The `Mary Celeste': old salt tells all

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The Independent Online
TEN YEARS after Lockerbie, it looks as if the bombers responsible might be standing trial at last. If so, it will be just one more in a recent rash of cleared-up mysteries, murders and puzzling historical incidents.

Only last week, Mr Tom Mitchell of Crowborough, a former anti-aircraft gunner, kindly explained the mysterious death of Amy Johnson for us. It was he who shot Ms Johnson out of the sky somewhere over the Thames Estuary in January 1941. She had, it seemed, failed to give the correct today's- colour-is-heliotrope password on the radio and was taken for an enemy plane on the point of bombing London. "It was a shock to find out the pilot was Amy," confessed Mr Mitchell, 58 years later, "but if only she had given us the right colour of the day, she would have been all right."

So there you go. This modern version of the Cock Robin story ("I, said the sparrow,/ with my little arrow") is being mirrored all over the place. Maybe it's a Nineties thing. A few months ago, the French authorities discovered the airplane of Antoine de St Exupery, who, it seemed, crashed into the drink near Marseilles rather than being shot down by a German fighter over the Mediterranean, as everyone had supposed. A few days ago, fresh evidence supposedly came to light about the sinking of the Gaul spy trawler in 1974, and the likelihood that it was holed in the bows after colliding with a British submarine.

All this setting the record straight is very gratifying, I'm sure. Can we expect to see a few more clarifications of historical puzzles before the end of the year?

"The Mary Celeste - it was a wild party that went horribly wrong," says Peter Stringfellow, 147. "To be honest, I've only just remembered. We're going back a bit, 1872. We'd hired the brig in New York for the evening, a dozen business associates, couple of swimwear models, top chef, jazz band, lots of Krug '69. There was dancing on deck, Moonlit quoits etcetera. I thought the captain had let things slide when we drifted into the Atlantic but he and the first mate were snorting a lot of Devil's dandruff with Sukie and Barbarella, so you had to make allowances. Nobody minded for the first couple of days, but then like a fool I asked chef if the dinner scallops were fresh, he came after us with the Sabatier and we had to leg it into the lifeboats. He threw himself off the poop in a fit of pique. After drifting for five days, we started eating each other, and I was the only one left. Are you sure I haven't mentioned all this before?"

"Arrah, all right then, 'twas me killed Shergar", admits Dinty O'Callaghan, 63, former Wicklow stable boy and recovering alcoholic. "It was a stupid idea. I was trying to re-create the famous ride from Ghent to Aix, as per the poet Browning, but the poor horse pegged out somewhere around Bruges and I had to shoot him. He was knackered, frankly. All that galloping. The Vieux Marche Halal in Carcassonne paid me handsomely for the steaks, but I've always felt a bit guilty".

"Actually I shot President Kennedy", reveals myopic ornithologist and NRA veteran Wayne Rosenblat III. "It was a ghastly mistake. I'd spotted a great crested bustard sitting on a `Traffic Lanes Merge' sign in Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963, and took a potshot with the old Lee Enfield .38. I'm real sorry for all the trouble I caused. And you know what? Damn thing flapped off just before I pulled the trigger".

"The Loch Ness Monster? I can explain everything," laughs celebrity photographer Patrick Lichfield. It was a Tatler photoshoot in the middle of nowhere, Scotland I think, and everything was just soflat. So we chopped half a dozen tyres in half and floated them on the lake as if they were humps sticking out the water. Hilarious. Suddenly the place was swarming with people carrying Box Brownies. We thought we might be done for littering, so we slung the tyres into a truck and finally did the shoot in Arbroath. Lots of taffeta, if I remember rightly".

"If you must know, I was Jack the Ripper", confesses former England coach Glenn Hoddle, 40, last night. "And frankly, I was shocked by the almost uniformly negative tone adopted by the media in reporting my actions. 'Course, this was in a previous existence."

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SO NOW, it seems, if something awful happens to you, you can take a whole industry to court and win millions. If you're dying of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, rather than curse your luck and your lack of willpower in not giving up, you can sue Rothmans and Philip Morris and win $50m to leave your weeping relatives. If someone shoots you in the head in mid-town New York (as happened with Steven Fox in 1992), you don't sue your assailant, you sue the gun manufacturers. Mr Fox wound up with a cool half-million, and a souvenir in the form of the bullet, which is still embedded in his head.

I hold no brief for gun-makers. It's rather good news that New Orleans is suing 15 manufacturers for flooding the southern states with lethal hardware (which will find its way into the northern cities through the usual dodgy channels). But I worry about the logic. If I drink myself into cirrhosis of the liver, can I really sue Gordon's and Seagram's and the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, for supplying the stuff that did me in? And if I try to hang myself and the rope breaks, can I sue Acme Twine Ltd for failing to endanger my life?

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DID IT come as a huge surprise to you to hear that some of the people who appear on daytime TV talk shows are only, you know, acting? In the days when Robert Kilroy-Silk was questioning people about Coping With Sciatica, you assumed they could just ring up the Sciatica Society to find guests. When it (and Oprah and Ricky and Jerry and Vanessa and Trisha) graduated to more rarefied forms of human behaviour - say, people who like to have sex with monitor lizards while their grandparents look on - you wondered where on earth they could find the guests. (Who do you ring? Advanced Bestiality And Elderly Voyeur Helpline?).

When it comes to featuring actual criminals on the show - the "nuts and sluts", engaging in the kind of behaviour that Oprah Winfrey fears may end in onscreen homicide - well, you can only hope that they're bought- in actors. I watched a Jerry Springer show the other day, in which a prostitute was trying to leave her pimp, who was defended by another poule de luxe, whose boyfriend was then brought on to comment. You should have seen these guys. You should have heard the script. The prostitute insisted a) she was a good girl, b) she had a heart of gold, c) she felt there was a better life to be had elsewhere, possibly as a primary school teacher.

The pimp was bald, swarthy, satanically bearded and raffishly ear-ringed. He sprawled in his chair as though aiming his crotch at the audience, and growled: "You work for me, bitch." The second girl cooed over the satanic one and claimed he was "misunderstood". Her boyfriend arrived and took a swing at him with the words, "Why you ...". It was hammy beyond belief. It would have rung true only to people whose notions of real life came entirely from movies.

The bogus Vanessa "guests" are, it seems, hired from agencies for a measly pounds 100 plus VAT. What worries me is that the same agency is now hiring actors to pretend to be "real people" in other areas of public life - the whole of the England First Eleven, for example.

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GEE, DON'T Kids just Say The Darnedest Things Dept: Last weekend, my son Max, 7, had his friend Alexander over to stay. A sweet kid, he displayed a thoughtful strain over pizza at Saturday lunch.

"You know my dad?" he asked. Sure, I said. "Well, he's got all this wine. But it's off." Good Heavens, I said, what do you mean? "He's got bottles and bottles of wine, red wine and yellow wine," said Alex, "and it's all completely off and he just doesn't care," said the child, clearly worried by his father's relaxed approach to freshness.

But Alex, I said, are you some kind of connoisseur? "What's that?" he said. Are you some kind of expert? How can you tell it's all off? "All the bottles have got the sell-by date on the front," said Alex, "and most of them were justages ago."

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