Artist of the Week - Ben Nicholls

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Related artist: Ben Nicholls

Modern fairies? What are they? A question I put to myself after initially getting involved in this project...

At our first meet up for the project there was much debate about fairies, their history, who’d actually met one, their meaning and significance in people’s lives and one of the things I became interested in was the origin of these stories. Many seem to drift back in time and can’t be pinned to a specific source, some are related to a specific location, activity or natural phenomenon, but their exact origins are lost.

Obviously, for some, they are a very real and present force in their lives and perhaps this question of where the stories come from adds a significance to the fairy realm with which they’re in tune, but for those who haven’t experienced them first hand, are they modern?

There’s a huge and very healthy range of experiences and thoughts on fairies among the artists involved in Modern Fairies and this made our initial discussions all the more thought provoking.

When I got home, I thought the best place to start, as a musician, might be to do an internet search on “fairy music” and see what appeared. This is one of the links that came up……

Gremlins from the Kremlin

It showed some fairly destructive little fairy-like creatures in an aircraft in WW2, clearly a war propaganda film, but it made me wonder about the origins of the film. These were representations of fairies in a very specific time and place within living memory.

That led to this poem from an RAF Journal of April 1942….

When you're seven miles up in the heavens,

(That's a hell of a lonely spot)

And it's fifty degrees below zero

Which isn't exactly hot.

When you're frozen blue like your Spitfire

And you're scared a Mosquito pink,

When you're thousands of miles from nowhere

And there's nothing below but the drink

It's then you will see the Gremlins,

Green and gamboge and gold,

Male and female and neuter

Gremlins both young and old.

It's no good trying to dodge them,

The lessons you learned on the Link

Won't help you evade a Gremlin,

Though you boost and you dive and you fink.

White ones will wiggle your wingtips,

Male ones will muddle your maps,

Green ones will guzzle your Glycol,

Females will flutter your flaps.

Pink ones will perch on your perspex,

And dance pirouettes on your prop;

There's a spherical, middle-aged Gremlin

who'll spin on your stick like a top.

They'll freeze up your camera shutters,

They'll bite through your aileron wires,

They'll bend and they'll break and they'll batter,

They'll insert toasting forks in your tyres.

That is the tale of the Gremlins,

Told by the P.R.U.,

(P)retty (R)uddy (U)nlikely to many

But fact, none the less, to the few."

(The P.R.U. Is the RAF’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit)

Black and white image of an old war plane

On further research it turns out that there were many reports of fairies, or gremlins as they were known, aboard aircraft in WW2. The creatures were often considered to have sympathy for the enemy, but the Luftwaffe too would sometimes face similar puzzling mechanical problems through the interventions of small folk. These were apparently beings acting on their own behalf and in their own interests.

In the summer of 1940 the Battle of Britain was raging in the skies of Southern England as the Luftwaffe tried to crush RAF Fighter Command, led by Hugh Dowding (Air Chief Marshal Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding, GCB, GCVO, CMG to give him his full title).

Poster: The spiritualist who saved Britain. Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding's brilliant tactics prevented Nazi invasion

Dowding was a man with long-held suspicions about the influence of fairies on the human world and was in fact a member of the Fairy Investigation Society. This was an organisation set up in the 1920’s to compile evidence for the existence of fairies and a condition of membership was a genuine belief in their existence.

From these few details the complicated character of Dowding emerges, both military leader and fairy enthusiast, and has fuelled my explorations of the story of some (relatively) Modern Fairies.

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