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Janet Bord on Colin Bord, UFO's and Mysterious Britain
Janet Bord is a writer and landscape folklorist, and was a key member of the early British Earth Mysteries movement.
Colin was born in London in 1931, and yourself in Leicester in 1945. You’ve been collaborators throughout your careers. How did you meet? Colin and I met in the late 1960's – I can’t remember exactly when – because of our mutual interest in UFO's. He was living and working in London, I was living and working in Leicester. There was a massive interest in UFO's in the second half of the ‘60s. Initially I was involved with a local group in Leicester, and we used to travel down to London to attend meetings of BUFORA (British UFO Research Association) so I got involved with events in London and met Colin, who was involved with the same groups.
Can you explain why UFO’s were of so much interest at the time? There was a big ‘flap’ in Britain in the late sixties, triggered, I think, by sightings of bright lights over South-West England. I believe they were eventually found to have been caused by planes re-fuelling in flight. The newspapers were full of sighting reports, from all over the country, because the initial sightings had caused people everywhere to start looking skyward, and of course a lot of them saw things they could not explain, probably because normally they took little notice of what might be going on overhead, so were unfamiliar with natural events such as the moon seen through clouds, an especially bright Venus, satellites crossing the sky, shooting stars, and so on. In response to the ‘flap’ local UFO groups were set up, especially in those areas where numerous sightings were being reported, and many people who joined these groups found a new ‘hobby’, sitting on hilltops in the middle of the night, sometimes with UFO detectors, trying to spot UFOs.
I know Colin took photos (left) and wrote articles for Gandalf’s Garden, the occult revival magazine, in the late 60’s. What was full the extent of his involvement? Colin was never a member of the core Gandalf’s Garden group; he was mainly writing articles for the magazine. This was before we met. I do remember visiting Gandalf’s Garden at some point after I moved to London, but we would not have considered ourselves as part of that community.
Were either of you publishing any other writing or photography during this period? In the late ‘60s I was editing Lionel Beer’s UFO magazine Spacelink, so I wrote quite a bit for that. I also wrote articles for Flying Saucer Review. When living in Leicester I had worked as an assistant editor with a children’s book publisher, and after moving to London in 1970 I worked as a freelance editor for many London publishers. I also started to think about writing books, and my first effort was 'Honey – Natural Food and Healer', a small book which I wrote for Thorsons, a publisher specialising in health matters, for whom I worked part-time. I also wrote a few articles, illustrated with my own photographs and published in county magazines, etc.
As writers, what were the most important influences on you at this time? In the late ‘60s I was mostly reading UFO books and magazines, and also some books on ghosts and other paranormal matters. A major influence at that time was John Michell’s 'The Flying Saucer Vision', which I read in 1968. In 1970 I began reading books relating to earth mysteries topics, such as Guy Underwood’s 'The Pattern of the Past', T.C. Lethbridge’s books, and branching out into so many other fields by reading Colin Wilson, Charles Fort, Ivan Sanderson – anything I came across.
Do you think the folk revival of the sixties was an influence in any way – in the sense that perhaps it made young people think differently about the landscape and its folk traditions? This may well have applied to some people, but we weren’t involved in the folk music scene in any way.
How did ‘Mysterious Britain’ come about? I was approached by Michael Balfour, owner of Garnstone Press, who was looking for someone to do the picture research for a book he envisaged, but for which he only had a title – Mysterious Britain. He asked me because he knew that one of the editorial skills I was offering to publishers was picture research, and he also knew that I was part of the ‘mysteries’ community. I agreed to take on the job, thinking that I would be able to use plenty of our own pictures. Colin was a freelance professional photographer and had already taken numerous ‘atmospheric’ photographs, and together we were already travelling around visiting and photographing ancient sites. I had learned how to use an old-fashioned (by today’s standards) Rolleiflex camera using black and white film, and Colin used colour transparency film, so that we were both photographing the sites we visited.
Once we had started researching around the theme of the book, and collecting pictures, I realised that I could just as easily write it too. A format was agreed, i.e. a basic introduction to each topic, followed by a selection of photographs with captions. My suggested list of topics was also agreed, and thereafter we had a free hand.
We didn’t have the luxury of spending a year or two visiting sites and collecting material. So far as I recall, we only had a few months, and so the work was very intensive. We were able to use photographs we had already taken since getting together, I also obtained photographs from other photographers and agencies, and we went out on short excursions to take some photographs especially for the book. I am sure we would have gone on longer field trips had we had the time. We certainly did so when creating later books dealing with British ancient sites and folklore.
In the early days we tended to sleep in the car, or in the open air, not being able to afford to spend money on accommodation. Later we stayed in B+Bs.
You mention being part of the ‘mysteries community’. In what sense was it a community? The Ley Hunter magazine started up in 1962 and from 1969 until 1976 was edited by Paul Screeton. Various people including John Michell and Paul Devereux linked up around this time, and I remember we used to socialise with Paul Devereux as he too lived in London. Strangely, we discovered that we were close in age and were living in the same village near Leicester in our early years, though so far as I am aware we never met! In the seventies we also ended up living in cottages not many miles apart in mid-Wales. I can’t remember specifically how we communicated and/or met up, but we certainly did all interact to some degree. Since it was long before the age of the computer and email and mobile phones, we all tended to write a lot of letters.
My perception is that this first collaborative book, ‘Mysterious Britain’, sold very well. Is that true? Mysterious Britain did sell well but I don’t have any exact sales figures. We got plenty of good reviews, and the book seems to have chimed with the spirit of the times. The first edition (picture above) was a large hardback – rather like a coffee-table book – but it was later published as a normal-sized paperback and that is probably the edition that sold the most copies.
Who do you think bought it? Is there a sense, perhaps, that you were helping people see the British landscape in a fresh, new way? My attitude towards my books has always been that once one is finished, I am keen to move on to the next project. The new project takes all my attention and I tend to have little concern as to who reads earlier books or how they are received! So I’m honestly not sure who bought the book, but I guess that as the first edition was relatively expensive, it would have been the later paperback edition that most enthusiasts bought. It probably is true that the book introduced people to new aspects of the landscape, and as a result more young people wanted to go out and explore it for themselves. I hope that is true, anyway.
I know you wrote some books independently of Colin in the 70’s (eg on mazes and astral travel) but later in the decade you brought out two more books together, namely 'The Secret Country' (1976) and 'A Guide to Ancient Sites in Britain' (1978). Can you recall how you shared the work? We travelled together on research trips, took photographs together (usually Colin took colour transparencies and I used black and white film), and back home Colin undertook all the photographic darkroom work, processing the films and making black and white prints for use in our books. I did all the research and writing. We did a lot of travelling for our books on the British landscape, so that we could experience the places for ourselves and also get up-to-date and, wherever possible, atmospheric photographs of them.
You moved to Wales later in the 70's. Did this change your outlook, or your working pattern in any way? Was it this move that led to the establishment of the Fortean Picture Library? We bought our first house in Wales in 1972 and then for six years we travelled between Montgomery and London while we were renovating that house. We moved permanently to Montgomery in 1978. I don’t think the move changed our outlook or our pattern of working – we just had a bit more space for our growing collection of books. And of course we had inspirational landscapes on the doorstep. The Fortean Picture Library was created just before we moved from London. The move had nothing to do with the creation of that collection; we had already been building up a collection of landscape images and selling them to magazines and book publishers.
‘Alien Animals’ (1981), which was followed by ‘Bigfoot Casebook’, seems to mark a new, more ‘Fortean’ departure for you. How did these books relate to the earlier Earth Mysteries books? Are they linked because much of the content relates very much to the folklore of specific places and landscapes? As noted earlier, we had always been interested in a wide range of mysteries. I suspect I thought that, for a change, it would be interesting to move into the area of cryptozoology for our next book. So I don’t think these books related to the earth mysteries books in any way – I was simply varying our output! It is true however that for all of them the landscape and its folklore are significant, but that’s probably because landscape folklore is at the heart of my interest. I suppose, thinking about it, most of my writing has landscape folklore at its core.
Was there also a sense, by the 80’s, that some of the enthusiasm generated by John Michell’s early books had faded, and ley-theory had, for many, lost its interest? Possibly, but I’m not sure about this. I tended to follow my own particular interests without really considering how they related to other people’s interests! I never thought that I must write about X simply because that was what the readers wanted. The research was the most important aspect to me, so that I would research my chosen topic, and when the research was done, converting it into a book seemed to be the natural progression. I never thought that I had a readership to satisfy, and once the manuscript had gone off to the publisher, apart from proof-reading it later, I virtually forgot about it and moved on to the next project. I never sought personal publicity and never (well, rarely) gave interviews.
Doc Shiels appears in ‘Alien Animals’. Had you met him by this time? What do you remember about him? We had met Doc before, or while, writing this book. It was published in 1980 and we first met him in April 1978. We met near Falmouth and went to Parson’s Beach at Mawnan where he allegedly saw Morgawr in 1976. We also went to Mawnan church where Owlman had been seen in 1976. We got on well with him – we had already been communicating by letter, and that is how we continued to stay in touch with him. I kept all his letters to us, and copies of all ours to him, but unfortunately I can’t now consult them as I recently placed them in the Fortean archive at AFU in Sweden.
Were you involved with Fortean Times? Did you know and work with Bob Rickard (founding editor) much? We knew Bob from 1970 onwards and worked closely with him. Again I kept all our correspondence but it is now in the AFU archive so I cannot consult it for dates of letters and topics of discussion. It was Bob who first published Doc’s photograph of the Loch Ness Monster (above right), and also Bob who decided that we should look after the image and perhaps use it as the starting point of a collection of other Fortean images. In this way Fortean Picture Library was born.
I notice that you have taken a special interest in holy wells more recently. Are they sites that are found all over the country? What is their appeal and interest to you? I wrote my first book on holy wells, Sacred Waters, in 1985, so my interest in them goes back several decades. As my 2008 guidebook, Holy Wells in Britain: A Guide, shows, there are holy wells in all parts of the country. My interest in them is again related to their links with the landscape, and also to their significance for the people who visited them, the wide-ranging nature of this being demonstrated in my other book on holy wells, Cures and Curses: Ritual and Cult at Holy Wells (2006).
Living in Wales, I have had more opportunity to visit many of the surviving Welsh wells, and I am currently researching all the saints’ wells of Wales, i.e. those named for saints, rather than any other named wells. Although many of them can no longer be located, I have recorded references to more than 800 saints’ wells in Wales, and visited many of those that have survived. I am into my ninth year on this particular project, and am still finding references to wells that have been totally forgotten other than in a field name.