Fortean Times and the New Cromwellians

P. L. Frankson
Magonia 85, July 2004

Out there in cyberspace, there is an entity that intermittently calls itself Colin Bennett, and publishes a webzine called Panzerben's Combat Diaries. In considering these entities, it is useful to know that Bennett entertains a tantalising belief that there is no such thing as reality. For example, in various versions of his essay 'Scepticism as mystique', he declares that "the real is a piece of clapboard philosophical fakery", while facts are "the ultimate conspiracy", "stage constructs" that "are not found in nature.

They are manufactured screens, a fraudulent convenience to enable us to reason in yet more fraudulent terms".
Elsewhere he has called facts "structured pieces of manufactured cultural deception whose sole object is to get agendas into the prime time of consciousness", and "advertising construct[ s] created by cultural gaming systems". And so on. It is not altogether a surprise, if apparently obligatory to mention, that Jerome Clark has eulogised Bennett as "the most original, entertaining figure to appear on the [ufological] scene in a long time, a real breath of fresh air, not to mention good humor." It's not necessary to endorse this mangled progeny of such nonphilosophers as Robert Markley (see, for instance, 'The irrelevance of reality: Science, ideology and the post-modern universe', Genre 25, 1992) to find oneself wondering precisely which species of unreality it is that Bennett inhabits. It may be necessary to adopt one or more Fortean 'temporary acceptances' in evaluating whether Bennett himself actually exists in any meaningful sense.

To begin with, to enter Panzerben's Combat Diaries is to be ushered into a realm of quite unusual self-absorption, perhaps of clinical significance. The Bennett-mind is a zoo of multiple personalities, masquerading as Brent Ables, Yvonne Cook, Ron Mensch, Dr Betty 'Shackster' Baxter, and Patricia Farson among others. One is reluctantly reminded of those blokes who christen their willies 'George', or those who go forth privily in the raiment of their wives, to introduce themselves to crepuscular acquaintances as 'Lily' or "Thomasina'. One might equally form the impression that the Bennett-entity is but one dark (if balding) cranny of some sprawling, self-reproducing, interdimensional ego id. Or perhaps these names belong to actual individuals, while The Bennett is but a protuberance of their collective imagination, a Philip Experiment of the 21st century gone stupendously out of control. Who can say?

It is even possible that The Bennett itself is, actually, dead. At any rate this syntax is appropriate only on the tongue of a corpse: "The vast demoniacal architecture of the 'factual' conspiracy scared me a little, a fear and suspicion that was to remain with me all my-life." Are his laboured pseudonyms, then, still more hungry ghosts? Or are they psychic mediums who go in for automatic writing their one cross-correspondence being this new, and rather angry, allotrope of Ashtar? If so, the wisdom received is as trite and (where comprehensible) fallacious, as anything ever channelled by anyone anywhere, and that includes California.

Who are we to say what is real or not about what we may now reasonably refer to as The Bennett Community of Alters? Perhaps the best one can say is that this conglomerate is surely a phenomenon unknown to science. The entity, while 'denying' the 'existence' of 'reality', itself seems as confused about its own existence as it is about the rest of actuality.

One will have to take some other opportunity to deal in depth with the dizzy-chick-hippiness, vintage circa 1967, of this other (but related and typical) kind of abdication of responsibility: "Panzerben's Combat Diaries are not here to educate, inform or convert you. Their sole object is to offer the greatest intellectual sex you have ever experienced ... Treasure your fantasies, your illusions, your self-deceptions, hopeless desires, ridiculous thoughts, precious silliness, your dreams, and all your nonsense, because without them you are under control." While noting in passing that whatever wrote that is definitely not under control, we can for now address only how The Bennett Community has lately produced a thoroughly stupid wheeze, in nasty language to boot, which demonstrably is not true. The Bennett cannot hide behind his rejection of 'reality' and 'facts' in this. Not even when dressed in the verbal drag or with his head up the skirts of his persona 'Dr Patricia "Arson" Farson'.

Sorry, Lunch Is Off

The Bennett Community likes to call its webzine 'The Alternative Fortean Times'. This is already chutzpah of a fairly advanced order. Actually, this monthly production contains not a solitary Fortean 'datum', but rather a lot of feeble fillers masquerading as satire, and a vast and tedious deal of rant and cant. And more means worse. We learned in Combat Diaries II that 'Dr Farson' would soon reveal "in detail the full extent of the secret take-over of the Fortean Times by Magonian sceptics, and requests that the magazine be retitled The British Sceptical Enquirer [sic] because now, in her opinion, it has as much to do with Charles Fort as the inside of her ****." (We surmise the censored word is 'head'.)

When this gem duly appeared, under the title 'Fortean Times and the New Cromwellians', it contained a plethora of rude remarks about the entirely innocuous and affable Paul Sieveking (for no other discernible reason than that he is innocuous and affable) and characterized Charles Fort as seething with "hatred, savagery and intellectual fury" ad qualities that few, if any, other readers have remarked in his works. In the Farsonian Universe, Fortean Times has fallen on hard times indeed:

"With breathtaking hypocrisy, this supposedly 'Fortean' magazine now denies all things metaphysical, mystical, magical, transcendental, and spiritual. Never do we hear of Fort the anarchist, Fort the first post-modem, or Fort the metaphysician, and especially Fort the mystic. But above all of Fort the great foe of science we hear nothing."

Nor, we may add, do we hear much in FT of Fort the gifted countertenor, the champion countertennor, or the inventor of the 'Driad I' Steam-Treadle Automatic Onion Peeler. And this omission, we soon learn, is neither because Fort wasn't (as it happens) much of any of these things, nor even because many of FT's readers might possibly find such items too abstract for their taste. It is, as alone of all her sex the Farson-Alter is privileged to reveal, because there is a tentacular conspiracy between the editors of FT and a tightly-knit group of stony-faced men who publish or write for none other than our own dear Magonia. This fifth-columnry has allegedly been at work for a decade or more. And:

"The organizer of the steady but perceptible change is the staid, bland, ultraconservative Paul Sieveking .... Let no one be deceived. The gang of Fort has always been a tight-knit Masonic clique, and skeptical conspirators extraordinary. The net of influence spreads out to John Rimmer, Paul Devereaux [sic], Peter Brooksmith [sic], James Easton, the creator of the idea that Anold [sic] saw pelicans, not flying saucers in 1947. The comically pompous Paul Devereaux [sic again J is perhaps the most influential .... Of the most powerful influence, he rigidly controls both Sieveking and Rickard in these matters."

Further evidence of intrigue, according to 'Dr Farson', is that Magonia's webmaster, the once spectacularly pretty Mark Pilkington, writes for Fortean Times, and that Andy Roberts and David Clarke 'Prod and Tonto' in The Bennett Community's side-splitting satirical style, and occasional contributors to Magonia have a regular column too in FT.

All this must come as a surprise to those concerned. This writer is too young to remember when Paul Devereux last wrote for Magonia, for instance. But one may imagine how these failed roues should love to have met at Granita, to refine their nauseant schemes! exchanging nods and winks with Tony and Gordon all the while, of course. Or at Rules. Or better yet at that old haunt of the Duke of Mendoza, the Connaught Hotel all courtesy of the platinum card of Devereux's twitching puppet Sieveking. But is it plausible?

Unfortunately not. Most of these characters live too far from railway termini to be able to reach Islington or Mayfair with any ease, and anyway few of them would wish to pay the fares. There are non-restaurant hypotheses (NRH), of course, which may embrace whispered conversations between public telephone boxes although rumour has it that no Sassenach can understand what James Easton is saying without the aid of lipreading. Then one may consider encrypted e-mail, and epistles in mirror-writing inscribed in lemon juice on heatproof paper.

There is just one snag in the non-restaurant hypothesis. This is perhaps as near as anyone will ever get to 'proving' the negative to The Bennett Community's loopy tale. If the profile of one of the 'conspirators' revealed in the public prints some years ago is any guide, he can be guaranteed to refuse to join any cabal that cannot afford the lure of numerous lavish degustations at establishments flaunting a minimum of two Michelin stars. Along with pretty girls at the bar, and first-class fares on expenses to get him there (preferably early). Every man has his price. And this, it seems, is his.

If one of its persistent whinges is any indication, The Bennett Community's own price appears to be more modest, if in keeping with its coast-to-coast ego. That is to have all its letters published in FT all the time. But the entity that once advertised itself as 'a writer for Fortean Times', as if it had been nestled in the bosom of the salaried staff, has lately been thwarted in this respect, and consequently has become a bit of a diddums. In a fine paddy at not getting its sweeties, it calls Nurse naughty names. Paul Devereux for instance becomes 'the Great Ley-Hunting Shagbat of Chilworth', while John Rimmer is still more inscrutably dubbed 'the Brentford Polonius von Magonia'. Then, ever more crimson with frustration, the hysterical infant accuses Nurse of child abuse and wild satanic practices. Bennett, it seems, just can't bear not to be one of the boys.

Not Even Statistics.

On a deeper (?) level, The Bennett Community's intellectual refusal inability? to consider there may be facts and non-facts in the world outside its head leads it to believe everything it invents. And so it finds itself imagining not just that skepticism leads inexorably to Auschwitz as crazed a notion (see 'Skepticism as mystique') as any Jean Baudrillard ever hatched out but that its ravings have effected a change in FT's editorial policies:

"The Fortean Times is now blasting out worn-out scrapings of tired old weirdness at a rate calculated to frighten the horses in the street. Our sources tell us that the force making Granny break into an unseemly run came from corporate orders after seeing The Alternative Fortean Times."

This is veritable, and verifiable, claptrap. Such a frame of reference as the truth, however, is implicitly renounced and denounced as irrelevant in the Farsonian Universe. The real object of the exercise is self-gratification. And that, as Victorian moralists knew, induces blindness. And so, while the Bennett Community still doesn't like what it thinks it dimly sees in FT, its fabrications permit it to suck its thumb while nursing comforting delusions of power.

Dream on. What we really see in Combat Diaries is a paranoid narcissism, expressing fictions that acquire 'reality', if only for the writer, by endless repetition. This is the technique of Goebbels, turned in upon itself. No wonder its hero is George Adamski.

Does any of this matter? Probably not very much to the individuals about whom The Bennett Community chooses to fantasise, although FT editor David Sutton could be forgiven for being more than a mite peeved. The Bennett, eschewing reality as it does, can always pretend that its fake history is just another "advertising construct created by cultural gaming-systems" in this case its own. Nonetheless, these are lies, and no factitious philosophy will offer much wiggle-room out of that. If Panzerben really believed that "the only reality that is truly objective is moral" (Bennett, UFO UpDates, 10 March 2003), it would issue a grovelling apology in its next Combat Diary.

It matters as much and is certainly more exasperating that The Bennett Community's brain is so hidebound by its own projections that it's failed to notice how much writing in Magonia, and in Paul Devereux's many books, is precisely concerned with entering and illuminating the kind of magical thinking a product of wonder, imagination, and inhabitancy of liminal experience that Panzerben claims to espouse. What's more, these writers got there a very long time before he did. This is but one of the ways his ego 'privileges' histrionics over actuality. Consider this and note the date as an early example of what The Bennett thinks it is doing, from MUFOB NS9 (Winter 1977 -8), by John Rimmer:

"If the reaction of most students of our subject towards hoaxes is simply to unmask then discard them, it is inevitable that their reaction to out-and-out fiction is even simpler. They just do not regard it as any part at all of the material they are studying. Yet, if our model of the percipient and hoaxer externalising, with varying degrees of conscious control, a confusing welter of internal feelings and imagery is valid, then the artist and writer, producing overtly 'imaginative' fiction from the same internal stimuli, is manifestly part of the same phenomenon, and worth of similar study. [ ... ] "When we examine Tolkien's world it is temptingly easy to see the parallels with Magonia .... And does it matter too much whether this universally felt myth is expressed in a great work of imaginative fiction; or as a message from an apparently real spaceman; or as a lucrative hoax in some paperback potboiler[?] It is certainly the same ore that is being mined, and it is capable of being refined and fashioned into a Faberge Egg or an old tin can!"

Unlike postmodernist 'discourse', Rimmer's thesis is stated in limpid English. One is entitled to wonder if Panzerben's loud embrace of postmodemism is less an intellectual commitment than yet another device for grabbing attention while the mandatory impenetrability of the genre's prose has the advantage of keeping the Bennettian oeuvre safely beyond the reach of detailed and sometimes even rational criticism.

There is a final irony. The Bennett Community howls and stamps its tiny feet at 'the real', and "the great Satan science". At the same time it appears not to notice that without some authentic consensual reality in which actual events actually occur, and actual things actually exist, and in which these events and things are palpable to the senses and amenable to objective analysis and manipulation, The Bennett Alters would not only have nothing to write about, but no language in which to write. And they certainly wouldn't be able to stick their frothings on the Web.

In daily life, Panzerben's dearth of hinges should lead to an interesting relationship with practical reality such as the need to eat, drink, sleep, feed the cat, light candles when it gets dark, and so on since, allegedly, none of these 'things' is 'really' 'real'. When they embarrassingly insist on occurring, they have to be incantated away (perhaps with the deployment of some Derridan meta-garlic to purify the spelling) as "those historically arriveste impostors called facts". So what does it think it's doing when, as one suspects it does, it grills chops, washes shirts, and blows its nose just like everyone else?

If its deranged 'philosophy' had any substance, The Bennett Community would be condemned to be as mute as a frog. If it would only follow its own advice, it would stop riveting on as if it lived in the same world from the rest of us.