One of my favourite guest blogs is that of Colin Higgins from Yorkshire, who - incidentally - was the winner of the compy in January's On the Track, where he won my ever-lasting admiration by recognising Surabaya Johnny by the ever lovely Marianne Faithfull. He also went on the lash with Shane McGowan back in his student days, and is obviously a very fine fellow....
Fascinated to read Richard’s accounts of false memory syndrome. I also have a few artificial recollections that have subsequently proved erroneous but have also experienced peculiar events that contain all the ingredients of FMS but for which there was corroborating evidence. I wonder how many people experience odd occurrences but find them so out of kilter with reality they dismiss them as fantasy?
One such incident happened in the late 1980s when I was living in a house in an ex-mining village on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border. It was the first home on which I paid a mortgage, which meant the hitherto ‘bachelor’ lifestyle was forfeit to a more sober workaday existence. The one jolly I could afford was an interest in home-made wine and it was after a Friday night consuming the stuff that the oddity happened.
While opening the curtains liverishly on a grey weekend through the gap I noticed an enormous bird sitting on the wall at the end of the terrace houses opposite. It was barely light and I watched for a moment then it turned and flew away. I told someone at work next week but the anecdote combined with the consumption of elderberry wine did no more than raise an eyebrow and I’d soon dismissed the whole thing as the result of a hangover.
Some time later while decorating among strewn newspaper I noticed the local free rag had an article from a few months before concerning the escape of a red kite from a bird sanctuary that had been seen in the village at the same period. Red kites then, and quite possibly now, were unknown in the district but it did at least nail what had become a salutary warning against strong home-grown plonk. If it weren’t for the accidental display of old news print I would have even today believed the giant bird to be a FMS.
A second incident has a more ghostly flavour but is again corroborated. In 1991 I took my girlfriend (now wife) to a ruined church in the middle of open countryside that had become a favourite spot over many years to spend a quiet hour drawing, photographing or just sitting.
The present Victorian church is some distance away in the nearest village and the medieval building had been left to crumble elegantly since the C19th, as the dynamics of village life shifted leaving the old version marooned among the wheat fields.
Its picturesque churchyard is still in use, connected to the lanes by a track. I’d visited this spot alone and in company many times and never found the location sinister; quite the opposite; it’s a cheery sort of place if you ignore the grotesque carving, with the distant sound of cricket on a summer Sunday and the buzz of insect life all around.
This occasion was different. It was my girlfriend’s first visit and as we made our way into the nettle-strewn chancel I noticed a dove hung by its feet and various pentangles and candles and what-not lying around. Far from being alarmed - I was younger and fitter then - my reaction was disappointment that the spot had been spoiled by what my imagination insisted were, ‘a bunch of kids’.
We made our way out and I looked up to the lane where I’d parked the car to see four or five figures staring across at us. They were in a row, stock still, just watching. The only certain thing I recall about them is they were a mix of male, female, young, old and for no reason I can point to, I thought they might be about to steal the car although nothing about the demeanour suggests they were.
I started towards them, slightly but not unduly anxious (more young and fit stuff) looked down to find my footing among the old stones and… nothing. Gone, nobody. You’d have to know the spot to realise the unlikelihood of a bunch of people disappearing in the 2, 3 seconds it took to look down. For a start there was nowhere for them to go, this was open pastoral countryside, a bit of a hedge maybe but it would take a professional magician to pull the same stunt.
Neither was there anything about them that looked as though they were about to or needed to move. I paused, looked again and my partner said something. I looked at her, she looked ahead and I said, “What is it?” There hadn’t been time to discuss the people and I wouldn’t have wanted to worry her anyhow.
“There were a bunch of people up there just now,” she pointed to the lane.
In hindsight I might have examined her more closely on precisely what she saw but I didn’t, I said, “I know.”
We did a quick search but nothing; looked up and down the lane, around the car - nobody there.
We’ve mulled the event over many times and added who we may have recognised in the group, what their purpose was but it was all after the event and the bare bones of it are laid out exactly as described. If I was going to invent a credible ghost story it certainly would not involve a ruined church, sacrificial birds or pentangles! Was it even a ghost story or something else; a shared vision, some place guardian, a warning? One can ruminate indefinitely.
If it weren’t for her seeing the same thing I would have concluded the things I saw in the church had somehow triggered a fleeing response and my mind had conjured the people on the lane as a justification for leaving, even though I know my reaction was neither fear nor horror but annoyance and resignation.
Folklorists and sceptics will find what I’ve said too archetypal to be credible but I’d swear on oath to what I’ve written. The point is that our imagination seems capable of both manifesting impossible anomalies that go on to occupy a concrete place in our memory banks and dismissing weirdness into the trash file prematurely if it doesn't fit our own notion of consensus reality. I know that if it hadn’t have been for affirmation elsewhere both incidents would have been dismissed as tricks of the light or other errors in perception.