The strange lights of Shirley Street, Hove

In Haunted Brighton [1] Alan Murdie discusses a case of odd optical effects reported by residents of Shirley Street and Clarendon Street in Hove, 2002-3, which some commentators attributed to ghosts and others to UFOs or extraterrestrials.

The phenomena took the form of ‘Xs and bars which flicker along… [the] street’ [2], or ‘perfect circles of light with a pronounced X at the centre’ [3]. Murdie reservedly remarks that ‘interpretation of the light markings… [was] very much in the eye of the beholder’ (p.44), but concludes: ‘no single explanation has yet conclusively accounted for all the sightings’ (p.45).

I was intrigued by how this case defied the usual categories of paranormal experience, so I spent a morning in the library digging for the original reports. Sure enough, there they were: photographs of odd lights on the walls of houses along the affected streets, although much detail had been lost in the conversion to microfilm.

Concluding that there was nothing for it, except to organise a team and stake out Shirley Street, to see if the lights would show up again, I was making my way across town when a possible explanation for the case loomed up right before me.

X-shaped reflections of sunlight (some within circles) cast onto the exterior of a house.

Robert Street, Brighton. 16th September, 2014. 0900.

What could possibly be causing this? Spectral forces from beyond the grave? Space brothers from Venus? Crossing over the road and making the daring experiment of putting my head in the place where the lights appeared, I saw the following.

The sun's reflection shining brightly in a multi-panelled window.

What I could see when I put my head in the place of the reflections.

The circles and crosses were caused by the reflection of sunlight from a paned window across the street. Ironically, I was on Robert Street, Brighton, and the building whose windows cast the reflection was formerly the offices of the very newspaper that had seen fit to print the reports.

For the lights to appear the sun would need to be at an low angle to and parallel with one side of the street, so that its light could hit that side and be reflected onto the other. This meant that the effect could only occur in the morning or evening and would not be observable during the bulk of the day.

Of course, I could not be sure that this fully explained the rumours of spooks and aliens in Shirley Street. Strictly speaking, I should have made the effort to make the same observation on the actual site. Yet it now seemed to me highly likely that this simple phenomenon was indeed the cause. Wondering why no one else had been bothered simply to put their head in the way of the lights and see their source, I continued on my way, wiser and sadder.

References

[1] Alan Murdie, Haunted Brighton (Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2006), p. 44-45. Further references are included in the text.

[2] The Argus, January 14th (2003), p. 13.

[3] The Argus, December 20th (2002), p. 3.

A childhood UFO laid to rest

One of my most vivid memories is of being interrupted from play in a schoolfriend’s backyard by a terrific roar that shook the ground, then seeing in the sky a descending plume of red flame.

There were hundreds of witnesses. I remembered that it took place on a Friday, early evening, and the next day it took the headline on the local newspaper. I remember also an official explanation was offered at the time, that a light aircraft had made an emergency landing at Sywell Aerodrome, the local airfield. But this explanation did not seem to fit the facts. An earth-shaking plume of flame was difficult to reconcile with a light aircraft experiencing engine trouble.

This sighting has bugged me down the years, because it seemed to hint at a cover-up. I’ve wondered if, instead, it were a military accident; or perhaps space junk burning up; or maybe a bigger-than-average meteor. Recently, I decided to stop passing it on as an anecdote, and see if I could get to the facts.

The first problem: I didn’t know when it happened. Certainly, it was the mid to late seventies. But I remembered that a schoolfriend had written to the newspaper, and his letter had been published a week after the sighting. Perhaps he’d kept a copy… I was able to find his email address from the internet. Luckily, he had indeed kept a copy in his family’s scrapbook, and supplied me with a date: April 30th, 1975.

Newspapers for this period were available at one of the county’s libraries, but I was frustrated to find nothing on the date in question. Then I noticed that April 30th, 1975, fell on a Wednesday. My memory was pretty sure it had been a Friday when the sighting occurred. With the librarian’s help, we ascertained that April 30th fell on a Friday in 1976, and when that volume was brought up, here’s what I found:

Towns shaken by mystery ‘rocket’
Riddle of the fiery aircraft

Mystery still surrounds the identity of an aircraft which left a trail of flames and smoke in the skies over Rushden last night.

The aircraft – flying at over 5,000 feet – appeared to be in trouble as flames shot out the back.
The noise shook houses and rattled windows in Rushden, Higham Ferrers and Wellingborough.

Eyewitnesses described the unidentified object as looking more like a rocket than a jet.

Police stations at Rushden and Wellingborough were inundated with calls from people who saw the strange craft just after 6.30pm.

Rushden and Raunds firemen were alerted and headed for RAF Chelveston only to find that the aircraft had passed over heading eastwards into Cambridgeshire.

Headline on newspaper: 'Riddle of the fiery aircraft'.

Front page of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph. Sat May 1st, 1976.

A spokesman for the American communications base at RAF Croughton, near Brackley, said he knew nothing of the mystery flight.

The base is in charge of the communications station at Chelveston, where the aircraft was said to have tried to land.

Spokesmen at RAF Wyton and RAF Alconbury, both in Cambridgeshire, said they knew nothing of the incident.

Mr. Neil Clarke said: “I was in the garden shed at home when I heard this terrific noise. I only saw it for a couple of seconds in a break in the clouds.

“There was a great sheet of flame from the rear about 4 times the length of the body. It was very frightening. It followed the flight path of the F1-11 fighter jets but it certainly didn’t look like one,” said Mr. Clarke, of Wellingborough Road, Rushden.

Mrs. Doreen Marks, of Carnegie Street, Rushden, was just sitting down to her evening meal with her husband and four children when they heard the noise.

“We thought it must have been an earth tremor at first. But when I looked up at the sky I saw something that looked like a rocket with flames shooting out the back.”

A Whitehall spokesman for the RAF said today: “We have no record of any aircraft in difficulties. But it sounds like a Phantom with its re-heat on. It’s an extra injection of fuel that gives it a boost. It’s usually used for climbing.”

Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph (Saturday 1st May, 1976), p. 1.

So, yes, my memory was correct that the story had made the front page. But a ‘light aircraft at Sywell’ was not mentioned. Perhaps this had been a word-of-mouth story spread around the town. Perhaps it was just a misunderstanding. The newspaper, however, had evidently fixed its sights on the military from the outset.

Memories, by definition, feel familiar and intimate. But the past is really an alien place. In 1976 there was no digital typesetting, so those stiff grey pages looked ancient and quaint. Not at all how I ‘remembered’ them. I was struck by the large advertisements for cigarettes, and also – more poignantly – the numerous vacancies for jobs in boot and shoe manufacturing, because Northamptonshire still had its local industry, back then.

It was a funny old week for my home town. Those airborne flames on Friday were followed, on the Monday, by a stretch of the river catching alight. Somehow, 30,000 gallons of jet fuel had leaked into the River Nene at Irthlingborough, and a spark from a riverside bonfire did the rest. Fire crews from surrounding towns banded together, and seem to have prevented a more serious incident.

Once again, the military was in the frame. The airbase at nearby Chelveston was in the process of being converted into an RAF communications station, which it would remain throughout the height of the Cold War, up until 2004. A contractor, hired to lift and purge underground fuel tanks at the base had either made a mistake, or perhaps had taken an unscrupulous short cut. (Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, May 3rd, 1976, p.1; May 4th, 1976, p.11.)

More than a coincidence? In a sense, yes, it was. At eight years old, you don’t have much grasp of the geo-political context in which you live. There were RAF and USAF bases dotted throughout the region where I grew up. When the US bombed Libya, on April 15th, 1986, fighter jets roared overhead all day. By then, I was more than old enough to worry about the start of World War III.

The explanation for what I saw on that long-vanished Friday evening was waiting in plain view as I read through the news of the succeeding days:

Fiery aircraft mystery solved

The mystery of the fiery aircraft which shook Rushden last week has been solved.

The United States Air Force confirmed it as one of their aircraft – an F111 jet fighter similar to the one pictured right, which could have been in trouble.

A picture of an F111, as printed by the newspaper.

The culprit. Picture printed alongside the newspaper’s explanation. Sat 8th May, 1976.

The aircraft, flying at 10,000 feet, jettisoned fuel to make an unscheduled landing at RAF Alconbury, a spokesman at the Third American Air Force said at its British headquarters at Mildenhall.

And he apologised to the [Evening Telegraph] for not revealing this sooner. Last Saturday, a day after the aircraft’s flight, air bases at Alconbury, Wyton, Croughton and Wittering denied all knowledge of it.

Earlier this week, the base at Upper Heyford joined them. But the aircraft did take off from Upper Heyford, it was revealed yesterday.

According to eyewitnesses, the aircraft had a large sheet of flame coming from the rear.

Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph (Saturday 8th May, 1976), p. 2.

But they would say that, though, wouldn’t they?

In this case, it seems that once the tight-lipped military had decided to say something, they were saying it because it was true. Having taken a look at photographs and films of F111s jettisoning and igniting fuel (known as a ‘dump and burn’) it looks pretty much like what I remember having seen.

Mr. Clarke of Wellingborough Road was almost on the money when he noted the object followed the familiar F111 flight path, except it didn’t look like one. Myself, I didn’t see any object ahead of the flames – only the fire – but aircraft are manoeuvrable 3-D objects, and we can’t expect them always to present their most recognisable aspect.

Could a dump and burn really make the earth and buildings shake? Glancing through the recently released MOD UFO files, I noticed that the very same thing happened again in 1991. An F111 pilot from Upper Heyford encountered bad weather and was ordered to return, obliging him to jettison excess fuel. Only, this time, the good people of Hereford and Wales were treated to the consequences. A report form submitted by RAF Hereford to the MOD describes how

F111, flaming from the rear, as it performs a 'dump and burn'.

An F111 performs a ‘dump and burn’.

A bright white light was producing a flashing vapour trail […] This phenomenon was accompanied by extremely loud rumbling, windows and floors shaking. The whole incident lasted approximately 2 minutes. DEFE-24-1953, p. 201.

I grew up thinking I’d been witness to a UFO intentionally covered up. But I had remembered only the sighting and the initial coverage, not the explanation issued a week later. Perhaps there is a tendency for this to happen, because when the sighting was a mystery it made the front page, but the explanation made only a short report on page two. And so the mystery lodged in my memory, whilst the solution (assuming I ever read or heard it) was forgotten. I had grown up not really all that far from the front-line of the UK’s Cold War, and what I had seen was not as strange or as unlikely as it might have appeared to my eight year-old self.

In Alien Heat

4 out of 5 stars
In Alien Heat: The Warminster Mystery Revisited
Steve Dewey & John Ries (San Antonio, TX: Anomalist Books, 2005).

In Alien HeatSurprisingly readable and compelling. Not a narrative chronology of Warminster, but it steps back to take various stabs from various directions at the phenomenon. Cumulatively, these seem to prove fatal. The authors’ final conclusion homes in on the idea that Warminster was a form of ‘mass hysteria’, whipped up by an initial genuine mystery (unexplained sounds), but then colliding with the zeitgeist and environmental factors, focused and disseminated through a central figure who came to take on an almost messianic function, albeit perhaps unwittingly: Arthur Shuttlewood.

At the conclusion, I wasn’t quite convinced that ‘mass hysteria’ really does justice to the type of experiences people had. What does ‘mass hysteria’ really tell us, as an explanatory term, about why normally rational people begin to interpret what were probably ordinary experiences in an extraordinary way? I don’t disagree with their thesis, but I didn’t feel the authors really got into the heads and hearts of the people who had the experiences. Even Shuttlewood remains a complete enigma at the end.

A very satisfying read, though, and generally very well argued. Loved it!

Conference Report: Seriously Unidentified – Summit on the Future of Ufology (2012)

Hosted by ASSAP (Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena) at the University of Worcester, 17th November 2012

Ufology is in a terminal decline, its quest for evidence hijacked by the agenda of alien abductees and conspiracy theorists. This was the premise of the conference, which sought to account for the current state of the ufological field, and yet Seriously Strange played host to a wide range of opinions, and balanced them rather successfully.

ASSAP President and Fortean legend, Lionel Fanthorpe, gave the introduction. And then Ian Ridpath was first up, a science writer and astronomer, who boldly asserted that all UFO sightings have prosaic causes.

Interest in UFOs, Ridpath suggested, is fuelled by a self-perpetuating and lucrative industry. The assertion of witnesses that ‘I know what I saw’ in fact disguises an underlying rejection of reasonable explanations. There are so many possible mundane causes that the likelihood of ET becomes vanishingly small. He led us on a concise tour through Roswell (= a secret military balloon) and Rendlesham (= misperception of the Orfordness lighthouse),which indeed seemed to explain both these classic cases beyond reasonable doubt.

The causes of UFOs, Ridpath concluded, are misperception, self-delusion and hoax, yet this in itself leads to valuable insights, for if there is no evidence for visitation by aliens, this might well mean there is only one advanced civilization in this part of the universe: us. There is probably no one out there to save us from our problems. But if we can help ourselves, then maybe one day it will be our species in a position to help others. And when you think about it, this is indeed just as profound a conclusion as any to be drawn from advocating the existence of ET!

‘Saucer Movies and Politics’ by Paul Vella (forensic computer expert witness, and Bigfoot hunter), explored the fugitive link between cinematic depictions of UFOs and the experiences reported. Vella suggested that – generally – the sightings follow in the footsteps of the movies, and so Betty and Barney Hill report the first big-eyed aliens a few months after they appeared for the first time in an episode of The Outer Limits. Yet, as soon as we think a simple pattern exists, something comes along to contradict it. For instance: when the Republicans are in power, aliens tend to be presented as nasty and aggressive (War of the Worlds), but when the Democrats take office, more thoughtful depictions appear (The Day the Earth Stood Still). Except, during the Regan-Bush years, aliens stopped being evil and turned fuzzy and innocuous instead (E.T., The Last Starfighter, Star Wars, Batteries Not Included, etc.)

The War of the Worlds (1953)

This is what can happen when the Republicans take power. ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953).

Certainly, Hollywood is subject to political influence, but does the government use the depiction of UFOs to shape public opinion? Or what about the converse: that a belief in UFOs has shaped the policies of the leaders themselves? (Carter and Regan being conspicuous examples.) Apart from pointing to these teasing possibilities, Vella drew no firm conclusions, yet provided a useful reminder of popular culture’s richness and influence in this field.

After lunch, and probably with some nervousness, Sacha Claire Christie took the podium to speak about her personal experience of high strangeness. She was a member of a party of six in a Welsh holiday cottage who witnessed strange lights approaching close to the ground. She described a curious lack of fear amongst the witnesses during these events, and dreamlike, out-of-character behaviour – such as a sudden desire to do the washing-up. Christie decided to venture outside alone. Watching the lights some more, something ran up behind her and delivered a blow to her back. Her response was to run in panic – ‘I went blind with terror,’ was how she put it.

Since her experience, she has suffered from severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress. She also continues to witness odd occurrences, including bruises and inexplicable injuries that appear overnight, and peculiar objects in the sky. She has numerous photographs of these, two of which she shared with the conference. One was an indeterminate, but seemingly solid blob in the sky. The other resembled a curious distortion of the light on a sunny day. But the fact that both were amenable to photography suggests that something was indeed there to be seen.

Christie spoke on the damaging impact of the experience upon her, and upon the lives of others in the cottage, sadly one of whom has been driven to take his own life. Despite seeking assistance from various quarters, she has been unsatisfied by the responses. ‘What is a dream; what is sleep-paralysis?’ she asked, highlighting her view that sceptics and ‘believers’ alike lack a terminology to address the fundamental reality behind such experiences.

I felt that her talk was received with much interest and sympathy. Like others, I wished I could help – but what help can anyone give? Her contribution was a vital reminder that explanations (no matter their accuracy) come from the realm of ideas, and may offer little meaning or comfort to someone whose involvement is a traumatic experience. I was struck by the similarity of a ‘close encounter’ to a religious experience: neither conform to the ordinary categories of ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’. Although mystical traditions offer alternative registers for processing other-worldly experiences, these may not be attractive or meaningful to someone plunged into strangeness against their will.

In complete contrast, Trystan Swale spoke next on ‘Crop Circles: a Ufological Footnote’. As a crop-circle insider (in his own words, ‘as someone who may have spent a night in a field’) Swale led us down the tram-lines of the rational, taking gleeful side-swipes at the absurdity of the view that crop-circles are made by aliens, rather than by people with wooden boards and ropes.

The idea that ET is still at work in the wheat is not entirely dead, although it has been forced to morph slightly – into the idea, for instance, that human-made circles nevertheless attract aliens; or that the aliens inspire the circle-makers. However, the truly interesting intersection between circle-making and ufology, Swale suggested, is likely to lie in the Vale of Pewsey, a crop-circle hotspot where there have been numerous sightings of anomalous lights, some of them by the circle-makers themselves whilst going about their business. (Swale didn’t say as much himself, but the implication seemed to be that the Pewsey sightings might lead us into the domain of so-called ‘earth-lights’ rather than ET.)

The Vale of Pewsey

The Vale of Pewsey, looking suitably moody and mysterious.

Kevin Goodman was up next, speaking (in a nostalgic mode at times, due to his own involvement) on the history of the ufological scene in and around Warminster. He seemed pretty tolerant of the view that the Warminster flap, with Arthur Shuttlewood at its centre, was mostly a self-perpetuating exercise in stimulating tourism.

In the 1950s, Goodman suggested, the Clean Air Act had enabled a new generation to see the sky more vividly than before, coinciding with a dramatic increase in aviation traffic. Meanwhile, the MOD was busy exercising upon land around Warminster, producing lights and sounds ripe for misattribution. In the 1960s, the younger generation was raising its consciousness, rejecting orthodox religion, and looking skywards for inspiration. Goodman himself joined them during the 1970s, but had to balance these factors debunking the flap against two dramatic sightings of his own: one involving four red lights performing outrageous manoeuvres; the other, a silver cigar-shaped object which, despite multiple witnesses, refused to appear on film.

The flap itself began to die down as early as 1976, and the death of Shuttlewood in 1996 seemed to have relegated Warminster to the footnotes of ufology, but Goodman, I sensed, perhaps wasn’t totally convinced by his own observation that the Warminster scene is probably approaching its inevitable end.

I felt that the psycho-social perspective was under-represented at the conference. Cal Cooper, a parapsychologist, stepped up next and took us some way in this direction, but could have gone further, perhaps, if he hadn’t been re-purposing a talk mainly on ghosts for his ufological audience. Cooper’s area of research is anomalous phone calls (‘phone calls from the dead’ in more populist parlance), of which he has collected many cases.

Cooper described how the phenomenon of speaking via instrumentation with the dead occurs universally, regardless of religious beliefs, although belief certainly affects interpretation of the experience. In contrast to apparitions, anomalous phone calls more commonly involve the dead than the living. Cooper also insightfully observed that in dreams, it is more common to talk on the phone with a dead person than face-to-face.

Ufology and psychical research are linked, he suggested – most obviously in high strangeness cases, where anomalous phone calls can provide the (literal) connection between them. There are numerous reports from witnesses claiming to have been phoned by ‘aliens’. Even more common are strange, electronic voices warning witnesses not to discuss sightings: ufologists such as Gray Barker, John Keel and Brad Steiger are seminal in this regard. Sometimes, the voices themselves self-identify as alien; it’s not widely known that the famous ‘Philip’ experiment shifted focus from poltergeists to aliens, when Philip himself began to claim extraterrestrial origins.

E.T. phoning home

Ever wondered why the telephone is E.T.’s preferred mode of communication?

Cooper’s talk called for a recognition of psi in the phenomena of ufology. ‘Is a haunted house still haunted when no one is at home?’ Cooper asked. Because there are no ghosts without human beings experiencing phenomena as ghosts, then psi is always a factor – these experiences come from our propensity to have such experiences, and this applies to ufology just as much as it applies to psychical research.

John Wickham of BUFORA spoke next on ‘UFOs Throughout History’. I wasn’t terribly impressed by the use of historical images and artefacts. Just because a figurine resembles a spaceman for us, that’s no proof it resembled anything remotely similar for the culture concerned. And I don’t know much about Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, but I know enough to be pretty sure that ‘hieroglyph which looks like a helicopter’ probably didn’t signify ‘helicopter’, or even ‘thing which looks like a helicopter’. Equally, medieval depictions of the annunciation or the baptism of Christ, with aerial lights and beams from the sky, may hint to us at UFO encounters, but that isn’t necessarily what they represented in their original context – which is what needs to be explored in detail by anyone wishing to pursue this type of argument.

The rest of Wickham’s talk was a pleasant meander through figures and cases from the history of mainstream ufology, although I was most interested by the conclusion to BUFORA’s most recent investigation: those strange lights filmed in Pitlochry turned out to be a spotlight on top of forestry equipment!

This marked the end of the individual presentations. Conference organiser Robert Moore, as a prelude to the panel discussion that followed, set out his case for ufology being in decline. He singled out exopolitics in particular, a field that takes the existence and nature of UFOs as given, even whilst the number of sightings and the quality of research into them continue to wane. He also highlighted the impact of the internet upon ufology. By making promulgation of images and information easier, it allows a detrimental bypassing of ufological organisations and their expertise. Widespread availability and advances in digital photography, and in image manipulation software, have also not served ufology well.

The panel discussion was lively, and more than adequately supplied with penetrating questions from the audience, but – to be honest – there were no great surprises in the speakers’ responses. The closer their allegiance to mainstream ufology, the less willing they seemed to countenance ufology’s demise. But I seemed to detect a slight consensus that the dominant trend, at present, is downward, and that this must be reversed for ufology to survive in the longer term. What form this rescue will take, and whether it can be relied upon, seems – for the time being – a matter of faith.