I note with a shudder that this is the fifteenth time I have sat down to write a CFZ Annual Report and looking back I am amazed at quite how much the CFZ has changed since we started.
Ups and Downs
This has been a particularly difficult year for a number of reasons, most notably because of the downturn in the global economy, which has caused a particularly nasty recession. This has hit us particularly badly because book sales (our major source of income) have been badly affected, and we are on the whole about 30% down on sales of last year. That being said, however, this Christmas we sold more books than ever before in the United States, and although the UK sales are better than they have been all year, unless we have a major last-minute spurt of sales coming through on New Year’s Eve, we are still 23% down on last year. We were not expecting the sales slump to be quite this bad, but we have now adjusted to it.
However, things are not easy and we have had to tighten our belts considerably.
Many politicians tell us that the recession will be lifting during 2010 but our financial advisors intimate that whatever happens on paper, the effects may well deepen this year, and that it won’t be properly lifting until the second half of 2012.
We’ve also been advised by several people who claim to have their finger on the pulse of such things that 'kids', whoever this homogenous group of younger people may be, “will no longer buy books”, and that we should diversify into audio books and e-books. This is something we are most definitely not going to do – at least not at the moment. We are resolutely old-fashioned on this matter and believe that we should publish in a traditional manner. And until forced into abandoning publishing conventional books we will continue so to do.
Each year there are old familiar faces missing from the CFZ roll of honour – some of these have gone because of changes in their life, some of these have gone through ill health, some of these have gone because they are not interested any more and one or two – sadly – have been asked to leave because their behaviour and ethics are no longer compatible with what the CFZ does. Sadly, these include people who have promised us the earth and delivered nothing and even people who have defrauded us out of significant sums of money, equipment or intellectual property.
However, the distaff side of this is that each year there are new faces at the table; people whose contribution to the CFZ is immeasurable, and this year we would like to welcome and thank such people as Gavin Lloyd Wilson, Naomi and Richie West, Jan Edwards, Glen Vaudrey, Lanette Baker, Lizzy Clancy, and its hard to believe that even Max Blake has been with us for less than two years. I would also like to thank the people like Oll Lewis, Richard Muirhead and Dale Drinnon who make the commitment to a regular daily blog post. The CFZ truly is a family, and it is nice to welcome new members in. Sadly, as in even the best families there is the occasional divorce when someone wants out, or their behaviour becomes so extreme that they have to be expelled.
But that is life, and the CFZ is nothing if it isn’t a microcosm of everyday life.
Sponsors and Donors
Another encouraging sign is the amount of new sponsors that supported this year’s Weird Weekend. They included Voiceprint Records, Exmoor Breweries, Fortean Times, Paranormal Magazine, Hilltop Holidays, The Saskwatch Watch Company, the music department of Kingsley School in Bideford, Torridge Training, the Headstart Hairdressing Agency, and two well-known North Devon tourist attractions – The Big Sheep, and Dartington Crystal. I would also like to thank Andy Roberts, Jan Bondeson, Ronan Coghlan and Ross Braund-Phillips for their spectacular kindness.
Whilst on the subject of donations I would like to thank Karen Gensheimer, Steve Jones, Naomi and Richie West, Paul Haresnape, Derek Grebner, Magnus Jansson, Lindsay Selby, Andy Roberts, Andrew Saunders, Paul Cruikshanks, Jennifer Hynes, Mike Plant, Gary Taylor, Fleur Fulcher, Paul Vella, Miriam Hawkins, ‘Panther Cub Discs’, Richard Muirhead and various people at the Weird Weekend. If I have missed your name off this list please accept my eternal apologies.
In the summer of 2005 I started what was originally my personal blog where I wrote down my hopes and fears, and shared my life with whoever was interested. I also used it to write about CFZ activities, and for the next few years I wrote in it whenever I had anything of vague interest to say.
In early January we decided to do what we should have done a few years ago and we made it the hub of a network of CFZ blogs accessible through our website. From the second week in January there has been at least seven or eight news stories a day, sometimes more, and from an average of thirty hits a day we now achieve between 1,500 and 2,500 each day, and occasionally considerably more. If the current figures continue, we will hit the magic million mark sometime in mid-April. To put this in context, we have had a CFZ website with a hit counter since 1998 and only 365,260 hits as of 30th December on the main site. Our old friend Dr. Darren Naish recommended us to the Nature Blog network and we have been consistently in the top fifteen, more often than not in the top ten. The blog has become the voice of the cryptozoological community, and although it illustrates what a broad church the CFZ has become it is the only place either online or in the real world where all the major cryptozoological pundits in the English speaking world and a host of well-meaning amateurs, can meet up, engage in active debate and have frank – though civilised – exchanges of views.
It is almost like an online version of the Weird Weekend, and despite the fact that I didn’t mean it to be like this at all, like most of the good things that I have achieved in life it has taken on a life of its own and become an online daily magazine based around the CFZ and the wide pantheon of activities that we undertake within cryptozoology, animal welfare, green issues, conservation and small-politics. There is also a smattering of humour and music, and the aggregate readership figures improve month on month.
Change in Statement of Belief
We started 2009 with a major revamp of the CFZ website, and less than twelve months later we did exactly the same thing. Although some of the people - who with me were architects of the new CFZ - are missing from our happy band of brothers (and sisters), although we hope they will return at some point, I still stand by what we did at the end of last year. However, on a couple of major philosophical issues, with hindsight I find myself as guilty of thought-police brutality as any of the dull and hidebound members of the scientific establishment whose noses I have made it my business to tweak throughout my adult and professional life.
I have always prided myself on the fact that the upper echelons of the CFZ contain people of a healthily diverse range of religious and political persuasions. This exotic brew has always contained Catholics, Protestants, Pagans, Agnostics and Atheists, and Anarchists; Capitalists, Communists, Socialists, Neocons, and even people whose politics come from the far right of the political spectrum - all of this diverse range of humanity united by a generally healthy and green outlook, an enquiring mind, and a generally anarchic sense of humour.
At the last general election coming up for half a decade ago, Richard, Graham and I each voted for different political parties and made no secret of the fact, and I have always thought that this social diversity was one of the most important building blocks on which the CFZ was built.
Over Christmas last year, after being requested so to do for many years, I produced a document outlining the basic tenets of belief of the Centre for Fortean Zoology. In doing so I unfortunately allowed my own beliefs to prejudice what I wrote, and momentarily forgot the words of Charles Fort: “I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while”.
I make no secret of the fact that I find the doctrines of Young Earth Creationism to be completely ludicrous and as a practising Christian myself, I find this unwholesome superstition to be totally against what I believe both as a scientist and as a Christian. I am also disturbed by the number of cryptozoologists, especially in the United States, who are Young Earth Creationists, and I am particularly disturbed by the way that these religious beliefs have tended to colour the findings of certain researchers; especially those who believe in the continual survival of non-avian dinosaurs.
However, as a cryptozoologist I have always found the ‘thought-police’ of mainstream science particularly abhorrent and as an anarchist I feel much the same about many of the belief systems, which bedevil our current western society. So I have removed the sections about creationism and new age spirituality from the CFZ tenets of belief, which now merely read:
'That although there are members of the CFZ from all religions and from all sections of the political spectrum, we carry out our researches with no religious or political bias or motivation', and 'That the CFZ should be an international brother/sisterhood of like minded people who work together, mindless of differences of creed and culture, to push back the boundaries of human knowledge, for no other reason than that it is a good thing to do; hence our motto Pro Bona Causa Facimus (we do it for a good reason).'
The CFZ is fundamentally a research organisation. At any one time we are carrying out dozens of research projects across the world; some of them major, most of them minor. This year some of our most notable investigations included:
- Beast of the Bay
In January we were approached by a local newspaper who told us that the carcass of the Beast of Exmoor had washed up on a North Devon beach. Of course it wasn’t anything of the sort, but a recently deceased grey seal. For a short and exciting few days, during which we were accused of having stolen the skull of the corpse by one of the tabloid newspapers and not for the last time this year, had our entire modus operandi criticised by internet pundits behind the safety of their computers, we thought it might have been that of a sea lion. If it had been, it would have been only the second sea lion to be recorded in British waters. However, the most important thing is that not only did we solve the mystery, but we have hard evidence in the form of photographs, films, the skull and a flipper in order to prove that any claims made in the future about the corpse of a drowned Beast of Exmoor can be consigned to the rubbish bin where they belong.
- Devil’s Footprints
In March we were approached by an old lady in the village who had some singular footprints in the snow in her back garden. What is particularly interesting is that these footprints were reminiscent to those that appeared in Devonshire in the mid-19th Century – an occasion which has become known as the Great Devon Mystery. On that occasion the footprints were popularly supposed to have been made by the Lord of Darkness himself. On this occasion we were lucky enough to be on the scene within hours and able to take photographs and film, which were just not available to those hard-working researchers of the mid-19th Century. Our initial findings suggest that it is a rabbit or hare, but why they are so different from normal rabbit or hare footprints remains to be seen. We intend to carry on our experimentation with our own rabbits during the winter months when the CFZ grounds are under a blanket of snow.
- Killarney Lakes
In September we were in County Kerry, deep in the Republic of Ireland. Together with Max Blake and my old friend Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels we took some photographs and film of anomalous objects – presumably of animals – on the lake. They may or may not have been of an unknown species or even, as has been suggested, paranormal in nature. Whatever else happened we saw a peculiar series of events that appear to have been triggered by my old friend. Much has been written about this elsewhere, including a major research paper in the 2010 Yearbook, but we were not prepared for the torrent of abuse that we received after broadcasting our film on CFZtv.
- Sumatra #3
Also in September, three CFZ members joined Adam Davies on an expedition to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It was our third trip to the island. It was the most successful of our expeditions yet because we found footprints, hair samples, and one of our members (Dave Archer) together with Sahar Didmus, actually saw what they believe was an orang pendek. Once again, our findings were greeted with derision from people who it appears didn’t have the manners to behave any better.
Almost exactly ten years ago Nigel Wright and I attended the Lapis UFO conference in Lytham-St. Anne’s, Lancashire. We had so much fun (and yes, the scurrilous details written up by Andy Roberts in an edition of his scandal sheet The Armchair Ufologist are basically true), we decided we had to do one of our own. The first Weird Weekend, held in May 2000, was great fun. It was also the valedictory public appearance of my dear old dog Toby before he died on Ascension Day. Speakers included David Farrant, Mike Hallowell, Nick Redfern and Richard Freeman. Twelve people turned up and we lost the grand sum of seventy-five quid, which back then was a considerable slice of the CFZ budget. Although the 2001 and 2002 events (held in conjunction with the Exeter University Science Fiction Society) just about broke even, Richard and I had already decided never to hold another event until, much against our better judgement, we were talked into having a 2003 event by a couple of close friends. The 2003 Weird Weekend was fantastic and made a substantial profit. The future of the event was assured.
I have always enjoyed the Weird Weekend immensely and it had been my favourite weekend of the year for a long time. However, I have to admit that this year’s event was nowhere near as much fun for me, Corinna or David Braund-Phillips in particular, as we had come to expect. Behind the scenes there were human dramas of an unparalleled nature: we had illness, equipment failure, pregnancies, emotional dramas and acts of both considerable personal self-sacrifice and crass selfishness (the latter from people who really should have known better). As always I was staggered by the sheer kindness and generosity of some of the people with whom we deal and before I go any further I would like to thank Kaye Braund-Phillips, Ronan Coghlan and Sam Shearon for acts of spectacular generosity. Without you guys we really couldn’t have pulled it off.
This year’s event will not go down in my consciousness as the happiest experience of my life but it did have some spectacularly successful aspects to it. One particularly good experiment – which I am smug to say, was entirely my own idea – were guest appearances on Friday and Sunday by none other than Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932), without whom of course there would be no Centre for Fortean Zoology. In January I appeared as a guest at a peculiar evening of performance art at the Royal Academy. I did my usual schtick, enlivened by my impersonation of a vicar preaching on the subject of cryptozoology and taking my chosen text as that god-awful musical Mama Mia! Here I would like to say that I have never seen, and am never likely to see, the afore-mentioned film, and basically, what I know about it from a description given to me by one of my young relatives who it appears has not inherited his uncle’s good taste. Also on the bill was a very talented character actor called Silas Hawkins, and I prevailed upon him to invite Charles Fort to the 2009 Weird Weekend. Another notable attendee was Rat Scabies, one of the original British punk rockers and drummer with seminal new wave group The Damned. He lectured on his long-term quest for the Holy Grail and told the story of Fr. Berenger Sauniere and the peculiar events at Rennes-Le-Chateau, with great aplomb and flare.
Making his first appearance at a Weird Weekend was CFZ assistant zoological director Max Blake who, showing remarkable composure and stagecraft for an eighteen-year-old (as he was then), kept the audience enthralled with accounts of unknown animal species discovered in the pet trade. Also making their Weird Weekend debuts were two authors of books in our series Mystery Animals of the British Isles. Glen Vaudrey is a relative newcomer to the CFZ, whereas Neil Arnold has been a member since the beginning. Their talks on the mystery animals of the Western Isles and zooform phenomena respectively, were great successes. I was particularly pleased to be able to welcome Andy Roberts, who is not only an old friend of mine and author of the afore-mentioned scurrilous news sheet, he is an investigator I’ve been trying to lure to the Weird Weekend for many years. And it was very gratifying not only to have him deliver a smashing talk on the Big Grey Man phenomenon but to find that, as I had always suspected he would, he had a smashing time and has already asked to be on the bill for next year.
The Weird Weekend is changing. But it has always done so. Originally it was a massively eccentric and rather rowdy affair tailored largely for students. Over the years, whilst retaining its amiable eccentricity, it has become much more family-orientated; something that I at least think is a jolly good thing. It is heart-warming to see the number of families with remarkably small children who come along to the event year after year. In the light of events this year, whilst there will be a cocktail party the night before Weird Weekend 2010, there will be no disco, and it is hoped that the noise and rowdiness from this year will never be repeated. There will be other changes as well. We had a number of very generous sponsors this year and are hoping to expand this in 2010. It would be good if the operating cost of the Weird Weekend could be absorbed by sponsorship so that every penny raised at the event could go to the CFZ rather than the operating costs of the weekend itself.
I would like to thank Stuart Garner for generously stepping into the breach and running the children’s area for us on the Saturday afternoon. He did a brilliant job, ably assisted by Kara Wadham and Corinna. However, we are very pleased to be able to announce that Davey and Joanne Curtis will be back next year running the children’s craft area for the whole three days.
It is also good to be able to announce that Kara and Nick Wadham from Bugfest will be running an animal handling and exotic animal awareness workshop during at least part of the weekend. We have already confirmed a number of speakers for next year's event and I hope that it will be bigger and better than ever.
The Weird Weekend is a unique event. In many ways I think that it may eventually be seen as one of the greatest achievements of the CFZ because unlike all the other Fortean conferences around the world, it is aimed at the general public rather than preaching to the already converted. If we are to be seen as a serious scientific organisation rather than a bunch of cranky hobbyists, this is something that we cannot afford not to do.
This year’s speakers were:
TIM THE YOWIE MAN
Dr DARREN NAISH
This year, largely because of the increasing time constraints caused by the daily bloggo, we have not published as many books as we had planned with only seven titles.
Centre for Fortean Zoology Yearbook 2009
Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Kent by Neil Arnold
Giant Snakes - Unravelling the coils of mystery by Michael Newton
Mystery Animals of the British Isles: The Western Isles by Glen Vaudrey
CHINA: a Yellow Peril? by Richard Muirhead
Star Steeds and other Dreams by Karl Shuker
Predator Deathmatch by Nick Molloy
However, there is a string of other titles in production, at least three of which are almost ready for publication. These last three titles took up much of the last few months but will show up as 2010 publications, which probably isn’t entirely fair.
As part of our ongoing commitment to quality we have changed our pre-publication process instituting a new role of technical editor for each book. The technical editor checks all scientific facts, names and places whereas the sub-editor and editor check for spelling, grammatical consistency and flagrant abuse of the Queen’s English. This means that each book is proofread a minimum of three times, by three different people, before publication.
Some of the books we have planned for 2010 are by relatively well-known authors, and so we hope that our sales figures will be up in twelve months time.
As far as our magazines are concerned, this has not been a good year. We lost our office laser printer in February because the people who leased it to us had a different interpretation of the term “non-profit making organisation” than we did. This gave us a big, and fundamental problem. For the first time since 1987 when my first wife and I started publishing fanzines, we were not in a position to be able to control our own means of production. We therefore took a difficult decision which I hope in the long term will prove to be the right one, although in the short term it has faced us with a whole barrage of problems.
We decided that from now on our magazines – like our books – would be published perfect bound by Lightning Source. However, this decision and the decision to rebrand Exotic Pets magazine as the Amateur Naturalist as we felt that this more accurately reflected what was actually in there, coincided with the first big crunch of the recession. Re-subscriptions were down, and none of the advertisers paid their bills. As a result, because it takes something in the region of £500 to issue and distribute each magazine, we have only produced one issue of each publication, with a second edition of Animals & Men ready to go at the beginning of January. We hope that we shall be back on track by the end of 2010, and would like to assure all subscribers that they will get what they paid for.
This year we have, once again, produced twelve half-hour episodes of On the Track which earlier in the year was rebranded as Cryptozoology Online: On the Track (of Unknown Animals). We are very pleased with both the production quality and the content of this show, which – we believe – has improved greatly on both counts during the last twelve months.
We also released our second full-length feature film The Mountains of Mystery in March. This chronicled the 2008 expedition to Russia in search of the almasty or Russian wildman. What was particularly gratifying with this was that the fact that the cult rock band Gogol Bordello kindly allowed us to use their music alongside my own in the soundtrack. They worked on two films last year, one with Madonna and one with us. OK the truth of the situation isn’t quite as exciting as that, but it still makes me feel good to say it.
In April we started work on our third feature length film – a new departure for us. Called Emily and the Big Cats, for the first time we are presenting a narrative told in a fictionalised manner. About an hour has been completed with less than half of that left to go. We are confident in predicting that young Emily Taylor (16 next month) will be turning the heads of a lot of the younger members of the Fortean community over the next few years. The film will be released in the first half of 2010.
As part of the deal that we have reached with Minnow Films to produce a major TV documentary we are being given our first professional quality camera, which hopefully means that our films will be broadcast more on conventional channels. This year we also acquired a second unit JVC Everio HD camera which supercedes the last of our old domestic quality machines. I wish that we had had it back in February when, due to the good offices of Andy Roberts, we were given the unprecedented chance of filming legendary psychedelic folk band Dr Strangely Strange (whose music we have been pilfering for years) when they performed one of their first London shows for four decades.
At the end of last year we announced our new outreach projects, and since then most of the work we have been doing with our live animal collection has been geared towards the needs of the outreach project which will be properly up and running in 2011. Most of the new species we have acquired have been fish, and I am very pleased with our breeding successes both with yellow bellied girardinus (an obscure live bearer from Cuba) and three spot gourami, which although not rare in any sense of the word are not at all easy to breed. We have also bred Heterandria formosa, the seventh smallest fish in the world, and several less exciting species. We have two species of cichlid, which are so obscure that they do not even have scientific names that are coming into breeding conditions, and we hope that our breeding success will continue into 2010.
We also have bred large numbers of Arabian spiny mice, the sale of which is a small but significant source of income to help pay for our other breeding projects. Sadly, however, the cold spell in February killed off our (until then) successful colony of African striped mice. This year other deaths included Cuthbert – the unknown species of emydid turtle -after six years with the CFZ, Rufus – the Chinese crested mynah - a crow and a jackdaw both called Ichabod and Shosh’s pet rabbit Phoebe.
We also took the difficult decision to concentrate on temperate reptiles rather than tropical ones, as a reaction to the horrific price tags in heating oil and electricity. So Myrtle the Chinese box turtle who had lived with us since 2001, and the two Mississippi map turtles went to the loving home provided by Helen Taylor (Emily’s mum).
Our animal rescue activities have also been relatively successful, although Jerry the jackdaw whom we had rescued as a fledgling decided that he preferred the fleshpots of the CFZ to the rigours of the natural world and refused to go when we released him in June.
Work on the museum has been slow this year but in the summer we received an incredibly generous bequest from our old friend Lionel Beer. He gave us several interesting specimens from the estate of his late father. We hope that work on the museum will pick up during 2010, and that the online library catalogue will also finally be published.
Those we have lost
This year the Fortean world lost several luminaries including John Keel, without whom many of us, including me, would have taken completely different life paths, and John Michell – a personal friend of mine – and doyen of British Forteana as well as spiritual father of the hippy movement on this side of the Atlantic. Without him there would be no modern earth mysteries movement, and it is certain that modern Forteana would be a completely different thing. He was always kind and encouraging to me and other members of the CFZ and I shall miss him dearly.
Another death this year was our next-door neighbour Stuart Rickard who was always kind and supportive and didn’t balk at having noisy strange neighbours with a bevy of peculiar animals in tow. He was greatly active in village community projects and will be sadly missed.
However, for me at least, the most significant death of this difficult year was Marjorie Braund; the lady who since 1971 had often been just like my second mother. It was one of the greatest joys for me on moving back to Woolsery after a gap of 25 years to have her living next door to me again, and I value the relationship we had in the last four years very greatly.
Corinna and I went to visit her nearly every day during her final illness, and her passing has left an enormous hole in my heart, which I don’t think anything will completely fill.
Look to the future
So, there you have it: another year in the life of the Centre for Fortean Zoology. It has had highs and lows, joys and despairs. And I would like to thank everybody who has helped and supported us over the last twelve months and hope that you will continue to do so during 2010. This isn’t about the money. Indeed, it has never been about the money. But keeping this show on the road, and more specifically digging ourselves out of the trough which a global recession and the perfidy of one time friends has left us is both a very expensive and onerous task. So, if you feel yourself able to help with donations of time, money, effort, equipment, specimens, or indeed anything else, please do so. We are always looking for new blood to enrich the CFZ family and to help us build upon all the things we have achieved in the past eighteen years.
Onwards and upwards,
Jonathan Downes, Director
Centre for Fortean Zoology
North Devon EX39 5QR
Telephone +44 (0)1237 431413