All things come to those who wait

It’s taken twenty-four years, but at last I’ve found an explanation for the strangest UFO I’ve ever seen.

In 1986 I went to London to see The Residents. We missed the show (it was at Hammersmith Palais and we went to Hammersmith Odeon by mistake) so we (the late, lamented Matt Kinnison and I) wandered about, got bored and played I Spy on Chelsea embankment. Searching for something to see in the dark that wasn’t a bridge or a lamppost or the road in front of us, I saw a funny thing. a strange, flickering light, hovering in midair, maintaining a distance of a few metres from a large building, but moving up and down – obviously not attached to the building in any way. So I said “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with UFO” “UFO? where?” said the last hippy in Blackheath,  so I pointed it out and we both puzzled over it.

I don’t know about Matt, but I continued to puzzle over it for the next twenty-odd years. All through my ups, downs and sidewayses,, that flickering, hovering light pestered at my mind in quiet moments… What am I? what am I? It seemed to taunt me with its refusal to relate to anything I could throw at it. The only thing I could think of was that it was a spotlight shining on a bird… but the only hovering bird in London is the kestrel, which doesn’t fly at night, and not for more than a minute or two at any time. Pigeons are white (some of them anyway), but they don’t hover. I just couldn’t get my head round it. My other UFOs were all solved. That star that started moving by itself? A satellite combined with the odd phenomenon of saccadic chronostasis. That red glowing orb just over the night-time horizon? A mirage of the sun.

Fast forward twenty-four years, and farting around with StumbleUpon just now, I came across this: birds caught in the spotlights of the twin towers memorial. So it can happen. Birds get caught in spotlight beams, get disorientated and can’t escape. It must have happened to a single pigeon, long ago and south of the river, one October as The Residents did their thirteenth anniversary show. No UFO, no aliens, and at last, no pestering, flickering light going What am I? What am I?

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What the bloop do we know?

The  often-reliable Wikipedia has, among its 46 articles not about cartoons, a list of unexplained sounds.


The bloop is a peculiar noise picked up by undersea microphones in the south pacific in 1997 (not far from R’lyeh, as any Lovecraft fan will know) and “while the audio profile of the bloop does resemble that of a living creature, the source is a mystery both because it is different from known sounds and because it was far too loud: it was several times louder than the loudest known biological sound.”

Julia (ocean child?) is another submarine sound, which apparently sounds like something very big and very far away saying “julia.” (note that this recording is sped up 16 times)

Only the vaguest ideas have been put forward to explain these sounds, from calving ice sheets to some huge, undiscovered creature. As a fan of huge, undiscovered creatures I’m going with that one.

The rest of the NOAA‘s mystery noises: Slow Down, Upsweep, Train, Whistle. (all sped up 16x)

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UFOs filmed over China

There’s very little to go on here, however the two lights zoomed in on appear not to be particularly solid – one is semi-transparent and one has some sort of flickering effect. The brightest light is hardly looked at (and, briefly, another one comes into shot at the top of the picture but is ignored). the possibility that this is one the Virgin Galactic’s craft has been put forward, but it’s difficult to tell. Certainly the lights maintain the same position in realation to each other and with the city below them. So: unknown phenomenon? Yes. Inexplicable, paranormal phenomenon? probably not. Aliens? Give over.

Mothership UFO, you say? I am dubious, what with the idea of “motherships” stemming from that long-exposed fantasist George Adamski. The poster of this video has bought into the dubious Extraterrestrial hypothesis uncritically. The object in the video itself certainly shows some structure, is lit from within, and apparently the camera is seeing the starboard side (that’s my impression at least); but there is no background against which to compare the visible portion; not even even the object’s outline can be seen. For all that we can see, this could just as well be part of a ship, or a fancy new open-plan office building.

This one is easy to explain. It bears a close similarity to the Canary Islands UFO that caused a stir back in the 1970s, and therefore probably has the same explanation: a missile test. In the Canaries case, the missile explananation was a long time coming because tests of new misiles are of course classified, and official requests for information came to nought; we can expect the same for China.

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Lord Combermere fades away

This photograph often turns up in books and websites about ghosts; it shows a vague, transparent figure sitting in a chair. It was taken in 1891 by one Sybel (or Sybell) Corbet, who said there was nobody else in the room when the photograph was taken. The ghost (if it is a ghost) is normally said to be that of Viscount Combermere, whose funeral was being held at the time.

So far, so paranormal. But now I diverge from the usual cutting and pasting that passes for research these days to ask: which Viscount Combermere? Stapleton Cotton, the war hero of the early nineteenth century? it would be tempting to think so; Halloween fright siteGhost Hunters of Asheville, ghost-story.co.uk and the endless reposters of this list of unbelievable ghosts (some of which also deserve a closer look) all say this. Perhaps old soldiers really do fade away after all. This man certainly seems to have been long-lived; the peninsular campaign ended in 1814, but perhaps a youthful Combermere was there and lived another 77 years. Or perhaps, as even a quick glance at Wikipedia would reveal, this isn’t the Field Marshal of the peninsular war and governor of Barbados – he died in 1865. So whose funeral was it? The second Viscount, Wellington Stapleton-Cotton, once Conservative MP for Carrickfergus, who died in December 1891? It would make sense. I wonder if, at some point in the telling and re-telling of this ghost story, the two viscounts melded into one enormously long-lived aristocrat.
The photograph itself is not immune to criticism. Miss Corbet did not stay in the room (the library of Combermere Abbey) for the whole hour needed to expose the photograph. It is entirely possible that somebody came in and sat in the chair (the Butler, in the house at the time, said that all the staff normally wore livery (and the very presence of the butler gives the lie to the common claim that all the servants were at the funeral!); indeed, such a conclusion was reached by the investigators Gordon Salt and Professor William Barrett, who concluded after creating an almost identical photograph:

“I believe that one of the servants came into the room, sat down in the chair, crossed his legs and then uncrossed them, looked down for a moment and then at the camera, saw that he was being taken, so got up and went away, having been in the chair about 20 to 30 seconds. This will give the ghost of  an apparently older man from a young man, with no legs, and a semi-transparent face, &c.”

(quoted in John Fairley and Simon Welfare. Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers, BCA 1985, p.153)

This conclusion was accepted at the time, despite the resemblance between the late viscount and the figure in the photograph. One wonders why this part of the story does not seem to have made the cut in the internet age, when, we are told, all knowledge is readily accessible.

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One can measure a circle beginning anywhere

This blog’s theme is the paranormal: the bizarre, the weird and the just plain wtf anomalous events that are reported (however accurately) across the world; the bits of lego in the great universal jigsaw.

I will try to get to the bottom of these reports. I will probably fail quite a lot of the time. Hopefully I will shed light from multiple sources, because a single light source creates as many shadows as it dispels.

There are a few (too few) good sites about the paranormal on the internet. Most seem to rehash old cases uncritically, with long-dicredited stories presented as if there had never been a reasonable explanation. Too much information comes from very dubious sources (Pravda? seriously?) and there appears to be little follow-up. An atmosphere of hey-wow-get-this prevails. Another blight on the landscape is the endless ridiculous conspiracy theories. I may take a look at some of these, but not many – the thought of arguing this stuff with people who made up their minds long ago is a faintly depressing one.

I apologise in advance for any personal biases and pet theories of mine that happen to intrude; if you spot any, please tell me. Or, perhaps, sit back and watch as I dig a hole for myself!

I’ll probably update this every few days, and will reply to any sensible comments – for a given value of sensible.

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