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Thursdays, of course, aren’t meant to go like that. It’s not normal.

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

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 play-
acting 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.