Friday, February 25, 2005

Captain Beaky

best link ever. Need I say more?

Britain's last witchcraft trial

The idea of witchcraft trials summons up images of The Middle Ages, of old women, perhaps versed in ancient lore and herbal remedies, being run out of ignorant villages. However, the last prosecution under The Witchcraft Act was in 1944, involved a medium called Helen Duncan, and makes for one of the strangest stories of WW2.

Helen was born in the Scottish town of Callendar (I went there once, it's nice). Her father was a slate worker or cabinet maker, depending on which account you read. They were a working class family and money was tight, although they were by no means destitute. Helen was a rather difficult child by all accounts, and by the age of 16 was pregnant and married, living in Dundee. From the accounts that I have read, the order of those events is not clear, but I stand to be corrected by any of Helen's many present day supporters.

Helen's husband Henry was a disabled former woodworker from an extremely poor background, who was not always well enough to work. Helen took a number of menial, exhausting jobs in Dundee, working for a time in the textile factories. No easy task, as she underwent 12 pregnancies, resulting in 6 surviving children. Helen also suffered from many health problems, including diabetes. Life was a struggle.

Helen did have a way out of this lifestyle. Since childhood, she claimed to have the gift of mediumship, that is, she could communicate with the dead. In the early half of the twentieth century, there was an extensive belief in spiritualism, and respectable figures such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had lost a son and several other relatives in WW1, was a believer. Henry had read widely on the subject, and Helen started to give readings, with Henry as her manager.

Once her children were older, she began to develop her career as a medium. The medium performances of the past were very different from the more verbal events seen today. Mediums were expected to materialise spirits via ectoplasm, a white, cloth-like substance which has disappeared from the modern spiritualist world. Many of these psychics were frauds, using a panoply of dolls, actors and sheets. This was an unsophisticated audience. Helen's materialisations were famous. Helped by her spirit guide Albert, she would discharge ectoplasm from her person which would take the shape of a deceased relative. You can giggle at a photo taken at one of her seances here. To be fair to those who believe in psychic powers (and I'm open minded), people who came to such sittings expected materialisations and ghosts, and it's possible that a genuine psychic might feel the need to compete with the frauds and charlatans by jazzing things up a bit. It's not like now, when people will be content with a verbal reading. Helen gradually became more famous, and travelled the country.

Helen's downfall came at a reading in Edinburgh in 1941, at which she correctly told the relative of a sailor that HMS Hood had ben sunk, and then in a 1943 Portsmouth event at which she correctly told a relative of a sailor on HMS Barham that the ship had gone down. This was true, but the fact was not released by the government until several months later, for security reasons.

On January 19th 1944, one of her seances was raided by police. She was arrested and charged with vagrancy. Although the maximum fine for the offence was tiny, she was refused bail. Instead, she spent four days at Holloway Prison in London. The charge was changed to conspiracy, a hanging offence in wartime. When Helen came to The Old Bailey she was charged with contravening The Witchcraft Act of 1835. Her defence counsel wanted her to prove her powers by holding a seance whilst in the witness box. The prosecution decided against this.

There is widespread speculation that the reason for Helen's persecution was a suspicion that she had access to sensitive information and could therefore reveal plans for the D Day landings. Perhaps her knowledge of the sinking of The Hood and The Barham were from inside knowledge, which she used to promote her mediumship, and which she could have used irresponsibly. Perhaps she just overheard pieces of gossip in naval towns. Perhaps she was skilled at reading the expressions of people who hadn't had communication from their relatives for a while. Or perhaps she was psychic.

Helen was sentenced to 9 months in prison. It is reputed by some that she was visted by Churchill, but there is no real evidence for this. However, Churchill did comment on the case. He called it "obsolete tomfoolery to the detriment of necessary work in the court" and asked why it had ever been pursued. In fact, the idea that Churchill believed in Helen seems a little far-fetched; he merely thought the whole thing irrelevant and daft.

In any case he bore this in mind, and had The Witchcraft Act repealed in 1951, to be replaced with The Fraudulent Mediums Act. This didn't stop Helen being hounded. At a performance in Nottingham in 1956, police raided the stage. According to traditional psychic teaching, it is very dangerous to disturb a medium in a trance. Helen became ill shortly afterwards and died five weeks later. There were two unexplained burn marks on her stomach. However, Helen was a 22 stone diabetic with kidney problems, who had undergone 12 pregnancies and suffered poverty, imprisonment, and had also been a smoker since a young age. There is no need to suppose her death at almost 60 was unusual.

There are several accounts of the story on the internet. This is a good account by people who believe in her powers, and are trying to oganise a pardon for her. I prefer the sceptical but sympathetic Hilary Mantel article.

You might also like to know that there are a few accounts of Helen getting in touch from the other side. Who knows?

Thursday, February 24, 2005

It's snowing, I'm blogging

I hate snow. I know it looks pretty, but it's cold and slippery to walk on and I hate Winter weather. And what's worse, all the trains and tubes shut down at the merest hint of a snowflake so everybody in london ends up having a bad day.

So I'm sitting here with a hot cup of coffee looking out of the window and hoping it all melts, and thinking of some nice cosy websites to recommend. I found this site via Diamond Geezer. I was nearly in tears remembering Tiptoes The Mischievous Kitten, Mick The Disobedient Puppy and Beaky The Greedy Duck.

Or if you want your kittens a bit less mischievous you could try here, a site which has had a lot of complaints. Lighten up guys, it's a joke!

Or maybe brave the thrilling rollercoaster of excitement that is Dave's Cake Page. Do you think he gets out much?

More strange goings on in the next post when we look at the last person ever to be prosecuted as a witch in Britain.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Interesting art

As part of this weblog, I want to introduce various works of art. Not the usual boring paintings, but the strange and the weird. I love The National Gallery in London. I think that it's a wonderful thing to be able to wander around there for free. The last time I went there, my eye was caught by this chap, not having a terribly good day. The artist is Cornelis van Harlem, about whom not a great deal seems to be known.

I have found out a little bit about the myth behind the painting. There is a brief account of it here, and a more comprehensive one here.

Interesting day

I met up with a group of horror and science fiction writers today. A very interesting meeting, critiquing some short stories. I also met Terry. He gave me a copy of Whispers of Wickedness. By the way, if anybody is interested in my fiction, you can read a couple of examples here (they seem to have edited bits of it and changed words in a slightly strange and inappropriate way) and here. These are early stories. I prefer this story. Apologies to anybody dropping by recently who read the previous Mongolian death worms post when the links didn't work. If you're not a fellow blogger please skip the following dull IT related anecdote. I had a few problems with Blogger losing my post when I needed to go onto another website to get the URL for my link, so I wrote my post in a word document in Times New Roman, then pasted it. Blogger didn't like the "" in the HTML (I can't use the automatic Blogger link thingy as my version of Windows is so old it involves a bloke inside the computer pedalling a bike very fast). They actually looked different from the "" you get on Blogger so I should have guessed. I suppose I'll gradually learn about these things.

The Scotsman is in Amsterdam this weekend. For four years he and a couple of old friends have had a weekend together in Amsterdam in February, and I think it's a nice tradition. I'm used to him being away. He has been with his current company for about 12 years, and they have a system whereby you gain an extra day's holiday for every year you work on top of the basic allowance, so he always has a week away without me every year, as I just get the standard 20 days. Some people I speak to, especially men, say that they wouldn't be allowed to do that. I can't understand that attitude. If I had loads more holiday than he did, I certainly wouldn't be at home! We love travel: we've been to India twice; Thailand twice, Morocco; Cuba; Vietnam; Poland; Czech Republic; Turkey; Tenerife; and most of Western Europe.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Mongolian death worm

Ever since I was little, I loved watching documentaries about strange creatures. Bigfoot, Nessie, Yetis, I was fascinated. I was doing some research for a short story a while back, and I came across the strangest yet: the Mongolian death worm!.

The Mongolian death worm, or Allghoi Khorkhoi as the locals call it, was first described by Roy Chapman Andrews in his 1926 work On the Trail of Ancient Man. The Mongolians spoke of a worm as thick as a man’s arm, about two feet long, the colour of a cow’s intestine (blood red, if by any chance you didn’t know). It lives underground in the sand of the Gobi Desert, surfacing briefly in June and July, the hottest months of the year, and it can kill a man from several feet away by spitting a corrosive acid or delivering an electric shock. It is so feared that the simple mention of it is considered bad luck. Chapman Andrews was a future director of the American Museum of Natural History and a celebrated fossil hunter; he was a serious scientist, but thought the beast’s existence a possibility when he heard the natives’ tales.

The best account of the phenomenon is this Fortean Times article which describes Adam Davies’ recent expedition with another explorer to find the creature. They did find a wooden carving of a death worm (which looks suspiciously like a carving of a turd to me), and had a run in with a rather nasty spider, but sadly no death worm. Even if you don’t believe in cryptozoology it’s a fascinating look at an expedition to one of the most undiscovered, remote places in the world.

Adam, who funds his trips by working as a civil servant, has been on such expeditions before, and made the news a few years ago. This article makes a mention of his next project, which was to investigate the death worm, and describes the creature as a “7ft snake which is reputed among natives to cut a person dead with one look”. Methinks a BBC researcher has been looking at some of the more sensational internet sites!

It’s easy to be sceptical about such phenomena, but consider this. The Gobi Desert is one of the harshest environments known to man. Until 1990 it was in a communist country, largely cut off from the outside world. It has few natural resources to exploit, and was never a target for western colonialists in the previous centuries, nor did it have much to offer explorers such as plant hunters who were so numerous a couple of centuries ago.

Indonesia, by contrast, has been occupied, or at least fought over, by the Dutch, French, Portuguese, British and Japanese. It has provided timber, spices and other goods, and was regularly visited by international shipping from about 1600. however, it wasn’t until 1912 that these were formally identified. If a 10 foot long lizard, on an island which isn’t terribly remote, can be undiscovered by all except a small community until less than 100 years ago, isn’t it possible that a snake, or worm, that only comes to the surface of a remote desert for 2 months a year, might still be waiting for that photo opportunity with David Attenborough?

Plea for help

I spent an evening with these people this week. We received the following email recently. I've no reason to believe it's not genuine, so please try to help.

My name is Lise Morel and I live in the Rep. of Seychelles. I am writing to people who loves literature / books for a little helping hand. The Anse Royale Primary School, which is located on the main island Mahe, was hit by the Tsunami in December, which ruined all their books. Could you kind lovers of literature find it in your heart to contribute two children's books to Anse Royale School.. just two books, english or french, don't have to be new ... I know postage can be expensive. The kids, aged between 5 and 12 yrs old, would be really grateful.

Pls send to

Mrs Sonia Didon - Headteacher
Anse Royale Primary School
Anse Royale
Rep. of Seychelles

or to myself:

Lise Morel
Pointe Aux Sel

Seychelles is a very small place, so no postal code exist. I'm just a parent, (and amateur writer - that's how I thought of Writing Circles!) trying to help the school.
Best regards,


Monday, February 14, 2005

Too busy to post, have fun somewhere else.

A few weeks ago I came across Andrew Collins' brilliant book in a charity shop. Where Did It All go Right? is a memoir of growing up in a happy home during the 70s and 80s. If you want to relive the joy of Findus Crispy Pancakes; Blue Peter (weren't we totally underwhelmed when somebody trashed that garden?); really rubbish toys like Operation and Kerplunk; Top Trumps; Swap Shop; penny chews; and thinking sandwich toasters were a really good invention, then go to Andrew's site here. By the way, remember that stuff called Space dust that used to crackle on your tongue? And those really crap plug in space invaders games?

Actually, Andrew was on the TV last night in one of those 100 best cheap clips of film because we can't afford to commission new drama or any decent stuff so anybody who was once in a sanitary towel ad for 10 seconds is allowed on to talk about whatever type programmes. It was the 100 best tear-jerking moments. The Scotsman and I were sharing a bottle of wine and jeering. Quite frankly, by the time I'd sat through 2 hours of Mel Gibson constantly running over hills clad in blue paint yelling his head off, the execution couldn't come fast enough for me. And I couldn't give a damn either, when Rhett Butler stormed out. And yes, Love Story was pretty boring. Who the hell cries at these things? I love Brief Encounter, but I always thought Celia Johnson could do better than a bloke whose reaction to a Donald Duck cartoon suggests serious substance abuse. But then they announced Watership Down as one of the clips. I turned to The Scotsman. Surely they wouldn't show THAT BIT. The bit where the poor little rabbit dies and his spirit goes up in the sky, because he lives on in rabbit heaven, and Art Garfunkel sings that song. I ask you, what sort of bloke sniggers because his girlfriend is crying?

The most tear jerking moment, alledgedly, is the bit at the end of ET. All I remember of that was still laughing at the bit 5 minutes earlier, when he told Drew Barrymore to be good.

Oh bugger, I could have written my piece on Mongolian Death Worms by now. Anyway, if you want some fun, call St Helens Rugby League Club, and listen to Johnny Vegas doing the announcements. 0870 756 5252. Mongolian Death Worms tomorrow, honest!

Charles and Camilla. I'm sooo not interested.

I was looking through some of the newspapers online, and I was surprised to see how many of even the serious papers are devoting space to this. As long as the taxpayer doesn't end up paying extra to subsidise their disco and vol au vents, I really am not interested.

It did get me thinking about previous royal occasions though. The one I most remember was Diana dying. The day after it happened I was watching the television coverage and The Scotsman, who was on holiday in Lithuania with some friends, phoned me to ask if it was true. I don't mean to give the idea that we support the monarchy; we don't particularly. Nor were we special fans of Diana; she seemed a pleasant woman; I think her husband treated her pretty poorly; and it's sad when an attractive mother with two kids dies so young. She did a lot for charity, but if I was given a huge income, a high public profile, and not much to do all day apart from chat to Elton John on the phone or shop for shoes, then I'd do a lot too.

The day before her funeral, which took place on a Saturday, I was going home (I worked in central London at the time)and decided to go to The Mall to see the preparations for the funeral, and all the tributes that had been left. When I got there I bought a disposable camera, because I realised it was probably the only time I would see that sort of scene. The Mall was crammed with people, and filled with flowers and candles. the thing I most remember is the smell: candle wax, scented candles and flowers. There were loads of little stalls set out with Cockney wideboys yelling

"Get yer Princess Diana memorial candles, three for a pound!" as if they were selling cauliflowers. I imagined the emotional exchanges which had taken place all over South London that week.

"Ere bruv, it's awful about Princess Diana, ain't it?"
"Yeah. I reckon the whole nation needs to pay its respects."
"We should go down to Buck House, bruv."
"My sentiments exactly. I'll get the folding table out, you get down the pound shop and buy up their whole stock of candles. See if Sanjay'll give you a bulk discount. We're in the money my son!"
"Lovely jubbly!"

The route had been fenced off, and people had begun to reserve their places, planning to stay overnight in order to be at the front, unfolding deckchairs and arranging blankets and picnics. I overheard a disgruntled woman complaining about a family who had come early, laid out their deckchairs with blankets, cagoules and other belongings, and then disappeared to have a night out in London.
"You're either here or you're not" she muttered to the others in the crowd, unscrewing her thermos of tea. No matter what the occasion or how deep the grief, the English old biddy carries on the fine tradition of griping about queue protocol.

I've still got the pictures. I hope that one day in the future they might be of historical interest to younger people, and I can say that I was there on the eve of the funeral (although for half an hour and only because it wasn't too far out of my way). Mind you, in 45 years' time, when I'm 80, if you hear a bunch of young people saying
"Blimey, let's go, it's that strange old woman coming who wants to show us funeral pictures all the time." then you'll know who it is.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Scotsman on blogging

I was having a conversation about blogging with The Scotsman last night.
"So who's going to read this weblog thingy?"
"Well, I don't know. Other bloggers, hopefully. people who find it through search engines?"
"Have you ever heard of anybody else with a weblog?"
"There are thousands. And some are very well known. Take Scary Duck, he won an award from The Guardian, huge numbers of people visit his site, he's done interviews on the radio and everything, he even sells merchandise."
"Scary Duck? Scary Duck? Does everybody with a weblog have to have a silly name? You're Strangeblueghost, he's Scary Duck. Why? I bet he's not scary and he's not a duck," believe it or not, The Scotsman has never seen the site and that's actually what he said, "so why won't he use his real name?"
"His real name is on the site. It's Alistair. Some people just like to have a different name to be part of the blogging community."
"But you'd never do that with normal friends, would you? I mean, if we got invited to a party, and we kept telling people we met that we were Strangeblueghost and The Scotsman, people would look at us strangely and slowly back away." At about this point I wonder whether to expound on the fact that it makes people a lot easier to find through search engines; the genius of being called Scary Duck is that, in the absence of a rash of sites being set up to help people with duckophobia, Scary Duck can always be found, but The Scotsman is into his stride.
"And why am I called The Scotsman? It's not very exciting, is it? If you're allowed to make up your own name, why can't I be Big Fierce Bear or Pouncing Tiger?" For a minute I think he might suggest Dances With Wolves.
"Anyway, Boris Johnson's got a blog." It's also about the only thing I've got in common with Boris Johnson, apart from slightly untidy blonde hair, and it's not as if a Tory MP is any sort of hero in our household, but I'm clutching at straws.
"Ooh, what does he call himself?"
"Er...Boris Johnson."

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Rabbit Woman of Godalming

This is one of those snippets of forteana that you happen across from time to time. I think the first I heard of Mary Toft was in a short article about The National Dictionary of Biography which was published last year. Apparently she was in the new edition. I did some research...

In 1726 Mary was 25, married to Joshua Toft, a cloth worker in Godalming, Surrey, and already had two children, with a third on the way. On September 27th her family summoned the local surgeon, John Howard who, to his astonishment, arrived to find Mary giving birth to a stillborn rabbit with the legs of a kitten. Mary explained that she had been startled by a rabbit in pregnancy, and since that moment had craved roast rabbit, and had dreams about them. Some versions of the story say that she claimed to have encountered a six foot high rabbit which assaulted her in rather a personal manner, but most academic accounts prefer the former explanation; it seems to be a tale which lost nothing in the telling. Further births followed, until eventually she had given birth to fifteen rabbits. Word spread, and crowds began to gather at Mary’s home to see the mysterious offspring, who had all been preserved in glass jars.

John Howard lost no time in publicising Mary's amazing feat. The case of the Godalming Rabbit Woman soon became widely known and drew the attention of physicians attending George I. Nathaniel St. Andre was particularly impressed. On December 3rd 1726, she was brought to London for an examination. This was an exciting time for Mary; there was talk of a pension from The King, she was taken to impressive lodgings in Leicester Fields (later to be known as Leicester Square once the grassy area had been paved over) and received members of the nobility. There she was constantly monitored, and was mysteriously unable to produce any more rabbit offspring. The King’s physician, Sir Richard Manningham, was more sceptical and suggested to Mary that he perform an investigative operation to open her womb. This was in the days before anaesthetics and sterile environments; any operation would be painful and dangerous. Faced with this prospect Mary confessed. She had miscarried at five months. All subsequent births had been achieved by placing animal parts inside her and pretending to suffer labour pains. The whole family, hoping for fame and fortune, had complied.

It may seem strange to us that Mary was taken seriously at all. However, the idea of “maternal impression” was a common one at that time. Mothers who were scared by a particular animal during pregnancy would miscarry, or suffer children with deformities. This was a simple way of explaining the large number of miscarriages or still births in a society without sophisticated medical care, and in which interbreeding led to a raised number of birth defects. As late as the Victorian era Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, was advertised as being the result of his mother being scared by an elephant while pregnant. Merrick himself, an intelligent and perceptive man, believed this himself for a number of years. In 1726 midwifery was carried out by surgeons, who were all male. For the sake of modesty, they carried out much of the procedure from behind a sheet. Female midwives were available informally, but they invited being prosecuted as witches. Perhaps if the first rabbit birth had been attended by a down to earth female midwife, with children of her own, she would have had no truck with Mary’s nonsense.

Following her confession, Mary was taken to Bridewell and on Christmas Eve 1726 charges were brought against her for “An Infamous Cheat And Imposture”. Crowds of people gathered but were not allowed in; her family were only allowed in after being strictly searched. Eventually, in April, it was decided to quietly let the matter drop, possibly because the medical establishment preferred not to have the gullibility of some of its practitioners further publicised. The reputations of John Howard and Dr Nathaniel St Andre never recovered. A couple of years later, St Andre was charged with the care of Samuel Molyneux, the first astronomer of Kew. Some felt that he was not well cared for; it emerged that St Andre, although he had risen to the heights of anatomist surgeon in the royal household, was only qualified as a dancing master! Molyneux declined suspiciously rapidly and St Andre eloped with his widow. Little is known of what happened to Mary, but a few years later she was convicted of stealing some food. She leaves no record of her death.

She left a lasting legacy, however. There were many satirical references to the case, pricking the pomposity of doctors. Hogarth drew a famous cartoon depicting the naivety of the doctors in the case. Even street entertainers and conjurors wanted to get in on the fun. Magicians invented their own visual joke to depict The Rabbit Woman of Godalming by extracting a rabbit from a top hat. Wherever Mary might be, perhaps she takes comfort that in end of pier shows from Bognor Regis to Yarmouth, her drama is still being played out.

Many social commentators, particularly of the right wing persuasion, believe that we're becoming more and more depraved, voyeuristic and vulgar. But I'm struck by the fact that many people seemed to think a trip to Mary's to see her dead rabbit feotuses in jars was a good day out, maybe combined with the other major treat that Godalming used to offer: public hangings. Thousands used to gather. Makes two people shagging on Big Brother seem pretty tame!

OK, next major post, Mongolian Death Worms!

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Comments now enabled

Everyone should able to write comments now. Well, at the moment the only people who know about this blog are me and The Scotsman, so it's unlikely I'll get one, although I've left a couple of comments on other people's blogs, so possibly somebody might click through on my name. At the moment I don't want too many people to know about this yet until I get settled and find my style, and get into a regular rhythm. I'm off to a meeting of my Writers' Circle tonight. Not sure whether anybody there is into blogs, but I might mention it. Before that, a few lengths in Teddington Pool, close to where I work. For those of you who have never visited Teddington, it's the birthplace of Noel Coward and also where Benny Hill used to live. Hmm, not exactly going to have many of you flocking over to West London with those little gems am I?

Getting the hang of it

Ah... I get what's happening. I've already changed my background from all that beige, it just took a while to happen. I'll get used to it. Blimey, this must be riveting for you. Well, a bit of background information. I live in Ham, near Richmond, South West London, but I grew up in Cornwall until the age of 18. I live with my partner, the Scotsman, and we've been together for 13 years. I am a writer, but I work in marketing (a bit like being an actor, but working as a waiter). I like writing intelligent horror, with a sinister feel. My blogging inspirations are people who should appear as links to one side of this blog, but bugger that, I've done enough complicated stuff for one night, so I'll mention then here: Mad Musings of Me (Gert); Scary Duck; Diamond Geezer; Call Centre Confidential; Kennamatic; and Random Acts of Reality. Oh I'm sorry, I'll learn to do that linky thing soon. Coming soon for all those fans of the unusual, a story about the rabbit woman of Godalming. for all those starved of weirdness in the meantime, just do a google search on Mongolian Death Worm. That should keep you going.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Strange Blue Ghost welcomes you

Well, this is a bit scary! I'm really not sure what I'm doing here. How do I change that ghastly colour scheme? Why all that green? And what will I write about? Well, the answer is I don't know yet.

Hopefully, it will mean a look at my life and my humorous observations of other people, and an exploration into the weird and unusual in a Fortean Times way (and yes, I'll link to the site if I ever literally have to refer to that publication) but only if I can work out that weird thing you have to do to link to somebody. More than that, I hope to point out the slightly weird, unusual and sinister in everyday life.