In which The Author and some friends reply to a challenge
On Saturday my friend John K., his brother Tim, Tim’s daughter Brogan and I went to Bristol for the Comedy Garden show. Ardal O’Hanlon, Milton Jones and Shappi Khorsandi were performing in a big circus tent in Queen’s Square. It’s a part of Bristol I’m not familiar with, near the Floating Harbour. The odd thing is, although every time I’m in Bristol I go to St. Nicholas Market, it’s never occurred to me to turn right and explore the old waterfront pubs.
One of them is called the Llandoger [sic] Trow, named after the small freight boats that used to ply the Bristol Channel and lower reaches of the River Wye. I’ve only been there once, with Andy, a friend from Bristol Class War, about twenty years ago. It was the Monday after the Ashton Court Festival, and Andy and I decided to have a pint before we met his girlfriend Maddy from work. We were sitting outside and a homeless guy came along. He was your real stereotype – wearing all his clothes at once, with no arse in his trousers and no soles on his shoes. It was impossible to tell his age through his thick beard and long hair. At first Andy and I were a bit wary, but (as often happens) our preconceptions were overturned. He sat at our table, wouldn’t take a drink off us (although he reluctantly accepted a glass of pop) and told us tales of Bristol in bygone days. It’s not often you meet a sober rough-sleeper.
Anyway, we passed there on Saturday and it was heaving, inside and outside. Funnily enough, there was another homeless guy trying to get some shut-eye on the step. I did wonder if it was the same guy, but it’s very unlikely he’s still alive after all this time. Rather than battle through the crowds, we decided to have a drink in another place a short distance away.
While we were in there, Brogan told us about the pranks she used to play on her lecturers. She’s just graduated with a 2:1 from Brasenose College, Oxford, so John had warned me that I was in for an intellectual discussion or three. She enjoys writing satirical lyrics to existing tunes, and gave us a couple of examples. She once wrote a four-page parody of Chaucer highlighting the foibles of one lecturer, who failed to notice she was the intended victim. In return, I told her of a practical joke some friends and I played nearly fifteen years ago, with similar results.
It began on a Friday night in the Cambrian. Four of us were reading the Cynon Valley Leader when we spotted the new guidelines for would-be correspondents. It looked as if the new security precautions would foil all but the most determined pranksters:
As regular readers will know, my sarcastic letters to the Leader were already well-known in Aberdare. In fact, they only printed about one in every three, because the paper itself was the butt of many of my jokes. So the idea occurred to us: Could we get something potentially explosive past their radar? We got a piece of paper from Simon at the bar and started making a few notes.
After half an hour or so of rewriting, we managed to come up with quite a creditable poem. It was written from the point of view of a young girl, about her birthday. It was trite and cute and nauseating – just the sort of thing calculated to appeal to the Leader‘s readership. Andrew L. stuck the final draft in his pocket and we went our separate ways. I didn’t think any more of it, to be honest.
A couple of weeks later, I was reading the Leader again when I spotted a letter from someone named Upton. That was my friend Rob’s surname, so I asked him if the writer was a relative. We were chatting when Andrew came in, spotted the paper on the bar, and announced, ‘It’s gone in!’
Amazingly, even though the paper was open to the right double-spread, I hadn’t looked at the poems which readers sent in. And sure enough, on the page opposite the letters, was this:
As it’s a bit difficult to read at this scale, here’s the offending part blown up:
Andrew had sent it in under a made-up name and a fake address, and somehow it had got past the Leader‘s firewall.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Even though there was an unfortunate line break in the second column, it seemed that everyone in the valley had found the key to the puzzle. My friend Ray told me later that everyone working in his factory had spotted it – even the ones he wasn’t sure could read. It was the talk of the town, by all accounts.
A few days later I was walking through town when Gaz spotted me. He called me over and asked, ‘Are you Amy Widdowson?’
I said, ‘I am a quarter of Amy Widdowson.’
‘I should have guessed you’d have something to do with it,’ he said.
He went on to explain that his father – a senior police officer in Aberdare – had taken a call from an irate member of the public, demanding to know what action the police were going to take against the Leader for publishing obscenities. As we say these days, RESULT!
(And if you haven’t already done it, try reading the first letter of each line going down, acrostic-fashion …)