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Sunday Times Writer And UFO

From: David  Clarke <cd292@crazydiamonds.fsnet.co.uk>
Date: Sun, 10 Mar 2002 22:56:43 -0000
Fwd Date: Sun, 10 Mar 2002 18:26:39 -0500
Subject: Sunday Times Writer And UFO

Source: Sunday Times (London), 10 March 2002


Brief encounters: Tony Barrell meets his first UFO

Continuing our series on events that changed the lives of Sunday
Times writers, Tony Barrell travels back 25 years, to the day
when he spotted a UFO. He suspects it was this experience that
led to his career of investigating the weird, the unusual and
the unexplained ... beginning with the famous 'flying saucer'
crash at Roswell

Guy Fawkes' Night wasn't a big deal for me at the age of 18. As
I ambled home from work on November 5, 1976, I was probably
looking forward to a pub crawl with my friends rather than a few
damp squibs in the garden with my parents. More likely, I
suspect my mind was virtually a blank, the kind of meditative
state that often precedes a ghostly experience or a religious
vision. I certainly wouldn't have been thinking about work: I
was a trainee computer programmer at Crawley Borough Council, a
job I was happy to abandon at 5.20pm every evening - or 4.25pm,
weirdly, on Fridays like this - for my 10-minute stroll home.

A jovial careers adviser had suggested the job - based, I
thought then, on an inspired reading of the unique potential
displayed by my O-levels in English, Latin, French, maths and
art. All too late, I now realise he saw me as an archetypal
nerd, a misshapen peg for a slightly off-square hole. I had
rampaging acne, long hair spilling dandruff down my slouching
shoulders, an addiction to prog-rock records and pints of
lager-and-blackcurrant. I was one of those irritating fools who
memorise whole Monty Python sketches. Girlfriends were something
other people had. In my spare time, I laboured over a shapeless
novel about a sinister lobster recipe that was taking over the
world, though most of the action was confined to my home town of
Crawley, West Sussex. I was a Hobbit in all but name. What other
choice of employment could anyone have suggested?

But as I turned the corner into my home territory of Buckmans
Road in the district of West Green, destiny was about to deal me
a new role. A mission. A pointer for the future that I had
consistently failed to visualise for myself.

It was floating above the rooftops of my road - an assemblage of
mysterious lights. It didn't seem to be travelling in a linear
way but wobbling from side to side in the darkness, without
making a sound. I stopped and watched it, dumbfounded. Then I
remembered it was Guy Fawkes' Night. Oh, it's a rocket, I
remember thinking. Or an Air Bomb. Or some other firework that
goes up in the air. But when the lights continued to wink and
hover for several minutes, I discounted that theory.

No, this was an unidentified flying object, possibly a
spacecraft piloted by aliens. People see them all the time; it's
just that it hadn't happened to me before. I was excited beyond
intelligent thought. I was trembling so much, I almost shook
myself out of my tank top and oxford bags.

There was fear in the excitement, because I was dealing with the
unknown. Who's to say, I remember thinking, that this isn't the
start of a full-scale invasion? It could be The War of the
Worlds or, at best, The Day the Earth Stood Still. People could
be massacred; the whole planet could be destroyed in a flash. It
was the kind of day when anything could have happened - indeed,
I have since discovered that on this very same day, a former
member of the band Steps was born.

I hurried home and gibbered to my mother that there was a UFO
outside, just down the road. I was disappointed that she wasn't
that bothered; instead of rushing outside to see it for herself,
she suggested I call nearby Gatwick Airport to see if they had
spotted anything on their radar. So I checked the telephone
directory, picked up the receiver on our green Trimphone and
dialled. 'Why do you ask, young man?' an urbane aviation
official asked me. 'What have you seen?' I could almost hear his
regulation RAF moustache twitching.

'A UFO,' I replied, helpfully.

'Well, we haven't picked up anything unidentified here.
Are you sure?'

'I think so.'

'Don't worry, young man, we'll keep a lookout.'

'Oh. Okay. Thanks.'

When I went back outside to check on the progress of the object,
it had gone. For some reason, my dear old mum thought it would
be a good idea to get in touch with the local paper, the Crawley
Observer. Possibly for the same reason, I agreed, without
considering the consequences. A friendly reporter chap sounded
mildly interested and said someone might get back to me. He
didn't say, 'if we don't have any better news this week', but
that's what the cynical, grown-up part of me hears now when I
recall the conversation.

There was a call for me at the office the following week. Was I
the youngster who'd seen the flying saucer? Yes, I said, if
that's what it was. In the cold light of day, I was on the point
of disowning the experience and starting to clutch at rational
explanations. I also wished that I hadn't phoned the paper. I
gave a half-hearted and not terribly articulate interview,
mumbling into the receiver lest my story be heard by my work
colleagues, many of whom held diplomas in the art of

The reporter asked if a photographer could call and take a
picture. 'No,' I said, 'the UFO's not there any more. It
disappeared after several minutes.' No, a picture of me, the
local hack patiently explained. 'Oh, okay then,' I must have
said, because a snapper duly turned up on the doorstep one
evening. As a Sunday Times writer I have had the pleasure of
working with some fine photographers since, but this guy had an
imagination like no other. 'Could you pick up something round?'
he asked. 'Like a saucer? And look at it?' The nearest such
object was a cheap ashtray with a photograph of Blackpool Tower
in its centre, a souvenir from a distant holiday. I held it up
and smiled, and the flash went off.

'That UFO was no firework,' trumpeted the Observer, above the
picture of me and the ashtray. The anonymous reporter had had
some easy fun with the story: 'Air traffic control at Gatwick
missed the scoop of a lifetime on Friday, when a UFO hovered
over West Green...' My age was omitted, giving me an enigmatic
village-idiot quality. Friends and co-workers went through the
whole pantomime of ridicule, the most repeated jest being that I
must have 'had a few'.  One of my mother's female office
colleagues looked at my photo and commented that I was a
'nice-looking lad', blithely ignoring the terrible threat of
alien invasion implicit in the story.

The sighting 'has certainly increased my interest in these
things', I had told my interviewer. 'Now I would like to find
out more about it.' True to my word, for months afterwards I
read every trashy paperback about UFOs and aliens I could get my
hands on. The more I read, the more I was prepared to believe
that not only were we just one of a myriad of intelligent races
in the universe, but also that Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids
and, in all probability, the Hanger Lane gyratory system had
been built by extra-terrestrial visitors. The movie Close
Encounters of the Third Kind came out in 1977, and I gorged on
that as well.

But like many adolescent enthusiasms, my obsession inevitably
waned. I put away childish things, grew up, switched my career
to journalism, and eventually joined The Sunday Times. In 1997,
the editor of this magazine, unaware of my former life,
spontaneously decided I was just the person to fly to Roswell,
New Mexico, to cover the 50th anniversary of the legendary UFO
crash there.

Roswell was the assignment I was born for. I had already done
half of the research, unwittingly, in my teens. The town was
packed with nutters in alien suits, and earnest ufologists
arguing the toss about spaceships and weather balloons, and I
could never go far without meeting someone who wanted to discuss
how alien technology was secretly used by modern stealth
bombers, or who needed to offload their own stories of alien
abduction. Some of these tales made The X Files look like Bob
the Builder. And not only did I get to interview the celebrity
abductee Whitley Strieber, author of Communion, but we had an
enjoyable if abstruse argument about time travel after he
suggested that the Roswell craft had come from the far future of
our own world.

This was also my first visit to America. Imagine that - your
first impression of the good ol' US of A isn't Manhattan,
Disneyland or the Golden Gate Bridge but a southern hick town in
the desert, with pictures of black-eyed 'greys' gazing out from
most of the shop windows.

Subsequent assignments have seen me hunting for ghosts at the
site of the Battle of Gettysburg, attending pagan rituals in
Britain, hanging out with Monster Raving Loonies, and joining an
alien-loving religious group for nude meditation in Canada. Why,
people frequently ask me, do I fixate on the unusual, the
offbeat, the unexplained and the paranormal? Let me lie on this
couch awhile and I'll tell you. Well, maybe it makes me feel
like a teenager again. There is also the possibility that the
whole experience of November 5, 1976 - the sighting and the
humiliation that followed it - intensified my ability to
empathise with people whom many others would dismiss as
crackpots. I've been there, bought the T-shirt: I know what it's
like to confess to unusual beliefs and to suffer mockery for

I'm sure that some of the more out-there ufologists I've met
would have another hypothesis: that the craft I saw landed in my
street and I was abducted by the aliens on board, that they
programmed me with a mission to enlighten the world about all
kinds of weird and wacky subjects, and then erased my memory.
Perhaps I should have my head examined: it may contain an
elaborate implant fashioned from an otherworldly metal.

But I really don't think so. You see, although my experience was
a defining moment, even perhaps a passport to an unusual career,
I have grave doubts about its authenticity. I have tried over
and over again to replay that memory, clean it up, bring it up
to something approaching DVD quality, so I can determine exactly
what I saw. I've tried to revisit those moments through
meditation, and I've been back there in dreams. I can't make
myself 18 again, even with a lengthy series of hormone
injections, so it's a tough one. But what follows is the best I
can do.

It is already quite dark. The air is heavy with smoke from early
bonfires and fireworks. I can hear them popping and fizzing at
regular intervals. My attention is attracted by lights in the
sky, above the rooftops. There is at least one red light, at
least one white light, and they are glowing and winking eerily.
The lights aren't self-contained dots, but trails in the air. If
whatever is responsible for the lights is making a noise, I
can't hear it over the sound of all the bangers and rockets and
roman candles. (This may explain why I told the local paper that
the object was hovering 'absolutely silently'.) One of my
neighbours is standing outside one of the houses nearby, but I
can't bring myself to speak to him or her; my memory doesn't
make it entirely clear who they are or what sex they are. (My
reluctance to speak to this neighbour may be based on
uncertainty as well as shock: I don't want to share this
experience until I have established that it really is an
experience. I am also very shy.)

I continue to watch the object for a few minutes. It doesn't
seem to be moving away from me or towards me, but hovering and
wobbling from side to side. It is at this point that I realise -
or rather, believe - that I am seeing something very special. I
begin to worry about alien landings. It has been a tough week at
work, I hate programming computers and I need a break. Yippee,
this is a UFO, and my life will never be the same again.

As special-effects designers know, ordinary lights can appear
extraordinary when they are filtered through smoke. And, as good
UFO investigators are aware, everyday objects may appear alien
when they are viewed from unusual angles, and their trajectory
may not be perceived correctly. If a flying machine were
travelling away from me, it might seem to be static or wobbling
from side to side.

The answer is so obvious. But I think I've been in denial for a
long time, because I so wanted that experience to be truly

Reader, I'm really sorry. I think it was an aeroplane.

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