UnConvention ’94: A Celebration of the Strange

For many years now, ‘Fortean Times’ has been gathering together the “weird stuff” that happens in the world, with a sense of style and humour all it’s own. Having read this remarkably cool publication for longer than I like to remember, the news that they were running a weekend convention provoked a sense of delight, that would perhaps only be surpassed by a note from Nastassja demanding a bed for the night.

The beast in question occupied a full two days, each with a designated central subject (Saturday was Spontaneous Human Combustion, Sunday had Alien Abductions), and sundry other topics round the fringe. Unsurprisingly, I received a certain amount of stick from people for attending such an event, and must admit part of the appeal was the thought of hearing people like Mary Seal, organiser of the Wembley conspiracy convention fiasco, and chief proponent of the Global Octopus theory (you don’t want to know, believe me). Having previously been on the edges of a couple of UFO groups, I knew just how “fringe” some areas of borderline research can get!

However, what Lino might call the “kook” factor was very low. Mary Seal never appeared – some may call that suspicious – and the nearest we got to nonsense was Doc Shiels, a long-time magician, trickster, hoaxer and consumer of Guinness. The last named probably explains any deficiency on the coherency front (he can be forgiven, it was the weekend Ireland beat Italy!). This general lack of loonies is perhaps because Forteans don’t lumber their subjects with emotional baggage. On the SHC panel, for example, all three panellists said they’d be entirely happy to find it was the result of something natural. In the world of the paranormal, such a separation of faith from knowledge is pleasant to see.

The other (and more expected) major enjoyment factor was the sense of fun that pervaded the weekend. A delight of FT is the attitude of “we don’t know whether this means anything at all, but it’s certainly amusing”, and this came through in most of the events. Let’s face it, topics like SHC are pretty ridiculous when considered in the cold light of day! It was all pretty informal, with most of the guests quite happy to hang round after their talks and chat to the audience, and the organisers also seemed approachable.

Not that I needed to, as it mostly went very smoothly, although the temperature in the main hall provided the audience with first-hand experience of what SHC must be like. Luckily, the event was taking place in the University of London Union, so plenty of cheap, liquid refreshment was easily to hand (to the delight of Doc Shiels!). Sunday was a touch less successful, with two guests not appearing at zero or less notice (illness, rather than abduction by aliens), but these things happen, and no-one seemed to mind too much.

One eagerly awaited opportunity was the chance to get “weird stuff”. A large amount of all sorts of reading material was duly bought, though the general restraint on view was also seen in the dealer’s room. I ended up with as much sceptical junk as true-believer bunkum. Does this indicate some kind of balance?

Highlights are hard to pick, as there honestly was nothing I didn’t enjoy. However, special mention may be made of the all-too-brief Fortean slide show, Jenny Randles’ lecture on alien abductions (which sent several chills down my spine – true or not, they make great campfire tales) and Kevin McLure, talking about the visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and meandering from poltergeists to Charles Manson with perfect Fortean dry wit. But everything had it’s moments, often unexpected ones: a former police officer, talking about SHC, mentioned in passing that there’s a method for forging fingerprints, a comment worth filing in your paranoia. And even the ‘delusion show’, designed to expose tricks used by mediums, scored a direct hit on the psyche of one member of the TC crew!

By the end of Sunday, my mind had been suitably expanded – it’s surprising how tiring this can be! The advantage of such an event is that after you’ve heard about aliens, people burning from the inside, big cats, religious visions, and who knows what else, then things like cancelled trains and leaking showers somehow just don’t seem of any significance…