From the Archives of Modern Gonzo: A descent into conspiracy theory at the Fortean Times Unconvention in London.
The Fortean Times is a highly entertaining magazine that features in-depth investigations into all things bizarre and wonderful, all creatures great and small, and the "World's Weirdest News". The term "Fortean" arises from one Charles Hoy Fort, a sort of Victorian Fox Mulder who set out to prove that all scientific data was biased and could not explain phenomena which fell outside its realms. His "I want to believe" dictum was "One measures a circle beginning anywhere" - but that doesn't quite have the appeal of tacky poster in a forgotten 1990's FBI basement. Still, the man kicked alien butt, and Forteana now refers to all the bits and pieces that those in control (pesky Illuminati!)would rather you didn't think about. Like a giant "Thunderbird" that was shot and killed in Arizona in the 1800's, or who (if anyone) really took out Princess Diana, and how they did it. Split over the three floors of the University of London University Union, the Unconvention featured guests who write books that you always want to read but are too worried others will think you're being silly. Which is not to say they are silly. There was a renowned anthropologist, an internationally recognized biologist and a speaker named Peter Brookesmith who was so paranoid his picture was in silhouette. These are the people who I am told spend years dedicated to finding out what really happens in this magic show we call life. As Einstein said, "reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one."
I am not afraid of Men In Black, especially after Hollywood joined forces with the government to paint a picture of fun lovin' dudes with slick shades and big ears. I am not afraid of ghosts, because they're just spirits who turned left when they should have turned right. I am not even afraid of dragons, because they're probably quite cuddly if you're into that sort of thing. I am however petrified of Lunatics, and there was no shortage of them at the Unconvention. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy wearing blood stained Marilyn Manson T-shirts as much as the next guy, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with having frizzy long hair and a beard that comes straight out of the ZZ Top wardrobe. It's the eyes, man, the eyes. Beady, and "funny lookin", like "we're out to get you", which, if truth be known, I suppose they are. It was this kind of unnerving energy that filled the hall when a speaker proceeded to explain that most of conspiracy theory is not unlike extra-terrestrial turd. Something stinks, but no-one knows what exactly it is, nor how to clean it up. Bringing in a dose of reality (who's I'm not sure), he proceeded to elaborate how conspiracy theory is a mechanism for people to deal with events that make no sense. Like JFK's assassination and Diana the Princess Deceased. Evidence is often flimsy and unsupported. Witnesses are mostly goofballs. The surge in popularity of all things odd have led to increasingly desperate and dubious attempts to exploit the public's fascination. For every legitimate UFO sighting, there's the "Jesus appeared in my tomato."
Evidence that Paul is Dead is everywhere on the cover of Sgt Peppers. Obviously.
Paul McCartney is dead, and has been for decades. It's all there in the last few Beatles record covers. Only and somewhat rather inconveniently, nobody told Paul McCartney. The next speaker examined conspiracy theory from a media studies perspective, examining how facts can have a Medusa's head full of meaning. Semiotics, point's of view, changing ideologies, fake news. One man's abstract art is another woman's blood vial on the cover of the latest Metallica album. Conspiracy theory rests heavily on interpretation, and if you want to believe something enough, then the truth really is out there. Blogs and publications have content to fill, somehow, but as long as absurdity can nestle between the "Royal Family are Drug Lords" and the "Sex-god alien fathered my child", it will always be greeted with a certain amount of scepticism.
After a few beers and a Jesus-was-really-a-nasty-fellow-who-murdered- his-political-rival John-the-Baptist-as-proven-by-Leonardo da Vinci afternoon banter, I felt more settled. The scary characters were innocuous folk who seemed to go about their thing like anyone else. There was this one woman though, about 4ft 8, with oversize almond eye and stretched skin that looked like it belonged to someone else. She was no doubt, a representative from the notorious Grey alien clan. She fitted in well.
I almost trampled over the host of Who's Line is it Anyway in my rush to get to the Princess Diana Conspiracy lecture. I was not alone. Everyone packed into the hall to hear what really happened. All conspiracy theory has its roots in inconsistencies. There are "facts" that just don't add up. Like the JFK assassination, like CIA mind experiments, like Gulf War veteran sickness. Well, we are told, it just so happens that with Diana, there are loads of inconsistencies. Like why the 17 cameras in the tunnel weren't working that night. Like who were the other two paparazzi that no-one knew, and why were these mysterious photographers the only ones to escape being arrested? Like, why was a braking mechanism in the Mercedes removed 6 weeks earlier? Like why did the ambulance take 2 hours to drive through a 45 minute route to the hospital? There were dozens more that ran the gamut between psychotic fascination and libel. I'm not going to get into how they did it (another cabal of CIA drug-runners altogether), but these are some of the ideas expressed as to who did it.
1) The Royal Family: Diana was rumoured to be 6 weeks pregnant, marriage to a Muslim arms dealer by the future king's mother would destroy the monarchy. Diana was meddling in politics, an inconvenient time bomb. MI5 and the CIA assisted in the hit. The paparazzi were a convenient scapegoat to divert attention to some blatant inconsistencies in the investigation.
2) The Chinese Arms industry: Diana had just cost the biggest land mine manufacturers in the world billions. She was taking on a very dangerous industry, and had to be stopped, much like a car is stopped when it crashes into a concrete wall.
3) Drug lords: Dodi was the hit, Diana was the message ("we don't care who you are"). A vial of cocaine was confirmed to be found in her bag. Bet you didn't hear that in the press, but it's in the police report (allegedly). Dodi reeked of Bad Karma with drug dealers, arms dealers, poker dealers, you name it. Not the kind of guy a popular princess should be running about with.
4) Satanic ritual: The car crashed into the 13th pillar, on a site that has been a Satanic hot spot for centuries. She was the princess that had to be sacrificed, and the whole plot was organized by those drug-peddling Royals who are seriously into their black magic and witchcraft. Yep.
5) Elton John: his career was flagging. Candle in the Wind (the Diana version) was heard before her death! Someone, somewhere swears it. And don't forget the UK Floral Association. Yes, now it all makes sense.
There were other theories, most of which received a laugh. Even weird folk maintain some tennis grip on reality.
This House was Not telepathized into my brain
Outside, vendors were selling all sorts of alternative spew, from The Church of SubGenius to Satanic decor, alien coffee mugs to Druidic jewelry. The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomolous Phenomena (ASSAP) hijacked a room and funnelled crowds through a range of experiments, testing ESP, remote viewing and water diving among other cool bar tricks. I tried to tip the scales with my mind, but all I got was a headache. And the image of a house that was telepathized into my brain was supposed to be noughts-and-crosses, but show me divining rods and I'll part the Red Sea.
If Conspiracy is really just Paranoia's girlfriend, aliens a muddle of dreams, and hallucinations the side effect of some haywire CIA mind experiment, then it's a pretty safe guess that life is far simpler than we think it is. We are born, and we die. We are awake, and we sleep. We never have dark, dangerous thoughts because it's wrong. We never do bad things because that would be naughty. Angels are playing the harps up in heaven, and Father Christmas is ho-ho-ho-ing somewhere up North with the Easter Bunny. It all makes sense. Unless you choose to believe the US Government has not told us a fraction of everything it knows regarding assassinations and aliens. Unless you choose to believe it is all lies. What if disinformation is a kind of phlegm in the froggy throat of our perceptions of reality. Ignoring it is to be blissfully ignorant, and yet to fight it is to be labelled paranoid, crazy, and neurotic. Somewhere in the middle lies curiosity and awareness, which is what brought me to the event in the first place. An old Greek proverb says it all: "When you hear there are plenty of cherries, always carry a small basket." When you visit an Unconvention, always be sure to leave plenty of room in your head.
Another year and another decade have passed, another year and another decade we won’t get back. Despite all the indicators to the contrary (I highly suggest reading Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now) it certainly feels like we’re living in particularly turbulent times. Brexit, Trump, ISIS, Facebook…the 2010’s have repeatedly been called the Decade of Crisis. It was also a decade that took us into science fiction more than one would think. Consider arriving in January 1, 2010, and telling a person on the street:
What the hell are you talking about? And this is just a fraction of the global fizzle-pop martini that has shaken and stirred over the past ten years. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens wrote that timeless line in 1859. There is always political, cultural and economic turbulence, although this decade frequent environmental disasters joined the party. Unprecedented droughts (South Africa, Argentina, Australia), floods (India, Louisiana, Oklahoma), hurricanes (Bahamas, Puerto Rico), storms (Superstorm Sandy, Tropical Irene), heatwaves, wildfires (Australia, California, BC), the melting Arctic, city-sized icebergs breaking off Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula. And facing this global challenge are a bunch of world leaders not too removed from comic book villains.
There have always been high season and low season, but overtourism – best represented by poster children like Barcelona and the Louvre, Venice and Dubrovnik - proved canaries in the coalmine for the onslaught of travellers benefitting from cheap airfare, growing middle classes and an obsession with social media validation. I’ve had to question my own role in all of this, as this decade saw me transform from a freelance writer and television host into the bestselling author of a half dozen “bucket list” themed books. Not to mention a husband and father. What hasn’t changed is the core of what set me off fifteen years ago: an insatiable curiosity, and the desire to share what I discover with others in the hope that it inspires them as much as it has inspired me.
My latest book is about the joys, trials, hilarity and wonders when travelling with kids across Australia. Gone are the days of intense budget travel, and I’m a little long in the tooth to be sharing dorms in hostels (plus kids under six are not the best bunk mates). But they do demand and instigate new adventures all the time. We’re kicking off 2020 with a true bucket list road trip adventure, visiting three incredible BC ski resorts to learn – as a family – how to embrace the Canadian winter, and make it down a mountain on skis. Having warmed up for a recent Vancouver Sun story about Whistler, we’re kicking off on the powder of RED Mountain, revving up for Revelstoke, and with any luck we will get a thumbs up from Olympic legend Nancy Greene on the slopes of Sun Peaks. As usual, I hope to inspire other families to do the same, and at the very least, avoid visits to the hospital (my ER visit in Whistler to saw off my wedding ring was enough, thanks).
Whatever happens in the year and decade to come, may the weather prove fair and your health fairer. May our challenges be met and our smiles frequent. I hope we continue to appreciate the incredible benefits of our privilege, and empathize with those who want nothing more than to share a piece of it. Every year that passes is a year we won’t get back. Regardless of what we might be telling ourselves in 2030, let’s continue to make them count.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
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