If you only read the mainstream press you'd hardly have any idea there was anything going on, bar the odd high-profile tale of strange lights over Manchester. But if you knew where to look you were aware that there were dozens of sightings every day all over the country. I subscribed to all the main magazines, UFO Magazine, Flying Saucer Monthly, Over Your Head and They're With Us Now, which was mostly a spotters' mag but occassionally diverted in generic conspiracy tales of the Is Nessie working for MI5 variety.
I spotted from my bedroom window at night, my dad's old RAF binoculars trained constantly to the heavens, but there was nothing to see. But that didn't dint my enthusiam, it just made me more determined. If aliens wouldn't come to me I'd go to them.
When I turned 16 my parents let me spend periods of the summer holidays camping. Of course I told them I was with friends, they were keen for me to do the whole going out with friends thing, but in reality it was just me, my tent, my binoculars, the cheapest video camera on the market and some pretty basic recording equipment, in case I got to meet the aliens I wanted to be able to record the occasion. I was carefully following all the latest UFO sightings and would travel to any area where there had been more than one sighting in the last three months, on the assumption that this was evidence that the aliens were making return visits.
My trips were modestly successful. Somewhere on the Norfolk coast I managed to photograph a hazy light in the sky. I wrote to Spotter Magazine, which was the most open to un-commissioned material from the public, with a short piece about the light, which flew in an uneven pattern in the sky, "As if trying to send a message," my article speculated. I also referred to the recent sightings nearby which had led me to be camping there all weekend, though I didn't mention the latter element in my article. I was published. An edited version, just a paragraph long, without the dodgy photo and headlined, 'More Weird Goings on in Norfolk'. I would subsequently discover that the only reason my article was published was that the editor of the magazine was from Suffolk and could never resist an opportunity to have a pop at his northern cousins.
I, of course, was blissfully unaware of this fact and hugely encouraged by my first ever publication. There would be no stopping me. After the summer holidays finished I continued to spent every weekend I could visiting UFO sites. Hurt by the rejection of my photo I invested all of my birthday money in the best camera I could find, recommended in an article in UFO Monthly that I would only later realise was an advertorial piece written by the makers of the camera. I visited mostly out of the way locations, where I could quietly get on with the business of staring into space all night, uninterrupted by mankind.
Three articles in 18 months was never going to make a journalistic career. It would take a chance meeting and what might be described as my first friendship to turn me into a regular columnist. It was the Easter holidays and I was spending the full four weeks in an extensive tour of Yorkshire, visiting all of the sites of spottings across the county in the past year. At the time I believed the large number of sightings in the county meant that it was catnip to aliens. Now, or course, I realise that Yorkshire is just a big place.
I was sitting in a pub one lunchtime, surepticiously eating my own sandwiches from under the table, making a half pint last until the rain went away, Up in the Sky Magazine spread open in front of me and frantically scribbling into my notepad. A man walked over from the bar. A businessman. No tie, but a suit, and a man, not a boy, he must have been at least 26.
"What you writing?" he asked.
I wasn't used to 'contact'. Beyond the odd nod of the head exchange of words with shopkeepers, bus drivers and glowering pub landladies I'd barely spoken to a human being in the two weeks I'd been away. So I knew nothing of social codes. I just blurted it all out.
"I'm writing an article for Over Your Head Magazine. I'm here because there was a sighting near Robin Hood Bay in March and I've been camped out looking on the coast looking for a return visit. I saw some lights in the sky last night and took a photo. I've not had it developed yet but I'm writing the accompanying article. This could be the big thing, proof that UFOs exist, if the photo's as good as I hope it'll be undeniable." (I should point out that he photo turned out to be shit - this is how I learnt the hard way about advertorials).
"I don't think it's worth bothering with Over Your Head," the man said. "UFO Magazine would seem the best place if your photo's as good as you say."
I was slightly in awe that an adult would know the existence of UFO Magazine, all the adults I'd met took the BBC News as gospel and dismissed anything out of the ordinary as 'impossible'. Of course, this didn't stop me disagreeing with him, as I say social codes weren't my strong point.
"It's not worth me trying," I said, "They always use the same columnists, you never see anything by a rogue spotter like myself. Over Your Head Magazine are tough to get in, but not impossible. They published a letter of mine, about the Galway mystery lights. Of course The Spotter Magazine is the best place to get published, I've had two articles in there, but it's not big enough for a story like this."
"Rogue Spotter," the man laughed. "I like it. So what you're saying is that you've no chance of ever getting published in UFO Magazine unless you happen to stumble upon the Deputy Editor in pub one afternoon."
"Er, yes, something like that." I didn't actually understand at that point that he was making me an offer.
"So you spend a lot of time camped out spotting UFOs?"
"Oh yes," I enthused, "I go most weekends. I'm spending the whole of the Easter holidays looking for flying saucers in Yorkshire. I'm revising for my A Levels while I'm here," I added hastily, I didn't want to come across as overly obsessed, "But I'm spending every night watching the sky for signs of life."
"Well you can only do so much work," the man said. "I bet you've got some interesting tales to tell, your adventures following the UFOs round the country. Not just the successful 'spots', but the near misses, the nights you've felt the UFOs in the sky, but not been able to see them because of clouds."
"You get those too?" I asked, but he didn't answer the question, at least not directly.
"Rogue spotter. It has a ring. As you astutely UFO Magazine like regular columnists, it helps maintain the standards that make the magazine the most successful of its kind. I'm Pete, by the way," the man said, holding out his hand. "Pete Bewley."
I took his hand tentatively, as if I was the first human ever to be offered the extended tentacle of a member of the alien race. "Pete Bewley!" I said. "Not THE Pete Bewley. From UFO Magazine."
The man laughed. "First time I've ever been called 'THE' Pete Bewley, but yes, that Pete Bewley. As I said, I'm Deputy Editor now, so if you send me a copy of the article when you're finished, with the film, I'll see if it's good enough to be published. And if it is, then Rogue Spotter may find himself with a regular feature."
This was the early 80s, I should point out. There were no such things as 'blogs'. The internet hadn't been invented, being a conspiracy-theorist-mad-geek took effort, originality. We were trailblazers for those that would come after us. And here I was being offered the post of the first ever UFO spotter blogger.
I typed up the article that night, with one eye on the sky of course, on my mother's old manual typewriter, and handed it to Pete the next day at the Black Swan, where he bought me a pint of Black Sheep. He read the article in front of me, nodded a few times, and laughed twice.
I gazed at him the whole time, my whole life depending on his judgement.
"It's good," he said, finally. "Good enough, I'll edit a few things and send you my changes, so you can learn what to avoid next time."
"But you've not developed the photo. Surely the whole thing depends on the photo?"
"Well if the photo's as good as you hope it'll be national news and you'll be world famous. However, photographing UFOs is notoriously hard, it's why we can never convince the general population, and even if you've not struck lucky I think Rogue Spotter is going to run and run."
Which is what I did. My one-off article was followed by an article about the 'photo that might have been', in which I passed on Pete's sage advice about which cameras really were up to the job and which weren't, and generally bemoaned my fate that the best UFO-spot ever was ruined by a poor-quality camera. I wrote on, following that article with reports back from my vists to Stonehenge and the view from Lands End.
From the letters that flowed in it would soon become apparent that I was the most-read feature in the whole magazine, our readers, it turned out, were all like me, lonely teenagers desperate to be the first to achieve definite, 100%, bomb-proof evidence of the existence of aliens. They followed my hapless, failed efforts to achieve thus with empathy, delight and scorn. I was the voice of an alienated group of alien wannameeters.
My career was on an ever-upwards trajectory. Soon I would be soaring into the sky, like a UFO, or so it seemed. I probably would have become a successful magazine journalist, doubless following the money and branching off into other speculative areas, Nessie-spotting, yeti-watching, who knows, maybe politics, it's where every conspiracy-nut ends up eventually isn't it? But it wasn't to be. My life was to change. And it changed when Pete said one word to me.