From Mathew Dalton
UK Researchers Study Weird 1930s Talking Mongoose – Report
LONDON—The University of London’s Senate House Library is one of the finest academic research institutions in England. On a recent day, a lecture room in the imposing Art Deco building was filled with the world’s pre-eminent authorities on a talking mongoose named Gef.
In a nation long fascinated by the supernatural, the case of Gef the talking mongoose stands out as one of the most bizarre in British paranormal history. Though he is largely forgotten, a small but obsessive band of researchers refuses to let Gef go.
Gef (pronounced “Jeff”) was a furry animal who is said to have skulked around the remote house of a poor farming family, the Irvings, on the Isle of Man in the 1930s. He appeared to the family one night in 1931 making typical animal sounds. Next, the mongoose—a small carnivore rarely seen in the British Isles because it is native to Southern Asia and Africa—allegedly recited simple nursery rhymes.
Soon he was having entire conversations with the farmer, his wife and daughter and singing along to hit songs of the day such as “Carolina Moon,” according to reports by the Irvings and a few other witnesses. A mongoose Frequently irritable and foul-mouthed, Gef nevertheless developed a relationship with the family, who left food out for him. He “eats sausages and kippers and the lean of uncooked bacon. He does not touch eggs,” James Irving, father of the family, wrote in one of dozens of letters to various paranormal investigators about Gef.
The mongoose, Mr. Irving said, would prowl around neighbors’ properties, delivering gossip about them back to the Irvings. Occasionally, Gef sounded like a new-age guru or a cult leader, exclaiming: “I am the fifth dimension! I am the eighth wonder of the world!”
Gef became a minor media sensation, drawing hordes of journalists to the Isle of Man seeking a glimpse of this talking mongoose. Only one ever claimed success in communicating with Gef, writing a 1932 article headlined: “‘Man-Weasel’ Mystery Grips Island: Queerest Beast talks to ‘Daily Dispatch’ reporter.”
Little trace of Gef’s story has endured on the Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea. The home was demolished, while the Irvings are deceased with no apparent surviving relatives, according to researchers following Gef’s case. More than 70 years later, investigators such as Christopher Josiffe, a cataloger at the Senate House Library and perhaps the world’s leading expert on Gef, are determined to figure out what exactly Gef was—or at least what he means. More than 30 people showed up for the “symposium” at the library in April, organized by Mr. Josiffe (admission £7, or about $12). Over the next six hours, investigators discussed Gef, the alleged mongoose and the legend.
Alan Murdie, chairman of the U.K. Ghost Club, which has been investigating paranormal activities since 1862, argued that Gef shares many features of historic poltergeists that have appeared in the shape of animals.
“Gef the talking mongoose, although celebrated, is in some ways not as unique as you might imagine,” says Mr. Murdie, who is also a lawyer and author of the Council Tax Handbook, a guide to the British system of local taxation. Mark Ripper, a child-protection officer at a primary school, attended because he has long appreciated the idea of a talking mongoose. “Until relatively recently, I assumed I was the only person who did,” Mr. Ripper said during a coffee break. “It turns out I’m not.”
Gef—who spelled his name phonetically, “because he didn’t know how to spell,” Mr. Josiffe says—self-identified as a mongoose, but Mr. Josiffe has plenty of doubts. “The whole thing about a talking mongoose is a red herring,” he says. Given the Irvings’ descriptions, he says Gef was smaller than a mongoose, perhaps a weasel or a squirrel. Mongoose or not, did Gef actually talk? Was he a hoax invented by the Irvings? A poltergeist? Or was he some form of collective hallucination that gripped the Irving household? “I found the more you look at it, you couldn’t really decide one way or the other,” he says.
Mr. Josiffe has been looking at it for seven years using the resources of the Senate House Library, the world’s main repository of primary source material on Gef thanks to a bequest from the famous British paranormal researcher Harry Price. The collection includes Mr. Irving’s extensive letters about Gef and a sample of hair allegedly snipped from Gef by the Irvings that appears to be in fact from a dog. “This is where it gets a bit dodgy, I’m afraid,” Mr. Josiffe says.
Mr. Josiffe has nonetheless managed to ensnare Richard Espley, the director of the library’s English-language collection, who had never heard of Gef before he started at the library two years ago. “At some level I think I was humoring a colleague when I started reading into it,” Mr. Espley says, “and now I’m sitting there with my piles of handwritten-notes and photocopied articles.”
Mr. Espley, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the representation of animals in the novels of the American modernist writer Djuna Barnes, delivered a paper at the symposium that tried to make sense of why Gef becomes enraged by the act of reading. At one point, Gef is quoted as shouting out to Mr. Irving as he opens a letter: “Read it out you fat-headed gnome!'”
“The resistance to text and the preference for orality is fundamental to Gef’s nature,” Mr. Espley said, speaking to the group. “I’m going to go further, and, uh, hopefully you’ll follow me,” Mr. Espley continued. “I’d like to encourage you to think of Irving as a bardic singer of tales and Gef as a partly described, partly-curiously-present aspect of a living, definitely oral tale of exactly the kind which is found in the Panchatantra, the mongoose Ur-narrative.”
The audience delivered an extended round of applause when he finished The symposium concluded with a screening of “Vanished!”, a film about Gef made by Brian Catling, a professor of art at Oxford, and Tony Grisoni, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The two men made the film after they pitched a dramatization of the Gef story to movie studios. “They turned us down,” Mr. Grisoni shrugged. “More than that, they laughed at us.”