I thought I had met the ultimate
in living postmodern theatre when once on a journalistic assignment long ago,
I met a memorable colony of Mel Tormes at Butlin's Holiday Camp in
Skegness. Each and every star feature was an example of early Kareoke complete with
Brylcreamed quiffs and Blossom Deary voices. But not even this edifying
experience prepared me for that quite different species of information
that is the UFOupdates List on http://www.virtuallystrange.net
Here I met no less than a complete and intact colony of virtual mechanics,
ledger clerks, archivists, librarians, and retired civil servants and
administrators. Almost all were dedicated to what has become known
as corporate scientific Ufology. This means that they think they have a
scientific approach to the UFO experience. Now that may sound not to bad,
but since their "science" has not evolved beyond circa 1950 this
makes them surely one of the rarest animal groups on our planet, their
numbers being down to about fifteen-hundred. This means that as a micro-micro
culture, they don't have much of a chance in Darwinian time. This is
because they have very limited evolutionary options, their one god being
science, whose catechism of "objective factual reality" is their
only arbiter of experience and truth. In this, they have much in
common with their enemies, the Magonian sceptics.
But the thing described by the Maoist village chant of "objective
factual reality" is an amazing box of metaphysical tricks made of so
many excuses, evasions and crossed fingers and winks and nods and hopes
and fears through all the years that it resembles a window-blown hut made
of tarpaper and mud on a rain-washed precipitous mountainside.
Occasionally the inhabitants flee in fear and trembling from that they
call the Real and to patch up another shantytown on a more sheltered part
of the magic mountain. Thus does their precious Real, like most things of
the mind, have its own weather, whose dangerous moods tease them to death
with ever-changing and unstable strata loose under foot.
Most UFOupdates List folk ignore this shaky concept of the Real, and retain a quite
Victorian sense of the great millennial expectations of factual certainty
being the coming Messiah; there will come an End time when the correct facts being fully
assembled, the finished Prototype (as the ultimate in techno-consumer
Messiahs) itself will stand there, on the "scientific" runway, fully complete and ready
for testing and development. Yes, it probably will, but it will be as
obsolete and useless as Howard Hughes' flying boat, the Spruce Goose, or
the stripped bones hauled in by Hemingway's Old Man. This is the American
myth that Melville would have recognized, and is the religion of the
American Prototype on planet Earth.
In this senscientific Ufology as represented by the
UFOupdates List has a touching trust in
simple mechanical science and its accompanying compilations of
"evidence". For yes, if scientific Ufology has a god, it is the
god of compilation. This sub culture within a sub culture compiles as few
cultures of any size have ever compiled. Future ages will wonder what
these infinite rooms full of "facts" were for, just as we now
meditate on Mayan Temples, the great Lion Gate at Mycenae, and the Easter
Island statues. The Webs spun off from the List with their infinite
rooms will be looked upon as the great railway timetables of Victorian
England are now looked upon with wonder. We look upon Project 1947 by Jan
Aldrich for example, as others once wondered about the branch line to
Addlestrop, scientific Ufology being a journey into the past just as Alice
goes through her looking glass.
It is a past when science was innocent, when Marie Curie's hands were not
yet scarred and the first fish were not yet floating yellow-belly up in
the canal besides the new gasworks. Like the Victorian world again, List
Ufology establishes classes of categorization with the manic energy of a
despairing culture. The List is a church, no less. The categories, facts,
and definitions are chanted as mantras in one of the last gasps of rationalism.
We imagine long columns of priest-like Ufologists enter Kafka's castle of
time and compilation, to be piled like the corpses of old priests in the
catacombs of the Vatican. Thus quite unwittingly the UFOupdates List is
pure postmodern art form looking back. Victorian Techno-Retro as it might
be called. Future ages will see its compilations of "factual
research" as the Albert Memorial, the Forth Bridge, the fašade of
the British Museum, or that monument to British Empire Methodism,
Astonishingly, almost none of the
List contributors have
yet reached the age of information, never cyberspace or virtuality,
although the List exists in these very mediums. Neither have any of its
much-vaunted scientists reached Complexity, Chaos, or Fuzziness,
never mind the completely anarchic state of modern physics in which
teleportation no less, has now been achieved!
In contrast, the passive compilation philosophy of Project 1947 would have
pleased Prince Albert and Darwin both. They would have loved spending hours
turning page after page of specimen after specimen of UFO sightings and
UFO experience. The Ufological encounter is looked upon as some curious
thing strung on a pole from the old Empire and carried by two sweating
servants. These "investigators" don't so much think (that would
get them into terrible trouble) as compile, for which they get much praise
as compilers. In the main, they work as the worthy Bob Cratchett
once worked manning the great ledgers of the pre-punched-card world.
There is endless speculation not about the UFO which (unlike your Editor) almost none have
seen, but about systems of references, systems of recording, analysis,
investigation, and even speculations on the construction of "reality checks" for those who claim
to have been abducted. This a beehive manned by a very narrow social
spectrum, consisting of strangely reactionary and conservative folk, and
its often interrogatory tone regarding UFO claims is most reflective of
Maoist village Communism. This attitude is reflected in the treatment of
people such as Corso, Reich, and in general how the group quickly swarms
to filter out eccentrics and non-conformists. It this it appears to
represent very small-town America. Certainly there would be many puzzled
brows at any mention of Barthes or Sontag.
Suggestions that science is media, or that fact is a management dimension, evokes howls
of derision usually from those who reason like garage hands of 1900. The
implicit, the abstract, the symbolic, and ambiguity, paradox, and
contradiction are quite beyond them. The practical, the demonstrable and
the monosyllabic curse is the response. It is all very low-brow, and it all has
a rather quaint air because media as a live functional animal has not
arrived in these village minds yet. When it is mentioned at all, it is spoken of as a merely
passive reflective mirror. As with information, media is looked upon as
having simple tangible
outputs and inputs. Whilst the pirate cultures as represented by Tesla's
Journey to Mars, are young, mad and alive,
the UFOupdates List is a significant study of part of a culture in
With very few exceptions, many and most Listers have a manic paranoid preoccupation with Fact with a capital
F that is the intellectual equivalent to that ague afflicting old caged
bears with ever-nodding heads, and chained dogs who eventually bite off
their own tails. For scientific Ufologists cannot think without Fact.
Without Fact, nothing can happen, and nothing is significant. Fact is
Truth, and no statement is valid without it. In the world of the
UFOupdates List, Facts are piled high as pies on a stall. They curse out
all skills of image, symbol and metaphor as if they were the marks of
devilish intercourse. Woebetide guesswork, intuition, and especially the
imagination. In this world, the imagination is identified with moral evil.
It is something that belongs to the broken and the lost, the outsiders and
the liars and hoaxers and especially those who make fantastic claims. The
imagination is a corruption identified as Sin.
Strangely, the UFO does not appear to be growing old with them. As a manifestation it
appears to despise their existence in time. The pirates, by contrast, don't live in
the industrially sequenced pulse of mechanical time; the pirates, like the UFO
(surely the ultimate expression of existential piracy!), are free of
tasking. The pirates, like the UFO again, have escaped goals, objectives,
achievements; Tesla can
be on the moon, or the Queen of England an alien lizard. To them the Truth
is the Truth of postmodern Fortean art form.
Listers are obsessed with the idea that Authority is like a rather
difficult father in a bad mood; if snuggled up to, he will provide sweeties
in the form of UFO revelations. From some dusty box
or a mistake in some security classification of long ago, will emerge some
grail of Ufological revelations. The idea that science is Authority
and that Authority will lie as it is designed to do, and so therefore will
Science, this idea has not arrived here yet. For in the UFOupdates List the world of appearances is safe and well. Doctors
still cure, police arrest criminals in this small-town America of forty
years ago. Their WASP reactions are positively Germanic in their
Puritanism. When exotics like Reich or Greer or Corso or David Icke come
along, most Senior Ufologists (as they blushingly call themselves) act as
inhabitants of a Bavarian mountain village would treat a black Rabbi with
dreadlocks walked past the rows of twitching curtains of the main street
in Bermuda shorts playing rap on a one-string banjo. In other words, the
"scientific" palefaces practically fall off their straight scrubbed branches.
Intellectuals in particular are List village strangers. They are greeted
by Annie Oakley shotguns firing ill-educated monosyllabic abuse equivalent
to a coon hunt of blue-chinned thick-lensed intellectuals with foreign
accents. Two-syllable words and longer sentences are faced with American
primal terror when the need for a concentration longer than the interval
between two commercials is needed.
Melville would have loved it all. Here on the List is probably the last
reservoir of genuine American innocence. He would have loved also the
belief in old-fashioned Practical Mechanics happy-jack science
"solving" problems and making "breakthroughs" and
"advances" for the "benefit" of humanity and sold with
a toothpaste smile from the back of a covered wagon.
Meanwhile, back on the magic mountain, the Real has changed its identity
once again. The kids are pushing keyboards that have nuts and bolts drawn on
them as virtual echoes of what once had been. As if in sympathy, the buts
and bolts themselves become shot through as a newspaper under rain, and
the British can't make a cuckoo-clock, never mind a rifle or railway.
Brenda Harris, trainee psychiatrist at H.M. Prison Drakebury, almost
groaned as she read the report on Prisoner 60149837. A first interview
with a fallen computer-programmer from Shepherd's Bush was the kind of
thing only a black Monday morning such as the one outside her window could
offer. She read through the brief report again, and though relatively
young and inexperienced, she was beginning to recognise an insoluble
problem kicked her way when she saw one. She looked again at the report.
The clipped phrases of her supervisor told of persistent child
sex-offender Harmsworth, Frank: male, 35 years of age. Somewhat withdrawn,
finds socialising difficult, contemptuous of other inmates. Well educated.
Works in library. Taking extramural PhD. No sign of latent schizophrenia.
Scores high in intelligence tests. Physical condition very good. No
medication. Not violent.
One of the reasons why they needed a lot less medication now was that a
generation of social-psychologists had gone to work on pleasantly-lit
'situation-rooms' like the one Brenda was now in, with its bland prints
against coordinated shades of wall and ceiling shades. But despite cheery
carpets, the absence of window-bars, and functional furniture of
pastel-fabrics and bright blond wood, everything here was pure plot. The
calming was carefully engineered, like most socially-applied technology,
for reassurance prior to the injection of some deep-laid suggestion. On a
shelf were a few well-dusted volumes of airport-lounge foil-fiction, and
an equally friendly-looking coffee-machine, whose scent while working was
thought by all to calm the savage breast. In this room there would be
nothing to really object to, no hint of abrasive surface, challenging
shape, no interesting shade, angle, or shape, and certainly no shadow.
Persuasion, control, and conformist pressure were now professionally
managed, and had exquisitely sophisticated software-tools. Hun-vocabulary,
white coats, and hypodermic syringes were a million miles away from
Brenda's torn jumper and jeans. Few could refuse the hands of comfort and
friendship, just as few could refuse far more obvious salesmen. In places
such as this room, any act of violence would look as ludicrous as a
genuine loss of temper on TV. Here, the savage thought was outperformed
almost before it occurred. The very idea of the rending of flesh was out-of-date as a green-screen computer.
In the late twentieth-century, dungeons and red-hot implements had come a
Brenda was quite surprised when Harmsworth himself came in and smilingly
accepted her offer of coffee. He was rugged, strongly handsome, and
exhibited a warm, polite intelligence, as if anxious to cooperate, even to
learn the secrets of his perpetual incarceration in H.M. Prisons. But
there was no doubt that the upper-middle-class Frank Harmsworth had a
serious problem, for when he was released from prison, within a few days,
he would make his way to the nearest store and would fondle very young
children sexually. These actions were anything but furtive.
Frank chose good weather, and
busy Saturday mornings in large supermarkets for the miniature-riots that
always ensued. Further to his action, he did not try to escape, and
suffered many injuries before being eventually detained and arrested.
Because of this passivity, he had been nearly lynched on several
occasions, and beaten half to death on others by shopping crowds, rampant
mothers, and gangs of youth anxious for a good kicking in a worthy cause.
The clouds vanished over the new prison hospital block, and what seemed to
her to be yellow and white spotlights came through the window and lit
Harmsworth's face. He was the kind of man she thought to herself, who always brought on a kind of theatre lighting. If he were in the middle of
a field, she imagined that he would naturally transform it into a
stage-set. As a young woman, Brenda could not avoid certain feelings present
with her. In this strangely transformed light, the man before her looked
like a combination of glamorous films: Clint Eastwood in the half-light of
a saloon bar, or Paul Newman speeding through the night in a glittering
car. She stopped her unprofessional thoughts short by reminding herself
that there was something very wrong with the man before her; that
something dreadful had ruined his promising life, and could easily
degenerate into more serious mental illness. That was serious: the
lighting would go, the face turn to sallow, the actors and the sets fall
down, and he would become an old man very quickly.
With these thoughts, she heard his cultured voice from a great distance as
the sun went away again and now he looked like a figure from a black and
white German pre-war film. Frank just could not help it. He had changed
the scene again. He probably did not know he did it. Amazing she thought,
how strong images traversed time, continents and culture in such a series
of rapidly produced frames.
"Its a system you see. A single trigger. I love to see it in action.
Very elegant. Everything balanced on that single simple action, hardly
"Is it worth it?"
As soon as Brenda heard her own voice, she knew she had made a mistake.
The warmth vanished, and the man almost sneered, as if bitterly
disappointed at the plain simplicity of Brenda's question and its hint of
An obviously disappointed Frank Harmsworth now looked at Brenda not as an
intelligent well-read psychiatrist, but as he would look at a market
trader attempting philosophy. Gone in a flash was the warmth. Brenda
cursed, inwardly. She had lost the patient's respect before she started. Now it was going to be hard. She heard his voice again, but now
there were no frames, just grit in her mind.
"All knowledge gained is worth it."
"With others paying the price?"
Another petit-bourgeois response.
What was the matter with her mind this morning? She was plunging in with
cheap leading remarks worthy of a third-rate probation officer.
"I would never hurt them. But that's not the point. It's the shortest
way to pure Pavlovian theatre I know, that's all."
"Violation of innocents?"
Leading question, headline vocabulary. This would not do. She would have
to politely terminate the interview if she could not get her mental focus
together. She thanked her lucky stars the meeting was not being taped for
her supervisor. Usually she was good at her job, committed to it, and
handled the people before her with growing skill. But the charming, clever
and extremely devious Frank put her off somehow; she had never felt
herself to be on such a slippery slope, with her hard-won skills and
fought-for experience melting away, and driven to questioning like a young
and hesitant intern in therapy-training.
"I don't violate them. I never would. If the circumstances came where
a child welcomed my advances, then I would not continue."
"Couldn't you simulate it, as they do with atomic tests?
That was a little better, but the change in emphasis and vocabulary had
been noted by Harmsworth's penetrating eyes. Brenda knew now she was dealing
with a far cleverer man than she had ever supposed. She had to get a grip.
If she went on like this, the man in front of him would control the
interview. Brenda listened as Frank explained again, rather
"The whole thing is a purely intellectual simulation anyway. It's a
discovery of attitude-structures. Its the shortest way I know to maximum
outrage, I am not in the least bit sexually interested in children."
"But what about the pain and injury you suffer?"
That was a lot better, turn back the question to the client, but still far
too worthy and sensible. Not many marks out of ten for that. She was
thinking like an amateur, and suddenly the coffee tasted awful. Frank was
out-gunning her, outranking her, and making Brenda want to fling her
coffee over the pastel-shade walls, a move which she was sure would have
got her many more marks in Frank's eyes.
"The pain is worth going through."
"To learn how the stage-fronts work."
"Everything is a stage-front."
"But some are better than others?"
"I don't know what you mean by 'better'."
there no situation A better than B?"
"Wouldn't you like to be out of here rather than in?"
"When you have one pound you have one problem, when you have two
pounds, you have two problems. In or out, it makes no difference."
Switch track now, break his lock. Her old boxing Dad spoke in her mind.
Keep mobile, never appear to be at a loss. Pivot, swerve, balance, use his
own weight against him. With that thought, Brenda felt a little happier.
She was in a learning-mode for the first time in months of bureaucratic
"Surely other people matter?"
"I don't give them any problems. I don't even touch the child's
private parts. That would disgust me. I am an adult heterosexual. I just
put my hand under their coat or just under their dress. That is
sufficient. The parents love it. All the unpaid bills, the bad car-repair,
the TV without a license, the mortgage payments, all the screaming modern
pain comes right down on top of my head. I lie there analysing it all
whilst they smash me up. It's a unique viewpoint. You should try it some
time. Would be good for scientific truth, if not for your career,
whichever you prefer."
"You used the word love."
"That's the parent's word, not mine. I don't love anything. Every
time I have loved in the past I have been wasted. How can you love one
change of game from another?"
"Do you hate anything?"
"My only hatred is boredom. Boredom gives me great theological
difficulty. I identify the non-event with moral evil."
"Some would say that what you do is boring."
"Boring? On my last outing I was only saved from decapitation by
being hauled up from a howling crowd by a police helicopter, minus my
shoes, socks, and trousers. The incident was attended by the fire-brigade,
the ambulance service, and even two truckloads of Royal Marine Commandos
from the local barracks. I would hardly call that a non-event."
"Are you happy with your situation?"
He looked at Brenda with mild amusement, as if she were a puppy playing
with a slipper.
"I am learning. Could there be a greater happiness?"
"Is anybody else learning?"
"Probably not. Why do trying social-democrats like yourself always
try and link everything to other people?"
"But your actions are repetitive. That's boring, surely."
only because the cycle is not over."
"The cycle of what?"
Again, he looked at Brenda as if she were a simple-minded utilitarian
rationalist confronted with some seething Amazonian paganism of the
"The cycle of initiation."
"Why then a sexual element?"
"That is merely the area of maximum effect. If people were equally
sensitive about cabbages, I would enter shops and steal them."
"Would you murder?"
"So you are testing your nerve?"
"That's part of it."
"I don't want to die."
"We all die of them."
"No. Most die of God's bad jokes. Some die of old television
programmes. You will probably die of your semi-detached mind, and your
degree from a provincial university. At least that's what it sounds like
This was a strange mind, indeed. Brenda imagined that in it there were no
families, smells, old remembered country lanes, knowledge of which
gearboxes were better than others, or what the score was at Old Trafford.
There was little inefficiency in toffee-nosed Frank, very little noise in
his system. The man in front of her was a mall-simulation cut off from
wind and rain. She laughingly imagined that if she reached over she could
put an arm right through Frank Harmsworth's chest and he would still be
"If you are released, would you offend in the same manner
"Of course. Why not? The experiment is not yet over."
As the hour wore on, the marks on Frank's cheek and brow, where umbrellas,
high-heels, walking-sticks, fists, and shopping-bags had scarred him, were
a puzzle mockingly offered by him to Brenda as they had been offered to
others. She decided that as a computer-programmer of high reputation,
Frank had almost entered the world of his creations; the man probably
thought the body was a mere bag of replaceable spare-parts, with only the
abstract managing software being of any real importance. To Brenda, he was the
personification of the arrogance of intellect with absolutely nowhere to
go. Frank was in a certain sense, the New Electric Citizen, with hard
morality identified with the pre-software world of hard things. Telling
Frank not to do something because it was bad, was no good to a man whose
sense of time was constructed by advertisements for different kinds of
show. Perhaps, thought Brenda, Frank knew that the game-show world would
eventually replace any previous hard structures, just as old analogue
push-buttons, spanners, levers, and faders were shown as simulations on
the computer screen, with all their previous greasy, heavy, metallic
nature fallen to a mere click of the mouse.
Frank now spoke, heavy with a suave confidence that annoyed Brenda
"Tell me Brenda, what show are you in?"
"I'm not in any kind of show."
"Congratulations. You must be the first person in history who has not
been in any kind of show."
The man was trying to trap her into imposing some new version of
an older, moral structure, daring her to be clever enough to invent some
tarted-up system of persuasive coercion that would "correct" him. Brenda
had to be careful; any suggestion of "change", would be demolished, jeered
at, kicked aside as being as full of hypocrisies as so many maggots in a
rotting carcase. It was now a contest. She had to find a way into Frank
without encountering the difficulty of his nonexistent moral sense. She
was sharp enough to know that Frank probably knew her problem. He was
daring her to re-invent morality, re-advertise it, give it better PR
than that coming from the dusty mouths and chalky faces of old men and
women, robot-mouths who always told him not to do certain things. In his
donnish way, the man had thrown Brenda a puzzle and he wanted her to solve
Brenda fought hard for as deep a relaxation as her opponent. Eventually
she spoke, looking him straight in the eye.
"But aren't there higher orders of games?"
Of a sudden Frank was tense and alert.
"Aren't there orders of what?"
"More complex forms of games."
Frank put down his coffee-cup and scratched his head, as if genuinely
receptive for the first time.
"The active preservation of innocence. Now there is an