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.