Now that's what I call the Silly Season

It's one of the best-loved traditions of the British summer - the string of bizarre and fanciful stories that emerges to fill the gaps in the news pages each August. Ed Caesar looks back in wonder
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The Independent Online

At the beginning of August, The Sun landed a world (some might say a universe-wide) exclusive. "Respected astronomers," it trumpeted, "last night hailed the dramatic discovery of Victor Meldrew in space." How could this have happened? Had Richard Wilson, who plays the elderly curmudgeon in the long-running BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave, taken a wrong turn on his way to Television Centre and ended up drifting into the murky wastes of space? Or was this a ruse by a rival newspaper, which had employed a Wilson lookalike to inhabit Ursa Major, purely to throw The Sun off track?

Alas, the truth proved to be less sensational. A team of scientists, led by the fictional-sounding Mark Garlick, had, "after two months of research", managed to recognise the vague outlines of Wilson's face in the stars, although, the scientists admitted, "it took a bit of imagination". With a bit of imagination, The Sun also managed to find its Page Three girl Nicola T in the night skies, and challenged readers to do better. One found a horse-rider, one a chicken, and one "a stick man relaxing in his deckchair and possibly reading his favourite newspaper, The Sun".


The Evening Standard caused panic in London earlier this month when it reported that a crocodile was said to be inhabiting the river Lea. "In seven years," it stated, "it will provide the landscaped parkland background to London's Olympic village. That is, if the giant crocodile said to be lurking in its waters does not eat the builders." This dramatic conclusion had been reached after a number of dogs, cygnets and a Canada goose had gone missing in the river. A Lea Rivers Trust officer Mark Gallant said that "he could not rule out the possibility of a crocodile", while the TV croc-hunter Mark O'Shea "confirmed a spectacled caiman, a small alligator, could be hunting around Hackney Marshes".

Three national papers went on to cover this alarming story. But had anyone seen the reptile? No. Was there really a giant crocodile lurking in the river? Certainly not. "It's more likely to be a large pike," said O'Shea.


Bizarre 999 calls always have their part to play in silly season, and this August was no different. Winner of the Emergency Services Award for 2005 was an unnamed 32-year-old man from Filey, North Yorkshire, who managed to get himself in a bit of a tangle in a 10ft gorse bush. Both The Times and The Guardian reported his 48-hour ordeal, which came to an end when, at 3.50am, the man was spotted using a lighter as a distress flare by a passer-by.

At 5am, a helicopter was scrambled from RAF Leconfield, and the man was winched to safety, before being taken to Scarborough Hospital to be treated for mild hypothermia, dehydration and chronic embarrassment.

But how had the unnamed unfortunate found himself in this pickle? Flight Sergeant Yorke, who rescued the man, offers his opinion: "We have no idea how he got there. He was in the middle of the gorse. It was like he had been dropped there by a spaceship." The victim himself had no more to offer, apart from saying that he had been out on a big Saturday night and had woken up in the gorse bush. It could have happened to anyone.


"Man has always been fascinated by the moon," said the Daily Mail, "and viscerally aware of its powers." There are slow news days, and there are slow news days, but devoting thousands of words to a theory that the moon is hollow, as the Mail did on 9 August, is a sign that one is at the epicentre of silly season. The focus of the feature? A new book by the "arch-conspiracy theorists" Ian Butler and Christopher Knight, arguing that the moon "is not like other celestial bodies... someone or something made it, and placed it in the heavens". The nonsense continues with increasingly outrageous claims, such as that the moon was "manufactured by an 'Unknown Creative Agency', to serve as an 'incubator' for life on earth", and that the moon is, in fact, hollow.

One might have hoped that the Mail would have crushed such hokum with a few damning words, but there were clearly yards of paper to fill. "You can almost hear the guffaws of professional scientists, but some of the authors' arguments, though outlandish, are thought-provoking." Well, if Americans can devote endless column inches to whether dinosaur bones are a trick played by God, then why not a little lunacy on Fleet Street?


The Five PR machine went into overdrive on 17 August, as it promoted its flagship documentary, Loch Ness Monster: The Ultimate Experiment. Tourists were treated to the sight of Nessie rising from the depths of Loch Ness, only to be told after that Nessie was, in fact, a 440lb animatronic monster called Lucy, created by Crawley Creatures, the same firm that made Jabba the Hutt.

Still, three nationals reported this singular non-event. Apparently, "around 600 people caught a glimpse of Lucy... reactions ranged from utter conviction that they were seeing Nessie to certainty that it was a gimmick".

Five's senior programme controller, Chris Shaw, is quoted as saying: "We thought it would be fascinating to see if the general public, fed on a diet of movie special effects, could still believe in Nessie." If only the public had checked their calendars, they would have seen that Nessie appears, like clockwork, at the same time every year.


Since the Middle Ages, UFO sightings have formed the beating heart of silly season. But, as The Times, Guardian, and, erm, Independent reported, British UFO-sightings are now in troubled waters. The Cumbrian branch of British UFO Hunters is considering shutting down after a dearth of sightings in the North of England. Chris Parr, of BUFOH, said that sightings in Cumbria had diminished from 60 in 2003, to 40 in 2004, to none in 2005. "It means that the number of people keeping their eyes on the skies is greatly diminished... I put it down to the end of The X Files, a lack of military exercises in the area that would produce UFO sightings, and a lack of strange phenomena."

But it's not all doom and gloom for UFO-twitchers. The Guardian reported how Russ Kellett, a "UFO researcher" has been excited by the "extraordinary level of UFO activity in Filey, North Yorkshire". Hang on, is that the same Filey, North Yorkshire, where a man spent two days in a gorse bush without knowing how he got there? The same Filey, North Yorkshire, where that man was described as looking "like he had been dropped there by a spaceship"? Reports of the death of UFOs may have been greatly exaggerated.


What's in a name? Well, quite a lot in August, as everyone in the press reported that a rap star had changed his name again. The sheer volume of opinion pieces, news stories and features that were penned on this latest example of moniker modulation was a clear indication that we had nothing better to talk about. So, what was all the fuss about? Well, P Diddy, as he was, until recently, known, had changed his name to plain old Diddy. He had previously been known as Sean "Puffy" Combs, Sean Combs, Puff Daddy and Puffy. He's Diddy now, because, in his own words, "the P was getting in between me and my fans and now we're closer. We're entering the age of Diddy". Of course we are.


He's best known as the creator of the blazer-sporting chat-show host Alan Partridge. She's best known as the lead singer of the dour rock outfit Hole and widow of Kurt Cobain. Together, they score pretty poorly on the compatibility ratings. So, imagine our delirium when we heard that Courtney Love was expecting Steve Coogan's child.

The Mail on Sunday reported this news on 21 August, claiming that "[Love] and Coogan are said to be having a fiery affair in Hollywood", and that Love had admitted: "Yes, I'm pregnant with Steve's baby, but I'd rather not talk about our relationship." She didn't want to, but British newspapers certainly did: the story got star billing for over a week. But there has been conspicuously little comment from both camps as a few holes have appeared in this otherwise perfect August affair. Love has denied the media reports; Coogan has described the story as "nonsense".

Research by Louise Jack