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A Thursday is a Tuesday with Friday’s lipstick on its collar; less harrowing than Monday, less banal than Wednesday, but still, undeniably, midweek. Thursday is not the sort of day on which one ends up lying to a Sunday Times reporter about mediaeval history, and its connection to the debauchery of Oxford students. It’s just not done. As Thursdays go, it hadn’t looked to amount to much when it began: no portentous telephone calls, no strange-looking parcels with exotic postmarks, and nary a zany escapade in sight. Such, as I had found to my chagrin, was life in what we had only known as After-University. There was still drinking to be done and wackiness to be had, there was just less time in which to do it. And it was still a Thursday. So close to the weekend, and yet so dismally far away. It was a wondrous moment, then, when Sue Reid hove across the horizon, notebook in one hand, sword of fair play in the other (the shield of truth clashed with her eye-liner), looking for the Assassins, one of Oxford’s more exclusive drinking societies, only ever spoken of in hushed tones. Alex Gibson and I were the end of a long and winding trail for Sue: she had come to Oxford looking for the Assassins, and had found almost everything but. She had had thrown the harsh light of day onto the Guild of Assassins (a group of undergraduates who hit each other with socks, and “kill” each other with water pistols), a group so secret that they have a stall at Fresher’s Fair every year. She, apparently, had a mysterious contact named Hugo, a major mover and groover on the party scene of Oxford, who had put her in touch with the Maenads (more on them later), who had put her in touch with us. Two ex-University students with wicked senses of humour, and a good helping of boyish good-looks (well, what’s the point of writing this kind of article without indulging in a little blatant self-promotion), and a frustrated penchant for playacting had been given the opportunity to talk to a national newspaper. This was not an everyday sort of Thursday (of course it wasn’t, even the most drear of people can’t wish for Thursday every day). The day before (Wednesday the 18th of April) Sue had spoken to the Maenads, a female drinking society whose members went under the names of classical goddesses, who also organise large parties each year in and around Oxford. However, this, apparently, was not good enough for our intrepid journalist, she wanted to speak to the Assassins, which was never going to be an easy thing to achieve. So, the only thing to do was to arrange an interview with someone purporting to be an Assassin, but to emphasise that the real story was with the Maenads. With any luck we could ensure that the story was not the usual summer tabloid tale of: “Top Toff Students Take Killer Drugs And Don’t Care Who Foots the Bill: Some of Britain’s brightest and best were last night involved in a wild sex orgy in the Cotswolds, where, just last night, they smoked smack e-balls (known as Zippers) and gulped down huge quantities of crack marijuana!” With any luck.
And so it came to pass that on a Thursday afternoon in April, Alex and I were sitting in a pub in Oxford, making up the most outrageous lies we could. We knew the story she wanted, but had sat down for half an hour and made up a much better one. Or so we thought. We gave her a story with all the elements of a great novel: sex, betrayal and mediaeval warrior monks. We littered it with historical details, tracing the history of the Assassins back to the eighteenth century, linking it with Augustus, duke of Sussex and son of George III, with Charles d’Eyncourt Tennyson, and with Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, who defended Acre in the 1790s. We explained, using facts gleaned from Templar websites, during our short period of preparation, that the society was split into factions: the Templars, the Cathars, and the Hospitallers (this group being subdivided into the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights of Malta). We gave a detailed chronology of the in-fighting between these factions, and the reasons for it over the last few years, and how this had led to the crisis which now existed within the society, and had also led to the predominance of the Maenads. A summary check of any of these details would have led anyone to become suspicious: we had dropped enough dubious historical and masonic lore in to make even the most hardened conspiracy-theorist think we were talking crazy-talk, and advise that we be kept in the softest room in the asylum. There were ridiculous moments galore, in the claims we made for mysterious Scottish castles and our re-enactments of the burning of Jacques de Molay. We couldn’t even really keep our story straight, having problems explaining how if every member’s sons were invited to join, and open invitations were given, the membership numbers had remained constant over two centuries. There were sticky moments, and I’d like to say we handled them with the aplomb of the accomplished liar, but I fear we did not, and when Sue rang us later, to explain that they were delaying publication for a week, we had the horrible image of a researcher at the paper laughing in her face, and killing the story. Back in the interview, we were being pressed for names, she needed these if the story was to hold any water. Could we confirm Tom Parker-Bowles’ membership? Or that of James Archer? Now, neither of us knew much about libel law, but we were both of the opinion that this might count, if someone were feeling litigious, and besides, we didn’t know, so we stayed silent. After all, a secret society should have some secrets, shouldn’t it? And that was that, the deed was done, and we congratulated ourselves on having given her a story with a little more interest than the usual, even if it was ridiculous. Who knew, perhaps on reading something so utterly ridiculous, people might think twice before believing everything they read in the newspapers. The press had exploited the typical story of Oxford debauchery for years, wasn’t it fair that Oxford debauchees could now exploit the press looking for that story?
And in due course (Sunday 9th May, Style section, p.9), the article came out, and it was the same old article, simply emphasising the privilege inherent in an Oxbridge education, and the debauchery that follows. Yawn. The student press then found out about the scam, and ran a piece on it the next week. In the course of their interviews, they telephoned Sue Reid and asked for her reaction. Oh, to have been a fly on that wall… Still, we had the next best thing, she had Alex’s mobile number, and on Monday, 10th May, he got a telephone call. Needless to say, she was “fucking annoyed!”, and was not satisfied with the explanation that she had got her article, and we had got ours. Everyone’s a winner! Let us pause for a moment to consider what a conspiracy is. How many people does it take to make a conspiracy? Is it rather sad when a paper’s only published reaction to their failure to research a story is to blame it on a “deliberate conspiracy” (Jeremy Longmead, editor of the Sunday Times Style magazine, quoted in Cherwell, May 13th, 1999). The fact that, even on learning of the hoax, the paper still seemed unable to believe that we were not real Assassins “It is pretty sad when a drinking club has to make up accounts of its exploits” (as above), well, might one describe it as pretty sa…No, of course one mightn’t. So we sent them a letter, stating our reasons (except for the one about it being a bit of a laugh), and apologising for our cruel duping of one of their finest writers. Turning from trite-con, to contrite, one might say. Which they didn't’publish; admittedly we missed the deadline for their Letters page, but what does one expect from deliberate conspirators of our bent? Instead, they published a front-page story about Tom Parker-Bowles, in which they referred to the Assassins, and used the made-up details of the society that they had published the week before. The Baron became “the baron of the Assassins”. I know nothing about the Assassins, there may very well be a position in the society of that name, but , still, the coincidence is startling. So there it is, the whole sorry tale. One of duplicity, betrayal, and us. Hopefully, someone somewhere knows reads their Sunday paper with a cellar of salt next to them, for pinching purposes. Hopefully, we’ve amused a few people. Hopefully, something even better will happen this Thursday.
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