The Book of Heroic Failures
Stephen Pile’s The Book of Heroic Failures (first published 1979) must be one of the greatest books ever written. Too many books have been written in praise of competence; this book provides an antidote by celebrating failure as only a British author can. Starting with a declaration that “Success is overrated”, it proceeds to chronicle, lovingly, miscellaneous tales from the ages. There is no description I can write that would be a substitute for quoting from the book at length:
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL ANIMAL RESCUE
The firemen’s strike of 1978 made possible one of the great animal rescue attempts of all time. Valiantly, the British Army had taken over emergency firefighting and on 14 January they were called out by an elderly lady in South London to retrieve her cat which had become trapped up a tree. They arrived with impressive haste and soon discharged their duty. So grateful was the lady that she invited them all in for tea. Driving off later, with fond farewells completed, they ran over the cat and killed it.
THE LEAST ACCURATELY LABELLED MUSEUM EXHIBIT
A first-class example of inaccurate labelling was discovered in October 1971 in County Durham. The object was exhibited in a South Shields museum as a Roman sestertius coin, minted between AD 135 and AD 138. However, Miss Fiona Gordon, aged 9, pointed out that it was, in fact, a plastic token given away free by a soft drinks firm in exchange for bottle labels. The dating was, in her view, almost 2,000 years out.
When challenged to provide evidence, she said: ‘I knew because the firm’s trademark was printed on the back.’
A spokesman for the Roman Fort museum said: ‘The token was designed as a Roman replica. The trouble was that we construed the letter “R” on the coin to mean “Roma”. In fact it stood for “Robinsons”, the soft drink manufacturers.’
THE MOST POINTLESS RADIO INTERVIEW
One of Britain’s most popular radio programmes is ‘Desert Island Discs’ in which a celebrity is asked to imagine that, for unspecified reasons, he is trapped on a desert island with his eight favourite records.
In the early 1970s the programme’s presenter, Roy Plomley was keen to get the novelist Alistair Maclean on to his programme. As a writer of adventure stories, it was felt he might fit the role of a castaway and give a gripping broadcast.
This was soon arranged, despite Maclean’s known reluctance to give interviews.
Mr Plomley arranged to meet him for lunch at the Savile Club in London. They got on extremely well.
During lunch Mr Plomley asked, ‘Which part of the year do you put aside for your writing?’
‘Writing?’ said Maclean.
‘Yes – your books – Guns of Navarone.‘
‘I’m not Alistair Maclean, the writer.’
‘No. I’m in charge of the Ontario Tourist Bureau.’
With no alternative, the two set off for the studio. During the recording an increasingly agitated producer urged: ‘Ask him about his books.’ ‘He hasn’t written any,’ replied the broadcaster.
The programme was never broadcast.
THE WORST COMPUTER
It is widely suggested that computers improve efficiency. Lovers of vintage chaos might remember the computer installed in 1975 by Avon County Council to pay staff wages.
The computer’s spree started off in a small way, paying a school caretaker £75 an hour instead of 75 pence. Then it got ambitious and did not pay a canteen worker at all for seven weeks.
Before long it got positively confident and paid a janitor £2,600 for a week’s work. He sent the cheque back and received another for the same amount by return of post.
There was now no stopping it. A deputy headmistress received her year’s annual salary once a month; heads of department earned less than their assistants, and some people had more tax deducted in a week than they earned all year.
In February 1975 two hundred and eighty employees on the Council payroll attended a protest meeting. Of these, only eight had been paid the correct salary. They all went on strike.
The makers of Forklift Driver Klaus probably did not know of this real-life precursor:
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL SAFETY FILM
In 1976 the British Aircraft Corporation showed a film on the dangers of not wearing protective goggles to employees at its Preston factory. It was so horrific that thirteen employees had to be helped out by workmates and State Registered Nurses.
One scene was so realistic that a welder fell off his chair in fright and had to have seven stitches. During the same scene another worker fainted and had to be carried out. In one full-colour close-up a group of machine minders had to be led out feeling sick and faint.
The divisional safety officer, Mr Ron Hesketh, said the film was being withdrawn because it was not safe. ‘We are very keen to get over the point of eye protection,’ he said, ‘but at this point in time we have decided not to take any chances. We seem to have had at least one person keeling over on every course during the safety campaign.’
THE WORST TOURIST
The least successful tourist on record is Mr Nicholas Scotti of San Francisco. In 1977 he flew from America to his native Italy to visit relatives.
En route the plane made a one-hour fuel stop at Kennedy Airport. Thinking that he had arrived, Mr Scotti got out and spent two days in New York believing he was in Rome.
When his nephews were not there to meet him, Mr Scotti assumed they had been delayed in the heavy Roman traffic mentioned in their letters. While tracking down their address, the great traveller could not help noticing that modernization had brushed aside most, if not all, of the ancient city’s landmarks.
He also noticed that many people spoke English with a distinct American accent. However, he just assumed that Americans got everywhere. Furthermore, he assumed it was for their benefit that so many street signs were written in English.
Mr Scotti spoke very little English himself and next asked a policeman (in Italian) the way to the bus depot. As chance would have it, the policeman came from Naples and replied fluently in the same tongue.
After twelve hours travelling round on a bus, the driver handed him over to a second policeman. There followed a brief argument in which Mr Scotti expressed amazement at the Rome police force employing someone who did not speak his own language.
Scotti’s brilliance is seen in the fact that even when told he was in New York, he refused to believe it.
To get him on a plane back to San Francisco, he was raced to the airport in a police car with sirens screaming. ‘See,’ said Scotti to his interpreter, ‘I know I’m in Italy. That’s how they drive.’
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL LION
In 1970 a lion escaped from a circus in Italy. Typically, it found a small boy and started to chase him. Less typically the small boy’s mother turned on the lion and badly mauled it. The animal suffered severe head and skin wounds, and received treatment for shock.
THE MOST UNSUCCESSFUL RELIGIOUS PROCESSION
At the end of the sixteenth century regular processions were organized around Hereford Cathedral to mark holy occasions. Before one such, the Dean of Hereford, Dr Price decided that in view of his own importance he would not, as before, walk on foot with the ruck of lowlier canons. He would instead ride on horseback so that he might be more easily seen reading from his prayer book. The proud cleric mounted his mare, opened his book and took to the streets.
His reading was at an early stage when a stallion broke loose, saw his mare and mounted her.
The dean was trapped, read practically nothing and swore he would never ride in a procession again.
THE LEAST PROFITABLE ROBBERY
Intending to steal cash from a supermarket in 1977, a Southampton thief employed a unique tactic to divert the till girl’s attention. His method was to collect a trolley full of goods, arrive at her till and put down £10 by way of payment. She would then take the money and open the till, upon which he would snatch the contents.
He arrived at the cash desk and put down the £10. She took it and opened the till; but there was only £4.37 in it.
Undeterred, the Southampton thief snatched that and made his getaway, having lost £5.63 on the raid.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL POLICE DOGS
America has a very strong candidate in ‘La Dur’, a fearsome looking schnauzer hound, who was retired from the Orlando police force in Florida in 1978. He consistently refused to do anything which might ruffle or offend the criminal classes.
His handling officer, Rick Grim, had to admit: ‘He just won’t go up and bite them. I got sick and tired of doing that dog’s work for him.’
The British contenders in this category, however, took things a stage further. ‘Laddie’ and ‘Boy’ were trained as detector dogs for drug raids. Their employment was terminated following a raid in the Midlands in 1967. While the investigating officer questioned two suspects, they patted and stroked the dogs who eventually fell asleep in front of the fire. When the officer moved to arrest the suspects, one dog growled at him while the other leapt up and bit his thigh.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL EXHIBITION
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents held an exhibition at Harrogate in 1968. The entire display fell down.
Times have changed so that this next one is no longer worthy of comment:
THE LEAST PERCEPTIVE ARTISTIC JUDGMENT
In the appreciation of modern art openmindedness is an essential quality. None have displayed it more than the hundred Frankfurt art lovers who accepted an invitation in spring 1978 to an exhibition of works by an ‘exciting’ new artist, Yamasaki – ‘the discovery of the year’. The catalogue drew their attention to the ‘convincing luminosity of his colours’ and ‘the excitement of his powerfully dynamic brushwork’. Within three hours all twenty-two exhibits had been bought for up to £500 each.
Excitement increased when the organiser, Mr Behrend Feddersen, announced that the artist would be making a guest appearance to answer questions about his work. How rewarding that the openmindedness of these art lovers was vindicated when a chimpanzee was brought in. ‘I encouraged him to throw paint on 22 canvases,’ said Mr Feddersen, and announced that the proceeds of the exhibition would be donated ‘to the circus where he works.’
THE SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT THE SECOND WORLD WAR FOR LONGEST
Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Japanese army fought the Second World War until 3 p.m. on 10 March 1974, despite the continued absence of armed opposition in the later years. He used to come out of the jungle on his remote island in the Philippines and fire the odd bullet on behalf of Emperor Hirohito. In 1945 ‘come home’ letters were dropped from the air but he ignored them believing it was just a Yankee trick to make him surrender. After he was found in 1974 it took six months to finally convince him that the war really was over.
But even after this surrender the Second World War still continued on the Island of Morotai where Private Teruo Nakamura maintained unbending resistance to the Allied Forces. This Indonesian island was finally liberated nine months later in December 1974.
THE WORST HIJACKERS
We shall never know the identity of the man who in 1976 made the most unsuccessful hijack attempt ever. On a flight across America, he rose from his seat, drew a gun and took the stewardess hostage.
Take me to Detroit,’ he said. ‘We’re already going to Detroit,’ she replied. ‘Oh . . . good,’ he said, and sat down again.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL COUP
In 1964 a fascist coup was organized in Rome. Gathering on the outskirts of the city, the right wingers planned a stampede to the centre prior to overthrowing the government.
However, the majority were not from Rome itself and so the bulk of the stampede got lost in the back streets.
Five years after the coup, the authorities discovered that it had taken place and set up a commission to investigate it.
THE BURGLAR WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS VICTIM
One of the great romantic encounters occurred in November 1978 between a Streatham burglar and a blonde lady into whose house he had broken.
As soon as he saw the lady he changed his tack entirely, choosing this, of all unlikely moments, to woo her.
After thirty minutes he was getting on so famously that he tried to kiss her. To his horror, she not only refused, but also felled him with a right-hand punch, a left-hand jab and a half-nelson.
In this state she frogmarched him to the porter’s lodge, while hitting him on the head with a spare shoe.
‘She was no ordinary helpless female,’ the burglar commented, on discovering that prior to a sex change she had been employed as a bricklayer.
THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL PORNOGRAPHIC BOOKSELLER
In February 1970 a Swiss pornographic bookseller was fined the equivalent of £47 and given a ten-month suspended sentence because his books were not sufficiently pornographic.
Angry residents of Biel took him to court because his wares were not as ‘sexually erotic’ as his advertising campaign had led them to believe. At the hearing many of them expressed the view that had they been interested in veils, curtains, cushions and household plants they would have bought a furnishing catalogue.
Fredrick Augustus was Elector of Saxony and later King of Poland. When he died in 1699, his household records revealed that he had produced only one child in wedlock. It was called Maurice. However the records also showed that Augustus’ marital devotion occasionally faltered. He was also responsible for 345 illegitimate children.