Who Ya Gonna Call? The Problem with British Ghosthunting

This is going to be a controversial article, and is going to annoy a lot of people. It is about ghosts, and how we investigate them, and how we try to learn about the nature of paranormal phenomena. The UK has become full of groups who say they scientifically investigate spooks. Given the tens of thousands of person hours being spent by people off ghosthunting every week you might have thought that by now we might have built working proton packs and pk meters, and be way ahead of the fictional ghosthunters. At least we would have pretty solid and convincing evidence for the reality of the phenomena?

Of course we haven’t. We have got nowhere much, and while individuals might have had experiences they find personally compelling, most of the UK population, Brian “nobber” Cox, and the scientific community are all awaiting decent rigorous and experimentally validated evidence and theories that tie spooks in with the Standard Model of Physics ( if they are not too busy sneering at us “ghostbusters” 😉 ).

I therefore put it to you that the ghosthunting scene has fundamantally screwed up, and that we are going nowhere fast. It is in fact possible that in our enthusiasm we are actually slowing down or preventing progress in the field, as cases that used ot reach people with better methodologies are now dealt with by someone who is a big fan of Ghost Strippers (OK, I made that show up!) but clueless.

Now some big assumptions here. This article won’t apply to many of you. If you only go ghost hunting for your personal satisfaction, or the thrills, or the women, or the sitting around in the dark being bored, or whatever turns you on – fair enough. If you go to Fright Nights or wherever and have a great time with your mates, and you enjoy it — that’s grand, and you keep doing it!

Ghosthunting is a fun romantic and exciting hobby, like when teenagers drive to spooky places and get excited and scream – legend tripping is the technical term. I am absolutely 100% behind this, and you go enjoy yourselves – just don’t damage anything – especially yourselves – and don’t end up in jail. Go have fun, I mean you clearly don’t need my permission but heck you have my enthusiastic support! Such romantic scary shenanigans are killed stone dead by scientific methodology and critical thinking – so go get spooked, fall in love, and scream a lot, but don’t bother reading this. It is not aimed at you.

No I am writing to the OTHER ghosthunters – the ones who are serious, intent on finding evidence, and intent on being part of a wider community, and who regard their methods as scientific and their work as useful research. I think a lot of us have made some fundamental mistakes, and I am going to try and put them forward – not to put anyone down, but to OPEN UP A DISCUSSION ABOUT THE WAY FORWARD. I am going to ask you to “think outside the box” as corporate types used to say, and examine a lot of stuff we have been taking for granted. You may well get offended: in which case I ask you to laugh, call me a moron, and then (politely if you can) tell me why I am wrong below.

So What Is Wrong With the Ghosthunting Community?

Firstly – discontinuity. Let’s go back to the 1980’s. Peter Underwood, Andrew Green, Tony Cornell, The Ghost Club, the SPR and ASSAP etc were all active. Ghost hunting had developed some tried and tested methods, and a lot of them involved throwing new technologies at the problem of what a haunting is.

Often it was referred to as Spontaneous Case Investigation as most parapsychologists were messing around in the lab doing hardcore science to investigate the nature and existence of ESP and the Psi hypothesis. Have you heard of these people? Have you read their books? Quite probably. And you assume we are in their tradition?

We aren’t. We are in the tradition of Yvette Fielding, Zac Bagans and the plumbers from TAPS, Alan Robson and maybe the early 20th century Ghosthunter Elliot O’ Donnell. We are not even in the tradition of Harry Price. Our default assumptions are not learned from books or from old ghosthunting snobs – we learn how to investigate to a tremendous extent from TV shows, or nowadays from streaming shows.

That in itself is no bad thing. There is nothing wrong with cable TV, and I have learned more about some aspects of science and history from TV documentaries than I have ever learned from textbooks and journals – and I am an academic. Popular does not mean bad. Elitist does not mean good. Snobs can get lost.

The problem is that we can trace from Scariest Places on Earth and Most Haunted to the modern day how the TV format of paranormal programming has developed. Now not all shows follow the core format I will critique, but many do.

At the time when Paranormal TV suddenly exploded there was a move away from soap opera, aspirational TV and Hollywood fantasy towards shows about “ordinary people” living like the viewers – Reality TV. Some suggest it grew out of the webcam girls of the 90’s, or the increasing prevalence of CCTV – but reality and authenticity were now prized. Most Haunted is basically Reality TV ghosthunting and all credit is due to Karl Beattie and Yvette Fielding who created a whole new genre with their show. And stuffy elitist old academic ghosthunters — well some disparaged it, some loved it, and most of us thought it was fun and took the cheques to appear. I had spent the previous decade doing TV talking-head slots about ghosts, but this was the first time any of us reached a mass audience.

What we did not realise was these harmless seeming shows were to completely change how people looked at investigating ghosts. Now that is often a good thing – it is what I want to do with this article, though the chances of anyone bothering to read it or it having any impact are slim. The problem is however that ghosthunting nowadays is not like ghosthunting in the 80s – it is a new thing, using different methods, shaped by the needs of Television and the audience.

The old school ghosthunter like say Steve Parsons is a dinosaur now, a relic of an older generations methodologies and ideas. The problem is that their methods may have worked better – and a huge scale experiment with tens of thousands of people spending hundreds of thousands of hours in what I will call the New Ghost Hunting hasn’t got us anywhere in 20 years.

Are the New Ghost Hunters No Good Then?

Many of the New Ghost Hunters are way more skilled, intelligent and experienced than even the biggest names of the past. They know how to use a lot more technical equipment, have dedicated far more hours than even Harry Price could dream of to research and have got impressive results on occasion.

They are often really great people too, whereas some of the Old Guard were a bit — well politics is nothing new in the paranormal research community.

My argument is not that the New Ghost Hunters are no good; they are great. My argument is that they could be even better, if they could see the things that are holding them back.

We all move in cultural contexts, our thinking shaped by the ideas around us. To British ghosthunters this is most evident when they look at their USA colleagues obsession with demons. I believe it was C. S. Lewis who remarked that the young believer often sees demons behind every rosebush – if they are American ghosthunters they really do.

Now Britain is essential atheistic, and that even the religious part of our population are unlikely to attend church outside of christenings, funerals and wedding, and we don’t take demons any more seriously than we do Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy on the whole. (Now I am from a Church college, so I do – but most Brits just find it all a bit daft). We might accept dead guys hang around, and vague Spiritualist ideas – though Underwood and Green would have no truck with them as I recall – but on the whole we don’t think in terms of demonic forces.

Whereas in the USA, the culture is permeated by Christianity, and unlike here where we sing hymns at school and academically study religions for years in the classroom putting us off by the age of ten, in he USA there is a great popular piety (well maybe not in SF and NY, but you gte the picture). Furthermore, Americans are likely to have been influenced by the weird Catholic parachurch tradition which I associated with Ed and Lorraine Warren and their friends, and indeed the strength of traditional Roman Catholic belief in many of parts of the United States as compared to here. Of course there are numerous exceptions in both countries and the Internet has a global influence.

Now whether the British or American approach to the true nature of what a haunting is right will not be the point I’m concerned with today – though it is one we must address one day. No my point in raising demons (er, not like that, Faust!) is that the cultural context is something we swim in like fish in water, and while many British ghosthunters are often disparaging about organised religion, many Americans have sharply different ideas. (Interestingly British and American UFOlogy has sharp divides as well. And let us not even mention the French or the Germans! 😉 )

So What Has This Got To Do With TV?

Grab a pen and paper. Think about the format of a paranormal TV show you used to watch. What happens in it? Make a list of things and assumptions. You will find way more things than I have. Keep the list – and next time you watch a paranormal TV show make more notes. This is a work in progress, and while the formats vary from show to show, many of the assumptions are similar. Here are a few of the assumptions I have identified…

  • The Investigators must visit the property. This seems like a no brainer, but actually an awful lot of pretty hard core ghost research was conducted for over a hundred years by correpondence, and some ghost investigations never needed anyone on location. I personally did a lot of work without visiting locations, because I couldn’t
  • The Investigators must try and experience the haunting themselves. I think this is a huge difference from when I was first active. I would go and record the testimony, take photographs, and try and work out what had occurred. The only times I would stay after sunset was when the family asked me for a meal or needed me to sleep over to reassure them they were going to be OK. I did experience some very strange phenomena, but it was incidental to the investigation. That probably sounds very odd nowadays.
  • It is all about the Investigators. In the Old Ghosthunting, the primary job was to interview and record what the witnesses had experienced, like a detective – not to stand around and shout for the murderer, sorry ghost, to come and slap you! Most ghosthunting shows are about the stars visit to ye olde haunted pub- so we hear very little about what others have experienced there before.
  • The Investigators often don’t know what others have experienced before entering the property. Now I can sort of understand this if your primary aim is to witness the phenomena, but again it is a major departure from methods often used in the past. We would try and learn all we could about the stories, and interview time and time again the witnesses. We would test the theoretical material against what they had reportedly experienced. In a lot of modern ghosthunts what has gone before is only revealed at the end. Now this might be the case if you are trying something like Gertrude Schmideler’s Quantatitive Investigation of A Haunted House approach, and it has its place there – but it is hard to understand what the witness experienced if you are unaware what the experience was.
  • The Investigation is one night only. “24 hours in a haunted house” was a motto of Most Haunted. So the TV show ignores what came before, what comes after, and what lies outside of the property. The small screen seeks what TV writers call “a classic unity of time and place” – you don’t want to distract the viewer with the bigger picture. History, geography, geology and climate are ignored in favour of keeping it centrered on human drama and the building. Ghosthunting TV decontextualises the phenomena. This may be the biggest tragedy of adopting TV genre ideas – people only investigate a haunting in relationto their own visit, and often never return. The occupants and witnesses are excluded during the vigil. If the Antique Moose Pub does not produce anything the night they are there, they say “not haunted” and move on. They do not look in to the history, previous owners, historical records, folklore and other properties in the area, let alone try and understand the human terrain. We once spent several months living and working with a family in a haunted pub, becoming part of the psychological set up and witnessing the phenomena. People now are upset if nothing happens in three hours…
  • Paranormal phenomena is primarily physical. So ghosts will appear on camera, objects will move and people will be scratched, shoved or levitated. Now actually an awful lot of phenomena is physical in haunting reports, but what ghost hunters report and what people in historical hauntings reported are often quite distinct. The classic study on this was Dr. Becky Smith’s M.A. dissertation on the Spook Book from the Station Hotel, Dudley, where she analysed two years worth of ghosthunting groups reports after the hotel featured on an episode of Most Haunted. The problem with the physical assumption is it is directly contrary to a lot of theoretical work on apparitions, and we don’t have many good photos of ghosts. We do have several cases where witnesses have seen a ghost, and the person standing next to them has not. People often think hallucination means unreal, not being familiar with the idea of a veridical apparition in psychical research. The use of technology requires physically present entities I guess?
  • There are no Experts in the Paranormal (except the TV stars!). Now unlike Chemistry, Physics or many other sciences, we actually know not a lot about the phenomena in question. I have suggested the analogy of the parnormal as the Recycle Bin of Sciencein the past. However, there are experts in the paranormal. There were experts in poltergeists (Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell to start with), experts in apparitions (G.N.M Tyrell, Arthur Myers, Louisa Rhine), experts in OOBE (Celia Green) and experts in Ganzfeld Psi experiments (Honorton, Hyman, many many others). There is a very sizeable peer reviewed literature, and it is easy to amass a sizeable library of books on the subject with something worth reading in. There are loads of experts, and they are hard to shut up. My old essay here has quite a few books in the bibliography that you should seek out. However just because you don’t like reading or are not academic is no reason not to be a ghost hunter; almost every skill is relevant in some case or another, from being a good listener, knowing about how to chat to a distressed family, carpentry, knitting to electrical knowledge and the ability to calm a wary dog! Common Sense, something I personally lack, is invaluable!
  • You need to call out and offer to let Spirits use your energy. So if spirits are real things, is this actually a good idea? What is going on when someone is possessed? Is this good for them? Are there long term repercussions? Do spirits even exist? Why are we doing this? In the old ghosthunting table tipping etc was often used to keep a family on one place and under observation. People did sometimes try and ‘provoke’ ghosts, but I was normally too busy running away if anything happened. 😉 And to be fair, this calling out thing does have the disadvantage of priming you to interpret whatever happens next in paranormal terms, and making you sound like loonies toanyone not involved in the investigation.
  • Psychics are an integral part of every investigation. From what I recall Yvette and Karl did not intend ot have a psychic on Most Haunted, but Living TV had Derek on contract, so a psychic was added. The rest is history! I am not sure if psychics and mediums are big in the US ghost hunting shows? (I really should watch some). However in the UK a ghost hunt without a psychic is like Christmas without a tree it seems these days? I actually did experiment quite a bit with psychics in the 90s, so maybe it is my fault?
  • It’s all about the ghost, baby! We want you to perfom, little ghosties. Out you come, do some tricks, give us thrills, and then our medium will move you on to another place (but come back on the 25th as we have another vigil booked). It wasn’t like this y’know? We used to help people, you know distressed families, and take recordings for science if we could. primarily we tried to stop distress, and increase the expertise of the research community as a whole by publishing our results. Nowadays people don’t publish, they just post videos shot on nightvision cam that look like a very dull relative of Paris Hilton’s infamous sex tape (not that I have seen it). That’s because no one cares about other people’s findings any more, because it is ALL about the experience and you have to be there. 😦
  • Hauntings are place centered, and ghosts are essentially invisible people who live in houses (as opposed to person centred, and arising out of family dynamics or being associated with one person, an agent). Except they move house with families, and certain people seem to attract lots of “paranormal incdents” while others never experience anything? However you can’t really make a TV show about haunted Donna if Donna is not one of your stars…

So What Do We Do Then?

My argument is not that the New Ghosthunters are bad – they aren’t – it is that they have adopted assumptions from these TV shows that aim to entertain an audience, keep it simple enough to please a Producer and exciting enough to keep a jaded Comissioning Editor happy. Not all these assumptions are bad – some may be useful even – but they are dangerous if you are not aware of them, don’t question them, and assume it is just “the way Ghosthunting is done”. If you want to advance our knowledge of hauntings, you ne4ed to think about how to share your findings with others. You need to question what you have learned, and be willing to unlearn bad habits. Most of all, you have to help move beyond the current methods, the tired old cliches, and think about how you can move forward, and where you are trying to get to with your research.

I hesitated to write this piece, because I can see some people being offended. I honestly believe the time has come for a serious critical look though at what TV has taught us, and a grown up conversation about how we can create a Newer Ghosthunting that is tough on Paranormal TV, and tougher on the causes of Paranormal TV.

So I need you to think about these issues, and if I am right or wrong, comment if you find htis helpful or not, and look at ways we can al develop and improve our research. And if you are able to join me at the (very reasonably priced) ASSAP Conference this September you can buy me a drink (or throw one over me!)

All the best

CJ x

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The Great Gatwick UFO Mystery

So what do people think of the Gatwick UFO case? Because that is actually what it is — the alleged drone is by an unidentified flying object; the fact it is interpreted as a drone rather than aliens or Santa doing practice runs just tells us about how we perceive things these days. A modern myth of things seen in the sky, indeed…

So the police are now stressing they believe the 67 eye witness reports of a drone over the airfield: a drone that was apparently chased by a police helicopter. Yet despite the fact 67 people saw it, Gatwick we might assume has rather a lot of surveillance cameras and one presumes quite good technology for seeing what is going on in the sky and thousands of annoyed people taking selfies as their holiday plans are ruined, the police have not found a single photo or recording of the drone? It is more than a bit strange.

So yes, this is a classic UFO case, and possibly a job for ASSAP. It tells us something about strange phenomena, and maybe we should be looking in to this case, whether ufo, hallucination or moral panic, or just an elusive drone…

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Peter Clark: Memories of John Francis Bull

Peter has written a moving tribute to John Bull, our friend who died on Saturday 8th July 2017, aged just 47. I reproduce it here as a guest post.

“I can’t adequately express how saddened I am by John’s death.  He was one of my oldest friends and over the years certainly my best.  With the exception of a few months when I moved to Cheltenham and when he moved back to Suffolk I saw him almost every week.  It’s difficult to comprehend that I won’t see him again.

Although he often portrayed a veneer of combativeness in the way he spoke I always thought he was a decent, quiet and clever man who sometimes hid those attributes from others.  I hardly ever saw him angry and I’ve never knew him to do anything deliberately hurtful to anybody.

I knew John best through roleplaying and wargaming, together we travelled in our imaginations through stories sweeping from the depths of space to the grimy alleys of Victorian London and beyond.  John always added something to the games, bringing encyclopaedic knowledge of certain parts of history and a sharp, clever mind that was often more than a match for any puzzle or plot I might devise.  I know roleplaying is difficult to understand if you haven’t participated but I still remember sessions that John and I were involved with going back over the decades, including one memorable instance in his shop when we only realised how long we’d been playing when the rising sun started shafting in through the windows.  I will also remember the sight of John in his full Lorien Trust gear, clad in his leather armour, sheltered behind a huge shield, an altogether imposing sight.

As well as roleplaying we shared many other interests, John was a military historian like me and we often had conversations about obscure bits of military history that left others mystified.  I realised how much I would miss him while back in Bury last week …. I looked up and saw the unusual sight of an Osprey Tilt Rotor and wanted to share it with someone but I realised that John was the only one who would have understood and I’d never be able to talk to him about it now.

I don’t feel these few words do justice to this good man, I miss him now and I’m sure as the years go on I will feel his absence more and more.

I’m so sorry I couldn’t be at the funeral.  I’m sure my friend was give a send off that was worthy of him.  My thoughts and condolences are with all of you.

Yours,

Peter Clark”

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Phil Mansfield: Eulogy for John Francis Bull

A guest post, in which Phil shares his memories of a dear friend and founder member of the Nameless Anarchist Horde Bury gaming group…

John Bull

I have had the pleasure of knowing John since the early 80s when me met at the Mid Anglia Wargamers. It soon became clear that he was a very enthusiastic wargamer and was quickly joining in games and raising armies. I still recall fondly his very green tanks. 

He quickly showed himself to be an able opponent and was soon collecting armies in very diverse periods but which ever period of history we were discussing, he was able to demonstrate an incredible knowledge of weapon systems and tactics.

John also started coming along to the role playing group that met at Christian’s house on a Thursday. John played his characters in the same style as his personality, they were always particularly well armed, and often in an innovative way. On one occasion in an attempt to out manoeuvre John, CJ said to him as the game keeper you are just carrying a book about flower growing, you are completely defenceless.  “Oh no I am not,” replies John and described putting the book back in the bag and using it as a sling.

Just like John in real life, his characters could be relied upon for their ability to work their way out of a tight spot, with him often coming up with ingenious (or slightly crazy depending on how you look at it) ways of getting us out of trouble. I played more role-playing games than I can recall with John and again, just like in real life, h0e always demonstrated loyalty to his friends.

My friendship with John really took off when, through his shop that he ran briefly in Bury, we found  out about a board game called World in Flames (strategic board game of WW2) which for the four of us John, Pete Dave and myself quickly became a favourite. The problem was we had nowhere to set the game out and leave it set up but on that front John came to the rescue with his offer of playing at his house where he lived with his parents in Stanton.

We must have spent at least three or four summers whilst we were going through university not doing a lot else other than playing Wif. Now John had a knack of rolling dice well, but in this particular game rolling high was not always an advantage. He and Dave were allies and Dave was desperate for the turn to end which it would have done on any roll of a dice unless John rolled a six. Could John managed to roll anything other than a six?  No, and the turn went on and on – much even to John’s amusement about the position that Dave was finding himself in.

Life got in the way of endless Wif games but we still managed to find the way of holding them by for what became known as Wif week when we would literally spend the whole week playing. John and my addiction got so bad we even managed a Wif holiday, going to a convention in Germany. I know now from conversations that I have had with Carol that John as ever was very laid back about the trip as he was with most things in life. When Carrol enquired as to where he was going and where he was staying – Phil’s arranged it and off he went.

John had by now become a very good friend of mine, and when life took him in a different direction with his move to Cheltenham I was disappointed I would not be seeing him for a game or two.

Now aside from a get together to see Dave off move to Australia, I had not seen John for some time. A couple of months ago I heard from him out of the blue to hear that he was moving back to Bury and we were messaging, as is the way these days, about meeting up for a game. My regret is that life again got in the way as before we managed to get that organised his life has been cut tragically short.

The meaning of friendship to me is the ability to talk to someone who you have known for ever but not seen for some time. I know that if we had met up we would have been discussing life, but mainly gaming and it would have been as if we were meeting up to carry on our wif game.

 I have struggled a bit for anecdotes about John because being in his company was a normal everyday occurrence for such a long period of time when we were growing up- it was an every day event.

I am very sad today but more importantly I am proud to have known John, and called him my friend. He would and often did anything to help his family and friends (well apart from Bogbrush). He enjoyed life and I will always remember his grin and him scratching his head as he rolled a handful of dice and crushed my army.

Rest in peace my friend and look forward to gaming with you again in the next life.

Phil Mansfield
 

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Eulogy for John Francis Bull.

Today saw the funeral of my friend John Francis Bull. This was the eulogy I delivered…

Two score and seven years ago John Francis Bull entered this world; and in his unassuming way, quietly and without fuss, he has now left us again. It was typical of John that he went without fuss – but he went here, in the family home, in the county he loved, and that is the single ray of light in the deep sadness he left. John has left us, but he has left us so much the richer for the warmth, the humour, the kindness and the strength that he shared so generously with those who had the privilege of knowing him.

There are many here who knew John better, more deeply than I. We became friends in our teens, and knew each other for some three decades; but John held discretion as his watchword, and much of his life and activities was private. We all knew of those he loved deeply – his parents, the wonderful John and Carol; his grandparents Frank & Lucy who adored him as he adored them; and of course despite all the teasing, his beloved sister BogBrush, or Emma as I understand she was mistakenly baptised? 

And of course we must mention Gremlin his kitten, who loved John as only a kitten can, and loved John only!

John Francis Bull was aptly named.  I’m sure we have all seen depictions of John Bull, the British equivalent of the Yankee Uncle Sam. That  Bull is a stout country yeoman, representing the loyal and brave rural Englishman whose liberties will not be trodden on. Fuelled by roast beef, good beer and patriotism John Bull has the strength to see off all who would attack our island home.

 Our John Bull shared these qualities; he was a warrior at heart, who lived his life with courage and dignity; not in the armed forces, as he wanted, for his diabetes counted against him – but he was always there when called upon. And when called upon, in whatever crisis, John was utterly unflappable. One of his friends, Jo-Dee reminded me that when surrounded by utter chaos John stood calmly smiling, dealing with things that needed doing, totally in the control of the situation. That is true strength, and true leadership.

 John was also a good strategist, but he excelled in small unit tactics, and I learned much from watching him. In one game we were aware that the enemy was above us, and had the stairs covered. John simply moved across the room, aimed at the ceiling, and declared he was shooting through the floorboards. The referee called a kill, and we achieved our objective, winning easily. 

 John admired many of his colleagues he worked with in Security, and learned from them all, speaking very highly of them. It was our countries loss that John could not serve as a regular or in the police owing to diabetes; but it was the gain of many young and vulnerable teens and students whom he looked after in that steady reliable way of his. Physically he was very Strong, and his puppy fat gave way to honed muscle as he worked out. For the gamers, John had Strength 16!

John was fiercely loyal, and honest to the point of bluntness. His dedication to duty was absolute, and must be celebrated. He earned Man of the Month for Abbey Security soon after joining them by working a full shift, and then coming in again to cover for a sick colleague. If John said he would be there, he was. His capacity for hard work as inspiring. 

You need sound judgement and great kindness to do that role, and here the Francis part of his name comes to mind because like St. Francis, John loved animals, and they loved him.  Women regarded John with absolute trust, and felt very secure in his presence. John rolled very high for Wisdom too!
 Yet his Intelligence was even greater.. It took me years to recognise it, and it was not till John joined C23 and I saw him working on problem solving and doing analysis that I realised that he was one of the cleverest, if not the cleverest man I knew.  John was so humble, and his personality at times defensive – he survived rather than enjoyed Culford, and did well in an age that failed to recognise dyslexia as sympathetically as we do today – and John was never one to boast. However if faced with a problem, John would make sudden intuitive leaps, and see patterns in data long before others.

His proposed solutions were often gung ho and witty, if usually a little impractical – hence Haverhill has not  yet been shelled to rubble, despite appearances. John was extremely clever in the best way: he never bored anyone else with his cleverness. Sure if you were playing a game John would “rules lawyer” and minimax, finding every loophole there was. One roleplaying game, Ars Magica 5th edition, was influenced by John designing a perfectly legal character, William Ex Miscellanea, who broke the previus edition by being better than anyone else! William appears as a character in one of the Ars Magica books, and while people play that game John’s alter ego will live on. 

Usually John used his intelligence for good though – if you went to John with your problem, he would come up with solutions. John rolled 18 for Intelligence.

As to Charisma, John Francis had it in spades. He was cynical about gurus, demagogues and people who used fancy words, and in our games club the Nameless Anarchist Horde he was the person who generally kept us grounded. In a world full of idealists and romantics John stood for pragmatism and hard British common sense, and the truth no matter how inconvenient.  Phil Mansfield will read his tribute at the pub, in which he expresses just what John meant to us as gamers, as friends, and as kids growing up. John had Charisma, and that led him to hold rank in the Romans, and as Erin, in the Militia at The Gathering

John’s life seems short to us: but it was extraordinary, though in his humility he passed himself of as the most ordinary chap of all. I knew John Francis for three decades, and countless adventures in dozens of worlds. Now his last hit point has gone, his saving throw failed and we affectionately place his character sheet back in the folder; but the stories of his life, and the tales we told together, will live on. John had but half a life; but what a life — a glorious, fun, generous and exuberant life, exemplifying the finest qualities of England — what we would expect from a member of his family.

And us who live on?  In our games let us celebrate our fallen comrade, in the way we conduct ourselves let John’s example guide us as the good and true man he was, and in our hearts may he live on until we meet again.

Farewell, John Francis Bull.  England Expects, and you did your duty.

  

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Review: Continuum 2016, Games Convention in Leicester

WARNING: Many links contain sound. Don’t click on them if at work.

Last week was spent on my annual holiday, this time spent visiting my parents in Suffolk and from Friday to Monday at Continuum, a bi-annual games convention in Leicester. Continuum grew out of an earlier RPG convention called Convulsion which was highly focussed on Chaosium games and Glorantha,  and I attended a few of the early Continuums as a day delegate, popping in and then returning home on the train having acquired whatever Gloranthan lore was on sale as a con special that year. Back in even the early 2000’s it was still quite hard to find RPG and specialist games shops, and so buying any hobby product often involved lengthy journeys. Nowadays of course  I can buy pdfs and have the product in seconds, or buy physical books and have them shipped to me, but back then a convention was a chance to find cool new stuff I had not even heard of.

Even so, I really don’t recommend attending conventions this way. Firstly, a day pass is often really expensive, and secondly you don’t actually get to do much as chances are all the games have signed up in advance the night before you arrive (though Continuum does allow online sign ups and reservations). Mainly though, a huge part of the con experience is  sitting around chatting to people in the bar until 5am, getting up early for the breakfast (the food was excellent this year – best ever I have seen at a con, and MUCH better than the woeful standard of as few years back) and random encounters with RPG luminaries likes Marcus L Rowland, Mike Mason or Lewis Jardine in corridors.

So while my early visits to gaming conventions were brief flirtations with a short hit and run shopping visit, nowadays I do it properly and honestly I really advise you to stay over if you can. This was my third Continuum as a delegate staying on-site, and while the accommodation was not as lovely as the flat I had assigned in 2012 it was still perfectly functional, though the absence of any cooking utensils meant my plan to cook for Lloyd Gyan has had to be deferred to some future event. Bring towels, t0othpaste and a saucepan or two plus crockery, and you will be fine, as Sainsburys is twenty minutes walk away and in the heat quite tiring if you have a packed schedule. This year I only had to walk up to Oadsby to the shop once.

So what do you do at a games convention? Well you meet up with old friends, you play boardgames, you drink in the bar, you play roleplaying games, you attend seminars, and you play Freeform larps (live action dress up roleplaying games).  I was due to run three Freeforms, play in one, and also do a seminar slot. People sign up for the Freeform games a few weeks in advance – so they can arrange costume – and unfortunately one of my games 1215 & All That, a comedic take on Magna Carta I first ran at Grand Tribunal last year did not fill up so I pulled it (rather than run with far too few players) a week before the convention.

GETTING THERE

I got a lift up to Leicester this year with Becky, so avoided the problem of bus or taxi. I’m going to guess that the venue John Foster Hall of the University of Leicester is 3 to 5 miles from Leicester station, and I have never met anyone yet who has walked it, though it is theoretically possible. Delegates often arrange to meet and share taxis, but if you have a car there is free parking on site. Once i had arrived, I found Alison |Rider-Hill manning the con desk and was welcomed, given a badge and sent to the accommodation desk to get my keys. I was on the second floor of Leir house, right by the bar, and  there is a lift up if the stairs are an issue. Accessibility was good throughout the site, as one might expect from a modern university campus.

I was amused to find my badge this year was even shorter than usual “CJ”. Am I becoming notorious enough to get way with two letters? Next time I shall go for one, and become “Mr C” – not the Shamen one 😉 – or perhaps hope to lose both and become The Delegate With No Name, or the The Delegate Who Should Not Be Named!

HIGHLY HAUNTED LIVE

On the first night I was running a freeform, Highly Haunted Live, a lighthearted look at a TV show I was associated with many years ago for a while. There were 13 players, each playing a role in the cast or crew of this live paranormal Reality TV show spectacular, and the players were armed with cameras, EMF meters, and complex backstories. Everyone had their own goals and aims, and making good TV was not really high on most of their priorities! The game involved the players running in character around a beautiful house that was made available to us, and much screaming, swearing and paranormal TV in-jokes “a viewer has just called in to say their goldfish is possessed!”…

Twenty minutes in to the show three out of work academics who had set up their own “paranormal elimination” franchise, the Ghostblasters arrived.  As the two factions compete for screentime, the medium Eric Gomorrah and the Presenter Yvonne Dingfield try and jostle each other off camera and various other people try to follow their agendas everything soon dissolved in to highly enjoyable chaos. I probably needed two more referees, but heck it worked – and I have at least some footage to prove it 🙂  I think this is only the second time I have have ever filmed a game as part of the game itself, and it worked well. Four characters escaped in a stolen blood transfusion lorry as Leicester was destroyed in a disaster of Biblical proportions before the end of the game — so a satisfying outcome. Especial thanks are due to Jenny and her son Dave who played the supernatural horrors, without even their character sheets which I mislaid somewhere along the way.

GB2016

I have no doubt the game will be run again one day, and am always interested in feed back from players – email me on chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com if you took part and have some ideas or comments to share.

SATURDAY MORNING & THE SEMINARS

I had  Saturday morning free, and quite by chance I stumbled in to the seminars room. Partly I wanted to check them out before I had to give my little talk on Saturday. I sat through two – and to the guys on the Chaosium panel, and the game writers panel, sorry I was looking at my phone at times but I was ordering The Coming Storm pdf and later looking at Lynne’s stuff on Achtung! Cthulhu on Amazon as I had never really looked at it before. Both panels resulted in my placing orders there and then – so I hope you will understand this was not because I was bored by your presentations, but because i was so enthralled with them and went and bought before I forgot! Both panels were exceptionally interesting, and I spent much of the remainder of the weekend there attending all manner of panels, though I missed two of the very best I’m told – Chris Killey’s, and Dr Moose’s Religion & Roleplaying 8. I wish I had live tweeted what I heard as apart from the reissue of Credo next year I have already forgotten many of the Chaosium announcements.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON: A GRANDIOSE DISASTER

This was an unusual freeform run by Sue but written by an American freeformer. It was highly enjoyable, though there were a few minor oddities that will no doubt be smoothed out before the final version – in this case the Sanity rules (very Call of Cthulhu) and the scene structures. You proceed through lost of mini-scenes, that are set out in advance, but the characters you generate and interactions between them will make every game utterly unique, so this is a game with real replay potential. We played on The Lovecraft Boat – all of the playsets are different disaster movies, and this  one was great fun. I wanted to play a 70’s dreadful media stereotype so I played a hairdresser who dreamed of leaving the cruise ship salon and becoming a singer on the onboard entertainment. One of the other characters defined herself as my boss, with whom I shared a mutual love of Barry Manilow, and one was a New Age cult leader who freaked me out by calling me Adonis. Finally there was a sleazy LA film producer who promised to put me in the movies, and I naively was dreaming of musical stardom and asked if we were doing Disney? Lots of fun, with Lloyd Gyan even louder than me (he played a psychiatrist) and my character died three quarters of the way through, pushing off the lifeboat and going down with the ship singing Mandy

I did worry that somebody might take offence at my ‘fabulous’ performance as a stereotype: fortunately in the context of the comedy disaster movie take on The Love Boat I think I was able to get way with it. Stereotypes are dangerous if used unconsciously, but if you channel the archetype right, sometimes good stuff comes from it. So while I’m not that kind of girl, I really enjoyed myself. Bad tatste rarely worried me, and in fact I was by this time planning how to run the Worst Taste Freeform of All Time and make money off it, when someone pointed out I was inadvertently straying in to the plot of The Producers

ADVENTURES IN MULTI-AGENCY TEAMWORK SOCIAL HOUSING MANAGEMENT

So there was a bit of a problem with the sign up system used. If you were in a freeform, you could not sign up for the slot after yours, and could find yourself without a game. Now on reflection, if you are organised enough to sign up for the freeform, you could prebook to play something rpg related at the same time, and no sign up system is perfect as I know from running Grand Tribunal. Anyway there weren’t any games available for us emerging from the Freeform on Saturday night, and Lloyd Gyan I decided to do something about that. I rushed off to borrow a printer and print off a HeroQuest 2.0 scenario I wrote, and Lloyd quickly got a full sign up sheet for his superhero game.

My game was a little unusual. I jokingly called it “Adventures in Social Housing”, and it involved six pregenerated characters, dealing with bereavement, working with vulnerable clients, social housing management, multi-agency information sharing and… OK it sounds awful doesn’t it?

The situation is that a fairly normal family have been afflicted by a poltergeist, and the son, daughter, mother and three interested parties – the local policeman, the housing association manager, and a clinical psychologist academic come to the house to seek a suitable resolution for the family. The character sheets are a couple of pages long, and despite the fact that as there was simply nothing else to play I only got three signs ups, but I issued the cop, the daughter, and the psychologist and that worked well, with me NPC’ing the rest.

Now this is a game that actually deserves Trigger Warnings. Yes I am serious – it may not be “DARK” – in fact large parts of it were comic, in the absurdity of the normal kind of way, but seriously, this proved in play as disturbing as much of the output of Reece Shearsmith – I’d like to play it with him next time we go ghosthunting together actually. I did not write it that way – it is designed to be a REALISTIC treatment of poltergeist cases (something I am alleged to know a little about). Unfortunately that means it touches on some very sensitive issues, and if you play it straight and seriously as intended, you are going to touch on them.

I have run this once before at home and it worked OK, and I designed it for Continuum 2012 but never ran it there, but this time I lucked out and got three superb players, going from genuinely touching to black comedy and back again, with a few moments of supernatural (?) horror. Awesome players make for great games, so whatever the weaknesses of my scenario (and it is really pretty systemless though HeroQuest worked great) it was a highpoint of my weekend. Onwe of the best moments was when one of the characters crossed out “Wannabe Teenage Witch Adolescent Rebel 17” and replaced it with “Turned Over a New Leaf 17” in a way that made perfect narrative sense. I should have asked the players to give some feedback really for this blog. Anyway you can download the game from my blog here

I really enjoyed running a con game, something I rarely do (I’m primarily the host at Grand Tribunal) and I’m pretty sure in 2018 I will offer Saturday Night Fevered, my Cthulhu scenario. Anyway after a few hours in the bar and Tressy poisoning me – she gave me BEER, and after half a pint I was blotto – I managed to get a few hours sleep before Sunday breakfast.

Sunday at the Laundry

Well Sunday passed enjoyably with more seminars, and mine on the Paranormal & RPG was OK I think,  though I was trying not to retread material from the excellent Horror & the Supernatural seminar the day before. As a result it sis turn up as a bit of a quick tour over obscure corners of academic parapsychology and “CJ tells anecdotes” but hopefully wasn’t too rotten. If you were there you can read about the pterodactyl chap here; how to see a ghost at home here; and there is a theoretical primer on apparitions by me here for anyone really interested. (Actually there is a conference at Reading September 10th/11th that you are all welcome to if interested in this stuff. At least a  couple of folks from Continuum will be there).

The Gehenna Memo

Sunday evening I was running my last event, a freeform by Malcolm Harbrow (LARP Wellington) set in the world of  Charles’s Stross superb Laundry books. This one is actually set at Bletchley Park in 1943, and I have run it before so I knew it was an excellent game. It it does however embrace the theme of bureaucracy and the printing and set up was a bit formidable to organise for a con game. Still with my legendary organisation I got it ready, and with the help of Ed Woods I managed to run it. Brilliant players, great game, the only reason I am not saying more about the outcome or game is that it is not one of mine and it will doubtless run many more times. Excellent fun!

MONDAY MORNING BLUES

My room was almost directly opposite the bar and it was too hot to close the window so I did not get much sleep on Sunday night, but I really enjoyed myself, and Kiki seemed genuinely amazed I actually had a read a lot of romance novels (I have a vague knowledge of the academic literature n the genre too). I chatted to a lot of folks until almost 5am, then got up for last minute socialising with Dr Moose and others I rarely see on Monday morning and a final fine breakfast and still did not get as many sausages as Lloyd or Matt (not a euphemism!)

IN CONCLUSION

This was an excellent convention. I paid £190 for 3 nights including Bed & Breakfast on site, and spent about ten a day on lunch and dinner in the Refectory. I missed  getting to talk to a lot of old friends like Charlie Paull much as I was running around so much myself, and for the first time I never played a single boardgame, but it was great to catch up with so many friends and I have an awesome weekend. It seemed much busier than 2012 despite clashing with 9 Worlds in London; I suspect 2018 will sell out fast. Seriously, if you are a gamer and want a friendly large con, this is still my first choice as place to go…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fun forthcoming events, Games, Reviews and Past Events, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Pokémon Take Back The Night in Cheltenham?

It was about 2.30pm yesterday and a beautiful sunny  afternoon; I was walking along Cheltenham High Street when I first noticed the two elegantly dressed, seemingly normal women. They were in their 30’s I guess, and as they approached I suddenly realised something was wrong. I looked again – businesswomen perhaps, enjoying a late lunch? And then I realised, and my blood ran cold — neither of them had their phones out. THEY WERE NOT PLAYING POKEMON! I thought of taking a picture to prove that deviants like this still exist, but then I thought no, shaming weirdos is wrong. They probably have not even noticed that everyone else in the town centre is trying to throw balls at a Drowsee, collect their fiftieth Ratata of the day  or excitedly gossiping about rumours of a Pikachu seen at Proud Lion the games shop…

machopsYes, I actually was surprised to see two women NOT playing Pokémon. Cheltenham’s only rpg and games convention Grand Tribunal is two weeks off (come along – tickets from www.grandtribunal.org ), and maybe by then the obsession will have wound down. Right now though this is the Summer of Pokémon, and I expect our grandchildren will laugh at pictures of our silly fashions and primitive games, as we smile at photos of the Haight-Ashbury in ’67. In Cheltenham at least, it seems EVERYONE is playing Pokémon

So there can be very few people who have not heard of Pokémon now, the game you play by running around with your phone frantically throwing balls at imaginary creatures. In the very best tradition of Moral Panics since time began the press are whipping up a frenzy with stories ranging from the person who found a body in a river to the teens who got lost in caves while apparently playing Pokémon, not forgetting the pair who walked off a cliff while playing. They obviously had not been paying attention to the loading screen, which shows a player engrossed in their phone about to walk off a jetty while a huge sea monster lurks hungrily, and has a clear warning to pay attention to your environment at all times!

Anyway these stories are not great, because the game is thin gruel for Moral Panic stirrers. The thing is pretty harmless, and while it may have been condemned by a few religious types as ‘occult’ it seems to most simply a kid’s cartoon fantasy game, daft but cheerful and unlikely to scar anyone. Yes a few of the Pokéstops where you collect them may have ended up in inappropriate places, and yes some kids will do daft things. There is just no scandal here. If you get lost in a cave looking for Pokémon you are not so bright anyway, given the game a) works in 2D – being up or down makes no difference to collecting and b) you need a mobile phone signal, and how many cave systems you know have wifi or mobile reception? And if you have a mobile phone and either, how did you get lost? One of my friends points out the cave system in question has geocaches – that is far more likely how that one happened. Pokémon is just getting attention because it is new and hip or whatever the kids say nowadays.IMG_2016-07-17-11280977

So as a games designer, do I think it is any good? Yep. I was working on a ghost based GPS concept in augmented reality, and have been running persistent (real world real time) LARPS for  over 20 years, but this has impressed me. There are a few serious design glitches about the way power escalation works, that should have been obvious at design stage but I need to  play more to see if there are hidden answers to these apparent pitfalls. The game has deeply inadequate obvious documentation, but in a way learning to play, finding the help files and then learning strategies off other players is in itself fun. Anyway that’s not what I’m talking about today.

I suffer from problems with heat regulation, and can’t go out much in the current heatwave scorching town. The last few nights however Becky and I have wandered in to town, to catch pokémon. And you know what? We are now alone!  I have never seen town as busy. Perhaps it is the heat – yet Thursday night had a light rain, and there were still scores of us out walking around. From ten pm through till half two I have been out there, catching Pokémon, and so have probably hundreds of others, of all ages, from maybe 12 to  late 60’s.

Now town is not as busy as it was when I was younger, and half the clubs have closed down. The students are away on Summer vacation, and in Cheltenham that is a huge number. Even so I have seen so many people on the streets that I even risked St.Mary’s churchyard at midnight, and ducked down dark alleys like the one to Cheltenham Chapel and the Elephant Mural up by LIDL. I have walked kilometres – I know as I need to to hatch the eggs I collected in game, and talked to quite a few other players. Mostly though we just nod, or gather around benches, occasionally exclaiming as we run out of balls or a strange creature runs by.

I have felt a few times intimidated by drunks, or a couple of lary lads walking passed us near Dancing Ken’s in the early hours, but mainly I have felt safer than I have in years. I live in a pretty sketchy part of town, by the Lower High Street, and have to pass the junkies and alcoholics every night clustered around the shops, but Cheltenham is actually pretty safe, and we have a good community spirit round here. I regard it as dodgy – but actually the students walk through it every night oblivious to danger,and come to no harm, which says to me there isn’t much?

Now however, the town centre at least is transformed. Young women walk alone with their phones not on an emergency number but on the map,  giggling girls wander round in pairs hunting down Goldeens and Magikarp, and crowds of respectfully quiet adults stand about statues, outside churches and in every public space. From the viewpoint of crime you would have thought this was amazing – a mugger can steal loads of phones – but when you have this many people on the streets, even the most vulnerable folks are suddenly a lot safer. If anyone screamed out there, a hundred ears would hear them, and everyone would come running or more likely call police on their (ready, to hand) cell phones.

Becky

Becky says it just feels safer out there.

It was Becky who first pointed it out – she just felt much safer. Busy streets are safe streets, and people playing Pokémon are not drunk, loud or intimidating. I repeat – I have seen young women alone walking around town in freedom well after midnight and apparently unconcerned, standing about catching Pokémon, and feeling safe.

So whatever you think about Pokémon, it has done something unintended but as  wonderful or magical as any Snorlax dozing in your garden for a little while – it has taken back the night and made our cities safer places to be after dark. Long may it continue! Oh and the businesswomen I saw? I realised soon after they had passed me – batteries must have run out. Happens, even to me. Now excuse me, I gotta catch ’em all!

CJ, July 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Debunking myths, Fun forthcoming events, Games, Reviews and Past Events, Social commentary desecrated, Student Life in Cheltenham, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , | 2 Comments