Friday 11 April 2014

Senate House's "Gef the Talking Mongoose" Symposium

Yesterday saw central London’s Senate House Library host a fascinating event titled “If you knew what I know, you’d know a hell of a lot!: A Symposium on Gef the Talking Mongoose.” This pioneering and unique event was 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 Fortean Times. The remarkable tale of Gef revolved around the claims of the Irving family, who lived in an isolated farmhouse on the Isle of Man during the 1930s. They maintained that their house was haunted by a mongoose who had the ability to speak English; he reportedly informed the family that his name was Gef and that he came from New Delhi. The press jumped on the story and soon reporters were flooding to the island 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. None found any proof that Gef existed, but the story has lived on and was one that I lapped up when I discovered it as a child.

Josiffe kicked off the event with a well-illustrated introductory presentation on the so-called Dalby Spook. “Panel 1” then opened with Robin Klarzynski’s discussion of the American Beat writer W.S. Burroughs who, perhaps surprisingly, took an interest in Gef and familiar spirits more widely. As part of this, Klarzynski described his analysis of Gef’s comments using Burroughs’ cut-up technique; an artistically interesting approach. Alan Murdie of the Society for Psychical Research followed with a presentation situating Gef within the context of broader British poltergeist activity. In particular, he highlighted the role of both animals and sexuality in poltergeist cases, ultimately proposing that it was incest within the Irving family that generated the emotional turmoil from which Gef emerged. The next paper was by Mark Bell and read in absentia by Espley; it delved into the parallels 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. Here 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. Craig Wallace, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, then argued for the influence of the Gef case on two episodes of Nigel Kneale’s 1976 BBC television series Beasts. After another break, we were treated to a screening of Vanished! (1990), an arts film that dramatised the events in question. The film makers, Brian Catling and Tony Grisoni, adopted an interesting ‘talking heads’ perspective, with actors portraying each of the three Irvings as they discussed their personal experiences with Gef. Definitely worth a watch for anyone interested in the whole peculiar affair.
Overall, a very enjoyable symposium and hopefully a sign of more research and similar events to come.


  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.