|A Dave Langford column for Fortean Times.|
In one of Kipling's early tales, "My Own True Ghost Story", the narrator bitterly regrets having investigated the eldritch noises in a haunted Indian bungalow, being the sound of an all-night, spectral billiard-game. Unfortunately, instead of a marvellous spook-story to dine out on for the rest of his life, he ends up with nothing but a simple explanation. I felt just the same when, earlier this year, my very own Fortean Phenomenon evaporated....
It wasn't as spectacular as a rain of fish or frogs, but when you live on the A4 you're ready to settle for mere gelatinous gunge. There was quite a lot of it: scores of little semi-translucent white wormy things littering the front lawn, each maybe a centimetre long. Not alive, though, and not actual worms. More like (and here a dim ufological memory stirred) what might get jettisoned from very small flying saucers when diminutive Greys flushed their bijou toilets. Perhaps, I thought, I should collect some in a jar for when the Men in Black come round.
Then I made the mistake of looking up and realizing after a bit that the pattern in which this mysterious goop had fallen corresponded to the lower branches of our ailing cedar tree. And we had recently had unexpected snow, followed by a thaw: so one had to allow for the possibility that the Phenomenon consisted of countless nodules of dried birdshit, scraped loose when the snow slid off the branches and then miraculously reconstituted by the thaw, just like pot noodles. (Memo to self: this may explain several things about pot noodles.)
The same garden is also subject to mysterious and continuing falls of rubber bands, thought by scientists to be significantly correlated with the occult activities of the Royal Mail. An urban legend which I'm trying assiduously to spread is that these rubber bands are in fact carefully arranged to carry messages, like traditional tramp signs or Romany patterans. Messages like "Watch out -- finger-eating dog!" or (the one I see most often) "Avoid the doorbell button -- occupant can hear this but will not detect a gentle rattle of the letterbox flap as you push through the card saying HO HO HO, WE COULDN'T DELIVER YOUR VALUABLE-LOOKING PARCEL!"
Speaking of parcels and urban legends, there is one story that I've so often heard debunked that I was delighted to have it un-debunked by a pal who's a long-time worker in the computer business. This particular friend also claims to have seen for himself the efforts of the secretary, or one of the many secretaries, who in the early days of desktop computers was instructed to make backup copies of everything, and proudly showed a visiting IT troubleshooter this thick file of meticulous photocopies of 5.25" disks ... but I digress.
The tale goes that a particular sealed package regularly had to be transported across London, and the carrier was strictly instructed to take a taxi -- never the Underground. But of course the temptation to pocket the difference between tube and taxi fares was irresistible. All went well until one day the disobedient chap was hauled before an angry boss, ticked off, and sacked with extreme prejudice -- since he'd finally sat too near the motor in a tube train, and the magnetic fields had corrupted the important computer tapes he was carrying.
The debunking seems natural enough: by now, millions of people have conveyed floppy disks and indeed entire computers on the Underground, and the problem simply doesn't seem to exist. Just another urban legend. Wrong, said my pal from the glory days of mainframe computers that ate punched cards. Technology, he said, has moved on. Modern disks are lots harder to demagnetize than those old, low-capacity tapes with their relatively tiny magnetization levels. The story's out of date but it was once possible....
But by then I was thinking about fluctuating magnetic fields on the tube, and Dr Susan Blackmore's speculation (reported in New Scientist a year or two back) that such fields and their effects on the brain's temporal lobe could be linked to abduction experiences. Suddenly I enjoyed a paradigm shift and happily realized that many of those people one sees on the Underground, staring blankly into space with lips soundlessly moving, are in fact in the grip of the train motor's flailing magnetic fields -- and, subjectively, are busy having their orifices explored by grey midgets with enormous eyes and faces made of putty. Whitley Strieber is alive and well on the Bakerloo Line.
It certainly beats the theories of purblind and sceptical scientists who dogmatically ascribe it all to some phenomenon they call the Walkman effect -- an obvious cover-up. Expect my book-length exposé soon.
|First published in Fortean
Times 92, December 1996. |
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