The silly season started early this year. It was back in April that the Telegraph - quoting Ministry of Defence sources - reported that there had been a "huge rise" in UFO sightings in 2007. At the time, it was not much noticed, but ever since there has been a steady trickle of sightings, revelations and commentaries. For the past few weeks Channel 5 has been running an incredibly boring series about "Britain's closest encounters", based in part on a batch of files released by the MOD under the Freedom of Information Act. But there has also been a steady stream of sightings reported in the press, ranging from the genuinely puzzling to the Welshman who rang the police anxious to know what a giant white ball was doing hanging in the sky. It was the moon.
The excitement isn't confined to these shores. It was recently reported that 2007 had also been a record year for UFO sightings in Canada. Last week much press attention was given to remarks by former Apollo astronaut Dr Ed Mitchell, who claimed to be aware of a widespread government cover-up of alien visitations. Mitchell has been saying this sort of thing for years - going to the Moon does strange things to people - but this time he added that he had personally "been privileged enough to be in on the fact that ... the UFO phenomena is real." He added, "Reading the papers recently, it's been happening quite a bit." And, bang on cue, last Saturday saw the latest in a series of short-lived UFO flaps in Britain. One UFO organisation received 200 reports - more than ten times the usual number - in what the Sun described as "a record number for a single night".
Today, the Sun proudly announced the result of a "major" new survey (from YouGov) into the phenomenon. 43% of those questioned - this is in supposedly sceptical Britain, mind - were prepared to say that they believed UFOs exist. I assume that "exist" here means "come from another planet"; clearly they exist in the sense of being unidentified, flying and, as far as anyone can tell, objects. There are a further 36% convinced sceptics, leaving a surprisingly small percentage of Don't Knows. Yet only 9% claimed personally to have seen an interstellar craft. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet believe.
Among the more depressing findings, 13% thought it possible that there were extraterrestrials living among us, 16% believe that crop circles prove the existence of alien life, and 13% apparently still think that aliens built the Pyramids. About half were of the view that the government was covering up the presence of aliens or otherwise obscuring the truth about UFOs. It's an old-fashioned, comfortable sort of belief, that. The older I get the more convinced I become that the government is incapable of covering up anything.
It's quite likely that the press chatter about the MOD files has had something to do with at least some of this year's UFO sightings. If so, we can expect years of the stuff: the Ministry has announced that it has 150 of these dossiers to release, and will be dripping them out slowly. But that can't be the whole story. Even before this release, there had been a noticeable increase in press reports of sightings - and thus presumably of sightings themselves - after more than a decade of steady decline. Tellingly, a new X-Files film is due out soon. Pre-publicity no doubt played some part. But it's also true that the peak of that series' popularity in the mid nineties coincided with one of the Alien industry's strongest upswings.
UFO enthusiasms tend to recur every 15-20 years. The first began in 1947, a year which brough both pilot Kenneth Arnold's seminal sighting - seminal because he compared what he had seen to a "flying saucer" - and the much discussed Roswell incident. It continued through the early fifties, when "contactees" such as George Adamski claimed meetings with friendly folk from the planet Venus. The phenomenon never quite went away, but didn't reach a new peak of intensity until the early seventies, when sightings became commonplace and Steven Spielberg captured the public mood with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Fast-forward to the Nineties, when the whole mood suddenly becomes darker. The notion of alien abduction, long a subset of UFO reports, entered the mainstream through the works of science fiction writer come self-proclaimed abductee Whitley Strieber. It was soon being reported that up to 25% of all Americans believed that they had personally been abducted by little grey men. Abductees booked their places on daytime talk-shows (Oprah Winfrey was a particular enthusiast) while, in the world of fiction, Mulder and Scully teamed up.
The same period saw intense interest in the distinctly unthreatening "mystery" of crop circles. For a while, everyone had a theory. Was it wind? Was in aliens? Was in the mystic energy of the Earth Spirit trying to communicate with mankind? Or was it just a couple of old geezers having a laugh? The latter, of course; but while the world in general lost interest in crop circles when they were definitively exposed as man-made they have never gone away. They merely mutated into impromtu field art. They remain a mystery - why people go to so much trouble to create wondrous patterns for which they almost never publicly receive credit.
And then, suddenly, it stopped. Sightings were increasingly rarely reported - either to UFO research organisations or in the press. Specialist UFO magazines folded, or embraced proper science to survive. Ufologists shrank in the popular imagination to the status of trainspotters with unusually poor social skills. Perhaps it all started to seem just a bit too silly, or perhaps with greater publicity being given to scientific explanations including misperception and false memories people no longer reached for extraterrestrial explanations whenever they saw something strange in the sky. For a while it seemed that it would all fade away. As recently as this May, Ben MacIntyre was predicting in the Times - in the wake of the MOD release -
that the Internet, increasing social complexity and light pollution would kill off the extraterrestrial parade. In the future, "our remaining sense of wonder will erode still further; the flying objects of the future will be not only unidentified but unnoticed."
It hasn't quite turned out like that. Of course, this summers Ufological visitations may turn out to be a mere blip, an unexplained trace on the radar screen of society. But I'm not so sure: we're due a truly 21st century twist on the old story. Perhaps the UFOs will turn out to have something to do with surveillance. There's a theory that the flying saucers tend to turn up at times when people are more than averagely worried about various existential threats. Once it was the threat of nuclear annihilation; now it's global warming. It may be rather more mundane than that. I've noticed that UFO flaps tend to coincide with times of recession, when things are tough and the earthly powers don't seem much help. In the present situation, flying saucers may an efficient, carbon-neutral future. And watching the skies puts much less pressure on a tight household budget than eating out or going to the cinema.