No one would invent a story like this
The tale of Gef, the Talking Mongoose of the Isle of Man, is – as John Irving said – “bloody silly”. Was he a ghost, a house-fairy, a poltergeist, or a teenager’s ventriloquism-based hoax? Who knows…
The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose
Strange Attractor Press 2017
Pb, £15.99, 404pp, illus, notes, bib, ind, ISBN 9781907222481 I remember my grandmother reading me Rudyard Kipling’s short story ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ ( The Jungle Book, 1894). In it, the eponymous mongoose (so named for his constant chattering) is adopted by a British family in India and becomes protective of their home. This sprang to mind when I came across Gef, the Talking Mongoose of the Isle of Man. Here, too, a British family adopts a chatterbox mongoose who is very protective of the house; there the similarity ends.
The story of Gef ranks pretty high in the list of those curious fortean narratives that cannot be easily pigeonholed. The Irving family – father John, mother Margaret and 13-year-old Voirrey (a Manx version of Mary) – lived in a plain two-storey farmhouse, on the bleak hillside of Cashen’s Gap, on the south-western coast of the Isle of Man. John Irving, who imported pianos, had turned to farming when WW2 cut-off theit transatlantic supply. Voirrey had grown up here, her school a couple of rooms in the church buildings.
Beginning in September 1931, persistent scratching noises and sounds like rudimentary speech could be heard coming from behind the wood panelling of the walls in the Irving home. In time, John, Margaret and Voirrey all claimed they had seen Gef (the name came later) and could converse with him. Originally described as weasel-like, with hands capable of holding and manipulating objects, the curious creature seemed to be intelligent, literate, and could hear and repeat everything the Irvings and visitors said in the house. Gef also claimed to visit other locations on the island, bringing back news and gossip, to protect their livestock, and to bring them rabbits for supper.
Gef’s high-pitched voice often needed interpretation and John Irving was happy to oblige. Investigators were quick to wonder if the girl was using some kind of ventriloquism, possibly using the gaps between the walls and the wooden cladding used for insulation. Despite close observations over many years, this was never conclusively exposed. Father, mother and daughter all said Gef had spoken to them when the others were known to be miles away. John, Margaret and Voirrey seemed to believe, genuinely, in the reality of Gef, but more as a clever, evolved creature than the reincarnated Indian he declared himself to be.
Although the Irvings denied any knowledge of spiritualism – John Irving even protested that “No one would invent such a bloody silly story!” – some investigators have speculated that they could have known enough. Spiritualism was rife throughout Britain at this time and Voirrey especially seemed susceptible to local gossip. There is certainly an analogy to be drawn between the way ‘Old Scratch’ manifested to the Fox sisters in the mid-1800s – leading them to believe that communication with spirits was possible through coded knockings – and the gestation of Gef, from his simple scratchings to speech. The Irving family and home also endured typical poltergeist peltings.
The leading psychical investigators, Harry Price and Nandor Fodor, came to see for themselves. Given his interest in Freudian psychology and a knowledge of the characteristics of other ‘poltergeist girls’, Fodor observed the family dynamics (father was domineering, Margaret submissive and Voirrey intelligent yet solitary), but there was no evidence Voirrey or her mother were abused psychologically or sexually. Price was told that due to the remoteness of the farm, the girl rarely associated with other children outside school. “There can be little doubt,” he wrote later, “she talks to the animals a good [..] deal and attributes personalities to them.”
John certainly hogged the limelight when visitors came to see Gef, explaining Gef’s messages, gossip and history, while Voirrey and mother busied themselves on the periphery. However, Price and Fodor noticed how possessive John became, reacting angrily when Price suggested taking Voirrey for a ride in his car, perhaps to interrogate her away from her father. Price undoubtedly hoped the girl might have some kind of agency or power, like the 13-yearold Romanian ‘poltergeist girl’ Eleonora Zugun, whom he had studied in London in 1926.
Though fragments of the story had appeared previously in local and regional newspapers, the first the world at large learned of it was in the 1936 book, The Haunting of Cashen’s
Gap, published by Price and R S Lambert, a BBC executive and editor of The Listener. Perhaps the most significant point to draw from it was their tangible disappointment that Gef refused to appear or perform for them throughout their stay at the farm. They concluded: “We could not determine whether, in our role of investigators, we had taken part in a farce or a tragedy.”
Not long after Price and Lambert published their book, the Irvings left the island. Gef never followed them or manifested for the farm’s new owner (who once announced he had killed a strange little animal). In 1970, a FATE magazine reporter manage to locate Voirrey, then living in England. As enigmatically as the Cottingley girls recalling their ‘fairies’, all she would say was “Yes there was a little animal who talked [..] but I do wish he had let us alone.”
Could Gef have been the fantasy friend of a lonely, imaginative, adolescent girl? (As Gef’s notoriety attracted more and more public and media attention, Voirrey was taunted at school.) Could Kipling’s story have inspired the creation of Gef? Could this have been a prank that got out of hand – like the Cottingley fairies case – and difficult to stop once the celebrity investigators were involved?
While hardline sceptics seem ready to dismiss the case as a worthless hoax, FT contributor Christopher Josiffe, who researched the case for 10 years, makes no rush to judgement. His marshalling of (probably all the
“We could not determine whether we had taken part in a farce or a tragedy”
findable) evidence reconstructs the events and principal players in detail, and is the better for it.
Josiffe discusses the various suggestions of a hoax, but also suggests why they are unlikely. Harry Price, a connoisseur of stage trickery, considered the possibility of a girl of Voirrey’s age developing a talent for ventriloquism to such a skilful level, on her own, unfeasible; yet stranger things have happened. Josiffe also points out that the phenomenon of Gef (real or imagined) played out against the backdrop of the Celtic fairylore of the Isle of Man; this includes tales – that Voirrey might well have heard from her school friends or neighbours – of socalled house fairies, who demand hospitality and tidiness from their hosts. In this context, what Gef told the family – “If you are kind to me, I will bring you good luck. If you are not kind, I shall kill all your poultry. I can get them wherever you put them!” – sounds quite chilling.
Whether Gef was a ghost, a fairy, a spirit, a poltergeist, some kind of cryptid (there is evidence that mongooses were introduced to the island to cull rabbits), or even a folie à trois, cannot be settled at this distance. But I cannot imagine a more thorough treatment that so engagingly presents the facts and their context.