Phantoms of the Sky

David Clarke and Andy Roberts. Phantoms of the Sky. Hale, 1990. 

This is in many ways the proverbial 'book I would like to have written'. Clarke and Roberts have, however. far more street credibility, being most definitely not armchair ufologists, and therefore their stout presentation of a combination earthlightspsychosocial approach to the subject is to be welcomed greatly.

A wide range of material is discussed: recent cases of lights over Yorkshire, the airship reports, the phantom helicopters of 1974/5, crashes and cover-ups, abductions, earthlights, the lessons of Cracoe Fell, shamanism and the foibles of perception. They point out the critical ambiguity and vagueness of much of the evidence: how for example could anyone have kept Roswell secret for thirty-something years. They show that the pre-1947 material can easily be seen to be derived from misperceptions of conventional stimuli with the odd earthlight thrown in. They also show clearly the essentially religious nature of much UFO research: the need to 'testify a truth' without any critical evaluation.

The authors are aware that ufology is a modern folklore in which many traditional motifs are presented in updated, more fashionable, terms. All folklore represents the society in which it spreads. One would not expect a peasant society to have visions and beliefs centred on mechanical devices, nor a modern urban society to invest its folklore with agrarian concerns. Given the massive differences in culture, it is the similarities which surprise.

Clarke and Roberts are also aware of the essentially heterogeneous nature of the ufolklore. What constitutes the 'UFO experience' in 1991 is quite different from that of 1951. The massed flights of echelon formations of silver discs gave way to reports of aircraft-UFO dogfights, then to civilian reports of lights-in-the-sky, then landings complete with Dewilde style pilots. Later came the psychic aspects, then abductions, home abductions, implants, secret bases and star-wars. Only one constant can be found: the constant belief from Al Bender in 1953, Ruppelt in 1956, Lorenzen in '62. Shuttlewood in 1967, through Emmeneger, Blum, Fawcett, and dozens of others right up to the latest crashedsalacer aficionados, that the answer is just around the corner.

If there are solutions to the UFO mystery, Clarke and Roberts suggest they may lie both in the mysteries of wild nature and the mysteries of the human mind: UFOs are visitors from horizons where the landscapes of the earth and the landscapes of the imagination merge and blur in the haze.

Neither wild nature nor wild imagination are especially gentle places. Magonia is no place where 'gentle fairies play', but the place where the hosts of the dead take the living, where dark imagination creates even darker initiations. When this book was written everybody's attention (including the authors') was focussed on the gentle whimsy of the crop circles in England's green and pleasant land. Within six months attention moved on to stories of ritual child abuse. We know those stories have been spooned out of the same folkloric cauldron as the UFO abductions: as Roger Sandell Mentioned in Magonia 39 one of the Rochdale children told a typical UFO abduction story.

Thus Phantoms of the Sky is not just absolutely essential reading for for ufologists, it should be on the compulsory reading list of every social worker in the country. Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 40, August 1991.

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