Insurance? Don't get your fingers burnt

'He smoked all the cigars and then claimed for them on the grounds they had been destroyed by fire'

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Radio 4's excellent Front Row programme had a feature the other day on plagiarism. It started with the man who complained that Australian TV had ripped off the idea of his gardening programme. It circled round Amy Jenkins's novel, which is said to use the same story as Noël Coward's Private Lives, and might well have come to land on the ITV Bob Martin show, starring Michael Barrymore, which is clearly based on The Larry Sanders Show.

But plagiarism is all around us. I'll give you a much clearer example of recent plagiarism than that. It came on last week's edition of The News Quiz, a Radio 4 programme of which TV's Have I Got News for You is a plagiarism, the main difference being that The News Quiz is a lot funnier. At one point the panellists are asked to read out news clippings sent in by listeners, and Andy Hamilton - I think it was Andy Hamilton - read out a cutting about a man in America who had put together a collection of Cuban cigars so valuable that he had had them insured.

OK?

He smoked all the cigars over a period of time and then claimed insurance for them on the grounds that they had been destroyed by fire.

The insurance company admitted that they had been destroyed by fire but claimed it was a deliberate act and countersued on charges of arson. End of item; laughter from audience.

OK?

Now here is an extract from a piece of humour written earlier:

"You must all remember my story (a minor classic by now, hence my enduring arrogance) of the man who took his fire insurance policy literally and claimed compensation for all the firewood, candles, cigars and other combustible objects which had gone up in smoke in his house over the year.

"And you remember how his insurance company, not taking kindly to such actions, had him arrested and tried as a multiple arsonist..."

The same story, would you not say? A prime case of plagiarism, therefore?

I am not so sure. The thing is, you see, that although that piece of humour was written before The News Quiz went out, it was written more than 100 years before. It comes from the writings of Alphonse Allais, the French humorist of whose work I translated a selection in 1975, and although I immediately recognised the story when I heard it, I doubt it was lifted from a French writer who died in 1905, or even from my English version. I would wager that it was made up by somebody else, again, because the world of insurance is full of humorous elements that can always be formed into a new shape.

How could it not be? On one side you have a public determined to take the insurance companies for a ride, and on the other you have the insurance people, whose mission is to screw the public rigid or, as they would put it, to maximise their profits. Small wonder if the terrain is full of fireworks.

Indeed in the very piece I quote, Allais goes on to invent a piece of insurance business that I do not think has been bettered yet. He prints a letter from a reader who is a coffee importer - ie, a man who buys coffee beans in the green state, roasts them and sells them to the grocers. One of his warehouses burnt down, he says, and when he went to inspect the damage with the insurance assessor, he found that although the flimsy structure had been reduced to ashes, the beans in storage had not been harmed. Indeed the action of the fire was to roast the coffee beans - and to roast them to perfection.

"You owe us 3,000 francs," said the insurance man to the coffee importer.

The coffee man thought he was having his leg pulled. Far from it.

"It costs 10 francs per sack to roast coffee," said Mr Insurance. "To roast 500 sacks costs 5,000 francs. Deduct 2,000 francs to cover the cost of the warehouse. That leaves 3,000 francs. You owe us 3,000 francs."

As the coffee man protested, the insurance man pointed to a clause in the policy: "The insured person cannot use the policy to make a profit, only to indemnify any losses sustained."

At which point we should all break into a chorus of the song Frank Crumit popularised in the 1920s:

"Oh, there's no one with endurance

Like the man who sells insurance

For he gets us all in the end."

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