It's a funny old world - I read it in the newspapers

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The Independent Online
THE REASON I enjoy the News Quiz on Radio 4 is nothing to do with news, or even satire. The true fascination of the programme for me lies in the moment when someone, usually Alan Coren, says, 'Ah, is this the one about the parrot-loving dentist who stole the ambulance?' or, 'I think this has got to be the one about the octopus that learnt to knit', and everyone says, 'Yes, yes, it must be', as if all week long all of us had been reading stories about runaway dentists and knitting octopuses, whereas it stands to reason that these stories must all be made up by the programme researchers.

And then last week I was privileged to take part in the News Quiz for one week only, and I made a disturbing discovery. All these stories are true. In order not to look a fool, or let down team captain Coren, I took all the papers during the week, including ones I would never normally read, such as the Sun and the Times, and, my goodness, I hadn't realised the half of what was going on out in the world.

Now, almost a week after doing the News Quiz, my brain is still simmering with a strange minestrone of stories that I dutifully learnt for the programme but which never came up. A report, for instance, that the incidence of heart failure is high among members of the Mafia, because it is such a stressful occupation. Reports that the Andorrans have voted to pay income tax at last and that the Poles have outlawed abortion (or was it the other way round?). The story that a miner in Yorkshire has changed his name to Mick Eckinbottom because his previous name (Michael Heseltine) caused him so much suffering . . . .

There were two rather more macabre stories that stuck firmly in my mind. The first was about the imprisonment of a woman in California who was a rape crisis counsellor by calling. That was not why she was put in prison. She was put in prison for 27 years because she had killed and eaten her husband. The other story came from Berne, Switzerland, where a young man tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, but missed. Enraged by his failure, he furiously fired the gun out of the window, and hit (and killed) the caretaker of the building, for which he received a four-year manslaughter sentence. The first of these I found in the Daily Star. The second, almost as chilling, I found in the rather more upmarket European publication.

A lot of the news, I'm afraid, meant little to me. The news of Fiona Armstrong's departure from television would have saddened me more if I had ever heard of her before. News of Anneka Rice's marriage bust-up left me uncertain how to react, being stranded between the Daily Mail's 'TV couple in friendly parting' and the Sun's 'Sobbing Anneka dumped by hubby'.

I also warmed to the account of the Welsh local newspaper that has tried, and failed, to interest its readers in a spot-the-ball contest. The readers in that part of mid-Wales have, apparently, no interest in football. So the Welsh paper now has a spot-the-dog contest. You get a photo of a field of sheep. You have to mark where you think the sheepdog is. Unlikely? It has the ring of truth to me.

But then, I suppose that the more trivial the incident, the more likely it is to be reported accurately. For instance, the story about Dave Fairweather, who bought a load of lorry spares for pounds 1,000 and discovered that what he actually had was a shipment of platform shoes untouched since the Seventies. Platform shoes are back in fashion again. At the price he is getting for them, he will make pounds 20,000 on the lot. I believe that.

I also believe the story of PC Palmer of Cwmbran, in Gwent. PC Palmer went to the local school on Comic Relief Day to join in the jollity. When he arrived, the teachers pointed out that a teenager had just started breaking and entering the staff cars. PC Palmer went out and arrested him. Arresting him was not the main difficulty. This lay in persuading the offender that a man dressed in mask, stripy shirt and big red nose was actually a policeman . . . .

That story came from the Western Daily Press. My son tells me that most of the good odd stories come from the provincial papers, whence some are lifted by the nationals but a lot of the best left behind. He should know, because for some time he worked in a press cutting agency, reading everything to pick up references to his clients.

'Until I started working there,' he told me once, 'I had no idea how much of British pub conversation is based on half-remembered newspaper stories. You hear someone saying, 'Did you see that story about the vicar who kept the parrot in the church which scared the burglar to death? Now, where did I read that?'. I'd always read the story at work, and could never resist leaning over to say softly, 'Guardian, Wednesday, page 13'. For a while I had my finger on the heartbeat of British pub conversation.'

Until last Friday I did, too.

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