Listen to a Londoner: Neil Arnold

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you want to be interviewed, email littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk.

Neil Arnold, 35

Neil is a full-time monster-hunter and author. He runs the Beasts of London blog, has just had published PARANORMAL LONDON and has recently written a book on monsters in London folklore.

LLO: What sort of beasts are lurking around London then?
NA:
My research covers mythical beasts, as well as the more complex folkloric stuff, and very real creatures. The flrsh and blood beasts lurking around London are mainly ‘big cats’ – puma, black leopard and lynx. These have been observed from as far and wide as Shooters Hill (Surrey puma of the 1960s), Sydenham (the ‘beast’ of Sydenham – subject of a huge hoax in 2005 when a man claimed he was attacked by a ‘panther’, although a black leopard did chase a jogger through a wood in Dulwich last year and domestic cats have been found eaten in the area), Cricklewood (a lynx was caught in a back garden by London Zoo in 2001)…however, you’d be surprised the amount of other strange beasts reported. Alligator found dead in a Dollis Hill pond, Crocodile in a Peckham bath tub, eagles, vultures escaping…London is a concrete jungle quite literally!

LLO: How long have you been interested in beasts and what sparked the interest?
NA:
I became interested in monsters around the age of nine when I was given a book on mythological monsters, but also a film called ‘The Legend of Boggy Creek’ was very influential as a child.

LLO: How did you develop your reputation as an authority on the subject?
NA:
I simply realised that no-one else was doing it. I took a risk, gave up my day job, and decided i wanted to follow my dreams and become a monster-hunter. With over two decades of experience, it’s been an amazing journey, and quite a weird one!

LLO: As a full time “monster hunter”, what’s your most interesting find?
NA:
It does get a bit weird sometimes, and that’s just the people I’ve met over the years! However, it’s just a huge buzz researching cases throughout the world. Some are more sinister than others, and others quite down to earth, but also it involves a lot of documentation and it’s great unearthing very old newspaper reports of escaped beasts or monster sightings. I’ve seen ‘big cats’ in the wilds of Kent, been to Loch Ness, but London has reports of vampires, dragons, giant rats and killer foxes….

LLO: Best place to go for a taste of paranormal London?
NA:
Certainly one of the strangest places is Highgate Cemetery which in the 1960s and early ’70s was the setting for a vampire panic, after many witnesses described seeing a seven-foot tall, red-eyed spextre behind the North Gate of the Western cemetery. It’s a tremendously gothic place.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your latest book.
NA:
Paranormal London is my third book and it’s something very different. I’ve read so many regurgitative books on London folklore, ghosts ,etc, and I wanted to write something different. The book is full of short tales regarding monsters, strange beasts, the occasional UFO/ghost report, but most concerns very obscure mysteries and sheds light on more known mysteries such as the Brentford Griffin, the Highgate Vampire, Spring-Heeled Jack, etc.

LLO: What’s a typical day of “monster hunting” like, anyway?
NA:
It depends…most of my time concerns writing, but at any point I could get an interesting call from a witness, or film something with a news crew. Not many people are out there ‘in the field’ as such, and I’ve had some odd experiences from being shot at, to being threatened by Satanists. It’s a colourful life!

LLO: You wrote The Saturday Strangeness on Londonist for a long time. Since this is being posted on a Saturday, want to give it one more go today?
NA:
The Saturday Strangeness was Londonist’s longest running feature, but they suddenly ended it. I’d love to write something similar again…London has so many unknown stories just waiting to bewilder audiences!

LLO: Touching on a few other interests, where’s your favourite place to catch a gig in London?
NA:
I used to go to gigs all the time in London, particularly The Marquee when it was on Charing Cross Road, and also the Astoria. I like the Appollo, and Forum, and also Camden Underworld is cool for smaller bands.

LLO: And the best place to deck yourself out in 60’s fashion?
NA:
I think as a monster-hunter people expect me to look like some bearded, wizard-type in a safari jacket, ha! I love ’60s culture and tend to pick stuff up in markets really because then you tend to find an item noone else has, rather than the more commercial stores which are destroying the boutiques.

Thanks Neil!

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Men in Morph Suits

We were heading down into Liverpool Street station when seven guys dressed in “morph suits” – all different colours – casually walked by. In London, you always expect the unexpected, so I wasn’t too surprised, but it was the hottest day of the year and those were some pretty claustrophobic-looking outfits.

Morph Suit Boys

They seemed to enjoy the attention though, and even posed on the platform for photos before entertaining us with typical guy conversation on the tube. Plus, I got a high-five from the purple guy.

Morph Suits on the Tube

If you’re wondering, I did look up the website – morphsuits.com – advertised across their bums and, well, apparently “morph suits don’t need explaining”. 

I did find out that they come in zebra print, comando and American flag varities. And it does offer some useful information such as an FAQ page with questions like “What do I wear under a morph suit?” “Where’s the best place to keep a wallet” and “Can I really drink through it?” 

Just in case you were interested…

(They are, of course, American.) << — Lies. Turns out we can blame the Brits.

Eating Colombian Hormigas

One of the very best things about London is the fusion of cultures. I’ve been invited to homes of friends from places like Lithuania, Pakistan and Uganda for home-cooked meals of food from their countries, have had food cooked for me by Korean, Indian and Mongolian friends just as if they would make it in their own countries.  

Lately, W has been telling me about how his family in Colombia trap giant ants (about an inch long) which are called “hormigas”. They pull off the wings and legs and toast them for hours in a pot over an open fire. They are enjoyed as a snack and people keep whole jars of them to munch on. Reminiscing about the ant farm I had as a child, I cringed.

W comes from the Santander region of Colombia, a place where Guane Indians were the area’s indiginous people. They used to use the ants as part of a complicated mating ritual. It is still believed that “hormigas” are an aphrodisiac and have youth-giving powers. They are harvested during the rainy season, around this time, and sold in various forms on the streets and in the shops of the region. They have even made their way to the Europe where they have been called the “cavier of Santander”.

Colombian Hormigas 4

A few days ago, I was in Selfridges, browsing summer dresses with high hopes that the sun will soon return to London’s grey skies, and noticed some people making disgusted noises by a shelf nearby. I walked over to investigate and what do you know – there was, among scorpians and spiders, a jar full of edible, toasted “hormigas” from Colombia. I had to buy them for W because he wouldn’t believe it. £15 later, I walked out with a small jar of giant toasted ants in my bag.

Colombian Hormigas 1

When I presented W with my findings later that night, he was surprised I found his favourite snack in this country and promptly unscrewed the lid, pulled out a long brown body and tossed it into his mouth. I could hear the crunch. I covered my ears and grimaced. Then, of course, he held out the jar with a grin and offered me one. I looked inside.  A clump of hard brown bodies. Heads. Legs. No.

Colombian Hormigas 2

But he insisted and the adventurous side of me gave in. After looking at them for a while, trying to imagine they were not once flying around an anthill in South America with long wings and wiggling legs, I picked one up. It stared back at me with dead eyes. W was watching me intently, reaching for a few more to crunch on while I contemplated putting the little creature in my mouth. He said, “You can’t just swallow it either. You have to keep it in your mouth until you chew it all up and really taste it.”

Colombian Hormigas 3

Really taste it. Ok, in the mouth it goes. Crunchy. Crunchy. Soft inside. A few scratchy legs. Tastes like bacon? Crispy, fried bacon with a soft meaty centre and crunchy, salty, pop-corn textured outer shell. Earthy.

Not bad, actually. Believe it or not, I even took a second.