dubiously true stories and cartoons

Saturday, February 22, 2014


A few years ago I lived in a 19th Century cottage in a small village in Cambridgeshire with my wife, three children, three goats, six ducks, twelve chickens, a rabbit and two goldfish. We grew mint in a patch of earth under the kitchen window and strawberries in a greenhouse and there were wild blackberries growing in abundance at the bottom of the garden.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? A bit like the TV series The Good Life.
But fiction and fact are rarely the same. The goats were a pain in the arse – they ate all the mint and munched their way through the blackberries and also the bushes they grew on, they smashed their way into the greenhouse and polished off most of the strawberries and they systematically destroyed the goat-house we had built for them before them one of them died in mysterious circumstances in the night. The ducks shat everywhere and the males shagged the females repeatedly until they couldn’t take any more, at which point the males changed tactics (and species) and started on the hens until we were forced to get a rooster to separate them. The rooster crowed from dawn ‘til dusk and the hens finished the rest of the strawberries as well as eating all the grass, before three of them drowned in the duck pond we’d just installed. The rabbit hated me and attacked me whenever I went near it and then died and I accidentally killed the goldfish with some embalming fluid.
There will always be problems associated with keeping that many animals – the daily grind of cleaning them out and the cost of feeding them and checking them out to see if they’re still healthy and the vet bills when they’re not. There was no chance for the family to go away together because no-one with any sense would take on the responsibility of looking after such a large menagerie of beasts and birds. 
On the bright side, we took comfort in the fact that our children were growing up in an environment which would teach them to treat animals with respect – once, that is, we had explained to our two boys that chasing the goats around the garden with sticks was a bad thing. So, although it wasn’t The Good Life, it wasn’t exactly a bad life within the boundaries of our property. The bad life, it turned out, was when we had to leave the safe confines of our animal kingdom and try to mix in with the locals.
Anyone moving from a city into the country will find that things are vastly different. People are not as friendly or as forthcoming in a village as they are in an urban sprawl. In some parts of Lincolnshire you have to have lived there for more than thirty years before anyone will accept you as a member of the community. You can help the church, donate to local charities, go regularly to the local pub but all that counts for nothing because the locals will still think of you as an outsider and regard you with suspicion and mistrust. A friend of mine once told me that after his mother had died he and his father had moved from London into a village in Norfolk in the late fifties, but it wasn’t until his father died over thirty years later that he was accepted by the locals. “Death,” he said sadly, “seemed to be the only way in for outsiders.”
It wasn’t nearly as bad as that where we lived, but moving into a small village is sometimes like turning the clock back fifty or sixty years. Attitudes are different. Men go down the pub while the women stay at home – even if they have no children.
One of the women my wife knew inherited some money after a relative died, which her husband promptly used to buy himself a brand new motorbike, but when his wife came home a week later with a paddling pool for the kids that had cost her the princely sum of £3.99 in Wilkinson, her husband called her a whore and made her take it back.
This same man also complained to his wife that she wasn’t giving him enough sex. Any normal woman would have ignored him and carried on as usual, but his wife insisted that she was providing him with the correct amount – and to prove it she would mark each day she had fulfilled his carnal desires with a tick on the calendar that was hanging in the kitchen.
When my wife and two of her friends went to see her one day they asked her what all the ticks on the calendar meant and the woman stupidly told them. She even elaborated by telling them that her husband had insisted that only full sex counted and that if she treated him to oral sex then it had to be immediately followed by full sex – presumably giving him a few minutes to recover before the second act. The story, as you may imagine, spread around the village like wildfire and whenever this couple came round to see us we always made sure that there were more ticks marked on our calendar than theirs.
By far the worst thing about the village was waiting for the morning bus to pick the kids up and take them to school. When my wife was working as an Art Tutor for the Cambridgeshire County Council she used to wait with the other mothers for the bus to arrive before she went to work. Every night when I got home she used to moan and complain about the women at the bus stop and I used to listen to her and try to calm her down by telling her to just forget about it.
“I can’t forget about it,” she said. “They’re all bitches who talk all the time and say nothing. And that’s when they’re not totally ignoring me because I have a job and they don’t!”
“Come on,” I said. “It can’t be that bad.”
Six months later my wife changed jobs and started working for an accountancy firm in Huntingdon, which meant leaving the house early.
Which meant I had to put the kids on the bus before I left for work.
Now, I’m not saying that my wife and I are the cleverest people in the world, but standing next to these women every morning made me think I was. The boundaries of their conversations with each other never went beyond babies, cleaning and household products. They knew no life at all outside child care, housework and TV soap operas. Two or three of them actually considered it a badge of honour for never having read a book in their entire lives. Ever.
What is strange is that before they were married and had kids they must have been able to hold intelligent conversations with their peers before they all turned into the Stepford Wives. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they were always like that. Maybe it’s what attracted their husbands to them in the first place.
 "I went to see the new James Bond film last night,” I said to one of them.
“Oh,” she replied vacantly. “Which one?”
Casino Royale,” I told her.
She thought about this with her mouth open for a few moments before saying, “I don’t like James Bond Films.”
“Really? I love them. I always have.”
“Oh no,” she said finally. “He makes too much mess, I just want to clean up after him.”
“Get a fucking life,” I said, “you moronic, empty headed thicko!”
I didn’t really say that – I just thought it because she had already turned her back on me to talk to someone about how the Tesco own brand kitchen cleaner is just as good as Flash, but cheaper.
No wonder my wife used to leave that bus stop angry and upset. Within two weeks of standing at that there I wanted to machine-gun the lot of them.
We had moved to that small village in Cambridgeshire from another small village in Buckinghamshire, and we had moved there from the city of Winchester.
Winchester was a wonderful place to live. We were housesitting for some friends of ours who had moved to Seattle in the United States. The house was a large three storey Edwardian building that was a two minute walk from the centre of town and so we were almost in its cultural heart – the beautiful Cathedral was nearby, there was a cinema just around the corner and a theatre a short stroll from there. There were pubs, wine bars, book shops and galleries all within walking distance. The schools were excellent and the people were open, warm and friendly.
All good things, as they say, must come to end and when I accepted a teaching job at Halton in Buckinghamshire, I found that the ninety-minute drive to and from work every day was killing me and so we reluctantly decided to move closer to where I worked.
We moved into a small village in the Claydons, about twenty miles from Halton because it was all we could afford. To say that it was a culture shock would be putting it mildly. It was like moving from Shang-ri-la to Royston Vasey. It was a cultural vacuum.
The house was situated in a small cul-de-sac and the neighbours seemed friendly at first, but it wasn’t long before we discovered that there was a seething resentment towards us because ours was the only property in that dead end street that was privately owned. All the other properties that surrounded us were owned by the Housing Association.
Now, I’m not having a go at tenants of Housing Association properties because my wife and I had once lived in one ourselves and, in amongst the relatively few junkies, pissheads and serial killers, there were some genuinely nice, friendly people.
I was on leave for the first month after we had moved into the house in the Claydons and so I spent that entire time dressed exclusively in jeans and T-shirts. One set of neighbours befriended us and they couldn’t have been more helpful. They invited us over to their house for pancakes and even lent us a chair because we were a family of five and only had four dining chairs.
Life seemed good, but all that stopped on my first day of work. Living in our own house was bad enough, but seeing me leaving the house in a suit to go to a real job was beyond the pale.
The neighbours who had befriended us stopped talking to us almost immediately. They refused to give back things that we had lent them and so we held onto their chair out of spite. The husband was a gardener of no fixed ability whose own garden looked like the Somme – after the battle. His wife had a pinched face who looked like she was permanently angry about something, and in a cage in the alleyway next to their house they had a dog that barked day and night and was never, as far as I observed, taken for walks.
They turned overnight into the most spiteful, evil people we had ever had the misfortune of knowing. They tampered with my car and poured weed killer on our front lawn when we went away. They told the other neighbours unfounded stories about us, which backfired on them after my wife had the brilliant idea of never talking about them in the company of others, no matter how bad we felt. This had the desired effect of the neighbours not actually believing anything they said about us.
We lasted eighteen months there before we moved to the village in Cambridgeshire after I secured another teaching job at Wyton. The day we moved was a joyous occasion, and not just because we were moving away.
Three days before we moved I overheard the gardener talking to his friend about how he hadn’t taxed his three cars for over two years and that he had placed forged or photocopied tax discs in his windshield and had never been stopped by the police. As a result of the anonymous call I made to the Buckinghamshire constabulary he was paid a visit by some nice uniformed gentlemen and made to tax all his cars within twenty-four hours and pay a fine or go to prison.
We still had the chair they had lent us eighteen months earlier and I took great delight in chopping it into little pieces and taking all but one leg of it down to the tip, which I placed on their path just before we drove away forever.
And just to put the icing on the cake, the day before we left I made a note of all the telephone numbers of the Chinese and Indian takeaways in the local area (of which there were many). Once we were safely in our new home I called each and every one of them and got them to deliver delicious oriental and sub-continental meals to his house at fifteen minute intervals throughout the night.
That one still makes me smile.
Our new immediate neighbours were - if a little mad - at least friendly enough.

But even so, after two years of living there, it suddenly struck me - as I was waiting at the bus stop, listening to the mums talking about cleaning materials and whatever brainless programmes they'd watched on TV the night before - that I much preferred the company of my family and our collection of beasts and birds than the animal kingdom that lay beyond the boundaries of our property.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


It’s almost that time again. Yes, Hollywood will soon begin to overindulge itself in a frenzy of backslapping, tearful acceptance speeches and (for the most part at least) wrong choices. Yes – the 86th Academy Award ceremony is just around the corner. Nine films have been nominated for best picture and it seems that American Hustle appears to be the front runner.

While I’ll admit that the performances are excellent (particularly the one by Christian Bale’s toupee) can anyone tell me why this boring, overlong, pointless and distinctly underwhelming film has received all the plaudits?

Because I’m baffled.

I haven’t seen Her, Nebraska or Philomena yet, but 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips and Gravity are all vastly superior to American Hustle.

But then the panel of voters selected for the Academy Awards have often made strange and dubious choices for the film that they consider to be the best of the year.

Yes, I admit that throughout the years of the Academy’s existence the best film has been selected – Casablanca in 1942, Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 in 1972 and 1974, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, Unforgiven in 1992 and No Country For Old Men in 2007 – but in many cases the film that should have won (whether  it's because of the political climate in the US or the stupidity of the voting panel) has often been overlooked.

The first really famous film to fall foul of this was Orson Welles’ ground breaking and notorious Citizen Kane, which tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, who rose from humble beginnings to become a wealthy, greedy and ultimately isolated and reviled human being. The film starts with a group of reporters trying to understand why Kane’s last word was “Rosebud” and from then on it’s constructed like a jigsaw puzzle, told through multiple viewpoints (many of which conflict with each other).

Its notoriety sprang from the fact that it was a thinly veiled account of the life of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who attempted (unsuccessfully) to have every print of the film burned. It was also rumoured that the film’s motif Rosebud was Hearst’s pet name for his wife’s clitoris.

Welles, who had never directed a film before, claimed that he watched John Ford’s film Stagecoach thirty-seven times to prepare himself for the task ahead. Whether it was because Welles was a first time director and saw film as having no boundaries or because he approached the project with the same verve and ambition that he utilised in his stage and radio productions (most notably in his adaptation of War of the Worlds), Citizen Kane has more than earned its reputation as a masterpiece – it’s a brilliant firework display of a movie with Greg Tolland’s masterful use of deep focus photography and imaginative camera angles, a startling use of expressionist lighting, a literate and intelligent screenplay by Welles and Herman J Mankiewicz that used (for the first time) overlapping dialogue, and outstanding, natural performances (especially those from Joseph Cotton and Welles himself as Kane).

Welles had reportedly coaxed his cinematographer, Greg Tolland, away from John Ford after he had seen The Grapes of Wrath and so it was ironic then that he lost out to Ford’s vastly inferior How Green Is My Valley, filmed in Technicolor with everyone concerned doing terrible Welsh accents that occasionally sounded Irish (and sometimes Scottish) and with Hollywood star Walter Pidgeon, who appeared to give up on his attempted Welsh accent fifteen minutes in and revert to own American twang for the remaining hour and forty-five minutes of the film.

How Green Is My Valley is a dated, unimaginative, turgid melodrama, and was (wrongly) voted the best picture of 1941. It is now largely forgotten and shown only as a filler on daytime television schedules, but Welles’ pyrotechnical masterwork has topped Sight and Sounds poll of the best film of all time more than any other in the magazine’s history and that’s because modern cinema began with Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane was just the first of many. Down through the years of the Academy’s history mediocrity has triumphed over intelligence and originality. In 1977, Sylvester Stallone’s formulaic and predictable boxing film Rocky was up against Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men, a brilliant political thriller about Watergate, Sidney Lumet’s Network, a scathingly satirical attack on television exploitation and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a disturbing view of an ordinary man’s descent into madness and murder. Guess which film won? I’ll give you a clue – it’s none of the last three I just mentioned.

And don’t get me started on Martin Scorsese, who (despite being one of the most innovative and brilliant directors America has ever produced) is one of the most shamelessly overlooked directors in the history of the Academy’s existence. He has directed a feast of dynamic and original classics – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The King of Comedy, Casino, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Hugo and most recently The Wolf of Wall Street (which I think is his best film to date - with an electrifying performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, proving yet again that he is the most talented and versatile actor of his generation) – but he won his only best director Oscar for The Departed, a remake of the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. It’s a great film but he should have won an Oscar for any (if not all) the films I mentioned previously. Giving him the Oscar for The Departed was a bit like giving John Wayne his best actor Oscar for his portrayal of John Wayne with a patch over his eye in True Grit when he really should have won it for his powerful and penetrating role as the revenge driven, racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.

And I don’t care what anyone says – the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit was much better than Henry Hathaway’s original.

Martin Scorsese wasn't the first director to be ignored by the Academy. The great Alfred Hitchcock was also given the cold shoulder come Oscar time. Throughout his long and distinguished career he never once won an Oscar for best director, even though he was responsible for introducing many of the cinematic techniques we take for granted today. Remember the scene in Jaws when the boy is attacked by the shark and the camera zooms into Chief Brody's face while the background rushes away - this is now known in the film industry as the Vertigo Zoom because it was first used in Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo in order to give the audience a sense of disorientation. In Psycho he became the first director to kill off the film's major star, Debbie Reynolds, within the first thirty minutes. Psycho - for better or worse - also ushered in the genre now known as the slasher movie. He was the first to shoot a film in one take (Rope), the first to set a thriller entirely in one room (Rear Window), the first to show children being killed in a bomb blast (Sabotage), the first to have a charming psychopath as a central character (Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on Train). The magazine MovieMaker described him (quite rightly) as the most influential filmmaker of all time, but the Academy couldn't see that. Why? Because they were idiots who regarded Hitchcock's films (as they did with Steven Spielberg's until he made Schindler's List) as being too commercial to be of any worth.

But the same old story has repeated itself over and over again throughout the last thirty years or so. Apocalypse Now, possibly the greatest war film ever made, lost out in 1979 to the dire and manipulative tear-jerker Kramer vs Kramer. In 1983 the dreadful Terms of Endearment won the award instead of The Right Stuff, Phillip Kaufman’s brilliantly told story about NASAs Apollo Project. Twee, boring, politically correct Driving Miss Daisy was apparently a better film in 1989 than the superb My Left Foot. And then there was Titanic in 1997, picking up as many awards as Ben Hur, probably because it was just as boring, overlong and shit. Finally on my hit list of Oscar winners is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, A Beautiful Mind (from the usually reliable Ron Howard). It’s a vapid, empty, pointless film that tells you absolutely nothing about the person it’s about.

Ron Howard has not made many bad films, but when he does make one it's not just bad - it's mind-bogglingly terrible. Anyone who has followed this blog will know that my least favourite film of all time  is Top Gun - but thinking about it, there are two films that are worse than that steaming pile of horse manure - and they are both directed by Ron Howard. As bad as Top Gun is, it is still watchable if only for the flying sequences and if you're so drunk you can't hear any of the predictable dialogue. The two films directed by Ron Howard that I'm talking about here have got nothing going for them at all because, right from the start they were hamstrung by the very worst source material that has ever existed.

That's right, you guessed it - they are both based on books by the world's worst writer, Dan Brown, whose central character, Robert Langdon, is the most boring creation in recent fiction. I have every confidence that my wife could knit a more interesting character than Robert Langdon.

I thought the books were bad enough but the films surpassed even their level of total, mind-numbing stupidity, and I was amazed to find that the wafer-thin, zero-dimensional characters of the books were transferred to the screen with even less charisma than they had on the page.

Watching Tom Hanks as the internationally renowned (and dumbest) symbologist (a made-up profession if ever I heard one) in the world, racing around with a ridiculous haircut struggling to solve puzzles that a five year-old could have worked out before him was worse than having to stand on my head for two hours in a bucket full of shit. When I went to see the film I had this vague notion that Ron Howard would somehow improve the book, using his directorial skills to transform it into something that was, at the very least, exciting – but I was wrong, and I quickly came to the conclusion that the only way you could ever improve a Dan Brown book is by burning it.

Apparently Ron Howard is turning the latest travesty by Dan Brown, Inferno, into a movie, which is a shame as his latest release, Rush, is a truly thrilling film about the rivalry between the racing drivers James Hunt and Nikki Lauda. Inferno, on the other hand, is anything but thrilling - it's dull, unbelievable, stupid and worthless. With not even enough plot to fill a short story, the book spends most of it great length acting as a travelogue of Venice and other Italian cities. If I wanted to read a travelogue about an Italian city I would have bought a Lonely Planet travel guide because (a) it would have been better written than Dan Brown's effort, and (b) no, that's it - there is no (b).

So, I don’t like Dan Brown’s books or films made from them. I don’t like Titanic, A Beautiful Mind, Kramer vs Kramer, Terms of Endearment, Driving Miss Daisy or any of the commercially driven effluence that is squeezed out of the arse of Hollywood. And I didn’t like American Hustle.

In that case, what films (in my humble opinion) should have been nominated instead of American Hustle? Well, there’s Saving Mr Banks, a beautifully told film with great performances from Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks and Colin Farrell about the problems Walt Disney had when attempting to secure the rights of Mary Poppins from Mrs PL Travers. There’s also Ron Howard's Rush, which I just mentioned. The Coen Brothers should be there with Inside Llewyn Davis, a film about a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village in the early sixties with an ending that makes you rethink everything you’ve just watched. The Frozen Ground is a true story featuring standout performances from John Cusack as a serial killer and Vanessa Hudgens (yes – her from High School Musical) as the victim that got away. Richard Curtis’ quirky time travel film About Time should have been considered. And finally there’s Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, a film that I suspected would be a cheesy, gung-ho American war film that turned out to be nothing of the sort. It’s a brutally honest and moving depiction of brotherhood and heroism in the face of overwhelming odds that tells the true story of a team of four US Navy SEALs who make the correct moral choice after a mission goes wrong in Afghanistan and end up paying for it with their lives.  

But let’s forget the Oscars now and concentrate on a film that didn’t have a hope in hell of winning any award anywhere, but what I nevertheless thought was the most entertaining and enjoyable film I had the pleasure of seeing all last year.

It’s directed by Anthony C Ferrante and features a cast of characters that are paper-thin composites of characters that have drifted in from other films.  There's little or no plot. Logic has been replaced by a lack of continuity and a total disregard for anything remotely scientific. The actors range from being mediocre to bad to terrible and the special effects are often hilariously ineffective. It starts with a pointless prologue involving a small fishing boat, a  captain wearing a silly hat and speaking in a strange accent, a dodgy Japanese businessman, a suitcase full of money, a bowl of shark-fin soup and a chase around the deck of the aforementioned small fishing boat. After the title sequence none of these things are mentioned again in the film – ever.

It's a terrible film – but, you know what – it's also brilliant because it was never meant to be taken seriously. Here's a young director working within a tight budget (and producing a film that actually does what it set out to do) with money that he'd probably borrowed from his Auntie. Sam Raimee did much the same with The Evil Dead and he went on to direct the blockbuster Spider-man. Even well-established directors with budgets running into millions can't achieve that - anyone remember the disaster that was Cleopatra?

Watching Anthony C Ferrante's film slightly pissed with a bunch of mates made it probably the funniest film experience I’ve encountered in recent years. For those of you who haven’t worked it out yet – it’s called Sharknado and it’s about some tornados coming in from the sea with – wait for it – sharks in them.

By coming up with the idea of doing a mash-up of the films Twister, Jaws and Deep Blue Sea, Anthony C Ferrante (for me at least) has proved that he is an absolute genius.

Enough said!

To all the readers of this blog - I now have my own website at www.stephen-mitchell.co.uk. Have a look if you want. The more hits I get the better.

Thanks for all your support.

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Here’s a text I received from my wife the other day concerning our fifteen year-old son:
I asked William to wear his coat this morning. Very wet and rainy. He needed to put his blazer in a plastic bag as there was no room in his school bag. I heard him get ready, heard him with a plastic bag. I looked out of the window to find him not wearing or carrying a coat . . . he’s a little shit and should go to acting school. Apparently it’s not raining now. I just love the touch of rustling the carrier bag and carrying the plastic bag to add authenticity . . .J
I replied by saying:
That’s my boy!
To which my wife responded:
My brains - your stupidity . . . a match made in heaven. J xxx
Oh well, I suppose they do say that opposites attract. It’s strange though, that whenever William does something bad he’s my son and at all other times he’s our son. Thinking about it, however, I’ve only got myself to blame because as a teenager I was particularly adept at lying my way out of almost any situation that may have potentially resulted in feeling the back of my mother’s hand or the whack of a teacher’s cane.
I grew up in Blackpool and received my education at Highfield Secondary Modern School, where my friend Pete and I played truant on such a regular basis that we eventually came to regard it as an integral part of the school’s syllabus. I never missed the lessons that I liked – English, Art and History – but Maths, Geography and especially Religion were fair game. Religion was not what it is now – a balanced study of the world’s main theological movements and their impact on our twenty-first century multicultural society

Back in the sixties the subject of Religion was just that. We were taught nothing about Muslims or Budhists or Hindus or any of the other religions of the world because as far as the English educational system of the fifties and sixties were concerned they didn’t actually exist. Britain was in the final death throes of Empire when I started school and that meant reading the Christian Bible was compulsory.

I was already a committed atheist by the time I was fifteen and therefore saw no point in sitting through a lesson I had absolutely no interest in. Playing truant and smoking and ogling at girls on the seafront was, for me at least, a much more meaningful, educational and mind expanding experience.
I learned how to copy my mother’s handwriting and signature for the notes I would take into school the next day and how to cook up excuses and lie convincingly to teachers about why I had not attended school – one of my Aunts died three times over a period of six months, whilst the family dog was run over and killed by (in chronological order) a milk float, a motor bike, a car and finally a lorry.
Towards the end of one lunchtime break Pete and I were forced to put all our powers of deception to the test when we were seen by the headmaster on the seafront. He was in his car and was therefore able to get back to school before the afternoon lessons started, whereas we were on foot and Highfield Secondary Modern was a good hour’s walk away. There was no way we could get away with it as we had been caught (or at least seen) red-handed, and so we spent the rest of the afternoon formulating a brilliant (but simple) way of explaining why we were not in school.
The following morning we arrived at school early and went straight to the headmaster’s office and knocked on his door. It was fifteen minutes before Morning Assembly was due to start. He called us in and we stood in front of his desk feigning remorse with guilty expressions on our faces that we had practiced between us (and in front of mirrors) the night before. We knew that he had seen us on the seafront but we also knew that he couldn’t be sure if we had seen him – and that was how we played our hand.
“Excuse me, sir – but we’ve come to apologise,” I said.
“For what?”
“Well, sir, me and Pete played truant yesterday and we’re both feeling really guilty about it because we’ve never done that sort of thing before, and we thought the best thing we could do was to come and see you and admit to it and apologise to you for doing it.”
The headmaster didn’t say anything for a few moments and we thought we’d been rumbled – but then he began to smile.
“Well done lads,” he said. “Boys who play truant are weak-minded and stupid, but what you’ve just done is very brave and honest. I wish there were more boys in this school with the integrity to admit when they’ve done something wrong and I hope for your sakes that you will never consider doing something like this again.”
“No, sir,” Pete and I said in unison.
“Good. Now get yourselves off to assembly and we’ll say no more about this.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“That was genius,” said Pete as we walked down the corridor on our way to the Assembly Hall.
And indeed, it was. We had never even considered that lying and telling the truth at the same time could be as effective as just simply lying. On top of that the headmaster had told us that we had integrity – we didn’t know what integrity meant but we were sure it was a good thing.
When I got home I looked up the word integrity in the dictionary.
integrity /in’tEgriti/ nn. 1 the quality of having strong moral principles. 2 the state of being whole ðthe condition of being unified or sound in construction.
ORIGIN ME: from Fr. intégrité or L. integritas, from integer (see INTEGER).
“We have strong moral principles and are unified and sound in construction,” I told Pete as we walked to school the next morning.
“That’s us. That’s what integrity means – and we have it.”
“Wow,” said Pete, “I’ve never had integrity before. I hope it’s not catching.”
Despite having strong moral principles and the fact that we were unified and sound in construction we continued to play truant at any and every opportunity, thereby making us – at the very least – unified and we took unashamed pride in the authentic look of the forged signatures on the carefully written absence notes we handed in describing the funerals we had been forced to attend after another fictional relative had passed away.
Back in 2004 my wife and I lived in the village of Ramsey Mereside in Cambridgeshire and our two boys would have been aged seven and eight respectively.   William had – and still has – neat, legible handwriting – unlike his older brother Oliver who (until he started boarding school) wrote in a spider-like scrawl, made all the more difficult to understand because of the numerous and sometimes hilarious spelling mistakes.
It was therefore easy to distinguish who had written what, and so when we discovered the words
William Francis Owen
written neatly (in black permanent marker) across the newly painted wall of the bedroom they shared, we knew at once that it was William’s handiwork.
“Oliver did it,” he told us.
“But that’s your handwriting,” his mother said. “Oliver doesn’t write like that and he would have spelled it incorrectly.”
“I didn’t do,” William insisted.
“Did you do this, Oliver?” my wife asked, beginning her ruthless cross examination.
My wife handed Oliver a piece of paper and asked him to write the words William Francis Owen on it.
He wrote:
She then handed the paper to William and told him to do the same.
He wrote:
William Francis Owen
“That’s the same handwriting that’s on the wall,” my wife correctly pointed out.
“Oliver made me write my name on a piece of paper and then he copied it onto the wall.”
He said it with such gravitas that he was utterly believable. It was an amazing example of lying from the lips of a seven year-old, and he had done it without any formal training. I was impressed – I had not been able to attain such a convincing level of truthful untruthfulness until I was at least thirteen.
It took four hours of questioning from my wife until she eventually prised the truth out of him.
I would never have lasted that long under my wife’s relentless interrogation. She is an expert at getting the truth out of people. Political prisoners who had been remained silent after being beaten, water-boarded, deprived of sleep and had all their finger nails pulled out with pliers wouldn’t stand a chance under her simple (but effective) method of interrogation. She only has to say one word when she suspects me of lying to her and I blurt out the truth.
That word is “Really?”
It’s just a word isn’t it – and a short one at that – but by saying it in a sinister and unforgiving fashion, whilst looking at me in a questionable and mistrustful way, I’m shamed into immediately telling her the truth.
“Did you phone the bank today, Stephen?”
“Errrmmm, well  . . errmm – no, but I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Errrmmm, OK – I’ll do it now.”
William is now fifteen and he has far surpassed me in the art of truth bending when I was a similar age. When Pete and I were fifteen we could make the reasonably plausible believable – but William is a master of making the unbelievable totally believable.
And if you don’t believe me prepare yourself for what follows. It was a mystery that would have baffled even the great detective Sherlock Holmes, had he actually existed. I think I’ll call it The Strange Case of the Disappearing Cherry.
My daughter Jessica had baked some cakes, one of which she had saved on a plate for Oliver. They were very nice cakes – each with a glacé cherry on the top. When Oliver returned home Jessica handed him his cake which he placed carefully on the table so as not to disturb the cherry. Oliver loves glacé cherries – he would eat a whole jar of them in one sitting if we were foolish enough to let him and so he turned to thank his sister. It was a terrible mistake - he took his eyes off his cake for less than a second and when he turned back the cherry – that had been, only a moment before, gracing the perfectly risen top – had vanished.
The only other living organism in the room was William, who was sat innocently on the other side of the room watching the television.
 “I didn’t do it,” he said.
“Yes you did,” said his brother.
“You’re the only other person in the room,” remarked his sister.
“No, Oliver, don’t you remember telling me that the cherry accidentally fell into your mouth and you had to eat it?”

I don’t know how he did it, but I’ve thought of four options:

1) He moved like lightning across the room, picked up the cherry, ate it and then moved like lightning back across the room to the exact same spot he had been sat before the cherry was introduced,

2) He is secretly a genius and had found a way of overcoming Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,

3) He had taught himself how to be an illusionist and had played a cruel trick on his brother using mirrors that made it look like the cherry had vanished when actually it was still there – thus giving him the opportunity to eat the glacéd red fruit in his own sweet time,
4, and I think this is the most likely) he’s a little shit and should go to acting school.
“Did you eat that cherry?” my wife asked William.
“No, mum,” he replied.
William looked her straight in the eye and with a calm voice that showed no trace of deception or fear, replied, “No mum. I didn’t.”
That’s my boy!