Tuesday 20 November 2012

Nessie Books: Plesiosaurs, Plagiarism and Prägnanz

Back in March 2012, I constructed a bibliography of the Loch Ness Monster detailing all the publications I was aware of on Nessie. That total came to fifty four books and booklets but since then I have picked up on more books of varying character which I would like to bring to your attention.

1. The Mysterious Monsters of Loch Ness
Harmsworth, Tony
Precision Press, 1980

This title is a slight variation on the 1934 booklet "The Mysterious Monster of Loch Ness". I thought I had covered the bases on older publications on the Loch Ness Monster, but one should never be presumptuous on this mysterious subject. Tony Harmsworth was curator of the Official Loch Ness Monster Exhibition back in the 1980s and they produced several publications. This 32-page item was one of the introductory booklets to the subject aimed mainly at the tourist trade.

Tony has gone over to the sceptical side of the debate now and in an effort to erase his past, he even reviewed his own book on amazon.com with this comment:

I wrote this 30 years before my new book Loch Ness, Nessie and Me. At the time I was working with very little material and it was all pro-monster. My learning curve over the next few years was dramatic to say the least. If you buy this it might be a bit of fun, but don't expect it to help you understand the mystery at Loch Ness, even in the slightest. My apologies to anyone who ever bought it. LOL. Collector's item possibly though.

One did not need to wait 30 years to discern Tony's changing stance as his 1985 booklet "Loch Ness - The Monster" demonstrated a more measured tone with such stories as Richard Frere telling Tony that he had personally witnessed Lachlan Stuart setting up his famous three humps photograph with hay bales and tarpaulin.

Having recently purchased the 1980 booklet and read it myself, I think Tony is being too critical of his own work. But then again, I continue to hold that some of the evidence he puts forward is still valid. But it warms the cockles of your heart to read Tony being "totally committed to the animals' reality" and putting the case strongly for a modified plesiosaur which he reckons is "very near to the truth indeed".

Well, the Loch Ness Monster may be a modified plesiosaur but those evolutionary changes would have to be quite a lot. But I'll leave that for another day and another article.

While we are on the subject of Tony's books, I would point out that his 2010 book, "Loch Ness, Nessie and Me" has been republished this September as "Loch Ness Understood" though Tony tells me this is to satisfy distributors and any changes in the book are more of a grammatical nature.

2. Loch Ness: An Explanation
Seniscal, Ben
Privately Published, 1982

This book, despite being listed on Amazon, is one of those Nessie books that has completely vanished from the face of the Earth (well, I am sure someone has a copy somewhere). Fortunately, the booklet is reprinted in his 1993 autobiography, "On the Road to Anywhere".

Ben Seniscal worked for the Forestry Commission in the 1950s and 1960s but was forced to retire on medical grounds in 1969 due to coming into contact with the pesticide chemical dioxin. He is pictured below in this photograph of forestry students at Benmore Forester Training School in 1959. He is seated to the far left on the front row (original link here).

I was curious to see whether his forestry work in Scotland crossed paths with two men I have discussed elsewhere - Lachlan Stuart and Richard Frere. As it turns out, I found no mention of them, to which I conclude he never met them or had nothing to say about them despite devoting two chapters to Loch Ness.

The first chapter on Loch Ness concentrates on his attempts to get his booklet published. With a private print run of several hundred copies, he was not particularly successful in getting his argument across to publishers. This would explain the extreme rarity of the booklet.

The next chapter is the reprint of the booklet and essentially it is similar to Maurice Burton's Vegetable Mat theory. Using his experience of forestry, he crafts a persuadable theory about how various aggregations of organic materials from forests can sink, decompose and then rise on methane gases to the surface of Loch Ness to form a hump like display. Add a protruding branch to the mass and you have your legendary head and neck. We even get the bonus explanation of gases ejecting horizontally to move the object forward!

However, practise contradicted theory in subsequent studies which showed that Loch Ness was generally not a suitable place for such scenarios due to conditions which slowed down decomposition rates. To this day, records of such organic eruptions are rare indeed and at best can only explain a small fraction of claimed sightings.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, he puts across the theory better than anyone and I hope to use his thoughts as a basis for a future article on this particular subject.

3. Gestalt Forms of Loch Ness
Byrne, Gerard
JRP Ringier, November 2011

I haven't purchased this book yet, but there is an abstract from another website:

In this book, Gerard Byrne brings together the culmination of ten years of research into the Loch Ness Monster, the myth fuelled in the 1930s by the popular press in order to sell newspapers. Appropriating formal conventions from the history of Land art that position landscape as the "other," Byrne has compiled a series of images that deploy Loch Ness as a signifier for the enigmatic, the unreadable. Using both the populist literature spawned by the Loch Ness myth and the photographic material his own expeditions have yielded as "found material," Byrne has developed a project both humorous and melancholic, that ultimately reflects a crisis of belief in the photographic image that has surfaced since the last heyday of Loch Ness interest in the 1970s.

At this point, I suspect the book is not only a personal voyage in pictures but a look at how everyday objects can deceive. The word "gestalt" is interesting in that it may refer to Gestalt Psychology which, according to Wikipedia:

is a theory of mind and brain of the Berlin School; the operational principle of gestalt psychology is that the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. The principle maintains that the human eye sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts. Gestalt psychologists stipulate that perception is the product of complex interactions among various stimuli.

The "Prägnanz" in the title is described thusly by Wikipedia:

The fundamental principle of gestalt perception is the law of prägnanz (in the German language, pithiness) which says that we tend to order our experience in a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetric, and simple.

Now, this may chime with a theory mentioned in previous posts which deals with the so-called "Nessie Effect" where witnesses see more than is actually there because their brains "interpret" the visual signals through various filters including an alleged "I Want To See Nessie" filter for want of a better phrase.

An interesting theory which resonates with a postmodern interpretation of cryptids suggesting "Nessie is whatever you want it to be". However, the theory's force is in inverse proportion to the clarity of the sighting. No one should seriously suggest this theory has any credence when the creature's proximity increases. 

4.  Loch Ness Monster in Popular Culture

5.  Loch Ness Monster
Russell, Jesse and Cohn, Ronald
2012, Bookvika Publishing 

Here we have a couple of books that seem worthy of a Christmas purchase, but this is a recommendation NOT to buy these books. It turns out you may well be wasting your money as previous buyers of books from Bookvika Publishing complain that the titles are just cut and paste jobs of various Wikipedia articles, etc. Actually, the product descriptions at amazon.co.uk says this:

"High Quality Content by WIKIPEDIA articles! The Loch Ness Monster is well known throughout Scotland and the rest of the world and has entered into popular culture."

Which is probably a clue to the buyer. The two authors may or may not exist but they have "authored" numerous books on diverse subjects such as Lee Remick, Diazepam and Syriac Literature which suggests they probably known little about the subject matter of their books.

But if you like Internet content packaged up into a book then this might be for you, but don't expect anything new. One could even argue that the web content might be gone or changed significantly in a few years and books like this have some function as pure and simple Internet snapshots. I think I remain to be convinced on that, but sites such as archive.org already do a pretty good job of archiving web pages.

The word "plagiarism" from this article title alliterates well but is probably not so applicable since these people are not making any claims to originality. I am also curious to know if any other material from the Internet (such as this blog) has ended up in their books because at 116 pages, it is hard to believe that Wikipedia alone could supply all that material. I may buy it just to find out, but in general, don't waste your money.