An interview with British historian Simon Young who wrote the introduction to Marjorie T. Johnson's book, Seeing Faeries: From The Lost Archives Of The Faerie Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Faeries in Modern Times, published by Anomalist Books and available on Amazon.com.
1. Simon, what can you share with us about Marjorie T. Johnson the author of Seeing Faeries: From The Lost Archives Of The Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Faeries in Modern Times?
I interviewed (on the phone or by email) five people who knew Marjorie and each one, with small variations, would trip over themselves to say what an extraordinary and special person she was: my favourite comment was that ‘they broke the mould when they made Marjorie’. Unfortunately, I never met her, though she lived to a hundred, but so strong and so consistent were these comments that they got me thinking about what five of my acquaintances would say about me. What would they say about you? Most of us can only dream about having this kind of impact on those around us. Her biography is straightforward and tells you little: she came from a loving middle class family, she lived her whole life with her sister (who painted dogs professionally) and she worked as a secretary. But behind this she had a secret life in which she dedicated her best hours and much of her energy to fairylore. What does this mean? Well, for fifteen or twenty years she practically ran the Fairy Investigation Society out of her sitting room. That is unusual enough. But she was also, as she would have called herself, a fairy-seer. From her infancy she saw fairies and she continued to see fairies through her life, often together with her sister. However you account for these fairies she believed that she had an ongoing relationship with some. For instance, she had to personally ask one fairy for permission to recount certain experiences in her book! If you read about someone like this in a village in Bolivia you’d shrug and say ‘Amerindian shaman’. But this was a girl from a quiet Midland city in the UK! I’m by nature sceptical about paranormal events, but one point greatly struck me when I was preparing Seeing Fairies. Two of Marjorie’s house helps, in her old age, saw, quite independently of each other, floating lights around them while cleaning: one is reported by Marjorie, one I was told about in an interview by the househelp (and a dear friend of Marjorie’s). Neither were of, let’s say, a visionary persuasion. Marjorie seems to have had the ability to create or recreate the world around her. It is not exactly charisma but it is something similar, I suppose.
2. What do you really think of the book and how did its publication come about?
This is a book that has very special associations for me because when I first became interested in the Fairy Investigation Society the book’s very existence was in doubt. Marjorie Johnson had died a couple of years before and the English manuscript was missing. Yes, it had been published in German and Italian and I, in fact, first read the book in these languages. The translations were made by competent individuals but, of course, translations are never the same as the original and some passages were cropped or, in rare cases, missing altogether. I eventually was able to make contact with some friends of Marjorie who were immediately interested and crucially they had the manuscript. It had been Marjorie’s greatest wish that the book should be published in English and her friends wanted to make that happen. I have to say they all went far beyond the call of duty in that (and in every other) respect. Of course, seeing a book published is always a beautiful experience, but finding a lost book, a book that you know is quite unique and that has great folklore value, a book, too, that represents a life’s work, and getting it published with an international publisher. Well, it is like watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis.... Anomalist Publishing made the whole thing particularly magical by giving it that fabulous cover. I was once told that green books are a bad idea: I no longer believe that...
3. Would you share some of your personals thoughts with us on the faerie kingdom? Who do you think they are?
I’ve long been interested in fairy sightings and I’ve studied these sightings for the last four years with particular interest, sometimes obsessively. I’ve looked at literally hundreds of reports. I’ve delved into classic folklore accounts from the nineteenth centuries and fragmentary medieval accounts dating back to the seventh century of our era. I’ve talked and written to the leading experts in folklore, Forteana and even parapsychology and psychology. And at the end of this I can honestly say that I have not the slightest idea what is going on. Apart from learning modesty I suppose that I have two small crumbs of wisdom from this failure and I give you them for what it is worth. First, as someone who grew up in the countryside and who lives now in the countryside I’ve long been impressed by the extraordinary, let’s call it, ‘presence’ of certain places in the wild. Second, I am convinced that we should never underestimate the potential of the human mind to create a narrative out of chaos, even if that means the mind distorting the senses and memory. Make of that what you will!
4. The book has about 400 faerie sightings from around world. This has to be one of the biggest collections in book form like ever. Could you tell us about the case of the Green Wood Elves?
Yes, this is certainly the biggest collection of sightings as opposed to fairy tales and fairy traditions. As to the Green Wood Elves this is one of the most bizarre episodes in a bizarre book and also one of the most colourful. It dates to a time when Marjorie was secretary of the Fairy Investigation Society and a number of reports started to leak out of an undisclosed location in Lincolnshire, east England where strange amorphous forms had been seen in a wood. (I couldn’t get Ghostbusters out of my head when I first read it). At this point Marjorie and her sister decided to go and investigate and spotted these ‘green wood elves’, though the elves were closer to blobs from what I understand. It could be the beginning of a Lovecraft horror story, only Marjorie didn’t really do horror. It certainly makes for fascinating reading.
5. Would you tell us the tale of the Gnomes of Wollaton Park?
This is an interesting case, which has been much discussed in the last couple of decades. A number of children in Nottingham saw gnomes riding about in mini cars in a quiet English park. Yes, I know... If this had been one child nothing would have been made of it but there were six kids who all had similar accounts. Here we have one of the strengths of the book. Marjorie went out at the time and investigated. She gathered other independent accounts of fairy sightings at Woolaton. She also, crucially, had access to tape recorded interviews of the children given her by their headmaster. You can agree or not with her analysis but this is extra evidence. We can all be grateful for that.
6. What sort of evidence is there regarding faerie photographs?
Our earliest fairy ‘photograph’ is actually a charcoal drawing of the pwca, a mischievious solitary fairy from Wales, which reached Crofton Croker, the Irish antiquarian, thanks to a Welsh friend, in the early nineteenth century. This is another way of saying that there has long been an interest in trying to capture fairy sightings visually: the fascination with the Cottingley photographs boils down to just this. Majorie’s writing here is interesting because we have some new evidence of previously unknown photographs and, interestingly, of the Cottingley case. We were also very lucky to have a photograph of a middle-aged Marjorie playing pan pipes to, she claimed, a fairy among some ferns. The photograph has a bit of white mist in the bottom left corner and Marjorie believed that this was the fairy materialising. For sceptic or believer it is a fabulous picture and, of course, it went on the front cover. I like to think that when in twenty or forty or sixty years people discuss Marjorie Johnson this is the photograph they’ll think of: a wonderful individual in a most eccentric but characteristic pose.
7. This is a wild card question. What from the book would you like to share with our readers?
There are so many things but let me focus on one curiosity in the book that has so far been overlooked. When Marjorie Johnson called for fairy sightings in her fairy census of 1955-56 she received a series of experiences from writers, some important writers. We learn from this that a number of authors believed in fairies, and in many cases this surprised me. A single example. There is a very interesting and very talented British children book’s writer and illustrator called B.B. B. B. wrote to Marjorie with the experience of a friend, implying that he believed in fairies, or at least had an open mind. Anyone who reads B.B., who wrote fairy books, might have guessed this or at least guessed that B.B. had a romantic inclination. Fair enough. However, there are a couple of authors in the book that amazed me. One of these is an author I have long been interested in and who I have even researched: when I read a comment ascribed to her in the manuscript copy I was so shocked that I dropped the file on the floor!
8. What’s this rumour of a reformed Fairy Investigation Society and a fairy census?
In a month a new Fairy Investigation Society will be launched: the finishing touches are being carried out now. It will include a twice yearly e-newsletter, an online library and, I hope eventually, a forum of some description. Membership is free and can either be very low maintenance (a couple of emails a year) or it can be rather more involved. Marjorie’s Fairy Investigation Society was for believers. The new society is open to anyone who has an interest in fairies and folklore: belief is certainly not a requirement. In that sense, the new FIS will be a secular version of the old FIS. As to the census, sixty years ago (1955-1966) Marjorie and Alasdair Alpin Mac Gregor began a fairy census, writing to various British newspapers and periodicals, asking readers for fairy sightings, the sightings which formed the backbone of Seeing Fairies. In 2015-2016, with the help of the Fairy Investigation Society, I will be launching a new Fairy Census of first- or second-hand witness accounts. I trust this will help put down the bases for a rigorous, empirical study of fairy sightings, so we can start to better understand what happens to or what is happening inside those who see fairies. If any of your readers are interested in either of these (they want to join or they have accounts) then I’d invite them to get in touch: fairyinvestigationsociety AT gmail DOT com.