It is strange to think that I have been writing these annual reports for 22 years, and this – believe it or not – is the 23rd that I have written.
In those years, the Centre for Fortean Zoology has been through many major changes, and – as I write – we are going through another one.
We have become yet another victim of the British government’s ‘austerity’ measures and, as a result of that, our infrastructure (particularly as far as personnel is concerned) has changed immeasurably in the last few years. For example, ten years ago, we had a relatively large number of volunteers who were working quite considerable amounts of man hours for us. Now, because people can no longer afford to volunteer their time to anywhere near the extent that they used to, we have far fewer. In real terms, we have gone from the equivalent of about 5 full time staff to a fraction of that. Even Corinna and I no longer work full time for the organisation that I started, which such high hopes, 25yrs ago.
This doesn’t mean that the CFZ is going to close. Far from it. But it does mean that we are having to re-evaluate the way that we operate.
In 2016, mostly as a result of my declining health, I declared an indefinite hiatus for the Weird Weekend, or at least for the Devonshire-based Weird Weekend, that had continued unbroken for 17yrs. It wasn’t just because of my health; again, whereas once we’d had a large number of volunteer workers on whom to draw, by 2016 there were just a handful, and even they were having to juggle other things in their lives. But, the venue we had been using – the Small School in Hartland – had also been forced to close, for many of the same reasons that I enumerated earlier as causing so many problems for the CFZ; a lack of volunteers, and a lack of funding. Several key people who had been part of the Weird Weekend for many years – Richard Ingram, Paul Vella and Syd Henley – had died, another family had been decimated by a horrific divorce, and others had been affected by changing economic and social conditions. It was obviously time to end, at least for a while.
However, I am pleased to say that several people who had been an integral part of the Weird Weekend organisation over the years, have taken the figurative baton and run with it:.
- Glen Vaudrey has now done two successful Weird Weekend North events in Cheshire, and a third is planned for 2018
- Richard Freeman and Jackie Tonks held their first ‘Day of Weird: A Celebration of Eccentricity’ in London in November; an event raising funds for the Sophie Lancaster Foundation.
- Lars Thomas attempted a Weird Weekend Scandinavia in Copenhagen this spring, and although it didn’t work, they are planning another bash at it next year.
- Matt Salusbury is planning a Weird Weekend East in Ipswich.
Several people have suggested taking over the Devon Weird Weekend, but I am not ready to let it go just yet. We have been approached by a representative of a very high profile North Devon businessman about resurrecting the event, here in the village. I am waiting to see what happens, but, I suspect, that the story of the main Devonshire Weird Weekend is not necessarily over yet.
Those We Have Lost
As eluded to in the previous section, we have lost a number of people this year.
- Paul Vella. In late summer, I received an instant message on Facebook from Paul Vella’s brother, Dermot, telling me that Paul had died. Before anyone asks, I don’t know the details, but I do know that he had been suffering from various diabetic related conditions for many years. It was only when trying to write an obituary after having replied to Dermot’s brief IM, that I realised how little I actually knew about Paul. I knew, for example, that he had separated form his wife, and that he had 2 children, but I didn’t know their names, sexes, or ages. Paul was a very private man, and kept his personal life very separate from his work in cryptozoology. However, from 2002 onwards, until ill health forced him to resign a few years ago, Paul headed the CFZ BHM Study Group. He was also a regular benefactor to the CFZ, giving us gifts of both money and equipment. He was a generous, kind man and his appearances at various Weird Weekends, both at Exeter and in Woolsery, will be remembered fondly by everyone who knew him. I particularly remember his lecture to the young people of the village about Bigfoot, and the sight of a dozen or so small children sitting cross legged, enraptured before him, as he explained the story of Bluff Creek, will stay with me for a long time.
- Syd Henley. A co-founder of APRA Books, together with Bob Morrell MBE. A loveable bear of a man, with a bushy beard and a wicked sense of humour. He was someone whom I’m proud to have called a friend. And I was terribly upset when, this autumn, Bob phoned me to tell me that – a couple of years after having a major stroke – Syd had been rushed to hospital, undergone an amputation of one of his legs, and died. He was a kind, sweet man, who 20-odd years ago, rescued a feral street child and treated her as if she were part of his family, steering her as best he could through the pitfalls of adolescence. He was immensely knowledgeable about fortean books and booklore, and – back in the 1970s – had been an avid member of the Loch Ness Monster Research Community, being one of many people who expressed the opinion to me that the late Frank Searle had been unfairly dealt with in the annals of cryptozoological history. His health problems were immense, but every year for a long time, he and Bob would drive down to Devon for the Weird Weekend, only missing the final two. Since his passing, there is a very big Syd-shaped hole in my life.
- Richard Dawe. A very old friend of mine. We first met during the summer of 1985, in a 2nd hand shop in Exeter’s Fore Street, where we were both looking for Frank Zappa LPs. We soon became fast friends, and when – a couple of years later – my first wife and I started a small home publishing company, we discovered that Richard was a very talented artist. And so it was with Richard’s art and layout that all our magazines, including Animals & Men, left the starting gate! Sadly, having moved up here 12 years ago, I hadn’t seen Richard for a while, but we kept in touch by phone and email. He had struggled with mental health issues and substance abuse problems throughout his life, and I don’t think that anyone who knew him would be particularly surprised to hear that he took his own life this autumn. He was a very dear, sweet, if fragile, human being and I owe him an enormous debt for everything he did right at the beginning of my publishing career to launch me upon the trajectory that I am still on today. Both Richard Freeman and I were very fond of him, and I do not think that we will see his like again.
- Kiryi Rainbird. Anyone who attended the first 3 Weird Weekends in Exeter will have met Kiryi, who was an important part of the social group which rounded those first events. Sadly, she died in November. She will best be remembered as having been the person who gave us the long standing CFZ cat, Helios 7.
When we first moved up here in 2005, we had big plans for a library, a museum and a mini-zoo. Sadly, all three of these have been overtaken by events. The repairs to the museum building have taken longer to carry out than anticipated, mostly because of funding. The work is very nearly done now, but because of changes elsewhere, what was – and hopefully will be again at some point – the museum building, is presently a store room.
Over the past decade, Corinna’s office in what used to be the dining room, has become larger and larger and so we have decided it is time to decommission the conservatory as a reptile room and turn it into an office for Corinna. The main result of this will be that the Downes family will get the dining room back and, as we no longer have as many animals as we once had, we no longer need the conservatory to keep them in.
Finally, the CFZ library. This still exists, but it is presently doubling up as a bedroom for my elderly mother-in-law, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
This year saw one high profile death amongst the CFZ animals. The male Reeves’ pheasant, who had been with us for just over a decade finally died of old age. And the only permanent addition to the CFZ menagerie has been some ex-battery chickens, whom we rehoused from the British Hen Trust. We rehomed the Mexican king snake and two of the axolotls this summer. At least at the moment, because of the financial and personnel constraints that I described in some depth earlier in this report, there are no plans to increase the CFZ menagerie at this time. We will, of course, continue to take in rescues and crisis rehomings, but that is all.
We carried out two expeditions this year, both organised by Richard Freeman.
The first took place in January, when Richard and Mike Williams went back to Tasmania for the latest CFZ Australia mission in search of evidence for the continued existence of the thylacine. The lads interviewed new witnesses and explored parts of the island that they had not been to before, and all in all had a satisfactory, if unspectacular, investigation.
The second expedition took place in July, when Richard, Dave Archer, Jackie Tonks and Chris Clark went back to Kabardino Balkaria, a federal subject of Russia situated in the Caucasus mountains, home to probably the most western sightings of the almasty. One of the most interesting results, however, from this year’s expedition (our second to the region) were the stories that the team gathered about sightings of spotted hyena. This large carnivore is supposed to have become extinct in the region at least 30 years ago, but the proliferation of sightings collected by the team would suggest that either it never became extirpated at all, or that it is increasing its range northward to areas where it is still known to be found.
In many ways, the most important news of the year is that we have – after some years shilly-shallying about – relaunched our monthly webTV show On The Track (of unknown animals). There was a four year hiatus for all sorts of reasons, many of them – no, most of them – being financial. We have come a long way technologically in the last 4 years and I have to admit that I shudder a bit when I look at the production values of some of our earlier shows. Now, we have better cameras, and more sophisticated editing software, not to mention faster computers, the production values of the new shows are considerably improved.
We have also changed the format; Charlotte Phillipson is now co-presenting with me, and we try to make the news items shorter and snappier, with more cryptozoology and less of the peculiar events which happen in and around the CFZ. Although the episodes are meant to be half an hour long, the four that we have released since August have all been considerably longer than that. Initial reactions to them seem to be very promising and I am very pleased with the way that they are going.
We have also taken the first faltering steps towards crowd-funding our endeavours. My friend Louis Rozier has set up, and is administering, a Patreon campaign, and I am pleased to say that we have already got 4 patrons. I would like to think that this is something that is going to go from strength to strength.
I have already explained how the government’s pernicious austerity measures have crippled us, but as the same can be said about a large number of other people and organisations in the United Kingdom, I am not going to bellyache about it. However, this does mean that our publishing schedule has been somewhat truncated. 10yrs ago we were publishing 25 books a year. This year we have only managed 3:
- Muirhead's Mysteries: 2009 - 2010 Leaves from a Fortean Zoologist's Notebook Volume One by Richard Muirhead. 216 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1909488489
Richard Muirhead is one of the longest standing members of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ). When the CFZ started a daily blog in 2009, Muirhead was one of the first contributors, and over the intervening years has contributed hundreds of fascinating articles. A trained librarian, he has what Charles Fort would have called a 'wild talent'; he has a remarkable attitude for unearthing arcane data from obscure archives. CFZ director, Jonathan Downes, has known him for nearly half a century, and considers him to be the best researcher he has ever known. Read this, the first selection of his blog postings to be anthologised and we expect that you will agree with him.
- · On Vampires by Ronald Murphy. 154 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1909488519
Join cryptozoologist and folklorist Ronald Murphy as he journeys throughout history in his quest to uncover the impetus for the archetype of the vampire. Beginning at the lair of cannibals at the dawn of human history, explore the images and evolving ideas of the vampire, tracing these concepts up to the information age. Keep a stake close by as you uncover the world of the vampire.
- · The third book is an anthology of various writings by me. At the moment, this has not been given a general release, but we will let you know as and when that changes.
We have published 3 editions of our long-standing magazine/journal Animals & Men, and we are confident that the 4th issue of the year will be out before everybody gets drunk and does the ‘ring out the old, ring in the new’ bit. Because of time and financial constraints, this year’s issues have not yet been released in hard copy format, although we do intend to do so as soon as we are able. However, as with everything else, it is my opinion that it is more important for us to still get information out there, rather than spending too long fussing about the exact nature of the medium by which we do so.
Next Generation Initiative
Earlier in the year we were approached by CFZ member, and Ohio state representative, Colin Schneider. He wanted to set up a young person’s branch of the CFZ. This is something that I have been interested in doing for many years, and in fact, was in discussions with the late Paul Vella about setting up before his activities were proscribed by his tragic illness, and changes in personal circumstances. The Next Generation Initiative is still in its early planning stages, but it is something that we very much hope will be up and running by the end of 2018. We are also, as part of this, looking into the feasibility of having some sort of a mentoring programme as well. These are exciting times for the CFZ and I look forward to bringing you more news about this new initiatives very soon.
“The Centre for Fortean Zoology's Next Generation Initiative will be a place where young and aspiring cryptozoologists can go to learn, get advice, receive help with research, and share their own research. The field is constantly getting young people who are interested in working in cryptozoology, but there is nowhere for perspective cryptozoologists to get advice and support. It can be intimidating to ask already established researchers for advice but having a place where people their own age can work together would definitely encourage those interested in the field.
It will also serve as a place where young researchers can share what they are working on and receive constructive feedback and discussion. This is something that the entire field of cryptozoology is lacking and if we can change it with the next generation, then maybe the future of cryptozoology will be different on a whole.
Essentially, the NGI will serve to be a place where the next generation of cryptozoologists can get a head start in the field and begin doing the right things early. It will be a community that is helpful, positive, questioning, and respectful. The NGI will be a place where the up and coming in cryptozoology receive a positive platform for their work and can help shape cryptozoology itself.”
Women comprise 52% of the human race, and I have always wanted the female gender to provide 52% of the CFZ. However, in the 25yrs that we have been in existence, this has just not happened.
Whereas I am not a believer in positive discrimination for the sake of it, I am very pleased that there are so many women involved in the organisational parts of the CFZ these days, but there are ways that we can improve on this.
The most important of these is to make sure that all the spaces that are managed by the CFZ are safe, comfortable and welcoming to everyone.
Over a decade ago, when we first had our CFZ Bulletin Board, my attention was drawn to an unfortunate occurrence. It seemed that whenever a young woman registered and started to become involved with the activities on the board, there were male members on the board that would immediately hit on her.
This is not acceptable!
Just because some of the people using a CFZ space happened to be born without a Y chromosome, does not mean that she is fair game for the attentions of those who have one.
This is non-negotiable, and if we see anything that could be described as sexual harassment in a CFZ space, it will be dealt with swiftly and without mercy. Worse, I’ll hand you over to Olivia and Corinna, and they scare the crap out of me!
Research Request Room
As readers of our monthly newsletter will already know, a year or so back Richard Muirhead instigated a Notes & Queries column as part of the newsletter.
Right from the beginning, the CFZ was intended as a clearing house for information, and a resource for researchers across the globe. Whereas Richard Muirhead’s Notes & Queries does exactly what it says on the tin, it has been brought to my attention that many researchers, especially younger ones without access to a sizeable cryptozoological library, like many of their elder counterparts, run against major stumbling blocks when they are trying to get specific quotations or citations to papers they are trying to write. Therefore, we are intending to instigate a CFZ Request Room on Facebook, purely for people who are interested in the idea of sharing information.
It will not be a social exercise, or a chat room in any more than the most functional sense. And frivolous posts will be frowned upon.
However, I think that this will prove to be a valuable tool for researchers across the world, and also a major stepping stone in our ongoing community building exercises.
If you think that you would be interested in something like this - and I should probably have already noted that it will be completely free - please contact me.
I look forward to hearing from you all.
There have been surprisingly few comings and goings this year. However, the core CFZ team was joined by Rowan Rider for a few months during the second part of the year. He worked as gardener and general assistant to Graham, because he could do things which Coby (who is still only 11) would not be able to do. In the summer, my stepdaughter Olivia became my 3rd secretary in the past 24 months, and has filled the role with aplomb and flare. She really is a remarkable young woman (and I’m not just saying that because of our family relationship or because she is typing this right now) and is making my life considerably easier.
We are also in talks with a relatively recent member of the CFZ who has expressed an interest in taking over the museum and making it functional again. At this point, however, we would like to stress that the museum is only ever intended to hold our personal collections of material taken by the CFZ over the last 25yrs. It is not intended to be a tourist attraction like Lauren Coleman’s Cryptozoology Museum in Maine, and we find online speculation that somehow Lauren and the CFZ are at loggerheads with each other to be both untrue and embarrassing.
As I have said elsewhere in this year’s annual report, I have no intention of letting the CFZ be dragged under by the current financial constraints either in the UK or the US. We can, and most certainly will, continue, and I find it very heartening that there is a new generation of young people in their late teens, their 20s and early 30s, who are getting ever more closely involved with the organisation and what we do.
Although I was initially very under-impressed by the concept of social media, I have – reluctantly – been grabbed kicking and screaming into the 21st century and now accept the importance of such things for any organisation that operates in these peculiar times. Thanks to Louis, Olivia and others, we are getting our heads around the realities of what needs to be done to make sure that the Centre for Fortean Zoology has a presence on social media, and furthermore one that carries enough gravitas to effectively carry out what we wish to do.
2018 presents a new slew of challenges, but they are challenges that we as an organisation have confidence that we will be able to face, and overcome.
It only remains for me to wish you all a Happy and Peaceful New Year.
Director, Centre for Fortean Zoology