The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"I Believe in Gef!"

OK, not really. Not at all, in fact. But I still think that this is the most awesome article the WSJ has ever published:
The University of London's Senate House Library is one of the finest academic research institutions in England. On a recent day, a lecture room in the imposing Art Deco building was filled with the world's pre-eminent authorities on a talking mongoose named Gef.

In a nation long fascinated by the supernatural, the case of Gef the talking mongoose stands out as one of the most bizarre in British paranormal history. Though he is largely forgotten, a small but obsessive band of researchers refuses to let Gef go.

Gef (pronounced "Jeff") was a furry animal who is said to have skulked around the remote house of a poor farming family, the Irvings, on the Isle of Man in the 1930s.

He appeared to the family one night in 1931 making typical animal sounds. Next, the mongoose—a small carnivore rarely seen in the British Isles because it is native to Southern Asia and Africa—allegedly recited simple nursery rhymes.

Soon he was having entire conversations with the farmer, his wife and daughter and singing along to hit songs of the day such as "Carolina Moon," according to reports by the Irvings and a few other witnesses.

Frequently irritable and foul-mouthed, Gef nevertheless developed a relationship with the family, who left food out for him. He "eats sausages and kippers and the lean of uncooked bacon. He does not touch eggs," James Irving, father of the family, wrote in one of dozens of letters to various paranormal investigators about Gef.

The mongoose, Mr. Irving said, would prowl around neighbors' properties, delivering gossip about them back to the Irvings. Occasionally, Gef sounded like a new-age guru or a cult leader, exclaiming: "I am the fifth dimension! I am the eighth wonder of the world!"

Gef became a minor media sensation, drawing hordes of journalists to the Isle of Man seeking a glimpse of this talking mongoose. Only one ever claimed success in communicating with Gef, writing a 1932 article headlined: "'Man-Weasel' Mystery Grips Island: Queerest Beast talks to 'Daily Dispatch' reporter."
Now, when a friend showed this to me, I immediately remembered the story, which I read at nine years old, as recorded by Nandor Fodor in my grandmother's copy of Haunted People. I read that book over and over when visiting; some of the stories were just dull, obvious fakes. Some, like the Bell Witch were deliciously creepy, and fascinated as they chilled. Hey, I was nine.

But then there was Gef. Nothing to be afraid of, there. And if a hoax, a thoroughly awesome one. A cute little animal who cursed people out, and occasionally sang to you. Fodor describes him as shrieking at an unwanted visitor "Go away! Clear to Hell!"; the WSJ recounts that "At one point, Gef is quoted as shouting out to Mr. Irving as he opens a letter:'Read it out you fat-headed gnome!'" To my nine year old self, Gef was all kinds of awesome.

Academics think so too, it seems; from the WSJ:
Richard Espley, the director of the library's English-language collection, who had never heard of Gef before he started at the library two years ago. "At some level I think I was humoring a colleague when I started reading into it," Mr. Espley says, "and now I'm sitting there with my piles of handwritten-notes and photocopied articles."

Mr. Espley, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the representation of animals in the novels of the American modernist writer Djuna Barnes, delivered a paper at the symposium that tried to make sense of why Gef becomes enraged by the act of reading. At one point, Gef is quoted as shouting out to Mr. Irving as he opens a letter: "Read it out you fat-headed gnome!'"

"The resistance to text and the preference for orality is fundamental to Gef's nature," Mr. Espley said, speaking to the group.

"I'm going to go further, and, uh, hopefully you'll follow me," Mr. Espley continued. "I'd like to encourage you to think of Irving as a bardic singer of tales and Gef as a partly described, partly-curiously-present aspect of a living, definitely oral tale of exactly the kind which is found in the Panchatantra, the mongoose Ur-narrative."
With classic understatement Christopher Josiffe confronts the evidence:
Josiffe has been looking at it for seven years using the resources of the Senate House Library, the world's main repository of primary source material on Gef thanks to a bequest from the famous British paranormal researcher Harry Price. The collection includes Mr. Irving's extensive letters about Gef and a sample of hair allegedly snipped from Gef by the Irvings that appears to be in fact from a dog. "This is where it gets a bit dodgy, I'm afraid," Mr. Josiffe says.
Yeah, that's one way to put it. A hoax? Well, sure. But a great one.

Gef, eighty years on, remains awesome. Luring academics into his world, making them rationalize his charm, all while the self-described "little extra, extra clever mongoose" stalks the edges of imagination and reality--and academia as well.

Gef was Honey Badger before the Internet.

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