Living with Gef

16 March 2017 // Books //Events

During the mid-1930s, British and overseas newspapers were full of incredible stories about Gef, a ‘talking mongoose’ or ‘man-weasel’ who had allegedly appeared in the home of the Irvings, a farming family in a remote district of the Isle of Man. This bizarre story is the focus of Christopher Josiffe’s forthcoming book, Gef! The Strange Tale of An Extra-Special Talking Mongoose, published by the estimable Strange Attractor Press on 8 May. Find an extract from the book below.

Both author and publisher join us at our second Horse Hospital event, taking place on Monday 20 March. More info and tickets here.

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“I am not a spirit,” Gef declared. “I am just a little, extra clever mongoose.” By mid 1932, James Irving had come to revise his earlier opinion that Gef was nothing more than a flesh-and-blood, physical animal – albeit one with extraordinary gifts, such as the power of speech. Instead, he had begun to think of Gef as something supernatural. Nevertheless, several pieces of evidence were incompatible with his being a conventional spirit or ghost.

Despite Gef’s garrulous and lively behaviour at night, eventually, he too would require sleep. For Gef, bed was either a nest of grass or moss in his ‘sanctum’ (Fodor had taken a sample), or a pillow downstairs in the dining room – the Irvings claimed to be able to discern an indentation in this pillow the next day.

This admittedly crude sketch, allegedly Gef ’s attempt at a self- portrait, supposedly demonstrated his ability to grasp a pencil.

Margaret Irving testified to Gef being an early riser: “Sometimes before I am up,” she told Fodor, “I hear Gef calling down to me. I hope you don’t mind, I have eaten the bacon.” In the kitchen was a meat safe, below which was a chair. All Gef had to do was to jump up on the chair, and turn the knob on the safe door to open it. Mrs Irving also told Fodor that

Gef often leaves his teeth marks in the butter, tearing off the paper. He eats sausages and kippers and the lean of uncooked bacon. He does not touch eggs. Once she put some chocolate biscuits in a jar on top of a shelf unknown to both her husband and daughter. Gef must have seen it. The biscuits vanished.

As these above remarks would imply, Gef had a considerable interest in food (although not drink). Here are some examples of the sorts of things he enjoyed eating, taken from Irving’s diaries: on 21 March 1932, Irving writes “I have succeeded in getting it to eat chocolate, banana, potato pie”; a couple of months later, Gef is reported to have returned home at 7pm, having been to Balla Mona at a party, where he had “eaten some pie, drank cream out of a crock, and broken an egg.” In addition, sausages, bacon, oranges, sweets and biscuits are all mentioned as having been enjoyed by Gef.

Such was his love of food that sometimes the greedy Gef over-indulged himself. Take, for example, Friday, 8 April, 1932, when Irving claimed to have been awakened at 5am by Gef, plaintively calling out to him, “Jim. Jim. I am sick.” Irving further maintained that he had heard the animal “vomiting behind the wainscoting like a cat.” He told Jim that he had also been sick under the Irvings’ bed, which Irving discovered to be correct: “[p]art of the food vomited was carrots.” Apparently, Gef had entered a cottage some eight miles away, and eaten all the food there.

Elsewhere, we have Gef telling the Irvings “I have had a feed up on the fields on the mountain. I caught a young partridge.” When Margaret told him she did not believe this, he replied: “I will vomit it up, if you give me some ipec [sic] wine.”†

Gef’s apparent liking for food, and his need to eat, would suggest that he had a definite physical existence. Other reported aspects of his behaviour also suggested corporeality. On several occasions, James Irving records that Gef has a cold. The family could apparently hear coughing inside the house, at a time when none of them were ill:

I was awakened by the sound of a bad fit of coughing proceeding from the next room (Voirrey’s) and after listening to it for 2 or 3 minutes, I called to her many times before I could awaken her, and asked was it her coughing. She said “No” and that she had been fast asleep. Poor Gef then intervened and said “It was me coughing, Jim”. I asked would he have a couple of peppermints…

This was not an isolated episode; there are several other references to Gef having been ill, such as: “In August and previously at Easter, he had a terrific cough, and I thought it would finish him, but not so. No one else in the house had a cold or cough at the time,” and “to hear him coughing, morn and eve, one would imagine nothing but an aged person with a bronchial cough.”

And, memorably: “Jim, I have a Goddamn cough. I have a hell of a cold. You will have to get me something.” Irving had retorted “You must go away before you infect us” – Margaret was also worried that he might pass it on to Voirrey, but Gef assured them that he would not.

These very physical aspects of Gef’s existence – eating, drinking, being ill – presented a problem for those investigators who believed Gef to be a spirit of some kind. A June 1934 visit to Doarlish Cashen by two Spiritualists – a man and a woman from Chester – was a case in point. Based on what they had heard, and on their own psychic impressions of the house and of the Irving family, the two were convinced that Gef was a spirit, but were “somewhat nonplussed” when Irving explained that Gef was in the habit of eating food. The man asked Irving whether he could be sure of this, and was further dismayed when Irving told them that he could hear Gef eating, whilst talking at the same time, with the ensuing sound of someone talking with their mouth full making it “obvious” he was eating. The pair of Spiritualists became even more puzzled when told that all three Irvings had seen Gef, and that both Mr and Mrs Irving had actually touched Gef. Mr Irving told them of how he had done so whilst Gef was running on the beams upstairs, and how his wife had stroked Gef’s head. She had even – on more than one occasion – placed her finger inside Gef’s mouth and felt his teeth, describing them as “small, numerous, and sharp.” They were also baffled by Gef’s rabbit-killing abilities – action requiring physical force in the material world.

† Ipecacuanha Wine: a popular medicine, well-known for its emetic properties. Mrs Beeton, in her Every Day Cookery, recommends that all households should keep a bottle.

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