Border Patrol

Mike Dash. Borderlands. Heinemann, 1997.
This is a substantial work in every sense. Weighing in at just over 500 pages, it covers the whole range of Fortean and paranormal topics from UFO abductions to ghosts, cryptozoology, earth mysteries, visions and much else, the Borderlands between everyday consensus reality and the mysterious land of Magonia. Each chapter is in itself a good introduction to its topic, well illustrated with summaries of cases and case studies. Yet it is much more than a scissors and paste assemblage from the files of Fortean Times, of which Mike Dash is the publisher. Dash avoids the 'Fortean correctness' of some writers who refuse to comment on or make any assessment of the mysteries they describe. He is prepared to say what constitutes good and bad evidence, and unlike some Forteans is not afraid to actually come to a conclusion. The fact that in most cases that conclusion is broadly sceptical does not make this a 'skeptics' book in the manner of a CSICOP publication, for that scepticism comes only as a result of truly open minded enquiry.

Despite some advance publicity for the book and some newspaper coverage which seemed to set the author up as a kind of super-sceptic, Dash does not go into each topic seeking to demolish it. Instead, he sets out the evidence clearly and concisely, calling on his twenty years association with Fortean Times and the mass of information acquired there - the notes-cum-bibliography are themselves an excellent reading guide ­ then sifts through it carefully to actually judge (an intensely Forteanly incorrect concept!) which evidence stands firm and which disappears rapidly when confronted by awkward questions. Of course, most of it does have a tendency to evaporate, and this is where Dash's true Forteanism comes into play, and his approach contrasts most clearly with the dyed in the wool sceptics. Because even if a phenomenon can be demonstrated beyond all doubt to be the result of misinterpretations, hoaxes and insufficient knowledge, he still realises that, as so many people have believed in it, it is still important because in most cases it has had a real impact on society and the individuals who have experienced it. Above all this is a book about belief; and emphasises the significance of 'vision and belief'.

One key chapter examines hoaxes. Most writers in this field skate rapidly over this topic, pretending that only an insignificant minority of UFO cases, ghosts, psychic phenomena, etc. are hoaxes, and decry anyone who tries to press the point as sadistic villains intent on reducing sincere witnesses to tears. Dash will have none of this, nor does he accept for a moment the feeble argument "it couldn't be a hoax, he had nothing to gain from it." Dash recounts the remarkable case of two Florida men who fooled cryptozoologists with a bizarre hoax. This involved a huge amount of effort, including making and wearing massive concrete boots and striding determinedly for hours at night to produce a line of over 1000 giant flipper prints along the beach at the Florida seaside town of Clearwater. Yet they had 'nothing to gain' apart from the immense satisfaction of seeing so-called experts co pletely baffled by their handiwork. lt is perhaps symptomatic of the lack of imagination shown by many researchers that they are unable to understand the motives of hoaxers.

Another chapter looks at 'hard evidence': photographs, repeatable experiments, hardware, independent witnesses. All, when closely examined, are shown to be flawed. Not perhaps fatally flawed, conclusive enough to dissuade any further investigation into the topic, because there is always something left which drives the investigator on to find the unflawed evidence. Dash quotes Jerome Clark in describing the evidence as an "exercise in futility and ambiguity that drive ... investigators to distraction.

In his summing up chapter Dash is drawn by the weight of evidence he has presented in the previous 400-odd pages to conclude that the phenomena of the 'Borderlands' are stimulated largely by activity within the human brain, mediated by the culture in which that brain operates. People who are not prepared to read this book carefully probably will conclude that the author is another hard-boiled sceptic in the CSICOP mould, but those who read it careful will see that he is simply telling the truth that he has discovered through his own study of the data. And despite, perhaps even because of, his sceptical conclusion is still keenly aware of the importance, the magic, and the sheer fun, of Borderland phenomena.

His concluding lines reflect the true Fortean, and Magonian, philosophy: "Mysterious and mystical experiences possess a powerful capacity to change lives. Because they are important, they should always be considered with an open mind, with a reluctance to rush to definite conclusions and with an eagerness to savour the rich variety of human experience. With, in short, a sense of wonder." lt is those researchers who are so anxious to deny the basic human involvement in the creation of Borderland experiences who reduce them to a sideshow rather than demonstrating them as an essential part of being human. -- John Rimmer. Magonia 60, August, 1997.


Terry the Censor said...

I believe the book and review dates should be 1997 not 1977.

Magonia said...

Thanks, Terry. Amendment now made.