UnCon 2011 – talking dogs, smuggled bats, singing heads

Posted by Alexander Hay

Strange days indeed as this yearly convention of the unusual and the esoteric returns

Sadly, no online gallery has images weird enough to go with this story. Amateurs!The Fortean Times has been reporting strange phenomena (and the even stranger reactions of those involved) since 1973, which is rather a lot of strangeness.

As such, the magazine's yearly UnConvention, an event where the weird, the unusual and the occasionally hilarious is discussed by guest speakers, followed by a late night pub session, has been proceeding nicely for decades now, and a visit to this year's event provided an ample explanation as to why.

Even the venue, the Camden Centre in King's Cross, seemed fitting, with rumours that Boudicca haunts nearby tunnels, and a coat of arms featuring two very large boa constrictors.

It all looked very promising. After all, you can't beat a strange juxtaposition of learned dogs, giant killer snakes, the voice of Florence Nightingale, theremins and talking mannequin heads, and that was just on Saturday afternoon.

First up was Jan Bondeson, a senior rheumatology lecturer from Cardiff University, with a nice sideline in real life weirdness, who spoke about talking dogs... Indeed, there was a long-standing German tradition of researching whether animals could be trained and taught to think and perceive at levels like that of a human, leading to all sorts of wild claims and celebrity animals who, apparently, could solve mathematical problems, write poetry and complain bitterly about the standard of breeding partner their owners had procured for them.

For some reason, the rest of the world wasn't particularly convinced, though Don the talking dog and 'Clever Hans' the educated horse were media sensations until the former went off to the big kennel in the sky and the latter was exposed as something of an inadvertent hoax, but more on that later.

Needless to say, the bizarreness of 'New Animal Psychology' meant it was very attractive to the Nazis, who, like most misanthropes, were also keen animal lovers. State-run institutes were dedicated to further researching the notion of clever dogs, with one 'uplifted' doggy getting regaled in song by youth members of a Nazi animal welfare organisation(!), even as Jewish families were being deported, and their abandoned pets being found 'good' homes with respectable Aryan families. After all, think of the poor hamsters...

World War Two and its aftermath finally put paid to the movement. And in truth, it was based on wishful thinking, the dogs and horses (plus one talking cat) all responding to subconscious cues from their owners rather than innate human intelligence. In their own way, these animals were indeed brilliant, able to understand and react correctly to the humans in their midst, but it was a canine or equine (or moggy) intelligence at play, rather than displaced human sentience.

On the other hand, Bondeson also defended some of the true believers, who tended to be women, noting that much of the criticism hurled at them was rooted in a particularly vicious misogyny. He was also scathing of the methodology and behaviour of arch sceptic Oskar Pfungst, who discredited Clever Hans, but whose determination to debunk the phenomenon of educated animals lead him to bend the rules and seek only conclusions that matched his existing prejudices.

A quick trip to the dealer room saw Fortean Times in-house cartoonist Hunt Emerson, an underground comic artist of some repute. While tempted to request a portrait, a "We're Not Worthy" moment ensued and I chickened out.

Next was die-hard cryptozoologist (or monster hunter), Richard Freeman, reporting on his latest expedition to find Northern India's answer to the Yeti, the Mande-Barung, pursuing a very large and quite possibly anti-social undiscovered species of snake and his 2009 expedition to discover the Orang Pendak, a Sumatran cryptid that may be a man-beast, or a bipedal species of oranguatan.

It wasn't very scientific, with a lot of emphasis on finding old men or local witnesses who swore blind that they'd seen something large and hairy in the woods or had once eaten some giant-killer-snake stew. What physical evidence is scant, with crude casts of the Orang Pendak's supposed hand prints and tufts of hair, not to mention huge footprints in India that they didn't quite make copies of. That is not to say that a big beast or two isn't out there, waiting to be discovered, but extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, not hearsay.

In fact, the talk was much more interesting when it was talking about the day-to-day horrors of going off on expedition. The grotty hotels, appalling hygiene, scant food, lethal local home-brews, oppressive heat, minority cultures under threat and low level interference from local mandarins were much more substantial, as was the very, err, resourceful expedition team member who lives off road-kill and engaged in some impromptu bat smuggling. The real issues raised - conservation and wildlife under threat from logging, plantations and human greed - were much more compelling than a beast that may always remain just slightly out of reach.

The final talk today came care of Sarah Angliss, a polymath of some distinction. It's very hard to summarise her presentation, but as she bounded from wax cylinder recordings of Florence Nightingale, actually making a wax cylinder recording live on stage via an Edison phonograph, the strange Victorian and early 20th century belief in the aether and voices of the dead outliving their owners, teaching caged birds to sing in tune, a talking seal (whose New Jersey accent was every bit as undecipherable as the human equivalent), ventriloquist dummies being used to channel ghosts, claims that you could transmit thoughts by radio waves and a grand musical finale involving a theremin and a talking mannequin's head, it was either the most bizarre dream I've ever had, or the most fun I've ever had at a lecture.

Sadly, ill health caught up with me and I couldn't make it to the late night event (where, apparently, Angliss would also demonstrate her talking mechanical crow). I felt a bit sad to miss the rest of the weekend, though felt reassured that the universe remained as relentlessly absurd as I'd always suspected it to be.


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Alexander Hay

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