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How UFOs Conquered The World

The History of a Modern Myth

David Clarke

(London Times)

UFO believers will not like this book. It is not a classic debunking; David Clarke is too subtle and warm for that. But it is written by a turncoat, a former believer turned journalist who, in 2007, curated the release of all 52,000 pages of the Ministry of Defence's UFO-related documents to the National Archives.

Four million people visited that site in its first five years, most of them presumably believers, but Clarke's stance is that almost all sightings can be explained as hoaxes, fantasies or misidentifications.

His book tackles a number of celebrated incidents, most notably the American pilot Kenneth Arnold's sighting, on June 24, 1947, of the original 'flying saucers'. These objects behaved remarkably like pelicans, Clarke observes, before recounting a suite of stories where observers have been astonished to see spacecraft, only for them to be revealed as oddly lit ducks or gulls.

The 'trained observer' beloved of ufologists, Clarke warns, does not exist. Air-traffic controllers at a large American airport, for instance, once tried to radio the planet Venus to give it clearance to land. Eye-muscle fatigue can generate autokinesis, where objects such as stars can appear to dance around. 'Floaters' can appear on the surface of the eyeball. Paralysing 'waking dreams' can be powerfully realistic.

Clarke, who has a PhD in folklore, insists that everything is 'perceived through the distorting prism of popular culture'. Before flying saucers there were phantom rockets, winged airships and fiery celestial chariots, as seen by the biblical prophet Ezekiel. Postwar UFO sightings aped prewar science fiction. In the 1950s and 1960s, everyone saw saucer-like shapes. (The 'saucer' image derives from a misreporting in a newspaper: 'Why would aliens redesign the appearance of their craft', Clarke demands, 'to conform to a mistake made by a journalist?') From the late 1970s, people saw huge, hovering black triangles with pulsing corner lights, 'strikingly similar' to the opening image of the 1977 film Star Wars.

Accounts of alien abduction might seem harder to explain away, but for Clarke this is 'just folklore dressed up in space-age clothes', a modern retelling of changeling fairy tales. Fascinatingly, he traces the 'template' abduction narrative back to Betty and Barney Hill who, in 1961, saw a UFO while driving in New Hampshire. They claimed to have 'lost' two hours and, under hypnosis, their story acquired new details ( including an intimate examination by uniformed humanoids). Clarke traces key elements of their tale to a sci-fi show that was televised 12 days before their hypnosis session, but it still spawned thousands of copycat stories.

What with all that 'testimony' of penetrative medical tests and interbreeding experiments, you might think that vivid sexual fantasies play a part. Clarke does not go there, but he does delve into the political and religious fantasies that drive UFO culture, from the science-fiction derived beliefs of Scientologists to the more homely cult of Britain's Aetherius Society, whose 1,000 or so members still believe that their founder, George King, channelled messages from Venus.

The story of King and his chanting Aetherians could be played for comedy, but Clarke is careful. 'If we laugh at people who believe in cosmic masters', he asks, 'then where should that laughter stop?' He can't resist some humour, though. Some of the freshest and funniest material in the book is where he documents specifically British UFO culture.

British 'ufology' began as another American cultural import of the 1950s, largely restricted to sci-fi buffs and the like. By 2010, however, when the Royal Society commissioned a poll, a third of British people believed that aliens have visited our planet. But where American UFO legends have a whiff of the epic, the homespun equivalents can feel, in Clarke's words, more 'like a scene from an Ealing Comedy'. America had the high-tech Roswell air base, in New Mexico, where an alien spacecraft supposedly crash-landed in 1947. Britain had Warminster, in Wiltshire, where a moving light dubbed the 'amber gambler' attracted hundreds of believers in 1965. America had Project Blue Book, which investigated UFO sightings from 1966. In Britain, the Ministry of Defence 'set up a little committee' run by Alex Cassie, an RAF scientist who had forged the documents for the 'Great Escape' breakout from the German Stalag Luft III prison camp in 1944.

Clarke interviews Cassie, who admits, disarmingly, that his committee was 'just the dustbin where everything ended up that no one else wanted to deal with'. Clarke's chief finding, after going through that 'dustbin', is that the Ministry of Defence spent most of its time sending polite letters to people reporting sightings. Its activities 'resembled Yes Minister more than it did The X-Files', he observes.

Take the UFO 'flap' of 1967, when hoaxers dropped fibreglass shells across England, each filled with a loudspeaker primed to emit 'an unearthly bleeping noise' and 'a foul-smelling concoction of flour and water that was boiled to make it resemble an alien substance'. The retired intelligence officer given the role of investigating, Group Captain Cliff Watson, described Whitehall's reaction as: 'Shit! What shall we do?' The farce that followed 'was crowned by a bureaucratic dispute over which department was responsible for the requisition of a staff car'.

Clarke is more serious when he turns to the big question hovering over UFO culture: 'Why?' He refers to the atomic fears of the Cold War, and the hope that 'someone, or something, was watching over us'. He mentions the decline of religion. Rather desperately, he quotes Carl Jung, who thought that the circle shape of the saucer symbolised hope. In short, Clarke treats ufology as a faith-based movement charged with a conspiracist distrust of government.

This is a good book. It pulls off being sceptical, respectful and dry. But when it comes to explaining a phenomenon so weird, and weirdly pervasive, you are left wanting more penetrative - and perhaps less respectful - answers.

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