It's a warm morning in late May, the start of one of those lovely warm-but-not-oppressive days which fill us with false hope for the summer ahead. Most people are probably buying barbeque meat, having a lazy breakfast in the garden or still snuggling happily in bed right now.
Not me, however. I'm standing on the seafront in Hastings, having woken at the crack of drawn to schlep down here. I'm now with a group of people waiting to enter an empty theatre, for a conference devoted to people who believe they have been abducted by beings from outer space.
It's easy to be cynical about such events; with the boundaries of science pushing back remorselessly, and freak show-style hatchet jobs dominating our television schedules, anyone with a slightly off-centre viewpoint is fair game for lazy ridicule these days. Yet when IBT heard about this conference, via the local paper, it seemed only right to come down and give it a fair hearing. Attending the conference allowed us to provide a fresh perspective on the alien narrative (and it has certainly made those godawful 'what are you doing this weekend' conversations much more entertaining over the past few days).
The venue for the conference is remarkably quotidian, given the subject matter at hand. Hastings may hold a pivotal place in British history but, nowadays, offers almost nothing out of the ordinary; in fact the most eye-catching thing on the stroll through the town was a ferret on a lead. The theatre itself could be situated in any small town across Britain, its carousel of fliers promising upcoming shows by Joe McElderry, Think Floyd and the California Dreamboys.
Upon arrival we're ushered into a small conference room in the bowels of the building. A group of tables are arrangeed around a central lectern, complete with Powerpoint projector. It looks like your standard middle-management seminar, apart from a large corporate logo behind the lectern which depicts two people floating in space, and a table of bone fragments in one corner of the room which, we're told, came from alien species (to be honest they look very much like human or animal bones, but I'm no expert). Around 30 people are sat around the room when things get under way; the average age is about 50, albeit garnished with a smattering of young people, and everyone is dressed smartly, many of the men in shirts and ties.
We listen to a collection of speakers, called 'experiencers', describe their abductions by extra-terrestrials (ETs) or galactic interstellar life forms (GILFs). Interspersed within these monologues we receive a multimedia presentation from a conspiracy theorist called Mark Windows, and a demonstration of a new science known as biolocation, a form of forensic dowsing whose proponents use magnetic fields to determine whether a person has been abducted.
The first presentation, from a lady called Hilary, is without doubt the most detailed we hear all day. Hilary, a former carer and draughtsman turned alien abduction counsellor, describes in painstaking detail her abductions. She claims she has been abducted "more times than I can remember", starting at the age of five when she was dragged into a spacecraft by a group of reptile-like creatures, who performed tests on her with a sharp instrument before freeing her.
Since that first abduction, she says she was taken by a species known as 'the greys', small grey-skinned figures who crop up repeatedly throughout the day, as well as a huge black-clad figure wearing what looked like a motorcycle helmet, who came into her living room. I ask her later why she thinks she has been abducted so often. She believes "it's all to do with bloodlines, I'm Jewish on my father's side and my mother was an English Jew, and maybe they were worried about the bloodline." No further explanation is proferred.
We subsequently hear from a woman from Manchester who claims she saw a robot entity, as well as an electric blue butterfly which tried to spin yarn around her. A man from the Midlands, who works in local radio, claims to have seen a flying green triangle hovering above Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, while a woman from Cuba, who now lives in the UK, tells me she has been to Mars.
Throughout the proceedings Joanne buzzes around, looking urbane and measured in a light blue suit and chiffon scarf. She pumps flesh, helps out with technical glitches during the presentations and ensures each speaker finishes on schedule. Anyone looking to portray the figurehead of this group as a whacko would have a tough job with her.
Greys, reptilians and shadow beings
Over lunch Joanne tells me she works as a spiritual healer, and decided to create an alien abduction support network when several people began to describe encounters with ETs, or extra-terrestrials. Her group is called Ammach, which stands for Anomalous Mind Management Abductee Contactee Helpline, and purports to offer bespoke counselling to those who believe they have had encounters.
Joanne was the subject of a scathing Channel 4 documentary last year, Confessions of an Alien Abductee, and this is reflected in a slightly reticent attitude towards the press; she initially said we could attend the event if we promised to be "respectful" in our coverage. Yet she says interest actually increased after the documentary: "We had 300 e-mails from people who saw what Channel 4 were doing – spinning to create discredit." Overall, she says that "if you talk about people who have come through the door, we can talk of at least 1,500 since we were founded in January 2011, from all over the world – Israel, Argentina, Chile, you name it."
Reflecting the diversity of creatures described in the earlier presentations, Joanne says those who contact Ammach describe a plethora of beings. "We get greys by the bucketload, some reptilians, some mantis, preying mantis-looking creatures, and some some very small creatures, almost like shadow beings." Does she believe everything she hears? Well, she says, "it's really an investigation into the human condition. All these people can't be crazy. Maybe the odd one, maybe the odd two.
"It's healthy to question. I question, but you don't have to have a closed mind. Clearly whatever else it is, it is impacting on these peoples' lives. Their fears are real, their joys are real, their lifetime of experiences are real, and their health issues are real – and these are often very serious."
I have to leave in mid-afternoon, but before that there's time to hear without doubt the most entertaining presentation of the day, from an ex-soldier and guitarist who claims he was abducted at the age of 43, while returning from a gig in Porthmadog, North Wales. He says he saw something like a fried egg coming over the mountains which pulled a cow up from a farmer's field and then dragged him through his windscreen into a craft, where he was greeted by a blonde Asian woman ("unlikely I know," he says).
I even squeeze in a quick biolocation test, inviting its two proponents, both of whom are qualified scientists, to check whether I have been abducted. They hold out two metal 'L' rods in front of me, along with a series of materials supposedly common in outer space; if the rods move when the material is brandished in front of them, it suggests a significant quantity of the material is present on my body. Yet, after being tested for various materials, they tell me I've never been taken into space. Weirdly, it comes as something of a disappointment.
The journey home is dominated by the inevitable question: were those people believable, or just delusional? Well, having never been to outer space or seen an alien, I can't say for certain. But at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter.
As Joanne says, whether or not these people have seen creatures from outer space, their emotions are real. They obviously care about the experiences they describe, there is no faking the passion in their eyes. These people – cranks or not – need support, and Ammach has a genuine, vital role to play.
For more information about Joanne and her group go to www.alienabductionuk.com.