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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 78 - Thirty Unwilling Goats (Pictures Week)

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Sam's Notes: The Cottingley Fairies

Well, Tom. Today I've got the story of one of the great early photographic hoaxes, and it's brilliant for several reasons. Firstly, it convinced half the world that fairies existed. Secondly, the perpetrators were two young girls, who created the hoax because their parents told them off for playing outside for too long. And thirdly, one of the people who fell for the story was one of the greatest crime writers who ever lived.

So the Cottingley Fairies were created by two South African cousins living in Bradford in 1917. Elsie Wright was 16, and Frances Grifiths was 9.

They lived with Elsie's mother, and loved to play in the stream and woods at the bottom of the garden, which made Elsie's mother furious as they were forever coming home soaking wet and covered in mud. That's life in the north though.

The cousins argued that they were only playing in the stream because they had been invited to by the fairies that lived there, and to prove it they borrowed their Dad's camera and came back half an hour later with a selection of photographic plates.

When Elsie's dad, Arthur, developed them, he found several photos of the two girls holding or playing with fairies. Being a man with a stiff upper lip he wrote them off as being cardboard cutouts, but a couple of months later the girls tried again, returning with a photograph of Elsie sitting in the garden, shaking hands with a gnome. And whichever way he looked at it, it stood up to scrutiny. There was Elsie, shaking hands with Danny Devito.

Rather than accept that woodland folk are real, you know, tree dwellers, smell like mushrooms. Small hands. He got furious, convinced that the girls had somehow fiddled with his camera. By, I don't know, hiding a fucking gnome in it? So he banned them from taking any more pictures.

Elsie's Mum Polly, however, was totally sold on these photos, and took them to a meeting of the Theosophical Society in Bradford.

Now the Theosophical society is a sort of quasi-religion claiming to be a bridge between philosophy and theology, who believe that humankind progresses in great leaps of evolution. And, like most churches, they believe a great leap forward is just around the corner. Maybe next week. No? Week after? June twenteenth nineteen flobbety flob. The world is definitely going to end and we'll all ascend to the next level. Now let's sell all our shit and buy a campervan but insist that we're actually sceptics and very analytical because we don't believe in vaccination.

This society still exists today, preaching the unity of all humankind under one united brotherhood. I say the society, several dozen competing societies still exist today, all separately preaching the unity of all humankind under one united brotherhood. Just not that one.

And the talk in Bradford that night was all about fairy life, either as an independent species or as an evolutionary step in the human journey. Hmm, a tiny person who relies on constant praise to survive? Could be Tinkerbell, could be Honey Boo Boo. Thanks Charles Darwin.

Either way, the society was stunned by this revelation, which proved the existence of woodland folk and mythical creatures. The photos were displayed at the Theosophical AGM a few months later, where a photography expert declared that one of the pictures was a fake, but two were entirely real and unaltered. He didn't specify that fairies exist, but did state that in his professional opinion, the photos were a real picture, taken of whatever was in front of the lens at the time. And in his defence, he wasn't wrong. Because what they were was pictures cut out from a best-selling children's book at the time, backed onto cardboard so they stood up on their own. No one noticed that these exact same fairies were in the bedroom of every middle class child in the country. But of course they wouldn't, because going into the bedroom and reading to little Cuthbert or Reginald was the nanny's job.

After this, the pictures spread like wildfire throughout the UK, copies being sold at lectures and appearing in newspapers and magazines. They even fell into the hands of one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a keen follower of the occult, spiritualist and magical as you might imagine, who used them to illustrate an article he was writing on fairies for the Christmas 1917 edition of The Strand Magazine.

By this point, even Elsie's Dad was convinced, and gave permission to Conan Doyle to reproduce the photos, refusing to take money for them save the discovery be 'soiled by money'. The fucking idiot.

Not everyone was convinced though. Sir Arthur and Edward Gardner, one of the leading members of the Theosophists, wanted to get the photos authenticated professionally and sent them off to Kodak, who came back acknowledging that the photos were real, but that their contents couldn't be confirmed as living beings, refusing to authenticate them as a result. Another photo company, Ilford's, was bought in and declared that the photos were definitely fake, although Arthur and Edward apparently overheard one of the technicians saying that they couldn't possibly be real because fairies didn't exist, and so when they published the results they announced that actually, he'd believed they were real but just couldn't believe his eyes.

They also took them to an early physicist called Sir Oliver Lodge, who said they were clearly fake, partly because the fairies did their hair up in the latest Parisian fashions. And he has a point, because that would be impossible for them to know about, or recreate using the rudimentary tools and hair products available in a muddy bank at the back of a garden in Bradford.

Lodge believed they were dancers and it was a trick of perspective.

Bizarrely, no one thought to try and photograph the fairies themselves until 1920, when Gardner gave the girls a camera each with specially marked photographic plates, to try and decipher any tampering. By now Elsie was 18 or 19 and Frances was 11. He also interviewed the still skeptical Dad, who insisted that he'd been through their drawers and found nothing incriminating, just an odd vibrating sausage and a load of old editions of firefighter weekly underneath Elsie's socks.

And a copy of the photo of the gnome signed by some guy called Priapus with a phone number on it.

Unfortunately, the fairies refused to come out with everyone watching, and so they all went out to tea and left the girls to it, and sure enough, here were some more fairies! Dancing and skipping and sitting on branches. Gardner was thrilled, and sent a telegram to Conan Doyle, who wrote back, quote: "My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance... We have had continued messages at seances for some time that a visible sign was coming through."

Oh, well if the séance said it was real Arthur, you nutter.Of course, Conan Doyle wrote up the findings in an article which quickly sold out worldwide, becoming an international sensation. He signed off the piece: The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life.

Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.Skeptics noted, once again, that the fairies were very fashionably dressed.Interest slowly died out, but in the 1960s and 1970s, the cousins admitted in an interview that at least some of the photos were faked – but not all, or at least, not entirely. Elsie telling the BBC in 1971 that: They're photographs of figments of our imagination, and that's what I'm sticking to".

So there you go, Tom, some of the great faked pictures of the twentieth century the Cottingley Fairies.

Tom's Notes; Mappa Mundi

I’m doing something very much up my alley; medieval maps of the world, or mappa mundi; Latin for maps of the world.

These are fucking brilliant; very Harry Potter, very Chronicles of Narnia, very Game of Thrones intro. And as a bonus, they often have stupid things depicted on them.

There are over a thousand mappa mundi but the vast majority are small, quite simple and are part of larger manuscripts. However, there are a small number of much more fun maps classified as ‘complex’ mappa mundi. These are the goodies and some of them are huge. The Ebstorf Map was 3.6 metres in diameter and was made out of 30 goatskins sewn together. It was created in around the middle of the 13th Century. Now you may have noticed that I have been using the past tense. That’s because, and I’d like your help with this Sam, could you hum the dambusters song please (

1940s public information voice:

Nineteen hundred and forty-three. Bomber Command unleashes the might of the RAF on the German city of Hanover. Hanover, in a geographically strategic location and the Third Reich’s fifth largest industrial centre, was producing guns, vehicles and rubber parts, and know the Germans love their rubber parts. In total, 6000 civilians are killed and over 90% of the city centre is destroyed. 900,000 incendiary bombs were dropped and the place was basically given a right Royal fucking over. God save the king.

In these bombing raids, the Ebstorf Map was destroyed but luckily it has been reproduced using old photos of the map and 30 goats (no, the goats bit is a lie).

Anyway, let me describe this wonderful map. It’s centred on Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is so god-damn important, and no, that wasn’t blasphemy because it’s true. The first Hebrew temple was built there by Soloman in 950BC. Abraham almost sacrificed his son to God in Jerusalem (nahhh! I’m only having a laugh Abraham! You takes things so seriously! You should have seen your face mate! Legend!). Jesus lived in Jerusalem and washed people’s feet and all that, was crucified and resurrected there too. In Islam, Muhammed apparently ascended to Heaven in Jerusalem, with Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones watching on playing a tune. Interestingly, Mohammed originally had Muslims praying facing Jerusalem not Mecca.

The map is also orientated with the East at the top. It is only recently that maps have been almost universally orientated with the north at the top. This is because the north was thought of as a rather miserable place where darkness comes from, and Scottish people, and Geoffrey Boycott, and Geordie Shore. Meanwhile, the west was where the sun disappeared, and the hopes and dreams of Africans disappeared, and where the rising line on BMI charts disappeared, and where on Black Friday people’s pride disappeared, and people’s passports disappeared, and where coronavirus reappeared, and reappeared, and reappeared again.

The east however is where the sun rises, where Jesus is to return from, where Eden lies and where people eat undercooked bats. Although it’s worth pointing out that Europe has been repeatedly ravaged by nomadic people from the Eurasian steppe.

At the top of this mappa mundi, we have Jesus’s face, looking remarkably like a teething, transitioning Jenison Aniston. To the far left and right, we have his hands, at the bottom, we have his feet, totally separated from his body. It gives the map the feel of the Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where she turns into a blueberry. Disappointingly, his tinkle isn’t poking out slightly south of Jerusalem.

All complex medieval mappa mundi were not for travel purposes. They were not supposed to help someone get from A to B. They were pictorial encyclopaedias, a visual guide to everything people knew about the world. So, they included snippets from classical stories and also classical geographical nonsense, and biblical references. So for example, when looking at a high definition version of this map, I found Noah waving cordially from his arc. I found Adam and Eve having an apple in the nip. I found a phoenix rising from the flames (that’s classical mythology). And I found some naked cannibals eating someone who is lying on the floor with no hands or feet saying, you’re a bunch of fine young cannibals, “she drives me crazy”. Meanwhile, above this scene, there is a man with very large ears who looks like he is saying, “pass me the salt would you Camilla”.

Now as we have moved onto discussing silly things on mappa mundi, I would like to move onto the Hereford mappa mundi, the largest mappa mundi in existence since the Ebstorf Map was destroyed. It’s approximately 1.5m in diameter, made of vellum (or calf skin) and around 700 years old. This map has narrowly avoided being destroyed also, it was hidden during the Interregnum (oh not bloody Cromwell again) under the floorboards of a chantry and during the Second World War it was stored elsewhere in case the city was bombed, which it was on one occasion killing 2 people, because there was a big munitions factory in Hereford. In fact, more damage to the munitions factory resulted from an accident in 1944 when a 910kg bomb accidentally went off, triggering others to blow too!

The Hereford mappa mundi, like the Ebstorf mappa mundi, has the east at the top with Jesus, this time looking a bit like a diva drag queen (hi, I’m Chrissy, Chrissy-Fiction, hi, I’m Erection, Res-Erection). Again, there are the classical references, such as the Pillars of Hercules (thought to be the straits of Gibraltar). There’s a picture of the Golden Fleece from Jazon and the Argonauts. We’ve got the labyrinth of Knossos, a story known for its bullshit from way back; nobody ever swept that place. Incidentally, what is the difference between a maze and a labyrinth? A maze has many options to choose from, whereas a labyrinth is one long winding route from A to B.

Then we get the sillys. We’ve got a man with 4 eyes, some Blemmyae (people with no heads and faces in their chests), sciopods (people with one leg that is used to shade them from the sun), griffins, unicorns, centaurs, one-eyed people and mermaids.

What I particularly like is that the city of Hereford is represented, and the picture of the town has been worn down by the countless numbers of pilgrims touching the image with their fingers saying ‘this is where we live’. This is a lovely indication of one of the purposes of this map which would have been to attract tourists/pilgrims to the area.

As Europeans started to explore the world they required maps to serve a more practical purpose, so accurate cartography developed to help people navigate. This process was helped by the rediscovery of more advanced classical works like Ptolemy’s Geographia which used coordinates.

Interestingly, as a final point, these medieval mappa mundi were probably strongly influenced by a now lost map put together for Emperor Augustus by close friend and ally Agrippa. Agrippa, amongst other things, was responsible for lots of urban redevelopment in Rome, you know turning rough industrial areas into fashionable high-density living areas with lots of bars, restaurants and cafés. He actually had the Pantheon built. Do you know how we know this? It says in fuck off great letters above the entrance. So Agrippa had a map of the world engraved in marble and displayed in a public place of Rome; the Porticus Vipansia. This map is thought to have heavily influenced the later mappa mundi, but with one slight difference; I imagine it was a damn site better. Remember, we’re talking about pre-Renaissance Medieval Europe compared with early Imperial Rome.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to view these awesome maps, there are lots of high-definition pictures of them online and a few interactive websites too.

Topic suggestion, puzzles.

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