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UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold War period, the MoD welcomed UFO reports from the public – not because they were seriously worried about extraterrestrial invasion, but because some of the sightings might be naïve misinterpretations of Soviet spyplanes overflying the United Kingdom.

In total, the National Archives material amounts to over 60,000 pages of UFO reports and related correspondence. What Clarke has done for this volume – the second in a series on the ‘visual history of modern British culture’ – is to search through those thousands of pages for the most eyecatching and interesting images. The result is visually stunning – surprisingly so, given that most of the pictures are ‘amateur’ in every sense of the word. I’m sure they look a lot better here than in the original files, thanks to the book’s impressive production standards – art-quality gloss paper, and a gorgeous printed, wraparound cloth cover.

The book is arranged chronologically, which highlights one of its most striking features – which is that (despite purporting to illustrate spacecraft from another planet) the pictures generally belong to their time. Drawings from the 1950s look 1950s; drawings from the 1980s look 1980s. As Clarke says at one point ‘Some artists’ impressions of UFOs betray the influence of popular culture. Drawings in the MoD archives resemble futuristic flying saucers, rockets and spaceships from TV shows, movies and comic books.’

I’ll just mention a couple of specific examples which struck me as particularly impressive. First there’s the lovely painting reproduced on the book’s wraparound cover. This was sent to MoD by a Mr Campbell, of Birmingham, in January 1975. Apart from its visual appeal, it’s interesting because the witness provided enough detail to allow MoD to identify the object as one of a pair of Soviet satellites. Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Campbell professed himself happy with this identification, saying he ‘could hardly imagine it to have been anything but what you say is likely’. If only all UFO enthusiasts were that open-minded!


Another interesting case occurred in October 1977, when ten children at a Cheshire primary school saw a ‘flying saucer’ hovering over a group of trees near their playground. Their teacher got them to draw what they’d seen, making sure they couldn’t copy each other. All 10 pictures are reproduced in the book, and despite variations from one to another they clearly all show the same thing. Of course it wasn’t an alien spacecraft – that’s just how the kids’ cultural conditioning interpreted it – but they certainly saw something out of the ordinary.

Overall verdict: For people who are really into this sort of thing, an easy five stars. For everyone else, let’s call it a three-star curiosity.

Hardback:  

Review by Andrew May

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