Monday, January 31, 2005

An Early Whitsun Quiz

The dramatic success of last year's Christmas quiz, which attracted one entrant, has inspired me to do it again. However, as this new quiz is easier than the last, I'm going to mix things up a little. This time, I've changed the prize from a new house in London to... a brief mention in my blog.

That's right, a brief, even dismissive mention in my blog. I think you'll agree, prizes don't get much cooler than that.

If you want to win a flippant and pointless namecheck in my blog please tell me: what is this building pictured below? To win two brief mentions in my blog, and possibly a churlish reference, please also tell me - what happens in this strange building? If you get the first question right you should easily get the second.

The clue is - I went to this place a few months ago.

Easy, huh?

What's this? What happens here? How exciting is this quiz??? Posted by Hello

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Somebody's Got To Do It

People often say to me - 'Sean, you are very lucky, you are devastatingly handsome, unutterably witty, and you're a fantastic novelist and lover.'

OK, they don't say that. But what they do occasionally say is - 'Sean you are very lucky, your job is great. It must be fab to be a freelance journalist, travelling the world, doing all those interesting assignments...'

When they say this, I snort in derision. Then I point out a few sobering facts about my career, such as: I don't get paid holidays; I don't get a company car; I earn bollocks money half the time; and I never get to go to the office Xmas party and snog that cute girl from accounts who I have secretly fancied all year.

Somehow, though, this doesn't seem to cut the mustard. These people still insist that it must be marvellous to travel on expenses, to do different things all the time, to go to glamorous sexy places, blah blah blah.

How can I prove my point? I'm going to do it now. The two photos I have appended below of are of me on a recent, hard-hitting assignment. The job was to go undercover and explore the darker side of the German sex industry, for the Telegraph magazine (hence the way I am slightly disguised). The two photos specifically show me conducting an in-depth interview with a relevant party.

Nuff said? I think even the harshest skeptic will agree that these photos reveal, more than words ever can, just how bloody TOUGH my job can be.

Here I am, nose to the grindstone. As it were. Posted by Hello

Hard yakka, as the Australians say. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

More Thoughts on World's Sickest Blog-post

I have actually been getting complaints about the posting below. This is gratifying in that it shows people do occasionally read my blog; yet it is also un-nerving because I wonder if these complainants may be right. Truth be told, I am not entirely certain of the answer.

Here's my thinking. Confused as it is.

I believe there is an argument for saying that the Holocaust was sixty years ago, therefore it's time to - if not exactly get over it - then put it in some perspective. Why should the Shoah be so uniquely singled out as the Great Taboo, as totally non-joke-about-able? There have been other Holocausts, in the sense of campaigns of genocide, before and since. Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia. These events are not sacralised like the Final Solution.

I also think this sacralisation of the Holocaust is sometimes used by Jews and Israelis as a way of ring-fencing the Israeli and Jewish people themselves, of preventing us treating them in the same rough-and-tumble way we treat everyone else. i.e. You cannot make jokes about Jews, or Israelis, because if you do that shows you don't properly remember the Holocaust, and therefore you must be an anti-Semite. And evil. In this way we are sometimes prevented from honestly discussing the role of Jews in the world, or the alleged crimes of Israel.

However, I do also believe that the Holocaust WAS a very different historical event. You can't quite compare it with Rwanda or even Armenia. The Final Solution was a deliberate and painstaking atttempt by one of the world's most cultured and powerful countries to absolutely wipe out one of the most talented and intelligent peoples on the planet. Moreover, the Germans/Nazis used all the techniques of industrialisation and advanced science in aid of their attempt. Which does somehow make the Holocaust all the more evil - even, perhaps, uniquely evil. So maybe my complainants are right. Maybe we shouldn't joke about it? Hm.

There is another factor, too. I believe that anti-Semitism still stalks the planet. This anti-Semitism is probably evolutionary in origin: it is arguably the reflexive and instinctive response of any in-group to competition from a very resourceful and dynamic out-group. The same response can be seen in African countries vis-a-vis smarter, harder-working Indian immigrants; and in some south Asian countries vis-a-vis smarter, harder-working Chinese immigrants. But just because something is evolutionary doesn't make it right. Rape is evolutionary. Hey, I should know, I was an accused rapist. And rape, as we all know, is wrong. Likewise, anti-Semitism - or its equivalent - is a nasty genetic virus that lies dormant in most of us. We are the heirs to Auschwitz, whether we like it or not. So, again, maybe we shouldn't joke about the Holocaust..?

A third argument against my piece is that it is just plain nasty and offensive. I have some sympathy for this argument. I imagine if a camp survivor read my post then they'd be seriously distressed.

That said, though, most humour has the potential to be offensive. You could make a joke about car crashes and find you're talking to someone who was in a hit and run. You could joke about drug addicts and find you're trying to josh someone whose sister died of heroin addiction (er, this actually happened to me, last week). If we all worried about whom we might offend we would never make any jokes ever. Which is clearly undesirable. Therefore I think the offending-people argument is specious. Indeed, the only humour that I think is truly and wrongly offensive is humour aimed at suffering and innocent individuals, to their faces, soon after their misfortune. A woman whose child has died does not need to have you making jokes about it, within earshot, six hours after the tragedy. But that's it, to my mind. Apart from extreme cases like that, I think all humour should be allowed: humour aimed at nations, peoples, histories, institutions, guilty individuals, innocent individuals years after their misfortunes; humour aimed at blacks, whites, Scots, Japanese, aliens, Jews, homosexuals, heterosexuals, me. I think we are all legitimate targets. It's called free speech. Duh.

So maybe I was right to make a joke about the Holocaust, however unfunny?

I think I possibly was. For the above reason, and for a second, more powerful reason. Which is this.

The whole point of humour is to break taboos. You just have to read Freud's writings on humour to know that. I'll give an example. In his one of his works, Freud quotes this joke:

A man is being presented to the Queen. Suddenly the man lets rip with an enormous fart. At once the Queen's equerry, her servant, rushes forward in horror.
'Do you realise,' the equerry says, red-faced, 'that you have just farted in front of the Queen?'
'Sorry,' says the man, 'I didn't realise it was her turn.'

Now, not only does that joke always make me laugh, it also aptly points up Freud's theories about humour. In Freud's eyes, nearly all humour is about taboo-breaking. The fart joke, for instance, breaks two taboos. It presents us with the idea of farting in front of the Queen, a taboo idea. And it conjectures that there might actually be a royal protocol of farts in Buckingham Palace, a regal fart-fest where the Queen does her own official guffs. And so another taboo is broken.

Why do we need to break taboos? Because otherwise social conventions and inequalities would be unbearably stifling and irksome, and terrible things and events would remain festering in our minds, unaired. After every disaster or horrible murder there is a rush of sick jokes. These help us to deal with the terrible disaster, to make light of it. Without that taboo-breaking humour, this pressure valve that lets off our psychic steam, life would be too awful to bear. Laughter is therefore God's painkiller, the opiate that anaesthetises the ache of existence. And as an ex smack addict, I can vouch for the fact that laugher is, well, almost as good as heroin.

I have a final thought, related to this taboo-breaking thing. Humour is a way of reframing events, of looking at them afresh. Read my sick post below and you realise, again, in a new way, how awful the Holocaust was - that there really WERE attack dogs set on rabbis, that the Joy Division really DID exist, that the death marches are a horrible TRUTH of history.

For all these reasons, outlined above, I therefore feel I was right to write the world sickest blog-post.

Then again, I might just be a stupid, sad, anti-Semitic bastard. Who knows? Either way I reserve my right to be as offensive as I like. Shalom.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Is This The Sickest Blog-post Ever?

I'm having second thoughts about the post below. In fact, I'm wondering if I might be a bit sick in the head. Who could come up with such a repellent and unamusing riff on something as awful as the Holocaust? Well, me obviously.

But I would welcome your opinion. Please add your comments by way of answering yes and no to these questions.

1.Is Sean Thomas a totally sick dude who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the Internet?


2.Is he not?

If no-one answers, I shall presume you all think I am cool.

Was The Holocaust Really That Bad?

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camps. The event is being marked in a number of ways: religious services are being held across Europe, world leaders are gathering in the camps themselves, films and TV documentaries have been specially commissioned so as to mark the sombre date.

Yet some people are beginning to ask whether we are seeing the Holocaust in a skewed and negative light. These revisionists even wonder whether the notorious 'Final Solution' might possibly have had 'a good side'.

Jakob Viljeon is a Dutch Jew, who was deported from Rotterdam to the Auschwitz complex in May 1943; he remained an inmate until that cold January day in 1945, when the Red Army liberated the camps. He says today: 'Some of the people who were imprisoned in Auschwitz, they were just "moaning minnies": they were looking for something to pick holes in.' He chuckles as he imitates them. '"My ten-man bed is too hard, this gruel is cold, what's that horrible smell of roasting..."' Jakob sighs. 'Yadda yadda yadda. You could put these guys in a suite at the Savoy and they'd still be nit-picking...'

This startling perspective is shared by other Holocaust survivors. Esther Manning is a British Jew. She was living with relatives in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded Poland. For six months she was confined in the Jewish ghetto, then she was transferred to Dachau, near Munich. There she worked in the so-called Joy Division, the part of the concentration camp reserved as a brothel for German soldiers.

For three and a half years she was continually raped by SS officers, on a daily basis. Yet she still remembers her days in Dachau with a certain cheery fondness. 'Oh, it wasn't all doom and gloom, not by any means. I remember one day, when the German guards set an attack dog on a naked Latvian rabbi, we were all standing around watching this dog chew the rabbi, and then one of the sparkier inmates piped up and said: "That's what you get when you stint on the Winalot". It sounds awful, but we had to chuckle. Well you have to, haven't you?'

She pauses, and goes on. 'OK yes, it was tough. Of course. This was a death camp where we faced the constant possibility of being gassed, or being experimented on, medically. But nothing is ever black and white. There were some good times, too.'

Many people are outraged by these sentiments. They point to the fact that, on top of the estimated six million Jews liquidated in the Final Solution, millions of gypsies, homosexuals, political radicals and Soviet prisoners-of-war also met their deaths in the ovens. How could anyone regard such an enormity in an even-handed way?

Yet some do. Francois Millau, a dissident Catholic priest from Lyon, who survived the extermination camp of Birkenau, says this: 'I know it won't make me popular, but there were certain positive aspects to the Shoah. For instance, the cattle trucks, while admittedly crowded, always ran on time. You could set your watch by them, it was amazing. And as for the death marches, when the Gestapo forced the Jews to walk day and night until they dropped dead - well, at least it got you out in the open air. Comme ci, comme ca?'

Josef Tremschen was a "sonderkommando" at Belsen - i.e. a Jewish orderly employed to retrieve the corpses from the gas chambers, and then incinerate them in the ovens. Even he has a surprisingly warm memory of his days in the camps: 'It was great work if you ever needed a spare pair of false teeth... or some spectacles.' He grins. 'You know, these people who bang on and on about the Final Solution, saying Oh it was all so bloody terrible... I think that they're just professional whingers. They really get my goat. If it wasn't the Holocaust it would be something else.'

Shocking? Disgraceful? Perhaps. But as we enter the 21st Century it may be time to listen to some dissenting voices on this, the defining moral event of our times. As Josef Tremschen puts it: 'You know what I like to say? Holocaust - Schmolocaust!'

The Best Writer's Epitaph - Ever?

I'm reading a cool book: The New Screenwriter On The New Screenwriter, by a veteran UCLA academic called William Froug.

The prose is less than scintillating. Indeed it is, at some points, outright wank. In one chapter Froug says, of a Hollywood Director, that 'he kept his own council'. What does that mean? That this man kept his own municipal administration somewhere? If so, where did he put all the councillors? In the shed? I guess Froug meant 'he kept his own counsel', but hey, what do I know? This is La-La Land. Maybe top Hollywood moguls really do have their own personal regional governments. The same way they have their own private planes and personal cinema screens.

Anyhoo, despite these flaws, the book is very entertaining and informative, and I commend it to all aspiring screenwriters, like me.

It also relates a number of fine anecdotes. Here's an example. Apparently there was this Hollywood scriptwriter who experienced all the usual hassles of the job, the difficulties of the writing craft, etc. When the scriptwriter died, he asked for this epitaph to be put on his gravestone:

'Finally, a Plot.'

Friday, January 21, 2005

Xmas Competition Results!


As you may remember, just before Christmas I set a quiz, for which the prize was - a brand new house in a fashionable part of London!

The competition question was: can you guess what is pictured in the photo below? I took the photo during a trip to France last summer.

Now, after wading through the one single entrant, I am able to announce the winner. No-one! Thankfully, the only person who hazarded a guess, got it wrong - but not that wrong - when they said the photo showed 'a lighting fixture'. Close, but no cigar.

In fact, the picture shows a trio of ceiling windows, in the crypt of the modernist monastery of La Tourette, near Lyon. The monastery was designed by Le Corbusier. The colours in the window surrounds are not due to coloured glass or special lightbulbs, but to the painting on the sills. Clever guy, Le Corbusier.

For those who are interested, I shall post the piece I wrote about the monastery (for the Guardian) in a week or two. I might also post another weird pic as a competition. After all, no one has won that house yet.

That mysterious picture of...... what?? Posted by Hello

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Curious Incident of the Aston Martin in the Night-Time

The pic below is of a car I spotted on my street last night (for my regular readers, I can say it was spookily near Senator John Kerry's favourite boozer). The car was a midnight-blue, vintage Aston Martin; beautiful, even to someone like me who doesn't normally give a toss about cars.

Nonetheless, it wasn't the smartness of the car that piqued me. It was the number-plate: 4 NON. ANON, in other words. This struck me as a bit contrary: how anonymous do you really want to be when you have a personalised number plate on a £100,000 car parked in the middle of the greatest city in the world? I concluded that the motor belonged either to an ironic surrealist, or a twat.

It also reminded me of the other time I have been genuinely surprised by a personalised number plate. It was in Belfast, in the early 90s. This was a time when the Troubles were still in full swing - people were being blown up regularly, the streets were full of nervy British soldiers, etc. Quite near one of the terrorist hot-spots of the city I noticed a big Mercedes, with the number plate UZ1. i.e. Uzi. As in Uzi submachine gun. A nice touch in a city where people were actually being machine-gunned.

That mysterious car. Posted by Hello

Friday, January 14, 2005

My local boozer, the Rising Sun. Surprising the people you can meet here. Read on for an explanation.. Posted by Hello

Another view of the pub... Posted by Hello

The Curious Incident of the Democrat in the Night-time

Something weird happened to me last night. I was walking to meet my lovely fiancee Claire for a drink, when I spotted someone coming out of a local pub, on my street corner.

It was Senator John Kerry, erstwhile candidate for the presidency of the United States.

How bizarre is that? What makes it even more weird is that, as he stepped into his big black Mercedes, he stopped and waved to people still in the pub; where a whole bunch of kids waved back, from behind the window.

What had he been doing? Well, having a pint, I guess. But still. Kinda strange to see this nearly-the-most-powerful-man-in-the-world hob-nobbing with the regulars in my boozer. I wonder if he tried the Mister Porky pork scratchings. Or maybe he just chucked a few quid in the fruit machine, then downed six Stellas and went off for a kebab. Like the rest of us.

Tomorrow, I strongly expect to find Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Walter Mondale and George Bush Senior all sitting in my kitchen, arguing over whose turn it is to defrost the fridge.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

This homely old tramp is the great Outsider Artist Henry Darger, who did the poorly reproduced paintings below. Scroll down to my Guardian piece for a rather poetic exploration of his life and work. Posted by Hello

Darger's apartment, as it was found... Posted by Hello

The Vivians... Posted by Hello

The Vivians in a dark wood... Posted by Hello

The girls in a soldiers' camp... Posted by Hello

Darger's Vivian Girls in peril... Posted by Hello

Janitor of the Unreal

Here's my latest piece, as it appears in today's Guardian G2. I know, it's unbearably exciting, isn't it? The pictures to go with the piece are above...

The Janitor of the Unreal: Henry Darger

Sean Thomas

This year's twelve-strong Oscar shortlist for best documentary feature has several curious contenders. Morgan Spurlock's celebrated Super Size Me describes a man who eats McDonalds until his liver turns to pate. The Story of the Weeping Camel tells the affecting true tale of a Mongolian herding family and their lachrymose desert livestock.
Yet none of them, perhaps, can match for sheer left-field unpromising-ness the eighty minute biography In The Realms of the Unreal. Directed by Jessica Yu, this feature tells the story of a friendless Chicago janitor called Henry Darger, who spent most of his life building a collection of string balls and medicine bottles, to go with his compulsive drawings of naked girls with tiny penises being strangled, blown-up, beheaded and disembowelled.
Put like that, it's hard to see what Jessica Yu's film is doing on any screen anywhere, let alone on the Academy shortlist. The crucial factor with Yu's film is that its subject is not just any schizoid loner, but Henry Darger: a man who has now, thirty years after his death, become one of America's most famous artists. These days, collections of Darger's work, like that which recently went to the American Folk Art Museum, can sell for millions of dollars.
Why is Henry Darger so popular? Many people would argue that it is because his art is truly different, and truly beautiful. That may be so. What is also undoubtedly true is that Henry Darger led a life of such suffering, neglect and isolation, he makes Vincent Van Gogh look like a party-going fat cat in comparison.
Henry Darger was born in the Chicago suburb of Lincoln Park in 1892. Almost immediately his life was touched by tragedy: when Darger was four his mother died in childbirth, and the baby girl was given up for adoption. Darger's crippled tailor father struggled to bring up the remaining son alone, but times were hard.
The infant Darger was, perhaps understandably, already a bit strange. At his Catholic boys' school he liked to talk to himself and make odd noises; his hostile schoolmates called him 'Crazy'. As a result he was eventually consigned, at the age of twelve, to the Lincoln County Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. The precise diagnosis was 'masturbation'.
The teenage Darger, now an orphan, made several attempts to escape his appalling imprisonment, succeeding at the last when he was sixteen. Thereafter he rented a minuscule room on Chicago's North Side, living in similar circumstances until his retirement at seventy-one. His only employment for the whole of his life was as a menial dogsbody in various Catholic Hospitals.
The most significant external event in this narrow adult life occurred when Darger was nearly twenty. A little Chicago girl called Elsie Paroubek was abducted and strangled. The murder has never been solved; a few claim Darger was the culprit. Darger certainly cherished a newspaper photograph of the girl, and built a shrine to her memory when he lost the photo. But of course Darger may just have been touched by the girl's awful fate: which so poignantly recalled his own dark, abandoned childhood.
Murderer or no (and most people think not), the adult Darger was indisputably an oddball. Neighbours remember him as a shy, shabby, big-eared 'nebbishy guy' who liked to poke through the trash-cans for stuff. Darger was fond of sitting on the steps of his home and muttering to himself about the weather, that's when he wasn't attending several daily Masses at church. Throughout his adult life Darger had but two proper friends: one was William Schloeder, a neighbour who joined Darger in a two-man club called The Children's Protective Society; the other friend was a dog. When the ageing Darger retired from his dishwashing jobs his life became, if anything, even lonelier.
By his eightieth year the frail Darger was unable to climb the steps to his flat. As a result he asked his surprised landlord, the noted photographer Nathan Lerner, to help him find somewhere to live out his days. In the summer of 1973 Lerner assisted the old man into a local home for the aged. When Darger died soon after, the landlord braced himself for the job of cleaning out Darger's apartment. Lerner was, of course, entirely unaware that he was about to enter the Tutankhamun's Tomb of modern art.
According to Lerner, when he and his helpmates pushed open the door to Darger's flat, they found a chamber that was 'armpit-high' in bizarre clutter. There were balls of string obsessively wound and re-wound: perhaps a thousand of them. A similar number of Pepto-Bismol bottles clanked at their feet. Newspaper cuttings, nylon rag-balls, religious statuettes, and endless packets of maple syrup filled the other spaces.
It was Darger's good fortune - albeit too late to help him - that this apparently creepy hoard was discovered by sensitive people like Lerner. Many other landlords would have sniffed at the Pepto-Bismol and immediately dumped the lot in a skip. But Lerner and his friends took their time, and sorted through the insane debris, and eventually they unearthed a remarkable series of collages and drawings; alongside maybe 15,000 pages of densely handwritten prose. As one of Lerner's friends later recalled 'we were stunned. We didn't know what to make of it.'
Since then the world has got a grasp on Darger's lifework. We know now that, during his fifty years of virtual isolation, Darger had been constructing his own unique imaginary world, a world which he drew and described with mesmeric finesse.
The heart of the Darger oeuvre is a Manichean struggle between evil and innocence, called in Darger's words: 'The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinan War Storm'. In essence, this Tolkienesque epic of militaristic kiddie-fiddling chronicles the adventures of seven spunky little Catholic girls, the Vivians, on a vast alien planet which has the Earth as its moon.
In Darger's stories and drawings, the girls are continually attacked by the wicked General Manley and his sinister troops. However, although other children are grotesquely abused and tortured, the Vivians usually emerge victorious thanks to the intercessions of giant dragons, and sometimes Darger himself (he appears in the story as a vulcanologist and an army captain, as well as other avatars).
The blood-soaked doings in the 'realms of the unreal' are described in painful detail by Darger the writer. Here's a snippet: 'Children were despatched in the most horrible manner. Their intestines were cut out, the Glandelinians even pelting their victims with them. Children were commanded to eat the hearts of dead children, and those who refused were tortured beyond describing.'
What do these shocking passages show? For years clinicians have attempted to posthumously diagnose Darger. Some say he was schizophrenic, or that he suffered from Asperger's Syndrome. The fact that Darger painted so many infant girls nude might indicate he was a pedophile, yet it is has also been argued that the penises Darger gave to his girls, a la Jake & Dinos Chapman, show that the artist was so innocent he simply thought girls had penises. Meanwhile, Darger's monographer John MacGregor, an expert on the art of the insane, has confessed that he thinks Darger was a kind of suppressed serial killer.
It's this last aspect that troubles some critics. In the minds of the anti-Dargerite, we have to ask ourselves: should we really discuss Darger at all, given that he was a potential (or even actual) child murderer? Isn't his work repellent in its madness, whatever the colouristic skill of the paintings, whatever the occasional sublimity of the prose?
These are serious questions. Yet not unanswerable. As the artist's defenders point out, Darger's work has a strange and deep power that speaks to us in the most haunting way - whatever its psychic origins. And this artistic power is nowhere more evident than in the extraordinary images.
It seems that Darger felt he could not draw the human figure. Therefore he liked to carbon-trace figures that he found in magazines, colouring books, store adverts, and elsewhere. But Darger wasn't just a tracer: over the years he developed this tracing technique to a pitch of perfection. He would have the cut-outs laboriously enlarged or made small so they would fit in with the Bayeux-like scrolls of his collages. The figures would be then worked and reworked until they exactly met his needs. After that, utilising little tins of childrens' paint, Darger filled in his dextrously planned backgrounds with exquisite watercolouring of trees and clouds, of soldiers and storms. In other words, Henry Darger's gory, wistful, enchanting paintings evince a talent without compare in the annals of 'outsider art'.
Where Darger got his inspiration from, no-one knows. Robert Hughes, the art critic, has pointed to Matisse, because of the delicacy of the outlining and colouration. Others look at classic children's illustrators, significantly those of Lewis Carroll (another alleged pedophile, of course). William Blake is an obvious and accepted precursor, for his painting skill, for his borderline madness, and for his construction of a private world warred over by the forces of innocence and experience.
But perhaps the best way to look at Darger is as a Christian hermit, a kind of medieval monk labouring for an entire life over his illuminated manuscripts, his Book of Kells. Darger was unquestionably disturbed, in a sexual way, but like so many disturbed artists he found a way of sublimating this, of healing the human wound, by the obsessive refashioning of his own early traumas. Seen in this light, what Darger was trying to do was cleanse the world of its indelible darkness and pain. The poor neglected Henry Darger might just have been a dishwasher, but he was the dishwasher of God.

The five official Oscar nominations for best documentary feature will be announced on January 25. Awards night is February 27.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Voices of the Dead?

Again, for those of you who - bizarrely - missed it, here's my latest piece for the Guardian.

Noises Off

Sean Thomas

It’s a suitable location for a seance. The leafless trees are full of crows, and drizzle is darkening the ancient gravestones. Putting our whirring tape recorder on the floor of this disused Cornish church, we walk away. For the next twenty minutes we will sit in the car, wondering. Can the voices of the dead really speak to the living - through a humble tape recording?
The quarry we are hunting is technically known as EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomena. If you haven’t heard of it yet, soon you will: this week sees the premiere of a major Hollywood film dedicated to the idea.
The movie’s called White Noise, and stars Michael Keaton in his first serious role since Batman. Keaton plays a prosperous architect, Jonathan Rivers, whose wife Anna abruptly dies. In the midst of his grief and despair, Rivers hears from a mysterious man, who claims he has been receiving messages from Anna - via tape recordings, or EVP. Rivers’s initial scepticism soon turns to curiosity, and then to belief. Finally it turns to terror.
Is this just another serving of Hollywood hokum? Perhaps; we’ll only know for sure when the movie hits our screens on Friday [January 7]. What is undoubted, however, is that the film’s subject is well chosen. EVP seems to touch a sensitive nerve in the human psyche. Many people are fascinated by the idea that the cold mechanics of modern technology can do what man, alone, has striven unsuccessfully to do for centuries: make contact with the dead.
The genesis of EVP is contemporary with the origins of recording science itself. By 1920 American inventor Thomas Edison was already speculating that new ways of preserving and trasmitting noise might one day lead to devices for communicating with The Beyond. Through the 1920s Edison actually made some solitary, unsuccessful experiments to this end.
Edison’s words, if not his deeds, inspired plenty of disciples. Over the following decades various psychics, priests, phonographers and radio hams tried to get electromagnetic access to the spiritual realm. As far as we know none of them succeeded in any demonstrable way.
By the 40s and 50s the world was giving up on the idea. But then, in 1959, some concrete evidence finally emerged. It happened in a wood in Sweden, where film producer Friedrich Jurgenson was spending the day recording native birdsong. Replaying his reel-to-reel tape, Jurgenson was stunned when he supposedly heard - between the twitters of the blackbirds - the distinct voice of his mother. Jurgenson’s mother had been dead for half a decade.
Since Jurgenson’s groundbreaking experiments, many others have attempted to repeat his results - with various outcomes, not all of them laughable. In 1960s a Latvian philosopher, Konstantin Raudive, published books detailing his own EVP studies, in which he claimed to have recorded over 100,000 unearthly voices. Meanwhile in Germany whole societies were set up, dedicated to the phenomenon. Here in the UK, researchers like George Bonner and Raymond Cass claimed to have recorded strange etheric songs to go with the ‘usual’ ghostly chatter.
Recent technological advances have added to the intrigue. The first reports of a video equivalent of EVP, known as ITC (instrumental transcommunication) were made in 1986 - when Swiss engineer Klaus Schreiber detected ‘images of the dead’ on a TV screen unconnected to any aerial. Computers have also proved useful: new voice recording software has enabled EVP researchers to breakdown and analyse their data. Likewise, the Internet has helped people to share their EVP recordings: Google the words ‘EVP’ and you can find thousands of sound files online, all playable from the comfort of your own PC.
Listening to these recordings is an unnerving experience. A buzz of white noise turns weirdly to an old woman saying ‘yes I am here’. The desultory chit-chat of psychic researchers - or larking-about teenagers - is suddenly interrupted by the menacing hiss of someone saying ‘go away Sarah’.
Curiously, the most unsettling EVPs are often the most banal: dead voices wittering away to themselves and each other, or disembodied speakers chatting vaguely about a lost handbag, or the rainy weather. The very inanity of these etheric whispers gives them an oddly bloodcurdling quality: one fully exploited in the trailer for the film White Noise.
Bloodcurdlingness does not equal veracity, of course. Before we can even begin to believe that we have successfully contacted ‘the dead’, we have to rule out all other explanations. Unfortunately for EVP researchers, this has proved difficult.
One of the most obvious of problems with EVP data is its subjectivity. A lot of EVP evidence can be interpreted in many ways. Is that really a whisper from beyond the grave, or just a sharp breeze magnified by a microphone? What sounds like a ghostly singer to one listener (perhaps someone with their credulity reinforced by recent bereavement) can easily sound like a distant door-creak to someone more ‘objective’. Dismayingly for believers, a Society for Psychical Research investigation into EVP recently concluded that the vast majority of EVP recordings can be dismissed in this fashion: as over-enthusiastic interpretation.
But still, a hard core of evidence remains. Some very strange noises have been recorded: under rigorous conditions, by objective observers, in silent surroundings. With this kind of data, the objections are more subtle. Some say that corrupted tape is to blame - though this can hardly apply to digital recordings. Other sceptics, like US Professor of Psychology Terence Hines, have pointed to radio signals, or cosmic rays, even psychokinesis - i.e. the ardent wishes of the listener physically altering the recording. The last explanation seems as outlandish as the rationale it seeks to replace.
It’s therefore a confusing picture. But it’s a picture you can clarify for yourself - by having a go at your own EVP recording. This is what we are trying to do today, in Cornwall.
The location we have chosen for our first experiment is the disused church of Baldhu, near Truro. We’ve opted for this place as it has a serious local reputation for weirdness. Before the church of Baldhu went defunct a few years ago - due to the depopulation of the surrounding mining districts - a choir refused to sing here, as they found it too spooky. Since the church was made redundant, Satanic graffiti (‘suffer the little child that comes unto me’) has appeared on the planked-up church windows; some villagers even claim that there are covens which gather in the nearby woodland.
So what will we find? Rescuing our little dictaphone from the porch, we play back the tape. At first we think we hear laughter - then we realise that all those shrieking crows are to blame. Similarly, the weird feminine yell which at first seems so promising, turns out, on sober reflection, to be a woman who was walking her dog in a nearby field.
We’ve drawn a blank. Our next stop is at Britain’s ‘most haunted castle’, the Tudor tower of Pengersick, near Penzance. The place is certainly atmospheric, the owner charmingly eccentric. And this time we leave the tape recorder whirring in the ‘haunted Jacobean bedroom’ for a full half hour. But when we retrieve the recorder, there is nothing but quietness on our C60
By now I am happy to give up, having had my skepticism confirmed. But my fiancee thinks we should have one more go: this time in my 250-year-old family home, an old Cornish coach house. Who knows, maybe there is some spirit here, lurking amidst the Christmas rubbish and the turkey sandwiches.
The evening is dark and wet. To put us in the right mood, we light a few candles, then set to the task. For this final experiment, we are adopting a new method. Before the recording proper, we ask suitable questions into the tape. This is harder than it seems. When we start saying out loud ‘Is anyone there’? and ‘Can you please make your presence felt?’ we feel just a bit ridiculous. Our laughter is only stifled by several glasses of wine.
After a dozen questions, and about twenty minutes, we play the tape. At first there is nothing. Just our whispered giggles, and the glug of the Shiraz. But then we hear it. A voice. From nowhere, we can hear a dark, disturbing, old man’s voice, growling what sounds like my fiancee’s name. White-faced, we stare at each other. Then, without warning, the dog runs into the hallway and starts barking manically at the back door - barking at empty space, barking at nothing at all.
Have we really recorded a ghostly voice? Search me. All I know is that, as we finish off the rest of the wine, we both have shaking hands.

For more information on EVP, and how to make your own recordings, visit or

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Real Tsunami Appeal

If the joke below sickens you - I have doubts myself - please give some money to these people:

Happy New Year, ish..

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Tsunami Appeal

Hi guys

Sorry for the long hiatus. I've been busy eating chipolatas, and telling my nine year old nephew to stop drinking my Tanqueray. I have also been watching a lot of TV, some of it rather unexpected.

I'm talking, of course, about this awful tsunami disaster. I'm sure there isn't one of us who hasn't been touched by the terrible scenes of death and despair.

In the light of these gut-wrenching events, I am going to make an appeal.

The name of my appeal is: The Sean Thomas Thai Prostitute Relief Fund.

Here's the gist. If I can get the sponsorship, I propose to fly out to Thailand, one of the worst hit countries. Once there, I aim to have sex with maybe a hundred nut-brown teenage whores, paying them with YOUR kindly donated money.

OK, I know a hundred sounds a lot. How can one man be willing to undertake this kind of arduous relief work all on his own? I'm not sure there is an answer to that, but I do know that someone just has to do it. Because, let's face it, these poor girls, these poor, starving, bar-less little go go dancers with tight denim hotpants, they really need our business right now. This is not a time for us to turn our backs.

I hope you will all feel able to give generously. Just $10 could buy me a blow job, and save a seventeen year old microskirted Cambodian hooker from a terrible fate. In giving me fellatio, these girls will also, of course, be gaining much-needed protein.

Please contact the Sean Thomas Thai Prostitute Relief Fund through the toffeewomble.