Master Biographer and Fortean
An appreciation by David Southwell
Bennett was a master of the biography. One of his strengths was being able to be simultaneously compassionate while maintaining a factual rigour, delivering the sometimes painful clarity needed for successful dissection of his subjects. When writing on Forteana, many writers are so dazzled by high strangeness, the human at the heart of the experience is obscured. This trap was one he lept across with uncommon grace. However odd the story being told – and much of ufology is exceeding odd – Bennett was able to ensure his eccentric cast of characters was not overthrown by the saccharine spoutings of space brothers, the marsh gas vapours of conspiracy mire.
There is a constant sense of frustration in much of Bennett’s work. He was not happy with the state of Forteana and was not afraid to let it show. Rarely was one of his books less than acerbic. Bennett wrote in delightful stings and cuts which made him the reader’s friend and a bete noire for much of the genre. He wanted his contemporaries to do better, be better than just sniggers at and cataloguers of the curious. His words are not only those of a firebrand anti-materialist but someone not afraid to try to shout coward in the ranks of weird writers for failing to pull apart fundamental concepts such as reality. Many saw him as strident, but his polemics could also be playful, enthused with a charm and clarity that allowed him to engage with a non-specialist audience.
Bennett’s background had seen him walking a road that was never less than zig-zagging – musician, mercenary, an Oxford scholar by dint of winning an actual scholarship. His wealth of technical and emotional insights allowed him to jump from
An unravelling of American military dogma to skilful psychological evisceration in a paragraph. A playwright and author, he could deploy words like primed explosives, bring whole edifices down in a magazine column, bring a sense of awe at high strangeness in one enchanted sentence. Yes, he deserved better editors, yes, the Situationist shock-tactics he implemented were overused, but Bennett was a grand storyteller who always used to be boring. He was able to adapt to the demands of writing for and about the Web long before he had spent years examining the warping possibilities of language.
Bennett made enemies. I can attest to both his generosity to fellow researches and the hurt he often caused. His attacks on people read like Soviet propaganda feel like the cyber space equivalent of leafleting the supporters of the enemy from a helicopter patrolling the sky like a malicious, poison-barbed insect. If we search for the best of Bennett we will not find him here. It was clear to many that had contact with him that he was engaged in a deep merem guerrilla war against the forces of scepticism. How the bullets of assassination are received depend largely on one’s politics and whether you are the intended target of them.
All the apparent contradictions of Bennett – from right-wing post-modernist intellectual to playful surrealist – swim through his work. To read him can feel like drowning when you have run out of land at the end of history or joyously walking upon water once realised nothing is what it seems. Exiled from polite conversation, his legacy of humour soaked, post-modernist texts dealing with deep oddness continue to be cherished by anti-sceptics, those who loathe political correctness and seekers of wonder.