This is the 25th time that I have sat down to write my annual report for the Centre for Fortean Zoology. It has been my honour to be the director of this organisation for over a quarter of a century, and it is quite an un-nerving experience to be writing this in the fairly sure knowledge that I will be unlikely to still be doing this at the age of 85 in a quarter of a century’s time.
This is actually going to be a shorter annual report than many of the ones that I have done over the past twenty five years, and although there are many different reasons for this, the main reason is that Corinna, my wife, who is not only the main reason I get up in the morning, but is the person who works incredibly hard behind-the-scenes of all the different things I do, including the Centre for Fortean Zoology, has been very ill.
She was diagnosed with what appeared to be inoperable cancer in July 2018, and it wasn’t until February this year, that we were told that, in all probability, it is benign and non-progressive. However, she is still very ill, and looks to be so for the foreseeable future. As a result of this, I have spent much of my time over the last year looking after my family, and although I still managed to do the basics of what was necessary to keep the Centre for Fortean Zoology on some semblance of the straight and narrow, we often did not progress past the basics.
There are a lot of things which need fixing.
Many of you - for example - will have noticed, I’m sure, that the CFZ publications bookshop, which Andrew May put together a few years ago, has been offline since the end of the year. This is due to something complicated involving Wordpress, which I truly don’t understand. One of my online friends is a senior developer for Wordpress, but I do not feel comfortable asking her why it appears that her software ate my bookshop.
There will be another bookshop, either identical or a pretty fair analogue of same, before we get much further. However, Festine Lente was a fitting motto for various luminaries throughout history. And if it was good enough for the Medicis, then it’s damn well good enough for us.
We are also in the process of restarting our publication schedule, which has been a little bit dormant in recent years due to all sorts of stuff, not just Corinna’s recent illness. The first of these new books was Volume One of the collected editions of Richard Muirhead’s Flying Snake magazine, and there will be various other things coming out in the near future.
This year, the latest in our series of collected editions of Animals & Men came out. In the past (nearly) three decades, the world of publishing has changed enormously; sometimes for the better and sometimes (in my humble opinion, anyway) not. I have been publishing magazines since I was ten years old, and by the beginning of the 1990s, we had got it down to a reasonably fine art. The first issue of Animals & Men came out in April 1994, and – like the other things that we were publishing at the time – was created using an electric typewriter, Letraset for the headlines, and a lot of glue. I wrote this somewhere else, and it was reposted on Twitter, whereupon various people commented on that last statement, assuming that my colleagues were using the glue for nasal gratification, rather than for the purpose its manufacturer intended. This is a totally base libel. The glue in question was Pritt Stick, and I doubt – with the best will in the world – that anything pleasurable would happen if you were to shove that up your nose.
But I digress.
From issue two onwards, we put the magazine together on a computer, albeit an Amiga 1200 games machine, but as of issue 26, we were fully online and in possession of a PC with a whopping 1.2GB of storage.
The subsequent years saw the arrival of POD publishing and e-publishing, and these two innovations turned our modus operandi completely upside down and inside out.
Whilst we were now in the position to manufacture our own paperback books rather than having them photocopied and ring bound by a succession of what Richard Freeman called ‘photocopier monkeys’, the advent of streaming culture for magazines meant that, just as was already the case for music and films, the consumer was less and less willing to actually pay his or her hard earned cash for a magazine that they would rather read online.
Although Animals & Men had been available in hard copy for twenty years by then, we made the decision to publish it for free as an online flip-book, as well as publishing it, perfect bound, in the more traditional format. This was a great success, but sales of the traditional format continued to fall and – eventually – it got to the stage that it was no longer even partially viable to publish individual issues in hard copy.
Although the business ethic of CFZ Press (if you can actually call it that) was never profit orientated, it had been designed around the more traditional publishing models, and as these speedily began to change, our profit margin (such as it was) vanished like a sandcastle at high tide. So, we had to drastically rethink what we were doing and how we were doing it. And so, reluctantly, the decision was made to eschew publishing individual issues in hard copy, and to publish omnibus collections in book form.
As most of you probably know, I have been a card-carrying anti-Capitalist for a long time, and when we set up the CFZ Press, we did so with the best possible anti-Capitalist motives. However, the fact that there was a minimal profit margin for us never mattered, until Corinna was unable to work for a significant length of time. This has affected things somewhat, and although we all hope that we shall be able to return to normal very quickly, I am not going to commit myself as to when and how. Please bear with us, because my motives have always been good, and we are on the side of the angels.
Because of the forced inaction of the past eighteen months, all sorts of things have fallen by the wayside. So, rather than picking up the threads from where they were dropped, on many matters I decided to go back to the drawing board. Several people volunteered as proof-readers early last summer, but we were overtaken by events and they have never been utilised. We are going to contact the volunteers from last year, but will be looking for some more as well. If you fancy proofreading CFZ books, and getting a free copy of the finished article and your name in the credits, please drop me a line at email@example.com.
There is also the 2020 CFZ yearbook.
I always meant for each year’s yearbook to appear just before Christmas at the end of the previous year, and (I will admit, with a boyish grin) that I always thought of it as the Fortean Zoological equivalent of one of the annuals that relatives always gave me at Christmas when I was a boy; something like an academic version of The Beano Book.
It will be available by the end of the year, although I am slightly upset that it didn’t get finished in time for Christmas itself. However, as I have explained above, things have been very fraught.
This has been a particularly sad year at the CFZ. At about 5pm on Easter Sunday, we lost a member of the family. A much loved member of the family, who has been with us for the last nine years. Prudence Downes, the very sweet (but not very bright) Bulldog x Boxer, who we took in as a rescue a month after our old dog, Biggles, died suddenly and unexpectedly, left us for the doggy Elysian Fields. She had been asleep with me in the office earlier, and had gone outside for one of her gentle ploddings around the garden, that she liked to do on sunny days. I heard a strange noise, and – not knowing whether it was her or something else – I asked Corinna to go outside and check. She came back to tell me that Prudence was obviously unwell; she was lying on her side on one of the gravel paths, trying to be sick. I immediately phoned the vet and put the wheels in motion to have an emergency call out, but whilst I was on the phone, Prudence died.
It was swift, mostly merciful, and - above all - in the surroundings that she knew. There was no needle in the neck, no smell of antiseptics and scary chemicals of a veterinary surgery, and Corinna was with her until very nearly the end. It was pretty much the death that I would have wished for her.
When we first started looking for a dog, back in October 2010, I discovered some very peculiar things about the human condition. It was the first time since 1985 that I had actually gone out to look for a dog, and an awful lot had changed. There were no mongrels anymore; all the dogs in the animal shelters and adoption agencies that we searched appeared to be purebred, or weird hybrids between well known breeds, like ‘Cockapoos’ (no, that is not a parrot with diarrhoea, but a hybrid of Cocker Spaniel and Poodle). And whereas when I bought Toby, my Labrador x Collie, in May 1985, he cost a fiver, now all the dogs we looked at seemed to be enormously expensive. But, there is an excellent charity called North Devon Animal Ambulance, and I was inspired to phone up the person in charge of dog rehoming.
The man that I spoke to had a deep Devonshire accent, and eventually turned out to be one of the few remaining gentleman farmers of an old Devon family. Most of his ilk had been put out of business by the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, but when we went to visit him it was like going back in a time warp to the old farmhouses in which friends of my parents used to live, and where I spent so many happy hours as a boy. He had three dogs up for adoption: a Border Collie, a Staffy, and a Bulldog x Boxer. He warned us that the collie was a bit boisterous and needed enormous amounts of exercise. Biggles, our previous dog, had been a collie and – sadly – exhibited many of the behavioural problems that are so common with the breed. Corinna had a deep distrust of staffies, so we only had one choice, really. But a Bulldog x Boxer sounded terribly fierce. After all, both breeds had originally been used to kill animals considerably larger than themselves in the barbaric sport of bull baiting. So, I don’t think Corinna, Graham or I had any intention of adopting this weird, bull baiting Chimera, but we went along with the old farmer more out of a sense of politeness than anything else.
When we met her, it was love at first sight.
She had a figure somewhere between a pot-bellied pig and a pigmy hippopotamus, and she rushed about the small, walled garden, joyously. The three of us looked at each other and made an unspoken decision. “We’ll have her,” said Corinna. And so, we did. We took her home, and she settled in immediately. Over the next week or so, we heard some more details about her history. She had been rescued from a puppy farm, by a well-meaning woman who lived in a tiny flat on the outskirts of Bideford. She already had a much smaller dog and, unsurprisingly, when Prudence was introduced to her new home, she wanted to play with the smaller dog. But, because of her size and general clumsiness, she totally trashed the place. The lady who had rescued her was understandably unhappy about this, and after a few more days of seeing her goods and chattels being destroyed, she reluctantly took her to the vet to have her destroyed.
The vet, quite understandably, refused to do this, but took custody of Prudence (who, back then, was still called ‘Patch’) and from whom she got taken over by North Devon Animal Ambulance.
I have always had my dogs sneak on the bed, and so when it was time to retire, Corinna and I took Prudence upstairs with us and settled her down on the end of the bed. We went off about our ablutions, and came back to find that Prudence was nowhere to be seen, but there was a suspicious lump under the quilt, and that suspicious lump (luckily positioned between where I sleep and where Corinna sleeps) was snoring lustily.
And so, it continued, for the next nine years. She had no reason to like or trust humans, and I suspect that she had probably been used for dog fighting at least once during her life before she came to us, but she was the sweetest, nicest natured and friendliest dog I have ever known. As of that Sunday evening, there has been a bloody great pigmy hippo shaped hole in my life, and it is a hole that I very much doubt will ever be filled again.
Also, this year, we lost Lee Walker, who was quite probably the best author who ever wrote for us. I first came across him many years ago when - out of the blue - I received some copies of a massively thick photocopied fanzine called Dead of Night. It was full of all sorts of interesting Fortean snippets, but the best of all was a column called New Ferry After Dark, which was written by Lee, who was also the editor. This contained some beautiful writing; elegantly macabre vignettes about the dark goings on behind the veil of one of Merseyside’s less well known suburbs.
When I eventually started CFZ press, one of the first people I wanted to write for us was Lee Walker. And he wrote two books for us, and it was completely outstanding. They may not have sold the best, but they were undoubtedly the best literature. In the early springtime Lee was on holiday in South Africa with his wife Yve. He was taken ill in his sleep one night, and never recovered consciousness. We were all completely shocked by these events. He was five years younger than me, and in considerably better health. Eight months later, and I am still reeling from the shock.
On more cheerful subjects, the CFZ has been doing quite a lot this year.
When he has not been busy on his studies with the Open University, Carl Marshall has worked very hard on the CFZ grounds. We have paths that look like paths, undergrowth which has been cut back, and a new pond bringing up our total to three. We have also bought and paid for a new, and rather splendid, aviary for the pet crow who has been living in the kitchen for some years. Once we’ve got the winter out of the way, and Carl has a few weeks to spare, he will construct a solid concrete plinth on which the new aviary will stand just inside the main gate, which means that he will still have the interaction with people that he has become used to, and will confuse the hell out of the postman when he starts to imitate Archie’s bark.
One thing which I am particularly proud of, is that after a year of nothing happening at all, we have finally managed to breed Gambusia affinis, a species I last bred in 1970. I know that there are many people, in fact a majority of people, who don’t get as excited as Carl, Max or me about having successfully bred a small grey fish that most people haven’t heard of, but I cannot resist sharing the happy news with you all.
For those of you wondering what the Centre for Fortean Zoology is up to at this very moment, there are various operatives looking at antique representations of the corpse of the so-called Beast of La Gevaudan. We also have an ongoing project, involving the ecology of roadside pools and streams, here in North Devon, and Carl Marshall and I are planning one or more new photo-pools for the CFZ grounds. There are expeditions in the planning stage to Central Asia and the Gobi Desert, and I still hope to take a team to Hungary to try to clear up various aspects of the problems surrounding the specific identity of the so-called reed wolf, and I also have a film that I want to make in Hong Kong.
So, although it might appear that we are in the doldrums at the moment, we are not. It is just that – as we get older – we are less flamboyant about what we do, and tend to just get on with it in a way that no longer interests the media. This is also a result of the media itself becoming more sensationalist and prone to print wildly unlikely stories full of sex and violence, rather than the relatively restrained things that we do.
It is one of the slightly irritating tropes within certain sectors of cryptozoology that “mainstream scientists” will “suppress information if it conflicts with their own views and theories”.
It was this type of information that Charles Fort classified as “damned, as in excluded” in his classic Book of the Damned (1919).
Well, I suppose that there is no better way of marking the century since that book was first published than by releasing a piece of our own “damned” knowledge. The CFZ exists, as I have always said, to find out the truth behind things rather than to worship paradigms, and so, although In July we were very excited by the discovery of a dead pine marten in Teignbridge, on the south side of Dartmoor, we can now bring you another part of the story.
I contacted the person who found the dead body, hoping against hope that he had kept it. It turns out that he had done better than that. He took it and had it scanned for microchips, and it turns out that the creature had been transported from Scotland to Wales, where it had been released. Somehow, and this is still a mystery, it had made its way from Wales to Devon, where it died.
The second mystery is – of course – how and why it turned up in exactly the part of Devon that it did. Because it was near here that there were sightings of martens in the 1970s and 1980s, as chronicled in my book, The Smaller Mystery Carnivores of the West Country (1996).
Whilst we are, of course, disappointed that we can now disprove any suggestion that this animal was part of a relict population of these creatures that had survived for the last century or so, it is important, we think, to continue looking for evidence of Devon pine martens. This species has been proven to have survived in various parts of England in recent years, including Shropshire and Hampshire, the latter location of which we had predicted in the aforementioned book. There have also been unsubstantiated reports from other parts of England, including Cornwall.
As they say, watch this space.
Having taken a great deal of advice from various sources, I decided to try to re-organise the schedule for our regular webTV show, ‘On The Track’. I do, I shall admit freely, miss the Weird Weekend; there was a certain magic about it, and a feeling of community and comradery that I sadly miss. However, having reached the venerable age of sixty, with Corinna, Graham and mother, who live in the same house as me, being a few years in front, at the moment at least the idea of restarting an event which is so stressful and so disruptive to our every day lives is – sadly – a non-starter. However, as I am seriously re-working On The Track, I want to try to re-conjure the spirit of the Weird Weekends in the show.
So, the monthly webTV show has been reduced to being in the region of 30 minutes an episode, and there will be supplementary episodes called ‘OTT Extra’ in the weeks between each scheduled episode. We know roughly how we intend to go with this, but as everything is still in a state of flux, we are not going to spill the beans just yet, although we very much hope that you are going to like what we do. I have always had a disturbing tendency to quote lines from the fictional heavy metal band, ‘Spinal Tap’, at the slightest provocation, and so the only thing I will say now is that “we hope you like our new direction!”
I had been bellyaching for some months how I wanted to get one or more researchers for On The Track. in September, a partial solution presented itself. It had never occurred to me to ask the two best researchers that I know: Richard Muirhead and Nigel Wright. I have known them both for many years and they both have what Charles Fort would have called ‘wild talents’ in this direction, and I am glad to say that both of them have joined the On The Track team. Also joining the team is a young lady called Rosie Curtis, who will be working with Olivia to improve our social media presence. This is a subject about which I know very little, and – if I’m being brutally honest – don’t care very much about at all, but I am aware that this is something that we need to address in a more wholehearted manner that I do at the moment.
However, I still want more.
I am also looking for researchers and administrators to help with On The Track. I would very much like to be able to use (legally) various pieces of footage taken each month of out of place animals, for example. What I really need is someone who can contact the copyright holders on my behalf and ask for permission to use this footage, as well as sourcing more input to the show. Corinna, Olivia and I are overstretched as it is, and I don’t think that we can take anything else on. If this is something that would interest you, again please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another piece of news for you is that we have started up new blogs for the CFZ BHM Study Group and the Lake/Sea Monster Study Group. They use the same layout and internal site architecture as the Big Cat Study Group. The BHM one is curated by Glen Vaudrey and Nathan Jackson, and the aquatic monster one is created by Sally Watts and Richard Muirhead.
There was somebody else that I had hoped would be involved, a young American researcher who showed a lot of promise. However, he has fallen victim to the increasingly toxic environment within certain sectors of North American cryptozoology, and as a result of the subsequent bullying, has pretty much retired from the field, which is a great pity.
There is an increasing culture of bullying and trolling amongst certain sectors of the cryptozoological community. Those with long memories will remember how we, and I in particular, were the focus for such bullying about ten years ago, and although I tried to downplay it at the time, it was exceedingly unpleasant, extremely upsetting and did me more than a little psychological damage. This week, and I am not going to mention any names, I was talking to one of the younger and more impressive members of this community, and was very saddened to hear that – because of the culture of infighting and bullying – they are seriously considering their future within cryptozoology.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I am determined to make the CFZ, at least, a safe haven for people of all ages and orientations who can continue their Fortean zoological activities free from harassment and persecution. I have several ideas about how to achieve this, and I hope to be putting several of them into action over the next year.
So, whilst it has not been an easy year, it has been quite a productive one, and when I say that I am looking forward to the brave new world of 2020, it is truly not hyperbole. The western world is in a considerable amount of flux at the moment, and things are not looking as positive as one would like. However, the dystopia which has been predicted by so many people in recent years is not inevitable. It will be hard work, but if we work together on this, the most important challenge that has ever faced our species, we can prevail. It will be a difficult but all consuming important fight, and I know which side the CFZ will be on.
Yours as ever,