They came from out'a space

Cue X Files music. A spooky anniversary approaches. Fifty years ago this Tuesday, a 32-year-old fire-fighting-equipment salesman called Kenneth Arnold was flying his plane over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State when he suddenly noticed a "tremendously bright flash" in the sky ahead of him. Then he spotted nine separate objects flying in formation. He estimated that they were flying at about 1,700mph, which was considerably faster than any aircraft could fly in those days, and he kept them in sight for about two and a half minutes before they disappeared to the south over the peak of Mount Adams.

Arnold reported this strange sighting and the media went crazy. From his description of the way the objects moved - "like a saucer would if you skipped it across water"- the term "flying saucers" was coined. In the following weeks many more "flying saucers" were reported all over America. (Interestingly, the objects that Arnold saw were not in fact saucer-shaped, but more like boomerangs. The fact that the term "flying boomerang" failed to be coined was no doubt extremely disappointing for boomerang salesmen everywhere.)

The UFO phenomenon had been born, and as the years passed it grew apace. The next stage was for individuals to report actual contact with an alien being. My favourite concerns Daniel Fry, an instrument specialist working on missile control systems at White Sands in New Mexico. In 1950 he apparently saw a huge UFO land and cautiously approached it. As he reached out towards it, an alien voice spoke: "Better not touch the hull, pal, it's still hot," said the alien, whose name was Alan. It certainly beats "We come in peace, Earthling", or "Take me to your leader".

And then the aliens started snatching people against their will. On the night of 15 October 1957 Antonio Villas-Boas, a 23-year-old Brazilian law student, saw an egg-shaped craft land from the sky. Out jumped four small aliens with large heads. They grabbed him and forced him on board. He was confined in a small round room and forced to have sex with a blonde, 4ft female alien with red pubic hair. The experience was apparently not entirely unpleasant according to Villas-Boas, although he commented: "Some of the grunts that I heard coming from that woman's mouth at certain moments nearly spoilt everything, giving the disagreeable impression that I was with an animal." Over the next few weeks, he developed strange wounds on his arms and legs, which is no doubt a lesson to us all.

This was the first case of what has come to be known as the "alien abduction phenomenon", which in recent years has snowballed dramatically with thousands of people, particularly in the United States, claiming that they have been forced on to an alien craft against their will. In most cases, though not all, the details of their abduction can be obtained only as a result of hypnotic regression, and their stories follow a similar course. Abductions usually happen at night either when individuals are in bed or when they are driving. They are beamed aboard an alien craft and then subjected to unpleasant experiments which involve things being poked inside them, with a particular focus on the genital region. They are then returned to Earth and remember little or nothing of what has happened, but they are aware that a certain amount of time appears to be "missing".

You can make of this what you will (I personally think it's all in the mind), but what is for sure is that the concept of intelligent extraterrestrial life is now increasingly attracting the attention of mainstream scientists. In 50 years we seem to have come an awfully long way from Kenneth Arnold's flying boomerangs.

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Alien alliances of a New Age

All of the above eventually brings us to Nick Pope. Around this time last year, Nick published a book called Open Skies, Closed Minds. In many ways it was a conventional romp through the familiar annals of ufology, but the book had a unique selling point - its author worked at the Ministry of Defence. Not only that, but he had spent 1991-94 in Secretariat (Air Staff) Department 2A, the so-called UFO Desk. His job had been to deal with all reports of unidentified flying objects over the British Isles and you could say that in a sense Nick had gone native. Unlike his predecessors, he established a dialogue with ufologists, and from his initial scepticism grew a belief that not only do aliens exist but they also pose a grave threat to our national security.

Last week saw the publication of Nick's second book, The Uninvited, in which he turns his attention to the alien abduction phenomenon. He's still working at the Ministry of Defence, although his posting on the UFO Desk has ended and he's now working on financial policy. In fact he's been promoted, so clearly a belief in aliens is no bar to progress in the Civil Service.

I met Nick at his publisher's office. He's a very affable, slightly nerdy 31-year-old, and he's clearly used to dealing with cynics such as myself. Nick believes that there really are aliens out there abducting people, although he knows he can't prove it. So assuming that this is the case, why does he think they are doing it?

"I wish I knew," he sighs. "The popular view among believers, because a medical procedure of some sort seems to be central to the process, is that they're trying to create some sort of human/alien hybrid. But I tend to reject these obvious solutions and see things in their historical context. Look at what was happening in the Forties - the Second World War, the use of atomic weapons, the Holocaust and the development of the V2 rocket.

"If we were being studied, intelligent extraterrestrials would have seen a species that was very unpleasant but also a species that was coming along technologically so quickly that very soon we'd be out there in space. Perhaps the UFO phenomenon is a reconnaissance effort to try and evaluate us as a threat and perhaps the abduction phenomenon is an attempt to try and lessen the threat we might pose."

He observes that it's quite common for "abductees" to develop an interest in spiritualism or environmental issues. The implication is that the aliens intend to tame us all by turning us into New Agers.

Now that really is scary.

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Magazine wonders

Back in 1973 Bob Rickard published the first issue of his own magazine, entitled The News. He bashed it out on his typewriter and the contents were pretty strange - "Man Dead 10 Years Found In Bed", "Freak Storm Showers Village With Toads", that kind of thing. Three years later the magazine's title was to change to Fortean Times, in homage to the man whose work inspired Bob in the first place, the American Charles Fort, who spent his life challenging scientific dogma.

Last week Fortean Times celebrated its 100th issue by unveiling a blue plaque on a building near the British Museum where Fort lived for a while. The ground floor is now a DIY shop and appropriately enough the present occupants think the building could be haunted. As for the magazine, it's still as entertainingly weird as it was 24 years ago, although these days it's professionally designed and packaged, just like a real magazine.

And Bob is still editing it. I wondered if he'd ever seen a UFO. "I think I might have seen one," he says. "I was on an Underground train coming back from Heathrow and there was a plane coming head on - at least I think it was a plane - but it was stationary in the sky. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."

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Just give William a second look

The large, domed forehead. The slit of a mouth. Is it just coincidence that the new leader of the Conservative Party bears more than a passing resemblance to the most common representation of the alien lifeforms which are attempting to take over our planet? (Aliens come in various shapes and sizes, but this one is known technically to ufologists as The Grey. True!) Could it be that when the young William Hague was playing war games in his bedroom he was not in fact re-enacting the battle of Waterloo but plotting the inevitable victory of the inhabitants of Planet Zarg over puny Earthling forces in years to come? And is it normal adolescent behaviour to memorise the names and majorities of every MP, as we are told the teenage Hague did? No. Unless, of course, you are an adolescent alien with plans for world domination. You have been warned.

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