Tuesday, November 25, 2008

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One of the wraiths that drift through my blog like pedalo Flying Dutchmen once asked whether I was or had ever been an office joker. The answer is a firm but inviting "no".

I have carried out guerrilla attacks on the email accounts of managerial fiends from time to time, but a packed lunchtime drinking schedule leaves me little time for japes. Indeed, I set an example of Montgomery clipped efficiency when leading my team of crumpled hacks to ever greater feats of tardy and inaccurate reporting with a distinct Byronic bias.

Sometimes my tow-haired charges gather at my shiny knee to hear cautionary tales of journos past. Those inclined to tomfoolery are chastened by my account of the Great Guatemalan Voodoo Hunt, and muck about no more.

I used to work at a business consultancy group, which was as disagreeable as it sounds. To leaven the loam I devised a game of mental poker for my colleagues. Our 0830 morning conference was organised by regional or thematic desk (Europe, International Business etc). Each desk had a staff editor (I was Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) and an outside specialist, usually an Oxford don or freelancer.

The Dons, as they were called, were likeable chancers in the main, but one or two took themselves far too seriously. The aim of the game was to slip an absurd story past them without their noticing.

We staff would usually assemble at 0745 while the office gimp was compiling the desk files. These were folders of agency wires and press clippings sorted by region, with each headline typed up on an overall crib sheet. The Dons got a copy of the crib-sheet in their files.

As the gimp listened to the BBC World Service headlines at 0800, one of us had to alter a headline on the crib-sheet in the typewriter. The technique was to find a story from a region where the Don was either too preoccupied/befuddled to notice the doctored headline, or more rarely would spot it and get the joke.

The challenge was to ensure that the Chief Editor, a bellicose and drunken Old Arab Hand, and the Director, a born-again American, didn't notice either. This required guile and confidence.

In case the Marxists among you were wondering, the gimp never spotted anything because he was too harassed and his eyesight had been ruined by years of rummaging in the early morning gloom.

My finest moment involved the then French prime minister Madame Édith Cresson, President Mitterrand's final act of revenge on the Socialist Party. La Cresson was the chainsmoking ideal of what French women of a certain age and wayward moral compass look like. She devoted a good part of her premiership to calling the English a bunch of poofs and the Japanese an army of speccy yellow ant men.

What would be fair comment for an officer in the Royal Welch Fusilliers c.1943 was not acceptable from a European stateswoman of the 1990s, one can only regret to note. Her refusal to apologise for anything only made me want her more.

The latest outrage was some comment she'd made about sex in Japan, thereby uniting her two favourite themes. The Reuter headline was something improbable like "Mrs Cresson denies discussing sex". I altered this to "Mrs Cresson denies discussing oral sex". The gimp printed 12 copies and away we went.

My gamble paid off as no one except the desk editors noticed it. Behold the keys to my success:

  • I added a solitary word. Avoid ostentation, but don't play too safe.
  • Make it plausible. Madame Cresson was quite capable of complaining about the service she'd got from some Kyoto gigolo.
  • The headline was no higher than 5th or 6th from the top. By then most Dons have stopped reading and gone straight for their regional stories. Any lower in the running order would be poor sport.
  • The European Don du jour was a bearded buffoon who read Le Monde at the conference table with great ostentation and rarely noticed anything else.

The risk was the reaction of the Chief Editor and Director. This time the former was fuming about some dastardly American plot to make Arab states behave themselves and the latter was pawing the sleeve of a visiting client, so I got away with it.

Various headlines I recall from other colleagues were "Gulf states raise mermaid question", "San Marino denies irredentist ambitions", "Major recommends Chateau Lamont, then laughs" and "Bush backs bid to drill for owls".

We were swashbuckling news brigands, lusted after by men and women alike. Who would not want to join our lunchtime roistering at the Nags Head? Who would not want to join our teatime roistering at the Nags Head? And as for our evenings, you would have to imagine the Algonquin Round Table re-enacted by male models on water-skis.

One aspirant member of our fraternity of fops was an earnest young American intern whom I shall call Dr William Tompson, later of Birkbeck College, the OECD and Chatham House. Cursed with a real doctorate, corporate loyalty, a penchant for Monty Python, a fetching wife and a voice like Lippy the Lion, "Tompo" as he disliked being called was the diametrically-opposed opposite of everything we stood for.

He caused endless distress with his pressed trousers, good standing with the management, advocacy of blush wine, polished manners and young life of genuine achievement. One day Tompo decided to win us over by trying his hand at Headline Poker.

He came terribly unstuck by breaking the rules outlined above:

  • He invented an entire new headine.
  • He let his imagination run riot.
  • He placed it too high.
  • He chose Latin America, the Cinderella desk with a monomaniac editor who read and cross-checked everything.

As usual the Chief Editor went around the table asking for our top stories, desk by desk. At last he came to Latin America.

"So, Crabtree, anything to report from the Pampas?"

"Well, David, Menem is talking about a major deflationary package, De Mello is still denying a range of accusations, there are some interesting developments in the Bolivian mining sector and, and, it's rather odd but I can't actually find the wire, but there's a headline here, you all have it, third on the list, 'Guatemalan cabinet struck down by voodoo curse'. Most curious, as voodoo isn't usually a problem in Guatemala or indeed Central America in general. Does, does anyone have the wire in their folders?"


Extensive rifling of folders followed, growing louder to suppress a steady trickle of giggles from the ranks.

The Latin American Don that day was a sound fellow who'd never sold cocaine to convent girls or thrown anyone out of a helicopter. He raised his single brow from rapt study of the healthcare editor's cleavage to mutter "Suspect someone's pulling your leg, what?"

Our conference table would have given a fair impression of Pandæmonium if demons ever shopped at Burtons. The Chief Editor bellowed about lack of respect for the editorial process, the Director was babbling in tongues, and the poor Latin American editor looked like someone had wiped their arse on Isabel Allende and sent him the Polaroid.

Tompo decided to own up. "I thought it might be funnay," he ventured, thereby unbelting another blast of Berkoff from the top management. To Tompo's credit he never mentioned that we had all been tampering with the agenda for months. Nor did he express annoyance when the rest of us failed to point this out in his defence.

After a discreet interval Tompo retreated to the public sector, leaving his erstwhile colleagues to find other ways of having fun at the expense of human decency.

And so, my pretties, remember that office jokes are best carried off like married love-making. Ensure your victim is half-asleep, don't be too involved or obvious, and have someone you can blame if it all goes wrong.

40 comments:

Francis Sedgemore said...

Mrs Boyo must be one amazing woman to follow the gin-scented divorcees of your youth, and the fragrant if somewhat potty Madame Cresson.

Word Verification Code said...

Pulushi

Gorilla Bananas said...

The good thing about such jokes is how little effort they involve compared with changing the name plate on someone's office door to 'Jimmy Cockface'. Pity you didn't get the chance to write a headline for Mugabe - plausibility can be stretched a long way for him.

No Good Boyo said...

Ah, GB, Mugabe was still one of the officially-sanctioned good guys in those days.

As for Mrs Boyo, Francis, she follows no one. Unless her father takes her hunting Hutsuls.

WVC, so we meet at last...

inkspot said...

I am so impressed and so, so envious. The meetings I go to have insufficient cleavage and provide no chance to, er, improve the agenda. Usually they are merely absurd, but this last one moved into insanity without being funny. It's a strange thing to watch a body of intelligent people (that's their view) take a firm but bonkers decision to spend £12 million (and if we hit asbestos then we're in the infinite money limit).

Word Verification Code said...

Emhotep

Scaryduck said...

These days the action is in getting certain keywords into the copy. Score one for me Egyptian colleague for getting the word - quite legitimately - 'paedo' onto the file.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Quite right, boyo: less is more.

When we ruined our already-fragile collective chances of going into the Music O-Level stream with the King Farouk lark one lad hit a dischordant note by ignoring the rules of the game (see how many times you can name-check King Farouk in your answers) by answering the question "What is a tone poem" with a two-page essay on A Day in the Life of King Farouk and His Friend, A. Penny, and the Contents of a Ping Pong Ball.

Mind you, it was funny at the time.

Mrs Pouncer said...

Off topic, but help me out here. Kev, you'll know this. Where does this come from: Haile Selassie, very Selassie, quite Selassie, not really Selassie at all. Where do I remember it from? And what about my previous qu. to you re House of Wax? Why is everyone ignoring me? I thought gin-scented harpies were au choix on this page?

Gadjo Dilo said...

Yes, me too, very envious. I'd sleep with any director general to work in such an environment. And I'd give my right arm to go to any sort of meeting - I have to sit for 8 hours every day at a computer screen with nobody talking to me. Oh dear, moan moan moan, sorry.

What sort of gin are using, Mrs P? Gordons might get you a better class of attention than Larios.

No Good Boyo said...

Ladies, gentlemen, you amaze me with the wealth of your diversions.

As a student in Voronezh I persuaded our Soviet teachers that Wales was so backward that we had steam-powered television sets and collected dried fruit as tributes to our savage gods.

This spread throughout our group, and soon exercises to test our mastery of the perfective aspect routinely produced replies like "I placed my dried-fruit collection on the steam-powered telly" . No wonder those people wanted to destroy our freedom and plumbing.

Mrs Pouncer, this blog specialises in the off-topic. House of Wax is a fine film, but pales before the majesty of Dr Phibes. The House of Thwax, Chiang Mai, is another matter and comes highly recommended by Capt Scot "Scotty" Scott, a connoisseur de pein forte et dure.

In the House of Boyo we favour Bombay Sapphire for everyday drinking, but insist on Tanqueray Export for martinis.

M C Ward said...

Fantastic stuff, Boyo, you're an inspiration.

While being executed by accounting I used to add a few choice entries to the European Sales Manager's credit card statement, my best ever being apocryphal services at a club in Hamburg, "grosselicke mit Schlappenoilen".

Even after he was fired, he could see the funny side, though I no longer receive Christmas cards.

Kevin Musgrove said...

I'll have to admit that I can't remember the House of Wax question. Are we talking Cedric Hardwick or Vincent Price, dear? I hope the former as it featured Fay Wray putting her stockings on in colour.

The Haile Selasie gag smacks of Muir and Norden but I can't place it.

Boyo: had you lived in North Wales you would have been having to decline "Гидроэлектротелевизор" in the instrumental plural. Some folk can never be too lucky.

No Good Boyo said...

Гидроэлектротелевизорaми

Kev, I carry a little North Wales with me where ever I go.

MC, this was klearly a Kraut of kuality. "grosselicke mit Schlappenoilen". Who needs Esperanto when all proper European languages are so easily accessible? That simple phrase would have been "granda smako con sadomasa rubatugo" or something.

Word Verification Code said...

Я люблю телевидение

Gyppo Byard said...

I once drafted a perfect headline, but bottled out of actually publishing it. It was in about 2003 when Vietnamese party boss Nong Duc Manh had blamed the US-based Montagnard Foundation - founded by dissident Ksor Kok - for trouble in the Central Highlands.

VIETNAM RUCKUS - MANH FINGERS KSOR KOK! was my resultant - and entirely accurate - offering. But I decided job security trumped a moment of meteoric glory.

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