‘What I wish I’d known when I was 18’


Stephen Fry on ‘What I Wish I’d Known When I Was 18’

I would say the worst thing you can ever do in life is set yourself goals. I think goal orientation is absolutely disastrous in life. Two things happen, one is you don’t meet your goals so you call yourself a failure, secondly you meet your goals and you go “Well I’m here, now what?” – Stephen Fry

I believe in the Loch Ness Monster


‘The water in there is like looking through a glass of coca cola” Steve Feltham told us, rolling the clay between his hands as he created another of his much loved Nessie models to sell to tourists. I was sitting in the cosy van he calls home that is parked on Dores Beach, overlooking Loch Ness from where Steve maintains his twenty-year-long vigil for Nessie whom he believes does exist. 

From my position perched on the piano stool (for yes, there is a piano in that van) I could see through the windscreen that has a great view of the wild, choppy waters of Loch Ness where tourist boats make regular journeys up and down, trailing dark waves behind them that roll around mysteriously for minutes after the boat is out of view. My dad wandered along the beach outside, battered by the wild winds, taking in the stunning views of the Loch, and sitting to my side on another stool was Joe Nickell who was visiting from the US. We had travelled directly from the 2012 QEDcon conference in Manchester where Joe had delivered the closing talk and I had been a panellist alongside him and Deborah Hyde, talking about Cryptozoology. 

We were in Loch Ness to take in the atmosphere that surrounded Nessie and during our visit we watched the waters from various sites, including near Urquhart Castle where some of the best historic sightings have been made, and also from The Clansman hotel restaurant where we ate lunch before boarding a tour boat on which we watched sonar scans as we sailed over the choppy Loch. We also visited the Loch Ness Visitor Centre at Drumnadrochit, where we talked over a cup of tea with naturalist and Nessie researcher Adrian Shine, and we interviewed the world’s only full-time Nessie Hunter, Steve Feltham as mentioned above. 

Do I think there is a monster in those waters? No, I don’t, and neither do most of those who do good business from the legend. Joe asked the man who sold us out boat tickets if he thought we would see the monster while out there, and his response was ‘you’ve got a better chance of seeing the monster in here than you have out there’ while gesturing at the Nessie toys on the shelves.

As I write this post there are two Nessie’s looking down at me. One made by Steve Feltham and the other the TY Beanie toy sold at the visitor centre. I do love a good folklore story, and the Loch Ness Monster is one of the best there is. I secretly look forward to the annual newspaper stories about the latest sightings of Nessie. Most of it is good natured, and those bits that are more sinister are usually shot down instantly by those who live in the heart of the legend of Nessie. Steve Feltham himself, for example, exposed one of the biggest recent hoaxes.

At the Loch Ness Visitor Centre Adrian Shine has created an incredible educational resource that centres around the legend. As you walk through the exhibit you are taught about the history, geology and the environment of the area. The Loch Ness Monster story is pulled apart piece by piece and examined rationally. It is absolutely fascinating. 

There is not enough food in the water for a monster…
Those strange photos? This is what they probably were…
Those eye-witness testimonies? Probably faulty, here’s why…

Operation Deepscan. photo: loch-ness.org

Yet, despite this deconstruction of the myth you leave the centre with your sense of wonder still intact and you leave having learned about all the research that has been done in the hunt for Nessie, like Operation Deep Scan. The visitor centre is a great example of skeptical outreach at its best, and it’s reaching hundreds of thousands of people every single year. That’s why I’m a little bit forgiving about those silly Loch Ness headlines.   

The black and white photos of men stood on the shore of Loch Ness with binoculars and the photos of Operation DeepScan in progress all serve as reminders that this is a folklore story that, though long in its roots, is still forming around us. We are all part of the story.

I’m not going to write paragraphs defending the use of folklore to drum up business as I honestly do not think it is as sinister as many people believe. I don’t believe that most tourists who visit Loch Ness really believe there is some large beasty lurking beneath the cola-esque waters of Loch Ness. The story is what lures people in regardless of whether the monster at the heart of those stories is real or not.

I believe in the Loch Ness Monster – not as a monster, but as a cultural phenomenon. There is no feeling like that you feel standing on the edge of the wild Loch where so many have stood before you, looking out, and thinking just imagine… 

Sunday Assembly is not enough

thumb peace

‘The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles and mean contentment, has kept humanity in helpless degradation.’ – Emma Goldman

In her essay The Philosophy of Atheism Emma Goldman groups religion with other man-made systems of domination.  The essay came to mind recently while reading an Alternet article by Alex Gabriel titled 10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy. His experiences with religion were much harsher than mine and the piece is eye-opening to a whole new experience of discovering atheism. One in which the author and his family would have been unable to leave the church if they’d wanted to because of how much they depended upon it for support. In his article Alex tells those claiming to offer ‘alternatives to church’ to offer more, writing: 

When I was five with a mum on benefits, we had intense beliefs, but mainly church meant help. Our priest wrote a check when she needed money. Church friends offered food when we had none. Cast-offs were donated when I needed clothes. Lifts were given when we had to travel.

This help was paid for in religious loyalty. It’s easy to demand people quit their churches, but quitting’s sometimes impossible. Where would these things have come from had we left? If you want to replace religion, don’t just replace the abstractions the middle-class get from it. Replace the food and clothes. Find out who needs a fridge, a lift, a babysitter. Keep track of this. Put volunteers and email lists in place.

And don’t just do what churches do, do what rationalists do. Distribute food and clothes and condoms. Support meetings for humanist choir practice… and a secular sobriety circle. (Looking for class-related issues faith groups hijack? Substance abuse should be high on your list.)

Today I read a piece written by Simon Clare titled I have left Sunday Assembly. It’s important to me to point out that I have a lot of respect for Simon and how he approaches ideas. When Simon writes ‘I love the idea of reclaiming the positive aspects of traditional churches for humanity, but those in charge of the Central Sunday Assembly (SA) group have lost sight of this aim, allowing SA to succumb to the same flaws that twisted the institutions we’re supposed to be providing an alternative to’ I pay close attention and think others should too. I’d recommend reading his piece before continuing. 

I have written my thoughts about Sunday Assembly before, concluding that if it floated your boat that was great, but that I hoped you’d also find something to float your boat that didn’t mimic religious traditions. Sunday Assembly, you see, offers those abstractions that Alex Gabriel wrote of. The nice bits. The feel good bits. The singing and the assurance that life is good, that you are good, and that there is purpose for the non-religious. However, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think what Sunday Assembly offers is enough. Even if it does float your godless boat.

‘Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion our of his reawakened and illumined conciousness a new world upon earth.’ – Emma Goldman

A friend recently wrote “Until I attended the Sunday Assembly I thought my problem with religion was God. As it turns out, my problem with religion is church.” The church service, in my humble opinion, is one of those chains that Emma Goldman writes of. A fetter to be broken. That whole communities have, for centuries, been built up around the local church, that our ancestors were suspected of devil worship if they did not attend their local church service is disturbing. (Conflict of interest declaration: Somewhere in my family tree there are Pendle witches…)

When I have been vocal about my dislike of Sunday Assembly people have asked me ‘what’s the harm?’ and while there’s little harm, we do risk becoming complacent in our opposition of the dominance religion has in modern society. I’m sure that many who attend Sunday Assembly support other organisations who actually work in communities to help those in need which is great, but the point of Sunday Assembly then, is completely lost on me.

That the most popular alternative to religious church ceremonies mimics church ceremonies so closely is unsettling. If secularists want to reclaim the good of religion and forget the bad then they need to forget religious traditions altogether.  We already know that as secular people we can do good without any mimicking of religious traditions or settings. 

People don’t need church and Alex Gabriel is right when he talks about access to the vital things in life being more important; access to education, to food, housing, addiction treatment programmes, counselling, health services and more… services that, at the moment, are often heavily influenced by the church.

So, while Sunday Assembly pays their CEO to do what he does so that godless people can feel good, I hope others will continue supporting secular causes that reach out for humanity in the dark corners of society where no singing can be heard…

Abortion Rights
Age UK
Amnesty International

British Humanist Society
Fairtrade Foundation

Oxfam UK 
Medecins Sans Frontieres 
National Aids Trust

National Secular Society

Review: Ghost Hunting – A Survivors Guide

A survivors guideIn ‘Ghost Hunting – A Survivors Guide’ author John Fraser demonstrates his knowledge of ghost hunting history, presenting a great overview of the past 2000 years of ghost hunting and how it has shaped into the modern landscape of multi-disciplinary paranormal research. He asks early on ‘Does the inclusion of more people and more ghost hunters mean there is more chance of finding evidence for a ghost, or are investigations too disparate and run on individualistic lines to be anything other than just an interesting experience for those who participate in them?’

It’s an interesting question, but one the book does little to explore. There is also a lot of irrational conjecture in the 184 pages of this book. For example, the first alarm bell rang when Harry Price was described as ‘a damned good, ground-breaking investigator, who may or may not have been tempted at times to fake phenomena.’ 

borley ghost brickAlthough Price was indeed an important figure in the history of paranormal research there is a lot wrong with his work – especially the indications that he faked phenomena.

I’m sure many will instantly think of a certain photo of a certain “floating” brick at Borley Rectory, for example…

As I read Ghost Hunting – A Survivors Guide I gained the impression that Fraser knows his stuff when it comes to the history of paranormal research, but that he is doomed to repeat it and all of it’s mistakes by offering up defence after defence of unscientific methods of paranormal research. He writes of personally using Ouija Boards, for example, and also of using Table Tipping, referring to it as ‘ a powerful, if somewhat unfashionable tool of investigation’. It isn’t. You can read my thoughts on those methods here if you’re interested. 

…and although Fraser seems to share my own reservations about EMF meters, he still thinks the right sort of EMF meter should be used by ghost researchers despite the problems with this equipment he outlines in his book. He also defends the use of other pieces of pseudo-scientific equipment too.

Of using thermometers to monitor alleged cold spots he says ‘there is no theory, to the best of my knowledge, to explain why temperature should drop when a paranormal phenomenon occurs. What there is though is a general hypothesis among ghost hunters that if the production of supernatural phenomena in some way uses energy from the atmosphere, this could potentially lead to a drop in temperature.’  This is not good justification for having this in your tool kit, it also assumes paranormal phenomena is occurring.

Fraser also suggests that tape recorders, despite the many shortcomings that he personally lists, are a vital piece of equipment, stating ‘While it may well be that EVP [Electronic Voice Phenomena] can be explained naturally, this has not yet been done conclusively. It is still therefore worth checking out time to time to see if there are any direct messages picked up by your recording devices.’

This is, I think, a form of cognitive dissonance – Fraser acknowledges the irrationality of numerous ghost research methods, but seems to ignore those problems in his conclusion that these methods should still be used.

In another part of the book about Residual Haunting Theory, Fraser writes about the research of Jacques Benveniste that incorrectly suggests that water has a memory of what it has come into contact with. Some think ghosts are recorded in both the materials of building- stone tape theory – and also in water (it is often said that underground water can cause hauntings.) Fraser writes ‘While not fully accepted by all scientists, the research of Benveniste has never been disproved.’

There is no mention that no double blind control was used by Benveniste during his research.

When the paper was published in the journal Nature in 1988 one of the conditions for publication was that editor John Maddox and skeptic activist James Randi supervised a repeat of the experiment. They observed Benveniste’s team repeating the procedure which seemed to be working and showing a definite difference between the plain water and the homoeopathic water. However, the assessment of the two types of water involved a subjective evaluation by a researcher – and the researchers knew which was the plain water and which the homoeopathic. When the protocol was tightened the results were not repeated.

I am disappointed that these details were omitted by Fraser in his book. I am disappointed that paranormal researchers, like Fraser, who have a lot if influence offer irrational ideas a legitimacy they do not deserve with their non-committal attitude. I recommend that those who read this book do so with a pinch of salt. It offers an interesting insight into contemporary paranormal research, but I wouldn’t take the authors word as fact, if I were you.

In defence of YOLO


I’m 16. I’m standing outside of my school and in my hand is a piece of paper telling me my GCSE grades. A mix of C’s and B’s. Average. My then-friend has achieves E’s and D’s. She is crying. Her life is ruined. Fuck, I’m not ready for this shit I think. ‘It will be okay’ I say, trying to convince myself as much as her.

‘What are your career plans?’ asks the straight A student I used to sit near in Double Science. She’s just had her photo taken by the local paper. They only photograph the pretty clever ones. I don’t know I think. ‘I’m exploring my options’ I say. Again. The same phrase I’ve parroted over and over to anyone who asks me the same question. A question that is too big to be asking any 16-year-old.

I’m 16. I haven’t even stopped growing but people want me to plan the rest of my life. In a year my shoes will be two sizes too small, but I’m supposed to have my career plan already laid out ahead of me. Fuck.

I’m 16. On the day I get my GCSE results I go to a local greasy spoon cafe and my grandparents buy me an all day breakfast as a congratulations because that’s how we roll. While my classmates are sorting out their A-level options I am eating bacon that is slightly over cooked and drinking a frothy coffee.

However, underneath lurks the familiar sense of dread. It has haunted me since Year 10. It’s the dread that I won’t get good enough qualifications, that I won’t get a respectable job with a high enough salary. I’m slightly scared that I won’t be able to drive, that I’m going to die poor because I won’t be able to draw a pension, or won’t have somewhere decent to live…

I was a teenager and I hate that these thoughts consumed my mind. I hate that this pressure was put on me and my friends before most of us had even finished puberty.

The sense of not being ready that I felt at the age of 16 didn’t leave me until I was almost 20.

At the age of 18 I had life saving surgery and it took ages to recover. I had finally enrolled at my local college on a course that I didn’t really care much about, but I had to go to college and study otherwise I’d be a failure.

Then came my illness. Then came the pile of unfinished coursework. Then came the surgery. Then came the decision that it would be best if I enrolled at college the following year instead. Then came the full time job. Then came the realisation that none of that stuff I’d worried about before actually mattered.

I realised, at the age of Nineteen, that since my mid-teens adults had groomed me to believe that their vision of success was my vision of success, and I was so caught up in achieving it (and so aware of how I was failing to achieve it) that I wasn’t actually getting anything from life. There’s this quote that says ‘happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a journey’ and I realised that I would never be happy fulfilling the life that others had decided was best for me and my classmates.

I was alive. I had survived and suddenly that was enough. Everything else was a bonus.

So I stopped living to other peoples standards of success, because YOLO.

Yes. I just YOLO’d. I know, it’s ghastly, right?

Yet, fuck it, I actually like YOLO. I think YOLO is spot on, and if it’s just the acronym that annoys people then I’m sure they can get behind the fact that young people are embracing the message that you only live once. 

I wish I’d embraced that message a lot sooner in my life. It would have saved me so much bother, anxiety and dread.

Sure, people say ‘YOLO’ to defend stupid and irresponsible things they’ve done, but then, we’ve all been idiots at some point. If you can’t roll with the rough then what do you get from life apart from the sense that bad things happen because of other people?

Often people dismiss people who say “YOLO” as being iressponsible kids who aren’t going to make anything of themselves, but that’s nobodys business other than theirs. They’ll make of themselves what they can, and as long as they’re content it’s all that matters. If they’re not content then I hope they can work through that like I did. Life is too short to tell kids to grow up and make something of themselves.

Happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a journey – so too is success and fulfilment. YOLO.

Perhaps if 16-year-old me had considered the things she dreaded in the manner I consider them now – perhaps if “YOLO” had been a thing when I was at school instead of “WASSSSUP?” – 16-year-old me would have ripped up her GCSE report, shouted “Momento mori, motherfuckers! Now, let’s go get all Carpe Diem on that cooked breakfast you promised me!’ *SWAG*