Book review in the London Review of Books – The Incredible 1930’s Talking Mongoose of the Isle of Man

I read this yesterday on my phone in the pub waiting for some of my chums to turn up and thought how interesting is this! The incredible talking 1930’s mongoose of the Isle of Man!

Man alive!, blood and sand!, and fancy that!

By the way a great magazine is the London Review of Books. I recommend it highly.

One other note. Where I work I get to notice people’s names quite a lot and I’m struck by the seemingly inexhaustible diversity of them. In this article occurs the girl’s  name Voirrey which I’ve never come across before.  Always something new there is!

Now here is the mongoose article.

” I am the fifth dimension!

Bee Wilson

Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra Special Talking Mongoose by Christopher Josiffe. Strange Attractor, 404 pp, £15.99, April

‘He does not feed like a mongoose,’ James Irving said of the talking mongoose that had taken up residence – or so it was said – in his remote Isle of Man farmhouse in the early 1930s. Irving told psychic investigators that his family had tried the mongoose – who went by the name of ‘Gef’ – on bread and milk, only to have their food rejected. Slowly and patiently, the Irvings found a repertoire of things that Gef would consent to eat. Before they went to bed at night, they would set out tidbits of bananas and oranges, chocolate and biscuits, sausage and bacon – ‘he always leaves the fat part.’ In the morning, the mongoose chatted to them through the wainscotting in his clear high-pitched voice about which of the items he had eaten.

For several years in the 1930s the case of this Manx mongoose – who was said to speak in a range of foreign languages including ‘Hindustani’, as well as singing, whistling, coughing ‘in a human manner’, swearing, dancing and attending political meetings – was discussed across Britain. As a fantastical beast, he was a contemporary of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, who was first supposedly photographed in 1933, although his fame was shorter-lived. Sometimes he called himself an ‘earthbound spirit’ and sometimes a ‘marsh mongoose’. When he first arrived at the Irving house in 1931, he was said to be a malevolent presence, a kind of ‘man-weasel’ who frightened the family with satanic laughter. Over the months, however, the Irvings warmed to some of Gef’s ways, and he became a pet of sorts, who amused the family with his gossip and jokes. He was less eager to share these witticisms with outsiders who came to the house to check him out. He didn’t like to speak to people who doubted him and punished them with silence and insults or threatened to blast them away with a shotgun.

From 1932 onwards, numerous ‘psychic investigators’ came to Doarlish Cashen, the Irving house, to meet the remarkable talking animal. In 1936 he reached the High Court when Richard Lambert, the editor of the Listener, brought an action against Sir Cecil (Lord) Levita, who was reported to have said that Lambert was ‘cracked’ and ‘off his head’ for publicly stating a belief in a mongoose with powers of speech. Lambert was the co-author, with the famous paranormal investigator Harry Price, of a book on Gef, The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap, which was sceptical about some of the Irvings’ account but didn’t rule out the possibility that Gef was real. Price, who made a media career out of ‘investigating’ haunted houses, poltergeists and suchlike, prided himself on separating the ‘bunk’ from the ‘debunk’, as he put it. Yet he and his colleague didn’t conclude that Gef’s existence was pure bunkum. The pair had serious grounds for doubt: a sample of ‘fur’ given them by the Irvings which the mongoose had supposedly cut off himself with scissors was shown under the microscope to be dog hair, and that was just one instance among several. But Lambert and Price’s main regret seems to have been that Gef hadn’t spoken to them directly, which would have lent their book greater weight and silenced the sceptics. The court, for its part, took the view that Lambert’s investigation of Gef wasn’t a sign of madness, and awarded him damages of £7500.

The story of Gef, in Christopher Josiffe’s meticulous telling, is both brilliantly silly and irreducibly mysterious. After seven years of research into the legend of the talking mongoose, Josiffe, a librarian at Senate House, is still not entirely clear about the nature of the hoax or who in the family was hoaxing whom. In any case, he leaves open the possibility that Gef lived and talked and ate lean bacon exactly as the Irvings claimed he did. This may sound whimsical, but it’s an effective device for taking us back to a prewar Britain in which paranormal occurrences were widely believed, and somehow assimilated – by some, at least – into the texture of everyday life. However hilarious Gef’s story, the Irving family, as Josiffe tells it, kept straight-faced. The parents in particular grumbled about Gef, as one might about a difficult and cheeky pet dog who messed up one’s house, and presented themselves as people who, far from having made Gef up, were annoyed by the publicity he attracted and from which they never profited. James Irving seems to have wanted to prove both that Gef existed and that he himself was completely sane. Perhaps his view of his own sanity was warped by living on the Isle of Man, a place which rejoices in eccentricity. In their interviews with outsiders, the Irvings walked a fine line between insisting on the magic of Gef – ‘I am the fifth dimension! I am the eighth wonder of the world!’ he was said to have told them – and downplaying any suggestion that their visitor was anything other than flesh and blood and fur.

The possibility of Gef’s existence was first reported in the Manchester Daily Dispatch in January 1932. A reporter claimed he had visited the Irving household to investigate the ‘animal story’ that had been the talk of the island for several months. On arrival at the farmhouse, he heard ‘a voice which I should never have imagined could issue from a human throat’. The Irvings told him that it was an animal, something like a stoat, weasel or ferret, except that it spoke and sang songs and on occasion offered betting tips. The reporter admitted that this was perplexing but insisted that the Irvings seemed like ‘sane, honest and responsible folk and not likely to indulge in a difficult, long-drawn-out and unprofitable joke to make themselves the talk of the world’. Irving told the reporter that he had tried and failed to catch this talking animal, whom he called ‘Jack’ (‘Gef’ came later). He insisted to the reporter that nothing that had happened in his home was ‘supernatural’ – there were ‘no spooks here’.

Irving knew that ‘the Dalby Spook’ was the name given to Gef in the wider community of the Isle of Man, Dalby being the nearest settlement to the Irvings’ farmhouse. The next reporter to investigate the spook was from the Isle of Man Examiner, in February 1932. The Examiner recorded:

Uncanny Happenings at Farmstead

Remarkable Story of Existence of Phenomenal Creature

Conversed with and Seen by Members Of Family

Is it an Animal with Powers of Speech?

He acknowledged that a talking animal sounded outlandish, and might ‘leave the reader unconvinced’. This ‘Dalby Sensation’ was ‘vouched for by people whose sanity brooks no question’. He meant James Irving himself, a 58-year-old sheep farmer, supported by ‘the corroborative evidence of his wife and his bright 13-year-old daughter’. Irving told the reporter that they had first heard strange noises on Sunday, 13 September 1931. At first, they believed it was a mouse, until the sounds changed to ‘peculiar animal noises such as the blowing of a stoat or ferret, the spit[ting] of a cat and the barking of a dog’. Finally, in October, James and his daughter Voirrey caught their first glimpse of the yellowish animal resembling a weasel, with a ratlike body, ‘a long bushy tail’ and a human voice. This talking animal would remain a presence – of some description – in the Irving family house for the next ten years.

Gef had many astonishing characteristics, in the Irvings’ telling. He had three light-yellow fingers on each doll-sized hand, which were ‘very hard and cold to the touch’. Voirrey remembered how hard his hands felt when she touched them. He held hands with the girl’s parents too but always warned them that if they made any move to grab him, he would ‘take their finger off’. Though violent, Gef could also be dextrous, but his greatest talents were linguistic. When the Irvings first became aware of him, he made noises like a baby ‘beginning to talk’ so James and Voirrey decided to ‘test’ him with some nursery rhymes. To their professed amazement, the rhymes were repeated back ‘in a clear voice’ along with pieces of gossip from outside the house and private details of the Irvings’ life together. He had a very high-pitched voice with a slight Manx twang and tended to speak in the local dialect (‘sacret’ instead of ‘secret’ and ‘sleech’ instead of ‘sneak’). Over time, he became more and more advanced in the things he could say, as Josiffe recounts. He knew a little Hebrew and Gaelic; in June 1932 he spoke a sentence in Russian, and two years later recited two verses in Spanish. This was followed by a ‘long complimentary sentence’ in Flemish, although when asked what language it was, he told Irving it was German. ‘Poor Gef,’ Irving observed, ‘is not infallible.’ Gef’s much vaunted fluency in Hindi was also questionable. Gef claimed to be of Indian origin and told Irving that he had once lived with two ‘Hindoos’ but his vocabulary seemed to be limited to a handful of words such as ‘Yogi’, ‘nabob’ and ‘maharajah’ that would have been familiar to any British person in the 1930s. If he really came from India, it was strange he knew so much English and Manx and so little Hindi.

At the time Gef’s existence came to light, James Irving was on the second chapter of his life. He had married Margaret Ann Heavyside, a dressmaker, in Liverpool in 1897. They had two children, Elsie and Gilbert, and lived a relatively affluent, respectable life near Wavertree Botanic Gardens. Irving made a goodish living (around £600 a year: according to Josiffe, £55,000 in today’s money) as a piano and organ seller for the Dominion Piano Company. But during the First World War his business collapsed, and in 1916 he decided to make a new start as a farmer, spending £310 of his savings on Doarlish Cashen, a dilapidated farmhouse on the Isle of Man, which at the time he bought it consisted of 45 acres of mostly gorse and shrub with just a few hens, geese and sheep. The two older Irving children left home (Elsie back to Liverpool and Gilbert to London), and in 1918 Voirrey was born. Thrown together in their lonely house on an island where they would always be treated as outsiders, they were an isolated family unit. Photographs taken from the time of Gef’s arrival show them to be a handsome and well-groomed family, rather theatrical-looking for farmers. James Irving stands very upright, wearing a trilby and a self-satisfied smile. Margaret Irving wears a choker and a bias-cut dress, very stylish, presumably of her own making. Voirrey, on the cusp of womanhood, has strong eyebrows and her hair is cut in a smooth bob. She is startlingly photogenic but looks uncomfortable, as if she didn’t want to be photographed. Her parents said that she hated visitors – something she had in common with Gef, who would straightforwardly tell them to get lost – ‘Clear to the divil. We don’t want you here.’

Whatever was really going on with Gef, his arrival in the Irving family was part of the odd psychodrama of this close triad of father, mother and daughter. When Lambert visited the house, he found it ‘unnatural for a young person’ to be living alone with much older parents. Lambert and Price describe her as a clever, gloomy person who carried ‘something of her mother’s strange look in her greenish-brown eyes, which, rarely fully open, seem to observe the world with a penetrating yet half-concealed disdain’. She didn’t have friends and unlike other farm girls in the area she didn’t go out. She was known to be a skilled ventriloquist and many assumed that she was the key to Gef. Years later, a Dalby resident who had been at school with her recalled that she was brilliant at throwing her voice and putting on animal noises; she herself had heard Voirrey throwing her voice up a field and ‘shouting like a cat’. Someone who heard Gef speak on two occasions in 1932, when Voirrey was 14, described the voice as being like that of a girl of 15 or 16. Voirrey was known to be a fearless rabbit catcher – just like Gef; and many of Gef’s views were strikingly close to Voirrey’s. When her older sister Elsie came to visit, Gef behaved like a jealous sibling, saying he didn’t want her in the house. In summing up the evidence for and against Gef, Lambert and Price listed some of the ways in which Gef resembled Voirrey:

Gef likes biscuits, cakes and sweets – so do young girls. Gef is interested in motorcars and aeroplanes – so is Voirrey. Gef roams around the countryside, watching parties of workmen and attending various local gatherings consonant with what we know of Voirrey. Gef’s humour, Gef’s wisecracks, Gef’s tantrums, Gef’s affections – all have the quality of raw adolescence.

The reporter from the Manchester Daily Dispatch was one of the first to suggest that Gef was Voirrey. When he visited the farm, he heard a ‘weasel-voice’ talking to Mrs Irving ‘while the little girl sat motionless in a chair at the table’. Voirrey had her fingers to her lips. The reporter became persuaded that Voirrey was suffering from some kind of dual personality and was ‘unconsciously playing a clever, ventriloquial, practical joke’. He was convinced that James Irving himself genuinely believed in Gef because he ‘indignantly repudiates suggestions that his daughter … has been playing tricks on him and on others’.

On the other hand, had Voirrey been the only one in the family to pretend to hear a mongoose speak, why would Margaret – her mother – have claimed to have held hands with the creature and touched the top of his head? Gef is said to have referred to Margaret as a ‘witch-woman’ and often showed a preference for her, wishing her ‘night night’ and paying her various compliments. ‘He brought me a rabbit for my birthday,’ she told one investigator. A different view was that Gef was invented by Margaret and Voirrey together in an effort to persuade Irving to sell up and move back to the mainland. But Gef often taunted the family about his presence in the household and how it would make it impossible for them to sell the house and move somewhere better. If Margaret had wanted to create a poltergeist to scare her husband out of the house, surely she would have invented one who bullied the family into leaving rather than to stay? Gef sometimes threatened to kill all their poultry but at other times he seemed to be very jealous of anyone who got too close to the family. ‘This is my house and it suits me,’ he apparently said.

Gef’s complex personality suggests that he was the product of three minds working more or less together. Whether or not he was originally Voirrey’s creation, it’s clear that her father had a strong hand in his manufacture. He was the main source of all the information released to the outside world, and he was the one who kept a complete written record of Gef’s sayings and doings, a document of two hundred pages, which, Price said, ‘rivals the Arabian Nights in the fantastic impossibilities’ it contained. When visitors came to the house to try to catch sight of Gef, it was Irving who took them on the tour, pointing out the hole in the ceiling through which the mongoose observed them. Witnesses described being taken on walks during which the Irvings maintained Gef was present. On these occasions Voirrey would hang back behind the group and appear to make noises, while her father sprang ahead, signalling various hedges from which he claimed Gef was speaking, and helpfully translating the words for the visitors, in case they hadn’t caught what Gef said.

Why did the Irvings do all this? It wasn’t money, at least not in a straightforward way. Price and Lambert sent him a cheque for £10 when they published their book and he wrote back to say that he hoped the book had been a bestseller and that he might ‘expect a little more of what may be vulgarly known as the “Bunce”’. In fact, the book sold fewer than four hundred copies and Irving got no more out of it. But in general, he didn’t seek to profit from Gef, partly because he was aware that turning his mongoose companion into a money-spinner would only lend support to the doubters. As Price put it, if people thought Irving was making money, ‘the bottom would fall out of the story.’

Another psychical investigator concluded that Gef was a projection of James Irving’s mind, that Irving was an intelligent man who had, in Josiffe’s words, ‘been starved of mental stimuli up there in Doarlish Cashen, with no radio, no telephone and few books to distract from his bleak existence’. Gef was a huge and all-consuming project for the family. Irving produced sketches for investigators as well as very blurry photographs of a very indistinct animal with two-tone fur sitting on top of a hedge, a ‘snap’ taken by Voirrey, because, Irving reported, Gef had always ‘fought shy of my eye, why, I do not know’. Gef and Irving had extraordinary conversations about the nature of existence, and when Irving asked Gef where he would go when he died, he first replied, ‘I never die,’ and then said: ‘To Hell. To the Land of Mist.’ Thanks to Gef, Irving could cease to see himself as a frustrated and impoverished late middle-aged sheep farmer and become a quasi-Eastern mystic who held in his hands the secrets of life and death, good and evil. ‘Are you an evil spirit?’ he asked Gef, who replied: ‘I am not evil. I could be if I liked.’

Questions remain as to whether there was some kind of real mongoose-like animal on the loose near Doarlish Cashen. James Irving died aged 72 in 1945. It had been three years since Gef last appeared to the family. He had gone quiet ever since Voirrey left home in 1939 to work as a wartime machinist for the engineering firm Dowty’s. Those who believed that Gef was Voirrey’s creation wouldn’t have been surprised that he showed up less often when she wasn’t there. But in February 1947, two years after Irving’s death, the Isle of Man Examinerreported that an animal which may have been Gef had been dramatically captured and killed. Mr Leslie Graham, a retired army lieutenant who bought the farmhouse after Margaret Irving sold up, was putting away his motorcycle one night when he was startled by an animal with gleaming eyes. It had a weasel-like appearance but it was bigger than a weasel, more like a polecat. Graham set a snare for it and in the morning found it trapped and ferocious. ‘It snarled and spat and clawed more venomously than anything I have ever seen.’ Graham clubbed it to death with a stick. The corpse was three feet long with black and yellow mottled fur. This was proof that some kind of unusual animal did once live near the Irving house but the question of whether it spoke was still undecided. ‘At any rate, he did not talk to me,’ Graham reported: the only squeaks he ever heard while living in the house were from rats behind the panelling.

The animal may have been real enough, but Gef’s extraordinary accomplishments were perceptible only to the Irvings. What’s far from clear is how much of the Irvings’ manufacture of Gef’s personality was conscious, and how much the subliminal actings-out of a weirdly claustrophobic family unit. If Voirrey initially used Gef’s foul-mouthed rantings as a form of rebellion against her parents, her father in turn could use the animal to express the way he felt about a difficult daughter who was no longer a child. Or, to put it differently, for James Irving, Gef was a medium through which to act out his complicated Freudian feelings for Voirrey, his beautiful youngest child towards whom, witnesses said, he was deeply over-protective. When Gef first appeared in 1931, he threatened to attack Voirrey; and when he popped up in Voirrey’s bedroom at night the parents moved her into their own bedroom to keep her safe from the beast, at which he taunted them: ‘I’ll follow her, wherever you move her!’ Yet over time, Gef’s relationship with Voirrey changed, and he became her protector, promising to attack anyone who so much as spoke to her. In this respect, Gef was very like Irving himself, who went apoplectic with rage when Price asked to take Voirrey out for a drive to verify her version of events. ‘If Harry Price wanted a girl,’ Irving said, ‘he should look for one elsewhere.’

As for Voirrey herself, the signs are that she tired of the whole business. After her father died, she moved away from the island and thereafter refused all approaches from people who wanted to talk about Gef. In 1996 the filmmaker Brian Catling found her, aged 78, living in a village outside Cheltenham and wrote to her about the Gef affair but she replied that under no circumstances would she speak to him because she had left ‘all that behind me’. The only time she granted an interview was to a journalist called Walter McGraw to whom she said in 1970 that Gef was ‘very detrimental’ to her life since the other children on the island called her a ‘spook’. She insisted that there was no hoax and commented, cryptically, that if she and her mother had had their way they ‘never would have told anybody about’ the existence of Gef. It was only because her father was so ‘wrapped up in it’ that he ‘had to tell people about it’. Was this a tacit admission that Voirrey making the Gef voice was a sort of household joke which should never have been spoken of outside the house?

The really surprising thing is that so many people outside the family seem to have wanted the talking mongoose to be real. Or maybe it isn’t so surprising; many people even now seem to want proof of the strangeness of life in monster form. As recently as the 1990s, Puerto Ricans were preoccupied by the chupacabra, a goat-sucking monster with spikes down its back. More to the point, the idea of a talking mongoose had a special appeal for the many spiritualists and experts in occult magic who flourished in prewar Britain. An erudite Egyptian occultist called Rollo Ahmed, author of I Rise: The Life Story of a Negro (1937), travelled to Doarlish Cashen with sticks of incense and performed yoga poses in an effort to get Gef to manifest, which Gef stubbornly refused to do, blaming Ahmed himself for his non-appearance, saying, in Ahmed’s words, that the occultist ‘had disobeyed the Mongoose’s instruction that there was to be “no Hindu magic, no sitting cross-legged on the floor”’.

Another determined and intelligent Gef-hunter was Nandor Fodor. In 1937, five years after the story first surfaced, Fodor, a research officer for the International Institute for Psychical Research, came to stay with the Irvings for seven days in the hope of observing Gef at first hand. He had first become interested in Gef in 1935, and was increasingly determined to meet the mongoose for himself, even though Irving assured him it was unlikely he would get the chance to converse with Gef, who was more ‘surly’ than he had once been. Fodor persevered. He wrote to Mrs Irving assuring her that he would pay £5 for a week’s board and required nothing in return but some vegetables boiled in water for ten minutes (he was a vegetarian). He also wrote to Gef telling him that he was ‘the cleverest thing far and wide’ and promising to bring him chocolate and biscuits.

Fodor’s visit would be a bitter disappointment. One night while at the farmhouse, Fodor had stones thrown at him. Another time, the kitchen door banged twice, which the Irvings in great excitement attributed to Gef (‘Mr Irving said that in twenty years that door had never banged from draft’). It wasn’t much to go on. In seven days, Gef didn’t manifest once. Yet Fodor’s main conclusion from the visit was still that ‘Gef DOES EXIST.’ Fodor saw the case as a true mystery, since ‘all the probabilities are against it but all the evidence is for it.’

Instead of making Fodor suspicious of Irving, Gef’s failure to materialise made him primarily disappointed with Gef himself, to whom he wrote another letter:

Dear Gef,

I am very disappointed that you did not speak to me during the whole week which I spent here. I came from a long way and took a lot of trouble in collecting all your clever sayings … I believe you to be a very good and generous mongoose. I brought you chocolates and biscuits and I would have been happy if you had done something for me.

By the 1950s, Fodor changed his mind about Gef, coming to argue that the animal was simply an alter ego for James Irving : ‘a man who failed in life and whose passions were too strong to bear this failure with resignation’. But back in the 1930s, Fodor, like many others, was only too happy to enter into Irving’s delusion.

One of the most enthusiastic of Gef’s followers was Charles Morrison, a businessman and an old friend of Irving’s who was interviewed by Lambert and Price in 1937. Morrison said he believed in Gef for the simple reason that he had heard Gef speaking in the farmhouse many times with his own two ears. Unusually, Gef was rather fond of Morrison, addressing him as ‘Charlie, Charlie, chuck, chuck, chuck’ or ‘Charlie, my old sport!’ Lambert asked how he could be sure it wasn’t Voirrey or Irving speaking? Morrison saw Lambert’s point but argued that the voice was ‘coming from a hole in the porch … when we were in the kitchen’. Morrison was so persuaded by Irving’s version that he went to Regent’s Park zoo to speak to animal breeders about the possibility of a mongoose interbreeding with a stoat or a weasel. The breeder explained that such interbreeding was very unlikely but not impossible. Morrison inferred from this that Gef must be ‘some extraordinary animal which has developed the power of speech by some extraordinary process’. It was obvious to Morrison that his old friend was a respectable and honest fellow and ‘an honest man couldn’t “manufacture” these strange incidents day by day’.

The main thing Morrison wanted to impress on Lambert and Price was that neither he nor Irving was remotely mad, let alone a hoaxer. On the contrary, he insisted, he couldn’t stand any kind of charlatan:

I am no ‘crank’ – I am a businessman … I have a most loathsome aversion against ‘clap-trap’, so-called ‘spiritualism’ … Extraordinary things do happen and they have got to be solved … One thing certain about this matter I repeat. It is no fake. I have knocked about the world both here and in America and I regard myself as a man of the world and have seen and gone thro’ a whole lot and I am not to be kidded too easily.

Bee Wilson was the chair of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.”

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