Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Journey Begins

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Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World starts with a bit of a whimper, as he observes a total eclipse of the sun.  C’mon Arthur, that’s not a mystery!  He later tells us that he classes this a mystery of the first kind – something that was a mystery to our ancestors but not to us.

But there’s plenty of mysteries of the second kind (those which have no definite explanation) to come over the course of this thirteen part series, even if it’s not surprising that the rational Clarke can often come up with a logical solution.

Our first proper mystery takes us to Fife in Scotland where, according to the sombre narration of Gordon Honeycombe, “it was in 1966 that a terrifying visitation came to the beach cafe where Mrs Jean Meldrum and her mother Mrs Evelyn Murdoch were working.”  This sounds much more promising.

These reports often have more than a touch of humour about them, although I’m not sure whether this was intentional or simply the result of rewatching the episodes in these more cynical times.  But the report of an orange ball of fire that bashes Mrs Meldrum’s chest and then vanishes, is an unusual tale to say the least.  Possibly the best part of the story is when Mrs Murdoch mentions that the beach attendant, who had a wooden leg, nevertheless showed a nifty turn of speed as he beat a hasty retreat from the oncoming fireball!

Honeycombe then teases us with some of the big-hitters of the mysterious world – the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman, UFOs, Monsters of the Deep, etc.  In all of these cases there is photographic and/or film evidence (which we don’t have in the case of the Fife Fireball) but how much veracity can we place in this material?  And does the evidence of eye-witnesses strengthen or detract from the overall mystery?

Alex Campbell, a water bailiff in Loch Ness, claims to have seen the monster eighteen times.  He’s an entertaining interviewee, especially when he gives an impression of Nessie’s breathing.  Those who choose to disbelieve people like Campbell would no doubt simply claim he was lying (which is quite possible) but when you have a whole family – like the Holmes’ from Falmouth – who also claim to have seen a sea monster, it’s harder to understand why they would all agree to such a deception.  And they do seem quite believable, as they bob up and down in their small boat, kitted out in identical bright yellow macs.

The giant stone balls of Costa Rica are apparently one of the world’s most intractable mysteries, although I have to confess they’ve never really registered with me.   One of the joys of the internet age is that you’re only a click away from finding out whether the mystery has now been solved, but it appears not.  So I guess we’ll have to wait a little longer to find the answer (if any).

The Journey Begins ends with tales of mysterious objects falling from the skies – fish, frogs, hazelnuts, broad-bean seeds.  The latter annoyed the eye-witness from Southampton, who turned to his wife and said “this is bloody silly.”

Interestingly, Clarke suggests these might be mysteries of third kind (those for which there are no logical answers at all) but then hints there might be clues to a rational solution.  After these strange tales, I have to confess that I was expecting some sort of answer from Clarke, but he just strolled down the beach at Sri Lanka as the credits rolled.  So the great man seemed stumped on this one.

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Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Monsters of the Deep

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Monsters of the Deep opens with the tale of Lieutenant Cox whose leg was mauled by a giant squid following the sinking of his troopship by the Germans during WW2.  With Cox no longer being alive it’s impossible to question him first hand, but testimony from a serving sailor – Petty Officer Ira Carpenter – who recently witnessed damage to his ship is harder to dismiss.  Was this caused by a giant squid?  Maybe, and it’s notable that Clarke doesn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand.

The story of a giant octopus which washed up on a Florida beach in the late nineteenth century is mildly interesting, but rather like the giant squid tales it doesn’t quite fire the imagination.  The accounts of mysterious sea serpents is rather more like it though, especially when they’re illustrated with vintage artists impressions of the leering monsters.  Although sea serpents might appear to be a problem of the past, it appears not – as two beardy Canadian scientists are seen conducting research in the waters of Vancouver.  Although they’ve done plenty of research they have no definite evidence, which is a bit of a shame.

So far there’s been a lack of colourful interviewees in this edition, so I’m thankful for the arrival of George Vinnicombe and John Cox, two Cornish fishermen.  Naturally they have to be interviewed on their boat, although the constant bobbing motion did make me feel a tad seasick.  Still it’s worth it for their tale of a strange monster who popped its head up out of the water to take a look at them.

There’s another classic bit of Honeycombe narration as he tells us about “the beast with great teeth which came ashore in Scotland at Gourock, on the River Clyde, in 1942. Being wartime, the Royal Navy wouldn’t permit photographs and finally the beast was taken to the grounds of the municipal incinerator. On the orders of the borough surveyor, Charles Rankin, it was chopped up and buried under what is now the football pitch of St Ninian’s Roman Catholic primary school, Gourock.”  Mr Rankin was interviewed for the programme and the most intriguing part of his tale is when he mentions that in the belly of the beast was something which appeared to be a seaman’s jersey.  So clearly the beast had gobbled up at least one unfortunate sailor before washing up at Gourock.

Whilst it’s a little hard to take the story of the beast of Gourock seriously, Clarke does come down on the side of generally believing that giant sea creatures are real.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Ancient Wisdom

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Arthur’s in a fighting mood at the start of Ancient Wisdom.  “A lot of rubbish has been written about mysterious knowledge possessed by the ancients. They didn’t need any help from visitors from outer space. On the other hand, there are some relics from the past which are truly mysterious because they challenge our ideas about the level of technology that existed at the time.”

Probably the most famous image from Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World was the crystal skull which featured prominently in the opening titles each week.  We’re told that Anna Mitchell-Hedges found the skull in a lost city when she was a girl.  Her arrival in the UK from Canada is notable – with security guards on hand to guard the skull – and her story is certainly intriguing.  As ever, Gordon Honeycombe’s narration sets the mood perfectly.  “This is the weirdest gem in the world. The skull of doom. The circumstances of its discovery were bizarre. Its origin is unknown. And its powers, some say, are fatal.”

That Mitchell-Hedges claimed to have discovered the skull, perfectly preserved, in an ancient temple seems more than a little unlikely, whilst an expert who examined the skull considered it to be no more than a couple of hundred years old.  Mitchell-Hedges remained adamant that it dated back at least 3,600 years and didn’t waver until she died.  Few others tended to agree with her though, and the overwhelming evidence points to the fact that it was a relatively modern creation.  See here, for example.

The other eyebrow-raising claim in Ancient Wisdom comes from Dr Arne Eggebrecht.  “He found it in an exhibition of treasures from Ancient Iran. A pottery jar, a copper cylinder and an iron rod discovered in Baghdad. He believes they are components of an electric battery made two thousand years before batteries were invented in the West.”  Arthur’s not convinced and there’s no common modern consensus, so this remains a mystery.  As ever, there’s plenty of information out there, such as here, for example.

Whilst the Crystal Skull was almost certainly a modern construction and the uses of the Baghdad Battery remain open to interpretation, the Antikythera Mechanism does seem to be the genuine article.  It was discovered by divers in 1900, who found it on a wreck off the coast of Greece, but it wasn’t until  Professor Derek de Solla Price started to examine it in earnest during the 1970’s that it began to yield its secrets.  Using x-ray and gamma photography he was able to deduce that what appeared to be nothing more than a lump of rock actually contained an intricate mechanism.  Believed to have been constructed around the second century BC, it’s regarded as the world’s first analogue computer – a device used to calculate astrological positions.  Further information can be found here.

There’s a lack of loopy eye-witnesses (who make Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World so enjoyable) in this edition, but there’s still several fascinating scientific mysteries to chew over.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Missing Apeman

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Our search for the mysterious apeman begins in the foothills of the Himalayas, close to Mount Everest, with the most famous apeman of all – the Yeti, otherwise known as the Abominable Snowman.  That the Yeti exists is a widely held view amongst the local sherpas, and one of them – Khunjo Chumbi – shows us his prized possession (what seems to be a Yeti scalp).  He also imitates the Yeti cry – which seems to be “cry, cry, cry, cry, cry, cry”.  It’s not the most terrifying sound, but then Khunjo is only a small chap and you’d expect the real Yeti to be somewhat more formidable.

Desmond Doig, who led an expedition with Sir Edmund Hilary to try and establish whether the Yeti was real or just a myth is also interviewed.  With typical British understatement he says that the Yeti is very nasty tempered.  “And has been known to rip people apart if he gets a chance.”  Yes, that does sound quite nasty.  Rather wonderfully, Khunjo and his Yeti scalp had been in the news before, as this Guardian interview from 1960 featured Sir Edmund Hilary, Desmond Doig and Khunjo Chumbi.  So by the time of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, Khunjo was an old hand at giving interviews.

The photographs taken by Michael Ward and Eric Shipton in 1951, which purport to show footprints of the Abominable Snowman, are iconic images.  Ward was also interviewed for the programme and maintained that they were real, although the internet tends to disagree (they’re also dubious about the Yeti scalp).  It’s interesting that all the interviewees are convinced of the existence of the Yeti (slightly odd they didn’t include someone who was more sceptical).  But that role is taken by Clarke, who although he’s far too polite to call anybody a liar, points out that melting snow can make footprints appear larger than they are and that the Sherpa/Yeti connection is so bound up with their religion it’s sometimes impossible to tell myth from reality.

We then head off to America to look for Bigfoot!  Dr Grover Krantz is convinced that Bigfoot exists and he goes out regularly to try and kill one.  This is a bit off-putting – casting Krantz in the mould of a big-game hunter, but there you go.  Various eye-witness reports, including several police officers, attest that they’ve seen Bigfoot in person and an excerpt from a local news report states the Bigfoot may be interested in menstruating women (as one sighting saw him rummaging through rubbish which contained discarded women’s feminine hygiene products).  An unexpected titbit of information.

In 1967, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin made a brief film recording of what they claimed was Bigfoot.  For anyone with even a passing interest in the subject it’ll be a very familiar piece of film.  Although on the one hand it looks patentally fake – he looks far too much like a man in an ape suit – various experts have testified that the motion is ape-like (and a human wouldn’t be able to replicate the movements).  He’s a very jaunty Bigfoot it must be said – and he also obligingly stops and stares at the camera which was nice of him.  Even as a child I didn’t believe this film, and there are plenty that agree with this view,  although as I’ve said, others are more convinced.

As for Arthur, I get the sense that none of the tales have won him round.  He said that if he had a hundred dollars to bet on it, he’d put forty on the Yeti, ten on Bigfoot and keep the rest from himself!  On reflection, that’s probably about right.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – Giants for the Gods

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“What strange compulsion made men etch vast designs on the side of the Earth?  On downlands and desert, on the slopes of solitary mountains. Why can so many only be seen from the air? What is their message from the distant past?”

It seems such an obvious point, but I’d never really stopped to wonder why ancient man created some of these images when they couldn’t see them from the ground, although Giants for the Gods does open with the possibility that some two thousand years ago the Nazca Indians might have had the power of flight (via some kind of hot-air balloon).  The Nazca Lines – created in Peru – are discussed in some detail.  With lines running for thirty miles it’s an astonishing achievement, but what purpose did they serve?  Various explanations have been postulated over the years – a giant map for space travellers was popular during the 1960’s and 1970’s when interest in Erich von Däniken’s theories were at their height, whilst others are convinced that they served an astronomical/calendar purpose.  More recently there’s been other suggestions (a little more detail can be found here).

We then travel to England to meet the rude man of Cerne.  He’s a very well-endowed giant chalk figure carved on a Dorset hillside.  Why or when he was carved is a mystery, but luckily there’s some colourful local characters on hand to give us their theories.  The first is a man with an incredibly impressive beard and whilst the next man’s beard is less impressive he does have an interesting story to tell.  “We did have one girl who had been married for about seven years and hadn’t managed to have a child. So we told her to go and sit on the giant – apparently you’re supposed to sit up there with your knickers off, I don’t know whether she did that or not – but the next spring she was pregnant.”   It’s probably not as old as the carvings of the Nasca Indians though.  The earliest record of the figure dates to the middle of the eighteenth century, although some remain convinced that he’d been there since Roman times.  Further information can be found here.

Chile is our next destination, and the Chilean Geoglyphs have some similarities to the Nazca Lines, although the images here are more varied.  The massive image of a man takes us back to the suggestion at the beginning that maybe the ancients had the power of flight (otherwise they’d have no way of viewing these carvings).  If that wasn’t the case then possibly they were produced for their gods who would be looking down at them.

Arthur’s honest enough to say that he can’t begin to answer why they were created, although he does suggest they might have been inspired in part by man’s desire to leave a mark on the face of his planet.  So there’s no definite answers, but although Giants for the Gods isn’t the flashiest edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, it is one of the most thought-provoking.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Monsters of the Lakes

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Although Nessie is the most famous lake-based monster, there are plenty of others – as this edition of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World demonstrates.  The delightfully named Ogopogo is one such creature, although his fame hasn’t really spread outside of Canada.

He, and presumably his ancestors, have been swimming around Okanagan Lake in British Columbia since at least the middle of the 19th century.  We open by observing a call-in show at the local radio station, where anyone who’s spotted the Ogopogo is invited to ring in.  I have to confess to being somewhat amused by the second caller – she declined to give her name on air (for fear of being ridiculed) but it does seem that she then appears on camera to explain her story in a little more depth.  If you wish to retain your anonymity then appearing on television probably isn’t the wisest move!  According to this article, Ogopogo is the world’s most documented lake monster.

Whilst many of those who claim to have seen a monster rising from a lake are credible witnesses, it does remain easy to dismiss their sightings as either hoaxes or cases of mistaken identity.  But when three men of the cloth claim to have seen a monster, it’s harder to accept that they’re lying.  Lough Ree in Ireland, back in 1960, was the place where Father Burke, Father Murray and Monseigneur Quigly had their strange encounter.  Wonderfully, the program puts them back in their boat in the middle of the lake to tell their tale.  It’s a tad disappointing the beast of Lough Ree didn’t make another appearance when the cameras were rolling though.

The Loch Ness Monster remains far and away the best known of all the lake monsters.  We hear a little more from Alex Campbell (briefly featured in the first programme) who claims to have seen the monster eighteen times.  Next up is Peter McNabb, who back in 1951 took a famous picture of what he believes to be Nessie.  This pro-Nessie blog is certainly convinced.  It’s no surprise that Arthur remains much more skeptical though.

One of the most famous Nessie hunters, Tim Dinsdale, is interviewed.  In 1960 he caught what he considered to be monster on film.  As he returned countless times to Loch Ness over the decades it’s hard to imagine that he was involved in a deliberate fraud – if he was, then surely one visit would have been enough?  More recent research indicates that his film may have captured something as prosaic as a boat.  See here for further information.

Arthur gives the notion of lake monsters a big thumbs down, but as with all these mysteries there’s still plenty of people about who wish to believe, so the legends will continue.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World – The Great Siberian Explosion

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“On the morning of June the 30th 1908 something came hurtling out of the sky. An enormous ball of fire which exploded above the Siberian forest with a sound that was heard a thousand miles away and a blast that laid waste the trees over an area the size of London and New York put together.”

This edition opens by giving us numerous suggestions about what this strange object could have been – a meteorite, a piece of antimatter, a small black hole, an atomic bomb (decades before the first recorded one was created) or even an exploding flying saucer.  But more noteworthy than this is that the pre-credits section features a different piece of introductory footage of Arthur C. Clarke.  For the previous six editions, Gordon Honeycombe’s narration about Clarke (author of 2001, inventor of the communications satellite, etc) has been combined with shots of him strolling down a Sri-Lankan beach, umbrella in hand.  But here we see him walking through the streets instead.  It’s a small point, but after watching the episodes in quick succession it does stand out – possibly the programme makers decided it was time for a change, a wise move if so.

The effects of the explosion seemed to be far reaching.  In southern England the evening was unusually light – well past midnight it was still bright enough to play golf, for example.  Whether this was connected at the time to the Siberian explosion isn’t clear, but it is interesting that the investigation into the explosion only began in 1927, nearly twenty years after the event.

One of the things that impresses about Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World is how often the programme-makers were able to talk to individuals who had direct experience of the strange events featured across the series.  The Great Siberian Explosion is no exception as Dr Leonid Krinov, who investigated the explosion back in the 1920’s, gives an account of what he learnt from the eye-witnesses he interviewed.  Even though he was asking them to remember back some twenty years it seems they had no difficulty – but then such an event would be something that would no doubt stick in the memory.

Usually the series would feature several different mysteries across a single edition, but here they concentrate on just one.  The Siberian explosion is strong enough to fill the twenty five minute running time, although the widely held belief that it was a meteor or comet that exploded in the atmosphere – which explains why no crater was discovered – might disappoint those who favour a more outlandish answer.  This webpage neatly sums up the main facts, whilst the comments underneath offers some wackier explanations.  Arthur sums up all the possibilities, although he finds it difficult to keep a straight face when describing some of them (an exploding nuclear engine from a flying saucer, for example) .