After fifteen years of varied fortunes, the Centre for Crop Circle Studies (CCCS) closed itself down for good this autumn. ANDY THOMAS marks the passing of a unique institution and looks at the reasons for its demise…
On Saturday 3rd September 2005, some of the last remaining council members of CCCS gathered together in a room above ‘The Tournament’ pub in London to make their last momentous gesture – electing to close down the organisation after fifteen years of operation.
There are some who believe this move to be an overdue mercy killing for something which has long been a wounded, lumbering dinosaur, while others have mourned its passing as the loss of the last bastion of sanity in the crop circle world.
Founded in April 1990 by now legendary research figures such as Michael Green, Lucy Pringle, Ralph Noyes, George Wingfield, et al, and symbolically headed by its president, Professor Archie Roy, and its impressive-sounding patron, the Earl of Haddington, the organisation was set up by a curiously mixed group of mystics, scientists, ex-Ministry of Defence staff and Old Etonians. The one thing all had in common was a shared aim of wanting to get to the bottom of the unexpectedly-flowering crop circle phenomenon, and trying to provide a central pool of information, which, back then, was notably lacking.
In this regard, CCCS was initially successful, and it did indeed provide a forum and focus for people who had been newly drawn to the mystery by the work of weather-researcher Dr Terence Meaden or such books as ‘Circular Evidence’ by Pat Delgado and Colin Andrews, which had become an unexpected bestseller in 1989. The organisation’s initial meetings and conferences were buzzing and well-attended, and the sporadically updated CCCS phone hotline, in pre-web days, was for some the only way of finding out where new crop formations were arriving.
However, from the earliest stages, the task of keeping so many disparate groups and opinions together under one umbrella organisation was not easy. The factionism which would forever dog the croppie world and undermine the good intentions of CCCS was highlighted from the start by the non-cooperation of certain parties – notably Delgado and Andrews, who felt they were already established enough in their own right not to need to be part of CCCS. Even for those who did choose to partake of the CCCS experience, many found themselves pulling in different directions almost immediately (as recorded in Jim Schnabel’s 1993 book ‘Round In Circles’, a mischievous, but not entirely untrue, expose of croppie politics). The first magazine produced by the organisation, ‘The Cerealogist’, for instance, lasted just one issue as a CCCS venture before being taken away as an independent publication by its then editor John Michell, troubled by what he saw as restrictive prime directives being imposed on its content by the ruling council. A less grand replacement, ‘The Circular’, was immediately pulled into existence instead, initially edited by Bob Kingsley, first in a long line of editors who would see it through its impressive but patchy 15 year run. Never exactly an exciting journal (odd, given the very exciting nature of the circles themselves, but then CCCS always had that kind of slightly stultifying effect, as if afraid that people might get too carried away), it did, however, provide a forum for straight reporting and frank exchanges of views, which would create a number of alliances and enmities as time went by.
In the early years of the 1990s, CCCS did successfully provide a publicity mouthpiece for researchers whose views might otherwise have got buried under the snazzy and relentless PR campaigns of the Delgado and Andrews camp. Perhaps the best product of this was the book ‘The Crop Circle Enigma’, published by Gateway in the summer of 1991, which, via a series of essays by different CCCS contributors, provided a truly excellent summing up of where the phenomenon was at in those exciting pre-Doug and Dave months. This worthy tome would inspire a lot of new circle researchers, including myself. CCCS branches were set up around the country (Southern Circular Research, organising body of Swirled News, began as the CCCS Sussex branch), holding their own meetings and studying local formations, but always reporting back to the ruling council’s central control, which would filter and dispense the information through The Circular. For a short time all was well.
Of course, these halcyon days were unlikely to last for long, and when the debunking attack of the crop-crunching pensioners finally descended on the global media in the autumn of 1991, it put paid to the fortunes of CCCS’s follow-up book, ‘Crop Circles: Harbingers of World Change’, which sold poorly as a result. The organisation suddenly found itself on the defensive, after having enjoyed relative credibility for a year or so.
The subsequent squabbling about what was man-made and what wasn’t put an end to the glory days of CCCS, as those whose beliefs in the mystery were sown in shallow soil withdrew, and futile efforts to unify what was already a difficult bunch of colourful personalities with different viewpoints became untenable. Members fell out with each other in volatile and petty arguments, creating rifts and factions in the crop circle world which reverberate to this day. CCCS, particularly with ex-English Heritage senior staff member Michael Green as its chairman, had prided itself on providing public credibility for a strange phenomenon, and now neither the circles nor CCCS were seen to have any at all. The organisation found itself stuck between having to be seen to publicly accommodate the new widely-voiced scepticism, and having to keep its members happy, many of whom refused to go with the new-found wisdom that perhaps more crop circles were man-made than had been thought. This continual accommodation of the sceptics would lead eventually to a doomed slide into all-out fear of ridicule, leaving CCCS incapable of stating when it thought a circle was real, for fear of being caught out by a hoaxer who might have tricked them – thus leaving the organisation in the position of too often researching hoaxing, rather than the evidence FOR a real phenomenon.
Things came to a head when the Bythorn mandala formation of 1993 was put on ‘trial’ by a CCCS tribunal, confronting the council with the claimant, who, though he seemed incapable of demonstrating how he could possibly have made the pattern, was believed by the more sceptical members. The protest resignation of Michael Glickman from the council and the damaging rumblings from this ill-advised venture marked the beginning of a series of resignations and defections from individual members and, ultimately, open revolutions from some branches, notably Wiltshire, of all quarters, which broke away to become the independent Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group. The setting up of a ‘review body’ in 1995 to oversee a new and supposedly more peaceful era for CCCS caused more resentment and anger from the ‘old guard’ than anything else, leading to the chaotic 1996 Annual General Meeting, which saw the entire CCCS council being obliged to resign and stand again for re-election, having had its entire voting structure called into question by those wary that the direction of the organisation was being manipulated by personal agendas. Additional claims and counter-claims of financial mismanagement didn’t help. The eventual upshot was that the newer and more enthusiastic members, who were largely the disenchanted parties involved in the review body, went off on their own anyway, leaving what remained of the old guard to pick up the reigns again, albeit without their old president and patron, both of whom withdrew their support in protest at the situation.
It would be unfair to say that CCCS didn’t function effectively again at any time after this, but there is no question that it never fully recovered from the civil wars of the mid-1990s. The indifference of the outside world and the increasingly sceptical tones of CCCS’s own council members, in particular the Chairman’s gloomy and publicly damaging views on the phenomenon, widely dispensed as some kind of ‘official’ croppie viewpoint, led to a serious drop in membership, leaving just a hard-core who were happy to rely on the ever-erratic appearance of ‘The Circular’ just a few times a year as their main contact with the circle world. Also, by 2000, for many the Internet had taken over as the prime source of information on crop circles, and journals reporting several-month-old formations just didn’t cut it anymore.
It was continually argued by its defenders that CCCS was not a ‘believers’ organisation, but a body set up to investigate all aspects of the phenomenon, including the man-made side of it. However, the practical outcome of the increasing and warped focus on paranoid conspiracy fantasies of myriad hoaxing outfits out to get croppies (‘The Opposition’) was that those who remained enthusiastic – inevitably the ones who felt there was still serious evidence for a real mystery – fell away, unable to see the point of a body which didn’t appear to believe in the very phenomenon it was supposedly researching.
There was the brief chance for a renaissance around 2000, when new blood attempted to enter the CCCS bastions, largely through the highly applaudable and lively efforts of the one surviving active branch – the London group (continuing successfully to this day as an independent force). However, each new participant, including a very enthusiastic new chairman, met with strange opposition or blocking from the jaded and now sceptical old guard who, from their actions at least, seemed determined not to let any upstarts come in to spoil their private club. One by one, discouraged, the newbies dropped away, leaving a small, ineffective parochial group in a world of its own. By 2003, the annual conference, which once attracted hundreds, was down to an attendance of 30 or so. When two newcomers to cerealogy who had come along to the London venue left halfway through the day, saying it was clear from the endlessly sceptical views of the CCCS speakers that there was no phenomenon to be enthusiastic about, the writing was on the wall. When, in a 2004 issue of The Circular, yet another new chairman inexplicably announced in an editorial policy announcement that it was now known that most crop circles were man-made, the game was up.
This autumn, one final issue of The Circular was produced, at great expense for so few readers, and some of the closing contributions say it all – testaments to disillusionment and boredom. But why? There’s a world of crop circle research and enthusiasm still going on outside CCCS. Everyone knows there are man-made formations, but the interest in seeing what evidence stands outside of that aspect is justified and real. Why the blind fixation on hoaxing, to the effective exclusion of much positive evidence in other directions? Why couldn't CCCS keep the flame of excitement and open-mindedness alive, where others did?
The peculiarly self-destructive nature of CCCS over the years has led some to speculate that the organisation might actually have been originally CREATED by the Ministry of Defence to keep tabs on circle researchers and developments, so that it could be imploded from the inside if anyone got too near the truth (alternatively, Jim Schnabel suggests CCCS was a cover for a Black Magic coven with Pagan agendas). Nonsense paranoia, maybe, but the fact that some can even consider these ideas says much of the failure of CCCS to keep its heart healthy and strong.
The personalities at the core of the organisation were partly responsible, and the setting up of CCCS as a stuffy Victorian-style institution of AGMs, heavy bureaucracy and strangling paternal councils instead of a vibrant new forum to deal with a vibrant new force in the world didn’t help. It was backwards-looking when it should have been forward-thinking. There used to be an old joke circulated around the croppie world, which ran something along the lines of that if a crop circle were to celestially appear in front of the very eyes of all the major researchers, Terence Meaden would telephone the Met Office, Delgado and Andrews would kneel and worship it - and CCCS would call a council meeting. Which says it all, really.
This is not to say that no good was done or that those who worked for CCCS didn’t make worthy achievements: they did, and all concerned should be congratulated for their dedication and efforts, however wrong it may have gone in the end. It’s just that it could all have been so much more. By now, CCCS should have been running the best crop circle website in the world, investigating new formations with enthusiasm and openness, and answering questions to press and television, based on 15 years of solid experience. Instead, it has simply died a slow and regrettable death. A great shame.
As its last inheritance is bequeathed, the CCCS archives have been donated to the Society of Psychical Research, and remaining funds distributed amongst research groups and individuals who have played a role over the years (including a small donation to Southern Circular Research, touchingly, for which we are grateful).
And so an era passes.