By Sam Jordison.
A note on truthiness …
As far as I know, all the stories here are true. They have all at least been reported in various newspapers, websites and history books around the world at some time or other. (Whether or not you take all that as the cast-iron test for veracity is, of course, up to you.) A few were even told to me by people who claim to have witnessed them or to have been the victims/ perpetrators themselves … (Again, up to you.)
I should also probably admit here that not all the dates are absolutely 100 per cent certain. History is surprisingly casual when it comes to recording on what day events occurred … Where there has been doubt, I’ve exercised a certain amount of authorial discretion and made (ahem!) educated guesses.
If you think you’re unlucky, compare yourself to the belly dancer whose buttock was accidentally removed by a plastic surgeon (14 March). If you think you do foolish things, think about the man who decided that tying hundreds of helium balloons to his garden chair and taking off into the flight path of a California airport might be a fun way to spend his afternoon (2 July). If you think you’re having a bad day, contrast it with that of the jail chief who watched his prisoners escape over a fence using a trampoline he had given them (9 February).
One of the great things about life is that – no matter how bad things get – there’s generally someone worse off than you. Someone whose misfortune makes you look like the happiest person on earth. Strangely, however, until now these karmic heroes have never been given the praise they deserve. Annus Horribilis is the book that should set the record straight.
At the moment history is written by the victors, and that’s why it’s so dull. What we are told about the past is little more than a long list of unusual triumphs and luck, and consequently it has very little to do with the lives that most of us lead. After all, how can we empathize with Julius Caesar when there’s no possibility of us ever commanding Roman legions, let alone having naked barbarians kneeling at our feet? What does Sir Francis Drake’s glorious voyage around the world have to do with my life when I can’t even afford a rowing boat? Why should you admire the building projects of the pharaohs when you’re struggling to pay the mortgage on a two-bedroom home? We can’t all come top of the class. We can’t all be in bands as big as The Beatles. We can’t all win the Nobel Prize. We do, however, all have boundless potential for mucking stuff up, tripping over our own feet and receiving a smack around the chops from malign fate. The huge number of failures and missed chances that make the world work never receive anything like the amount of attention grabbed by the greedy – and far more boring – minority of success stories. Annus Horribilis aims to redress this imbalance. It demonstrates the wonderful democracy of misfortune. It provides a healthful antidote to this age of relentlessly positive spin. It’s also a good excuse for a whole bunch of funny stories about people so hopeless they should make us all feel far better in comparison.
Residents of Tauranga in New Zealand were surprised to see a man bringing in the New Year by careering down their road at 50 m.p.h. on the back of a motorized bar stool. The oddness of the scene was only increased by the fact that the man, John Sullivan, was also half-naked and had smoke coming out of his backside. This latter phenomenon came thanks to the newspaper he had rolled up, wedged between his buttocks and set alight.
Sullivan later confessed in court to having ‘had a few’ and admitted that a public road wasn’t the best place for a high-speed bar stool. Even so, he thought his sentence of 200 hours’ community service harsh – not least, he said, because the policemen who arrested him had been ‘laughing their heads off’.
US President George W. Bush made his first public gaffe of the year in record time. ‘As you can possibly see,’ he said, ‘I have an injury myself – not here at the hospital, but in combat with a cedar. I eventually won. The cedar gave me a little scratch.’ These remarks were considered injudicious, considering his audience was a gathering of wounded veterans from the amputee care centre in a military hospital.
Mike Smith, now probably best known to history as ‘The Man Who Turned Down The Beatles’, turned down The Beatles. The young band performed their first audition for him at Decca Records in London. The disappointed John, Paul, George and Ringo were told that ‘groups of guitars are on the way out’. Smith also auditioned Brian Poole & The Tremeloes the same day. He signed them. The Beatles went on to have a number of hit records and are widely regarded as the biggest and best band of all time. The Tremeloes didn’t and aren’t.
The Watchtower Tract and Bible Society of New York (aka the Jehovah’s Witnesses) was today proven to be wrong in its prediction that the world would end in 1914. On the first days of January 1919, 1921, 1926, 1941, 1955 and 1976 similar predictions about the End Times coming in the immediately preceding years were equally conclusively refuted. Nineteen twenty-six was an especially disappointing New Year for the Witnesses because in the previous few years they had invested an awful lot of money in a California mansion where they intended to house the Old Testament prophets Abraham, Moses, David and Samuel, who they also thought had been due to return to earth in 1925. Naturally, they didn’t.
Henry Morgan was one of the most successful pirates in history. During his life he was the scourge of the Spanish and ran countless successful and highly profitable raids on their possessions in the New World. Most impressively, and unlike most of his piratical cousins, he even managed to survive until comparative old age and die of more or less natural causes (liver failure related to his constant carousing and heavy drinking). He’s also had considerable posthumous success. Since his death the jolly old sea dog has been immortalized as the ‘Captain Morgan’ whose name appears on thousands of rum bottles throughout the world, and has even been referenced as the author of the ‘pirates’ code’ in the popular Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Things didn’t always go Morgan’s way, however. The most notable instance of dismal luck fell on him – and his ship, the Oxford – on this day in 1669. The Oxford was Morgan’s pride and joy, the biggest in his fleet and the one on which he kept most of his treasure, including his world-renowned collection of jewels, piles of gold and silver and (appropriately enough for a pirate) more than 200,000 pieces of eight. So it was an especially bad idea to decide to celebrate the capture of two French boats earlier that day by ordering a pig to be barbecued on deck. Sparks from the grill shot off into the nearby powder-hold and set off a huge explosion, which blew off the whole of the front of the ship and sank it along with all its treasure. The blast also propelled Morgan backwards through the window of his cabin and dumped him unceremoniously in the sea.
Every winter artist Trevor Corneliusen used to make a pilgrimage to the notoriously harsh desert landscape of Death Valley in California. There he pitched his tent in isolated old mineshafts and spent his time painting and meditating.
On this Tuesday in 2006 he was working on a spiritually influenced piece, consisting of a pair of ankles bound together with chains and a padlock. He’d brought along a thick length of chain and a tough Master Lock padlock so that he could model the uncomfortable position himself while he painted. It was only when he was most of the way through his drawing that he realized the crucial detail he had forgotten: to bring a key for the lock. His mother later explained that he was quite often ‘absent-minded’. The young artist had no choice but to hop to the nearest town to get help, a distance of five miles, in the hot sun across rocky and sandy terrain. He used an old miner’s stick to help him on his way, but even so it was more than twelve hours before he arrived, exhausted, at a petrol station.
Ryan Ford, the local sheriff’s deputy, was called to the scene, and the struggling artist managed to convince him that he was not an escapee from a chain gang by showing him the sketch he’d been trying to make of his bound feet. Paramedics were called, and after three attempts they managed to loosen his chains. Deputy Ford also offered a penetrating criticism of the art that the young man had suffered so much for: ‘It was a pretty good depiction of how a chain would look wrapped around your legs’, he said.
When it was discovered that its judges had chosen to hang a picture painted by a four-year-old, the annual show of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts suffered a blow to its considerable reputation.
Young Carly Johnson’s mother had entered her daughter’s picture Rhythm of the Trees as a joke, but it beat off competition from more than 800 other entrants to the exhibition. The judges, not knowing the age of its creator, had commended it for its ‘certain quality of colour balance, composition and technical skill’.
Young Ms Johnston herself was less complimentary towards the rest of the prestigious show. It was, she said, ‘a bit boring’.
Singer Richard Versalle died when he fell on to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York from a 10-foot ladder after suffering a heart attack. He had been alone on stage, singing a section from the first scene of The Makropulos Case. This is an opera by Leos Janacek about the secret of eternal life. This already cruel irony was only compounded by the fact that the last line he sang was ‘Too bad you can only live so long’.
Viewers of the US Army-produced Army Newswatch in the conservative town of Webster, New York, were tonight surprised when their programme was interrupted with 20 minutes of hardcore gay pornography. Officials at the local cable TV network confessed that they were baffled about how the naughty film had come to appear on viewers’ screens. Looking on the bright side, however, they did note that many complainants at least commented that the programme had maintained a military theme, although it was about the wartime German rather than the modern US army.
When a customer pulled up to make an order at his local drive-through Burger King restaurant in Troy, Michigan, he was surprised to hear a speaker telling him, ‘You don’t need a couple of whoppers. You are too fat, pull ahead.’
Others, meanwhile, when they asked for a drink of Coke, were informed that the fast-food outlet didn’t stock any. ‘In fact,’ came the message, ‘we don’t have anything. Pull ahead.’
For a good part of the day customers suffered similar abuse and insults from teenage hackers who had hidden near by and taken over the short-wave radio frequency that controlled the speakers the restaurant used to take orders.
Eventually policeman Gerry Schelinck and his deputies arrived on the scene to see if they could solve the problem. ‘There’s nothing you or the police can do about this,’ boomed the tannoy when the lawman approached, ‘so get your fat ass back inside and take your goons with you.’
Back in 1915 the USS Wyoming was one of the finest ships in the US Navy. Indeed, so great was the boat’s international reputation that it came as no surprise to its captain when Queen Marie of Romania ordered her consul-general to make the most of its brief anchorage in New York to go and pay respects on her behalf.
The captain even prepared a little ceremony for the moment when Lieutenant Commander Ethan Allen Weinberg, a charming gentleman dressed in a blue uniform with gold braid, arrived at the harbour side. Having been told that Weinberg was a former military man himself, the assiduous captain also allowed his distinguished guest to carry out an inspection of the sailors standing to attention before him.
Weinberg reprimanded some sailors for having less than perfectly clean uniforms and one or two of them for not having the correct stance, but he did it all in such a charming way that he made a thoroughly good impression.
Even more endearing to the boat’s officers was the fact that Weinberg then offered to throw a lavish dinner party for them at the Astor Hotel in Times Square, telling them that they could order whatever they liked and that the bill would be directed to the Romanian embassy in Washington D.C.
By all accounts, the meal got off to a splendid start, but it was ruined half-way through, when two FBI detectives turned up to arrest Weinberg and dragged him from the dining-room. They had read an announcement of the event in the New York Times and realized that instead of Lieutenant Commander Ethan Allen Weinberg, the host was in reality Stanley Weyman, a well-known conman and serial impostor. Far from being the consul-general of Romania, he was actually a low-level clerk from Brooklyn. ‘You could at least have waited until dessert’, complained Weyman as he was being led away.
The captain of the USS Wyoming was equally ambivalent about the arrest. ‘All I can say,’ he said when reporters asked him to comment afterwards, ‘is that the little guy gave one hell of a tour of inspection.’
While conducting a Te Deum in honour of the recent recovery of his patron King Louis XIV from illness, French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully stabbed himself in the foot with the staff he used to keep time. Gangrene set in, and he died ten weeks later.
It’s always annoying when you can’t find any clean underpants, but, even so, Serbian man Ivo Jerbic’s response to the situation could be considered a trifle extreme. He grabbed all the old clothes in his cupboard, took them out into his garden and set fire to them, having, as he explained to local police ‘flipped out’. Subsequent events did nothing to lessen Mr Jebic’s considerable anger. The wind carried the flames from his clothes to his house, and it burned to the ground.
Mark Thatcher, son of British Prime Minister Margaret, got lost during the Sahara desert during the Paris–Dakar rally.
To celebrate Martin Luther King Day the admirable staff of San Jose Public Library decided to make a 30-foot-high banner with the word ‘Welcome’ written in many different languages. It took over three months to finish, and the erection of the huge sign should have been a matter of considerable pride … except for one thing. A sharp-eyed Filipino security guard at the library had noticed a problem with the phrase in his language, Tagalog. Instead of saying ‘Tuloy po kayo’, the sign read, ‘Tuli po kayo’. Not much difference in the lettering, but a huge difference in meaning. Rather than informing members of the Filipino community that they were ‘welcome’, the sign told them, ‘You are circumcised’.
The sign was so big that four people were required to take it down.
Officials in Georgetown, Texas, unwrapped the plaque they had commissioned to celebrate the fact that the actor James Earl Jones was going to speak in their town for the annual Martin Luther King holiday in four days’ time. They were horrified to discover that the plaque read, ‘Thank you James Earl Ray for keeping the dream alive’ – a very serious mistake considering that James Earl Ray was the name of the man who shot the great civil rights leader in 1968.
On his first diplomatic visit to Europe Bill Clinton’s attempt to break the ice with Helmut Kohl did not go down as well as he might have hoped. ‘I was thinking of you last night, Helmut, because I watched the sumo wrestling on television’, the US President told the portly German chancellor.
Eighty-year-old Fred Harrop’s friends were surprised when, instead of delivering Cinderella and Company: Backstage at the Opera with Cecilia Bartoli (the book they had ordered for his birthday), Amazon sent him a volume entitled Literate Smut. Then they were shocked when they complained to the company and a spokesman told them, ‘Well, if you think Mr Harrop is disappointed, imagine how the guy who got the opera book feels’.
Daniel Everett wanted to give his girlfriend something nice. A surprise. So he took himself down to the nearest photocopying machine, pulled down his trousers and made two copies of his rear end.
Unfortunately for the 35-year-old Mr Everett, the nearest photocopier was in the St Louis County, Missouri, courthouse, and just as he was making his third copy, security stepped in and arrested him.
‘What did I do? What did I do?’ asked Mr Everett as the guards dragged him down from his perch. Realization dawned as the cuffs were slapped on. ‘I guess you’re going to arrest me’, he correctly surmised. He was charged with disturbing the peace and indecent conduct. The two photocopies he had made were seized as evidence, but sadly for Mr Everett even they had not turned out as planned. The local police chief described the image as ‘a big black blob’, the only discernible detail being the label from Mr Everett’s trousers.
A TV programme investigating the ‘ten most valuable treasures’ from China’s private collections rendered one of those ‘treasures’ almost worthless when it was smashed into tiny pieces on the set.
The 2,500-year-old mirror, worth £500,000, was being shown to a live studio audience by a model when it fell from her hands and hit the floor. The accident left the audience silent and stunned – none more so than the mirror’s owner, Lu Fengui, who was sitting in the front row. ‘The mirror has been part of my collection for sixteen years’, said the distraught collector, ‘and is – was – the best one out of more than a thousand mirrors.’ Superstitious pundits were especially horrified to realize that the model’s seven years of bad luck only started after she broke the mirror.
The actor Humphrey Bogart died. ‘I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis’, were his last words and his final judgement on earth.
Three thieves from New York broke into a shop and stole what they thought were mobile phones. Actually, they turned out to be global positioning systems, which led police straight to the culprits’ house, where master criminal Kurt Husfelt was caught with his ill-gotten gains still in his hands.
Mark Thatcher, previously lost on the Paris–Dakar rally, was found again.
London hat maker James Hetherington today proudly wore his new invention – the top hat – and was immediately arrested. He was thrown in jail and fined £50 because he ‘appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head a tall structure of shining lustre and calculated to disturb timid people’.
Julius Maada Bio overthrew the government of Sierra Leone in a military coup. The first act of his short-lived and unpopular government was to call off the forthcoming elections in the African country. One of the more unusual side-effects of this action was the cancellation of a British Council-sponsored seminar at which Julius Maada Bio was to have been the star speaker. The subject? ‘How Can Democracy Be Sustained?’
So ardent was a Buenos Aires teenager’s devotion to his local football team the Boca Juniors that he decided to get a tattoo of the club crest drawn on his back. Sadly the young fan (whose name was not released for legal reasons) was not sufficiently careful in his selection of a tattoo artist.
A police spokesman later explained the course of events: ‘The tattooist supports Boca Juniors’ rival, River Plate, so he got annoyed when the teenager asked him to tattoo Boca’s symbol and decided to tattoo a penis instead.’
The unlucky victim remained unaware of the large cartoon todger that was permanently engraved in his skin, because there was no mirror in the parlour. So he paid up, left and went home full of pride to show off his new body art to his parents. It was they who alerted him to his misfortune.
‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world. The Lord is on my side.’ So said Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington D.C., moments before FBI agents proved him wrong by storming into the hotel room where he was being secretly videoed smoking crack cocaine.
This was not the best quote of Barry’s long and colourful career, however. Arguably, that came a few moments after his arrest (all of which was also recorded on the hidden video cameras), when he realized that the woman who had passed him the crack pipe was a police informant. ‘Well, I’ll be goddamned’, he said, correctly noting his sudden change in fortune. ‘The goddamn bitch set me up.’
Some commentators, however, prefer the statement he made after the arrest to explain the strange circumstances in which he had been discovered: ‘There are two kinds of truth. There are real truths, and there are made-up truths.’
Jim Burley led a long and eventually successful campaign for his local council to open a road bypass around his small village in Northumberland in order to improve safety. The £9 million road was eventually built, and just before it neared completion Burley went for a drive on one of the first sections to be opened. Within minutes he was involved in a head-on collision with a van.
Burley survived the accident, although its very occurrence did make his campaign for the bypass (which had been largely waged on grounds of safety) seem rather pointless. When reporters pointed this out to him, he told them, from between gritted teeth, that he could ‘certainly see the irony in being involved in the first accident on a bypass for which I have been campaigning for twenty to thirty years’.
Ozzy Osbourne surprised his fans – not to mention himself – when he bit off the head of a live bat on-stage. Ozzy had thought it was one of his rubber fakes. A full course of rabies injections followed.
The assessment made by French king Louis XVI that ‘the French people are incapable of regicide’ was shown to be considerably wide of the mark when they chopped his head off.
Wilfred Genus nearly avoided his fifteen-day sentence for carrying a concealed weapon when his friend Albert Flowers agreed to serve it for him. Flowers showed up in his friend’s place at the start of the sentence at the low-security prison in Los Angeles claiming to be Genus, and they duly locked him up. Bizarre as it seems, the pair might have got away with it too, if Genus hadn’t decided to make the most of his freedom by visiting a friend of his – who was in the very jail that he was supposed to be serving his time in.
When he appeared at the jail carrying cocaine and a gun, he was promptly arrested again. The inevitable consequence of this was that policemen were alerted to the fact that he was not where he should have been. Genus now found himself facing a ten-year sentence.
When temperatures in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan plummeted below –20° C, a local textile company started doing a roaring trade in fur lined underwear … until today. that is, when the country’s infamously dictatorial government stepped in and banned the sexy slips. They said that they wanted to protect their citizens from the ‘unbridled fantasies’ that wearing the soft fabric might have aroused.
Terry Kath, the lead singer of the rock band Chicago, was playing with a gun. He pointed it at his head and told concerned friends, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not loaded’. They were his last words as the – loaded – gun accidentally discharged seconds later.
Many thieves wear hats or hoods to conceal their identity, especially from the all-seeing eyes of security cameras. James Newsome only had a limited grasp of this principle, however. He wore an orange hard hat when he robbed a convenience store in Fort Smith, Arkansas, but, unfortunately for him, it had his name printed on the front. The woman behind the counter was even able to spell it out to police. He was quickly arrested.
‘Could he have been smarter about the way he tried to cover things up? Yes, he could have’, said Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Stacey Slaughter in her closing statement at Newsome’s trial.
‘I am still alive!’ shouted Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula after suffering no fewer than thirty knife wounds at the hands of his own guards. Then he died.
Ronald Dean Cherry thought he could win some money from his local casino in Mississippi without even visiting the building. He phoned Treasure Bay Casino and told staff there that armed men would turn up and start shooting out the gaming halls if $100,00 wasn’t delivered to his house within two hours. To facilitate that delivery he then told them the address of said domicile. The rest is easily guessed.
Residents of Tainan City in Taiwan were surprised on this day in 2004, when whale fat and stinking blubber began to rain down on them. The whale in question was an old bull sperm whale that had been washed up dead on a beach in the south-west of the island. It weighed 50 tons and was 17 metres long. It was such a fine specimen, in fact, that the authorities decided to transport it to a university in Tainan for a post-mortem examination.
Because of the whale’s immense size, it took thirteen hours, three large lifting cranes and fifty workers to get it loaded on the trailer truck for its final trip. Unfortunately, experts forgot to take into account the build-up of gas that would occur in the huge leviathan’s stomach as it decayed. And so it was that, as the truck turned into a busy residential street, the beast exploded. Blood, blubber and whale entrails were blasted out of the wrecked sides of the truck, covering shop-fronts, cars and, worst of all, dozens of bystanders.
‘What a stinking mess! This blood and other stuff that blew out on the road is disgusting, and the smell is really awful’, a disturbed local resident told the BBC.
Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter expressing disappointment over the selection of the eagle as the symbol of the United States. He had wanted the turkey.
Czar Peter the Great of Russia arrived in England on an unofficial visit. He spent his time talking to shipbuilders, imbibing as much culture as possible and even more pepper brandy. For much of the duration he stayed in the house of the famous writer and gardener John Evelyn, whose house was conveniently situated close the famous dockyards in Deptford and was reputed to have some of the most remarkable grounds in the country – grounds that Evelyn had spent a full forty-five years laying out.
Evelyn’s servant was most disturbed by the royal visitor and wrote to his master that the house was ‘full of people right nasty. The Czar lies next your library, and dines in the parlour next your study. He dines at ten o’clock, and six at night; is very often at home a whole day; very often in the King’s yard, or by water, dressed in several dresses …’
Worse still, the Czar dedicated a significant amount of his time to breaking windows, burning chairs and throwing knives at Evelyn’s pictures. He and his retinue made such a mess of Evelyn’s precious garden that the servant observed it ‘looked as if a regiment of soldiers in iron shoes had drilled upon it’. The Czar’s favourite game, meanwhile, appeared to be driving his friends into Evelyn’s topiary as they sat in a wheelbarrow.
Clinton Richard Doan’s last action on earth was to open the door of his fridge in Ketchum, Idaho. Immediately after he did so, the beer keg he had been looking for ruptured, shot out of the fridge and hit him on the head.
Twenty-one-year-old Michael Marcum was arrested for stealing six 300-plus pound transformers from a power company sub-station in his home town of Stanberry, Missouri. The reason he took them? He wanted to build a time machine, so that he could go a few days into the future to find out winning lottery numbers, then return and buy a ticket.
Sub-stations were causing trouble again on the very day after Michael Marcum’s encounter. This time the problem was a cobra haunting the grounds of one in Tilehurst, Berkshire. An alarmed resident spotted the snake, motionless, in the upright ‘attack’ position. This good citizen spent a large part of a cold afternoon warning passers-by not to get too close while he looked for help. He also called the RSPCA, but they had no inspectors available in the area. So he phoned the Ark Animal Sanctuary in Caversham, who told him that the snake was probably so still because of the cold weather and that their man would be along shortly to pick it up.
Eventually Bob Andrews arrived from the sanctuary, kitted out with a box, heavy gloves and goggles to protect his eyes from the venomous animal. He stealthily and steadily made his way towards the unmoving reptile, stopping only when he realized that it was actually an old exhaust pipe. Sadly, posterity has not recorded what he said on making this discovery.
A Sunday league soccer match between Peterborough North End and Royal Mail AYL had to be abandoned when the referee sent himself off. The 39-year-old Andy Wain explained: ‘I heard the keeper say “It’s always the bloody same with you, ref – we never get anything”. It was the last straw …’.
Witnesses said the referee then threw down his whistle, untucked his shirt and charged up to the keeper, eyeballing him with brooding intent. ‘Then’, said Wain, ‘I came to my senses.’
He ran back, retrieved his red card and showed it to himself, declaring his earlier actions ‘totally unprofessional. If a player did that, I would send him off. So I had to go.’
Eight-year-old Christopher Kissinger was suspended from his school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, under its ‘zero tolerance for weapons’ policy. His crime? Pointing a chicken finger at a teacher and saying, ‘Pow! Pow!’
John Kerry, the US senator and 2004 US Presidential challenger, sent the following communication to a constituent: ‘Thank you for contacting me to express your support for the actions of President Bush in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. From the outset of the invasions, I have strongly and unequivocally supported President Bush’s response to the crises and the policy goals he has established with our military deployment in the Persian Gulf.’
That message wouldn’t have been a problem, if only he hadn’t sent the exact same person the following letter only nine days earlier: ‘Thank you for contacting me to express your opposition … to the early use of military force by the US against Iraq. I share your concerns. On January 11, I voted in favour of a resolution that would have insisted that economic sanctions be given more time to work and against a resolution giving the president the immediate authority to go to war.’
A Massachusetts student bit into a turkey and tomato sandwich in her high school cafeteria and spat out part of a severed human thumb. The offending digit had belonged to a worker who had accidentally cut it off in a vegetable slicer. Another student complained not unreasonably, ‘Our lunch is our most valuable time, and now we have to eat fingers’.
Sitting in a television studio in Ohio, preparing to give a response to Bill Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union address, American Republican politician Martin Hoke liked the look of the producer who attached his microphone. ‘She has ze bigga breasts’, he enthusiastically told his debating partner in a high-pitched Mexican accent. He followed the line with a big salacious grin – a grin that quickly froze on his face when he realized that the microphone had been switched on and that the entire globe would therefore shortly be hearing his comments.
‘Well, Dad, that was a really dumb thing to say’, commented Hoke’s fifteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth when every American news channel and dozens of papers around the world followed up on the story.
The man himself was contrite and apologetic. ‘I deserve to get a 2-by-4 to the head’, he said, not without justification. A few days later his very public penance even appeared to be going well until he confided in a local news reporter that he was glad that an escaped murderer who went on a killing spree had knocked him off the front pages.
In June 1523 astrologers in London had predicted that the end of the world would begin with a huge deluge of rain on 1 February 1524. Twenty thousand people are said to have left their homes, while the Prior of St Bartholemew’s built a fortress where he set himself up with enough food for two months. They were all confused – and then not a little put out – when the skies remained dry.
When Christopher Gay heard that his mother was dying, he was determined to go and visit her. Nothing was going to stop him – not even the fact that he was in prison in Texas and she was more than 500 miles away in Tennessee.
His adventures began in late January 2007, when he was being transported to Alabama, where he was due to stand trial for stealing several cars and trucks (a habit that was going to have considerable bearing on later events).
Gay made his getaway after he requested a lavatory stop just before Georgia. Once the cuffs were off, so was he, speeding down the highway in a stolen pick-up truck, leaving his guards in a cloud of dust.
Annoyingly for Gay, however, after just 50 miles the truck broke down. No matter. He quickly swapped it for a tractor-trailer, which got him across the border into Tennessee before it too chugged out. The resourceful Gay next managed to make off with a delivery truck from a Wal-Mart store and, having driven through most of the night, got to within 50 miles of his mother’s house. Then disaster struck. He fell asleep at the wheel, and his ride careered off the road, just as a police patrol car was passing.
Terrified, Gay ran off though a thick wood and emerged 4 miles later in the car park of a Nashville night-club. There he stole the first vehicle he came across – which happened to be the tour bus of the Grammy award-winning Country singer Crystal Gayle. Gay, whose tragic journey might well have been one of Gayle’s songs, was now the subject of a massive manhunt.
‘I could fib to you and say we finally tracked down young Mr Gay using good old-fashioned police footwork and investigation’, said Jeff Hoffman, the man who eventually arrested him. ‘But I’m afraid it was a bit more Keystone Cops than that. To be honest, I was driving home on Friday evening when Ms Gayle’s bus passed right by me.’
Gay had passed Hoffmann in the distinctive-looking bus on the road down to Daytona in Florida late at night on 2 February. Hoffman had initially been suspicious enough to pull him over, but he bought the excuse that he was on the way to the speedway because he was working for the racing driver Tony Stewart. It was only when he radioed base and discovered just which bus he’d just let go that the chase was on. Hoffman picked up his quarry just outside the track. ‘He wasn’t violent and he wasn’t weird’, he said. ‘In fact, he apologized for lying earlier.’
Gay’s ailing mother endorsed this positive assessment. ‘I know Christopher has stolen a few things in the past,’ she told reporters, ‘but he has a good heart. This isn’t the first time he has given his guards the slip, though. Seven years ago he escaped from jail just the same way. That time it was to see his granddaddy Joe. That’s how much his family mean to him.’
Even Crystal Gayle was sympathetic, in spite of the annoyance of losing her vehicle. ‘I would have lent him the bus if he had told me his story and asked me’, she said, ‘if it wasn’t for the fact that he was breaking the law by escaping from prison.’
A Brazilian football referee found himself facing life without his wife when he pulled out a pair of frilly knickers instead of a red card during a match.
The unfortunate Carlos Jose Figueira Ferro had intended to send a player off after a foul during an amateur match in Anama, but when he realized that he’d whipped out a pair of undies instead of a card, it was he who fled the field in embarrassment and horror. The game was consequently brought to a standstill twenty minutes early and, although Ferro insisted that he had never seen the knickers before, his wife, who had been watching the game, initiated divorce proceedings.
Twelve years earlier than Carlos Ferro (see 3 February), but almost to the very day, Stan Guffey was also flying the flag for refereeing incompetence at a basketball match. At least, that’s what Oklahoma police officer Eldridge Wyatt thought. He was so incensed at Guffey’s failure to chasten a player for elbowing another that he marched on to the court and arrested him. The match was held up for ten minutes as officials tried to persuade Wyatt to let the matter drop. When the game had finished and a local reporter asked the sporting cop about the incident, Wyatt arrested him too.
It was today reported that Roy Dann, the landlord of the Gordon Arms in Southampton, finally snapped and banned Jeff Donovan from his pub. For the past six years Donovan had been playing songs by Mariah Carey, every day, twenty times a day, on the pub juke-box. ‘To start with, we found it amusing’, said Roy Dann, but eventually the constant wailing from Mariah had just got too annoying – as had Mr Donovan’s retort that ‘the customer is always right’ whenever the landlord complained. ‘I don’t care what he says now,’ concluded Dann, ‘he’s not coming back into my pub.’
Welsh rugby fan Geoff Huish was sure that his team were going to get beaten by England. ‘If Wales win, I’ll cut off my balls’, he told friends in the week leading up to the match.
Wales won 11–9. That’s why, after Huish had finished listening to the match on his radio, he chopped off his testicles with a pair of wire-cutters.
‘The cutters were blunt so I had to keep snipping’, Huish explained to The Sun newspaper. ‘I cut my penis as well. There was a lot of blood, but not as much as you would expect.’
The operation took an agonizing ten minutes. Then he popped his balls into a blue plastic bag and returned with them to his friend’s house to show that he had done it. There he passed out. His friend quickly put the gonads into a pint of ice, but surgeons were unable to sew them back on.
When a taxi driver from Lulea in central Sweden attempted to perform a good deed after seeing a car crash, it cost him dear. He allowed three of the victims to shelter from the cold in his car and then looked on aghast as emergency services destroyed the vehicle in order to ‘rescue’ them.
Caring cabbie Peter Andersson explained: ‘They had a few cuts and bruises, and I let them shelter in my cab. They looked worse than they were. I went off to look at the wreck and when the firemen turned up, they pulled out hydraulic metal cutters and sliced the side off the cab. They said it meant they could get the people out without them having to bend too much, in case of neck injuries. They didn’t realize they only had to open the door.’
To make matters worse, his insurance company disputed his £30,000 repair bill, refusing to believe his story about how the damage had come about.
‘If Christ does not appear to meet his 144,000 faithful shortly after midnight on February 6th or 7th, it means that my calculations, based on the Bible, must be revised’, wrote Margaret Rowen, leader of the Church of Advanced Adventists, earlier in 1925. Today she presumably started revising them.
At 11.30 p.m. Robert Blank was waiting for a red light to change at Toluca Lake in Los Angeles when a black Mercedes pulled up beside him. Out of the Mercedes jumped a man looking remarkably like the famous actor Jack Nicholson. Things went from strange to scary when Nicholson (for it was indeed he) shouted, ‘You cut me off!’ and started striding purposefully towards Blank’s car.
Blank locked his car doors, which enraged Nicholson all the more. The actor went back to his Mercedes, opened the boot and extracted a two-iron golf club. Then, in a frenzy disturbingly reminiscent of his infamous axe-wielding ‘Heeeeere’s Johnny’ scene in The Shining, the multiple Oscar-winner proceeded to belabour Blank’s vintage car with his makeshift weapon. He severely dented the roof and smashed the front window, cutting the terrified Blank’s face in the process.
Blank later successfully sued for an undisclosed sum and Nicholson apologized profusely, explaining that the pressure of a friend’s recent death and playing a ‘maniac’ all night for the film The Crossing Guard, had got to him. ‘I was’, he explained, ‘out of my mind.’
Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded and, incidentally, revealed to be almost hairless. When the executioner went to lift up her head by grasping hold of her long, flowing locks, the hair came up but the head didn’t. She had been wearing a wig. Underneath her hair was clipped, grey and sparse.
Clifton McPip, the governor of Chisbeck County Jail, Iowa, thought he was doing the right thing when he bought a group of prisoners a trampoline. ‘They provided statistics to show that open-air trampolining aided the rehabilitation process’, explained the well-meaning jailer. ‘I was more than happy to grant their request.’
His happiness was soon punctured, however, when prisoners started to use the trampoline to propel themselves over the prison fence. Six men escaped before the guards realized what was happening. ‘It all happened so quickly’, recalled one of them. ‘One moment they were bouncing up and down, the next – boing! Over they went. They were like six fat birds.’
Three of the prisoners remained at large for several weeks. Fortunately the amiable Governor McPip was able to put things into perspective. ‘They also asked for tunnel-digging equipment for a play they were doing about miners,’ he told journalists at the time, ‘but I refused. I’m not a fool.’
When Admiral Sir William May received a telegram from the Foreign Office in London telling him to expect a visit to the battleship Dreadnought from members of the Abyssinian royal family, he immediately rolled out the red carpet. He also made sure that there was a full honour guard waiting to greet the distinguished visitors when they arrived, and he set up a barrier of saluting officers to keep unruly members of the general public at bay.
Not all went smoothly for Sir William, however. Considerable embarrassment was caused by the fact that nobody had been able to find an Abyssinian flag. No one knew how to play Abyssinia’s national anthem either, so the Emperor and his entourage were greeted by a band playing the anthem of Zanzibar instead.
Fortunately the royal party didn’t seem to notice this lapse. They just bustled on board the boat, grinning broadly underneath their heavy beards. Occasionally, they yelled ‘bunga bunga’ with delight, especially when they were shown technological marvels such as electric lights.
One strange guest would only say, ‘Chuck-a-choi, chuck-a-choi’, and a sudden burst of rain forced the visit to be terminated early, but on the whole Sir William must have felt pleased with his day’s work. Or at least, he must have until he saw a picture of the royal party printed in a newspaper several days later, underneath a story explaining that they were actually a group of young jokers from Bloomsbury in London. The man who would only say ‘chuck-a-choi’ was actually a woman called Virginia Stephen, and the reason they’d retreated from the rain was for fear that their make-up might run and their beards come unstuck.
‘Bunga bunga’ briefly became a part of the English language, and Virginia Stephen (soon to become Virginia Woolf) went on to become renowned as a writer. She even ensured that the episode was immortalized by including it in her short story ‘A Society’. ‘Never have I laughed so much’, she wrote.
‘My dear fellow,’ began the famous French editor Marc Humblot in a letter to Marcel Proust, ‘I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may, I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.’ With that, Humblot rejected Proust’s manuscript of Remembrance of Things Past. The author eventually published it himself, and it has never been out of print since.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sam Jordison writes for the website of the Guardian and is the author of several toilet books: Bad Dates, The Joy of Sects, and the brand new Annus Horribilis: A Chronicle of Comic Mishaps. He also co-edited Crap Towns and Crap Towns II and wrote long articles that he wishes more people would read for a book called “Everything You Know About God Is Wrong”.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 4th, 2007.