William Donaldson's Week: Roger's gone off with my jokes

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The Independent Online
WRITING in the Guardian some years ago about sub-editors, Michael Frayn famously said it was their job to cut the first and last lines of any article and then to remove anything that looked as if it might be a joke. Here, at the Independent, they put the jokes in, I'm glad to say - the most resourceful operator in this respect being Roger from Chicago.

This week, Roger from Chicago was thoughtful enough to give me his best joke ahead of time, explaining that he would be in Lisbon at the weekend and not on hand, therefore, to improve my copy. Chuckling smoothly like a tuxedoed cabaret artiste with one up his sleeve, he asked me why Justin Judd had decided to send me on a writer's course - 'Learn to create believable characters in 48 hours' - at this late stage of my career.

'In fact,' I said, 'I have recently been commissioned to write a six- part drama series for television and, since I have never written a drama series the precaution seems perfectly sensible.'

'Root into Europe was a drama series,' he said.

'Precisely,' I said. 'You've walked into my trap.'

'On the contrary,' he said. 'You've walked into mine. It was meant to be a comedy.'

Since, in the long run, it saves time to extend to young people courtesies they'd not necessarily extend to you, I politely rocked with laughter, but I was a little rattled, later brooding in the night on whether young Roger from Chicago's joke was part of what seems like a conspiracy to destablise me.

I'm not cracking up - unless I am - but I'm beset by weird irregularities. For instance, I came home a day or two ago to find that Pete the Schnoz - who is still my house-guest and shows no sign of leaving - had in my absence called the industrial cleaners in. The place had been vacuumed and polished, the bathroom sparkled and I could have eaten my dinner off the kitchen floor had not Pete the Schnoz already scoffed it.

The only trouble was that Pete the Schnoz hadn't called the cleaners in, which could only mean we'd been burgled. Mine is the only flat in London, after all, that would look better after it had been burgled than before. Pete the Schnoz was happy with this explanation, less so with my theory that the job had been done by MI5.

'You're becoming paranoid,' he said.

'But nothing's been taken,' I said.

'I'm not surprised,' he said.

What Pete the Schnoz didn't know was that the security services have been taking a keen interest in journalists such as myself, who might have been used by either side in the dispute between the Waleses. For the second time in two years, I almost certainly knew too much - the difference between this time and last time being that last time I knew what it was I knew (the late Giovanni Falcone had told me, you may remember, which Mafia dons were, unbeknown to Scotland Yard, controlling things in London) whereas this time I didn't know what it was I knew; more accurately, whether what I knew was true. Being on terms - uniquely, I think - with both parties to the Wales's quarrel I might be being fed misinformation by both sides.

There was, for instance, the incident - described here a couple of weeks ago - involving Mrs Baker-Finch of Baron's Court, the Prince of Wales and the Bluebottle impersonations. Thinking that Mrs Baker-Finch was in the Prince's party, I assumed that Wales had planted the Bluebottle theory here, judging that the Windsor sense of humour - as the cause of the marriage breakdown - reflected slightly better on him than the about-to-be-made- public Camillagate tape. Shortly after this, however, Little Jo fed me exactly the same story, and she's definitely in Diana's party. Or is she?

No longer knowing what to think, I decided to forget the whole thing while I wrote this week's column, taking as my theme the difficulty of distinguishing between spooky irregularities and inexplicable, though slightly less weird, occurrences such as Dave Allen suddenly getting his own prime-time television show. I got stuck at this point, so I rang up Terence Blacker.

'I need 20 current oddities.'

'Dave Allen getting his own television show,' he said.

'I've got that. Any others?'

'I don't do jokes any more,' said Blacker. 'I'm working on something for a writer's course. 'Learn how to create believable characters in 48 hours'.'

'You're doing it, too?'

'Certainly not,' he said. 'I've been asked to read from my novel, Fame Hotel, as an example of how it should be done.'

That was a downer, but I was able to catch Roger from Chicago at Heathrow just before he flew to Lisbon.

'I'm stuck for some jokes.'

'You could say that yours is the only flat in London that looks better after it's been burgled than before.'

'I'll pop that in. But I need 20 current oddities.'

'What about Dave Allen getting his own prime-time television show?' said Roger from Chicago. 'Sorry, I have to go. They've called my flight.'

He'll do better next week, I hope.