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Sometimes the nobility is more like a film than a film is: F Is for Flying Saucers

F is for Flying Saucers


Mark you, my Lords, I was told today outside those doors that an ambassador of 8 ft. 6 ins. with green feet, and webbed feet as well, had asked whether he could park his flying saucer in our car park … some people have treated the whole matter as a joke. (Lord Davis of Leek, House of Lords Speech, January 18, 1979).

It was no joke. Back in January 1979, while Great Britain suffered all the economic, political and social upheaval of its ‘Winter of Discontent’, the House of Lords hosted a debate on the existence of UFOs. In attendance were sixty peers and hundreds of spectators. Opening remarks came from William Francis Brinsley Le Poer Trench, otherwise known as the 8th Earl of Clancarty. The Earl was already a firm believer in the existence of extra-terrestrial life: he had written several books on the subject and had served as editor of the journal The Flying Saucer Review. For Clancarty, little green men were, literally, a religion. In his wacky tome The Sky People, published in 1960, he had proposed that biblical characters Adam and Eve were actually the spawn of an ancient alien experiment. Rather than being expelled – as the bible would have it – from the Garden of Eden, Clancarty contended that they had fallen from Mars and spent the rest of their days wandering the planet Earth. This of course meant that human beings were directly descended from aliens. (Note to future governments: ridding the House of hereditary peers may sound democratic. But are we not in danger of losing one of our great British traditions; what will become of the lunatic Lord, that magnificent product of over-privilege, idleness and centuries of inbreeding? Some things money can’t buy).

Anyway, Clancarty started proceedings with a brief history of the UFO. While noting that reports of strange flying objects had been recorded since ancient Egyptian times, he reminded his fellow peers that the year 1947 saw ‘flying saucer’ become part of the English language. An American pilot called Kenneth Arnold was on a rescue mission in Washington State when he spotted a group of strange objects ‘crescent shaped, flying in zigzag fashion between his plane and the mountains.’ Quizzed by the Press on his sightings, Arnold described the objects as being like saucers skimming on water. From this off-the-cuff remark a new phenomenon was born. The flying saucer was rapidly established as a prominent icon in popular culture. Drawing the attention of filmmakers, writers, artists, public commentators, even government organizations, it also became a kind of heuristic rubric under which a whole range of political, philosophical and religious issues could be explored and debated. Who we are, where we come from, where we are going – such issues have, at one time or another, all been caught under the flying saucer’s indomitable tractor beam. Those present at the House of Lords were but the latest participants in a great cosmic ruckus that had engulfed politics and popular culture throughout the post World War II period. And yet, as Earl Clancarty stood up to address the noble peerage that January evening thirty-two years ago, he was, in his own small way, making history. Here was the first and only time that the British political establishment has devoted an entire debate to the existence of UFOs. It is the humble attempt of this post to honour those present with a short overview of the evening’s discourse.

‘Do noble lords believe in angels’?

From scientific argument to spiritual reflection, the House of Lords debate passed in a manner not far removed from that of a Hollywood film. First came the X-Files-like ‘truth is out there’ argument. ‘The UFOs have been coming in increasing numbers for 30 years since the war,’ declared Clancarty toward the end of his speech. ‘And I think it is time our people were told the truth.’ He even mentioned Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1939 as evidence of the kinds of panic that might erupt were we unprepared for a visit from our otherworldly friends. This reading of the H.G. Wells story has gone down in pop-culture lore as the day when fantasy became an – albeit brief – reality for the American public. Welles’ reporter-like style convinced some that aliens really were invading America. The event was parodied in Woody Allen’s wonderful homage to 1930s and 1940s broadcasting, Radio Days (1987). A woman and man out on their first date together tune in while in the car. Hearing what seems to him to be a serious invasion report, the man stops the car and runs off in terror leaving the woman to fend for herself. Some days later, after realising it was all a fake, the man phones the woman again enquiring as to the possibility of another date. She informs him that the romance is over and, adding salt in the wound, spitefully states that she’s ‘married a Martian.’

Unlike War of the Worlds, however, Earl Clancarty did not believe that aliens were a threat to humanity; quite the opposite: ‘we have not been invaded from outer space. Most incidents have not been hostile. Indeed, it is us, the earthlings, who have fired on them.’ In many ways, his speech was tinged with the kind of liberal humanist sentiment that had pervaded a number of cultural representations in the years previous. From The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), aliens were often depicted as friendly creatures there to help the planet Earth or, at least, to hold a mirror up to the world and its deficiencies. The authorities, the government, they were the real threats to society. As another believer, the Earl of Kimberley (it seems that the hard-core UFO buffs were Earls) argued in response to claims that no evidence had been found of UFOs in the UK: ‘Does the noble Lord not think it conceivable that Jodrell Bank says there are no UFOs because that is what it has been told to say’ (my emphasis). Perhaps Kimberley’s comment was political – he was not a great fan of the then Labour government, and any old excuse to suggest it was involved in a massive alien cover-up would have appealed. But either way, he was drawing on a long history of flying saucer conspiracy theories – CIA cover-ups, alien abductions, Roswell (which became a major subject of conspiracy theorists at this time) etc. – and his cynical view toward authority was very much in keeping with late 1970s public sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic. Forget the alien threat, the real danger was a lot closer to home: inside our dodgy governments.

Alongside various UFO ‘sightings’ in the months leading up to the House of Lords debate, the immense popular success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind played no small role in contributing toward increased public interest in all things alien. Like Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in Spielberg’s celebrated movie, many of the House of Lords debaters envisaged aliens as a spiritual, benign force. On this count, it was interesting to read Maurice Wood’s (The Lord Bishop of Norwich’s), speech on the relationship between Christianity and UFOs. The Bishop began by outlining his fears that the UFO phenomenon – encouraged, as he noted, by ‘the variety of films and programmes on the subject’ – could potentially usurp traditional Christian worship, becoming a dangerous ‘superstition’ in its own right. However, and quite bizarrely, the Bishop then attempted to bring UFOs back in line with Christian thinking. In what had a vague ring of Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider (the Venutian scene) about it, he embarked on a wiggy reconfiguration of Jesus Christ. ‘I believe that Christ has not only a terrestrial, not only a cosmic significance’, he declared. ‘But literally a galactic significance.’ Jesus, it seems, was a space man. With rhetoric that would not have been out of place in a science fiction film, he continued with an appeal for the Lords to ‘stretch our minds to reach out to the far corners of creation.’

Had he been addressing a group of stoned hippies, the Bishop would have likely inspired nodding heads and a salvo of ‘far outs.’ In the House of Lords, however, he was simply greeted with an interjection from Lord Trefgarne. ‘My Lords, will the right reverend prelate allow me to intervene? Is he actually offering ecclesiastical authority for the existence of another race of people in another universe?’ Trefgarne had already made his scepticism abundantly clear in an earlier speech. He was the Dana Scully of the debate, arguing that all UFO sightings could be rationally explained: ‘I do not think the time has yet come when we can view this matter with sufficient certainty to justify the expenditure of public money on it.’ Trefgarne’s reproach sent the Bishop of Norwich on the defensive. He spent the remainder of his speech desperately trying to assert his traditional religious beliefs. A shame really – the cosmic Jesus stuff was far more entertaining. Fortunately, there was another Lord present willing to take discussion to the next level. Harold Davis (aka Lord Davis of Leek) schooled the Lords in some mind expanding Martian philosophy. Davis was the only Labour peer to attend the debate. He was known as a staunch left wing-campaigner and socialist, having visited Russia in 1952 and China in 1955, and made a disastrous ‘peace’ mission to North Vietnam in 1965. With his glowing reports of life under Stalin and Mao, Davis was not particularly popular in with British or American elites. Indeed, if he had starred in a Hollywood science fiction film of the 1950s he would probably have played the alien.

Davis asked what he declared to be ‘the sixty four thousand dollar question. Do noble Lords believe in angels?’ Such questioning did not seem to be facetiousness, but a genuine call for self-analysis/exploration. If one believes in God, or in Jesus, or in angels – or even if one is simply willing to respect others’ belief in such phenomena – then why should UFOs be seen as crackpot hallucinations of a loony fringe? If we cannot say for certain whether they exist, we can at least use debates on their existence to rethink our own beliefs and perhaps even our own prejudices. Davis’ talk reminded me a little of the 1998 film Contact, where a possible alien encounter serves as a forum within which different belief systems do battle and, eventually, reconcile: in this case it is Christianity, embodied by Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), and the scientific beliefs of Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster). For Contact and Lord Davis of Leek, whether aliens exist is irrelevant. Rather, it is how we humble earthlings respond to the suggestion that they are out there somewhere. Do we laugh, or try to cover it up, or turn it into a religious cult, or drop everything for the chance of encountering them? Can flying saucers perhaps have a positive impact on our values, beliefs and psyche, encouraging us to see things from different perspectives; maybe even change the way we think.

It was hard to tell if Davis was being serious when he started off on the Loch Ness Monster. Apparently, some weeks previous he had attended a presentation in the Lords from a scientist who believed in its existence (the Lords sound like they had a hell of a lot of fun back then). But, given the philosophical context for his speech, it was only proper that he mentioned this other highly elusive, yet much sought after, creature? Davis’s speech was about faith. If people believe in these things then it is worth examining why they do so, even if the facts are unforthcoming. ‘If one human being out of the tens of thousands who have alleged to have seen these phenomena is telling the truth, then there is a dire need for us to look into the matter.’ And with a final flourish: ‘We know that poltergeists exist … Therefore, do not be so ready to scoff at UFOs when, in another moment if I catch you talking, you will agree with me that poltergeists exist. This is a serious debate. It deserves study and understanding.’ Thus could the flying saucer shed light not just on alien life, but also serve as a window on the human mind. Klatuu barada nikto, my Lord, klatu barada nikto.

A New Hope?         

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a band of noble space cadets went out in search of the truth. Lord Clancarty, Lord Davis, the Bishop of Norwich and Lord Trefgarne and several other members of Britain’s elite, revved their jet packs and blasted off on a quest to the stars. A quirky combination of science, fiction, spirituality and pop-culture references, if ever there was an event that emphasised the blurring of boundaries between fact and fantasy, science and speculation, the high and low brow, the academic and the ‘popular’, it was the House of Lords debate. In its wake there was even a short-lived Lords study group devoted to all things alien. For a brief time, at least, the nobility had their eyes turned spaceward. But as 1979 slips further into history, we cannot let these valiant efforts be in vain. We must pressure our current leaders into following in their footsteps.

In one of the many ‘promises’ made by politicians during the run up to last year’s general election, David Cameron announced that, were he elected, he would be ‘entirely open and frank’ on the matter of UFOs. Fielding questions at one of his ‘Cameron Direct’ public meetings, the soon-to-be Prime Minister announced his willingness to discuss the subject and to release any secret files still held by the government. As yet, this is another example of a pledge unfulfilled. The only aliens to be discussed in the House of Commons of late have been the immigrant kind. The only close encounters involve Boris Johnson and his latest extramarital conquests. And flying saucers? Unless you include those hurled in drunken glee after a Bullingdon Club night out, then it’s another intergalactic zero.

We should not, however, despair. Not yet, anyway. This month, as economic woes pile on top of economic woes and the biggest wave of strikes since 1978/79’s winter of discontent are on the cards, economic, social and political conditions for a UFO debate are as fertile as they were when Clancarty and friends stepped up to the pulpit. As another veteran of ’79, Lord Gladwyn suggested ‘One happy thing about UFOs … is that they take one’s mind off the absolutely frightful everyday events.’ I can’t help wondering if things are quite as simple as that. Given that all our current crop of politicians ever seem to think about is how to parlay important social issues into percentage at the public opinion polls, perhaps engaging with an abstract issue – if only for a couple of hours on, say, one of the days they’re trying to claw back as holiday entitlement – might have some benefit. It would force them to make a stand, state their beliefs, not what they think people want to hear, tell the truth, maybe even rethink their ideals and prejudices. It couldn’t make things worse than they already are, anyway.

So Coalition take note: If you can’t tell us if and when we’ll get a job you can at least tell us if we’re alone in this world. The truth is out there, Mr. Cameron. The fate of humanity is in your hands.


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4 thoughts on “Sometimes the nobility is more like a film than a film is: F Is for Flying Saucers

  1. I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Great piece, Olly. Interesting to think about Cameron and co. discussing this stuff; not often that we get the opportunity to hear political figures reflect on philosophical issues, or on anything, really.

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