Omir the Storyteller

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

About An Innocent Man Has Nothing To Fear


Whenever a list of great hoaxsters and pranksters is compiled, a few names invariably turn up. Alan Abel, the mad genius behind the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals; Hugh Troy, who spent part of World War II traveling ahead of ethnologists studying the lives of South Pacific islanders and bribing children with chocolate bars to tell the ethnologists outrageous and completely spurious native tales; and Horace de Vere Cole.

Cole (1881-1936) was an aristocrat, the brother-in-law of Neville Chamberlain, and a man with a fertile imagination that seemed perfectly tuned to making mischief. Coming across a loitering work crew one day, he directed them into Picadilly Circus and set them about digging a ditch (a feat later duplicated by Hugh Troy in New York). On his honeymoon in Italy, he spent some time on the mainland collecting horse droppings. He later surrepetitiously deposited them on sidewalks in Venice, which of course has canals instead of streets, leaving a puzzled populace to wonder how they had gotten there. (His wife must have been quite a remarkable woman.) And he perpetrated the Dreadnought hoax, where several of his friends (including a young Virginia Woolf) made themselves up as visitors from Abyssinia and were entertained as dignitaries by the Royal Navy.

Today's story is apparently true, and I believe I first heard it in H. Allen Smith's The Compleat Practical Joker. Smith was an admirer of Troy and Cole, and recounted several of their exploits in the book. Lately this particular story has taken on a darker side, though. Maybe it's just paranoia, but when the subject of the Patriot Act comes up, or people talk about you don't have to worry if you haven't done anything wrong, I can't help but think of Horace's friend the MP.

But, I don't want to end Sunday Griot on a downer, so let me offer you this tidbit I found while researching today's story. I'm sure that wherever he was at the time, Cole looked down on the scene with approval and amusement. The story is from the Financial Times by way of Norway's Handelshøyskole:


A fake orchestra joins the parade of phoneys

Wherever there is a gain to be ill got, there have been fakes and forgers. Yet, it is difficult not to hold a degree of sneaking admiration when an entire orchestra of impostors pulls off a grand deception. Last month ten thousand music lovers in Hong Kong paid to see performances by the illustrious Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. The critics scribbled and the multitudes applauded. No one suspected anything amiss until it was discovered that the real Moscow Philharmonic was actually on a tour of France and Spain at the time.

Attempts are being made to identify the mystery music-makers. The Moscow Philharmonic has made it clear that it does not field a “B” team. Nor was this an upmarket edition of the TV series Stars in your Eyes, featuring an entire orchestra impersonating their favourite performers. Pop music generates its fair share of “tribute bands” hamming up the tunes of groups who are now far too grand – or defunct – to do the circuit of student balls and solicitors’ discotheques. But the Hong Kong farrago is a first for the classical world.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery. It also attracts more than its fair share of eccentrics willing to take their chances. For the breadth of his repertoire, the overall prize for gall should surely go to Britain’s master hoaxer, Horace de Vere Cole. Donning workman’s overalls, this highly improbable brother-in-law of Neville Chamberlain chose to dig an enormous crater in the middle of Piccadilly.

He even enjoyed a bit of friendly workman’s banter with unsuspecting passing policemen as he went about blocking the busy thoroughfare.

These days, such deceptions often have a less innocent intent. The real Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra has a right to feel aggrieved that its reputation has been tarnished by those taking its name in vain so shamelessly. But Hong Kong cognoscenti now demanding their money back ought to know when to keep quiet – they were loud enough when they applauded the bogus band to the rafters.
Thank you all for visiting today! As always, cheers to all of you, and happy stories until we meet again.


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