The first gentleman of BUFORA
JENNY RANDLES marks the passing of an unsung hero of British ufology: Norman Oliver
Sadly, this month’s column must report the death of a friend, Norman Oliver, who inspired my early days in British ufology. Norman died at the age of 95 just hours after the 57th anniversary of a case with which he became forever associated – the Scoriton Mystery. Scoriton was a small Devon community where one of the more outlandish tales in British ufology unfolded. In those days, I was a teenager delivering newspapers to the Top of the Pops TV studio and following the NASA space missions. This led me to join the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA), a national body with over 1,000 active members in those days, which Norman administered for some time.
According to Ernest Bryant, at about 5.30pm on 24 April 1965, a UFO landed outside his Scoriton home; a door in the craft opened and three beings emerged, one of them apparently a human teenager. One entity spoke to Bryant in an odd accent, pronouncing the name ‘Yamski’ and claiming they came from Venus (then thought of as a nearby twin of Earth, with Venusians almost as popular as Martians in science fiction tales). The man from Venus said he would return in a month, bringing “proof of Mantell”; cryptic words that Bryant claimed meant nothing to him. However, the Venusian craft did return and gave him a few bits of metal supposedly from a plane.
While Bryant claimed not to know this, Thomas Mantell was a US military pilot who died tragically in Kentucky in January 1948 when his plane crashed. He was making a steep climb in pursuit of a mystery object high above his aircraft. Most believe that he lost consciousness during this ascent and that the UFO was a high altitude balloon beyond his achievable ceiling, his death being a result of oxygen starvation.
The investigation of the Scoriton case fell to Norman Oliver and Eileen Buckle, an enthusiastic BUFORA member who later spent time at Flying Saucer Review when I was working there. The duo had different approaches, Eileen being intuitive and Norman a stickler for hard data: he spent his time checking facts, while she quickly saw the story as ripe for a book (published as The Scoriton Mystery in 1967).
Over the next two years, a lot happened – the saddest thing was that the witness himself died after developing a fast-growing brain tumour that, needless to say, led to speculation that it was induced by alien contact. There is a possible correlation between close encounters and tumours.
I have been involved in cases where witnesses who had very close contact with a UFO were hit by ‘light beams’ from it and subsequently developed brain tumours. Some close encounters appear to be the result of a very energetic atmospheric phenomenon that can stall cars and burn the ground, so the risk of long-term health consequences to anyone in their vicinity is feasible. Alien death rays may not exist, but deadly natural phenomena do: further research might give solace to the families of these witnesses by revealing this effect as merely coincidence.
Even after Eileen Buckle’s Scoriton book came out, Norman still sought hard facts, and from speaking with Mrs Bryant discovered an alternative version of events. Her husband, before claiming his experience was real, told her his story was the basis for a science fiction script he was creating. Moreover, the famous contactee George Adamski had died just days before the supposed encounter. Adamski (‘Yamski’?) claimed to have met Venusians, making Bryant’s story suspicious. So Norman, pragmatic investigator that he was, dug deeper. His doubts grew. So much so that he published a 1968 booklet called “Sequel to Scoriton” giving his alternative take.
This all had a great influence on me, as I joined BUFORA at that time. I quickly saw that it was preferable to seek evidence that might lead to a resolution, rather than starting with the answer you want – alien contact – and challenging others to disprove it. Norman, listening to all the options and ever alert to warning signs, gave me hope that BUFORA was going to be a credible investigation team driven to find facts and resolve cases where possible. When I became director of investigations a decade later, that was my philosophy; and it was Norman’s willingness to ask hard questions and not just be content to tell a good story that informed my approach.
Of course, Norman investigated other cases – one of the most fascinating being in 1974. It involved an extraordinary close encounter from WWII. On a Summer night in 1942, Albert Lancashire was on guard in a sentry box at Newbiggin, Northumbria, yards from the sea when he was “attacked” by what he assumed was a new Nazi weapon: a black cloud from which emerged a yellow beam of “solid-looking” light that rolled back on itself like a stepladder being retracted. Albert sensibly retreated into his guard box to observe, but then felt a compulsion to walk towards it, arms outstretched, climbing up the beam into the UFO. Here, he was made to lie on a table and was examined by a human-like being wearing goggles. Then he was suddenly back in the sentry box and the UFO had gone. Albert never told this story, thinking it had been a dream. But many years later, now working in a signal box for the railways, he saw another UFO, and again he went towards it, waving his arms, just as during the War. This time the UFO stopped, the lights went out and there was no further memory of anything strange. But he decided that he should now report both events.
Norman saw why this case was important and was ahead of the curve for what soon became the cottage industry of regression hypnosis supposedly uncovering ‘missing memories’ of ‘alien abduction’. If not memories, were these stories imagined or created by hypnosis? Over the next decade at BUFORA, we wrestled with the question of whether teasing out memories – or just fantasies and dreams – helped or hindered investigation. We ultimately voted to ban regression as an investigative tool even as it became popular around the world. I still think we made the right decision. And once again Norman Oliver’s careful thinking guided me: don’t add extra elements to a case where we already face many choices about what is real and what is not. As for Scoriton, BUFORA closed the case noting that, on balance, “a negative conclusion in the Bryant case seems inevitable”.
Norman Oliver was responsible for two seminal turning points in British ufology, and it is time more people were aware of how that happened.