The best of the silly season: Welcome to August, when only the most ludicrous stories will do
What’s a newspaper to do during the long news-dearth days of summer? Why, run reports of crack-addicted squirrels and afterlife feuds, of course...
Sunday 10 August 2014
Benson swims with the fishes
There was much mourning in fishing circles and beyond in August 2009 when Benson the carp passed on. Britain's largest specimen was a star in the carp world and had been caught and returned to the water 63 times. So named because of a hole in her dorsal fin shaped like a cigarette burn, she was found dead at the tender age of an estimated 20 to 25 years old (carps normally live for around four decades). The tabloids were joined by the posh papers in asking who killed Benson. "Even The Wall Street Journal has been in touch," said Tony Bridgefoot, owner of Bluebell Lakes near Oundle, where Benson lived and died.
Dive! Dive! Dive!
In August 1998, a Tynemouth policeman told the papers about the dive-bombing herring gulls driving his family to distraction. "We had almost become prisoners in our own home," Robert Lephard reported. "Sometimes it was like a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds just trying to get to the car."
Killer Soviet chipmunks
In 2009, killer chipmunks were all the rage in Fleet Street, invading Britain from mainland Europe. The Sun reported that young mum Roxanne Whelan was attacked by one in her garden when she popped out for a smoke, and the Daily Star even managed to shoe-horn a bit of anti-French sentiment into its coverage, reporting that, "Dodgy French street sellers are flogging them to unsuspecting Brits at £10 a go as pets. But the rodents are actually vicious Siberian chipmunks that can kill." Expert Guy Bruel advised: "The public must be on its guard."
From hard nuts to crack
In 2005, The Sun picked up a story from the South London Press that squirrels in Brixton were turning on to crack thanks to addicts burying their stashes in gardens (adding that crack-crazed squirrels are a common sight in the US). Even The Guardian got in on the act, launching its own search for the drug-hoover rodents. "I've just seen one jump down from an old sunflower by the Seventh Day Adventist church," it quoted one Reg Throssell as saying. "I locked eyes with it and it stared back at me really confidently. It was scavenging and it looked scrawny."
Crop circles are messages from Aliens (according to a cat)
Crop circles are the great silly-season stand-by, but in 2000 the Daily Mail found a different angle. In a two-page spread about a giant circle in a wheat field in Wiltshire, in which the paper's science correspondent (!) asked, "A message from aliens – or are the hoaxers having a field day again?", an "expert" opined that the circle was on one of the energy lines that apparently criss-cross the planet. The evidence consisted of her friend taking a Burmese cat into the circle and reporting: "The animal seemed to know it was something extraordinary."
Cameron's ghostly presence
David Cameron's holidays have been a godsend during the slow news days. In 2008, it was reported that the Cornwall house he and his family were staying in was haunted by a white witch. The Daily Mirror reported that the seven-bedroom house became haunted 400 years ago when it was owned by a family who ran a pilchard processing business. A local white witch, "Mother Ivey", was then said to have laid a hex on the 16th-century building. Local man Derek Bray said: "He's a brave man because everybody knows the white witch curses anyone who stays there." There was more trouble the following year when the Mirror said the PM was being "stalked by killer slime" on his hols in France. Gas given off by seaweed had apparently killed a local horse, leading to the headline, "Cam having gas-tly time".
What a Scilly pooch
The grandaddy of political summer-holiday stories occurred in 1973 when Harold Wilson, then Leader of the Opposition, was saved from drowning in the Scillies. Slipping off a rubber dinghy, he was weakening after half-an-hour in the water before he was rescued by the Wolff family. Though it seemed that Wilson tried to keep it quiet, the story soon came out – "Scilly Secret Floats to the Surface" was one headline. His press secretary Joe Haines tried to have the blame put on Paddy, Wilson's golden labrador, for knocking him into the drink. But as was later recalled by the bestselling novelist Isabel Wolff, who was in her teens at the time, Paddy was innocent.
It's all Smears, Cherie
In August 2001, Tony and Cherie Blair's holiday in Cancun, Mexico, provided rich fodder. In a rebirthing ceremony drawing on Mayan traditions that took place in a pyramid in their hotel grounds, there was much chanting, a steam bath, singing of Mayan holy songs and smearing each other with watermelon, papaya and jungle mud. In later years, the couple tried to keep their holiday destinations secret, and in 2005, the Mail led a "Where is our Prime Minister?" campaign. Yet the papers also apparently conspired in the subterfuge – the Mail did run a picture of him on a yacht with the headline "Hunk or Chunk?" but declined to give its location. And in a vox pop, a motorcycle courier delivered what may have been the sanest judgement of the summer: "This shows we don't really need him, doesn't it?"
Someone's telling porkies
China has a silly season, too, and in 1994 there was a run on pigs' feet in the markets of Chifeng in Inner Mongolia after word spread that Chairman Mao Zedong and General Chiang Kai-shek were preparing to do battle in the afterlife. The official Chinese Commercial News reported that a medium had passed on the news that the two former adversaries were in need of earthly recruits to go over to the other side. There was only one way for a man to avoid such conscription; he must eat 98 special dumplings made by his mother and two pigs' feet provided by his mother-in-law. "All the butchers' shops have had very good business, and are always crowded with old women," the newspaper reported, suggesting that the city's pig merchants had a good PR firm working for them.
And in other news…
I don't believe it!
Whatever Richard Wilson has achieved in a stellar acting career is as nothing compared with the intergalactic fame he attained in August 2005 when The Sun, under the front-page headline "Victor Meldrew found in space", reported that astronomers had found a constellation that, when its dots were joined, made the face of his best-loved character.
The naked truth
In 1964, The Sunday Telegraph reported: "An English girl who walked naked down the crowded Avenue de l'Opéra this morning told police she did it 'to prove her philosophy of life'. She was stopped by a shopkeeper, who persuaded her to put on some clothes and took her to Palais Royal police station." She told police that she was a writer working as an au pair. "She was transferred to a public hospital for examination by a doctor, where she was given a tranquilliser." In London, meanwhile, "Two girls who wore topless dresses in Piccadilly have been told by Scotland Yard that they will be prosecuted. Miss Valerie Mitchell, 21, and her sister Marion, 23, of Holland Park Avenue, Kensington, wore topless dresses at a film premiere. Police took their names as they crossed the pavement in Piccadilly."
A place in the sun
The silly season is far from a purely British phenomenon. In 1993, the German tabloid Bild reported that Germany was planning to buy Majorca as the country's 16th federal state – clearly patent nonsense, but it got the paper's British counterparts foaming at the mouth. Bild was at it again the following year, claiming that the Spanish authorities wanted to ban German beer on the island. German holiday-makers were, it reported, "horrified", one telling the paper: "In that case: no more Spanish holidays for me!"
Two years after the death of Princess Diana, her elder son discovered that, like her, he had nowhere to hide from a royal-hungry press. In the summer of 1997, The Sun filled a double-page spread with "Willie's fillies" and "girls with the right breeding for royal romance". His appearance at a polo tournament got everyone going – he had the temerity to wear wraparound sunglasses, provoking The Sun headline "Prince Charming turns Reservoir Dogs bad guy." The Times was rather less sniffy, describing him as "a fashion icon", because said shades "have become the latest must-have for the new Pimm's set."
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