John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Who is not stirred by reports of a student smuggling the periodic table into an exam?'
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The Independent Online

Hardly had we digested the news that two-thirds of Britons systematically break the law – small things, such as taking office stationery, jumping the lights or paying builders cash to help them avoid income tax – comes a report that we're also a nation of cheaters. In 60 universities asked to spill the beans under the Freedom of Information Act, no fewer than 14,000 scholars were nailed in the last school year for cheating. The majority plagiarised essays from the Internet, but an impressive 1,000 used exam subterfuge.

I don't think we need be cast down by the news. It's probably an index of our national fondness for wide-boys and conmen, from the Artful Dodger to Hustle, that we feel proud of British cheats for their enterprise and chutzpah. Who does not feel stirred by reports of the student with fake hay fever, who brought a packet of Kleenex tissues into the exam, with the periodic table ballpointed onto them? Or the chap who pencilled vital data into a couple of pages of his dictionary? Or the cool dude at Bradford who wrote out a "model answer" on a topic he expected to appear, brought it to the exam, destapled the answer papers, then tried to re-fix them, incorporating his essay...

It seems your bog-standard cheat favours the old method, of keeping crib-sheets up his tie, up his sleeve, in his pencil box or inside an old-fashioned calculator. Quotations from Henry V and useful mathematical formulae are still flagrantly inscribed on wrist, hand or (though this requires a quick visit to the lavatory) thigh, just as they were in Cromwell's day. But it's all changing, isn't it? Texting a friend to find out how long Henry VI spent on the throne will soon be replaced by silent under-the-desk calls to the Any Questions Answered phoneline. Specially-made sunglasses which project a list of the great rivers of the world onto the examinee's lens will soon go into production. Scientists are probably working even now on a special ruler, which will carry a discreet LED screen feeding key lines from Shakespeare's sonnets.

"I would have thought," a former lecturer said coldly of the university report, "that in the modern age, cheating in exams would have become more sophisticated, with hidden earpieces or something, but apparently not." The note of regret is unmistakable. (Buck up your ideas, boys! I want to see more effort!) But soon the new movie Hoax will be upon us, with its story about Clifford Irving, the US writer who faked the Howard Hughes autobiography, lied through successive hearings and tried to defraud a publisher of $1m. He's played by Richard Gere. You're expected to root for him, as he cheats his way to the top. That'll be a real role model for the kids at last.

* A desirable residence called Rock Cottage in Worcestershire is in the news, not because it's a listed building, or because it costs a lot (it's only £25,000) but because it's a cave. A cave dug straight out of a sandstone cliff, sometime in the 1770s, one of a number of "rock houses" originally built for poor farm labourers. It has no electricity or running water, but it boasts two tiny bedrooms, a pantry and a homely fireplace in the livingroom. Estate agents are surprised by all the calls they've been getting. I'm not the least bit surprised. A cave – doesn't it represent the ultimate condition of male self-absorption? Half the male population seems to own a brooding (as opposed to potting) shed at the end of their garden. Rock Cottage is just a natural extension of the tendency. It'll probably go for £100,000 and within two months the proud (male) owner will be brooding by his fireplace, smoking, drinking Merlot and planning to write a novel of revenge against the fem* Visitors to the Summer Science Exhibition at the Royal Society will find that the world of zoology is no stranger to historical revisionism and political spin- doctoring. As you stand before the enormous tank of piranha fish, noting with a thrill of alarm their uniquely nasty little fangs, you'll be interested to hear that they're by no means the vicious predators you once believed them to be. According to new research from St Andrews University and a Brazilian Sustainable Development Institute – an impressive, multi-headed public-relations firm – the little charmers are not dangerous at all. They hang around in groups because they're afraid of meeting predators, such as river dolphins. They usually feed on other fish and plants, and wouldn't dream of attacking humans unless "they are provoked or have limited space".

Soon we'll find that piranhas can speak and then they'll tell us that they were only swimming in that bit of the Amazon because they thought it might be safer if there were 600 of them, like, together in a shoal because they didn't want no trouble, and they'd heard there were rude-boy porpoises around, and they're not violent, they only got these sharp teeth on them for protection, yeah, and most of the time they live on plankton takeaways, you got them wrong, they don't believe in stripping human flesh, innit, and they only savaged that bloke that time because he was like, totally in their faces, okay?