How truth can end up on the cuttings library floor

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The Independent Online

The story, as I was told it, goes something like this. A journalist goes off to interview the head of a Cambridge college about the trials and tribulations of being the head of a Cambridge college. (This is pre-war, by the way. In one version of the story, the journalist was Malcolm Muggeridge, though the identity of the interviewer doesn't really matter.)

It rapidly transpires that the work of the head of a Cambridge college is not sensational enough to make a whole piece stand up, nor, indeed, is the man himself interesting enough to make a whole profile, so the journalist has to start inventing details in order to add a bit of colour.

One of the details he adds, when writing his piece, is that the man is very keen on music, something of an opera-fancier and active on the amateur music-making scene. This is not based on fact; it is merely an assumption that, if true, does him no harm and that, if not true, will make him seem more interesting than he really is.

The interview is printed and goes into the cuttings library. Subsequent profiles of this Cambridge notable are written by other journalists who, finding him similarly colourless and boring, therefore lean heavily on previously published interviews, so the musical background gets repeated and even elaborated on. After a few years, the pieces on him all maintain that he is really keen on all sorts of music.

Ironically, the man himself is tone-deaf and hates music. But his Cambridge contemporaries get the opposite impression from the papers, and start asking him out to concerts, which he is too polite to refuse. He gets involved as honorary patron in college musical organisations. He is asked to officiate at a university music club, and before you know where you are, he is thought of as one of the veteran figures on the Cambridge music scene, and is devoting a lot of his spare time to something that brings him agony without having the courage to admit it - and all because, long ago, some journalist had invented some harmless bit of background briefing in order to pad out a piece.

I don't know who the Cambridge man was. I don't even know if it is a true story. What I do know is that it rings horribly true, especially as the details are so mundane. And what I can tell you is that I may have seen a similar thing happen in modern times. In The Independent, of all places.

As I write this, I have in front of me, torn out of an undated Independent Magazine, a page of unusual sporting events from around the world. "Ten world championships you won't see in the sports pages", it proclaims. There is a map of the world, on which are superimposed pen-portraits of 10 maverick sports. Dwarf-throwing from Australia. Wife-carrying from Finland. Bathtub-racing from Canada. Hotdog eating from the USA... I quite like the sound of the melon-seed spitting contest in Le Fréchou in Gascony, France, where, according to the writer Jane Delmer, "entrants chew the seeds to get them to just the right consistency before each of their allotted three spits". She continues: "Serious contenders, such as Bernard Ricard, use the 'Frisbee technique' to make the seed glide distances of over 30ft."

What is very worrying is that the odd sport listed for England is "gut-barging". This is described as a kind of sumo wrestling for beer-bellies. "Gut-bargers must dislodge their opponents from a small mat using only their stomachs. Driven underground in the last century, this ancient British sport has enjoyed a recent resurgence..."

The worrying thing about this is that I happen to know the man who invented gut-barging, which is not an ancient sport at all, but a hoax designed specifically as the kind of mad rural sport that would get the media all excited. And indeed, he did get on TV with it, and he did stage several contests, and everyone thought it was a genuine ancient sport, and then he got tired of it and moved on to other things.

But, like the Cambridge "musical" man, gut-barging remains lodged in the cuttings files, and it reappears now and again, and if you didn't know that it started life as a leg-pull, you would take it entirely seriously.

Which is a shame, because now I feel myself wondering whether the other sports listed are genuine. Do they really throw cowpats competitively in Beaver, Oklahoma? Spit melon seeds in France? Race in bathtubs off Vancouver Island? Carry wives in Finland?

And does dwile-flonking still exist?

Answers tomorrow.