Tony Barrell travels back to the day in 1976 when he spotted a UFO. He suspects it was this experience that led to his career of investigating the weird, the unusual and the unexplained – beginning with the famous ‘flying saucer’ crash at Roswell
THE SUNDAY TIMES, 2002
Guy Fawkes’ Night wasn’t a big deal for me at the age of 18. As I ambled home from work on November 5, 1976, I was probably looking forward to a pub crawl with my friends rather than a few damp squibs in the garden with my parents. More likely, I suspect my mind was virtually a blank, the kind of meditative state that often precedes a ghostly experience or a religious vision. I certainly wouldn’t have been thinking about work: I was a trainee computer programmer at Crawley Borough Council, a job I was happy to abandon at 5.20pm every evening – or 4.25pm, weirdly, on Fridays like this – for my 10-minute stroll home.
A jovial careers adviser had suggested the job – based, I thought then, on an inspired reading of the unique potential displayed by my O-levels in English, Latin, French, maths and art. All too late, I now realise he saw me as an archetypal nerd, a misshapen peg for a slightly off-square hole. I had rampaging acne, long hair spilling dandruff down my slouching shoulders, an addiction to prog-rock records and pints of lager-and-blackcurrant. I was one of those irritating fools who memorise whole Monty Python sketches. Girlfriends were something other people had. In my spare time, I laboured over a shapeless novel about a sinister lobster recipe that was taking over the world, though most of the action was confined to my home town of Crawley, West Sussex. I was a Hobbit in all but name. What other choice of employment could anyone have suggested?
It was floating above the rooftops: an assemblage of mysterious lights. It seemed to be wobbling from side to side in the darkness
But as I turned the corner into my home territory of Buckmans Road in the district of West Green, destiny was about to deal me a new role. A mission. A pointer for the future that I had consistently failed to visualise for myself.
It was floating above the rooftops of my road – an assemblage of mysterious lights. It didn’t seem to be travelling in a linear way but wobbling from side to side in the darkness, without making a sound. I stopped and watched it, dumbfounded. Then I remembered it was Guy Fawkes’ Night. Oh, it’s a rocket, I remember thinking. Or an Air Bomb. Or some other firework that goes up in the air. But when the lights continued to wink and hover for several minutes, I discounted that theory.
No, this was an unidentified flying object, possibly a spacecraft piloted by aliens. People see them all the time; it’s just that it hadn’t happened to me before. I was excited beyond intelligent thought. I was trembling so much, I almost shook myself out of my tank top and Oxford bags.
Who’s to say, I thought, that this isn’t the start of a full-scale invasion? The whole planet could be destroyed in a flash
There was fear in the excitement, because I was dealing with the unknown. Who’s to say, I remember thinking, that this isn’t the start of a full-scale invasion? It could be The War of the Worlds or, at best, The Day the Earth Stood Still. People could be massacred; the whole planet could be destroyed in a flash. It was the kind of day when anything could have happened – indeed, I have since discovered that on this very same day, a former member of the band Steps was born.
I hurried home and gibbered to my mother that there was a UFO outside, just down the road. I was disappointed that she wasn’t that bothered; instead of rushing outside to see it for herself, she suggested I call nearby Gatwick Airport to see if they had spotted anything on their radar. So I checked the telephone directory, picked up the receiver on our green Trimphone and dialled. “Why do you ask, young man?” an urbane aviation official asked me. “What have you seen?” I could almost hear his regulation RAF moustache twitching.
“A UFO,” I replied, helpfully.
“Well, we haven’t picked up anything unidentified here. Are you sure?”
“I think so.”
“Don’t worry, young man, we’ll keep a lookout.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”
When I went back outside to check on the progress of the object, it had gone. For some reason, my dear old mum thought it would be a good idea to get in touch with the local paper, the Crawley Observer. Possibly for the same reason, I agreed, without considering the consequences. A friendly reporter chap sounded mildly interested and said someone might get back to me. He didn’t say, “if we don’t have any better news this week”, but that’s what the cynical, grown-up part of me hears now when I recall the conversation.
There was a call for me at the office the following week. Was I the youngster who’d seen the flying saucer? Yes, I said, if that’s what it was. In the cold light of day, I was on the point of disowning the experience and starting to clutch at rational explanations. I also wished that I hadn’t phoned the paper. I gave a half-hearted and not terribly articulate interview, mumbling into the receiver lest my story be heard by my work colleagues, many of whom held diplomas in the art of mickey-taking.
The reporter asked if a photographer could call and take a picture. “No,” I said, “the UFO’s not there any more. It disappeared after several minutes.” No, a picture of me, the local hack patiently explained. “Oh, okay then,” I must have said, because a snapper duly turned up on the doorstep one evening. As a Sunday Times writer I have had the pleasure of working with some fine photographers since, but this guy had an imagination like no other. “Could you pick up something round?” he asked. “Like a saucer? And look at it?” The nearest such object was a cheap ashtray with a photograph of Blackpool Tower in its centre, a souvenir from a distant holiday. I held it up and smiled, and the flash went off.
For months afterwards I read every trashy paperback about UFOs and aliens I could get my hands on
“That UFO was no firework,” trumpeted the Observer, above the picture of me and the ashtray. The anonymous reporter had had some easy fun with the story: “Air traffic control at Gatwick missed the scoop of a lifetime on Friday, when a UFO hovered over West Green…” My age was omitted, giving me an enigmatic village-idiot quality. Friends and co-workers went through the whole pantomime of ridicule, the most repeated jest being that I must have “had a few”. One of my mother’s female office colleagues looked at my photo and commented that I was a “nice-looking lad”, blithely ignoring the terrible threat of alien invasion implicit in the story.
The sighting “has certainly increased my interest in these things”, I had told my interviewer. “Now I would like to find out more about it.” True to my word, for months afterwards I read every trashy paperback about UFOs and aliens I could get my hands on. The more I read, the more I was prepared to believe that not only were we just one of a myriad of intelligent races in the universe, but also that Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids and, in all probability, the Hanger Lane gyratory system had been built by extraterrestrial visitors. The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out in 1977, and I gorged on that as well.
But like many adolescent enthusiasms, my obsession inevitably waned. I put away childish things, grew up, switched my career to journalism, and eventually joined The Sunday Times. In 1997, the editor of The Sunday Times Magazine, unaware of my former life, spontaneously decided I was just the person to fly to Roswell, New Mexico, to cover the 50th anniversary of the legendary UFO crash there.
Roswell was packed with nutters in alien suits, and ufologists arguing the toss about spaceships and weather balloons
Roswell was the assignment I was born for. I had already done half of the research, unwittingly, in my teens. The town was packed with nutters in alien suits, and earnest ufologists arguing the toss about spaceships and weather balloons, and I could never go far without meeting someone who wanted to discuss how alien technology was secretly used by modern stealth bombers, or who needed to offload their own stories of alien abduction. Some of these tales made The X-Files look like Bob the Builder. And not only did I get to interview the celebrity abductee Whitley Strieber, author of Communion, but we had an enjoyable if abstruse argument about time travel after he suggested that the Roswell craft had come from the far future of our own world.
This was also my first visit to America. Imagine that – your first impression of the good ol’ US of A isn’t Manhattan, Disneyland or the Golden Gate Bridge but a southern hick town in the desert, with pictures of black-eyed “greys” gazing out from most of the shop windows.
Subsequent assignments have seen me hunting for ghosts at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, attending pagan rituals in Britain, hanging out with Monster Raving Loonies, and joining an alien-loving religious group for nude meditation in Canada. Why, people frequently ask me, do I fixate on the unusual, the offbeat, the unexplained and the paranormal? Let me lie on this couch awhile and I’ll tell you. Well, maybe it makes me feel like a teenager again. There is also the possibility that the whole experience of November 5, 1976 – the sighting and the humiliation that followed it – intensified my ability to empathise with people whom many others would dismiss as crackpots. I’ve been there, bought the T-shirt: I know what it’s like to confess to unusual beliefs and to suffer mockery for them.
I’m sure that some of the more out-there ufologists I’ve met would have another hypothesis: that the craft I saw landed in my street and I was abducted by the aliens on board, that they programmed me with a mission to enlighten the world about all kinds of weird and wacky subjects, and then erased my memory. Perhaps I should have my head examined: it may contain an elaborate implant fashioned from an otherworldly metal.
But I really don’t think so. You see, although my experience was a defining moment, even perhaps a passport to an unusual career, I have grave doubts about its authenticity. I have tried over and over again to replay that memory, clean it up, bring it up to something approaching DVD quality, so I can determine exactly what I saw. I’ve tried to revisit those moments through meditation, and I’ve been back there in dreams. I can’t make myself 18 again, even with a lengthy series of hormone injections, so it’s a tough one. But what follows is the best I can do.
It is already quite dark. The air is heavy with smoke from early bonfires and fireworks. I can hear them popping and fizzing at regular intervals. My attention is attracted by lights in the sky, above the rooftops. There is at least one red light, at least one white light, and they are glowing and winking eerily. The lights aren’t self-contained dots, but trails in the air. If whatever is responsible for the lights is making a noise, I can’t hear it over the sound of all the bangers and rockets and Roman candles. (This may explain why I told the local paper that the object was hovering “absolutely silently”.) One of my neighbours is standing outside one of the houses nearby, but I can’t bring myself to speak to him or her; my memory doesn’t make it entirely clear who they are or what sex they are. (My reluctance to speak to this neighbour may be based on uncertainty as well as shock: I don’t want to share this experience until I have established that it really is an experience. I am also very shy.)
I hate programming computers and I need a break. Yippee, this is a UFO, and my life will never be the same again
I continue to watch the object for a few minutes. It doesn’t seem to be moving away from me or towards me, but hovering and wobbling from side to side. It is at this point that I realise – or rather, believe – that I am seeing something very special. I begin to worry about alien landings. It has been a tough week at work, I hate programming computers and I need a break. Yippee, this is a UFO, and my life will never be the same again.
As special-effects designers know, ordinary lights can appear extraordinary when they are filtered through smoke. And, as good UFO investigators are aware, everyday objects may appear alien when they are viewed from unusual angles, and their trajectories may not be perceived correctly. If a flying machine were travelling away from me, it might seem to be static or wobbling from side to side.
The answer is so obvious. But I think I’ve been in denial for a long time, because I so wanted that experience to be truly supernatural.
Reader, I’m really sorry. I think it was an aeroplane. ♦
© 2014 Tony Barrell