

Yvette at East Kirkby — Sky.com image.

Derek then comes up with something almost more extraordinary than the phenomena by way of explanation. He suggest that pilots who died in flaming aircraft wrecks may be trying to make their mode of passing known, by some form of telepathy. This left me speechless! I really don’t know what to say about that, so I will leave it. I have seen a medium seemingly throttled (not by me, despite my well known feeling about psychics I hasten to add!) in a room where a century before a lady hanged herself, and I guess the idea is similar, but really this one is just mind blowing! :D Derek says these are the things spirits will do to prove themselves to us? OK, I think I’d prefer to doubt…

I really must get on to some outstanding work, and other things, so I will summarise quickly the end of the episode. The team all split up again, and Karl, John Dibley and Stuart see strange lights in the Control Tower. A door closes, seemingly on its own.  Everyone else has nothing occur to them. It seems phenomena cluster round Karl, except for the stones. Dawn breaks and Ciaran O Keeffe is wheeled out in a VT insert, after reviewing the footage, and says how “fantastic” it was, and how it looked like “genuine phenomena”, before adding some realistic and reasonable sceptical caveats.  And then it’s over, and we are left wondering, was it real? What really happened?

Well it is I am told a really good episode of Most Haunted, and despite my short attention span I guess I enjoyed it. Please do comment, especially if you were actually there! I certainly watched it open mouthed at times, and hope my few rather scatty and half-baked comments have amused. I was also amazed when writing this to discover Yvette is the mother of Will Sweeny, Harry Styles of One Direction‘s old bandmate!

Anyway, I may return to review other episodes in the future, but for now all I can say is  “don’t have nightmares” ;)

cj x

Returning to my blog

Posted in Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on May 7, 2013

Hullo all!

I have had a pretty painful few months, with a dental problem that defied easy treatment and eventually rendered me constantly ill and miserable. I have rather lost the will to write for some months, and have been focussing on a huge research effort in reading the poltergeist literature, interspersed with some writing of freeform games and keeping up my commitments to the Ars Magica rpg. I have dome other things as well of course – designing and playing boardgames, arguing on forums in sporadic bursts, and being fairly busy, but I have not really been “with it”. (To be fair I did find time to post so far seven episodes of my Ars Magica RPG podcast Arcane Connection).

Last week I was fortunate enough to finally have the long awaited operation, and am now recovering well, All is good: I received excellent care from the NHS, and feel much much better. I went home and saw my folks, enjoyed being driven round my beloved Suffolk, and had a few new thoughts on the vanishing house mystery. I’m doing OK. and now I am back at my computer, and planning to start blogging again.

Anyway I thought I’d just say hello as it has been a while, and hope to be in touch with you all soon.

all the best

cj x

Is it time to give up on “Skepticism”?

Today I’m recovering from a rather unpleasant patch of illness that has left me drained, tired and at times irritable — and has prevented me posting the following thoughts for over a week. As I can’t see anyone caring anyway, the following post can be seen as a sort of note to self — but hopefully in future rows I can refer people here. I was awaiting the chance to read Daniel Loxton’s piece on scepticism – I often agree with him on much – but in the end have seized the opportunity to write my own thoughts here. I shall adopt a short, simple and hopefully clear style, rather than my usual one.

So, I don’t want to be called a “skeptic” any more. Or even a “sceptic”, though I think I prefer that, it having the advantage of being spelt correctly in the British English I speak. Of course, if you go to the Greek — but either way, the issue is sceptic does not work for me. I even think it’s potentially harmful. We might need to lose it.

I know a bit about ghosts. I know people experience ghosts. I’m still fairly ambivalent about what ghost experiences represent and whether science can currently explain them. (I think not all).  I am therefore surely not a sceptic?: I am open to “paranormal” beliefs.

Or am I? Skip back to 2006 when I joined the JREF forum, Randi’s place. People were just as belligerent and rude there back then as today (and some, indeed many, just as ace) and I soon ended up trying to explain that I saw Scepticism as a methodology,  a critical process of investigating facts and assessing evidence, rather than a simple process of nay saying. I argued many posters at the JREF were a priori skeptics” – that is that they knew say the paranormal was all bunk, therefore there was no need to address paranormal claims. (And such opinions still appear there today). APS, a priori skepticism can be defended as a tactic, but is irrational (in the technical sense) as an actual worldview.

I guess I had best defend that last statement. OK, imagine tomorrow we prove that some phenomena that occurs in paranormal books – take Giant Squid  as that happened – really exists. Giant squid were staples of 70′ paranormal books. Therefore to APS they can not be real because they are/were paranormal. Now you can presumably if you are an a priori skeptic move things from the “paranormal” to the “real” category — but how remains rather obscure, because once you allow that it removes any justification for the APS of paranormal claims in the first place.  Luckily most people who adopt APS are not concerned with epistemology or consistency, only in sneering at anyone who lacks their extreme faith-based beliefs. (I’m sure I don’t have to explain why APS is faith based?)

So enough of APS: it is still a minority position. Most sceptics I spoke to agreed with my 2006 definition of scepticism as a process: a way of looking at the world. Now I spent a lot of 2008-2010 reading philosophy of science, as I kept finding myself puzzled by things I experienced in sceptical circles (people used “rationalist” to mean something other than “argument based on deduction, not sense-observation” for example — and they used “empirical” to include mathematical proofs which are not empirical but rationalist, as well as conflating “rational” and “true” and “irrational” with “false”. I was irritated at times by what seemed to be the exuberance and bull headed self confidence of people who thought they were clever, yet often struck me as not actually knowing what they were talking about. Rather than fight over misappropriation of philosophical language, words can change their meanings and usage after all, I however noted something quite clear —

There seemed little difference between a process sceptic (or methodological scepticism) and normal scientific methodologies.

Yes I really did just write that in red bold. :D Methodological Scepticism and Science are one and the same thing. If you disagree with me, as I’m sure someone must, then please do comment, and tell me how they differ. Both begin by asking questions, and usually involve attempting to falsify a hypothesis. Both involve ending up making a judgement regarding the strength of the evidence, and if the research supported or opposed certain conclusions. Science like Scepticism can be performed by people irrespective of their personal ideological baggage – even  Richard Dawkins has been able to perform science successfully despite his clearly strong ideological biases. 

In process Scepticism paranormal belief is perfectly compatible with said scepticism, if that is what the empirical evidence leads you to. And hence the strong scepticism among many spiritualist circles, and large numbers of scientists I think who sit in such circles – they have a very anti-faith and evidence based mindset, and spiritualism provides what appears to be empirical proof, or so its adherents profess.

Now I’ve bolded that last paragraph cos I want to look at it more. I’m not a spiritualist, and immediately my instinct is sod “process scepticism”/”scientific methodology”, they are all deluded or being defrauded. Yet I immediately stop myself – because that claim is absolutely unfounded. I have certainly seen fake mediums – and ones who were convinced of their own abilities too – but I certainly have not seen enough to know they were all fakes, even if the Problem of Induction allowed one to make such grandiose claims. I have certainly know enough intelligent critical people who think they have encountered empirical evidence of the persistence after death of loved ones to realise my reaction is emotional, and far from sceptical.

As a sceptic I should do the work: conduct some experiments, investigate the evidence, and not draw conclusions beyond what the evidence permits. To allow “scientific cultures” sneering contempt for mediumship to influence my thinking is clearly seriously unscientific; and when I turn to the arguments most commonly brought against studying such things as impossible, I find most of them are of the category “belief claims for a materialist philosophical worldview” rather than actually anything to do with Science.

If Scepticism is as I propose simply synonymous with Science, it must remain as neutral as possible in framing the questions and conducting the research. If Scepticism is not Science, but instead something more akin to the philosophical defence (apologetics) of materialist, reductionist, and eliminative philosophies then it should be honest that it is that – faith based teaching, a form of apologetics, and state so.

So to go back to those spiritualists — I must adopt an open minded approach as far as I can, given my prejudices, to the phenomena. I must attempt to be objective. If strong belief either way is allowed to interfere with my reading of the data, my science will be flawed. I will want to render the whole research as transparent and objective as possible.

So why disguise my Scientific investigation as something else, dressing it up as “sceptical”? If that term says nothing about my final position (which will be evidence based) why use the misleading “sceptic”  term? I’m assuming that no one thinks one can scientifically investigate spiritualism’s reality with the conclusion already written – that would be appalling science – so why take on a label that seems to suggest one is doing exactly such a thing?

Furthermore, imagine you think you have seen a ghost, or a bigfoot, or somesuch. You look in the phonebook – there is the local woo group with their YouTube video series, or the local SCEPTIC. Who will you go to? I doubt it will be the sceptic – even if you are unsure about exactly what you experienced, sceptic implies someone who won’t believe you.

Science is methodologically rigorous, critical thinking, and evidence based. Why do we need to add a Skeptic label?

We don’t. I suggest “Skeptics” stop trying to promote “scepticism”, and promote simpler easier to sell virtues, Truth and Science. No one will react badly to you promising to use science and objectively look for the truth. They may even support you.

I can only think of four reasons why the term Sceptic may be used…

1. It may be employed by people who feel insecure about their credentials for doing science. Don’t. You do not need to  wear a white coat or have a PhD in a Scientific discipline to do science. If you aspire to do science, people will help you. Choose a simple research topic, think of an experiment, and try and ask a few folks to check out your methodology before you start. Make sure your ethics are good. And publish your results, if only on the web :)

2. It might be employed by people who think researching say ESP or Lake Monsters without setting out clearly they think it is all bunk will damage their university careers and funding. If so I sympathise, but your publications can speak for themselves, and I think the contrary implication that you are researching topics with your mind already made up as to the outcomes might do you rather more damage in much of academia than a predilection for studying slightly offbeat things.

3. It might be employed by people who genuinely believe there is a difference between sceptical and scientific methodologies, and that the former is superior. If such a position is held, please do explain it to me.

and finally 4. Some people may like calling themselves skeptics because it sounds clever. I have often found skeptics to be fairly intellectually self-assured.   I don’t think advocating Science is any less clever though.

So seriously, this whole skeptic thing, it has got so much baggage attached. Stuff it. You find great papers and poor papers in the journals, and whether written by sceptics or believers is irrelevant. Evidence and sound analysis — good science – is what matters at the end of the day.

cj x

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,134 other followers

%d bloggers like this: