Friday, 11 April 2014

Reviewing Senate House's "Gef the Talking Mongoose" Symposium

As I mentioned back in February, the Senate House library in Bloomsbury, central London, was holding an event titled "If you knew what I know, you'd know a hell of a lot!: A Symposium on Gef the Talking Mongoose" on Thursday 10 April (yesterday). For those unaware of this tale, it revolved around the claims of the Irving family, who lived in an isolated farmhouse near the hamlet of Dalby on the Isle of Man during the 1930s. They asserted that their house was haunted by a mongoose who had the ability to speak English, and who informed the family that his name was Gef and that he came from New Delhi. Unsurprisingly, the British press jumped on the story, and soon reporters were flooding to the island in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the elusive creature. Following in their wake were parapsychologists and psychic investigators, among them famous names like Harry Price and Hereward Carrington. No one ever actually found any substantiated proof that Gef had ever existed, but the story has lived on in folklore, and was one that I lapped up when told of it as a child. This pioneering and unique event had been organised by Senate House's research librarian Richard Espley and Christopher Josiffe, the latter of whom has spent much time investigating the Gef case and has published on it in such outlets as Fortean Times.

Arriving 20 or so minutes late due to an intensely annoying 90 minute train delay (all thanks to some vagabonds having torn the lead out of the railway track) I was just able to catch the tail end of Josiffe's well-illustrated introductory presentation in which he provided an outline of those mysterious events. From there, Robin Klarzynski opened what was described as "Panel 1" with an analysis of the acclaimed American beat poet W.S. Burroughs' interest in Gef and its relation to Burroughs' wider interest in animals as familiar spirits. As part of this, Klarzynski described his analysis of Gef's alleged comments using Burrough's cut-up technique; an artistically if not academically interesting approach.  Psychic researcher Alan Murdie of the Society for Psychical Research followed with a presentation in which he situated the Gef scenario within its context of broader British poltergeist activity. In particular he turned to the role of both animals and sexuality in poltergeist cases, ultimately suggesting that there might have been a problem of incest within the Irving family that resulted in the emotional turmoil from which Gef emerged. Although I admit to some scepticism (though not, I would hope, of the blind and unyielding variety) as to the genuine objective existence of poltergeists and other such "supernatural" phenomenon, it was very interesting to hear Murdie's take on the situation. The next paper was authored by Mark Bell and read in absentia by Espley; it looked at the interesting parallels that exist between the Gef haunting and the 19th century case of the Bell Witch in Tennessee.

After time for questions and a break for tea and cake, it was on to Panel 2, opened by Espley's own paper. In this he looked at Gef's relation to literacy and reading, using Mr. Irving's transcripts of what Gef allegedly said and did as a basis. He was followed by Craig Wallace, a PhD student at Queen's University Belfast, with an analysis of how the Greg case might have influenced two episodes of Nigel Kneale's 1976 BBC television series Beasts; Kneale's work seems to be attracting increasing academic interest - I recall it being discussed at last October's "Monstrous Antiquities: Archaeology and the Uncanny in Popular Culture" conference just around the corner at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. After another break, we were treated to a screening of Vanished! (1990), an arts film that dramatised the events of the Gef case. The acclaimed film makers, Brian Catling and Tony Grisoni, adopted an interesting "talking heads" perspective in which actors portraying each of the three key members of the Irving family discussed their own experiences with Gef. Although it might not necessarily have been an entirely accurate reflection of the events in question (as it of course had to allow for artistic licence), I certainly found it emotionally powerful and beautifully haunting; definitely worth a watch for anyone interested in the Dalby Spook.

Overall, I would certainly have liked to have seen the involvement of some historians and folklorists, whose perspectives I suspect have a great deal to offer on the mysterious case of Gef. However, I appreciate that there might not have been any historians or folklorists who put forward paper proposals, and thus the symposium's organisers can hardly be held accountable on this issue. I also find it a tad unnerving (although perhaps that is the wrong word) that every presenter was male; this, however, seems to be a general problem throughout most academic or otherwise scholarly symposiums and conferences, and again is not the fault of the organisers.
However, given that two of the three key members of the Irving family who featured in the Gef case were female, I think that a woman's perspective would be a vital contribution here. All in all however, it was certainly an enjoyable event and I hope that it inspires further research into not only the case of Gef the Talking Mongoose but also other "weird" and "paranormal" events in British history.


  1. Hi Ethan,

    My lecture "'Gef': A Modern Sphinx as an Esoteric Lesson about Oneness" may be read at my blog -

    Let me know if you have any questions.