March 4th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

So, what do you for a follow up? (continued)

It was 1975, a year when according to a reliable source (a tabloid journalist who'd just come back from the pub) ten per cent of the Western World were actively trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records. The other ninety per cent presumably either reading about the other ten's exploits or still recovering from their own failed attempts to hold their breath the longest, drink the most coffee in an hour or eat prodigious numbers of dry biscuits without taking the merest sip of liquid.

Frightening stuff. And in 1975 the most newsworthy of all these Guinness categories was the record for being buried alive the longest. You couldn't get away from it. Every week someone was having a go. The papers were full of it.

No one knew who started the craze - some renegade branch of Cataleptics Anonymous perhaps - but it caught the imagination of an increasingly sedentary public. Here was a something that a couch potato could excel at - lying down for weeks on end. And become famous too!

All you needed was a box, a breathing tube, a feeding tube and six foot of soil. And, let's face it, either extraordinary bladder and intestinal control or a knack for building en suite facilities in restricted spaces.

Now my woodworking skills in 1975 were immeasurable - as in undetectable even under laboratory conditions. I was once given the task of making a pencil box at school and was still planing my first, and by then wafer thin, piece of wood when everyone else had finished. So, with bladder control out of the question as well, that only left one option...

Astral projection. Or, in other words, a hoax. After all, what did anyone see at the surface of these record attempts? Answer: two tubes poking out of a patch of disturbed earth. And a group of supporters.

So, first port of call was the police. Big smiles and yes, it's me again - remember last year? The revolution? The odd outbreak of hand to hand fighting on the outskirts of Truro. You do? Well, this year I want to bury someone in a flowerbed.

There is probably a language - conjugated by a race of stoics - that has sixty words for silence. The strongest one would just about describe the reception my words met at the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary HQ.

"You want to bury someone?"

"In a flower bed?"

"It's only a small flowerbed," I hastened to add. "And there's not actually going to be anyone in there. But I'd like you to pretend there was."

If there'd been sixty words for relief - about forty of them would have been fluttering between the ears of the man on the other side of the desk. No problem. He'd pass the message along.

So, me, Burke, Hare and a handful of accomplices gathered at the most prominent flowerbed in the centre of Plymouth. A circular raised bed in a paved shopping area just by Tesco and C&A. The busiest part of the city. It was 3 a.m. and we had our tubes, shovels and placards.

We dug. We landscaped. We arranged the tubes. And our mythical hero - Arny Saknussmen, a student from the Jules Verne Geology department, was interred six leagues under.

Then the publicity started. Flyers, posters, placards, megaphones. Give generously to charity and support the brave student as he attempts the record. Volunteers manned the flowerbed and kept him company.

Not everyone believed he was down there but the majority appeared to. Even when we tied a string around a Cornish pasty and lowered it down the feeding tube. Even when the pasty came back up unnibbled. "He's not hungry," I said. "I expect he's worried about what happens if he eats too much." Enough said. Knowing nods. Who wouldn't starve if the other option was ... well, the other option.

I thought we'd be able to keep the stunt going a day, maybe two, before people twigged. Shakes head - never underestimate the gullibility of humans.

It went on for days. Road sweepers read him stories in the early morning. Volunteers sat up all night to keep him company. Even when people commented, 'he doesn't talk much, does he?' I managed to counter with: 'He never did. It's probably why he volunteered.'

After six days the stunt came to a spectacular end. A group of men coming out of a pub late at night decided to investigate the flowerbed. As they tugged at the tubes, concerned passers-by rang the police. 'They're killing him,' they shouted. 'He's down there without air!'

The police responded in a measured way (think of a language with sixty words for measured and add some) Obviously the fact that the burial was a hoax hadn't got through to every member of the force. The boys in blue descended upon the flowerbed and took it apart, convinced that Arny had to be down there somewhere. And how deep is six leagues.

I arrived the next morning to find a minor spoil heap where once there had been flowers. And a tunnel that, if it didn't go all the way to the centre of the Earth, could only have missed by a few feet.