Thursday 4 September 2014

When what you see makes people uncomfortable

I realise that political people are not supposed to be interested in the folklore of fairies, and yet I am. This blog may require me to hand in my political blogger's licence, but so be it. The die is cast.

I have been sent the most extraordinary book, largely because of my last foray into the world of fairy beliefs online, when I unexpectedly found myself quoted in Folklore, the academic journal of the Folklore Society.

That in turn derived from a visit I made to the Society, then in an underground bunker under University College, London, when I was trying to develop a television documentary about fairies some decades ago. I was given an address outside Dublin, the last known contact for the Fairy Investigation Society, which had by then escaped seriously underground.

I wrote to the address and was told they had gone, but they also weren’t interested in talking to me. This was something of a contradiction, and was one of the many reasons I have stayed interested.

Because of what I wrote about that, I’ve been in touch with a folklorist and academic, Simon Young, who has researched the Society and written about its strange history. He has also written the introduction to the newly published book by Marjorie Johnson called Seeing Fairies.

Marjorie Johnson began collecting first-hand accounts of sightings or experiences of what people choose to call fairies in 1955. She was then 44 and she didn’t finish the book until 1997. It was published in German and Italian before she died in 2011, aged 100, so she never lived to see it published in a language she could understand.

It has now been published by Anomalist Books in San Antonio, and we can all read the 500 or so incidents she collected from people. It is true that you don’t need to plough through all 500 to get the general idea, and I haven’t quite finished doing so myself.

But there is a fascinating shift apparent for the folklorist. The incidents span about a century from the 1890s to the 1990s – that’s what comes of writing a book for 60 years – but the vast majority are described as wonderful, shining, uplifting experiences, deep somehow in nature.

The influence of Rudolf Steiner is apparent. So is the influence of J. M. Barrie (some of the fairies have wings).

They are a million miles from the stories of the 1850s and before, when fairies were frightening, troublesome, meddlesome, amoral things which you encountered at your peril. Something has shifted.

But there is another reason for being interested, and it is why I suppose I am. People are relatively open about seeing ghosts, and they seem unable to stop telling people if they have seen UFOs. But they keep quiet if they interpret their peculiar experiences as fairies. These are not socially acceptable oddities to have run across.

To see so many of these experiences side by side makes me realise that stories that fly in the face of accepted reality tend to get suppressed – not just fairies but anything that conflicts with conventional belief or widely accepted scientific paradigms. It takes a lot to make people re-consider.

I am not suggesting that what people say they saw was somehow objectively the case. I am saying that, despite what we might imagine, people’s experience of some kind of natural phenomena they call fairies is actually surprisingly common.

You wouldn’t think it, would you.

What has this got to do with politics? Well, everything, actually. It is all about looking the truth squarely in the face. Noticing what conflicts with your ideas, even if it is uncomfortable to do so.

These skills are equally in surprisingly short supply (cf. the current controversy about Rotherham).

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