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The eager dead

by Tom Ruffles

[ strangeness | bookreviews ]

At the heart of Archie Roy's epic is a Plan of stupendous weirdness allegedly cooked up by discarnate entities to be executed by the living: on one side, a well-connected public figure and secret medium; and on the other, a prominent upper-class Conservative politician, the brother of an ex-prime minister. Together, they adulterously created a baby who was to bring about a new dawn in human civilisation. It is a complex tale and it is sometimes hard to follow the thread over such a long book, but in essence it involves senior members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), and the famous cross-correspondences that are often reckoned to be among the strongest evidence for survival of death.

To understand the cross-correspondences generally and the Plan specifically, some knowledge of the key individuals in the early years is necessary. Among the founders of the SPR in 1882 had been Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney and Henry Sidgwick. Gurney died in 1888, Sidgwick in 1900 and Myers in January 1901. The first of the mediums producing automatic writing that would eventually comprise the body of work collectively known as the cross-correspondences was Margaret Verrall, who began to write in the Spring of 1901. She wanted to see if Myers, who had been a close friend, would communicate with her. She continued until her death in 1916.

In 1903, her daughter Helen Verrall (later Salter) also began writing, the same year as Mrs Holland, a pseudonym for Alice Fleming, Rudyard Kipling's sister, who wrote in India until 1910. Helen continued until about 1930 when asked to stop by JG Piddington, one of the group analysing the scripts, as the quantity accumulated had made thorough analysis impossible. In 1908 Winifred Coombe-Tennant (Myers's sister-in-law), whose baby Daphne had recently died, contacted Margaret and herself began writing scripts as Mrs Willett. There were other automatists involved, including famous medium Mrs Piper, the only professional, but these were the main ones.

What made them significant as a group was that their scripts, allegedly with no contact between them, contained obscure fragments, that only made sense when put together to form a whole (hence the term cross-correspondence). The logical conclusion was that, as the mediums were not colluding, the fragments were being planted by an intelligence on the Other Side as proof of survival. Many of these fragments were classical in origin, but there were messages of a more personal nature that had direct relevance to the lives of those generating and studying the scripts.

The entities with whom the mediums made contact identified themselves as Myers, Sidgwick and Gurney, plus Francis Maitland Balfour, a Cambridge biologist and elder brother of Arthur Balfour (Prime Minister from 1902-1905 and later author of the Balfour Declaration), who had been killed in a climbing accident in 1882; Annie Marshall, the wife of Myers' cousin with whom Myers had been in love but who had drowned herself in 1876; Mary Lyttelton, with whom Arthur Balfour had been in love but who had died of typhus on Palm Sunday 1875, just before he proposed to her; and Laura Lyttelton, Mary's sister-in-law, who had died in childbirth in 1886. Apart from Piddington, the scripts' analysts included Eleanor Sidgwick, widow of Henry, and sister of Arthur and Francis Balfour; Gerald Balfour, yet another brother, destined to become Second Earl of Balfour on Arthur's death in 1930; SPR Research Officer Alice Johnson; Margaret Verrall; Sir Oliver Lodge (peripherally); and WH Salter (Helen's husband).

Having identified themselves and demonstrated their reality through the cross-correspondences, the ambitious group of communicators outlined, using the mediums as their collective amanuensis, a Plan that they said would bring about world peace and social harmony. This would require a new kind of human, the development of which was a matter of "psychological eugenics". In order to fulfil this goal, the Gurney and Myers communicators, Gurney especially, urged Mrs Willett to have another child. This baby would be designed by the group on the Other Side to achieve great things, notably playing a key role in ensuring peace and harmony between nations. While born of humans, it would be Gurney's spirit child - in Gurney's words, spoken through Mrs Piper: "When my child appears I shall glorify God." It was destined to grow up to be a remarkable person.

Gerald frequently sat with Mrs Willett, which created a bond between them, and the bombshell of Roy's book is that the two of them worked vigorously together to fulfil this Plan. Conveniently for them, their mutual attraction and the Plan coincided, resulting in Augustus Henry Coombe-Tennant (known as Henry), born in 1913. Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, the provenance of the child, physical and spiritual, was to be kept secret, which it largely has been until now. To add another dimension, the scripts intimated that prior to Henry, other special children had been born but had been regarded as failures and dismissed as "sacrifices to fate". These were "working experiences" which gave Henry a better chance of success.

It perhaps says something for the much-vaunted British stiff upper lip that nearly everybody involved seems to have taken the rather unsavoury manner of Henry's conception in their stride, though we do not know what Mrs Coombe-Tenant's unfortunate husband Charles, who died in 1928, made of it. As Henry himself noted in a talk he gave to the Association for the Propagation of the Faith late in life, his mother's husband was 60 when he was born, so may have had an inkling that he was not Henry's father. If he did know who the biological one was, he accepted it with remarkable equanimity because Gerald Balfour was Henry's godfather. The other party who suffered, and very deeply, was Gerald's wife Betty, who was consigned to an eight-year estrangement of a particularly brutal kind. As her daughter-in-law Jean describes it, Betty happily told Gerald that she was going to have another child (Kathleen, born in 1912) after a 10-year gap...
"...to find he was absolutely horrified, and did not express any pleasure, but dismay at the prospect. She was astonished, for he had never before re-acted with such horror from such a thing: still more amazed was she when, a few days later, he asked to have his dressing-room bed made up, and told her he thought he would in future sleep away from her. He offered no explanation and she was at first too hurt and stunned to ask for one. For eight years they slept apart."

His feeling of horror did not extend to another woman bearing his child because Henry was conceived in the same month that Kathleen was born. Despite Betty pleading with her husband (which only made him look uncomfortable, poor chap) and clearly suffering from depression, they were only reconciled when Jean told him she accepted Winifred as part of his life. According to Jean, Betty said that Gerald then told her that he had wanted her to know about Henry but Winifred "had not thought she could possibly understand", a not unreasonable assumption. Everybody else who knew or deduced the truth seems to have accepted Henry as Gerald's progeny with amazing sang froid.

So how did Henry turn out, did he become the world figure that the Plan had predicted? Well, obviously not. Roy devotes a large number of pages to tracking Henry's life; and while it was varied and fascinating, he never came remotely close to becoming the saviour of the human race. After going to Trinity College, Cambridge, he joined the Welsh Guards. He had an interesting war, spending two-and-a-half years as a POW, escaping from a camp in Germany and trekking across occupied Europe to Spain. After leaving the army in 1948 he joined the Foreign Office, then in a remarkable shift, converted to Catholicism and became a Benedictine monk and parish priest. He died in 1989.

One wonders how much Henry knew of what had been mapped out for him. Roy says in his introduction that Henry only learned the secret of the Plan late in life and then, probably, not in its entirety. However, Jean, who in Roy's words "had worried about Henry's potential ability to emerge as a messiah", recounts asking Gerald if he thought Henry knew about his role in the Plan, and Gerald replied that he thought Henry had a good idea. If Henry did, he kept it to himself. Winifred became well known as a promoter of Welsh culture, a delegate to the League of Nations, and an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate for the Forest of Dean in 1922 (as a Liberal). But her identity as Mrs Willett was only revealed publicly after her death in 1956.

The book leans heavily on the archives gathered together by Jean, and Roy, a past president of the SPR, has been granted what appears to be unfettered access to the papers - correspondence, notes and commentaries - by Jean's daughter, Lady Kremer, who has shown commendable courage in allowing this strange story to be told. As a result, Roy has been able to compile a valuable exposť of an episode that is bizarre even by the standards of the chequered history of psychical research. The result is not a book primarily about the cross-correspondences then, although naturally they feature heavily, particularly the Palm Sunday case which focuses on Mary Lyttelton.

Cumulatively, the scripts encompass a huge amount of material put together over a 30-year period. Many were privately printed with annotations, amounting to over 6,400 pages. In addition, there are nine volumes of Notes and Excursuses, another 4,400 pages analysing and commenting on the scripts. And 3,000 pages of the SPR's Proceedings are devoted to the scripts, a grand total of some 14,000 pages. (A useful appendix lists which institutions and individuals hold material.) Even Roy's 600 pages can only skim the surface of this astonishing endeavour, and he restricts himself to a few modest examples of how they worked. As well as the pre-war scripts, Roy touches on Mrs Willett own post-mortem communications, received via Geraldine Cummins, that formed probably the oddest Book Club Associates choice ever, Swan on a Black Sea.

Roy tackles criticisms levelled at the cross-correspondences, such as their analysis by researchers who were not objective, or the more telling one that given such a large quantity of text, it is likely that correspondences would be found by chance. An argument against this ad hoc matching is the existence of a Script Intelligence, those guiding the project from the Beyond. Roy concludes that there was one as the automatic writings indicated evidence of surviving personalities who interacted with the mediums. The latter produced elements that fitted together to make a satisfactory whole, rather than merely writing large quantities of prose that were cherry-picked retrospectively for items that could be combined to fit the analysts' preconceptions. He also sees the presence of guiding personalities as a counter-argument to the charge that the mediums could be communicating telepathically or obtaining information clairvoyantly. Not enough of the scripts is given for the reader of this book alone to be able to decide on the various possibilities, and it is to be hoped that primary script material will be made widely available, ideally online. It is worth adding that Jean thought that Gerald was reading too much into the scripts with regard to Henry's spiritual parentage.

Not surprisingly in such a mammoth undertaking, there are flaws and disputable emphases. A foreword by Colin Wilson claims that SPR founder (and prolific post mortem communicator) Edmund Gurney probably died of asthma, which makes one wonder what part the cotton wool and sponge bag found over his nose and mouth when his body was found, and the empty bottle nearby, played in his demise. If Wilson has hitherto unpublished information that could shed light on Gurney's death it would be useful to hear it. He also refers to Mrs Coombe-Tennant as "a busy housewife", but it stretches the term to describe her as such, particularly given her later complaints about her domestic problems ("I live here in a too large house which I can't run under 3 servants..."). Just to emphasise that these are not ordinary people, the same letter from Winifred describes how Henry's elder half-brother Alexander has become a partner in his firm "and also an enthusiastic farmer - he has taken over two farms on his estate in Wales and has Friesian Dairy cows...". Very energetic one might think, holding down two demanding jobs, until she adds of his farms: "He goes down at weekends when he can - has a hardworking Danish Bailiff", which makes him more absentee landlord than farmer.

The narrative rambles at times, with a great deal of repetition, and in what is a laudable attempt to cram in as much as possible, huge swathes of documents are quoted which could have been summarised in a much shorter space, notably the lengthy discussions between the ageing guardians of the scripts about where the stuff should be deposited after their deaths, given its sensitive nature. Having to fit the primary documents which Roy reproduces into a coherent whole makes following the thread more difficult than it need be, especially given the propensity of the protagonists to use initials (and not necessarily their names - Winifred tends to be called 'DM', for 'Daphne's Mother', for example) when writing letters to each other. As there are so many individuals to keep track of, more signposting and explanation would have been useful, even if it is interesting to hear the voices of those involved. A surprising omission, in a book that tries so hard to be exhaustive, is the utter lack of references. Books are quoted with no indication of the source, and although there is a bibliography, the reader is left to guess from where a citation comes. An excellent obituary of Henry, or Dom Joseph Coombe-Tennant as he by then was, written by somebody who knew him very well, is shorn of both the writer's name and original place of publication. There is a handy chronology listing births and deaths of the dramatis personae up to the death of Alexander, the last of those directly connected to the affair, in 2003.

Occasionally Roy shows that he is not quite on top of his material, usually when dealing with matters outwith psychical research. A comment that the American Civil War was "still relatively fresh" in people's minds at the start of the Great War seems odd given the nearly half-century between the two conflicts. In another digression he says that the German V2 rockets killed nearly as many people as died in the destruction of the World Trade Centre, which is true - the number of V2 victims was 2,754. But what he does not say is that the V1 doodlebugs killed over 6,000, contributing to a total British civilian death toll during the Second World War of 60,595 (Imperial War Museum figures), which makes the V2/WTC comparison meaningless.

Those involved in the cross-correspondences, living and dead, were generally closely related socially and maritally, and Roy asks how much the mediums might have known or been able to deduce, which allowed them to provide what they thought the researchers wanted to hear, who in turn read more into the scripts than was warranted. Roy himself is explicit in arguing that fraud and coincidence do not cover the range of communications, and the automatists' knowledge of ancient private matters would have been limited. They were able to transmit information going far beyond anything seen in the experimental research of telepathy and clairvoyance, making post-mortem communication the likeliest proposition. The cross-correspondences are a magnificent achievement, whatever one thinks of their value for the survival hypothesis, but it is to be feared that they have been tainted by the publication of the Plan, and that future scholars who attempt to unravel the scripts' arcane intricacies will have to labour under the shadow of its implausibility, and the curious lack of judgment and taste it demonstrates.