All the (strange) news that's fit to print

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The Independent Online
"If the Tories get back in," said someone the other day, "it will prove that truth is stranger than fiction."

But truth is stranger than fiction.

There are baffling news items that I read 30 years ago which still stick in my mind, more clearly than any fiction I read at the time.

One was a report in Time magazine that the Republic of Andorra had just realised it was at war with Germany. They had declared war on Germany in the Second World War, like many countries. Unlike all the others, they had forgotten to repeal the declaration at the end of the war. Hastily, 25 years later, they did so before Germany could march in again.

Another unlikely item I read at that time concerned television in Ireland. One night, as Telefis Eirenn closed down, hundreds of Irish viewers reported that transmission actually continued for some while after, of some broadcast by an American station with an identifiable call sign. Investigation showed that there was indeed such a station in the USA but that it had closed two years previously.

And these odd things are still cropping up in the papers, to torture someone like me who is trying to invent stranger things. For instance, I used to think that what happened in Louis Malle's Lift to the Scaffold could not happen in real life. This is a film about a man who commits the perfect murder and is just leaving the building in the lift when the caretaker (thinking the building is empty) switches off the main power. Result: the lift stays where it is, half-way down, and the man is condemned to spend the whole weekend in the lift, not 100 yards from his victim, when he is meant to be getting away from it all.

When I first saw the man's desperate attempts to escape from the lift, I remember comforting myself with the thought that such nightmarish things never happen. But last week there was a story in the Bristol Evening Post about two cleaning ladies who were finishing their shift in a Bristol office block at 8am on the previous Saturday when their lift jammed. There was nobody else in the building. They were trapped all Saturday and were still there Sunday morning. If it had not been for someone who had come back by chance to get some extra work on Sunday morning and heard their cries for help, they might have been there for two days, might even have died.

There was another impossible story in our local paper last week. The Bath Chronicle reported that a train at Bradford-on-Avon hit a car on a level crossing because the car's wheels were stuck in the track. Now, this is clearly impossible, because for a car to get stuck in the track, it would have to be facing along the track, ie travelling in the same direction as the train. How could that happen?

Easily, explained the Chronicle. The driver was trying to do a three- point turn on the level crossing when he got stuck. The road leads to a cul-de-sac, and maybe the driver was trying to turn and retreat. He just chose a damned stupid place to do it.

Another impossible incident was reported last week, though I only saw the headline and not the story. It was on Friday, I think, when I was leaving Paddington in the direction of home that I saw an Evening Standard headline: "WOMAN SETS FIRE TO LONDON MUGGER". I wish I had learnt more of this bit of stylish retaliation. But I learnt all I wished to know in The Guardian recently of a tale of sexual revenge in Thailand. (Sensitive readers may wish to skip this next bit.)

It seemed that a woman in provincial Thailand was fed up with her husband's infidelity, so she cut off his penis as he slept. Apparently this is not so uncommon in Thailand, and there was indeed a hospital near the man's home which specialised in reattaching male genitalia. But mindful of this and in order to prevent it happening, the woman had attached the guilty penis to a helium-filled balloon while he still slept and launched it into the sky.

Now, once you start thinking about these stories, you start wondering. You start wondering why neither of the cleaning ladies' families bothered to worry when they didn't come home. You wonder how a man can go on sleeping after his penis has been cut off. But however odd and untrustworthy a story seems, it does stick in your mind, and I shall always remember the image of this balloon with its grisly cargo, and the man frantically revving the engine on the railway line at Bradford-on-Avon, and the image of Andorra beng tempted to try a surprise invasion of Germany, and the long-dead American TV station beaming in on Ireland from outer space...

What I wouldn't do is dare to make any of them up.