Ordeal by Fire – Surviving an Inferno

At roughly 6.30 on the evening of Thursday, March 8th, I was lazing in my study in my home in the village of Sowton, alone and happily lost in browsing through some book or document, as I had been thousands of times before over the course of the ten years I’d spent living in this rural idyll just south of Exeter. I was in a particularly good mood, even by my unrelentingly cheerful standards, because it was almost exactly two years to the day since I’d fallen so ill that, for a week, I had wanted to die, during which time I lost my beloved dog Blueboy, then I went on to have major heart surgery at the Royal Brompton hospital in London.

My psychological recovery from these assorted ills had been long and painful, lasting over eighteen months, but by the night of March 8th 2018, I had long felt able to consign these sorrows to the past, while simultaneously rejoicing in my daughter Tanith’s recent twenty-first birthday. While I was lost in happy thoughts such as these and engrossed in whatever book or document held my attention in the subdued light of the early evening, I was startled by a thunderous hammering at my front door, so I immediately dropped what I was reading and hurried into the hall, wondering what on Earth had caused this unprecedented uproar.

When I yanked open the door and gazed out into the gathering dusk, I saw Lesley, a lady I’d had the pleasure of knowing ever since I first moved into Sowton Village, as she regularly kept her horses in the various fields around my home. She shouted to me that the roof was on fire, so I hurried outside and stared up at the thatch that covered my home and the other cottage adjoining it.

The roof looked just as it always had done, but I was appalled to see dirty yellow flames like angry sprites dancing around the base of the chimney of my neighbours’ home, at the opposite end of the conjoined buildings from where I lived. There was also an ominous red glow, pulsing deep beneath the thatch where it met the brick of the stout chimney stack and it was a sight that temporarily rooted me to the spot, but I managed to tear my horrified gaze away after a few seconds and I hurried back indoors to ring my wife Gill, who was at work. There was no time for any niceties or preamble, so I bluntly informed her that the building was on fire, then I rang off.

Six years before, I’d witnessed four thatched cottages at the far end of the village burn down after a fire had started in or around another chimney protruding through another thatched roof. It had been a major incident, with something like fifty fire appliances assisting, but despite this huge amount of specialist machinery and the very best efforts of scores of brave, skilled fire fighters, the blaze around the chimney spread relentlessly, resulting in the total destruction of my neighbours’ homes. I had a sickening premonition that an identical fate awaited my own home that night and I was painfully aware that we had no contents insurance, because it was prohibitively expensive in a thatched property and I’d not worked since spending a month in hospital, then finally leaving in early April, in 2016.

For a few minutes, perhaps, I stood in the road, hoping to see the blaze contained, watching the first fire fighters to arrive trying to extinguish the flames erupting from my neighbours’ roof at the far end of the building from mine. Very soon, however, one of the firemen strode up to me and advised me to start emptying my home of anything I considered valuable, so I hurried back inside to my living room, wondering where to start.

I was sufficiently composed to search in a wooden cabinet in the living room for a collection of family and other photographs, which were spirited away from me by helping hands, but after that, the most accurate description I can supply is to say that my mind went blank. Over the years, I had lost count of the times I’d watched one or other quiz programmes on television, rolling my eyes in derision when some hapless contestant couldn’t answer the easiest of questions, whether on general knowledge or else on their specialist chosen subjects. Now, however, when everything I owned in the world was at stake and with the sands of time running out with indecent haste, I found myself blinking and shaking my head like an idiot, unable to answer the simplest questions put to me by the firemen, or by Tim and Kristen, two of my neighbours who had – as far as I was concerned – inexplicably appeared in my living room and who were patiently asking me what I’d like them to do to help me.

I wasn’t frightened, but I felt as if I were wading through waist-deep treacle while everyone else around me moved briskly and with purpose. Firemen navigated the narrow, winding stairs to retrieve what they could from the bedrooms belonging to my two children, who were away at university in London and Swansea at the time, while they also saved some clothes from my bedroom.

Other firemen busied themselves downstairs by removing two large propane containers from against the wall outside my back door, which would have made the village look like a minor version of Dresden or Hamburg during World War Two had the creeping flames got to them. The firemen bundled other belongings from my living room outside and while I’ll never know precisely who removed what, I will be forever grateful to both Kristen and Tim, two of my wonderful neighbours, because without them, many more of my personal possessions would have been turned to ash before my puffed and rosy-red eyes that awful night.

I can’t remember every movement that was made by the people in and around the house while it was speedily consumed by the pitiless flames, but I will never forget the last few minutes I spent in my study. I was in a daze as questing tendrils of acrid smoke began to appear, so I found myself staring in anguish at all the many wonders I’d collected over the course of decades, unable to decide what to try to save from among all the treasures and curiosities that were piled from floor to ceiling.

A number of my precious belongings were indeed rescued, thanks to the valiant and determined efforts of the firemen, so I have some clothes, a coat stand, my filing cabinet with all its invaluable documents, a harp, an electric guitar and a few dozen books, perhaps, although I’ve not yet been in a position to make a final and detailed tally of everything that survived. However, there soon came a point when the smoke in the room threatened to become overpowering, so one of the firemen ordered me out in a way that brooked no argument, telling one of his colleagues to escort me.

Once outside, the thick pall of smoke was even worse than it had been inside the doomed cottage; I’d experienced a capricious wind blowing smoke from barbecues and bonfires in my direction for a few seconds many times over the years, but this was a different matter altogether. I found myself fighting for breath, with my eyes burning and pouring with tears, until I eventually wandered into clear, clean air among some of my former neighbours, who had gathered on the dark road in a mournful, shocked group, to bear witness to the destruction by fire of my beloved former home.

Years before, the residents had voted against having street lights put in place at the entrance to the village where I lived, so I found myself slowly making my way through an eerie landscape illuminated by a sickly orange hue as the thatch blazed, and by the flashing blue lights of the fire engines that had managed to make their way into the narrow road opposite the burning buildings. I wasn’t feeling at all well, so I said as much to a fireman at a control centre and an ambulance was summoned. It was impossible for the ambulance crew to drive their vehicle to collect me, because the narrow road was blocked by huge hoses, ladders, firemen and two fire engines, while the flames had become so intense that in any event, the temperature in the road outside my home was unbearable and dangerous.

After an ambulance was called, I was sat on the hard, wet ground a few yards away from a growing inferno that raged and whirled around my home, despite the best efforts of the courageous, accomplished firemen to extinguish it. I found myself staring in disbelief at the unstoppable destruction that was being wrought by the intense flames, then Mike, one of my neighbours, appeared. Six years before, I had looked on helplessly as the thatched cottage belonging to him and his wife had been destroyed along with three other adjoining homes and it was a depressing sight; now he leant over me and quietly advised me, with the voice of bitter experience, that no good could come of watching the flames take my home and belongings.

Hardly were the words out of his mouth than I was told that the ambulance had arrived, so the firemen had to forge a path parallel to the village’s only road, through the uneven, dark wet fields and over a few barbed wire fences before they guided me back onto the twisting road, at a point beyond the blaze. I made my way into an old compound by the entrance to the village that had been taken over by a mass of emergency vehicles and their occupants, the whole busy scene lit up by the huge flames that were consuming my home and leaping into the night sky just a hundred feet or so away.

I soon found the ambulance and once inside, I was immediately subjected to a barrage of tests by Netty and Sarah, the ambulance crew, who were as attentive, kind, caring and professional as it’s possible to imagine. All things considered, I seemed well enough, but it was clear that I was suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation, so they decided to take me to the casualty department of the nearby Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, where I’d been treated for a life-threatening condition almost exactly two years before. My wife Gill was dropped on the hill leading out of the village, next to the car in which she’d driven back from her workplace, where she acted as a senior nurse tending to old people; I then lay back on a stretcher inside the ambulance, hooked up to various monitors and watched over by Sarah, as Netty drove the vehicle to the hospital.

A minute or so into the journey, I remember telling Sarah how intensely grateful I was to her and to her colleagues in the emergency services for taking such good care of me. I then asked her if she could please arrange matters so that when we arrived at hospital, I didn’t end up on a ward next to the two poisoned Russians, Yulia and Sergei Skripal, as I didn’t want to worsen whatever state I was already in by running the risk of getting splashed with nerve agent. Without trying to reconstruct the hopelessly one-sided exchange that followed in the speeding ambulance, Sarah was politely bemused, because at some point imperceptible to me, I’d become convinced that I was going to Salisbury Hospital, almost certainly because I’d lived with my family on Salisbury Plain for a decade prior to our move to Exeter.

I’d had cause to take my two young children to the Accident and Emergency Department many times while we were on Salisbury Plain, because of various cuts and bruises they had had suffered over the years, as well as unpleasant bouts of croup that forced me to drive them there by night from time to time. I don’t remember when the transition occurred in my consciousness or subconscious to believing I was back in Salisbury rather than in Exeter, nor do I remember it happening, but it was real and in my mildly deranged state, the prospect of being on the same ward as two poor souls who had been poisoned by such a toxic substance was disturbing.

When the ambulance pulled up and the doors opened to reveal what was unquestionably the A & E department of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, I was forced to accept the reality of my situation and it was disconcerting to have to acknowledge that my mind had somehow wandered across the south of England, from Exeter to Salisbury and back. My humour was rapidly improved, however, by the immediate ministrations of a Spanish nurse and an African doctor, who ran another series of tests on me and who comprehensively checked me out in the most kindly, reassuring manner imaginable.

Despite the fact that my mind was reeling with the strain of coming to terms with the ongoing destruction of my home by fire just a few miles away, I couldn’t help but feel a lot better because of being treated so well by the wonderful, conscientious staff our NHS is blessed with. As soon as I’d been given an all-clear, I hauled my stinking, smoke-stained clothes and boots back on, then hurried out of the cubicle, while the wails from a child and from a few old people who’d been brought in for treatment made me feel terribly guilty, as I felt their needs were far greater than mine.

After I was discharged, Gill drove in silence through the hot, baleful night back to Sowton, where we made our way once more into the compound filled with emergency vehicles and workers. After seeing harrowing reports of fires on television, most notably the recent Grenfell Tower disaster, I’d often heard of people being left with nothing more than the clothes on their back, but it was almost impossible to come to terms with this reality now that it had happened to me, rather than to unfortunate others somewhere else in the country. A Red Cross vehicle staffed by volunteers became a shelter for us for half an hour or so and I deeply regret not being able to recall the names of the two young men and one young woman who were so hospitable, kind and understanding to us, giving us small bags of toiletries and some clothes, which I found myself wearing for the next few weeks.

I sprawled on some seats in the Red Cross vehicle, disconsolately munching on a few burgers I’d been given from the firemen’s on site canteen, as I’d suddenly realised I was ravenously hungry. A few minutes later, a young lady with shoulder length blonde hair and a concerned expression appeared at the open doors, politely asking to speak to me, as she’d been directed to the vehicle by others in the compound when she enquired about the whereabouts of the people who’d survived the fire. She told me that her name was Harriet Bradshaw and that she was a reporter from BBC Spotlight, so I heaved myself out of my seat and stepped outside to talk to her.

I’m keenly aware that many people have a low opinion of journalists, but I can only say that I’ve met, spoken and worked with forty to fifty of these people over the last thirty years, including a few editors and chief reporters; in all that time, I’ve only met two of their number that I didn’t warm to. For her part, I thought that Harriet was polite, understanding and sympathetic, while the truth is that I needed little if any prompting to speak to her in front of a camera about my ordeal by fire.

Rather than viewing Harriet or the media she was part of as being intrusive in any way, I positively welcomed the opportunity to rail against a malevolent Fate and in the process, to let as many people as possible know about my plight. I don’t think anything I said was unique, particularly memorable or of a high quality, because I seem to remember that the best bit the channel used from my sustained polemic was a brief section in which I lamented the many physical things that I’d lost to the hungry flames. I saw Harriet and a different cameraman again the next day, when I wandered around the smoking ruins of my former home, and while I’m not a vain person, I undoubtedly looked like a bedraggled sack of shit, which I suppose is hardly surprising given the unusual circumstances.

It all turned out to be worth it, though, because I feel my natural good humour and stoicism came through when I counted all my many blessings and thanked my neighbours and everyone else who had helped on the night, expressing the fervent wish that I could give them all a huge hug and this, happily, was the section that BBC Spotlight chose to use when it broadcast the follow-up to its report of the previous night on the dreadful fire. Thank you for all this, Harriet, because your warm heart and your many other fine qualities helped me to live through and overcome what was undoubtedly one of the worst days that a malign Fate has ever sent my way.

My account of the night of the fire and of the days and weeks that followed in its wake must by necessity be extremely short, because a thousand and one other details in my memory are fighting for recognition even as I write this. The day may come when I commit them to print, but for now, there are three matters that I must deal with, albeit briefly.

Firstly, I’ve heard it said many times over the last few weeks that experiencing a fire is like enduring a bereavement. Certainly, I can say with the voice of grim experience that the profound shock of losing your home with just a few minutes’ warning has a horrible finality about it, much like witnessing a funeral pyre, but there is far more to the matter than just this and it’s something I intend to write about in depth another time. For now, I feel as if the destruction by fire of my locus amoenus – the beautiful cottage at the foot of a green hill, by lazy streams, sprawling meadows and lush woodlands – marked the death of the idyllic time I was privileged to spend there, while I sometimes feel as if I’m a ghost wandering in this landscape, rather than a flesh and blood human being.

As for details of this unsettling, occasional perception that I’m a phantom as a result of this fire, I am missed and welcomed by my former neighbours and while I’m in their company, I recall the many happy times I spent in their midst, but I appear in my former home less and less often, as I am now called to dwell in another place that can’t be seen from the village. I miss Sowton terribly for all its many wonderful features that I’ve written about over the years, while I was delighted to watch my two children grow up there in a state of blissful happiness and it’s also where my dog Blueboy spent the majority of his time here on Earth.

Now, however, I am forced to accept that I’ll never return there to live and after being sheltered at the homes of some of my relatives, for which I’m intensely grateful, I’m now living under a new roof. I can’t envisage a time when I won’t be drawn back to my former home in Sowton, with its enchanting walks and vistas, as well as the neighbours I was blessed to have, but the blunt fact is that my future appearances there will become increasingly fleeting until such time as I eventually fade into history. A bit like a ghost.

Secondly, I don’t think of myself as materialistic, but over the last few months I’ve come to think that unless you’re so removed from the concept of prized, personal possessions that you live your life like some nomadic, twenty-first century hunter-gatherer, a fire such as the one I’ve briefly described is inevitably going to rob you of many things you hold dear and cause some degree of heartache in the process. I’ve lost many hundreds of books and collected correspondence dating back to the early 1970s, as well as an irreplaceable collection of photographs taken on my many travels around Britain, Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. I’ve lost paintings, manuscripts, music books and a few hundred CDs, some of which still sit in a melted pile in the fire-ravaged hell-hole that was once my study. I’ve lost my collection of gargoyles, green men, reference books and a collection of roughly sixty books dealing with British hauntings, which particularly hurts right now as I’ve been planning a detailed project on this subject that’s already attracted some interest from the people who are in a position to make it happen.

I could go on for literally hours, flinching at the loss of so many of the treasures I’d collected in my time, but there are other objects I miss for different reasons. For instance, when he was a toddler, my son Jack gave me a baseball cap he’d decorated under the supervision of one of his teachers and while the writing on the peak was unintelligible to anyone else, I knew that the letters spelled out the words BEST DAD and I’d thought this would go with me to the grave. Instead, its ashes lie inextricably and irretrievably mingled with those of so many other things I held dear, while just about everything that my son and daughter had worked so hard for to buy for themselves, such as clothes, shoes, posters, computer equipment, music, furniture and others were consumed by the flames, as were the presents that we were planning to give my daughter for her twenty-first birthday.

It’s a dismal list, for sure, and it’s sometimes hard to bear, but I console myself with the certain knowledge that I’m not alone and that countless others are far worse off than I am; or to put it another way, I am a bit older, but a great deal wiser as a result of the fire and of everything that’s followed it. I now know precisely how it feels to be robbed of your dwelling-place and to become homeless in the space of just a few shocking minutes. I now know how it feels to have no clothes but those you were wearing when you fled disaster. I now know how it feels to lament all the physical possessions you’ve lost, from things like rare books or presents for your daughter’s twenty-first birthday to more prosaic belongings, such as your shoes, boots, shorts or flip-flops.

I have been blessed with the light of understanding of other profound matters. A friend of mine by the name of Naomi very kindly set up a Just Giving page not long after the fire and it has been like manna from heaven to receive warm-hearted financial support at time like this, just when things looked at their most bleak. Unless I’d experienced all this for myself, I would never have guessed how much the good wishes from other people counted for, but they’ve made a huge difference. Some people have donated anonymously to the Just Giving page while others, who have admitted they don’t know me, have helped out simply for the purpose of doing a good thing in the world. Still others have written of their sorrow for my circumstances or of their admiration for my optimistic, stoic attitude, but whether these messages comprised just a few words, sentences or paragraphs, they have all meant the world to me, really. Thank you all so much, from the bottom of my bruised heart.

I’m down, but not out. I’m bloodied, but unbowed. I am intensely grateful to all my family, friends, neighbours and to many strangers, such as those who have sent gifts and of course to all the fire fighters, nurses, doctors, the Red Cross and all the other selfless people who work for our emergency services. I am grateful to all my new neighbours, here in the centre of Exeter, for accepting me and my family into their midst in such a warm and welcoming fashion. The fire may have robbed me of my home, but it didn’t harm so much as a hair on anyone’s head, so I am extremely mindful of this as well, because the alternatives of terrible injury or death are too horrible to contemplate.

I was powerless to stop the fire in its tracks, but I have the choice of how I react to this terrible misfortune, so I choose to ponder all the many, many reasons that I should consider myself supremely blessed, rather than dwell on what I’ve lost.

I am a survivor.

I am the Phoenix rising from the flames.

Our Just Giving Page.

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The Secret of Gun Control in Britain

Many others have been voicing their opinions on gun control in light of the latest massacre in America, so as it’s an emotive subject, I feel driven to say my piece on the matter. Before I’ve even started, though, I can see visitors to this post in six months time, say, scratching their heads and wondering precisely which shooting massacre in America I’m referring to, as such events have long become routine in the USA and will certainly continue to be so, long after I’ve written and published this post.

It becomes increasingly hard to remember the details of these shootings, as they all seem to blend into one with the passing of time, with only Las Vegas, Orlando, Charleston and Sandy Hook, out of a decades-long roll call of mass murder, remaining at all clear in the memory, by virtue of their sheer awfulness and the savage new depths the gunmen responsible for each atrocity managed to plumb.

So, whenever this vile subject comes up, my mind goes back to August 2002, when I was working in a busy Finds department at Wessex Archaeology, in Wiltshire. The end of the summer was overshadowed by the murders in Soham of two schoolgirls each aged 10, named Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, at the hands of a local degenerate by the name of Ian Huntley, who was swiftly caught and charged.

Without trying to reconstruct the conversation in question, there came a day when a few of my friends and colleagues expressed some surprise or confusion on account of my reaction to the terrible events in Soham, which principally consisted of wishing that the guilty parties could be slowly hanged, drawn and quartered in public. My friends weren’t being remotely disingenuous in asking me why I was so angry, but because I was one of only two people working in the room that was a parent, it was simply a fact that with the best will in the world, the others couldn’t truly comprehend the raw emotions involved.

That was until the other parent in the room that day, a friend and colleague of mine named Angi, noticed that I was at a rare loss for words, so she simply announced that when you’re a parent, you would die to protect your kids. The vast majority of those who were present understand these matters perfectly now, as many of them have since gone on to become happy mums and dads themselves, but at the time when these harrowing discussions and exchanges were taking place, they were not in a position to fully grasp the depth of feeling involved when the subject of the murder of children comes up.

These emotions had arguably reached a peak about 8 years before, in March 1996, when a monster shot and killed 16 young children and one of their teachers in the town of Dunblane, in Scotland. My son was still a baby at the time and I felt physically sick when I saw the news reports of this appalling event, so it’s merely stating the obvious to say that I would have gladly given my life to save him from ever experiencing such a fate, while it’s equally safe to assume that I would have been just one of millions of parents here in Britain who thought along exactly the same lines.

Any notions of self-sacrifice were unnecessary, however, because without going into the minutiae of the legal proceedings that followed the massacre in Dunblane, all handguns apart from muzzle-loading and historic weapons were banned. We’ve had no school shootings since then, whereas America has had at least 18 school shootings so far this year, as I write this. I have friends in the police and in the armed forces, who by necessity deal with firearms as part of their duties, but I have never met a single person in my life here in Britain who yearns for public ownership of guns. I’ve met some farmers who own shotguns, while there’s a shooting lobby in this country who go in for killing wildlife as a recreation on the weekends, but no one I’ve ever met thinks that the standard and quality of life here in Great Britain would be improved one iota by mass gun ownership.

And so it is that I found myself watching the terrible videos on this BBC report with utter bemusement. I feel sorry for all the survivors and desperately sad for the father who lost his daughter, but what can I possibly say in response to this poor man’s agonised exclamation of “It should’ve been one school shooting and we should’ve fixed it”, other than “I could not agree more”?

Over recent years, I’ve read all the arguments put forward by the National Rifle Association, survivalists, supporters of the Second Amendment, responsible gun owners, patriots and the rest of the ‘guns and freedom’ obsessed crew. There is a gulf between their way of thinking and mine that will never, ever be bridged, while the strangest aspect of all is that so many of these people declare they will only give up their precious guns when they’re taken from their cold, dead hands, whereas I and many millions like me here in Britain would die – if necessary – to prevent guns being used against our precious children.

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Ghost Finder – Half a Century of Hauntings

A few weeks ago, a chance conversation with a friend of mine somehow reminded me of a fearful, otherworldly encounter that I experienced when I was about eight years old, around half a century ago in an unremarkable house in south Wales. The memory of this awful thing that visited me in the night still makes me shudder when I recall it as a grown man,  then last week, I found myself on Dartmoor, so I inevitably made my way to Postbridge once again – pictured above – as this stretch of road was home to a bizarre and lethal haunting that’s fascinated me for decades.

And so it was surely inevitable that I should cast my mind back to all those strange events that I’ve witnessed and been part of over the course of fifty years, between my stay in the house in Usk and my pilgrimage to  the road in Postbridge, during which time I’ve made a conscious effort to seek out myriad places that are allegedly haunted, both in Britain and sometimes abroad. These experiences have always proved so intoxicating that I’ve additionally sought out places that possess a notable atmosphere or aura, whether they be natural features such as pools or woods, or monuments and dwellings fashioned by men over the course of long millennia.

My abiding interest has always been in ghosts, probably because the tales in which these entities appear are invariably so alluring, but also because in Britain at least, it has always been very simple for me to visit an allegedly haunted location, as our small island is liberally scattered with them. There are many books that deal with this kind of thing, but as I’ve always made a point of asking other people about their experiences, I’ve learned of numerous other places that have not, to the best of my knowledge, ever appeared in any guide to supernatural matters, either in hard copy or else online, such as a strange lane here in Devon or a haunted bridge in south Wales, that I was familiar with as a child.

Over the course of the last few decades, I’ve written down many of my experiences, while an attempt I made to put them into the form of a lengthy, detailed book was abruptly halted when I was taken ill in March 2016. After that brush with death, which was averted thanks to an array of surgeons, anaesthetists, doctors, nurses and others, it took me a long while before I could gather my wits around me again or write as I once used to. Now, however, not only do I feel capable of putting together a detailed book describing the otherworldly encounters I’ve had over the years, but I feel positively driven to do so.

I felt that the first step in this process was to go over my archives for material I’ve already written and I’ve been delighted with the results. I discovered a lengthy essay provisionally entitled Is Anybody There? that I wrote a few years ago, on the subject of life after death, so I was pleased to see this again, but I was astonished to recover an account I’d written as far back as December 1995, detailing a visit I’d made to a medium in north London, in the company of yet another medium of my acquaintance. It was intriguing to read such a detailed account so many years later, to be able to examine it as far as any predictions made at the time are concerned, but I have no shortage of such written material.

I’ve written detailed accounts of two manifestations I’ve witnessed while I’ve been sitting in my study at this very desk, at this very laptop, while I’ve also recorded elsewhere the  strange way in which my dog Blueboy, in the last 18 months of his life, would regularly interact with beings that I could not see in my front room by night. But aside from and in addition to hauntings and the mediums that I’ve met over the years, I’ve also met healers, astrologers, palm readers, readers of Tarot cards and readers of auras, if that’s the best way to describe such people.

There may well be yet more documents for me to discover, as I’m hopelessly disorganised as far as computer files are concerned, but at the same time, I’m trying to comprehensively list the subjects I would ideally like to cover in my book. I know from prior experience, when I put together my book the Missing Years of Jesus, that now the idea of a book about a specific subject is firmly fixed in my mind, I’ll have to keep a pen and paper nearby, as memories appear without any warning and I’d hate for them to disappear into the abyss once more without being recorded.

I could continue thinking out loud about these arcane matters for hours, so perhaps I should start up a Facebook page to deal with them, and with the putting together of this book? I don’t usually need any incentive to write, but the discipline of doing what’s expected and providing regular updates on a social media site might jog my memory and spur me to write, so I’ll give it some thought. But finally, for now, even though I have roughly half a century of some passing acquaintance with everything from apports to Zodiac signs to write about, I still harbour many burning ambitions as far as visiting Britain’s mysterious places is concerned, because I’ve by no means seen them all.

For me, the jewel in the crown has to be St Mary’s Church in Bungay in Suffolk, the place where the dreaded Black Shuck went on his memorable rampage on August 4th, 1577, so I intend to visit this incomparable place as soon as I humanly can. I’m not short of sometimes terrifying stories about manifestations I’ve encountered or of notorious places I’ve visited, such as Littlecote House, but as far as these matters are concerned, it is my dearest wish to be able to write at length about my time in Black Shuck country.

Once again, my grateful thanks go to Hannah May Gardiner – actress, researcher, bibliophile and fortunate inhabitant of Bungay – for the photograph above of a gibbous Moon through the gloomy spires of St Mary’s church, Bungay,

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On this, the Anniversary of my Father’s Passing

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A Pilgrimage for Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A few days ago, I drove to the small town of Ottery St Mary, just five miles or so from my secluded home in a quiet, rural part of Devon. I parked close to the outskirts, then made my leisurely way through some winding streets and up a gentle hill to St Mary’s Church and its surrounding graveyard, where I was delighted to see a handsome plaque dedicated to the memory of the great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, set in the stone wall above the narrow pavement outside that leads to the steps up to the beautiful, sprawling cemetery.

The church itself was old, beautiful and blessed with a serene atmosphere. After reading some of the detailed notices in one of the display cases inside, I was delighted to learn that the building had once served as a stable during the English Civil Wars – a period that has long fascinated me – for a troop of Parliamentarian cavalry. Over the course of decades, although I have little more than a passing interest in the subject of past lives, I’ve sometimes experienced what has turned out to be a vivid recurring dream, in which I find myself seated on a small black horse as a cavalryman for the Roundhead forces.

I’m rarely visited by these particular night visions, as I remember them appearing to me only once every few years or so, but just a few days prior to my visit to Coleridge’s birthplace in Ottery St Mary’s, I had once more relived the spectral lead-up through England’s embattled fields in the seventeenth century, to a violent confrontation with a Royalist cavalryman on the banks of a shallow, winding stream. This vision came back to mind with a rush in the church when I learned of its former use as a stable block, so I found myself experiencing some form of kinship with the long-dead troopers who had once stood where I gazed around me, lost in wonder on account of my surroundings.

When I eventually left the hushed confines of the church, I stood in the gentle, muted rays of a setting autumn sun, pondering the fact that Cromwell and Fairfax had once stayed in a house just a stone’s throw away, planning the further course of the English Civil War. I was able to gaze over the churchyard wall at the spot where the home in which Coleridge had been born had once stood, and then all around me at the churchyard itself, where Coleridge tells us that he played as a child.

For me, it was an almost mystical experience to be able to stand in this wonderful haven for as long as I chose, exulting in my presence in such a place. Back in November 2010, as I have recorded elsewhere on this site, I once spoke about my book The Missing Years of Jesus in the church in London’s Piccadilly where the incomparable William Blake had been christened and I had stood awestruck at the font in which he had been baptised. This was a profoundly gratifying and inspirational experience for me, and I felt similar heady emotions as I contemplated the stunning idea that I was once again sharing the same landscape once occupied by another of England’s literary geniuses.

I have neither the time nor the skill to do justice to Coleridge’s accomplishments, so all I can realistically do for now is to try to pay tribute to him in a way that hints at his greatness. This was the man who composed the tragically unfinished but nonetheless indescribably beautiful poem Kubla Khan. In 1798, Coleridge and his friend the poet William Wordsworth jointly published a book of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads, a work which is generally held to be responsible for the Romantic movement, which numbered such truly towering figures as Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley, men who produced some of the most sublime and inspirational verse in the English language.

At one point, Coleridge was thought to be surrounding as much as two quarts of laudanum a week, which is no mean feat. Having had a brush with death myself last March, an event from which I have happily recovered, thanks to the kind ministrations of individuals from all over Britain and Europe, I can think of worse ways to leave this life than the manner in which Coleridge met his end, addicted to opium and brandy in the surroundings of London’s Highgate, a place I once knew very well. Furthermore, Thomas Carlyle has left us with this wonderful image of Coleridge in his last years, which furthermore gives us some idea of the status this great man had acquired by then:

“Coleridge sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, in those years, looking down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the inanity of life’s battle … The practical intellects of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned him a metaphysical dreamer: but to the rising spirits of the young generation he had this dusky sublime character; and sat there as a kind of Magus, girt in mystery and enigma; his Dodona oak-grove (Mr. Gilman’s house at Highgate) whispering strange things, uncertain whether oracles or jargon.”

To my way of thinking, this was a fulsome tribute and one that many writers would yearn for, but it’s surpassed in my view by the observation made about Coleridge by William Hazlitt, a man thought by some to be on a par with the likes of Samuel Johnson and George Orwell; writing about Coleridge’s conversation, he said “He [Coleridge] talked on forever; and you wished him to talk on forever”, which in turn puts me in mind of how Dennis Wheatley once bestowed an almost identical accolade on Aleister Crowley.

Finally, for now, Coleridge was the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I read with wide eyes as a child and which I still thrill to half a century later, while few days go by when I don’t find myself murmuring some of the wonderful lines it contains about water, madness or fiends stalking lonely country roads. It’s impossibly difficult to put these words into order of priority of enjoyment, nor could I say that I take greater pleasure from something written by Coleridge than I do from offerings by Blake and Byron, for example, but to my mind, the following verse from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the supreme expression in English of our relationship with one another and with all the other entities attached to this staggeringly beautiful blue planet on which we find ourselves floating through space:

“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”

I was quietly reciting these lines to myself as I made my way up the hill towards Coleridge’s birthplace, so you may imagine the sheer delight I experienced when I saw that someone had chosen to adorn Coleridge’s plaque with them, beneath the benign likeness of this incredible man whose writing has brought so much pleasure to the world. And if Fate steers you towards this place, or if you actively choose to seek it out as I did, then I earnestly hope that you enjoy your time there as much as I did.

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The Las Vegas Massacre and the Ghost of Howard Unruh

The only aspect of the late, unlamented Stephen Paddock’s murderous rampage in Las Vegas on October 1st that genuinely surprised me was the fact that an atrocity on this vast scale had not been perpetrated by an American gunman decades before. It could be argued that the frequency and scale of what in the USA are called mass shootings have risen inexorably in recent times, so perhaps an outrage such as the one visited upon many hundreds of innocents in Las Vegas was inevitable, given that the population of America can be measured in the hundreds of millions, as can the amount of guns there.

Nonetheless, it is still a source of mixed wonder and relief to me that many scores have not been killed and hundreds injured in a shooting long before now, and while the Las Vegas gunman’s precise motivation for mass murder remains a mystery as I write this, the words and actions of one of his homicidal predecessors seem to me to be highly illuminating. Before I come to these prophetic words uttered freely by a monster that some would argue was the prototype for Stephen Paddock, I feel I must deal with a curiosity directly related to these slayings that appears with monotonous regularity in the British media.

When addressing the massacre in Las Vegas, we are regularly told that it’s the worst mass shooting in recent American history, but no clues are supplied as to which time frame we should be considering. From what I have seen, the most frequent objection to the idea that the killings in Las Vegas in 2017 or Orlando were the worst “in recent history” has been in the form of the mention of the massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota on December 29th 1890, when 150 or possibly twice that number of Lakota Sioux were shot by a detachment of the famed 7th Cavalry, while it should also be pointed out that these soldiers were almost certainly responsible for the deaths of 25 of their own men and for the wounding of 39 others, such was the nature of the madness that erupted that day.

Wounded Knee is well enough known, but it does not take an investigative genius to learn of other episodes of truly shocking violence that are not mentioned as part of recent American history, even though they are closer to us in time than the awful events at Wounded Knee. The confrontation that has come to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921 was fought between 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers on one side, against 10,000 armed coal miners on the other; in the course of less than a week, something in the region of 1,000,000 bullets were apparently fired, while the lawmen even arranged for aircraft to drop bombs on the opposition. This battle eventually came to an end when the US army and air force were sent in to break up the fight and it seems to me a minor miracle that as few as 130 men died in total, given the truly astonishing amount of lead and shrapnel that was flying around for 5 days.

He wasn’t a gunman, but the farmer Andrew Kehoe was responsible for killing 45 people, 38 of them children, mainly through setting off dynamite in a school in Michigan in 1927. He naturally achieved notoriety for this, although he is nowhere as well-known as he deserves to be for such an atrocity, while he bequeathed us a possible clue to his actions in the form of a stenciled sign he attached to a fence on his property, reading CRIMINALS ARE MADE, NOT BORN.

Two years later, 7 men were murdered in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, but I suspect that I could be here a lot longer, trying to decide what constitutes the precise parameters of both recent history and mass shootings. It would be simpler and more accurate for our media to describe these mass slayings – that will come, as surely as night follows day, because a complete layman can predict their hellish arrival with complete certainty – as the worst since a detachment of the US Army machine-gunned around 150 Lakota Sioux, as well as 25 of its own men, at Wounded Knee in 1890. This might not be palatable to some politically-minded media institutions, but it is nonetheless a fact.

Otherwise, I started this post by expressing my great surprise that a mass shooting on or surpassing the scale of the killings in Las Vegas had not happened long before, and this is why. The first American individual that I know of in the last century to embark on what we would recognise as a modern shooting spree was Melvin Collins, who killed 8 men and wounded 6 others before taking his own life on November 6th 1948 in what became known as the Market Street Massacre in the city of Chester, in Pennsylvania. Despite his ground-breaking rampage, Collins is virtually unknown, unlike the man who embarked on the methodical slaughter of men, women and children in Camden, New Jersey, less than a year after Collins took up a gun in anger.

The 28 year old army veteran Howard Unruh was responsible for what became known as “The Walk of Death” that lasted around 12 minutes, during which time he killed 13 people, 3 of them children. Despite the fairly rapid appearance on the scene of something like 50 good guys with guns, many of them automatic weapons, Unruh survived the hailstorm of lead that was directed at his first floor apartment and he went on to become one of the few mass shooters ever taken into police custody for questioning. His story has been well-documented over the years and if you wish to, you can read more about it in this detailed, illuminating but perhaps not 100% accurate piece in the Smithsonian Mag, while here is a shorter but no less illuminating piece in the New York Times that was published to mark Unruh’s death at the age of 88 on almost exactly this day in 2009, after having spent 60 years in confinement for his awful crimes.

What is not mentioned in either of the otherwise detailed accounts above are some of the final recorded words of Howard Unruh, as spoken to baffled psychiatrists who were trying to understand what had driven this man to a virtually unprecedented assault on his fellow citizens. Unruh told those treating him “I’d have killed a thousand more if I’d had enough bullets” and if we rule out those killers who have targeted family members or former workmates in their deadly sprees, we can see that many of them were clearly driven by precisely the same urges and desires that possessed Unruh [pictured below] back in 1949. Stephen Paddock seems to have been trying to make Unruh’s chilling statement into a prophecy that he did everything in his power to fulfil and if there’s one thing I can be certain about in this world, it is that Paddock will not be the last of his lethal kind.

how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death
E.E.Cummings

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The Heresy of Stonehenge and the Mesolithic

A few days ago, I came across an observation in a lengthy essay in The Guardian that was so good and so insightful that I still find it hard to believe it had not been made long ago, or that I had not encountered it or a close variant before now. The words that so impressed me were, “We tend to think of heretics as contrarians, individuals with a compulsion to flout conventional wisdom. But sometimes a heretic is simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees.”

In the years when I used to write lengthy essays of my own about Stonehenge on a regular basis, I learned to pay heed to quiet, distant voices that were straining to be heard before I wrote in depth about one aspect or another of Stonehenge in prehistory. Something about the wording of the quote I’ve reproduced above led me to do the same thing once again and a minute or so after I’d paused and listened, I was drawn to the opening two paragraphs of a full length book on Stonehenge I’d written in 2004 or thereabouts, which I chose to let lie in my archives and which I’m sure I’ve not looked at for at least a decade. The words in full are as follows:

CHAPTER ONE
MAN, MYTH AND MAGIC
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane”.
Marcus Aurelius

The archaeologists tell us that Stonehenge ‘fell into disuse’ sometime around 1,600 BC, then it is supposed that any knowledge of its original purpose vanished within a few generations as the local people lost interest in the monument and its history, then moved on to the contemplation of far more important matters. Three and a half thousand years or so after this vast store of information apparently disappeared without trace into the void, there is an unprecedented degree of interest in the stone circle, which annually attracts around a million visitors. As well as the curious pilgrims to the windswept ruins, many other seekers after knowledge devote their attention to the stones, scrutinizing the layout and the heavens above for some clue as to their original purpose.

Some people see alignments with celestial bodies, some write of temples of the dead, some see solar and lunar ‘motifs’ in the precise setting of the stones and at least one person has noticed a face that they take to be that of the original builder, carved on the side of one of the huge uprights. A happy few see the ruins as the place where the Druids carried out their bloody rites or else gathered in their robes to greet the sunrise on Midsummer’s Day, while others scratch their heads in bafflement and gracefully concede temporary defeat. Among these people is Andrew Lawson, formerly Chief Executive of Wessex Archaeology, who commented in 1996 in an interview with the Daily Telegraph,It is difficult to say why Stonehenge is placed where it is – it is not next to the river, not the highest hill, not the deepest valley. It may well be that there was some significance to the place going all the way back to what Mesolithic peoples did there.”

Brief excerpt ends.

I worked at Wessex Archaeology in the early years of this new millennium, before Andrew Lawson vacated the post of Chief Executive there, and I spoke to him several times about any connection between the ruined monument on the plain and the people who had dwelt there, long before the earliest known incarnation of Stonehenge took shape.

I do not recall these conversations word for word, but they always centred around the fact that in the 1960s, when the car park for what was then the new visitors centre was being built, archaeologists discovered a series of Mesolithic pits, which have been written about exhaustively by myself and others for some years. The photo below, courtesy of my friend Juris Ozols of Minnesota, shows his daughter Lija and his son Chris in 1990 standing on one of the white circles marking the spot where one of these pits was located, while another of the three white circles is just visible in the background.

These pits caused a sensation, because the archaeologists were certain that they had once held pine poles roughly two and half feet in diameter and perhaps twenty feet tall, which had rotted in situ and which may have loomed over the surrounding landscape for eerie centuries before they eventually crumbled and fell. There is much else to be said about these strange structures, but perhaps the most interesting and pertinent point is that they were put in place during what we call the Mesolithic era, around five thousand years before nearby Stonehenge came into being.

No such monumental structures were known to have been raised by the people of this period in Britain. A study undertaken in January 2009 by my late friend Alex Down showed that one of our ancestors, with eyes at a height of 1.6 meters standing at what is now Stonehenge, would have been able to see one of these posts if it stood taller than roughly 1.5 meters. The girth of the posts suggests that they could have stood a great dealer taller than that, so unless there was a screen of some inordinately tall vegetation between the observer standing at what is now Stonehenge and the posts in what until recently was the car park, the posts would have been clearly visible to them, possibly for hundreds of years.

As it is, this curious structure or set of structures that was put in place during the Mesolithic stood only three hundred meters or so from the site of what later became Stonehenge. As I pointed out over a decade ago, the posts were situated to the northwest of Stonehenge, roughly on the line of the setting sun on the Summer Solstice, but a connection between the two places was patently obvious, even if no one could conclusively explain the precise nature of this link. This, presumably, was part of the reasoning behind Andrew Lawson’s observation as quoted by The Telegraph in 1996 and it was the equally sound reasoning that persisted among every archaeologist I worked with or spoke to on the matter at least eight years later.

In March 2008, an excavation at Stonehenge by professors Darvill and Wainwright discovered – among many other highly interesting things – pine charcoal that was dated to around 7,000 BC, or to the middle of the Mesolithic. Professor Darvill was quoted in the prestigious Smithsonian in October 2008 as saying “The origins of Stonehenge probably lie back in the Mesolithic, and we need to reframe our questions for the next excavation to look back into that deeper time.”

If I had the time or the inclination, I could readily point out many more intriguing links between Stonehenge and the people who lived nearby during the Mesolithic era, but if they’re not immediately obvious, a search for the connections will surely prove extremely enjoyable for anyone with the inclination to embark on one. For now, it’s inescapable that five years or so after after Wainwright and Darvill’s excavation at Stonehenge, literally tens of thousands of Mesolithic flint artefacts and many other remarkable objects were being brought to light at an excavation overseen by David Jacques at Blick Mead, just over a mile to the east of Stonehenge.

The site has yielded evidence of a Mesolithic dwelling, as well as the remains of many aurochs, the tooth of a dog, the bones of a cooked frog and other wonders, so it is little surprise that the location has been known for some years as “The Cradle of Stonehenge”. With all this and more in mind, one would have expected that those who predicted that Stonehenge came into being as a result of ceremonies conducted upon the site by our remote ancestors who lived during the Mesolithic era would be regarded as visionaries.

However, it is at this belated point that I remind the reader of the quote that so impressed me, concerning heretics and how one of these dissenters is sometimes “…simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees.”One might reasonably suppose that the way in which the evidence for a Mesolithic connection with or origin for Stonehenge has accumulated in recent years would mean that everyone with a professional interest in the monument would be hailing the discoveries and ongoing excavations at Blick Mead, but such is not the case.

Not everyone has turned through 180 degrees on this subject in recent times, but one of the most well-established and high-profile professional observers of Stonehenge has scorned the idea of any Mesolithic connection or origin and has consistently written about the excavations at Blick Mead in such a negative fashion that these essays have provoked strong responses online not only from David Jacques, but also from many others who are seemingly baffled as to why any professional should pursue such a course.

In all my many years of reading about and studying Stonehenge, I have yet to learn of an occasion when any two experts were in agreement about the site, so in one way, it’s entirely predictable that we should witness some kind of difference of opinion. However, as more of the monument’s past has been brought to light – if only in the form of literally tens of thousands of Mesolithic flints and indisputable evidence of sustained occupation during the Mesolithic in a spot just over a mile away – one might expect views to increasingly converge on the question of a Mesolithic link to or origin of Stonehenge.

I admit that while there might have been a time when I could have become passionate about this dispute to the extent of getting involved in it, those days are far behind me and I’m confident that the Universe is unfolding as it should. However, despite my well-publicised interest in what one might term the supernatural, I nonetheless subscribe to the scientific method and as such, I cannot fathom how the more solid facts you provide in support of a given premise – in this case, the idea that the origins of Stonehenge lie in the Mesolithic – the less likely that premise is to be true, in some quarters. As I’ve admitted before, I cannot boast of having a Degree in Archaeology, so for me, this matter must remain one of Stonehenge’s more baffling mysteries.

Only one thing can be stated with certainty about such structures as Stonehenge: the people who built them were much more intelligent than many who have written books about them.”
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1917 – 2008

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