After a decade of pressuring the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to release some of its 11,000 case reports on UFO sightings in the UK (having filed many FOIA requests and conducted his own investigations into Britain's UFO paperwork) Dr David Clarke's efforts paid off in 2008 when those files were made public, prior to the MoD's UFO desk closing in 2009.
Since World War Two the government had logged – and, at times, investigated – reports of UFOs. In 2009, the MoD claimed that not one UFO sighting it had looked into had been of military or defence interest, and that the effort and resources put into monitoring the reports was no longer deemed worth it. In an about-face from "poacher to game keeper", Clarke was appointed curator for the transfer of these files into the National Archive.
A lecturer in folklore and journalism, Clarke's years of working on Britain's UFO papers led to his new book, UFO Drawings from The National Archives, a beautiful collection of paintings, diagrams and drawings from the archive, complimented by the accounts that came with them. We spoke to Dr Clarke, of Sheffield Hallam University, about the difficulty of being a journalist working on UFOs.
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VICE: For those not familiar, what was your route into the world of UFO research?
David Clarke: I got into it as a journalist. Before we had the Freedom of Information Act, they used to release previously secret government documents on New Year's Day – all the documents that were over 30 years old. It used to be a big media event.
Of course, New Year's Day is dead as a doornail for news – nothing going on. I was at The Yorkshire Post and they used to make me look through those released files to find things to run in January. Naturally you are looking for a crazy story, and the UFO files kept coming up.
I had an interest in the subject already, having seen Encounters of the Third Kind in the cinema aged ten. From there I went on to reading paper backs about UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle and so on. I had moved on, but got back into that area in the late-90s when The X-Files came out. And then all these files came along, and I needed a niche as a journalist…
Once you started reading the files, was there a particular angle that hooked you, or was it just the childhood interest flooding back?
The thing that intrigued me was that I knew from looking over the released files that there was this mysterious Ministry of Defence department that looked at UFOs! They were looking at the subject for about 60 years and spending quite a bit of public money on it. I wanted to know why. From the mid-90s this stuff was coming out in bits and pieces, up until 2006 or 2007, when they decided to make public all this stuff that had been, until that point, largely secret. The first British government documents on UFOs were actually released to the National Archives in 1986 as part of that 30-year rule. They included the famous memo sent in 1952 by PM Winston Churchill to the Air Ministry that asked: "What's all this stuff about flying saucers? What is the truth?"
They didn't release the secret files in 2008 on a whim. I'd spent a lot of time investigating – speaking with people who had reported sightings, as well as tracking down those I could who were involved in investigating them. From 1998 I was bombarding the government with FOIAs. The more eccentric UFO fans would write to them saying, "We know you are hiding crashed flying saucers, we know the truth!" And of course if you were one of the Ministry people you would just be like, "Please go away."
I liked that aspect of the book. Your description of these supposedly hi-tech, top secret government departments, the "Men In Black"… but actually they come across more as harassed, under-resourced people in back rooms under piles of letters about god knows what who eventually effectively said, "Sod it, you can have it all." You definitely dent the glamour surrounding that side of things.
There's that mythic idea of a lavishly funded X-files department that rush around in black suits… it's more like Yes Minister. Or was, as it doesn't exist any more.
It must be very hard to exist in that world for so long as a skeptic, and to balance that with spending time with so many people who believe strongly that they have seen things that can't be explained by earthly means.
It's not easy. I mean, where do I start? There's obviously something there – it's very hard to detach oneself and be completely objective. The first question people usually ask me is, "Do you believe in UFOs?" Which I find very odd. Why ask that? If I wrote a book about the history of Christianity, the first question wouldn't be, "Do you believe in Jesus?", would it?
This crosses over to another issue you talk about in the book – that of people's assumptions and associations. You say "UFO" and people think 'aliens'. But of course the vast majority of UFO claims are explained away without getting anywhere near even a suggestion of extraterrestrial causes.
Well, the irony here is that when UFOs first became big, in the late-1940s, it was all about "flying saucers". A flying saucer is explicitly a craft from another world. The American air force came up with the term "UFO" to get away from that association. But that's now come full circle. The MoD actually came up with a new term – UAP, which stands for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. It avoids the use of the word object, and the associations people have with UFO. They used that from around 2000 onward until they closed the desk.
How does someone who's spent so long looking over this material, of which there's so much, go about selecting the few cases you included in the book? Is the book a shortlist of your favourites, a selection of the best images?
It was a balance. It's an image-led book – an art book – so I had to favour the more visually striking cases. But some of the most interesting cases, or stories, aren't particularly well illustrated. Not everyone did a painting or drawing of what they saw.
In some cases I felt that the less artful illustrations were just as revealing. The style of image, to an extent, tells you something about those making the claim. From the really matter of fact map drawn by a policeman, to the ridiculously elaborate, full-colour illustrations some sent in.
I am glad you think that, and that that's how it comes over. People tend to think of UFOs as just one thing. You can see in the book that there are a zillion things that can be UFOs. Zillions of things that cause people to see what they think are UFOs, and these people are from all sorts of backgrounds. You get the imaginative accounts by people who claim to be in contact with aliens, and you get quite ordinary people who have no interest in the subject at all. That policeman you mentioned was just out checking doors. He felt he should report what he saw, submitted it as a standard police report. He didn't expect anyone to get back to him, and he certainly didn't imagine his report would become public.
Another thing that comes over in the book is the different responses people have to explanations they are given. Some people clearly have no interest in being told anything that deviates from their own view.
But then there are others who very happily accept explanations given. It's impossible to generalise about people who see UFOs. Some do have that will to believe – it's almost a religious thing. They might not be people who go to church, but they still seem to be looking for something – something more in their lives. To them, seeing a thing they don't understand in the sky is akin to a religious experience. And of course it can become an obsession.
How much of the UFO phenomenon is mass hysteria of a sort, driven by popular culture, and how much is innocent interpretation of unexplained sightings?
People have experiences, genuine experiences. But nobody is free from the impact of popular culture. You have people reporting sightings saying, "I have no interest in popular culture, but…" and you're like, "Come off it – you haven't ever seen Thunderbirds, or The X-Files?" Even if people genuinely don't think they are influenced by those things, they may well be. There was a famous psychology experiment where they briefly showed a group of people a picture with a flying object on it, then asked them to draw it again. People drew classic "flying saucers", with windows or flanges or whatever, but that wasn't what they were shown… where was that coming from? It was coming from that stock of sci-fi imagery.
There are cases in the book where detailed accounts of UFO sightings, by seemingly rational people, were conclusively shown to be run of the mill aircraft sightings.
On that psychology side, there's a case of a woman driving at night with her boyfriend in Essex, in the 70s, on the A12, I think. She saw an object overhead – a triangle shape with lots of white lights on it. She was transfixed. They pulled over and thought it was going to land on the car! She said it wasn't a plane, that it had no wings and made no sound. Her father was an RAF Group Captain who reported it officially – a pages-long account of the event and object. This agency DI55 looked into it – they are the real X-Files lot, defence intelligence staff. They got radar records and found that, without any shadow of doubt, what they had seen was an aircraft landing at Stansted airport. They traced it to the time and place.
But even if what she saw was a plane, what she thought she saw, and what she reported, was a UFO. People see ordinary things in extraordinary circumstances, or extraordinary things in ordinary circumstances… both can lead to these sightings.
I once saw an object in the sky that I couldn't explain; it zoomed between two tall buildings. It turned out to be a Tesco carrier bag, but I only knew that because I followed it around the building and saw it land. If I had wanted to believe maybe I would have reported it as a flying saucer.
How many of the reports sent in to the UFO desk actually led to investigations?
Very, very few. But it changed over the years. When the desk was first set up in the Churchill years, it was all taken very, very seriously because people really thought these might have been Soviet spy planes. The Americans had Project Blue Book at that time too. Even then the British version was, as usual, a cut-price version run by air force intelligence, but that was a golden era for UFO investigations in the UK.
Later it was handled by civilians, and it started to attract attention from people like the Aetherius Society, who bombarded them with letters. There were protests outside Whitehall demanding "the truth" as early as 1958.
When the Americans packed it in in the late-60s the British continued to collect and look at these reports. A lot of the earliest, and most thorough, investigations were actually destroyed – as they predated things like freedom of information, public records act and so on. Of course, the fact these were destroyed plays into the hands of the more conspiracy-minded UFO enthusiasts, even though the government destroys stuff all the time.
By the time you get to the 1980s and 90s it's just a constant washing of hands – no one wants anything to do with it. The last time they had a real field investigation team sent out was in the late-1960s.
What is your overriding view of the UFO world, in light of your investigations?
One of the MoD's UFO desk officers I tracked down was an air force psychologist called Alex Cassie. He'd been investigating air crashes and their causes, focusing on why pilots made mistakes they shouldn't. He was drafted into this real life X-Files team investigating flying saucer sightings. When I spoke to him he said he had visited about half a dozen people around 1967, 68, and I distinctly remember what he said to me – he said, "I came to the conclusion that the people who see UFOs are far more interesting than the UFOs themselves." And I came to the same conclusion myself, actually.
UFO Drawings from The National Archives is available now, on Four Corners Books.
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