Nearly 75 years after Roswell, the possibility that we are not alone in the universe is once again the talk of mainstream politics.
The impending release of a Pentagon report on the activities of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) has sparked a wave of interest and recent pronouncements from the programme’s former director, Luis Elizondo , have raised the eyebrows of ufologists worldwide.
“We are quite convinced that we’re dealing with a technology that is multigenerational, several generations ahead of what we consider next generation technology,” Elizondo told the Washington Post earlier this month.
But a world away from Washington, perhaps the biggest ripples have been felt in Todmorden, a quiet market town in the Pennines. About 20 miles north of Manchester, the town of 15,000 has been the site of a number of unexplained events and reported sightings – earning itself a reputation as Britain’s answer to Roswell in the process.
“I’ve had people stopping me in the street asking, ‘What do you make of this report then?’,” says Colin Lyall, Todmorden’s resident ufologist and convener of the local UFO society.
Lyall started the society in the summer of 2016 after completing a triptych entitled A Landmark Event, which he describes as an attempt to “visually convey the strange goings on in the Pennines valley before, during and after Alan’s event”.
Alan Godfrey, a former police officer and longtime resident of Todmorden, claims that he was abducted by aliens in the town in 1980 while investigating the mysterious death of Zigmund Adamski, a 56-year-old miner who was found on top of a coal pile six months earlier.
Godfrey has become something of a local celebrity, particularly since the publication of his 2017 book Who or What were They?, which is now in development with the Hollywood production company Graisland Entertainment.
Lyall is certainly proud of the association and happy to see Todmorden receive the world’s wider attention: “Alan’s event was 40 years ago, but it’s become such an iconic moment in the world of UFOs. The association between Todmorden and UFOs will always be there and that’s great because it makes it unique.”
When coronavirus restrictions allow, the society meets on Tuesdays at the Golden Lion Pub. It provides a forum where both local people and day-trippers can discuss their experiences and learn more about Alan Godfrey and ufology. The meetings habitually attract 30-50 people and are inclusive of different types of truth-seeker, from those driven by an interest in space travel and advanced technology (“nuts and bolts”, in ufology parlance) to those with more of a “new-age connection” with unexplainable phenomena.
“Ultimately it’s about enlightenment … not everyone at UFO night thinks about them in terms of flying saucers from other planets,” says Lyall.
Still, he cannot deny that people have “got excited at the prospect of [the US government] coming clean about what they know about our relationship with aliens”.
Whether the Pentagon report will reveal anything interesting has been a source of disagreement in the UFO community in recent weeks.
Gary Heseltine, a researcher (and former police detective) based in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, has been sufficiently emboldened by the forthcoming report to set up the International Coalition for Extraterrestrial Research (ICER) in order to coordinate the global response and “prepare awareness classes for the public”.
“Whether it’s in 10 days’ time or 10 years, [confirmation of the existence of extraterrestrial life] is coming and it’s going to come as a big shock,” says Heseltine.
Heseltine met with Luis Elizondo prior to ICER’s launch on 25 May (exactly a month prior to the report’s release) and says the former AATIP programme director is “fully supportive” of the group’s global approach.
“Luis Elizondo has said many times that he’s seen high-quality videos of unidentified objects being recorded by navy pilots. Where are those? I want to see mainstream figures putting pressure on the government to release all this. If there’s nothing to hide, what’s the problem?”
Other experts are more circumspect, however. Steve Mera, the owner and CEO of Phenomena Magazine, the UK’s foremost UFO magazine (1.8 million online subscribers) urges caution, expecting it to have no more impact than the December 2017 New York Times report, which produced a flurry of excitement but no conclusive proof.
“I don’t think it’s going to deliver any answers but [the Pentagon report] reflects the fact that these things are real, they are out there and it’s not such a laughing matter any more”.
Dr David Clarke, principal research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University and co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Legend, says: “I think it will be a huge damp squib. People who are expecting that this report will confirm all their preconceived ideas about aliens visiting us in flying saucers and buzzing US Navy pilots are going to be massively disappointed.”
“UFOs are really just a modern manifestation of that desire for there to be a higher power … Places like Todmorden have got longstanding traditions of people seeing strange lights, losing time or even being abducted by fairies.”
“In America, people have these experiences in remote desert areas like Area 51. But we live on a tiny little island. Our nearest equivalent is Rendlesham or the Pennine hills, ‘enchanted forests’ where you can go and have one of these out-of-this-world experiences.”
Independent of what the experts might think, speculation has been rife on Facebook groups and #ufotwitter about the likely contents of the report and what impact, if any, the findings will have on the world.
Ash Ellis, a 34-year-old poker dealer, founded the North West UFO Research and Investigation Facebook group in June 2020, which has since grown to almost 500 members.
“The report is on everyone’s lips at the minute and we are waiting with some trepidation for its release,” says Ellis.
Ellis’s focus is on UK UFO sightings – he says there have been 165 in 2021 so far – but he says he’s been following the recent chatter online with interest, if only because it’s engendered a change in the way he is perceived. “I’ve been called a crank, a conspiracy theorist, but that’s much rarer now. The US government just saying the words ‘UFOs are real’ was a huge moment and vindication for a lot of people.”
According to Nick Pope, who investigated UFOs for the Ministry of Defence in the early 1990s, “the rise of the internet and social media fundamentally changed ufology. It gave a voice to everyone. But in this field, that means some fairly colourful characters.”
“The revelations about AATIP have brought the subject out of the fringe and into the mainstream. For the UFO community, it’s like all their Christmases have come at once.”