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We're a happy family, we're a happy family...
"We're A Happy Family," The Ramones
My story begins on a hot summer weekend in 1997. Everything was good in the world. My first book was about to be released by a major British publisher and we had secured serialization for the title in a leading Sunday newspaper. I had just eaten an artery-blocking English breakfast after a beery night with Matthew Williams, then editor of the conspiracy-based journal Truthseeker's Review, and the man who would find fame in the latter part of 2000 as the first person to be arrested, charged, and convicted for making a crop circle. And in roughly two hours time I was due to deliver a lecture on the history of UFOs and the British government to the assembled throng of the curious, the mad, the paranoid, and the allegedly normal that had congregated at Sheffield University, England, for the yearly conference of the British UFO Research Association.
I turned off my Walkman from which the mighty and punk-dominated sounds of the Neurotic Outsiders echoed, entered the main auditorium of the university, and looked to see who was there. Right away, among the crowd of several hundred, an assortment of stalls, booths, and a group of spotty youths in Trust No One T-shirts, I was accosted by a greasy-haired old geezer who asked me in an accusing tone: "You're one of the lecturers, aren't you?" I nodded. "You can't do a lecture in a black T-shirt, jeans, and a motorbike jacket!" he yelled. "Didn't you bring a shirt and tie?"
"No, I did not. I don't wear shirts and ties," I answered quickly and firmly. I continued on my way and left the man complaining about my lack of commitment to the seriousness of the event as he accused me of being "with the government."
Suddenly, I was stopped in my tracks by a veritable behemoth of a character in a badly ironed brown suit (that was covered with a number of suspiciously positioned stains) striding purposefully toward me.
"Graham, come on!" the man bellowed mightily at a painfully thin, bearded fellow in a sweater and jeans behind him who, carrying an assortment of boxes crammed with books and magazines, was struggling to keep up. "Out of my way, peasants!" screamed the Hulk-like figure at all and sundry while waving a half-consumed bottle menacingly in front of them. "I have brandy and harlots to devour!"
As the assorted and astonished crowd made way in a fashion that reminded me of the parting of the Red Sea, the man stopped in front of me. Towering over me at around six feet six inches in height, surely four hundred pounds in weight, and sporting a wild beard and even wilder hair, he boomed, "Who the hell are you?"
"I'm Nick Redfern; who the hell are you?"
The man's tone suddenly changed; his voice took on an outrageously affected style and a beaming smile came over his face. "My dear, dear boy. I'm Jon Downes. I've been looking for you; I want to interview you for Sightings magazine."
"Oh, yeah, I know who you are. You do those lake monster and big cat investigations, don't you? Don't you run a group or something?"
"My boy, my boy, I do. Let's go and sit down at my stall and we can talk. Graham, come!" barked Jon. The thin man muttered something under his breath and followed. I scanned Jon's table closely. It was full of all manner of magazines and books on lake monsters, Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, and more.
"God almighty, I need a drink," said Jon wearily, as he fell back into his chair. It buckled and strained alarmingly under his mighty girth. "Anyway, dear fellow, it's good to meet you," Jon said to me in cheerful tones. He gestured toward the thin man. "Sit, Graham!" The thin man scowled but did as he was told. "This is Graham Inglis, my manservant and special friend. Very special friend."
"Okay." I laughed. "Hi, Graham; how's it going?" The thin man smiled back in a slightly sinister fashion, nodded, and said nothing. He crossed his legs, flipped open a can of Carlsberg Special Brew lager, and turned his attention to a magazine on computer games. I watched him take a CD out of his bag and insert it into his own Walkman. It was those 1970s progressive rock atrocities, Gong. I cringed to myself. Jon proceeded to open a shopping bag and I expected to see him take out a pile of books. Instead, out came a small, lovingly crafted, wooden box with ornate brass handles. I leaned forward to see what was inside. Noticing this, Jon took an inordinate amount of time to open it and did so in a way-over-the-top camp fashion. When he finally lifted the lid, however, I was amused to see that it contained two small glasses and a bottle.
"Would you care to indulge in a small, dry sherry, dear Nicholas?" inquired Jon, with a twinkle in his bloodshot and sleep-deprived eyes. Jon was not your average UFO investigator I was relieved and pleased to find out. He was my kind of guy -- but not in the biblical sense, you understand.
Over the next hour or so, we talked about wine, women, and song, and just about everything but UFOs. It transpired that we had probably already met without realizing the fact -- at one of the many record and CD fairs that we regularly attended, bought and sold at in the 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s -- and we struck up an enjoyable rapport. Jon went on to tell me how, as a boy growing up in Hong Kong, he had been fascinated with unknown animals and monsters; and he now ran the Center for Fortean Zoology and could boast of being Britain's only full-time monster hunter. He had written numerous books on zooforms, those "nonanimate things that appear to be animals," he explained, edited two magazines -- The Goblin Universe and Animals & Men -- and regularly launched expeditions to the darkest corners of the globe in search of lake monsters, sea serpents, still-living dinosaurs, and ape-men.
Jon told me how he loathed the world of nine-to-five and wanted to earn a living his way while having an uproariously good time in the process. Yes, indeed, we were going to get along just fine. Over the course of the next six months or so Jon and I would keep in touch by telephone and met regularly at conferences around the U.K. But it wasn't until the early part of 1998 that I finally visited him at home in Exeter.
As I sat on the train to Exeter on a snowy Tuesday morning in January, my mind began to wander. I knew that Jon had grown up in Hong Kong; was widely traveled; went to school with Princess Diana's lover, James Hewitt; had a father who was high up in the British government's Colonial Service; a brother who was a vicar; and he seemed to live the life of a veritable English dandy and nineteenth-century explorer. Knowing that Jon resided in the wilds of Devonshire (in a Court, no less), and that his brother and father had both been decorated by the queen, I tried to imagine the scene that would greet me.
Doubtless, I thought, Jon's little Devon hamlet was unchanged since the eighteenth or nineteenth century and he lived in a large manor house constructed out of ancient stone that looked like it came straight out of The Hound of the Baskervilles or the pages of a Brontë or a Hardy novel. It would be a resplendent Gothic affair, complete with a large attic and a well-stocked wine cellar. Every day would be an adventure and every meal would be a banquet. Was Jon akin to being the local squire, held in high esteem by the village folk? I would soon find out.
On arriving at Exeter St. David's railway station, I trudged through the ever-deepening snow, got myself a taxi, and asked the driver to take me to Holne Court, Exwick. After first being mistakenly taken to Home Court on the other side of Exeter, I finally arrived. But this wasn't BrontË or Hardy country, and where was the windswept moorland? The taxi pulled up outside a row of houses; I got out and asked the driver to hit the horn.
"Nicky!" I heard a familiar voice boom. "Get up here," shouted Jon, leaning head-and-shoulders out of a small window of a modestly sized house. I headed up the steps and the front door of the house swung open. Immediately an old and gnarly dog pounced on me and bared its teeth in a menacing fashion. "Toby!" Jon exclaimed. "That is not the way to greet Britain's baldest ufologist," he said, in reference to my daily-shaved head. He gently and fondly castigated the dog. It turned on its tail and glared at me. "Well, come on in to my Bohemian squalor and I'll get us a sherry," said Jon as I struggled with my bags.
I sat down on the couch and scanned the room. It wasn't what I had imagined but it was a perfect little bachelor pad and had a pleasantly chaotic, warm, and homely feel to it. But Jon was not the local squire. Like my rooms at home, books, shelves, CDs, and magazines filled every last inch of space; and around the lounge large glass tanks housed every conceivable type of insect, lizard, and reptile that you could possibly imagine. A large poster of The Golden Girls was pinned to the wall -- that, like Jon's brown suit, was also covered in suspiciously positioned stains -- and a human skull sat atop an old piano.
"You don't want to know where I got that from," Jon said, leaning forward, in conspiratorial tones.
"Er, Jon," I motioned to the corner of the room.
"For goodness' sake!" he exclaimed.
His two cats, Carruthers and Isabella, were tugging on a copy of Tim Matthews's book, UFO Revelation, and Toby was busying himself playfully tearing up a copy of When Girls Fight magazine. "Drop," shouted Jon, and all three animals headed with precision for the kitchen and shot up the stairs. At that moment, something truly bizarre happened. The late comedian John Belushi walked into the room. Not only that, he appeared to be dressed as an eighteenth-century pirate.
Actually, it wasn't John Belushi, nor was it an eighteenth-century pirate. It turned out, in reality, to be Jon's roommate and partner-in-crime at the Center for Fortean Zoology, Richard Freeman. At that time, Richard was in his late twenties and had for three years worked as Head of Reptiles at Twycross Zoo. Like Jon, Richard had had a lifelong fascination with monsters and unknown beasts; and as with many of us who spend our lives investigating the mysteries of this planet and beyond, he had taken that make-or-break step from the world of nine-to-five to, as he put it, "chasing monsters and lasses and having a laugh." Richard was also a Goth -- for the uninitiated, a devotee of rather depressing and doom-laden rock music played in a slightly inept fashion by groups for whom (like Henry Ford) any color will do just as long as it's black. Richard had also undergone an intriguing initiation to the world of monsters.
As a boy in the 1970s Richard holidayed with his grandparents in Devon, England. One summer, when Richard was about nine, his grandfather got talking to a retired trawler man in Goodrington harbor. The old man recounted his life as a fisherman and one particular incident that was firmly and forever stuck in his mind. Some years previously he and his crew were trawling off Berry Head, where the seas of Britain are almost at their deepest. Indeed, such are the depths of this part of the English Channel that the area is commonly used as a graveyard for old ships and the drowned wrecks of these vessels have made an artificial reef that has attracted vast amounts of fish. Good catches are therefore almost guaranteed and the area has become a popular place for fishermen to drop their nets.
On one particular night, the crew had trouble lifting the nets and began to worry that they had got them entwined about a rotting mast. Soon, though, they felt some slack and duly began to haul the nets up. The men thought that their catch was a particularly good one, so heavy were their nets. As their nets drew closer to the trawler's lights, however, a frightening sight took shape. The crew had not caught hundreds of normal-sized fish but one gigantic one.
"It was an eel, a giant eel. Its mouth was huge, wide enough to have swallowed a man; the teeth were as long as my hand," said the fisherman. Even now Richard still remembers the words of the ancient mariner and is convinced that this was not a tall story designed to entertain gullible tourists. "While it was still in the water," said the frightened fisherman, "it was buoyed up, but as soon as we tried to pull it onboard the nets snapped like cotton and it vanished back down. I was glad it went; I've been at sea all my life but I've never been as scared as I was that night. I can still see its eyes, huge, glassy." And from that moment onward, Richard's life was forever changed.
He was an immediately unforgettable figure as he strode purposefully into the room in tails, with hands on hips and wearing an Adam Ant-style pirate shirt and pointed, thigh-length leather boots. He sat down next to me on the couch.
"Are you Nick?" he asked.
"Yeah, I am."
"I'm Rich. Jon told me you were coming down for a while. Has he got you a drink?"
"Yeah, he did, thanks."
"You're from up north, aren't you?" he quizzed me suspiciously.
"Well, the Midlands, yeah."
"Thank God," he shouted loudly and clapped his hands. A beaming smile came over his face. "You don't know what it's like living down here in the south. It's all red wine and pasta and Perrier-drinking southerners. Decent folk, proper beer, and home-cooked grub like you get up north just don't exist here. And -- " He stopped in midsentence and stared at the floor.
"That bloody dog!" screamed Richard. "Is that my new When Girls Fight ripped up?"
"Sorry, Richard," said Jon meekly, while simultaneously and steadfastly staring at his feet. "He doesn't do it on purpose; he's just old." Richard scrambled to the floor and frantically began trying to salvage what was left of his precious magazine.
"Look at her," he said to me, pointing lovingly to a crumpled photograph of a girl nicknamed The Fight Madam who, dressed in black leather, and with a mean look on her face and a boxing glove on her right hand, adorned one of the few pages that remained relatively untouched by Toby's fearsome jaws. Jon guffawed from across the room. "Dear Richard, I love you like a brother but you are very strange." We all laughed and got down to some serious drinking. Richard punched the Play button on the CD system and the monolithic drone of Bauhaus echoed around the room. "Bela Lugosi's dead," repeated the band's lead singer, Peter Murphy, endlessly.
"I'm not surprised he's dead if he had to listen to this tripe," quipped Jon. Richard waved his arms maniacally like some rabid orchestral conductor. Jon and I leaned back in our respective chairs and let the booze take effect. Meanwhile, from behind the kitchen door Toby the dog rested his head on his paws, stared intently at me, and quietly planned his next assault. And that was my initiation to the world of Jon Downes and the Center for Fortean Zoology. In the three years that followed we had some unforgettable moments -- most of them alcohol-fueled and bizarre in the extreme.
There was the occasion, for example, that Jon invited me to enter, for the first time, his bedroom, where we sat and watched a masterfully bad, but hugely entertaining, film that Jon had acquired titled Chainsaw Attack of the Radioactive Lesbian Zombies. Prior to this invitation, I had been afforded only the barest of glimpses of this most mysterious and darkest of places; and, over dinner on that evening, Richard regaled me with endless tales of how Jon kept a hydrocephalic, twelve-fingered great-grandmother locked in a part of the attic above his bedroom; she was clinically insane. Indeed, I had heard a low moaning in the early hours of one particular morning that sounded like it was coming from the attic and that always made me wonder if there was any truth to this rumor. But then I realized I was just being an idiot. It had to have been the unnamed and toothless hag who frequented the house from time to time; Jon had picked her up at the local asylum that he visited for psychotherapy once a week. Or was it?
The mystery of who was, or indeed was not, imprisoned in Jon's attic aside, there were a number of other impressively memorable incidents that I will always remember with both fondness and hilarity -- including the time that we made a riotous film based on Jon's award-winning book The Owlman and Others. Telling the story of a huge and fearsome "birdman" that supposedly haunts a Cornwall churchyard and the surrounding woodland, the film gathered rave reviews on its release in 2000, but was essentially an excuse for us to film a couple of naked women cavorting together in a wood. And who can argue with the merits of that? Certainly not I!
In the summer of 2000, things turned very, very dark. Toby the dog and the two cats, Isabella and Carruthers, all died within weeks of each other. Despite the fact that they were elderly and had been in failing health for some time, it was a sad time and Jon was inconsolable. Then a close friend of his, Tracey, committed suicide; Jon's car was written off by a drunk driver; the house nearly burned down after Richard cooked a mammoth feast for us; snakes escaped from their tanks (with one even finding its way into my sleeping bag in the middle of the night); the refrigerator became weirdly electrified and fried my fingers; and all manner of calamities piled on top of one another. When Jon told me that this was very possibly all due to a form of "psychic backlash" that was a direct result of his investigation of the Owlman, I believed him. But Jon soldiered on and we collaborated on some writing projects, including Weird War Tales, which chronicles the many and varied mysteries of the Second World War.
Shortly after its publication, in September 2000, I was booked to speak at the annual UFO Congress at Laughlin, Nevada. Little did I know it at the time, but it was to be a conference that would change my life. I flew out to the conference on March 1, 2001, and while there I met a beautiful lady named Dana who would, eight months later, become my wife. Before long the pleasant English countryside would be replaced by the sunny and blisteringly hot climes of southeast Texas. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Two months after I returned from Laughlin, Dana came to live with me in England for a month and while over, she and I attended yet another UFO conference and met Jon, Richard, and the rest of the gang.
A fine time was had by all, as we sat around at the Edenfield Hotel drinking wine and beer and playing Sex Pistols songs on Geordie Dave's guitar. By now there was a growing and serious realization on my part that I might soon be leaving the country for a totally new life. And as is the case at all conferences where new friendships are formed and old relationships are rekindled, thoughts of the United States filled my mind and I sensed somehow that an era had come to an end.
On Sunday night, the four of us sat in the bar until the early hours planning the future and discussing old times. Jon, Richard, and I had come to a decision. We elected to pass approximately six weeks leading up to my departure for the United States having a wild adventure in pursuit of the mysterious and devilish, beginning with an entity that all three of us, at some point, had crossed paths with: the macabre Man Monkey of Ranton.
Copyright © 2004 by Nick Redfern
Posted August 8, 2004
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