Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Once upon a time my cousin and I used to take the dog for midnight walkies and search the sky for UFOs. We hoped to catch sight of the mother ships - the huge, cigar-shaped ones that hover while flying saucers whizzed around them. Cigars and saucers - that was it. No self-respecting UFO seekers expected to see any other shapes. The fact that we never saw any shapes at all didn't dampen our enthusiasm for the possibility that we might.

Since then, and usually in the holiday season, when newspapers haven't much to write about and people have more time to gaze upwards, there are occasional reports of mysterious objects in the sky. Like the time some people in Adelaide declared they had been dive-bombed by what looked like a large, dusty boiled egg. Before the spoilsports ruin it all, before the lights and shapes are proved to be weather balloons, mutton birds, high-flying squid boats, pieces of old satellites, or reflected images of Venus, please let us romantics dream a little longer.

From the ranks of romantics come the inventors, the writers, the painters, the poets, the dreamers, the eccentrics - and the crackpots. Sometimes it isn't easy to make the distinction. For example, people who accept whimsical possibilities might talk to their cabbages and chrysanthemums and insist that as a result, they grow bigger and better vegetables and flowers than people who don't.

We know that space ships and their passengers belong to fantasy-land. Sensible people do not accept them for a moment. Sensible people did not accept germs and aeroplanes and splitting atoms either - it took crackpots and romantics to follow those idiotic ideas through. Romantics are capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast any day. And while there is some doubt, some beguiling possibility, we prefer to let our imaginations run wild.

Adults who welcome the idea of UFOs being space ships were probably once children who saw the man on the moon long before there really was a man on the moon. They confidently wrote to Santa Claus. They played with invisible friends. They seriously, and tremblingly, considered the idea of there being a ghost at the top of the stairs. They were wary of the tiger in the shrubbery. And those children grew up to be the sort of people who would prefer to think of a UFO as a space ship rather than a weather balloon, simply because that is the more enchanting possibility.

Romantics are enthralled by "true" stories of ghosts and would be charmed as well as scared witless if they met something on the stairs that was transparent and rattled its chains. They would rather not know for sure that there are no such things as ghosts, because then they can slip back into that beguiling childhood state where there are no boundaries, and they are limited only by their imagination.

Some people don't grow out of this need to over-paint life, but hold fast to their magical worlds. There was a woman in England some years ago who was convinced that pixies lived on a piece of vacant land that she owned, and she refused to sell it to a property developer. Now there was someone who truly believed that there were fairies at the bottom of her garden. Many practical, down-to-earth people were outraged at this absurdity, pressing for high-rise flats instead. But there are plenty of practical, down-to-earth people in the world, and more than enough high-rise flats, but not nearly enough eccentrics. I'm glad the eccentric won that particular battle.

An imaginative child who hides at the bottom of the garden with a book keeps one eye on the nearby toadstools in case the fairy who lives there chooses that day to materialise. Everybody knows that a fairy standing on a toadstool might - just might - show herself, like Tinkerbell, to a human child if that child believes hard enough. But if the tiny personage doesn't appear, there is still another world within the pages of the book to excite the imagination. And without boundaries it is just as easy to roam through the skies exploring space as it is to enter the world of ghosts or fairies or small green persons from another planet.

Why should we on Earth be so special anyway? It has been argued that it is at least theoretically and statistically possible that there is life on other planets, in other galaxies. Some of those civilisations could be smarter than we are, technologically speaking. The smallest leap of the imagination brings us to the idea that when people here on Earth see mysterious objects whizzing overhead it might be because the occupants are interested in us, disturbed about us, or simply flying over us on their way to somewhere else.

But here's a spooky thought: where are they going?


  1. Hi Joan - If you got to the Heavens Above website you can find out when the International Space Station is going to pass overhead, and see a real space ship with real people on board. They're a long way away, but I like to think they smile when you take their picture.

  2. There you see! I knew that technology would eventually catch up with the cranks and dreamers!