From The Barnet Eye blog, October 2008:
My big brother once spent a whole evening sitting in a field in Somerset waiting for a UFO to appear. Apparently UFOs had been seen there every night for a few weeks. Around 9.30pm my brother decided that the aliens weren’t coming and adjourned to the pub with his friends. By the time they re-emerged it transpired that they’d missed some rather spectacular sights. They were told ‘It was awesome, first one, then two, then three lights appeared. They hovered there for five minutes and then disappeared’. Laurie later confessed he wasn’t too disappointed to have missed it, having enjoyed thawing out in a nice warm pub.
The release of the Pentagon report into ‘Unidenitified Aerial Phenomena’ (the American military’s coy term for Unidentified Flying Objects) feels timely for 2021, which is as batshit crazy a year as one can imagine. The declassified accounts of US Navy pilots are, perhaps, more revealing than the accompanying videos but the official admission of bafflement is new and actually a little worrying. And one thing is certain: the US government’s formal acknowledgement of ‘Other‘ will unleash a fresh wave of bar stool anecdotes from people describing things they saw on the way home from the pub. I like hearing these. A good friend once mentioned something he saw when he was a passenger on a commercial flight: a floating slab-like thing which fell past his window, a sighting that inevitably recalls the strange monolith in Kubrick’s 2001. My father used to talk of something he and my mother saw in rural Spain, a revolving, net-like object that they watched for about ten minutes before it vanished (which sounds as if it might have been a helix cloud). Someone I knew told me that he and a few friends witnessed a strange craft of some description take flight from a hill outside Taunton. He said it appeared from within a group of trees and rose slowly, silently for a few hundred feet, before projecting itself, in a jerky, zig-zag fashion, into the stratosphere. (Somerset seems to be a bit of a UFO hotspot, as per that piece from The Barnet Eye. My acquaintance offered an impressive story but I subsequently discovered that he was a lunatic, which rather took the shine off his tale.)
Naturally, I am especially keen to hear of UAPs – or even just UFOs – sighted over London but they seem to be relatively rare; but where science fiction is concerned the south-east rules supreme. The grandfather of quotidian sci-fi horror is, of course, H.G. Wells, whose Martian invaders landed in Surrey and promptly laid Woking to waste (a task accomplished in fact by 20th century civic engineers). Hostile aliens turning up in small towns are something of a British speciality, for example The Earth Dies Screaming – filmed in picturesque Shere, in the Surrey Hills – and Village Of The Damned, the village in question being Letchmore Heath near Watford. (Like Somerset Watford seems alive with alien activity; see below.) The latter was derived from a novel by John Wyndham, who took full measure of post-war unease. Perhaps noting the success of Village of the Damned, the 1962 film of his Day Of The Triffids was made with a bigger budget but also showcased the familiar as a backdrop for the unthinkable. Meanwhile, in the real world, the ultra-futuristic visions of alien engagement purveyed by Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott were created in very earthbound studios at Shepperton and Elstree. (Shepperton looms large in the history of British sci-fi: apart from the films made at the studio, the town gets knocked about by Martians in The War Of the Worlds, and was, famously, home to one of the most prescient and radical of all futurist authors, J.G. Ballard.) If you were watching TV around 1970 you would likely have seen UFO, a live-action Gerry Anderson series wherein Earth was protected against extra-terrestrial invasion by Ed Bishop in a white wig and Peter Gordeno in a string vest. (Anderson should have stuck to puppets.) But Quatermass And the Pit, a Hammer Films production from the late 1960s, was a real event: a grimy, downbeat alternative to the visionary transcendence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, made around the same time. Adapted from his TV series by the great Nigel Kneale and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the elaborate plot concerns the discovery of an extremely ancient Martian spacecraft during construction of a new tube line. The film connects extra-terrestrial contact with home-grown demonology and London folk memory (psycho-geographical sci-fi, if you like). It’s far too ambitious and the science is a joke but its climactic scene, wherein a horned alien devil rises over the East End, remains an imposing spectacle. By contrast the bit where a traumatised witness describes his vision of swarming aliens remains hysterical. The first time I saw this film I was a schoolboy and the day after it was shown on TV the playground was full of giggling herberts shouting ‘Jumping! Leaping!‘, thus affording supporting player Duncan Lamont a fleeting moment of fame:
But since the British sci-fi boom of the sixties and seventies alien visits to these shores have been few and far between, writers and filmmakers being more preoccupied with environmental or psychological thought experiments. I will draw a veil over the second-hand horror stylings of Paul Anderson’s 1997 Event Horizon, or the blokey archness of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, 2013, concerning a crowd of middle-aged farts who encounter aliens whilst on a pub crawl. (To be fair, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is supposed to be good but I’ve not seen it.) So allow me to lead you back to something like the real world, to a gym club on the Watford by-pass, where our correspondent from The Barnet Eye has a disquieting encounter:
I always start with a fifteen minute sauna. I settled down for my session and set the egg timer. After about ten minutes another guy came in (he seemed quite normal) and asked ‘Would you mind if I put some oil on the stove’. He did this. Immediately I noted the extremely strange smell of the oil. He laughed and said ‘It reminds me of home’. I asked ‘Where’s that then?’ The guy had a fairly standard, nondescript English accent. He replied ‘A very long way away’. Fair enough, I thought. He then said ‘Do you mind if I put some more water on the stove?’ The guy got the ladle and very deliberately put his hand above it when he poured the water on. As a result a big cloud of steam enveloped his hand. He looked at me and said ‘It doesn’t hurt, I come from a much warmer place’. I said ‘So where is that?’ He replied ‘A very long way away, I’m here as an observer’. Not being sure what was going on, I thought I’d try humour – so I said ‘Oh, you’re an alien then’. He replied ‘Something along those lines’. Now I’m a rather suspicious person but I’d just seen the guy put his hand in a cloud of steam that would have fried a normal person, so I thought I’d play ball. ‘Do you like it here then?’ I asked. ‘No, not really. You see the knowledge of your greatest mathematician would be less than that of an average five year old where I come from’. I asked ‘So is there anyone from here that you admire?’ He replied ‘We think quite highly of Mozart’. I asked ‘What about painters?’. He replied ‘Picasso and Matisse are quite interesting’. ‘What about the food?’ He replied ‘Well, the organic dark chocolate and organic oranges are tolerable’. Much as I would have loved to have carried on the conversation, I excused myself to take a dip in the pool.
Thanks to Roger Tichborne of The Barnet Eye blog for letting me quote his account of his uncanny experience.