Pigeon-guided missiles, Ninja dwarves, giant amoebas in the sky – the Fortean Times has got them covered

The supreme chronicle of bizarre happenings has just turned 40.

Since 1973 the Fortean Times has been dispensing bulletins about wolf children and pigeon-guided missiles, Ninja dwarves, vanishing tribes, talking tortoises and giant amoebas in the sky, sudden showers of small fish, rhubarb chutney explosions, buried Templar treasures and man-eating monsters in Siberian lakes. It’s a heady smorgasbord that makes the FT “probably the most remarkable magazine in the English speaking world,” according to the Edinburgh Review.

The Fortean Times: forty years of making heads go whoosh (Copyright Fortean Times 2013)
The Fortean Times: forty years of making heads go whoosh (Copyright Fortean Times 2013)

Founding editor Bob Rickard bashed out his first 20-page miscellany of curiosities on a typewriter, decorated it with Letraset and flogged it to fellow enthusiasts for 35p. From that modest beginning the FT has grown into a much loved full-colour glossy. Alan Moore, the author of V for Vendetta, proclaims it his “very favourite magazine in the world, material or otherwise!” And Moore is by no means the mag’s only fan.

The FT takes its name and inspiration from the patron saint of weird knowledge, Charles Fort. A generously upholstered New York gent with thick glasses and a fine walrus moustache, Fort laboured in the bowels of the British Museum and the New York Public Library throughout the 1910s and 1920s, obsessively collecting records of unexplained events from around the world on thousands of scraps of paper. By the time he died in 1932 he’d published four volumes of sensational reports with titles like Lo! He’d amassed 60,000 notes in shoeboxes. He’d also spawned a new discipline: the study of extraordinary phenomena not covered by mainstream science – or Forteana.

By 1932 he’d amassed 60,000 notes in shoeboxes and spawned a new discipline.

Everything outside the range of everyday experience fascinated Fort. He collected accounts of unidentified lights in the sky, crop circles, showers of frogs and fish, people who suddenly burst into flames, people who vanished without trace, objects that appeared in strange places, loud inexplicable noises, appearances of ball lightning and sightings of outlandish beasts. Nowadays we call this kind of thing “paranormal.”

A lot of paranormal talk centres on anecdotes whose details can’t be verified. But from time to time it leads to astonishing facts. In a recent example, an Oxford geneticist’s investigation into the yeti has yielded spectacular results. Prof. Bryan Sykes tested the DNA in samples of hair from two widely separated areas of the Himalayas. One came from the mummified remains of a creature a hunter had shot around 40 years ago in Ladakh in northern India. The other was a single hair a film expedition found in a bamboo forest in Bhutan ten years ago.

Amazingly the tests revealed an exact genetic match with the 40,000-to-120,000-year-old jawbone of a polar bear picked up on the other side of the world, in the Svalbard archipelago. More work needs to be done, but the results suggest that an as yet undiscovered kind of bear roams the high altitudes of the Himalayas. It could be the cryptozoological discovery of the decade.

(Copyright Fortean Times 2013)
First and latest editions of the Fortean Times (Copyright Fortean Times 2013)

For its loyal readers, the FT’s role in collecting reports of anomalous happenings makes it an irreplaceable resource. “It’s a journal of weird record,” explains FT writer and QI researcher Mat Coward, “a source of humour, a refuge for valuable and vulnerable eccentrics, a platform for controversy and debate, and occasionally … an organ for investigating important matters which the mainstream … is unable to investigate. But the FT also makes your head go whoosh, and that’s the bit I like best.”

It’s a shame to mention problems in the midst of the celebrations, but for all the FT’s strengths there’s some reason to worry about its future in an increasingly mobile media environment. Every print magazine must find a way to deal with the seismic shift in audiences as droves of readers turn away from print to digital formats, and the FT hasn’t been immune to the trend: ABC circulation figures suggest its print readership is about 40% smaller today than ten years ago.

The FT makes your head go whoosh, and that’s the bit I like the best.

Its inimitable personality and core of loyal subscribers give the FT an excellent chance of continuing its success into the next forty years. But its publisher Dennis urgently needs to invest in its online future. The fact the magazine’s now available as a digital edition for tablets and PCs is encouraging. But the FT’s website is looking sadly neglected: it hasn’t had a redesign for years and much of the content seems out of date. It’s high time the printed mag was complemented with an equally satisfying website – a mobile-friendly outlet for the kind of fresh tidbits that will attract a new online audience.

There’s an untold mob of online readers out there ready to discover the Fortean Times, but it needs more support from its publisher to reach them. Dennis should cherish this national treasure.