Albatross! Albatross!

A ufological albatross has been hanging around my neck since 1979, and it's all my own fault. The story extends in satanic webs of deception which link an undertaking business in High Wycombe, a 1980 coffee-table cookbook, several popular UFO compilations, a mysterious impostor called Dan Harleyford, and the novel Majestic by Whitley Strieber ... who was not amused.

Confession is good for the soul, but less effective in sorting out the real world. My UFO story has now been several times around the Earth, blithely unaffected by my repeated efforts to point out that I made it all up. (At one stage I was bitterly told that I must be receiving huge sums from the CIA for my part in the Great Cover-Up. If only.) All seemed quiet at last in 1995: but August produced a new outbreak. It is time to confess again.

The latest manifestation of my albatross was in the Bucks Free Press (25 Aug 1995), where columnist Bill Potts told 'The strange tale of an undertaker'. This undertaker – and builder, and carpenter – was William Robert Loosley (1838-1893), who lived in High Wycombe and allegedly had a very strange experience on 4 Oct 1871. Potts retells the story of how Loosley saw a 'shooting star' descend on nearby Plummers Hill, and by daylight visited the woods there to undergo a near-classic close encounter of the third kind. Machines sampled his tissues and apparently tried to communicate through a holographic light-show explicable only in terms of physics from the 20th century or after. Loosley wrote it all down in a good literary style, and placed his MS in the secret drawer of a desk he had made himself. In the 1970s this desk was inherited by his great-great-granddaughter, and the story came conveniently to light....

All the human characters mentioned were real and documented people, as pointed out in the 1979 sourcebook cited by Potts: An Account of a Meeting with Denizens of Another World, 1871, by William Robert Loosley, edited and with commentary by Dan Harleyford. Who is Dan Harleyford? How dare he steal my creation? The real book is 'edited and with commentary by David Langford'.

Of course it was all a jape, dreamed up by my then editor at David & Charles (Publishers) Ltd. I wrote the 'Victorian' account with stylistic aid from contemporary documents and Thackeray's colloquial novel The Adventures of Philip. Then, putting on my impartial editorial hat, I added the commentary. In places this was rather sceptical, eventually leading to my being denounced for distrusting my own imagination.... D&C were deeply indecisive about whether to market the whole thing as science fiction (which is how the 1993 SF Encyclopaedia categorized it) or, naughtily, as nonfiction. They opted for the time-honoured publishing compromise of barely marketing it at all. It sank almost without trace; I failed to become rich.

Nevertheless the albatross had been tied around my neck. Despite various giveaways in the text and on the jacket (where the biography of learned physicist Langford had suspiciously many mentions of sf), the central story seemed plausible enough to take on a ghastly life of its own.

One early victim was Jill Watt, a descendant of Loosley who in 1980 annotated his wife Mary Ann's recipe notebook for publication as Grannie Loosley's Kitchen Album – with a startled last-minute note about William Robert's adventures. Nigel Blundell and Roger Boar wrote it up in The World's Greatest UFO Mysteries (1983) and recycled the identical paraphrase in The World's Strangest Mysteries (1987). This was where Whitley Strieber read it and, pausing to do in-depth research by writing to the publishers and getting no reply, decided to incorporate it into his 1989 'Roswell Incident' novel Majestic ... where it features as part of a US intelligence estimate of 'flying disks', dated 1947. Dearie me.

At this point I feebly protested, which is why the paperback edition of Majestic (of which I did not get a complimentary copy) has a tiny Langford credit on the copyright page. Sources claim that Mr Strieber was extremely miffed and blamed me for deliberately misleading him by not replying to the above-mentioned letter, merely because I'd never seen it. By then, cross my heart, I was answering all such enquiries with a copy of my public confession in New Scientist (26 May 1988).... One chap wanted to adapt An Account into an opera, and cast a hideous light on this artform with his disgruntled revelation that if it were fictional, the story wasn't suitable for opera.

I confess again. I invented it all. Except for the Loosley family, who co-operated to the hilt. And what of the mysterious great-great-granddaughter who inherited that desk with its (quite genuine) secret compartment? Reader, I married her.