Joe Cooper. The Case of the Cottingley Fairies. Hale, 1990.
I suppose just putting these two titles together in one review will already have some of our American readers foaming at the mouth, but the comparisons are obvious. In each case a pair of witnesses, both closely linked (husband and wife; cousins and close friends) report a series of strange encounters and back up their stories with a collection of remarkable photographs. Both sets of photographs are, in the view of critics, ‘too good to be true’ and have the ‘look’ of obvious fakes. If asked to define this look’, your critical observer would say that the photographs look just a little too much like what we think fairies or UFOs should look like according contemporary cultural predispositions.
Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths’s fairies look like well-brought-up young ladies of 1917 off to a fancy-dress party in Kensington Gardens, rather than the rougher, more rustic entities of folklore. The Walters’s UFOs conform to the elaborate, light-bedecked chandelier format established by Spielberg, rather than the vague light-form of less fashionable close encounter cases.
Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that either set is a hoax. Indeed, in the present climate of ufological terrorism we’d better not say that anything looks like a hoax unless, as in the case of the two Yorkshire ladies, our percipients are safety dead. But perhaps a close study of the events in Cottingley in 1917, and the way they were subsequently treated, might shed some light on present day happenings in Gulf Breeze (and perhaps elsewhere in the ufological firmament). There are many curious parallels.
After their initial promotion by specialist groups – be it MUFON or the Theosophical Society – both sets of photographs received immediate derision from those not directly connected with them. Equally, they both found distinguished champions, Walt Andrus for Gulf Breeze and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for Cottingley, who have produced much the same arguments in defence of the photos they promoted. The witnesses are honest and sincere people who have nothing to gain (and much to lose) from such a hoax, we are told, and the photographs are of such a nature that they could not be faked by the witnesses with the means at their disposal.
Well, we can see now from Joe Cooper’s admirably honest book what one might make of the first argument. Elsie and Frances were delightful children and charming and intelligent elderly ladies who lived fulfilling lives and held responsible jobs. They certainly gained nothing financially from their plot. There is nothing to suggest that in any other aspect of their life, other than the production of a series of fake photographs in their teen years, they ever did anything in any way reprehensible. So do we have to assume that a hoaxer has to gain anything from their trickery? WelI there is one important gain – the gaining of power over those who take their hoax seriously, and indeed power over those who dismiss it seriously enough to get very hot under the collar about it.
Cottingly held the distinction of being
the largest village in England,
boasting its own imposing Town Hall,
and was just a tram-ride away from
the centre of Bradford
Some critical commentators on the Cottingley affair have tended to over-emphasise the supposed isolation and naivety of the two children. In fact Cooper’s book demonstrates that far from being an isolated community, Cottingley was, and is, virtually a suburb of the City of Bradford. At the time of the fairies it held the distinction of being the largest village in England, boasting its own imposing Town Hall, and was just a tram-ride away from the centre of Bradford. Nevertheless, it must have been quite exciting for the two children to receive such visitors as the creator of the world’s most famous fictional detective, and luminaries of the Theosophical Society (of which, incidentally, Elsie’s mother was already a member!). As well as being almost an integral part of Theosophical belief, Cooper shows that the idea of fairies was taken far more seriously at the time of Cottingley than we might now realise.
I suppose a wealthy Florida property developer would be less interested in receiving illustrious visitors if, and I repeat if, he chose to hoax a series of UFO photographs. Certainly people who have met Ed Walters, including the hard to impress Jim Moseley of Saucer Smear, have been impressed by his down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitudes (attitudes which in England are supposed to be very characteristic of Yorkshire-folk). It’s perhaps rather harder to claim that Ed ‘had nothing to gain’ from such a putative hoax, as this book has just netted him a sum not unadjacent to $300,000 in advances, and there is the inevitable talk of a TV mini-series.
Defenders of the Gulf Breeze photos tend at this point to move onto the technicalities of their production, claiming that they demonstrate characteristics which indicate they could not have been faked by the means Ed has at his disposal.
I have no idea what technical resources may be at the disposal of a wealthy Florida property developer, but we do know what our resourceful Yorkshire lasses had at their disposal: a pair of scissors, a hatpin, a copy of The Princess Mary Gift Book and a ‘Midg’ glass-plate camera. With these they produced a series of photographs which led investigators, including photographic experts, to pronounce confidently on their genuineness.
Certainly, the photographic technology which captured the Gulf Breeze UFO on fi1m does not seem to be very advanced, a system for taking ’stereo’ pictures seems to consist of a couple of cameras lashed to a Heath Robinson construction of wooden laths. It is also worthy of note that the highly structured craft of the early photos suddenly switch to far vaguer images once a system is introduced which would allow accurate determination of their distance from the camera – a point which seemed to baffle Walt Andrus on his visit to the BUFORA International Conference a year or so back.
An interesting red-herring seems to have been introduced to Gulf Breeze after publication of this book. Apparently a cardboard model similar to the images
on Ed Walter’s photographs has been found hidden in the loft of his former house (he has moved since the sightings) and I have heard a number of explanations to account for this:
- It is the model Ed used to fake his photos.
- It is a model hidden in the loft by sceptics after Ed moved, to discredit his photos.
- It is a model which Ed himself hid in the loft so that it would be found later then shown to be subtly different from the photos, so as to discredit the sceptics.
Clearly we are going to get nowhere fast like this, so lets forget the model!
Joe Cooper’s book is a fascinating account of a very simple hoax which fooled a great many people (including, he is honest enough to admit, himself) for a long time, and which appears to have been done for no other reason than for fun. Mr Ed’s book is a comprehensive account of a series of UFO sightings (culminating in an abduction) written, first hand, by the percipients. This in itself makes it unusual and worth reading. The books have many points in common. I can only recommend that you read both of them – Walters first, then Cooper – and, as they say in all the best non-committal book reviews, you must make up your own mind. -- John Rimmer