Friday, 16 June 2017

Only fools and mongeese.

Last week I was back with the London Fortean Society (and back at the Conway Hall). Their talk on Gef the Talking Mongoose had drawn an impressively large and appreciative crowd. The round of applause with which they/we greeted speakers Christopher Josiffe and Chris Hill was as warm as the beer I purchased from a trestle table set up at the back of the room.

It seemed right to be raising a bottle as the event was, at least partly, a celebration of Gef's 165th birthday. He'd claimed himself he'd been born on the 7th June 1852 near Delhi in India before travelling, via Egypt (stopping to admire the Sphinx, naturally) to, of all places, the Isle of Man where, during the 1930s, and already an octogenarian, he came into contact with the Irving family in their remote Manx farmhouse.

There he, in turns, haunted them, complained of various maladies, stalked their daughter, and stole things from their neighbours. At this point you're possibly raising your eyebrows incredulously and doubting the veracity of an 80 year old mongoose that could talk and travel the world and, of course, you'd be right. But the Fortean position is a different one to that of the Skeptics in the Pub, they celebrate the curious, the peculiar, and the downright strange, and don't seek to impose their own beliefs but simply listen, learn, and sometimes laugh.

Christopher and Chris began their story with a brief look at the life of James Irving. It was said that before moving out to the Isle of Man he'd run a successful business importing pianos from Canada to Liverpool. He lived in Wavertree, near Penny Lane. Not long after making the move to the Irish Sea, with his wife Margaret and daughter Voirrey, he heard scratching, rustling, and muffled speech from behind the wainscoting of their house. The house had no television, no wireless, and no electricity, and was lit solely by candles so it was a spooky enough place to begin with.
So when a weasel named Jack appeared and started talking things would've got even eerier. The boastful mammal claimed he was the eighth wonder of the world and that he was the fifth dimension. He also offered the Irvings a tip for the Grand National. A bad tip as it turned out as the horse did not win. He would cough, puke, gossip, moan, and, occasionally, even threaten the family. He did all this in a ludicrous high pitched whine that Christopher gamely, and amusingly, had a crack at.

After a while Jack the weasel decided he was actually Gef the mongoose. His spelling wasn't much better than his racing tips but let's not pick hairs. Estimates of Gef's size ranged from between 6 and 12 inches and mongeeses tend to be three to six times bigger than that so this seems like another example of Gef, or someone else (!), being economical with the truth.
In fact it seemed that what Gef actually was was up for quite regular debate. Was he a weasel? Was he a mongoose? Some said he might've been a stoat. Other opined that he was probably a cat. Out of the box thinkers suggested he was a shape shifter and could, therefore, be all of these things and more. Photographic evidence ranges from the vague to the virtually invisible. It's inconclusive to say the least.
Whatever he was he used to make a right pest of himself. A notorious sandwich theft from Peel bus garage was the least of his crimes. His obsession with Voirrey Irving bordered on the psychotic. When her bedroom was moved so he'd stop talking to her he said he'd find her wherever her parents hid her and flew into fits of rage.
He had a more mundane side too. His anecdotes were, quite frankly, utterly dull. He'd talk at length, over a saucer or two of milk, about finding a paintbrush in the fields or how he'd overheard a neighbour saying she was knitting a jumper for her husband.
He claimed to be fluent in Hindustani but experts considered his attempts at the Indo-Aryan language to be nothing short of gibberish. Gef was no doubt a bullshitter but were the Irvings? What of the handful of other people on the island who'd said they'd come into contact with Gef?


Gef was with the Irvings from 1931-1939 (it seems unclear what happened to him after that, perhaps the war took priority) but what was this peculiar story all about? Was it a hoax? If so, how many people were in on it? If it was a hoax nobody at all seemed to benefit financially, or in any other way, from it.

Was it a collective hallucination? Could Gef have been a poltergeist? If so, poltergeists don't normally eat sandwiches and drink saucers of milk. Fur and footprints were found and dismissed and Voirrey, speaking in later life after moving to the mainland, said she'd wish she'd never come into contact with Gef, that Gef had ruined her life and she'd been unable to form normal human relationships since her experiences with him. Voirrey also claimed that the Irving family had a sheepdog that hypnotised rabbits so either something very strange was happening on the Isle of Man in the 1930s or something very strange was happening in Voirrey's mind.

Either way this is the mystery that keeps giving. It's so different to other ghost stories or tales of talking animals. In places it's amusing, in places it's a little frightening, but, at all times, it is most definitely a tale for Forteans to ponder for many years to come. In that it was one of the best, and most appropriate, events that that I've yet had the pleasure to experience with the London Fortean Society. The way my fellow punters snapped up books about Gef suggested I wasn't alone in that.

1 comment:

  1. My review of Chris's book: