Weird Happenings: It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world: William Hartston checks out the 'Fortean Times' 1993 Strangeness Index

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The Independent Culture
A KAMIKAZE rat crawls into a power station and blacks out a village; an extinct Madagascan elephant-bird egg is found on an Australian beach; a grease-stained Messiah is seen on a glass at the end of a Liverpool dishwasher cycle.

Such news items fall into categories 2 (Attacks by Animals), 9 (Antiquities) and 27 (Images) of a new FT-Index of curious phenomena designed to determine whether the world is becoming weirder. Only this FT is not the commonly encountered pink variety, but the rather more arcane Fortean Times, the 20-year-old journal which reports only the abnormal.

Today, the Fortean Times publishes its Strangeness Index for 1993, charting the results of an analysis of 12 months of anomalous happenings, which it compares, in appropriately pseudo-scientific fashion, with the oddities of 1992.

'There were no frogs found in lumps of stone last year,' explains Bob Rickard, the editor, as an example of how 1993 had differed from the previous year. 'And sea serpents were rarely seen.' Nevertheless, the calculations lead to a claim that 1993 was 3.5 per cent weirder than 1992.

The idea of obtaining an overall index of weirdness is not new. According to Mr Rickard, the ancient Chinese kept records to establish the level of 'perturbations of reality'. It was the task of the emperor to maintain a balance between heaven and earth, and a strangeness index was one measure of how well he was doing his job.

Similarly, in the Middle Ages, bishops were expected to report back to the Pope on odd things seen in their provinces. Now Mr Rickard, his co-editor Paul Sieveking, and a world-wide group of around 2,000 junk-news junkies, continue the art by going through the entrails of the media to detect patterns.

'We can't claim scientific validity,' Mr Rickard admits, when talking of the index, but he hopes that the technique will be refined in future years to produce a reliable indicator of something or other.

This time the methodology has certainly been crude. After defining their 34 categories (based on instincts honed by 21 years of burrowing through weird news stories), they had to decide how to compare one year with another. Weigh the cuttings? Count column inches? Neither was considered a good idea, if only because of the problem of separate accounts of the same story. For the sake of simplicity, they therefore took 1992 as the baseline with an arbitrary value of 100.

Scores were then assigned to 1993 by considering each category independently. If there was an increase over the previous year, the index went up to 110, or dropped to 90 for a decrease. The final scoreline revealed 19 categories up, 7 down, and 8 no change. Total weirdness scores were therefore 3,400 for 1992 and 3,520 for 1993.

Many of the 30,000 readers of Fortean Times might consider the figure significant. According to a recent survey, 43.1 per cent of them believe that UFOs are inhabited by time-travellers, 39.7 per cent believe in a conspiracy to suppress public knowledge of abductions by aliens, 17 per cent declared themselves able to believe in the existence of fairies and - while 83 per cent put no faith in horoscopes - a surprising 2.2 per cent have consulted a ju-ju man over the past year. But 55.4 per cent have never seen a ghost or apparition.

The readers are predominantly in the 20-40 age group, with males outnumbering females by almost 4 to 1. Most curiously of all, 6.1 per cent thought that most of the magazine's subject matter was nonsense.

Mr Rickard appears to be a model of open-mindedness. He does not automatically believe all he reads. 'We hold evidence tentatively,' he explains. His enjoyment comes both from the oddities of the world and the oddities of the people who interact with it.

'We see ourselves as connoisseurs of explanations, like wine-tasters are connoisseurs of wine. On encountering new stories we don't swallow them; we don't spit them out; we just enjoy them.'

We interrupt this article with a news item: Police in Nigeria have arrested a transvestite man who claimed to have murdered 200 people. He was, he said, a water goddess disguised as a woman to lure men to the river to suck their blood.

The current issue of Fortean Times - named after the New York collector of oddities, Charles Fort (1874-1932) - contains surveys of recent puma sightings and Virgin Mary apparitions, an account of how the Martians may have zapped the American Mars probe, and an article about the return of phantom jay-walkers.

Experienced readers will be on the lookout for a continuation of trends begun in 1993, a year that saw a marked increase in the worshipping of bollards in San Francisco, a set of footprints stolen in Scotland, and curious - and apparently unrelated - outbreaks of pavement-fetishism and alien turtles in Britain.

Though sightings of UFOs have dropped considerably in recent years, alien abductions are on the increase. 1993 also saw a distinct rise in stories of both Bad Luck (category 28) and Good Luck (29).

One of the hard luck tales concerned a gang of thieves who broke into a zoo and were eaten by lions. I asked where this had happened. 'Hold on, I'll get the cutting,' said Mr Rickard. 'Oh dear, it seems to have been sorted away.'

Score one more for Bad Luck. Or perhaps another alien abduction.

Fortean Times appears six times a year at pounds 2 an issue. Further information from: Box 2409, London NW5 4NP.

(Photograph omitted)