Magazine article The Spectator

The Alien Half-Century

Magazine article The Spectator

The Alien Half-Century

Article excerpt

FIFTY years ago - in June 1947 - an American businessman named Kenneth Arnold was flying his private aircraft near Mount Rainier in Washington state when he saw a group of strange objects flying in the sky. He said that they `skipped like saucers across the water'. News agencies immediately coined the expression `flying saucers' and pretty soon strange objects in the sky were being reported from all over America and to a lesser extent from other countries. Right from the start the most popular theory was that they were spacecraft from another planet. In those days Mars and Venus were the favourites, since we did not yet have conclusive evidence of their barrenness.

What Arnold actually saw, if anything, has never been established. He reported several more sightings in future years, which makes him sound more than a little dubious. Yet he had launched the greatest myth of the age. Today it is more potent than ever. We can see the myth working in Chris Carter's television series The X Files whose worldwide popularity arises from the clever way in which flying saucers, or unidentified flying objects, are linked with other popular myths of high-level conspiracy and paranormal powers. These 42-minute television dramas are made in a semi-documentary style, with considerable pace and in an atmosphere always bordering on desperation.

UFOs, conspiracies and psychic powers are the three main streams that have irrigated the intellectual underworld of the 20th century. In The X Files, the FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully explore this underworld, which can be viewed as a kind of Jungian collective nightmare in which malevolent space aliens, unnamed govern`ment officials and serial killers with psychic powers come together in a darkening landscape to dance a weird quadrille. Paranoia lies right at the heart of the series and its attraction. One of the obvious mysteries of The X Files, of course, is why the FBI employs two agents to look into matters the government does not want looked into. But that, as any good conspiracist will tell you, is a naive question.

Many people accept this material as more or less factual. There is an international network of UFO believers and they hold frequent conventions. A visit to a newsagent will confirm a large and growing periodical literature - the Fortean Times, Mysteries, The Unexplained, UFO and others. Every time one of them folds, a new one appears. There are countless paperbacks.

Nor is an interest in UFOs confined to nerds in anoraks. Presidents Reagan and Carter reported seeing them, though neither subscribed to any theory. Lord HillNorton, chief of the British defence staff in the 1970s, is sympathetic to the view that UFOs are alien spacecraft. He has endorsed the works of Timothy Good, author of Above Top Secret and Alien Liaison. Mr Good, who is a musician, appears to think that the American and some other governments are in touch with several different races of space aliens and are keeping it a secret.

Lord Hill-Norton does not give much weight to the possibility that he would have been told if anything like this had been going on. A former Tory MP, Sir Patrick Wall, also believes that flying saucers are alien craft. Lord Dowding, chief of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, took a similar view. Unfortunately Dowding also had a well-publicised belief in fairies and spirit mediums.

Nothing in a present scientific picture of the universe excludes the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life, but there is a complete absence of evidence for it. There is nothing that we can look at and analyse, only strange tales. There are some interesting scientific arguments which suggest that life must be very rare and that we may even be alone. Yet this is not a popular view and nobody wants to hear about it.

America is the world centre of the UFO cult, although there is an amiable and in some ways more sensible British offshoot. Fashions change in space aliens as in everything else. …

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