Apart from me and the man who talked about elves, everyone on the bus to Cheesefoot Head seemed pretty sensible. There was the London stringer for the big provincial daily; the girl from the local paper; the woman doing syndicated interviews for hospital radio; the man from Farmer’s Weekly and the woman from Crops magazine (Organ of the Seed-Growing Trade), and the man with the very large attaché case from a Japanese TV station.
I’d read the book; now it was time for the launch – to take place not at the Groucho Club, but in the middle of a cornfield near Winchester. Circular Evidence: A Detailed Investigation of the Flattened Swirled Crops Phenomenon by Pat Delgado and Colin Andrews contained lots of colour photographs by a man called Busty Taylor.* It recounted how flattened circular areas of corn had first been noticed around 1983. They were only found in Hampshire and Wiltshire. They only appeared overnight, when no one was around. The swirled stalks described catherine wheels, kaleidoscopes, they went clockwise, anti-clockwise. Sometimes they even went or The circles came singly, widely dispersed. They came trebly, as the points on an equilateral triangle. Sometimes they came in fives, configured like the spots on a dice. I read of pet dogs going all funny when they ran inside crop circles, of incandescent lights in the sky that dazzled elderly walkers, of Hampshire farmers brandishing large guns to chase away small groups of men apprehended poking about in their cornfields.
So now on to our rendezvous at Cheesefoot Head. A press conference, if you like: the two authors to present their very latest findings; the sceptical media, botanical specialists and general cynics alike, to weigh up all this, and report back. During the journey down from Bloomsbury’s Soho Square offices our press corps mulled over the merits of the book.
Not a single map in the thing, said the London stringer. First thing you notice.
Yes, that whole part of Hampshire was criss-crossed with UFOs’ flight paths, said the man who talked about elves, handing round a pamphlet entitled ‘How Lord Montagu gave Stonehenge to the Freemasons’.
The woman from Crops magazine said they usually covered much more sober subjects. The man from Japanese TV rummaged inside his huge attaché case. Whenever the bus braked at junctions (it had been kitted out for transatlantic flight with video screens, breakfast packs and drinks machines) conversation faltered while we threw scalding coffee over each other. At Cheesefoot Head two men in suits were visible in the middle of a waving cornfield. We crunched over to join them and more press people in the circular flattened bit.
The particular circle you are currently standing in, said one of the men, is in fact quite unique among crop circles. Owing to its distinctive comet-like tail.
Heads turned to scrutinise the tired, beaten-down pathway by which we had reached the circle. The corn under our feet looked like a straw mattress.
This one has been rather trampled, conceded the other man.
Ask us anything you like, they said.
The journalists asked questions like, ‘So what do you think causes all this, I mean, it’s so weird,’ and ‘This really is something really amazing, isn’t it?’
The men gave answers like ‘There’ve been a hundred new circles in the last three weeks alone,’ ‘Note the presence of Stone Age tumuli in this vicinity,’ ‘We’ve written to Mrs Thatcher,’ ‘The Government should set up a Royal Commission to investigate this once and for all,’ ‘The force fields acting in these circles are just colossal,’ ‘If something isn’t done soon people are going to get killed!’
Pens surged across spiral-bound notebooks. The man who talked about elves stood beyond the circle amongst the unbroken corn, staring into the far distance.
The increased publicity generated by the book’s publication has coincided with a plethora of new circles, then, I suggested.
There are even circles in paddy fields in China, the men said. And there is the instance of the Harrier jet, which mysteriously ejected its experienced pilot over a hill in Wiltshire on the summit of which only six months previously a crop circle had been formed.
What about the jelly? I said. In your book you said you’d found inside one of these circles a blob of luminous white jelly and it was a completely unidentifiable substance.
It was shaped somewhat, one of them said, like a Mars Bar. But it was not! it was not! children’s confectionery. Since scientific tests showed it contained no glucose.
Only This Morning, said the other man, a lady rang me up from the Lake District, where two years ago she and her children, while walking around the shore of a tarn, also came upon this white jelly, and on that occasion there were 16 lumps.
The man from Japanese TV was hunkered down and searching in his huge attaché case.
What about the military installations hereabouts? I said.
You tell me, they said. You tell me how just up the road, the woman who lives over there in that farm, you tell me how
1. a cast-iron water trough
2. filled with water
3. firmly secured to an underground pipe
4. weighing upwards of half a ton
5. should be propelled! into the air
6. across! the farmyard
8. the water disappeared.
Whenever you think you’re beginning to get a hold on this entire phenomenon, said one of the men in sage conclusion. Just then something completely new happens.
We’re not offering any solutions, said the other. Why it’s so important to be scientific, said the other.
I tromped round the circle, testing, oh, the pliancy of the corn. While the two authors posed for photographs I had a conversation with the woman from Crops magazine (I kept thinking of it as Crops! magazine) in which she speculated from the number of seed pods in the ears of this corn as to which strain of wheat it was, and I went, Mm-hh. As we were leaving the circle I heard the girl from the local paper say, Perhaps we ought to give up eating bread like they said, you know, all those molecular changes they were talking about ... I saw a stepladder standing in the corn, that belonged to one of the press photographers. I entertained the idea of declaiming from its top step: Actually the swirled crop circle is the invention of the English romantic artist Paul Nash whose celebrated painting ‘Solstice of the Sunflower’ currently prominent on the jacket of the new Peter Ackroyd novel itself perhaps not unconnectedly both published at this very time and much preoccupied with the notion of co-terminous strata of existence from the Neolithic period to our own features a perfect catherine-wheel-configured crop circle albeit canted onto its side through 180 degrees and Nash was as we know particularly attached to Wiltshire witness ‘Wittenham Clumps’ contradict me if you will.
Back on the bus the woman from hospital radio said the batteries in her tape-recorder had gone completely dead the moment she’d crossed the threshold into the circle. The energy levels! she said. The amount of energy in that circle! You could feel it coursing round!
As the bus whined round the M25 I opened my lunch-pack and found it contained a bottle of freshly-squeezed orange juice of exactly the same make as that which we had drunk for breakfast. In fact the bottles were identical. The filling in one of the sandwiches was completely unidentifiable.
The London stringer from the major provincial daily said he had been interested to feel sick while standing inside the corn circle. Hadn’t had any lunch then, of course, was pretty hungry, had had to eat breakfast on a moving bus. But, interesting.
And remember after Lockerbie, he said. All those engines in other Boeing planes starting to go wrong. Just when people everywhere were thinking they might.
The driver was braking every few yards in the Cromwell Road traffic. Random flurries of coffee were flung out of our cups and raced through the air. I caught the stringer’s monologue in snatches as I dodged this way and that: Photographer called Busty ... sounds like rusty ... corn was rusty ... blighted ... energy levels ... ley lines ... dowsing ...
The man from Japanese TV was sifting through his huge attaché case.
The London stringer and the man who talked about elves got off together in Fulham. The rest of us ground on through the West End, up Shaftesbury Avenue – I was prepared even for Piccadilly Circus. But as we came to the end of the journey even I, who had not been alarmed all day, not a bit disturbed (so much energy, the woman from hospital radio was reminding me), even I have to say that I was staggered, frankly, to find our bus pulling to a halt in exactly the same place – you could see the publishers’ brass plate beside the front door – as we had started out from that morning, to realise that we had travelled all day and somehow, by some force, some sophisticated agency, out of all the places we could have ended up, we had yet come round in a perfect, fearful circle.