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…

Fortean Times - - Reviews / Books - Bob Rickard

Gef!

The Strange Tale of an Ex­tra-Spe­cial Talk­ing Mon­goose

Christo­pher Josiffe

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.

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