Sunday, 26 October 2014

The time I saw a UFO

Starry night (source)
It's taken me fifteen years to feel comfortable telling this story. But here we go.

I saw a UFO once.

It still feels like a strange sentence to write down, and I daresay some of you reading it will have had a reaction to me saying it. Please allow me to tell my story before you make any judgements.

It was a long time ago, and I was a different person then. I was at university and me and my then-girlfriend had a long and awkward commute between the university itself (in West Yorkshire) and where we  were living at the time (in North Yorkshire). She'd drive, as I hadn't learned to yet, and I'd sit in the passenger seat during the early hours of the morning as we made our way through dark B-roads (which we sometimes took to avoid traffic jams on the motorway). We'd talk, listen to music and generally try to keep each other entertained and awake. I found the journeys hard going and I was just in the passenger seat - I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for her.

You'd occasionally see odd and interesting things as you drove through the countryside. One time, we pulled over during the daytime, because there were enormous flocks of birds flying and creating an enormous billowing flurrying sheet of movement, and you could see the ripples of the shape they created as they moved together. Walking out into the field to watch, it felt mystical, primal and powerful to see them intersecting in complicated patterns.

This time, though, it was the early hours of the morning at some point in 1999 or early 2000 (I remember the details far more vividly than the generalities). We were driving home on a clear night. While there are fifteen years or thereabouts of memories in the way, I'm fairly confident I can say that I was either as sober as her or at least only marginally less so, and that we weren't particularly more tired than we normally would be on that route.

We saw a light in the sky. It was larger than a star, but very bright. It looked brighter than an aircraft light (which was our first assumption) and very focused. I remember thinking of it as looking like a searchlight from a helicopter, but from much further away and without the beam of light coming down from it.

It moved in very straight lines across our field of vision, and then would turn at acute angles and travel in another straight line, before turning again. Considering how far away the light seemed, it was covering an amazing amount of distance in a short amount of time. I'd say at least twice as fast as watching a passenger plane going across the same distance. We were confused and intrigued, so we pulled over and got out of the car to watch.

Then it was joined by another light, and a third after a while. All three of them would move in straight lines and turn sharp corners. They weren't quite in formation, but they all seemed to have their own vague patterns. They weren't quite drawing triangles in the sky, but if you think of them all doing that, you won't be far off what we were looking at. The three of them moved independently.

After a while of watching (probably about five minutes or so), we got back into the car and continued on our journey.

What happened next was frightening.

After a short while on these quiet roads, we started being followed by a light. It was rectangular, and looked a bit like a motorcycle headlight, if a bit larger. It was at roughly the right height for it as well, so we didn't think too much of it at first. It was just very bright.

As it got closer, it was actually lighting the road ahead of us to the point where we could have turned off the car headlights and safely continued to drive. And this wasn't even with it immediately behind us - it was still a few car's distance behind. But it was following us for a while.

I was looking behind us and watching the light as my girlfriend drove. We'd just seen something strange in the sky, so we were both aware that we were likely just a bit paranoid and weirded out. It was probably just a motorbike with its headlights on full beam.

We were driving a bit below the speed limit, so we weren't going overly quickly, but we certainly weren't crawling either. So I was watching to confirm that it was a motorbike. As we took a fairly sharp corner, I watched the light carefully - at the speed we were going, it would have had to lean into the corner, so the rectangular shape I could see would have to lean in as well.

It didn't. While we lost the light for a moment, as the corner was between us and it, when it came around the corner, that light was steady and at exactly the same angle.

We took another corner, and it stopped following us. The light was gone.

That was the last unusual thing we saw that night. We talked about it for a while and agreed we couldn't explain it. My memory is that we were both a bit frightened by it all.

But it wasn't a defining moment for us. We went back to university and work and got on with our lives. We split up a while later - I was 20 years old and, through a combination of emotional immaturity, selfishness and a lack of understanding, wasn't very good at being a boyfriend, so she quite sensibly ended things.

All of the above has been told as consistently and as fairly as I can. Fifteen years of memories cloud things. It's entirely my memory of it as well - while I've said 'we' throughout, it's purely to avoid complicating the story. I don't remember any specifics of the conversations that we had about it at the time, and who said or did what, and we're not in touch any more (and while I hope that she's doing well, I rather doubt either of us is racing to fix that - we've both moved on with our lives), so you'll have to take my word for it all. But it's as clear a memory as I have of it, and the details I've described remain vivid.

So, it was completely unexplained. The bright lights in the sky, moving in a completely unnatural way, and then the floating light following us.


But, but, but.

Unexplained does not mean the same thing as inexplicable.

The reason I haven't spoken publicly about this for fifteen years isn't because I'm embarrassed about it - it's because I didn't understand it. However, now, I think it makes more sense, and can be explained. Which is why I'm more comfortable talking about it.

And it's a fairly simple, mundane explanation, all things considered. But it's still plenty intriguing.

The first thing to point out is that the area we were travelling in wasn't just countryside. We weren't particularly far away from Menwith Hill, an RAF base that also happens to be the area where project ECHELON is located. Here's the wikipedia page, and also, because I'm a fan of coincidences, here's a link to an article written for Esquire back in 2000 by an investigative journalist called Eamonn O'Neill about ECHELON. The coincidence here is that Eamonn, now a professor of investigative journalism, is my uncle.

A good few years later, I told this story to a friend of mine who pointed out that there was a very simple explanation for the floating light behind us (and some of you reading this may have already worked it out).

It was most likely a jeep with a searchlight. That's why it was so bright and, when we took the corner, why it remained steady - because it was travelling on four wheels, and staying steady the same way we were. And why did it vanish suddenly? It just got switched off. It actually sounded obvious once it was pointed out. But because I'd thought of it as 'like a motorcycle headlight' and the most confusing feature was that 'it didn't move like a motorcycle', I had difficulty rethinking it.

So, the story goes from being 'we saw something mysterious and alien and something mysterious and alien followed us' and becomes rather more 'we saw something'.

So, taking the large light near the ground out of the equation, the mystery remains around the three lights moving in straight lines and sharp angles.

I reckon, looking back, what we saw were drones. Early ones, in development ones, or even just a demonstration of how they worked. It's a base that specialises in surveillance, after all.

This, to me, explains everything. The lights weren't quite as high up as we thought they were - they were just very small, so we thought we were looking at something larger, further away. Why were they flying in strange straight lines and sharp angles? Because they're multi-directional and remote controlled. That's how they work.

At which point, I reckon the whole thing becomes a rather more harmless story. Assuming that they were drones, it's not unreasonable to guess that they were either broadcasting night vision or heat signatures or something similar, and we were seen nearby watching them. At which point, they send someone with a jeep to check us out, either to check we're not spies or (more likely) to confirm that 'yep, that was a person and we're interpreting what we're seeing correctly'.

While I love stories about close encounters and aliens, and while I love conspiracy stories, I love actual explanations more.

The dark late night, the strange lights and being followed. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of unexplained story that appeals, but there's plenty of room for explanations.

When we tell a story, we have our own natural bias in it. It's easy to assume that, because we don't know what the motivations are for the other people involved, that they can only be one thing. It's easy to assume that, because we don't understand something, that it must be something sinister or enormous.

Conspiracy theories, whether they're the kind that suggest that the government knows that aliens exist, or the kind that suggest that the illuminati planned 9/11 in order to instigate worldwide war, are attractive because they not only explain that there's a reason for certain events, but they also describe a world where there's a reason that we don't know things. Why aren't we successful? Because there are secrets to being successful that we aren't told. Why aren't we told how the world works? Because the evil forces that manipulate it want to keep it the way that it is. Explanations like this can be a lot more comforting than the idea that we're not successful because we're not good enough or don't work hard enough, or that we don't know how the world works because we're not smart enough or haven't looked carefully enough (or even that there are societal issues involved, which are a whole other area, but still...).

While I believe that there's probably life out there somewhere, I don't particularly believe in government conspiracies regarding them - to put it simply, I don't actually believe they're competent enough to have kept something like that under wraps.

Actual explanations for things that are simpler and more mundane may be less exciting, but I love them. They say so much more about how we interpret things and about how we try to solve things. I love the idea that we were followed because they wanted to check their new toy was working properly so much. It feels human and real to me, and it satisfies me so much more than anything else.

So, that's my UFO story. Does my explanation make sense? Let me know in the comments.

While I may not believe in conspiracy stories, I do enjoy writing about them. Please check out my new book, Deadlines. It's a crime/conspiracy thriller that's being published in 10 parts by The Pigeonhole at 50p per instalment. It's a little bit Lois Lane, a little bit The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and a little bit Watergate.

Here's what some people are saying about it on the Pigeonhole message board:

"Loved stave 1, the idea and characters are great. I think your analogy of thinking of this like a weekly TV murder mystery is spot on (State of Play springs to mind)." (Graeme Langlands)

"I like this a lot a lot. Nearly knocked a cyclist off his bike wombling about reading it on my way into work, so engrossed was I. Can't wait till next week!" (Sarah Larkin)

"Good start and I'm looking forward to more. I get a Stieg Larsson-esque in London feel from it" (William Paul Boyce)

Deadlines - Sometimes, getting the story can be murder.

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