Thought balloons

Part of the methodology of the Mass-Observation project was the tracking of paranormal beliefs, perhaps a reflection of its anthropological inspiration. In War Begins at Home, published early in 1940 by Mass-Obs, the following article is reprinted from the December 1939 issue of Prediction (a magazine devoted to astrology, psychic powers and the like):

Join our 'Thought Barrage'

Last month Prediction published an article which showed how every reader could help win, and end, the war. Our contributor re-affirmed the Occult principle that thoughts are things, and reminded readers that the reverse of this truism is also proved. Things are thoughts; and the power of thinking can, in the present emergency, make a substantial contribution towards our effort to restrain and overthrow the forces of evil.

This month we publish another article illustrating how this vital thought-power can be directed to a given end -- the extinction of the U-boat peril.

We believe that every reader who has even a smattering of Occult teaching will realise how valuable is the weapon which is here fashioned for his hands.

No one, better than the Occultist, understands the power of thought. No one, more than he, realises that all material life and action depend on prior vision and effort on the mental plane.


Prediction, then, has suggested a way in which this power may be harnessed on the side of the angels. We invite every reader to join in a greatly broadcast, which we firmly believe will soon produce tangible results.

Every night, as the clock strikes ten, let your mind play upon these vivid realities. Tune in, and pass on, the message of victory which will be vibrating in the ether, and which must cheer and encourage our soldiers at the front, our pilots in the air and our sailors who hunt the enemy on the seas.


Even the Government has in part recognised the importance of thought in the national will for victory. It has issued a poster which acclaims:

Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, will bring us Victory?" [sic]

The man in the street reads this slogan, passes by and forgets ... But you and I, through the power of visualisation, can make it a living thing.1

This idea of a thought barrage immediately made me think of vedic defence, which would use transcendental meditation and bouncing on gym mats to protect the United States from missile attack. (No, seriously. I'm sure the Missile Defense Agency has plenty of yogic flyers on staff.) But although Harrisson and Madge's discussion links this thought barrage with the air menace, the article itself really only refers to the submarine menace. It looks like it was a general purpose occult weapon, able to be deployed against any threat to the nation. I wonder if it inspired, or was inspired by, Dion Fortune's so-called 'Magical Battle of Britain' -- which, as far as I can tell -- sounds similar in theory and practice to the thought barrage?2 It's easy to laugh at such ideas, but Harrison and Madge point out that Prediction had a higher circulation than New Statesman or Spectator: so, 'It is an important opinion-forming paper'.3 I don't know whether anyone has followed up on their lead: it might be interesting to look at the war through the lens of the alternative, non-political press.

Harrisson and Madge suggest that the ethereal thought barrage and the physical balloon barrage were both comforting images -- far more than they should have been.4 The initial evacuation of children and some mothers from London to country areas at the outbreak of war soon reversed, since the expected holocaust hadn't happened. An opinion survey in October-November revealed that 66% of working-class women expected that no air raids would take place, as did 47% of middle class women, 40% of working-class men, and only 14% of middle class men. Working-class women (less so the men) strongly believed that the balloon barrage would protect them -- that in fact they were safer in London than in the country:

"I wouldn't go out of London for a hundred pounds. We're so well protected here."
"I felt so unprotected, you know, there [in country] -- like anything might happen."
"They look after us so well here, the balloons and that, they'll never get through."
"It's as safe here as anywhere."
"I wouldn't have my children out there, Hitler could get through ever so easy."5

As Harrisson and Madge further note, to trust in the balloon barrage in this way was to mistake entirely their purpose, which was merely to discourage low-level and dive-bomber attacks. It could not by itself stop the bomber from getting through. Harrisson and Madge blame poor government information on the matter, and (quite rightly) single out the ludicrous sequence in the film The Lion Has Wings where a German air armada approaches London, only to break off in confusion at the first sight of a barrage balloon. A magic barrage, indeed.

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  1. Quoted in Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge, War Begins at Home (London: Chatto & Windus, 1940), 132-3. []
  2. I haven't been able to find a good account of this, just scattered references on the net. Ronald Hutton alludes to it in The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 186. []
  3. Harrisson and Madge, War Begins at Home, 131. []
  4. Well, I'm assuming they believed this of the thought barrage; they only discuss the balloon barrage in this way, but they seem to imply it is magical thinking too. []
  5. Harrisson and Madge, War Begins at Home, 130. []

6 thoughts on “Thought balloons

  1. Post author

    I can go you one better! Shute was almost certainly inspired by real-life seances held by the medium Eileen Garrett shortly after the R101 disaster, where she supposedly received communications from its captain and other dead crew members, who provided an explanation for why the airship crashed. Which apparently was later confirmed by the official inquiry. Cue spooky music.

    I have a draft post on this, which I see was last edited on 13 October 2005! I'll finish it someday ... for now this looks like as good a place as any to get the basic story.

  2. Alan Allport

    Reminiscent of the witch doctor employed at HOO HQ to cast curses on Hitler in Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour.

  3. Chris Williams

    You probably don't need to have been a very good medium to think of reasons why the R101 might have crashed. The difficulty was working out which one of the design flaws got it first.

  4. Post author

    Well, supposedly the spirit was very specific, according to the link in my previous comment. And presumably Garrett didn't have a day job as an airship engineer. But I haven't seen any account which is in the least bit sceptical and so I'd want to go back to the primary sources, rather than rely on what spiritualists say happened, especially since Harry Price was involved ...

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