ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP History: 'The Organisation'
by Val Hope

History Index

Who was who?

The Executive in the early days reads like a who’s who of our many fields. Posts were held by Bob Rickard, Jenny Randles, Lionel Beer, Hilary Evans, David Christie-Murray, the late Dr Vernon Harrison, Alan Cleaver and more. The ‘more’ included Dr Hugh Pincott and Maurice Townsend, the only Executive members remaining from the original team when ASSAP hit 25 in 2006. Many of these people had been members of the Society for Psychical Research and wanted to serve in an association that had more inclusive policies on contributors, investigations and publications. Others came along later, once ASSAP and its objectives had enjoyed some publicity. An early photograph in Psychic News in 1981 shows the Executive posing for their first publicity shot, and the newspaper also covered our 25th anniversary.

So that the current members of the Executive committee remain recognizable and approachable at events, their photos can be viewed on the ASSAP website, together with short profiles of their interests and activities on behalf of ASSAP.

What does the Executive do?

The titles and activities of the executive posts have been rethought over the years, but we've always had a chairman, secretary, treasurer and, generally, ombudsman. Some of these posts are required by our Articles of Association. The ombudsman is there to mediate in serious disagreements between members and is only called on as a last resort.

From the beginning the Executive has been peopled by volunteers who have devoted their spare time to ensuring that ASSAP runs as smoothly as possible on a modest budget. We’ve always been on the look-out for more talent to swell our ranks, possibly after a period of nurturing and mentoring. In the early days the Executive used to discuss recent applications before granting membership status, and anyone who looked particularly useful was contacted personally. Val Hope remembers being invited to Dennis Bury's house in 1982 to help stuff envelopes for an ASSAP News mailing - before long she was in the thick of an ASSAP Secretariat meeting in a bar at British Petroleum (BP) in the City, being volunteered for various activities by Chairman Maurice Townsend.

The constant need for fresh blood has led to a series of talent trawls, firstly under John Merron and most recently by Hugh Pincott in July 2004. People who have volunteered on their membership forms to help in administration or conference organization or who have specific areas of expertise are always high on our wish-list, but no one is safe.

Despite our best efforts to encourage people to stand for election, sometimes we are spread so thinly that one member has to fill two roles. At times it might seem as if we have surplus people, as they are listed as being 'without portfolio', but this is a way of keeping a number of spares on board to plug any gaps that might unexpectedly occur. If we need someone at short notice, we then have a pool of people to pick from. It also means we are less likely to lose someone who is temporarily unable to fill a specific role.

Elections to the Executive

Each year one third of the executive members stand down and submit themselves for re-election (if they wish - there's only limited coercion) on the basis of their achievements. In the interim they work towards the aims and objectives laid down for ASSAP back in 1981, reassessed at a 1991 policy meeting and reviewed again under Phil Walton’s chairmanship. We have often tried to line up deputies primed to take over certain positions when the postholder felt it was time to move on. Phil thought it a good idea to have revolving posts: a postholder would move on to a different job after three years in order to gain experience in another area. This was an unpopular suggestion on the whole, as many executive members felt they knew the niches where they could be the most effective and were reluctant to move to an area in which they had no interest or relevant experience.

Executive meetings - pubs and the internet

The Executive used to meet up in person more regularly: there were quarterly Executive meetings for major legal and financial decisions, which everyone was encouraged to attend, interspersed with more optional Secretariat meetings for day-to-day management. The BP bar in the City was one early venue, but many meetings were held in the London office or flat of the late Mostyn Gilbert, founder member of the Survival Joint Research Committee Trust (SJRCT). While never actually a member, Mostyn helped us not only with premises but also with advice on becoming a registered company. His loss to cancer in 1992 was sorely felt.

It can be hard getting everyone together for a face-to-face meeting, particularly when they have to travel from all over the country: back in 1982 a series of rail strikes played havoc with scheduling. Suitable premises have always been hard to come by, and we often resorted to meeting in the quieter corners of public houses in central London. The Greencoat Boy near Mostyn’s office just off Victoria Street was a favourite haunt for some years, as was a now forgotten pub in a creepy side-street near Waterloo station. For a while executive members in north, central and south London were able to offer up their homes for meetings. However, with the increasing geographic spread of the Executive, it made sense to move to on-line meetings as soon as the technology became widely available. Now face-to-face meetings are held on an ad hoc basis, with recent events at the premises of Adam Bailey's garden design business in Eynsford (as seen on BBC Two's 'Save Lullingstone Castle' in April 2006) and Lincoln College in Oxford, with an Executive meeting held just before the AGM at the Training Day venue.

Presidents

Michael Bentine, comedian, author and psychical researcher, became ASSAP’s first president in 1989. He suggested that ASSAP’s role might be to develop standards for assessing the effect of paranormal phenomena on observers. Ill-health meant that he was unable to be as active as he had hoped to be, and he sadly died in 1996 after a long struggle with prostate cancer. In 1997 Phil Walton went along to the memorial service for Michael in St Paul’s church, in London’s Covent Garden, and reported on this celebration of his life in ASSAP News. With the kind backing of Michael’s widow, Clementina, who told us of Michael’s pride in his role as ASSAP President, the first Michael Bentine Memorial Shield was awarded in 1997 for the best report submitted on an ASSAP investigation. Thereafter it has been awarded almost annually, provided that a report meeting the standards is submitted. The award is in the gift of the National Investigations Coordinator (NIC), and Bill Eyre, the current NIC, won the award twice while a mere accredited investigator.

It was hard to replace Michael as president, but inspiration finally struck Special Projects Officer Clive Seymour in 1999. At the Fortean Times UnConvention Phil Walton approached the Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe, a multimedia cleric, academic, weight trainer, martial arts instructor, TV presenter, teacher, songwriter, author, investigator and Harley Davidson fan. Have I missed anything out? Lionel brought with him his wife Pat, a fellow researcher, with the couple becoming ASSAP’s first two-handed presidential team, affectionately known as Pres and Lady One. Lionel and Pat have appeared at many ASSAP events in the years since then, giving talks, presenting prizes and generally mingling with the attendees. In virtually every issue of ASSAP News since November 1999 there has been an article by the presidential pair. The 20th anniversary celebrations saw Lionel sing a self-penned ditty for us in York, based on 20 years of ASSAP, and the words were subsequently published in ASSAP News. At the UnConvention in 2002 and 2003 Lionel tried out a number of our experiments and in 2004 he was photographed with our special brand of ASSAP orb. Lionel also hasn’t missed an opportunity to promote us, by wearing our T-shirt, name-dropping during media interviews and doing more to publicize our activities than we could ever have a right to expect from such a busy man. We were grateful to have the presidential pair’s company again at the 25th anniversary celebrations in Worcester. Lady One Pat manned the stand with the fruits of their research, while Lionel ably filled the role of urbane MC in addition to giving a talk, despite the best efforts of the Cosmic Joker to stop the proceedings by blowing the bulb in the projector.

The membership

We've never been a huge association in terms of numbers. In the early days membership was about 350, and then The X Files came along, producing a sudden upsurge in interest. Membership rocketed to 500 or more, before falling back to the 300s after the series ended. Nothing similar has replaced that show in driving people to join us or boosting the public's enthusiasm for all things weird.

ASSAP’s main sources of income are the modest subscription fee (which increased from just £6.50 in 1983, to £12.50 in 1996 and a still reasonable £15 in 2005), donations from members, an unpredictable amount of profit from training days, and a shrinking amount of royalty money from publications. The advance for The Paranormal Investigator’s Handbook was a welcome one-off payment that has helped finance research and other activities. When Chingle Hall in Lancashire came up for sale in 1988, auctioneers Sotheby’s dropped ASSAP a line in case we were interesting in bidding. Sadly, subscriptions and royalties did not stretch to anything like the price being sought. The Sotheby’s literature helpfully described several hauntings at the property, a 13th century English manor with quite a reputation.

Even though the membership fee has always been modest, there have been interested parties who have been unable to join for one reason or another. In the years before the Iron Curtain came down, it was not possible for people living in the Eastern Bloc to transfer money to pay for ASSAP subscriptions, and so a number of members in Poland were sponsored by UK-based members. Location is no longer a problem - we now have members in a range of countries, including an executive member out in Thailand, but our inability to hold events for them locally means that only the most tenacious hang on.

The only two people who are actually not legally allowed to join ASSAP are investigators and authors John Spencer and Anne Spencer. This applied solely to John for many years, but in 2006 Anne had to step down as ombudsman and resign her membership when she, too, became a partner in the company that examines ASSAP's annual accounts. Of course, ineligibility doesn't stop anyone attending our events. Indeed, John has appeared at a number of ASSAP meetings over the years and gave a talk at the 25th birthday celebration in Worcester.

ASSAP’s legal status

The early executive members discussed at length what the aims and objectives of ASSAP should be and began work on turning the association into a registered educational charity and a company limited by guarantee. The legal work was lengthy and it was not until December 1986 that ASSAP was finally incorporated. Charitable status followed in April 1987. The legal document lays down such matters as the size of the executive, what constitutes a quorum for voting, and so on. The benefits affect our accounting and other financial arrangements, and in return we have to carry out educational activities.

Other legal matters that crop up regularly include the need for public liability insurance, compliance with the Data Protection Act, and the age limit on membership. This currently stands at 16, but investigations are only open to those 18 and above. A new concern is the requirement to make reasonable adjustments to enable people with disabilities to participate in ASSAP activities. As of 2006 this applies to small groups such as ours, so a policy was formulated to ensure that we are not caught napping. We already have a good track record in adjustments, as the entire training day was once signed for two profoundly deaf members. Much preparation went into this, and signer Louise McElarney needed to read through the speakers' notes carefully to ensure she was not caught on the hop struggling to convey peculiar concepts. Louise also helped promote ASSAP at the UnConvention one year when she signed to help a visitor understand what was going on in our experiments. However, such ad hoc assistance is not easy to provide, as it relies on the skills of the members available at the time.
© Valerie Hope 2007