The late Richard Boston (1938 -2006 ) was an interesting man. He was a columnist for the Guardian,a writer on beer in the early days of Real Ale, the author of Beer and Skittles, a history of the English pub, the biographer of Rabelais’s translator Urquhart, who allegedly died of laughter after hearing that Charles II had been restored to the throne, and the editor of the short-lived magazine The Vole, a pioneering ecological magazine. Boston lived in the same village ( Aldworth ) as Richard Ingrams and was friendly with him. He was also a pal of the artist and writer John Piper ( though Frances Spalding’s biography neglects to mention this fact ) and it was Piper, who may have supported The Vole
financially, who told me that Boston had gone into depression when the magazine had folded. Subsequent to this I asked Boston to contribute an appreciation of Geoffrey Grigson for the festschrift I was preparing for his eightieth birthday in March 1985. Boston seemed happy to comply and his piece was one of the best in the book.
Fast forward to 2002 and on walking in sweltering heat from Streatley station to Aldworth to interview Ingrams for Book and Magazine Collector, I passed Boston’s cottage and thought about knocking on his door to say hello. I didn’t do so, but I regret it now. Boston died just a few years later, a rather forgotten figure by this time. His titles appear occasionally in second-hand bookshops, but one I have never encountered is The C.O. Jones Compendium of Practical Jokes,which luckily cropped up in a pile at Jot HQ the other day. It was published in 1982, which was the year in which my Hertfordshire Shell Guideappeared, and was illustrated by the lovely Posy Simmonds, who was another of my interviewees. But that’s a story for later.
Boston was primarily a humorist. All those who knew him said that he couldn’t be serious for very long and had a particular penchant for practical jokes. Even the title of The C.O. Jones Compendium of Practical Jokescontains a pun on the Spanish word for testicles ( cojones, geddit ?). The running joke in the book is the identity of the mysterious Mr Jones, who remains a mysterious, and distinctly subversive figure—rather like Boston himself— right to the end.
Bringing in Jones to introduce humorous anecdotes is a rather clunky device, but it works. In this way Boston can tell jokes without being blamed for their quality or originality, but much of what he tells us is quite fresh and certainly funny. Your Jotter was particularly amused by the chapter devoted to hoaxes. Naturally he includes the various April Fool jokes that caught out the less bright TV viewers and newspaper readers in the past sixty years –Richard Dimbleby’s ‘ Spaghetti Harvest ‘hoax on the BBC, the Guardian’s San Seriffe report and Capital Radio’s warning that 5 April and 12 April 1980 were cancelled because 48 hours had to be removed to bring Britain into line with the rest of the world in the 24 years that had elapsed since the end of the Second World War by switching to and fro between Greenwich mean Times and British Summer Time. I also liked the report on Radio Leicester that a search was on for the iceberg that sank the ‘Titanic ‘.
Other practical jokes revolved around dubious advice given to naïve tourists ignorant of local practices and the local language. The New Statesman, for instance, had a competition for erroneous advice to be given to foreigners in London—‘ try out the famous echo in the British Museum Reading Room ‘, for instance. Boston knew someone who went to Poland after being taught that the words for ‘excuse me ‘ in Polish are djem majtki. ‘This information is not strictly accurate’, Boston gravely remarked. The words actually mean ‘take off your knickers ‘.‘ It took some time before the tourist realised why he had such a hard time getting on buses in the rush hour.’
Another example of a hoax played on a gullible member of the public involved the TV satirist and presenter David Frost while at Cambridge University with Boston. One day during the Cold War of the late 1950s, Frost rang a local number at random and told the lady who replied that:
‘the GPO in collaboration with the Civil Defence people was carrying out experiments with a view to delivering water by telephone in the eventuality of normal water supplies being contaminated by nuclear fallout. He persuaded her to hold the telephone receiver over a bucket, and then made water-gurgling noises. She replied to his inquiry that no water was coming out. Frost said that they were having problems because there was too much wire at his end. Could she go to the wall at the point where her telephone line began? Now could she give it a tug? He thanked her politely, saying that she had succeeded in taking up the slack. Was there any water in the bucket yet? No, she said, but she thought the receiver was definitely getting damp.’
Another hoax related by Boston involved the invention of a sun-dial which could be used at night. It was the idea of a graphic designer called Fred O’Brien, who sent it to Design magazine who, though told by O’Brien that it was a hoax, went ahead and published it. It was luminous, pocket-sized and relied on an auxiliary light source. ‘Tomorrow’s World’, who suspected a fraud rather than a hoax, also took it up;
‘ They phoned Mr O’Brien and asked how the thing worked. ‘ Photo-synthetic sound’, he replied, adding that the device was going to be manufactured in Japan. He later informed them that the Japan deal had fallen through because the angle of the sun in Japan is three and a half minutes out. ‘
Eventually, an entrepreneur manufactured 150,000 of these sun-dials out of plastic in Hong Kong, despite being told that the whole idea had been a joke. I wonder if anyone in the Jottosphere has one of these plastic sundials. We’d love to know.
To be continued…