Like many journalists of a certain age (ie old) I once kept cuttings of amusing or weird news stories.
Explanation for younger readers: before the internet, news in newspapers that was thrown away was lost for ever. There was no searching on Google for that interesting snippet and anyone interested in news used to cut stories out and keep them.
I recently came across my scrapbook and rather quaint it looked, though it showed how news — and what is news — has changed over the decades.
Before the advent of YouTube and social media, news gathering was efficient but couldn’t hope to cover the world in the same way as now.
A chap in rural China who came across a gibbon arm-wrestling a beaver could have it filmed and on YouTube before you could say “internet hoax”. Thirty or 40 years ago, with no smart phone to film it and internet to share it, he’d be the man no-one believed with his outlandish tale.
Today, the news can be much weirder, and that’s before we get onto celebrity “news”, where a young woman called Kardashian is apparently famous because she has a big bottom. That is weirder than anything in my scrapbook.
Some news stories would today be deemed as just too dull. For example: “A man who knocked on doors in Sydney suburbs and announced, falsely, that he had been paid to do a striptease act was anything but an Adonis, said a police spokeswoman.” Really?
“A nomadic goatherd has qualified for the Government-backed £40 a week enterprise allowance.” Slightly amusing but no Kardashian.
Some stories would still make the news today, like the unemployed man who tried to hold up a shop armed with a wooden fish wrapped in a carrier bag (the Crown court was told the raid was carried out with “crass ineptitude”) or the burglar identified because of the tattoo on his forehead saying “Head Banger Henry”.
Other stories show the age of the cuttings.
The vicar who was fascinated by an ancient stone in his churchyard bearing the mysterious inscription HWP would not have spent eight years combing parish records, he’d just have Googled it and discovered it stood for hot water pipe.
A story about two gunmen who robbed Barclays Bank in Harrow Weald might have been reported for the £3,000 they stole but not humorously, as it was then, for their getaway car — Skoda is now owned by VW and perfectly respectable.
Most anachronistic: a story about Barclays’ new “supersmart word processors”. The machines had a 42,000-word vocabulary (wow!) but did not include the word “Barclays”, which meant that the company’s name was automatically corrected to “broccoli”.
Equally dated was a story about The Cornish Times, whose pages fell off the back of a train after being despatched from Liskeard to printers in Falmouth, and were run over by another train. This was back when we sent physical items to printers, and not PDF files.
Of course, news values have also changed.
A story about 15 mourners dying at a funeral in Nigeria after eating the dead man’s dog would possibly be seen in bad taste today, or at least not be reported as funny.
A woman who provoked a riot outside the US Embassy in London by showing her thighs to Muslim women demonstrating against US military action in Somalia would not have been bound over — today she’d be charged with inciting racial hatred (a policeman was stabbed and another knocked unconscious in the ensuing riot) and would also have circulated for ever on Facebook, while the Mail Online would have posted 28 photos of her thighs.
Similarly, if the newly-privatised Royal Mail franked get well cards for a 71-year-old with an undertaker’s advertisement (three times) it would today be a page lead about the callousness of the private sector, not a one-paragraph funny.
The Russian soldiers who sold their tank to a pub owner for two cases of vodka would still be news. Then they were Soviets, now they’d be used to mock Mr Putin. The soldiers and the publican would probably disappear as rapidly in 2015 as they did in 1980, too.
Talking of on-line: a number of stories would still be funny but would be used as click bait, those highly annoying headlines that try and tempt browsers to click on a link and generate traffic to a website.
Thus the man from Norfolk, who saved small change in a milk churn for 25 years and bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle, would be “He Saved Small Change For 25 Years And What He Bought Will Astound You!”
Similarly the chap who borrowed a book called How to Save Money from a local library and never returned it, resulting in a £500 fine, or the poor chap who reversed over his dog, Jacko, realised what had happened and drove forwards, only to run over his cat, Oliver.
Of the rest: you’ve got to feel sorry for the Pennsylvanian man trapped while felling timber. He used a pocket knife to hack his leg off below the knee, then crawled 60 yards and drove two miles to seek help. A couple of decades later he’d have been a Hollywood script.
Bird stories are still popular, so the rare yellow-browed warbler that flew thousands of miles from Siberia to South Tyneside only to be eaten by a sparrowhawk and the rare barred warbler that flew to Essex to be eaten by a cat would still be news; it’s not the death but that fact that it always happens in front of excited “twitchers” that makes it funny. Similarly, the woman who spent two days organising the rescue of an eagle owl, only to discover it was a plastic one put there to scare starlings.
Then of course there are the deliberate hoaxes.
One cutting — a word search in which a trainee thought he could hide a rude word — is unprintable.
But the hoax pulled on the Times is still funny: “Rexshun. On August 31st in Chicago, to Harry and Dolly. A son, Hugh Gee.”