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The Life and Work of Brian Inglis with Neil Langdon Inglis

Brian Inglis (1916-1993)

Neil Langdon Inglis, US General Editor for Interlitq

August 21, 2021

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: It was your good fortune to be born into a family of intellectuals. Your father, Brian Inglis (1916-1993), became a household name in Britain, presenting the popular Granada Television series All Our Yesterdays, which gave historical accounts of the events leading up to WWII, and the war itself. Although it’s for this work that he remains best known, there’s arguably a more fascinating side to him, and that’s his research into the paranormal. Is there anything specific that prompted him to move away from strictly immutable facts of the past—his work as a scholar and transmitter of history—to become an investigator of both the present and future?

NLI: This was a hairpin bend—as abrupt a shift as it is possible to make—and we must try to understand why it happened. In essence, Brian viewed the existence of the Occult as the single major under-reported news story of his era, he felt this career move was a risk worth taking, time was short, and in his new role he sought to persuade a disbelieving world of the justice of his beliefs. Not everyone agreed, and Brian paid the price in terms of lost professional credibility and domestic breakdown. He made many new friends and plenty of enemies.

Brian was disingenuous about his motivations. More than once he would claim he had stumbled upon a particular fringe topic (say, faith healing) while preparing a series of articles as editor of The Spectator, the British journal of opinion that he edited from 1959-62. My mother recalled things differently: Brian had been dazzled by a meeting with an Indian guru or healer, yet I have found no evidence for this encounter. What I do know is that Brian fell increasingly under the spell of Arthur Koestler, a close friend who was investigating the paranormal (“The Roots of Coincidence”, etc.) at around the same time.

Brian’s rebellion was thus both intellectual and personal, and it gathered speed under Koestler’s influence; yet in his dealings with the author of “Darkness at Noon,” Brian the rebel became a deferential acolyte. Working in partnership, Messrs. Inglis and Koestler embraced a similar range of ideas, yet they also shared a dedication to “free love,” a cause which (especially in Koestler’s case) has aged poorly in the “Me-Too” era (Koestler forced his hapless wife Cynthia into a suicide pact and had raped Michael Foot’s wife Jill Craigie).

While on the small screen in the nation’s living rooms in the 1960s, Brian’s public persona had been cloaked in solemnity, an illusion that vexed him (and baffled my mother, knowing the truth about his wild infidelities). More to the point, as a TV presenter Brian had been unable to speak his mind or to act freely (e.g., there was to be no mention of the “Enigma” program, then covered by Official Secrets legislation). The straitjacket became unbearable, and so by 1973 Brian bade farewell to “All Our Yesterdays” (Granada TV), grew his hair and abandoned neckties, never again mentioning the topic of WWII history, and giving his wife and children the deep six.

DG: Did you feel jealous, abandoned, misunderstood?

NLI: Although Brian honored his strictly legal and financial duties toward us and remained civil with my mother—to the extent of patching things up with her before his death—the damage for us had been done. There were other, more stimulating avenues for him to explore.

This, after all, was the Age of Aquarius. We know that Brian signed petitions for the legalization of cannabis, and wrote about the use of psychedelics. We do not believe that he personally experimented, however, perhaps suggesting a fear of loss of control; his television boss Bill Grundy referred to him half-jokingly as a “civil servant in Bohemia.”

Brian turned down a top media job in Ireland as head of RTE, then a bastion of social conservatism. There was little prospect of his presiding over broadcasts of “The Angelus”—and it was no longer satisfying to toil on somebody else's payroll. Brian wished to leave behind a spectacular intellectual legacy of his own.

In his autobiography Downstart Brian described his relief at abandoning the wearing of pajamas. The paranormal, you see, is a vehicle that allowed Brian to shun middle-class respectability, that hated cornerstone of Protestant Dublin society and the price of admission to its ranks. Here was the moral code insisted upon by Brian's parents—although they did not always obey their own rules. Brian's father (Sir Claude Inglis) was a hydraulic engineer who prized his hunches—intuition—rather than equations as a source of inspiration. Brian’s mother had started out on the stage—no respectable career for a lady, yet a conceivable precedent for Brian’s future career in network entertainment.

As the UK sank into a gloomy new decade of economic chaos, Brian embraced new friendships (with Uri Geller and Andrija Puharich, John Hasted, Guy Lyon Playfair, Rupert Sheldrake, and many others engaged in similar endeavors around the globe). Some, like Colin Wilson, were more rival than friend. Together they formed an echo chamber, marinading in a self-reinforcing atmosphere of tribalism. My father’s sense of humor vanished. I have an old Punch cartoon that used to hang on Brian's walls, on the theme of unorthodox medicine: a suffering patient complains, “Drugs, side effects, more drugs, more side effects—Couldn’t I go back to the original cold?” This shows he did have an appreciation for humor at one time, and points to a missed opportunity for domestic reconciliation. How? As Brian’s son, in later years I too began to enjoy the world of strange phenomena once I could see the witty side. Brian’s off-putting belligerency drove a wedge between us when he could have gained a convert. I was happiest when he gave me two Beethoven cassettes on my 18th birthday—now there was a life-altering experience!

Given this equivocal legacy, it is my job to make sense of Brian’s life and to serve as his advocate, albeit not an uncritical one.

DG: You graduated from Cambridge in 1983 with a degree in Modern Languages, but now live in Washington DC, working as a translator and critic. It has been said, and some research supports this, that the US is a much more religious place than Europe. Having resided on both continents, do you find that people are more receptive to paranormal evidence in the Old or New World, and is religious belief necessarily a prerequisite for that, or might it be just the opposite?

NLI: In my reading of the literature in the USA, my impression is that Evangelical Christians are wary of spiritualism divorced from religious content. Of course you have the Pentecostalists who engage in snake-handling as well as the speakers-in-tongues. The recent rise in the credibility of UFOs (or as we must now call them, unidentified aerial phenomena or UAPs) has shuffled the deck considerably, as there have been UFO sightings everywhere, including in socially and politically conservative regions of the United States. Brian had little interest in UFOs and would have been disappointed that this branch of the paranormal has been the first to gain official (if not scientific) currency. He brushed off such sightings as hallucinations—an unhelpful cop-out.

DG: Let’s return to your father, more specifically his book, The Power of Dreams, for which you penned a review. Dealing with the paranormal, it’s a fascinating work, and, yet, as you write, “Its pages hold no references to gravity-defying or time-twisting stunts, such as levitation or teleportation.” Indeed, there’s a difference between magic in the sense of David Copperfield, and magic in the conception of Aleister Crowley, more commonly spelt as “magick” to distinguish it from the aforementioned trivial and commercialized variety of vain showmanship. Your own father believed in a force called psi, a type of extrasensory perception that can be accessed through dreams—something much harder to disprove than the now-understood method behind spoon bending, let’s say. And yet, modern medicine remains skeptical about the existence of such a force, despite the numerous unexplainable medical miracles, for instance. Why does this continue to be the case and is it simply a matter of science being forced to “ignore” the thing for which it may not have an explanation?

NLI: I agree—and Brian reserved special scorn for “conjurers” like James Randi (whom I met in 1994). For Brian, the psi force was something else altogether and underpinned everything, including the power to heal, which was most definitely not the sole prerogative of doctors.

In Fringe Medicine Brian punched holes in the post-war era’s worship of Western medicine. He criticized the casual use of broad-spectrum antibiotics—very presciently so, as full-blown antibiotic resistance will have a devastating impact on the survivability of surgical operations. My father banged the drum regarding Thalidomide, a scandal which took a while to gain traction, and arguably Big Pharma’s darkest hour. My mother (Ruth Langdon Inglis, at whose London home Interlitq was born) came agonizingly close to being prescribed Thalidomide, and I wonder if parenthood and my arrival in 1962 had sensitized Brian to such risks. He would never have admitted it—and he was also an anti-Vaxxer. It’s unclear whether he would have taken his COVID jabs were he alive in 2021.

DG: You’ve interviewed Dr. Ian Baker, a senior lecturer in psychology with an interest in religion and paranormal belief at the University of Derby; still, we may say there aren’t many such educated, reputable people doing research in this field, and even rarer are those holding academic positions. Unfortunately, charlatans and tricksters are more than happy to enrich themselves at the expense of those with anxiety issues and low self-esteem. Indeed, in an unpredictable world, who wouldn’t take comfort in having their future revealed? And, yet, this “paranormal commercialism” is precisely the topic which isn’t of interest to us.

NLI: My skeptical childhood left me with a sharp dislike of quackery and fraud. I no longer accentuate the negative quite so much, and there are heartening trends in the field. In 2021, it is quite acceptable to combine being a rationalist and a professor of the paranormal. Brian would have feared foxes in the chicken coop; in particular, he would have felt intensely proprietorial toward the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh, which has its origins in KIB, a project Inglis and Koestler founded in the 1980s along with financier Instone Blomfield. The new heads of anomalous psychology units (such as Profs. Caroline Watt, Ian Baker, and Chris French) have open minds and investigate their subjects diligently, thoroughly, and professionally. I warmly welcome their efforts.

I should add that Brian regarded his own celebrity career as something of a fluke and a product of unrepeatable historical circumstances—his father had also recommended the insurance business to the young Brian, as a respectable profession—and it is quite unclear what path Brian would follow if he were reincarnated in 2021. Although if his beliefs in the afterlife turn out to be true, could it be that something along those lines is happening as I write these words?

DG: Would you agree that the main problem which afflicts paranormal studies is that for any phenomenon to be considered as such it must necessarily fall outside the realms of science, and, yet, for that very same occurrence to gain legitimacy it needs, on some levels, to also be understood by it. The way I see it is that there are three camps: Those who fall into the first are driven entirely by hard data—like religion, they reject the paranormal on purely quantifiable grounds; those in the second camp are also motivated by objective facts, but they’re willing to admit that some forces either can’t be measured with current scientific instruments or perhaps they may even leave the door open to things that may not be precisely calculated at all; in the third camp, we have those who don’t trust any substantiated evidence whatsoever—people who relegate their fate, whether it concerns medical or personal issues, entirely on the supernatural. In this respect, neither the first attitude nor the last one seems sensible. What role, if any, in your father’s conception, did science have to play in the paranormal, and how could it better elucidate our understanding of it? And as far as psi is concerned, can you suggest some other current personalities and perhaps even organizations that individuals with an interest in this subject can turn to for reference or even guidance?

NLI: Purity or compromise—it’s a dilemma as old as time. Also, Brian couldn’t decide which he preferred—apostleship or secret society membership. Brian’s life had many wheels within wheels that I knew nothing about, and which I discovered only after his death; and he traveled relatively little, apart from to his beloved hideaway in the Ardèche.

On the other hand, Brian wanted to leave “footsteps in the sands of time,” and for that to occur he needed to become a full-throated St. Paul of the Paranormal. This desire to publicize led to his world-renowned two-volume history of psi, republished by White Crow Books (Natural and Supernatural, and Science and Parascience), among other titles. Some of his skeptical critics regarded him as scientifically illiterate (Brian was said to make “untutored errors”).

He could have been a more effective advocate with training, but was entirely at ease as an autodidact, a characteristic of UK journalists of his era, who seldom saw the need to go back to school. Indeed, he refused to bend the knee to establishment scientists from the materialist world: Darwin and Faraday were the Devil Incarnate. Professional men were favored by Brian to the extent that they accepted his ideas. One who did not, the recently deceased biologist Lewis Wolpert, became an unexpected friend and neighbor late in Brian’s life.

More generally, Brian yearned for the day, I suspect, when it would no longer be essential to apologize for his work, when it would no longer be necessary to retreat to the back foot, when skeptical organizations like the hated CSICOP (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) would fade into irrelevancy. I often ask myself how he would respond to the latest news stories and initiatives in the field. Just the other day, the Society for Psychical Research (an organization which I presented to recently) hosted an article on its FB page on how it is possible to reconcile psi with science— and to normalize the paranormal into the bargain.

DG: In your review of Science and Parascience (which Brian first published in 1984), you talk about the differences between his beliefs and yours with regard to the psi force, writing that “The subject of psi interests me, but only because of Brian. He would have been bemused to learn that I am bringing his work on psi to the attention of a new generation. At that point, we diverge: I am a Fortean, not a believer. Brian, in common with so many of his contemporaries, was immersed in the ‘human potential’ ethos of the 1960s and naturally believed psi as a force that would unlock human creativity. And yet, if the psi force exists at all, there is no earthly reason for psi to be a force for good when there is so much evil in the world.” Indeed, people still look back nostalgically at the 60s, associating the decade with possibility, progress, and potential for change—arguments, whether justified or not, seem to paint a prettier picture of the past. Setting the negative aspects aside, what role, in your opinion, should psi play today and how can its study best contribute towards humanity’s positive development?

NLI: As death grew near at the turn of the 1990s, Brian took an interest in coincidence—and the world of serendipity is one that I, too, accept. I recently posted a musical link on a friend’s FB page by accident; no forethought or planning was involved, it was an accident—my friend loved the link regardless. Is this confirmation bias, or evidence of unseen hands at work? Brian and I, you see, could have achieved posthumous reconciliation.

Children are still in touch with serendipity and must not have that spontaneity beaten out of them; indeed, these undercurrents must be cherished and nurtured. If the psi force is the touchstone of all inspiration—literary, scientific, and otherwise—we must enable it to flourish and not douse it with defoliants.

Brian would absolutely see the latest developments in quantum mechanics as vindicating his beliefs on lucid dreaming, astral projection, and all the rest. Alas, at our Newtonian level, we lumber about in our elephantine way, without the freedom to teleport enjoyed by subatomic particles. Brian would have swept such quibbles aside, concluding that quantum entanglement solved the age-old bugaboo of “action at a distance,” whether manifested in telepathy or other related phenomena.

DG: Are you working on any paranormal-related research at the moment, and if not, do you plan to take up such endeavors in the future?

NLI: I am gearing up to write a memoir of my father, and indeed that’s one of the reasons why I am making a systematic traversal of all of his books. They vary widely in readability: Roger Casement (the biography of the Irish revolutionary/traitor, depending on your point of view) has held up beautifully, at least in part because it is the most balanced of his histories; it is warts-and-all. Of the psi treatises, the later publications have a mellower flavor, which I prefer, although he would have considered such stylistic niceties irrelevant. As for my own plans to investigate the subject further, friends of mine in the field have invited me to participate in channeling events, and to sample ayahuasca... I may demur, just like Brian.

DG: How has the world changed since your father passed away?

NLI: I recently learned of a psychical organization that is undergoing an institutional decolonization process, and I wonder what Brian would have made of today’s anti-racism movement and toppling of statues. There is some traditional leftism in his histories Poverty and the Industrial Revolution and The Opium War, but apart from clearly defined exceptions I cannot think of Brian’s ever referring to “oppressed peoples,” “silenced voices,” or using other woke language. We find some appreciation of non-Western cultures in Brian’s work; consider his treatment of stimulants and psychedelics in Latin America, Carlos Castaneda, and so forth. And many of the psychics from the Golden Age whom Brian so admired (Eusapia Palladino and others) had little if any formal education and were (for him) almost better off as a result—and, precisely because they came from such different worlds, they were able to stand up to scientists, academics, and other representatives of the ruling class. Was Brian Inglis one of those taken in? He was a typical product of a certain type of public-school education, which endows one with immense confidence—but seldom humility or common sense, and never the Sixth Sense.

As you might expect, then, there remains an element of public school hauteur and breezy privilege in Brian’s work—but then, he never attempted to deny what he was. And neither, for that matter, can I.

Author Bio:

Neil Langdon Inglis, the son of authors, Brian Inglis and Ruth Langdon Inglis, graduated from King’s College, Cambridge with a degree in Modern Languages in 1983. He is a translator and literary critic based in the Washington DC area. His book reviews have appeared in many publications including The Tyndale Society Journal, Fortean Times and Skeptical Inquirer.


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