Caught by the River

UFO Drawings from the National Archives

Mathew Clayton | 10th October 2017

UFO Drawings from the National Archives by David Clarke
(Four Corner Irregulars, hardback, 128 pages. Published 18 October and available to preorder here)

Review by Mathew Clayton

Holy Moly. The Clarke brothers are in the Mid Sussex Times. It’s 1979, I am 11 years old and my two school friends have spotted a UFO flying over the world’s most boring town – Haywards Heath. More than that: they managed to photograph it and here it is on the pages of the Middy as a blurred black and white disc, shaped something like a frisbee. The next day at school there is much excitement. In the playground a group of people are huddled round the Clarkes. I rush to join them. The brothers are pissing themselves. I have never seen two boys laugh so much. It soon becomes clear it was a frisbee – their frisbee. They had taken a picture and when they got it back from Boots they thought it looked a bit like a UFO so they sent it in to the paper and the suckers believed them.

The school bell goes and I hurry in for English with Mr Small – except he is not there. Instead, the deputy head explains that Mr Small has left the school. The reason for his mid-term departure is left unspoken, but I think it is related to his violent temper. Although it might also be due to the field trip a few weeks earlier where he took the whole class of boys swimming naked in the Ouse at Southease. I pay little attention to the announcement. Good riddance. All I can think about is the UFO picture and the audacity of the Clarke brothers in pulling off such a feat. But…there is another feeling bubbling to the surface. I am…a little disappointed. I realise I really wanted it to have been an actual UFO.

The National Archives DEFE 24-1967

This feeling, this wanting to believe, is at the heart of a new book – UFO Drawings from the National Archive by David Clarke, published by Four Corners Books – that collects together images and stories of people who reported UFO sightings to the government. UFO reports only started in earnest after the Second World War but by the early 50s there were so many that the Air Ministry set up a UFO unit to record and investigate them. It was based in an attic room of the Hotel Metropole – a former hotel that was now used by military spies, located on the corner of Northumberland Avenue and Whitehall. The UFO unit was run by an RAF wing commander, Myles Formby, who had previously been part of a more informal group – the Ministry of Defence Flying Saucer Working Party. One of Formby’s innovations was to devise a questionnaire that formalised the way people reported their sightings. It was based on a similar form already in use by Project Blue Book, the more excitingly named American equivalent of the unit. An updated version of Formby’s questionnaire was still in use in 1979.

The National Archives AIR2 0-12058

The 50s also saw a new enthusiasm amongst the public for spotting UFOs. In 1952, a retired sailor named Captain Edward Plunkett set up the first club for amateur spotters, called the British Flying Saucer Bureau. A few years later, the first magazine appeared: The Flying Saucer Review, edited by an ex-RAF fighter pilot. The first seeds were being sown of a culture that would blossom into Scientology, David Icke and a whole host of other crazies. A certain amount of responsibility for this lunatic fringe lies with the government and the way their secrecy bolstered people’s belief that something was being hidden. Their attitude is encapsulated in advice given by the UFO desk that the civil service (so non-military) opened in the late 50s. One of its early officers informed colleagues that when asked what the government knew about UFOs ‘we expect to be politely unhelpful’ – a line straight from Yes Minister.

The desk stayed open until 2009, when the Defence Minister Bob Ainsworth decided it wasn’t worth the money. According to the MoD, in 50 years it had not ‘revealed anything to suggest an extra-terrestrial presence’. David Clarke’s book collects together reports and drawings of UFOs that were sent to the desk and is the result of a campaign he waged to get the MoD to release its files. Flicking through the book I was struck by how similar and to be honest, unimaginative, many of the drawings were. They lure you into a false sense of security but then suddenly you see something like this…

The National Archives DEFE 24-1983-1

A photo from 1965 that was taken by a Carlisle fireman, Jim Templeton, of his five-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Jim sent the image to the police and a few days later received a visit from two men dressed in black, wearing bowler hats, that said they were from the ministry and referred to each other by numbers, not names. No adequate explanation of the image has ever been found…


UFO Drawings from the National Archives is out on 18 October, and is available to order here from the Caught by the River shop.

Mathew Clayton on Caught by the River/on Twitter