British Beasts

Graham McEwan. Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland, Robert Hale, 1986.

Saying that this is the best survey of British cryptozoology since the Bords' classic Alien Animals of 1980 isn't saying very much at all, Publishers have been unforgivably slow to latch on to the potential of our phantom felines, sea-serpents, Nessie lookalikes and the other strange life that teems in the pages of Fortean journals.

Presented in a format that owes such to the Bord work Mystery Animals, McEwan isn't daunted by the sheer volume of material that needs to be processed. Selecting from the best in print, and throwing in some researches of his own, he covers a lot of awkward ground and mostly with fine economy: I wouldn't have thought it possible to see the Surrey Puma covered in just ten pages and yet find myself thinking that not much more needed to be said. The author avoids cluttering his text and dulling the appetive as he moves from report to report, steadily but not stolidly, Novicess to the field need something like this, and they will find it captivating, Experiences Forteans may not be as rooted to the page, but I'd be surprised is they don't find something new here.

The book opens with a look at big-cat sightings; arguably the best chapter of the book insofar as a lot of it will be new to all but a handful of specialists, and even here Mr McEwan offers fresh information eleicited by his appeals in local and regional papers. The text proceeds via sea serpents - emphasis here on Morgawr - to lake monsters, The treatment of the Loch Ness Monster nay seem less than 100% successful, but only when you consider that if all the literature on it were dropped in the Loch you could probably walk dry-foot from Inverness to Fort Augustus, Yet the accounts are well selected, and McEwan scores by stressing the dry land sightings of the Monster.

The following Black Dog chapter reinforces a suspicion which has been introduced without cramming it down readers' throats: that at times these ostensibly flesh and blood animals seem to possess downright unworldly properties, The big cats parade through built-up areas, yet leave few physical traces of their going; Irish water monsters are reported from loughs scarcely bigger than ponds; cameras take it upon themselves to malfunction at crucial moments. By now a subtle change of tone has come over the book; as the number of skimmed pages decreases, so the diversty of the animals, and it must be said, their incredibility, increases. Careering through the last 50 pages are Owlman, Wildmen, Wolfmen, the Borley Bug, the Staffs Monkey-Man, and since you ask, the Brentford Griffin is here as well on page 153.

These accounts are fascinating in their way, but the question is whether some of them really belong in a book about mystery animals. Isn't there a qualitative difference, between Say Morgawr and the Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, all 20-30 feet of him? The author would probably reply that we certainly need the Big Grey Man et al because they help make a case for regarding mystery animals as part of a broader continuous tradition of entities which assume animal shapes. To him there is only a difference of degree between a phantom feline, and the bi-pedal crop-eared 'hare' that haunted Abbey House in Cambridgeshire. So inclusion of these bizarrities underlines the argument that where mystery animals are concerned, a straight choice between deciding they are physically real or things partaking of a more para-physical nature isn't easy.

This is a very good book then, Some may feel it would be better still for the inclusion of more analysis of specific incidents and more theoretical discussion, even if that meant giving the Big Grey Man and the Borley Bug the chop.

Space, permitting there are questions we could have hoped to see posed even though they aren't likely to have been answered. If mystery animals are mental effects, we need to look closer at where the source material comes from (and of course how it gets here) as well as its symbolic function, if any. On the rationalist side, we need to look at how known animals may relate to what's going on: I'm thinking especially of the growing suspicion that feral cats may be more than slightly connected with aspects of the 'phantom feline' business. -- Michael Goss. From Magonia 25, March 1987.

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