Thursday, June 11, 2009
Neil Arnold on Kent Beasts
Not only is Neil Arnold a good mate, he's also the author of the recently-published Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Kent - an in-depth, and massive, study of the strange and elusive beasts of Neil's home-county of Kent, England.
Published by Jon Downes' Center for Fortean Zoology, it's the latest in a series of titles that - ultimately - will chronicle the exploits of the odd and elusive animals of every British county. Just a few days ago, I caught up with Neil, who was good enough to answer my questions about his book, its contents and much more. So, sit back and enjoy the interview!
Nick: Can you summarise what your new book is about?
Neil: The book is about the county of Kent and its unusual inhabitants, i.e. strange creatures, folkloric monsters and a few other mysteries. To be honest, it's a shame it isn't called MYSTERY ANIMALS OF KENT, because MYSTERY ANIMALS OF THE BRITISH ISLES: KENT is a bit long. But of course, it's part of the CFZ unique series covering the British Isles. Anyway, the book also touches upon London and Sussex cases, mainly because these areas neighbour Kent and a few cases melt into other counties.
Nick: What prompted you to write it?
Neil: The book needed to be written! And I'm the man to do it! Jon Downes mentioned he was doing a series of nationwide books, but I always had the material to write a book, whoever published it. It was just a case of going through files and deciding what was going to be put in and also left out. I was going to write a book on the 'big cat' stuff, and then a another volume on other mystery animals. Jon felt that the book would be good for two volumes, but I preferred it as one but it took a lot trimming! It's a book that has been in my system for about twenty years. It's great that it's now off my chest.
Nick: Living in Kent, did that kind of give you a feeling of wanting to write a book about the place you grew up in?
Neil: There was so much weirdness to document. It was a thrill writing it because much of what's in the book is my own field investigations rather than regurgitation which plagues the books of 90% of authors today. I wanted to write about not just the mysteries, but the feel of the places. And it was great going over old cases and being able to put the memories on paper for others to share. Kent is a very weird place.
Nick: Your book focuses quite heavily on big cats in Kent. Can you explain your views on where the big cats are coming from, and some of the more significant Kent cases you have investigated?
Neil: The whole 'big cat' thing has intrigued me since I was about 8 years old; but I never expected to be researching and writing about them full-time. Like I said, the evidence I've collated was just too immense to put into a book. I've left about 40% of my cat stuff out, but I knew that I'd have to include a hell of a lot of sightings just to prove to people what a 'big cat' researcher does, and should be doing. Again, it was great going through old files, and hopefully the book, which isn't just a listing of sightings (although there's a few thousand in there), will teach people about the biology, talk about the theories, and also dismiss a lot of the inaccurate folklore. these cats are real. FACT. I don't really care about anyone's esoteric views on these animals, there is no mystery. But because a lot of what's written in the press and across the Internet is complete rubbish, or something akin to train-spotting, the situation has for many years been considered a bit of fun or a laughing stock, and I can understand why. The book explains where large, exotic cats have come from, it explains that the only 'big cat' out there is the black leopard - sorry, but no lions and tigers, and also why the investigation should be a science, and not a past-time for camouflaged idiots. There are hundreds of significant cases in the book, from cats killed on the roads, my personal encounters after tracking cats for years, meeting people who've released cats, and that's why I've put the cat stuff into sections pertaining to areas. Just so many stories. It has been a real privilege to have seen what I've seen. It's just a shame that these animals are put alongside ghosts, monsters and UFOs when all that's happened in the past is that travelling menageries, private collector's, circuses, Gypsy families, and even the Romans, have released such animals, or they've escaped and over time they've established themselves in our wilds. No big deal.
Nick: Some of the creatures you feature in the book - such as British Bigfoot reports - seem more zooform in nature. Can you discuss a couple of British Bigfoot reports and your views on what they may be?
Neil: The last few chapters of the book talk about sightings of 'things' which quite simply are too weird to be flesh and blood. Eight-feet tall red eyed, hairy humanoids are not part of our nature, yet somehow people are seeing these creatures. I've often believed Bigfoot, the Yeti to be real, but when these creatures, or something similar starts turning up in the UK we have to look more at the human psyche, or the lay of the land. I don't know what they are but I've met genuine people who've been terrified by sightings of hulking man-beasts in the local woods. As the book was going to press I received a report from a young lady who was driving one night and saw a tall, spindly humanoid cross a stretch of road. The creature had long arms and knees which, as it walked, came up under its chin. It was completely black in colour with a domed head, and scared her so much she almost crashed. These are genuine encounters but I really don't know why people see these kind of things. Maybe such encounters originate with the original 'woodwose', or 'wild man of the woods,' depicted in old scriptures etc. There are some creatures, or forms seen all over the world which are beyond human understanding and they can't simply be creatures awaiting discovery, they are from some other place, and not the woods, sky or waterways.
Nick: Do you focus on out-of-place animals, such as wallabies? Any thoughts on origins?
Neil: There are several tales of roaming wallabies - again, no real mystery, as such animals were farmed in the UK, and there are numerous cases of such marsupials escaping into the wilds from private pens. One particular creature was unfortunately hit by a lorry a few years back. I'd say that most sightings of exotic reptiles, strange birds, large cats, foreign insects etc, are all down to careless owners. Of course, some animals will perish in our climate, but some have established themselves. We have the wild boar back now, too.
Nick: What is your favorite Kent monster?
Neil: There are several, and generally they pertain to Blue Bell Hill, which I'll speak more of in the next answer. Kent has tales of phantom hounds, like most counties in the UK, and we have a few dragon stories which melt into Sussex folklore. And I've been amazed by a handful of sightings recently of a thirty-foot long eel-like beast in the River Medway which runs behind my apartment! The sightings date back over a century, and it was last seen in 2008. There are just so many cases, some very sinister and these are the ones which attract me the most.
Nick: Does Kent have any so-called "window areas" (similar to Staffordshire's Cannock Chase) where strange animals proliferate? If yes, can you discuss?
Neil: I grew up fearing a place about a mile from my home. It's called Blue Bell Hill, and I believe it's one of the weirdest places on Earth. The place is ancient, yet it's a small rural village near Maidstone which harbours Kits Coty House, a set of standing stones said to be older than Stonehenge. The place has always had a mystical quality and because of the stones the place attracts black and white witches. And there have been a few crop circles turn and the occasional UFO sighting; but Blue Bell Hill was really made famous in 1992 by a spate of sightings of a road apparition. Several motorists reported hitting a girl in the village, who disappeared as she went under their car. The press were quick to tie the apparition to a crash which occurred in 1965 in which several women, including a bride-to-be were killed. However, I don't think there's a connection but the press kinda embedded the story into local society. Sightings have taken place previous to 1965, and there's also been a sighting of a hag-like figure, as well as spectral hounds. During the late 1990s the press jumped on the 'big cat' bandwagon, and the 'beast of Blue Bell Hill' was born. But the first sighting dates back to around 1560! Again, as you know, the press like to tie mysteries to certain 'window' areas. There have been sightings of sky serpents of Blue Bell Hill, red-eyed man-beasts, and general ghosts, as the ground dates back to the Roman period and several tombs line the hillsides. It's only a small place but it has always sent a chill down my spine and I adore spending time there; it inspires me. The road ghost was so active that 'she' was crowned the 'queen of the road ghosts', even more prolific than Resurrection Mary in the United States. Of course, phantom hitcher tales have become the stuff of urban legend, but in the case of the Blue Bell Hill phantom, it very much happened. More info can be found at: http://www.roadghosts.com/
Nick: Are there any cases you didn't include in the book? If yes, why?
Neil: A good deal of material was left out. Some of which came to my attention when it was too late to submit it - a river monster tale from the 1800s, the mention of twelve wild dogs which escaped from a local zoo recently, a sea serpent carcass washed up on a local beach which was brought to my attention by Karl Shuker who mentions the case in his 'The Beasts That Hide From Man' book, and of course, a lot more 'big cat' information. There were numerous other cases pertaining to smaller mystery creatures too such as weird insects etc, but I ran out of room!
Nick: What do you hope the book will achieve?
Neil: I just want people to find the book as a great reference to the animal absurdities of this county. I hope when I'm dead and gone researchers will still use this book as the first ever of its kind to document Kent and the strange things which have happened. It's a unique book locally, and no-one has the experience I gained in researching the exotic cats, and I think a lot of people want to know about the truth. Finally, I can say, "Well here it is..."Nick: What has been the reaction in Kent to the book re the media etc?
Neil: The media has been very positive, and finally even the sceptics can see how much info and evidence I've accumulated. Private sales have been fantastic. It has been hard keeping up with the orders and I sell a lot whilst giving lectures. It's been great to get excerpts of the book in the local papers etc, and I hope people will sift through the 400 pages, and 280,000 words and appreciate the work that went into it!
Nick: What future plans do you have re writing and research?
Neil: I considered knocking the 'cat' research on the head, which I'm sure would please a few detractors. I'm not getting as much chance now to get out in the field, but I've been there and done it in that respect. I have almost finished MYSTERY ANIMALS OF...LONDON, and will do a Sussex one; but I don't plan on writing such a huge, bloated volume. I'm still enjoying writing unusual articles, for books such as 'Dark Lore'. I will always write for 'Animals & Men' and be a part of the CFZ, and it's great giving talks on something I'm so passionate about. I still want to do my CRYPTOZOOLOGY IN THE MOVIES book; which is half-done but in a mess. But I'm a moody bugger; so I might give it all up and joining a glam rock band...watch this space...