On Fact Checking

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again : reportage is the lifeblood of Hooting Yard. The reason I say it again is to drum it into your heads. There is a distressing number of readers who seem to believe that I make all of this stuff up. Quite apart from the sheer foolishness of doing so, I am ever mindful of B. S. Johnson’s dictum “Telling stories is telling lies”. And, as Lennox and Stewart put it so cogently, “Would I lie to you?” You need not attempt to answer that now, just read on, mes braves!

To bolster Hooting Yard’s reputation as a respectable space age information provider, I have decided to appoint a Fact Check Team. They will go about their business independently, without fear or favour, digging and rummaging and fossicking where their piercingly-honed instincts take them. If it should so happen that they come upon an instance of inaccuracy or outright lying, I will accept their ruling and remove the offending postage, replacing it with a correction written by the team. I will even so arrange things that the correction appears in big bright red bold capital letters, accompanied perhaps by a skull-and-crossbones symbol such as one sometimes finds on bottles of poison. That should liven things up!

So let me introduce you to the team. There are three members, each of whom graduated, if that is the word I want, from Pang Hill Orphanage. Bim and Bam and Little Nitty each have long experience of the kind of painstaking drudgery necessary to hunt down the facts, although in their case the painstaking drudgery they experienced was sewing mailbags in a dank cellar by the light of a single Toc H lamp. I have always been a great believer in transferable skills.

I am also a great believer in the benefits of fresh air and hiking and long jaunts in the open air. That is why Bim and Bam and Little Nitty will do their fact-checking in “the field” or “on the ground”, out and about. In any case, I do not want them cluttering up my chalet o’ prose and whimpering and eating me out of house and home. They can forage for nuts and berries and fresh puddlewater when they are in the field or on the ground.

In order to decide what the trio should investigate first, I conducted a lightning readers’ poll. “On what topic,” I asked, “can Bim and Bam and Little Nitty cut their chops as a tiptop fact check team?” Typical of the response I received – sorry, I mean to say “responses” plural, because I did ask more than one reader, honestly, cross my heart and hope to ascend in glory to the ethereal realms – was this, from one T. Thurn:

Dear Mr Key,
Last night I lay awake tossing and turning and biting and pummelling my Plumpo!™ pillow, bereft of even a second of shut-eye because I am so desperate to know if the orchard and hotel and squirrels referred to in Alfred Pigtosser’s autobiography I, Alfred Pigtosser actually exist. And if they do, I have supplementary questions, not so much about the squirrels but regarding the orchard and hotel. They can wait, however, until Bim and Bam and Little Nitty have ascertained the brute reality or otherwise of the orchard and the hotel and the squirrels and reported back, exhausted from their hike or jaunt, having cut their chops.
Yours with bated but minty breath,
T. Thurn

I think you would have liked the next scene. “Bim! Bam! Little Nitty!” I called, in my most stentorian boom. They shuffled in, spindly and unkempt and dribbling. Terry-Thomas would have dismissed them as an absolute shower!, but I had every confidence in my fact check team. “Here,” I said, “Take these three partly prepaid bus tickets, go to the bus stop, and wait for a bus. When eventually a bus arrives, board it and take it as far out into the countryside as it goes. Then ring the bell and alight and go in search of the orchard and hotel and squirrels mentioned in Alfred Pigtosser’s autobiography I, Alfred Pigtosser. And don’t get up to any mischief or it’s back to Pang Hill Orphanage with you!”

“Please Mr Key,” whimpered one of them, Bim or Bam or Little Nitty, in a weak thin quavering voice, “How are we to survive in the countryside when we are used to being given a bowl of gruel once a day at grueltime?”

I gave each of them a hefty slap on the back and boomed “Fear not! The Lord will provide! And if He does not, because your prayers are insufficiently abject, then I am sure you will find opportunities to forage for nuts and berries and fresh puddlewater! Now off you go, before I summon the beadle to drag you back to the orphanage!”

The last I saw of them, they were trudging disconsolately to the bus stop. I have no doubt, however, that at this very moment they are far away on some bleak blasted heath or moor, their vitals stimulated by all that unaccustomed fresh air, diligently seeking signs of an orchard and a hotel and some squirrels. As soon as they report back, assuming they can cobble together the bus fares for the return journey, I will let you know. And I will publish their report in full. It will, I am sure, confirm the existence of that orchard and that hotel and those squirrels. Then T. Thurn can fire at me as many supplementary questions as he likes.

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