Magonia Memories: Where Did It All Go Right?

Peter Rogerson
'Northern Echoes', Magonia 99, April 2009

It is hard to imagine that this journal in some incarnation or another has been around for at least forty years. The exact date depends whether you date its origins with the Merseyside UFO Group Newsletter which started in 1965; with John Harney taking over its editorship and change to Bulletin in 1966; or with the founding of the original Merseyside UFO Bulletin in January 1968.

The latter seems appropriate, born in the year of revolutions, in a world as remote from ours as it was from the days of Lindbergh and Charlie Chaplin. A world with only three black and white TV channels, no videos, no CDs, no mobile phones, no personal computers, no Internet. Early copies of the magazine were produced on hand-operated typewriters and printed by messy duplication processes. Of course there were similarities with our age: a deeply unpopular foreign war, the clouds of terrorism about to come across the horizon, from Ireland, and a deepening economic crisis

There were of course UFOs, and all sorts of other strange and curious visions and beliefs. The paperback stalls were beginning to fill with Forteana, and over the preceding two or three years UFO books were among the main components, with titles like Flying Saucers Serious Business, Flying Saucers are Hostile, The Flying Saucer Menace, Flying Saucers, the Startling Evidence for the Invasion from Outer Space, or the more sober Anatomy of a Phenomenon and Challenge to Science. In 1967 Britain had undergone its major media UFO wave and newspapers were full of tales of lights in the sky and 'Things' at Warminster. The Betty and Barney Hill story was serialised in one of the Sunday papers, and the BBC's prestigious literary magazine The Listener hosted an article by UFO hippie John Michell.

I was going to say how different from today, for up to a month or two ago it seemed that ufology was really dead, no afterlife, no escape from the coffin this time; a subject for the social historians, a closed episode from the 20th century. Yet once again the old vampire has arisen and stalks the media again. Whether summoned for commercial reasons by the black arts of the Necromancers of Murdoch, or a spectre called from the vast deep by the credit crunch and economic downturn, time will tell.

From the moment it was established by John Harney and the then science editor Alan Sharp, MUFOB was seen as following in the footsteps of its irreverent MUFORG predecessor, dousing ufological speculation with dollops of common sense. Of course soon Mr Rimmer joined the happy crew, and the first triumvirate, the Three Merseysiders Blind To Reality, if not In Black, was established.

Among their early readers was a schoolboy from Manchester who had a teenage boy's interest in flying saucers and all things Fortean. By 1969 my interest in ufology had led me beyond reading just about every book on the subject in the English language, to reading Fate, Flying Saucer Review, Spacelink and other journals now lost in the mist of time. I even joined the local flying saucer club, the notorious DIGAP. Even among the not terribly critical ufologists of the period, DIGAP had a reputation of being something of a graveyard for ufologists .

In 1968 they organised a conference, most notable for the fact that half of the advertised speakers had dropped out at the last minute; for a truly bizarre lecture on 'Sex and the Saucers" by Norman Oliver; a Pythonesque piece by Tony Wedd, which featured slides (a means of projecting photographs on to screens beloved by those going on their first continental holiday) of trees: "Number 1, The larch. The larch"; and an unbelievably badly faked UFO film.

A few months later, having nearly given a nervous breakdown to the then glitterati of British Ufology, Roger Stanway and Anthony Pace who had come down trying to promote a serious scientific book on ufology, the group was desperately in search of speakers, so I suggested John Rimmer as a possibility. He did much better than Paceway, and even survived being told that John Harney had been silenced by the Men in Black!

John Rimmer had suggested that many UFO reports had psychological origins, but this was clearly anathema to the group's First Citizen, Supreme Commander and Chief Priest, Mr Arthur Tomlinson, who scurried around afterward trying to shore up the correct party line.

It was from that meeting that I became a correspondent of MUFOB, which meant the editors had to decipher my handwriting, which as I have a kind of semi-dyslexia, meant them practising their skills at palaeography and code breaking. After reading Jacques Vallee's Passport to Magonia, I conceived the idea of a continuing collection of type I UFO reports, (landings and near landings), and after some ten years I had accumulated over 5,000 such reports covering the period 1880-1980. These began to appear in MUFOB, and for a time I ran MUFOB's journal exchange programme.

In these early years the editors of MUFOB actually investigated UFO cases, including that of the Runcorn contactee Jim Cooke and a variety of weird tales from Widnes. The one I was involved with was the story of Miss Z and her hag experience. There might have been more but shortly afterwards John Rimmer married Judith and moved down to London, while MUFOB limped on for a couple more issues then seemed to die.

Meanwhile by a roundabout route I began corresponding with Roger Sandell, and it was clear that he was someone very much in MUFOB's style, and he had begun writing for the magazine. When in 1975 both John Harney and Roger Sandell moved to Richmond, they were able to team up with John Rimmer who then lived in New Malden, and the second great triumvirate was formed. After a single duplicated transitional issue MUFOB, now edited by John Rimmer, changed to a printed A5 [strictly speaking, folded foolscap - JR] magazine. After a few issues it was clear that MUFOB (or the Metempirical UFO Bulletin for those who insisted that initials must mean something) was not a very appropriate title for the wider magazine, and eventually, at my suggestion, the name Magonia was chosen.

Probably our finest hour was our stand against the whole Satanic abuse myth, spearheaded by Roger Sandell. This was something that was causing real pain and real suffering to real people.

These became our glory years, Magonia was at the forefront, and all sorts of new and exciting ideas were floated. There were rough patches in the early 1980s, but we ploughed on. By the late 1980s there were no fewer than six editors (the triumvirate being joined by long time contributor Nigel Watson, folklorist Mick Goss and fantasy novelist Robert Rankin). Probably our finest hour was our stand against the whole Satanic abuse myth spearheaded by Roger Sandell. This was something that was causing real pain and real suffering to real people.

Then came alien abductions and the rise of the Abduction Finders General, and we turned our attention to them, with the same zeal. The days of standing on the side-lines as rather detached psycho-social observers were ending, we were edging closer to a much more positive scepticism, and a much more polemical stance. At the same time our editorial panel thinned back the triumvirate as people moved on. Then at the start of 1996 came our greatest disaster, the sudden death of Roger Sandell. A sense of duty towards his memory as much as anything kept us going for a while, seeing us through to the rise of the Internet, and our own web pages. By the early 2000s Magonia was producing a quarterly magazine, a monthly newsletter and had no few than three web sites up and running.

Technical problems over the last couple of years have forced these [temporarily] down, and interest in the subject seemed to be waning, and it is not clear whether the proposed new incarnation for Magonia will go ahead. If this is indeed farewell and not just a rest, back in a while, what can we conclude after forty years? Anyone who has read through our issues will have seen a growing scepticism on all our parts.

Several years ago I cut back to book reviewing because I felt I had said all I could say. My personal position on the whole range of topics discussed in Magonia or Fortean Times is one of sceptical agnosticism. On the one hand there are many stories in the literature which if accurately and completely reported would be, to put it mildly, very puzzling indeed. This does not mean that this would provide evidence for the array of folk explanations usually trotted out, indeed most of those encounter as many, if not more, difficulties as the 'normal' ones. Full and accurate reporting however is often what we do not get in these subjects, often quite the contrary. There are obvious temptations to 'sex things up' and to produce a nice, marketable commodity rather than allow for all sorts of complexities.

There seems to be a great tendency among many writers in this field to prefer convoluted and baroque paranormal explanations to fairly straightforward normal ones 
There seems to be a great tendency among many writers in this field to prefer convoluted and baroque paranormal explanations to fairly straightforward normal ones. All too often there are the arguments from personal ego. Crudely put they claim 'none of these chavs on the council estate/rednecks in trailer park could put one over on a clever chap like me' or 'these hicks couldn't possibly have access to the special esoteric knowledge that a clever chap like me has'. This attitude is encountered time and again, along with the implicit argument that it is more plausible that everything we think we know about the world is wrong and the whole of modern science is in error, than it is that a clever chap like the investigator could be mistaken or fooled. Of course, the sad fact is that being human and not Vulcan means that regardless of what education or qualifications we have, we can all be mistaken or fooled, or not perceive or remember things properly.
This means that those who propose new and extraordinary claims have to have actual evidence as opposed to assertion to back up their claim. In many cases it is not a question of the lack of 'extraordinary evidence' but the lack of any evidence at all. As there always seems a tendency to escalate the claims to destruction, it is not surprising that little actual investigation by outsiders takes place. Neutral scientists may be prepared to look into reports of anomalous lights in the sky, or anomalous forms of communication, but try them on invisible aliens abducting people through solid walls, texting poltergeists, apported chickens or retroactive PK and their boggle factor is soon going to kick in.

Whatever the "real" nature of these alleged phenomena and experiences, they undoubtedly exist as social phenomena, things people believe they have experienced and which they either fit into pre-existing belief systems or construct new ones. Give something a name and you summon it. An example is the very new idea of Shadow People. Starting as a name for something which did not have a folk name, the fleeting 'seeing' of shadowy forms on the periphery of vision, and was thus rarely reported. It has a 'scientific' name, paradolia, and a probable physiological explanation, but that sounds rather like a disease and does not encourage reports. Give it a catchy name and you soon have websites devoted to it, and the initial very vague experience becomes more solidified, then all sorts of other experiences with quite different causes are dragged in. Here we can see a new belief system in the making, and already beginning its symbiotic feedback relationship with popular culture.

There will be more examples to come, which suggests that even if Magonia goes out with a proper Viking funeral and a grand wake, some day down the line someone is going to have to invent something very like it all over again. Meanwhile wherever you are, raise your glasses to the two Johns and the memory of Roger, and the vision and belief that was Magonia.