The Falls

In those days Princess Margaret of the Royal Family would walk about unconcernedly with just one bodyguard, that’s probably him at the back, and she would go to the shops or have a cup of tea somewhere. You’d see her around and some people would say “Good Morning Princess” and she would smile briefly. When I saw her I would sometimes follow her and one day a blue car came up that I didn’t notice but she did and saved me. Apparently I went into shock and would not speak.

Earlier that day my sister, who was called Susan, was walking her dog Michael along in the dusty end of the town where there were no kerbs and you could start to see the countryside coming and there was a lorry that she didn’t notice carrying produce at speed and she was probably thinking about something and the roar was in her ears almost too late but Michael assayed the situation in a trice and used his shaggy paws in the small of her back and thank goodness both parties were intact as the lorry proceeded on.

Alan, Princess Margaret’s bodyguard, sped me towards Buckingham Palace where I could wait until I regained the power of speech. Neither Alan, nor Margaret (she said no need to call me Princess, little one) nor I were aware that a tiny girl who had been playing in the shadow of the V8 Pilot as it sped towards Kensington Palace had been scooped up by the speeding car and was clinging to the grille supported only by the bumper. The girl was Christine, Alan’s niece not that he knew this until he stopped having sensed that the car was overheating at which point he lifted her carefully up not for a moment taking his eyes off the Princess whom it was his main job to protect.

On our way to the Palaces Alan stopped to get a packet of Craven “A” from a café whether these were for the Princess or himself is not known. He was gone for some time and when he came back he was markedly dishevelled (ébouriffé the Fr) and he explained that even as he was concluding his purchase the ceiling had collapsed of the café and down into it cascaded a man and a woman in their pajamas that was what it was like then sexually who bashfully said that the vigour with which they had been making a love-making session had critically exposed weaknesses in the joists then the lath and plaster of the ceiling beneath that floor.

The thunderous café collapse placed in jeopardy structures along the street down to the park and the small menagerie from which strolled the lion into the room where swathed abed in swaddling lay like a minuscule jewel the child which only moments ago the lady had been singing to sweetly but now her open carry acquaintance strove to tame the beast and it could be said that it was this that enraged the lion I remember when my first daughter was born people said don’t let the cat sleep on her but Lulu kind of seemed to know which side her bread was buttered and was respectful. I mean I’m not saying you would want to put this to the test in this particular situation but maybe it just wanted to lick it or something.

I stood to one side of the great bedroom of Queen Elizabeth and her royal husband the Prince Philip as they looked lovingly down on either their first or second child it is not clear. They understood that I had been struck dumb by the accident but they said ‘Please hang around if you want’ and their quality was very restful. I was thinking ‘Hey, I could even pretend to be more dumb and get to hang with these for longer, just checking out the whole scene here.’ But you know it was an island of calm after all the dire happenings and I found a rising urge to speak and there was a loosening of the connection between my tongue and the cold paralysis occasioned by my inches away from near death in the street escape.

I told the young Royal Parents that I could not shake off the memory of an incident at my mother’s wedding where to the startlement of all present flames roared from her head and shoulders scorching her garments and hair. The Prince Philip asked me Were you in your mother’s womb at the time? I said I don’t know and The Prince said Do the Math. Queen Elizabeth the Queen said to him ‘Phil that’s a bit much isn’t it?’ He said Look would you like to be trapped in a small space for months on end? Don’t you think it would make you very angry? At which The Queen said ‘You’re not saying that this little boy set his mother aflame?’ Philip the Royal Husband said You know just saying

After what the Royal Prince had said I realised that in that part of my mind where the past resides I had no memories of my mother at all. Was this due to my remorse at my having caused her to combust from within or simply that I was still in shock from the blue car that had loomed and the Princess who had swooped and taken me up? Or was there concrete organic damage to key parts of the limbic system of my brain of which of course as a small boy I knew nothing but then I saw a fleeting image and knew that I had seen it many times before it was my mother in headlong descent pellmell holding two boys one me one who? A brother? Had I had one once?

Thank heavens for that! For a moment it seemed as if a terrible ugliness was abroad but into whose firm outflung arms should my mother almost at the flagstones tumble but those of a decent bloke called Paul Dexter who was coming back from a convenience store and became my father shortly thereafter so you could say she had fallen in love which is always reassuring and as for the little boys well you know the phrase My memory serves me well in this case we can add the qualification ‘but not accurately’ because those boys never reached the ground they are up there somewhere and sometimes on a quiet night you can hear them going ‘What the fuck?’

Over the Road

Between the ages of nine and eighteen I lived with my parents in a leafy road in a nice house and played with the kids from our road and the road round the corner. My friend Hugh’s sister Anna went to school with Rosemary who lived opposite their house with her parents who were quite old and grey and dour. The father was a bank manager. Rosemary didn’t come out to play much and when she did she was hesitant and awkward. Hugh and I paid her little attention.

Some years later I had been commissioned to write a feature film for television but they never made it but that’s not why I mentioned it. My parents were away for the summer so I returned to my schoolboy home and used the small room at the front upstairs that used to be the railway room as a study. I had a view across our front garden to the house opposite which was partially obscured by tall evergreens and firs. I had gathered from my mother that when Rosemary’s parents had died they left the house to Rosemary so she sold it, moved out from round the corner and bought the one opposite our house. It was a similar size to her childhood house and had a long garden.

I thought it was odd that someone would wish to live so close to their childhood home. My mother told me that Rosemary did not have a job but did quite a lot of work in her garden. It was clear she must have inherited quite a sizeable sum from her funless parents. My mother also said that the adult Rosemary was painfully shy but also, on occasion, very chatty. My mother was also very chatty, a skill she had honed in the course of entertaining the scientist colleagues who would visit our house from time to time as they passed through the country.

Eiry, my mother, would greet Rosemary cheerily in the street and sometimes they would stop to chat. Eventually, and I’m not sure quite how this came about, Rosemary would come to our door and ring on the bell and Eiry would answer and invite Rosemary in. Rosemary would always decline but seemed happy to chat, standing in the porch while my mother stood on the doorstep.

This was the situation I found when I returned after several years to my old bedroom and the railway room and set up my typewriter on a table and looked out over to Rosemary’s new house – the house that was new to me because years ago she used to live round the corner.

The trees were by this time, of course, taller and thicker than they’d been when I was living at home and going to school. And I hadn’t spoken to Rosemary for over twenty years. I knew she liked to chat and I kept my eye on the house in case she came out.

One day I spotted her working in the front garden. I went downstairs and walked onto the lawn on my side, pretending to inspect things. When she looked up I called out ‘Rosemary! Hello! It’s David!’ I wasn’t sure just how disinclined to socialise she might be. Would she scuttle back into the dark house? No. She greeted me pleasantly and told me that Eiry had told her I’d be working in the family home. We marvelled at how much time had passed and that we were meeting again and how were we and what was I doing and I didn’t ask what she was doing because I knew she didn’t work and to press beyond that didn’t seem right.

She was in her early forties like me, probably the same age, in fact. Her hair was straight to her shoulders and cut with a fringe. She wore a heavy pullover, a long full skirt and wellington boots. We chatted for a while. I wondered what the inside of her large house was like but I was sure I would never find out. It would have been nice to invite her over for a cup of tea but that too felt presumptuous.

I thought her life must have been strange and lonely – shaped by girlhood incarceration with her severe, unbending parents until they died at which point perhaps she had little spirit left with which to try again for a lost youth. I didn’t even know how long she had been in the new house although, on reflection, this would have been easy to ask compared with the array of straightforwardly nosey enquiries I was steadily stockpiling.

In these leafy streets not every house is pleasant. Not, at least, to the eye of one who in his youth was puzzled and fascinated by the ones with gravel front gardens delineated by lengths of black-painted diamond-spiked chain suspended between sets of creosoted fence posts. And there were, it soon became apparent, two sorts of trees you could grow in such a front garden. There were the trees of life, which shed their leaves consonant with the seasons, variously presenting buds, flowers, young leaves, full leaves in crown array, those leaves going golden or going brown and falling, bare wet branches, bark, boles, stumps, the fists of pollard, even sightly cankers.

And then there were the trees of death and shadow, that towered and towered, the yews with their red jelly bumbo berries, the spruce, the leylandii, all with dense sticks, not a sound, no nests, utterly unclimbable, if you trim them they retaliate with the scorched look, if you put your hand in them it comes back smeared with black dust or damp paste, they stop you looking at the lace curtains even if these are not obscured with poisonous clattery laurel.

Every third house bore some of these blights, even those of families with kids. Parents in those days, of course, were much older. They were crouched and stooped and spoke unclearly. Sometimes it got to the kids and closed them down, as with Rosemary, but for several of them, mostly brothers and sisters, they were merely constrained in their efforts at socialising. Glen and Raine, for example, were rarely seen but this may have been a class problem informed by parental disdain for playing in the street. The street was every bit as good as the garden and a close second to the fields and streams five minutes away at the town’s edge.

When I say class, we were all middle class round there but you had snooty, chummy, irascible, genial, loony and from a kid point of view as analysed later by the same kid grown up at least two of these might as well have been class distinctions. Not loony because loonies had their own unstratified class and, down our road, they pretty much left you alone without giving you attitude. Dotty Dennis, for example, found young boys pleasing and would have liked them to play in his shed, he said, but young boys were not taken with the notion and regarded the frail septuagenarian, who actually did wear a dirty macintosh, with unwavering disdain.

The most mysterious house, owned by the Lethbridges, was barely visible from the road, being surrounded on three sides by dense, tangled undergrowth that occupied, on one side, an area as large as the house itself. It was possible, therefore, to make Colonel Fawcett-like forays from the corner of the Lethbridge Jungle adjacent to the Orbells’ American-style unfenced front lawn, straight into the heart of darkness strangled by plants whose name I never knew and to this day do not. They weren’t exotic, just your everyday roamers, randomers and vagrants that must be closely surveilled if they are not to choke proper garden flora. But the clambering here was of the highest standard and one of the few times in my life that I have been surrounded on all sides with no room to turn by bushes. As we cracked and snapped our way down we glimpsed the Lethbridge house from time to time through the knotted vines and ducked down into the shadows. Their rooms contained furniture, appliances, washing up liquid and so forth but we never glimpsed any members of the family. They had a car which was sometimes parked on the gravel sometimes not. We saw no kids. We thrust our way right alongside the house, on into the untamed reaches of the lower garden, finally breaking through the final hedge into the playing field that stretched across to the railway lines carrying trains to Liverpool Street, Kings Cross and Bedford.

I never saw Rosemary’s back garden when I was a boy, partly because I didn’t want to look. It would have been easy to peer into it from the playing field – it was right next to the Orbell’s on the other side – but there was something not forbidding so much as unappetising about those cross-hatched glooms. I could also have walked round to the cul de sac at the back of Rosemary’s new house and made my way to the hedge there to see if her gardening style had moved on from her parents’ sombre planting. It would be hard to do this casually, however.

I spotted Rosemary in her front garden again and waved. She came to her gate in her usual outfit plus gardening gloves. We started to chat from either side of the road, how was my writing going, how was the garden. Somehow we moved on to what we were reading. This was clearly a subject not suited to discussion in slightly raised voices. Rosemary crossed the road. I moved forward to my gate. She was keen on thrillers, it turned out. American. Hardboiled. Noir. Dime, even.

My ascription to my neighbour of a taste for Trollope or Mrs Gaskell, neither of whom I had ever read and was therefore employing, albeit in my imaginings, speciously, was crumbling at speed. Woolrich – had I? McCoy is good. I recalled The Deadly Percheron. Had she? Oh yes, she loved Bardin. Then one of us brought up The Name of the Rose. Rosemary had enjoyed it but then there had always been much more experiment with thrillers and crime novels in Europe. The Erasers? Well, no, I hadn’t got round to that but I did like Jealousy.

Rosemary said she would bring some books over if I was interested. That would be great. Most of mine are in London I’m afraid.

The next day Rosemary came all the way to the front door and rang the bell. She had about five books with her. One was ‘Catastrophe – the Strange Stories of Dino Buzzati’. Another was Cornell Woolrich’s noir thriller ‘Deadline at Dawn’. I read most of them before I had to go back to London. I haven’t seen Rosemary for maybe thirty years. I’ve gone back to my home town now and again and strolled down my old street and hoped I might see Rosemary in her front garden. I didn’t like to knock in order to find out if she was in. This seemed a bit presumptuous.

This is What You Do, Boris

Some years ago I spent several months travelling in the USA. Often I got lost or couldn’t find places and would ask people to help me. I was helped many times by a number of solicitous and amiable people.  When I got back to London I determined to help any lost tourists I might come across and was quite looking forward to this happening. I joked to my friends that I had been hanging around in the West End hoping that people would ask me the way. When they actually did I was delighted to give them clear directions and wish them well. After such occasions I would feel a special pleasure at having rendered a service. It was a pleasure I would have liked to have had every day. On more than one occasion, however, I was not entirely sure of the accuracy of the directions I was giving but I did not let this deter me. The odds were that I was giving reliable directions and could go on my way feeling pleased and helpful. On at least two or three of these occasions I walked past some of the streets I had recommended to the tourists and found that either they were not where I had said they were or they were clearly not going to lead to the tourists’ required destination. There was definitely one occasion on which I directed a tourist in precisely the opposite direction to which they required. When I made these mistakes I felt regretful but I also noticed that my errors had not dimmed the feelings of gratification that I had come to expect. It occurred to me that I could simply offer to help people if they seemed lost and then give them random instructions in an amiable way. I would expect to feel useful and likeable. In fact it didn’t even have to involve giving directions  – I could just promise to get people something they wanted and not do anything about it. I’d still feel the glow that follows services rendered.

This is what you do, Boris.

Self-centred

This was commissioned as a Diary Piece for the Daily Telegraph Magazine. Unlike pieces bearing the same name in, say, the London Review of Books, these were required to be ‘light’. 

First published in the Daily Telegraph Magazine 1997 

 

People are so self-centred these days. So narcissistic. Look at this conversation I had:

– Hi. How are you?

– I didn’t get it.

– What?

– I didn’t get it.

– Oh dear.

The problem here is that the other person thinks I know what he’s talking about. Last time I met him he probably told me that he was going to try and get something. From his unadorned and blunt response to my friendly greeting one can deduce that he didn’t get it. But what on earth is it that he didn’t get? And why does he think I remember? Does he think I go around retaining the minutiae of the last few days of his life? I can barely remember my own, let alone his. Ask me what I did last night, for example. I have to pause to think about it. It doesn’t come easily. It’s not like I’m a computer, where you just save it. I mean, I certainly save it but I can rarely access it. I ask him how he is and he immediately puts me on the spot. Do I do that to him? No. Here’s how I am when he asks me how I am:

– Hello, David! How very pleasant to see you! How are you?

– I mustn’t grumble.

I always say that. I say it in a matter of fact way, trying to suggest that in some unspecified way I have been warned not to grumble. By a doctor, or a policeman, say. People usually find this rather amusing. Other things I say are:  I can’t complain. Or, Oh, surviving. The latter I say in a resigned, melancholic way – the way some self-centred depress­ives do. People usually like all of these so I’ve got in the habit of using them as a matter of course.

Now the point about these little ripostes is that I’m very user-friendly. I don’t give you a problem within seconds of your meeting me. I don’t assume that you’ve memorised the circumstances of my life as they were when we last met. Unlike the first man who clearly thinks that I’m going around thinking “I wonder if Keith has got that thing he was hoping to get.”

It’s happening more and more. I’d go so far as to say that, based on empirical evidence, most people are doing this. Look at this convers­ation I had:

– Hello. How are you keeping?

– Oh, well.

– Well? Good.

– No. You know.

– What?

– Still pretty sad.

– Oh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are you supposed to do next? Okay: you know they’re still sad. This could be because they didn’t get something or because – let’s be pessimistic – somebody that they liked died. So they could be grieving. Did they tell me this, though? I can’t remember. So many people are dying and, frankly, it’s hard to keep up. One shouldn’t, of course, rule out the possibility that they’re suffering from what is known, in specialist circles, as endogenous depression. This means, for all intents and purposes, that they’re always sad and they don’t know why.

The excellent ‘Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis’ [Charles Rycroft; Penguin 1972] is a little more precise, in that the depression is ‘presumed to be the result of (unspecified) constitutional disturbance’. Something terrible could have happened to them when they were two and they’ve repressed it and have been sad ever since.

When you think about it, it’s unlikely that if it were endogenous, they’d tell you about it. In fact, it’s quite likely they wouldn’t even know they were sad. As far as they’re concerned, life is always this bad so why grumble?

We shouldn’t rule out that it is endogenous but that someone they liked died anyway. Obviously this will happen. Can you imagine a world where people who are always depressed don’t get bereaved, by some kind of arrangement? They’d be queuing up for it! Everyone would take the sad option. Because then your mother wouldn’t die. But that’s silly.

So maybe their mother died and that’s why they’re still sad. Usually when your mother (or other dear relative) dies your friends give you three weeks. During that time the conversations go like this:

– Hi.

– Hi.

– I expect you’re still sad.

– Well, yes.

– I’m sorry.

After three weeks you’re supposed to snap out of it.

What can you do about this appalling self-absorption? In the short term, faced with yet another enigma presented by some solipsistic miserabilist, you just have to busk. You have to manufacture a series of vague conversational responses that allow the self-obsessed malcontent to get it off their chest without you risking the exposure of your ignorance of their details. This is really hard work! Is it any wonder people go on about football?

So you won’t catch me pulling this tedious stunt. Once I’ve made my little opening joke, you can ask me what you want and you’ll get an answer that comes with all the facts you need to really enjoy my company and my views on things. You can ask me about my childhood, for example, and you’ll know where you are, for God’s sake. It was actually quite disturbing, my childhood, but I’m pretty self-aware about it and I know I can tell you about it in a way that you’ll find genuinely compelling.

¶¶¶¶¶¶¶

Roswell – a Journey into American Folklore

First published in GQ 1993

 

“From now on do exactly as I say,” says PsychoSpy. “And act like you know what you’re doing.” We walk quickly along the carpeted terrace and duck through a service door. “Security doesn’t cover these,” he mutters. Suddenly we’ve left the hubbub behind and our footsteps are echoing as we climb a bright aluminium stairway through a confusion of fat ventilation pipes and wiring ducts. Surfaces are scuffed and dusty, and clumps of congealed brown insulating foam protrude from the walls. “It’s tempting to throw a coin down, isn’t it?” PsychoSpy says, squinting at the sloping inner skin of the building as it falls away from us into the darkness many levels below.

Five floors up we come to another service door. It opens onto a walkway leading directly to the lip of the high terrace. “It’s at this point,” remarks PsychoSpy, “that I start to feel just a tad afraid.” The walkway ends in a sheet of waist-high plate glass. Beyond this is a sheer drop of a couple of hundred feet. Far away on all sides are stacked terraces, their back walls lined with doors, beside each of which are columns of painted hieroglyphics. It’s down on the floor, though, that the most arresting sight is to be found.

Apparently growing towards us like a vast living crystal, is a glistening monolithic structure in black glass. On its near side is a curious jutting prow that partly obscures the tiny figures milling beneath it. Since the huge space we’re surveying is pyramidal, in order to see what else is beneath one’s feet it is necessary to lean out and peer in a dangerous downward diagonal, at which point another incongruity is revealed. Running around the base of the pyramid is a ribbon of dark water, a canal in fact, and on it floats a gondola-like craft. Even from this height it is possible to make out the boatman standing in the bows. He is wearing a tunic and a short skirt. “Aah! That’s the Nile, right?” I exclaim. “Nice, isn’t it?” retorts PsychoSpy, “Shall we lunch?”

The Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas, has a number of dining spaces, but we choose the buffet lounge, a straightforward eatery in the shadow of the Virtual Reality cinema whose glass exterior we had recently examined from above. The hotel itself is a gigantic scale model of the Great Pyramid, clad in a dark golden glass that’s very difficult to keep clean, so PsychoSpy tells me, with a hint of satisfaction. My companion’s real name is Glenn Campbell and he is Nevada’s foremost expert on Area 51, the legendary ‘Dreamland’ zone deep in the desert wastes north of Vegas. Area 51, which officially does not exist, is the site of the top secret U.S. Air Force base at Groom Dry Lake, itself a small part of the 8 million acre Nellis Air Force Base. It is here that the government is said to be holding the remains of the flying saucer that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico on July 8th, 1947. Some researchers assert that not only alien craft are held in Dreamland – their pilots are there too, engaged in mysterious transactions with the American government. The business at Roswell is the single most perplexing episode in the history of UFOlogy.

After two cans of Diet Coke and a mound of buffet – “Five and a half dollars and it lasts me all day!” – Campbell leads me out into the stupefying afternoon heat, past the silly Sphinx and the unlikely Obelisk, across Las Vegas Boulevard and down to The Oasis, a group of apartment buildings one hundred feet from the northwest corner of McCarran Airport. Kind of noisy, one would think. PsychoSpy has his reasons, however. Standing in the porch outside his front door he points to a building half a mile away across the simmering tarmac. “That’s a secret government terminal,” he declares. “I can watch the JANET flights go out to Groom Lake every morning.” JANET, followed by a flight number, is the radio call-sign used to designate the unmarked Boeing 737s that carry civilian workers on a short hop to and from the non-base.

An ex-computer programmer from the East Coast, Glenn Campbell edits an Internet newsletter (enquiries to PsychoSpy@aol.com) called ‘The Groom Lake Desert Rat’ and its consistently wry, sceptical and inflammatory stories have, in the view of certain government security agencies, put him near the top end of the Most Irritating Man list. Normally a resident of the tiny town of Rachel, Nevada, the closest civilian cluster to the base, Campbell has recently taken an apartment in the ‘centre of the known Universe’, as he unironically describes Las Vegas.

Seated in his apartment beneath a detailed wall map of the Nellis Air Force Base Bombing and Gunnery Range, Campbell insists that his obsession is fuelled partly by a political concern with government accountability and partly by a fascination with the ways in which contemporary folklore is generated. “What the aliens intend, who they are, how many races of aliens there are – that’s quite beyond what I’m prepared to tackle. I’m concerned with only a very simple thing: what is this government program, how is it structured, how does it work and what are the ˜humansˇ doing? I’m only interested in the human story – I have no means of approaching the alien thing itself.” Compared to many of those in thrall to the emanations from Groom Lake, Campbell’s style of surveillance is cool and his conclusions are inconclusive. This is, as we shall learn, a rare condition. There are people out there claiming to have seen things so extraordinary that if they’re true we’ll all have to rewrite our lives from the bottom up.

I was getting a bit pissed off with Vegas. So hot, so crowded. I wasn’t learning from it. Sliding into my Geo Prizm, which is a form of car, I took off for Lake Mead Marina, to get a beer and think about porosity. There is a personality type, I was beginning to feel, that leaks. The membrane between the inner and outer worlds is more than usually permeable, resulting in confusions of perception. Dreams and ideas may seem to originate in the real world rather than the mind. If this never happened, of course, then we would all be restricted to a form of consciousness more animal than human – we’re talking about a matter of degree here. Leakage can be regularly experienced in the most ordinary situations – whenever we feel that someone is shadowing us in the street or lurking in a darkened room we are momentarily giving reality to ideas that may have their origin solely in memory.

Once you buy into the leakage thing, however, it seems you’re fair game for absolutely anything that resides in the inner. Studies of ‘fantasy prone personalities’ – those whose inner lives were highly active and imaginative and sometimes became inseparable from reality – have shown that often a condition called dissociation can develop, in which mental processes may co-exist without becoming connected or integrated. This splitting of the mind can lead, in extreme cases, to multiple personality disorder and at a lesser intensity will generate exotic, detailed and often persecutory visions. 

In an extreme version of the porous condition the most fantastical inner events may be projected onto the outer world. The only limits to this process would be cultural: the things ‘seen’ in the world would reflect anxieties about that world and the appearance of the things seen would broadly correspond to contemporary visual realities. Throughout most of the 20th century it has been inappropriate to see fairies, for example. Seen creatures still tend to be small, however, and they still have big eyes. There must be reasons for this.

As you leave the Marina, softened by an hour’s release from the stridently porous architecture of the Strip, you must walk from the bar across a chain of linked pontoons that float in the shallows of the lake. Dusk was falling and the heat had settled to a comfortable 98 degrees. As notions of the phantasmal still circulated in my mind, I became aware of a most peculiar sound. Somewhere, very close at hand, something was sucking. I walked across the intersection of two sets of pontoons and stopped to look around. Yachts bobbing gently, not a creature in sight. The sound was now much louder and it was at my feet. I looked down. Gazing up at me were a hundred pairs of round, unblinking eyes and a hundred gaping, gasping mouths. The mouths were big enough to take a baby’s fist and they were fringed with black whiskers.

Catfish.

Thick velvety bodies squirmed and writhed in the water as the fish strove to elicit the breadcrumbs that passing humans throw them. As I stared down in fascinated horror the picture swung round and I found myself wondering what they saw, what kind of figure it was that loomed in those pale, supplicating eyes.

But where’s the Prizm? Back on dry land I can’t see my car anywhere. Scanning the rows of parked vehicles I double take and realise that I’m looking straight at the car, but something isn’t quite right. It takes a couple of seconds to register: the licence plates have gone! Suddenly the world turns over and I’m seized with a panicking dread. It’s all perfectly clear: Government agents, who routinely tap Glenn Campbell’s phone, have discovered that tomorrow I shall be travelling to Rachel in order to get near Area 51. This is their message, just like the one they left in the car belonging to Bob Lazar. Without licence plates I’m a sitting duck, a plaything for the Highway Patrol who can bust me whenever they feel like it.

George Knapp is a reporter and newscaster with KLAS-TV in Las Vegas. In 1989 he was approached by John Lear, a colourful UFO researcher who had claimed, among other things, that praying mantis-like aliens, more advanced than us by a billion years, were providing the Government with their technology in exchange for the right to conduct genetic engineering experiments with our womenfolk. Lear told Knapp of a man called Bob Lazar who had worked in Area 51 and had something of a tale to tell. Knapp tracked down Lazar and set up a TV interview that had sceptics catching their breath and the credulous on their knees weeping with relief.

So I’m sitting there with George and he seems a perfectly rational, collected guy – a no-bullshit professional investigative reporter who has spent years dealing with conmen, fraudsters and your bottom line delusionals. And George buys it. He believes it when Bob says we are not alone. Something starts to shift inside me. What if…? Oh, but surely not! You’ll be an abductee next! It must be the heat.

As we stroll out to the studio foyer George tells me that Bob Lazar was a scared and reluctant interviewee who had intimated more than once that people were out to silence him. On one occasion, Bob, who carried a hand-gun in the glove compartment of his car, left the vehicle in a parking lot for the day. When he returned the trunk, the hood and all four doors were wide open. The glove compartment was open too, and the hand-gun was just sitting there, for all to see. George went over to Bob’s place a while after that and Bob wouldn’t open the door. George convinced him it was alright so Bob started sliding back the bolts. The door opened and Bob stood there sweating with fear and clutching a Uzi submachine-gun.

“We put Bob on the air, blacked out his face and asked him who he’d worked for and what he’d seen. And he told us. He’d been out at the location called S-4, south of Groom Lake, at Papoose Dry Lake bed, and it has this series of interconnected hangars and inside were the nine flying disks, what he called ‘The Variety Pack’. I thought ‘If this were true it could be the story of the century.’” Yes, but what about corroboration? “I’ve found a lot of it. In the six years since the story broke I’ve had more than two dozen people who’ve had bits and pieces of the same story – people who worked there through the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, people who didn’t know each other or that each was talking to me.”

Back at the hotel in Vegas I can’t get to sleep. The air-conditioning is shot and my personal porosity reading is at colander level. I open my eyes and instantly go rigid with terror. Floating across the room towards me is a six foot high, multi-faceted red diamond. It stops at the foot of my bed and hovers. It’s the Whitley Strieber author of “Communion” (1986) thing! Little grey guys with big eyes are about to do sex operations on my mind! The government is in league with creatures from the Pleiades! I sit bolt upright and blink insistently. The diamond disappears. I leap out of bed, put the light on and gaze at the ceiling. The tiny red light on the smoke detector is designed to blink on and off at regular intervals to signal its readiness. The insomniac eye distorts small points of light.

8 a.m. at Alamo car hire. “Yeah, they steal the plates all the time. Put them on their own vehicles so’s they don’t have to pay.” He gives me a very big Buick to make up for my disappointment. I love him and want him to come on holiday with me. Ten miles up Route 93 en route to Rachel, the speedometer cuts out. I’m driving alongside Nellis Air Base. Scrub, sagebrush and Joshua trees stretch to the horizon in all directions. Not a car to be seen. Off to my right is a range of parched grey hills. Three helicopters flying in echelon hurtle out of a ravine and take up a position four hundred yards away and about a hundred feet up, just over my shoulder in the blind spot. Without a doubt it’s the Jim Keith ˜Black Helicopters Over America˜(1995) thing, where the notorious conspiracy researcher and Patriot Movement sympathiser documents ‘the mysterious phenomena of black helicopters which have been seen all over America and often linked with mysterious troop movements and shipments of war material and strange things which are taking place in terms of a consolidation of the new world order’!

I peer casually over my shoulder. Okay, so they’re not black, they’re dark green. But they’re definitely trailing me. After about ten minutes during which I adhere faultlessly to the speed limit, the ominous escort moves ahead, flies a mile down the highway, crosses in front of me and hovers eight feet off the ground about a hundred yards from the road. I drive through the dust cloud affecting nonchalance. The choppers let me pass then vanish into the hills.

 

Hours of scrub later I come across a settlement of about fifty mobile homes, one gas station, a general store and a bar. This is Rachel, pop. 100, elev. 4970, gateway to Dreamland. Glenn Campbell’s Area 51 Research Center is a battered brown trailer set beside a small lawn on which are playing three blond children and two dogs. Running the office in PsychoSpy’s absence is the mother of the kids, a waif-like young woman called Sharon Singer. I ask her what she makes of this UFO business. “You sure you wanna know?” Definitely. “Okay. I’m a Christian and I believe that the aliens are part of the fallen troops of Satan. They are demons sent here for the final deception of the world. The New Age movement is telling people that there’s gonna be a planetary cleansing and that they’re gonna remove the menaces to society and I believe they’re gonna to tell their people this after Jesus Christ returns and takes His body home – takes the Christians up to Heaven – and that’s how they’re gonna explain this away, they’ll say ‘Oh, the UFOs took’em, they were a menace to society, now we can go on with human evolution, now we’re Gods.’”

Sharon, I wonder if you could just run that last bit past me one more time? “Yeah. This UFO thing, it’s the biggest lie that’s ever been. They come from the Second Heavens, that’s where Satan and his troops abide, that’s their domain, and I do believe that they’re actually there.” Where is Second Heaven? “That’s from where the ozone layer stops. It’s outer space.” So what happens to the non-Christians who don’t get to go to First Heaven? “Okay, the Christians will go for a seven year party, in Heaven – the Wedding Feast – and the people here are gonna be left for the seven year Tribulation, where the AntiChrist will reign. It’s gonna get hard here on Earth, you’re gonna have to have the Mark of the Beast in order to buy, sell or trade. Then after seven years Satan will be locked up and Jesus will hold the key.”

Over at the Little Ale’Inn – Earthlings Always Welcome – proprietress Pat Travis deepens the theme. First of all, though, she indulges the ritual that must preface all conversations about flying objects: the citing of the sighting. “A beam of light came through the centre of our back door, that’s a steel-clad door. It was not an open door, it came through the metal itself as if someone had walked through with a flash-light, but a big one. It illuminated the whole door-jamb. I knew that there were beings in our room. Prior to this we had talked about selling our business and the next day I mentioned it again and my husband said ‘But we’re not selling this – last night you told me that the beings do not want us to leave yet.’ To this day I have no recollection of this at all – he said it was me talking to him but I feel it was them talking to him through me.”

Pat believes there are definitely live aliens on the Groom Lake base, a belief which is, if you like, Level Three on the Dreamland scale. At the first level you believe that the base is simply a testing ground for highly advanced military aircraft. Subscribers to Level Two know that the flying disk that crashed in Roswell was an alien craft ultimately transported to Area 51 for reverse engineering trials with the likes of Bob Lazar. At Level Three, however, not only did the disk crash on the debris field at Foster ranch near Corona, New Mexico (actually a ninety mile drive from Roswell itself), but it then limped on to the impact site on the San Agustin plains west of Socorro, crashed again and disgorged five alien passengers. An addendum to this narrative has escape capsules from the damaged craft being found at a third site just north of Roswell, also with aliens on board. The only alien to survive the journey went on to work with the US Government.

Extensions to the Level Three belief shade across into a very dreamy land indeed, where porosity meets paranoia and generates theories of conspiracy so intricate and comprehensive that it seems as if all that is unknown is uncannily linked in a devilish lattice comprising a hidden underworld of deception. This is an ethereal place where haunting landscapes, vast empty spaces and heavy handed government secrecy constitute a psychoactive force that dissolves the membranes of the mind so thoroughly that the inner becomes hopelessly lost in the labyrinths of the outer.

While Glenn Campbell, for example, moves gingerly through this mythic territory, protecting himself with invocations of his academic and folkloric concerns, there are increasing numbers of Americans who have been swept away from the shoreline and are not waving but firing. Pat Travis, clearly not a militant herself, does nevertheless articulate the vector that runs from UFOlogy to an extreme libertarian view of government. It will, she feels, not be long now before the truth about aliens is publicly admitted at the highest level. “But what they’re gonna try and do is say that they’re invading us. And they’re not invading us. The idea is to bring everybody into the circle of the One World Government that they’re trying to pull off on us now. The United Nations are trying to do this and the banks are involved. I don’t believe it’s the US Government per se, I believe it’s…they.”

UFOs as State Theatre. It’s a plaint I’ll hear right across the West. Many people believe it and a handful are acting on it. That’s Level Four and ultimately it leads to Oklahoma. Before I leave Rachel, though, there’s one more thing I have to do.

With Glenn Campbell’s ‘Area 51 Viewer’s Guide’ (a snip at fifteen bucks) beside me in the car, I head south out of town on Highway 375 until I reach the Black Mailbox. The latter, a meeting place for the steady stream of UFO nuts who pass through the area, is described by Campbell as ‘a religious site for True Believers’ and many sightings have been notched up in its vicinity. Most of these are flares dropped during war games exercises, asserts the author, and the mailbox itself is more useful ‘for the busloads of Japanese tourists or anthropologists who want to observe the True Believers.’

A dirt road runs into the desert from the mailbox and after about four miles meets up with Groom Lake Road, which leads directly to the non-existent base. The Buick does pretty well on the bumps, any of which may occasion a jolt to be picked up on the illegal sensors buried by the military in the roadside dirt. If detected, the visitor can look forward to the sight of the ‘Camo Dudes’, security patrols in white Jeep Cherokees who will peer at him through high power binoculars from a ridge within the bounds of the base.

Eight miles later, having paid adhesively close attention to the list of landmarks in the Guide, I slow the car to a crawl. The Guide is explicit: ‘The Border – Restricted Area begins in a blind ravine, just before the road turns a corner. There is no fence or gate, just a half dozen warning signs on either side of the road.’

Right foot hovering above the brake pedal I roll into the ravine. On either side of the road is a large white sign. In recovery from a recent bout of porosity fever I cautiously approach the signs by foot and take advantage of my extreme long sight to read their legend. ‘It is unlawful’, I gather, ‘to enter this area without permission of the Installation Commander.’ At the bottom of the sign, in red, is a disincentive for the cheeky chappie: ‘Use of deadly force is authorized.’

That’s it then. Off to Roswell now, a thousand miles to the east. As I’m bypassing Vegas, the speedo comes on again. Get thee behind me, transmembranous leakage, we’re going back to the 40s where it’s perfectly safe!

Later that night I check into the Hill Top Motel in Kingman, Arizona, an old Route 66 town. The proprietor is a fan of ‘Coronation Street’ and has a signed photograph of Molly Sugden. “Maybe you’d like Room 119,” he says. Why’s that? “Oh, Timothy McVeigh stayed there for five days while he was planning Oklahoma.” Wow. “Yes, a very nice young man, very, very nice. Very polite. And so tidy, he even made the bed in his own room. My maid said the sheets were so tight she could barely move them. Just like he learned in the army.” Perhaps I’ll have 118. “You sure? We had the FBI crawling over that room.”

The mournful whistle of a Santa Fe freight train rolls through the warm night as I float in the motel pool. Why didn’t I take 119, for Heaven’s sake? I could have dined off it, I could have written about it for GQ! It’s porosity again – McVeigh has left a taint of derangement in the room and I don’t want it to infect me. My conversations in Rachel had been so dreamy that my own osmotic shortcomings had, up till this moment, seemed quite manageable. Just who are the fallen troops now?

Leaving Highway 40 at last and heading south down what must be the longest, straightest road in New Mexico, I find myself, every couple of hours or so, overtaking camouflaged camper vans. The drivers invariably wear camo peaked caps and full fatigues, as do their passengers in the back. The ponytails and straggly beards indicate that we’re not talking US army here. Maybe they just have a rugged love of the outdoor life.

South of the windswept hamlets of Encino and Vaughn with their crumbling clapboard store fronts, smashed gas pumps and deserted, peeling motels, the landscape becomes wholly featureless, unless sagebrush and the odd wandering steer still count as a visual occasion. When least expecting it I catch sight of a sign pointing into the desert. Slamming on the brakes I’m gratified to find that this is the road to the ‘UFO Crash Site 1947’. Parked just off the road is a battered four wheel drive. Seated inside is Hub Corn. For fifteen dollars, Hub tells me, I can get a guided tour of the Impact Site. As it happens, he is waiting even now for a party of tourists to arrive, so why don’t I join them?

The release form enjoins me to ‘realize that being on a ranch in the desert may be a hazardous activity including, but not limited to, snakes, scorpions, cactus, lizards and other wild animals, and I hereby accept any and all risks associated with that activity.’ Having released my host, a genial rancher in his early thirties, I follow the 4WD as far as a flooded creek where we find that Hub’s wife Sheila has already assembled the day’s tourists. Two schoolteachers from Amarillo, Texas have brought four silent, sunburned children out to see one of the two, or maybe three, most important places in the world. Also bunched by Sheila’s 4WD is Ron, an amateur UFO researcher from California, accompanied by his son.

We pile in the pickups, squelch through the creek and follow a track over low scrubby hills studded with shattered boulders. Hub explains that he’d gotten so irritated at chasing trespassing UFO nuts off his ranch that he’d decided to give in and make a buck instead. There’s been a big conference in Roswell earlier in the year so Hub had got the bulldozer out, dug a road and levelled out a car park. Business had been brisk.

A corridor of rope hung with blue and white pennants leads from the park to the site. We trudge through the heat and fetch up at a wooden railing. And there, a dozen feet away, halfway down the face of a low ridge is…a bunch of rock. Just like the rock next to it. What you have is some rock, right, and halfway down it some orange and blue paint marks, put there by Hub. They show where the UFO hit.

We stare silently at the rock. I steal a glance at the schoolchildren. A couple of them are looking at their shoes and the smallest one is gazing distractedly at the sky, showing early signs of heat stroke. Ron asks a number of perfectly reasonable questions about angles and so forth. Hub delivers answers in a slow drawl. Sheila holds up a parasol but no one will step into its shade. Minutes pass. The schoolteachers’ eyes wander increasingly off target. A gangly teenage boy with a camcorder covers every exchange, panning abruptly into the crowd whenever someone thinks of a new question. After what feels like many hours but is probably fortyfive minutes, Hub says “Well, if there are no more enquiries.”

Back at the creek, two miracles have taken place. The schoolteachers’ car has developed a flat tyre and Hub and Sheila’s dog has had two puppies. The children, looking uncomfortably baked by now, suddenly become very animated and poke at the puppies with delight. Hub gets under the schoolteachers’ car with a big jack.

Roswell, far from being the grey and dusty stage set of my daydreams, is a bright and bustling town at odds with its location in the middle of nowhere. It has two UFO museums, both packed with maps, photos and texts about The Incident. At the International UFO Museum eager patrons squeeze past each other bearing notebooks, cameras and dictaphones, while the Visitors’ Book attests to the global allure of flying disks. When I boast to the receptionist of my trip to Area 51, several pairs of eyes glance enviously in my direction and a longhaired man in denim overalls approaches with a solemn warning. “You know, they take these energy signatures now. If you get out of the car they have this device that  can record a man’s energy, it takes about seventeen seconds. If you ever go back there they’ll compare your signature to the one they have on computer, to see if you’ve been there before.” Fine with me, friend, I’m not exactly figuring to go back.

Robert Shirkey was a First Lieutenant and Assistant Operations Officer in the USAAF in 1947, stationed in Roswell with the 509th Bomb Group, then the only outfit in the country licensed to carry atomic bombs. Today he is invigilating at the Museum and consents to what he jocularly claims is the day’s 43rd interview. Like many of the accounts available from Incident veterans still resident in the town, Shirkey’s testimony is teasingly slight, a mere fragment of the picture that dedicated researchers claim to have put together from dozens of overlapping stories.

“Colonel Blanchard came in after lunch and asked ‘Where’s the B-29, is it ready to go?’ We said yes so he stepped into the hallway and waved to some people and they came walking through. I asked Colonel Blanchard to turn sideways in the door so I could see too. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that. We watched these people walk through the hall onto the aircraft and several of them were carrying open boxes of material. I saw a cardboard box with pieces of what looked like aluminum foil and I saw the I-beam sticking up in the box that Major Marcel was carrying and I could see that it had some sort of hieroglyphic writing on it. Today I cannot tell you what they were.”
Weather balloon or UFO? Maybe the papery metallic fragments were scraps of then unfamiliar neoprene plastic developed for top secret Project Mogul balloons, destined for high altitude spy flights over Russia to detect nuclear tests but launched experimentally from nearby Alamogordo Air Field throughout June and July of 1947. Maybe the hieroglyphics were simply the flowerlike designs on the reinforcing tape used on the Mogul radar reflectors, designs printed on the tape in the New York City toy factory from which it was obtained. This is the view of the American skeptical movement and sounds rather mundane, undreamy and conclusive.

Heading back to Las Vegas to catch my plane, I travel north of Alamogordo, past White Sands Missile Range and over onto the Plains of San Agustin, where some respected researchers claim that, back in 1947, a number of people watched as a wounded and terrified alien crawled from a second crashed craft. At the western edge of the Plains the bare landscape is broken by long lines of towering white radar reflectors arranged in a Y shape. Known as the Very Large Array, the installation consists of twenty-seven eighty foot steerable dishes set in thirteen mile lines. The radiotelescope is listening to the stars, picking up signals from deepest space. Climbing over the wire fence between the VLA and the highway is a man in combat fatigues, carrying what looks like a powerful crossbow. Parked at the roadside is a camo van. The rear doors are open and two bearded men in fatigues are standing beside them.

Bill Cooper, Managing Director of the militia newspaper ‘Veritas’, a copy of which I purchased from the Little Ale’Inn in Roswell, is also a prominent UFOlogist of the high conspiracy persuasion. Earlier this year in an article for his paper called ‘The Truth About Militias’, he wrote “A nation or world of people who will not use their intelligence are no better than animals who have no intelligence. Such people are beasts of burden and steaks on the table by choice or consent. Find and join a militia or form one of your own.” Not wishing to become a steak on a roadside table, I use my intelligence to drive right on past the camo van and its troops without, I trust, more than an imperceptible sideways glance. What didn’t go away, though, is the question of just what the patriots were up to. If they suspect that the Government is about to orchestrate an alien invasion in order to enforce the New World Order – a nightmare of national and racial porosity – then maybe I had witnessed a crack redneck cadre casing the VLA in a bid to cut the lines of communication between Earth and the Pleiades. Or maybe they were after jackrabbit.

The prospect of contact with extraterrestrial life is, quite simply, enchanting. For most of the UFO community the enchantment is benign and, if one subscribes to a psychological view of folklore, the leakage from the inner onto the outer is directly comparable to those medieval processes that led to the evolution of stories of faerie in which wise, generous and magically assisted beings helped us to manage our lives with greater insight. Just as many stories, however, refer to malevolent, bewitching entities who would enjoy casting us into pain and confusion for eternity.

So is this a way of saying that there is a new medievalism abroad? Of course not – it never went away and has ever been thus. When the aliens do arrive, as they surely will, one of their first tasks will be to wake everybody up to the 21st century.