In which our intrepid hero and his band of merry men (and his beloved cryptochick) went to a place in the middle of Leicestershire (or was it Northamptonshire?), saved the day and had a monumentally groovy time..
It was a normal thursday evening at the CFZ. Me and the boys were sitting down watching a John Waters movie when the telephone rang - it was about 9.45 in the evening. "Hello Jon, it's Patrick Harpur... erm can you do me a favour?"
I like Patrick, he is a nice bloke, so Itold him that I would do what I could and waited for the axe to fall. "Erm, you know the big cat conference you are doing this weekend?" I certainly did. It was being run by his sister Merrily, and I was booked to give a talk on the sunday morning. "Merrily has been taken ill with appendicitis and will have to go into hospital. Erm, can you take over as compere?"
I burst out laughing. Not because Merrily (a nice lady of whom I am rather fond), was ill, but because, once again, it looked like the CFZ had to step in at the last moment to help a conference organiser. This has happened before with monotonous regularity. I still vicvidly remember a Exeter University Science Fiction Convention in 1999 or 2000, when - the night before - the organisers phoned to say that the person booking the speakers had forgotten to book any, and could we provide some! This time, the reasons were far more sad, but - once again - me, Marky and Graham had to ride into battle.
MARK FRAZER FROM `BIG CATS IN BRITAIN`
FROM THE FARMER'S WEEKLY:
"Britain's first national conference on big cats has been held in
Leicestershire - a hotspot for sightings.
Big cats are thought by many to be responsible for stripping bare the
carcasses of hundreds of sheep across the country.In 2005, more than 1200 eyewitness reports were made from as far afield as Sutherland to Cornwall and Norwich to the Isle of Mull.
Conference-venue village Marston Trussell is thought to be a breeding
ground for the animals because of its rocky, grassy landscape and 89
sightings were made in the past year, including one in the village itself. Nigel Spencer, who set up the Leicestershire and Rutland Pantherwatch
with his father David, charted scores of eye-witness reports and
showed video footage of sheep carcasses found stripped to the bone,
plus the plaster cast of a cat paw-print the size of a hand.
The biggest cluster of reported sightings is around the Rutland market
town of Oakham, where one was reportedly seen strolling down the main
street in the early hours. David Spencer of Pantherwatch issued his first warning to farmers four years ago after the mutilation of a six-week old lamb at West End
Only the head and legs of the lamb were left, and the attack was
unlike any dog mauling or fox attack, said farmer Charles Green".
DOING HIS OWN INIMITABLE THING
FROM THE LEICESTER MERCURY:
"Is there a panther on the loose? Cat Turnell went to find out at the first British Big Cats Conference
In the upstairs room of a country pub bristling with men in fleece tops and sturdy footwear, father and son David and Nigel Spencer hold a crowd in thrall. David, dressed in a grey suit, and Nigel, casual in an untucked shirt and jeans, stand beside a TV flicking through stills of a dead sheep that looked as if it had met the alien in Predator before baa-ing its last.
"You can't tell me a dog would do that," says Nigel to a rapt audience, as the animal's exposed rib cage stares unhealthily back from the screen. The man from Leicestershire and Rutland Pantherwatch would seem to have a point.
"This was taken at a farm in Leicestershire," he continues, as a breakfast-bothering close-up of the sheep flashes behind him. "The fleece was torn clean off." Chosen for its central location and its proximity to a number of big cat sightings, the conference room of The Sun Inn Hotel, just outside Market Harborough, is hosting the first British Big Cats Conference. For three days, the picture-postcard village of Marston Trussell is the nucleus for Britain's experts, eye-witnesses and big cat groups.
As the Spencers' talk draws to a close, a plaster cast paw print the size of a woman's hand is passed around the room. It's a seductively tangible lump of cat evidence. Taken from an imprint found at the bottom of a Castle Cement quarry in Rutland in 1998, it is supposed to belong to a panther. It is not only in Leicestershire that exotic felines are thought to tread.
There are thousands of big cat sightings in Britain every year - with 2,123 between April 2004 and July 2005.
THE `BIG CATS IN BRITAIN YEARBOOK`
OUR LATEST PUBLICATION
The words "conspiracy" and "collusion" abound. The men in black, in this instance, are officials from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). To Defra, big cats are a modern X-File, belonging to the same ethereal realm as UFOs, ghosts and fairies. "Based on the evidence, Defra does not believe that there are big cats living in the wild in England," comes the expected response when asked.
Unsurprisingly, it's not a popular stance here today.
"A puma is a puma is a puma," is the mantra of the formidably eccentric Jon Downes, director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ), in north Devon. CFZ is an organisation which researches "unknown animals", among other things. Having no small resemblance to leviathan wrestler Giant Haystacks, Jon says the reason for Defra's wall of silence is logistical.
"If a politician admits something exists, they have to do something about it. It's like everyone knew full well of the cocklers up in the north west."
Jon saw his first big cat in the New Forest in 1995, while on the way home from a gig. "I saw something very briefly," he says. He has made more sightings since. The majority of cats currently "spotted" roaming the highways and byways of Britain are alleged by believers to be the fallout of the 1976 Dangerous Animals Act.
Exotic cats such as panthers and leopards were popular in the 1960s. When the Act came in, many owners are said to have dumped them in the countryside instead of having them destroyed. "Stoned pop stars have a lot to answer for," says Jon with mock exasperation. Working in the music industry 30 to 40 years ago, he knew of friends who had them and set them free. The highlight of today's conference is a tour of the areas of Leicestershire where big cats have been sighted. The Leicester Mercury hitches a lift with 30-year-old Eifion Rees, from country magazine The Shooting Times, and John Michelle, author of science fiction tome View Over Atlantis.
Winding through the hills and villages of the south east of the county, Jon, 73, suddenly spots something against the landscape. "Look over there," he gestures, as we both crane our necks.
"Did you see a cat?" asks Eifion.
"No," he says, "a big tent. I did see two big black animals," he teases, "but I think they were cows." At a railway bridge in Tilton, overlooking a mossy-hued ravine which was once the Great Central Railway line and is now a track for horses and bikes, the group makes a pit stop. It is a favoured location for big cat sightings. A farmer a stone's throw away has found several sheep carcasses stripped to the bone. The cats, says Nigel Spencer, like to use the former train line as a way to go unnoticed, traversing the length and breadth of the country.
Terry Dye, from Big Cats in Britain, has made the journey from Cambridge. The sun has gone in and his skin is an unhealthy purple as he fervently scans the horizon.
Shivering and with a set of binoculars hung around his neck, does he expect to see something? "Not really," he shrugs, "I'm hoping, but I don't expect to. I saw one in Lincoln in 2003. We had a three day and night stake-out.
"I turned up on the last day and we had a telephone call to say it had been seen up the road. As I turned around, it was walking past. It was as big as an Alsatian. It growled at me."
There are others in this mish-mash of folk, however, who remain wholly unconvinced about the big cat tales. "I think we've got more chance of seeing a train," remarks Tony Francis, from TV programme Heart of the Country, as he stares down at the deserted cutting. He's with a film crew hoping to catch an animal on camera. He looks depressed. Next we go to Knossington, where the group lands at the doorstep of Sally Knight, a farmer's secretary living at the foot of a sweeping sheep pasture. She has seen a big cat twice in Somerby and a puma in the woods at Woodhouse Eaves.
"I did a double-take at first, I thought it was a dog," she tells the group, as a microphone dangles precariously over her head. In the past, she has also found a stripped-clean sheep carcass. "A dog wouldn't strip the bones like that," she says. "They were almost bleached, like something you see in Africa."
What about the direct evidence? Why has no-one seen a big cat carcass?
"I think it's extraordinary we haven't found a dead one," she ponders. "The hunt hasn't flushed one out." In the end, there was just one confirmed big cat sighting that weekend. The exotic feline was found in the homely confines of The Sun Inn Hotel's welcoming mahogany bar. It was attached to the pump handle of The Grainstore Brewery's Rutland Panther - a rather delicious mild."
LIKE ARSE DO I LOOK LIKE `GIANT HAYSTACKS`
L-R : Corinna, Me, Mark Martin, Mark North
I thought that the second of those articles was quite funny, but many members of the big cat fraternity were quite incensed by it. Never mind boys, at least you weren't described as "formidably eccentric"!
The big cat boys seemed to be more upset about the description of Nigel Spencer's sartorial elegance, but I would like to point out the following errors:
1. John Michell's book was called "The View from Atlantis" and was NOT science fiction.
2. I was not working in the music business 30-40 years ago. I was a schoolboy.
3. Whilst I will be the first to admit that I know several stoned pop stars, none of them have ever kept big cats as pets
4. "A Puma is A Puma is A Puma", but I don't remember saying it
5. The only times the word "conspiracy" was used was to poo poo the idea that any conspiracy exists - at least not one involving big cats. The rest of my quote about government intransigence is true, but that ain't a conspiracy - merely an example of the creative inertia of officialdom
6. I am far better looking than `Giant Haystacks`
However, after all these years I am quite used to descriptions like that, and it is all water off a duck's back to me. The most important reason for conferences like this is to foster a sense of community - to see old friends, and to make new ones - and the most important thing is that Merrily is feeling better.
Roll on Uncon...