I like Wikipedia. Once you accept that it’s not a remotely reliable source to use for essay citations, you can have a lot of fun with it. And 80%, maybe 90% of what is on there is probably verifiable fact. But it’s the opportunity it affords for creative vandalism that really warms the soul. The handful of edits I have personally made to Wikipedia pages have been wholly at the service of truth, but sometimes I wonder what I might achieve if I just let my imagination run free.
The first time I noticed vandalism on Wikipedia was on a visit a few years ago to the Richard Nixon page, where I observed with some amusement that the caption accompanying his photo read ‘President Fuckhead Nixon’. Little did I think at the time that a minor alteration like this could be magnified several times over.
The field of light entertainment appears to be a popular target for vandals, and the more mundane the subject of the entry the better. At the time of writing, the entry for Clive Dunn suggests the beloved comic actor nearly died in infancy during an operation to remove a third nipple. I offer my wholehearted apologies to Dunn if this is a fact, but judicious googling suggests that it is not. A small detail like this can snowball into something big. In 2007 a number of national newspapers stated in obituaries that Ronnie Hazlehurst, the master of the comedy theme tune, had composed S Club 7’s abysmal but catchy 2000 hit single ‘Reach’. They later issued retractions.
This is authentic Hazlehurst.
Of all the vandalised Wikipedia entries for celebrities, though, John Virgo occupies my top spot. Virgo is a snooker player turned commentator. How to distil the essence of the man? This is from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:
Even among men lacking distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed with how unimpressive he was.
I have a curious and inexplicable affection for Virgo, but it’s hard to deny that he possesses the capability of making Steve Davis look like Socrates. Virgo used to specialise in trick shots and ‘hilarious’ impressions of other players, and since entering the commentary box he has added the ‘humorous’ catchphrase to his quiver. ‘Where’s the cue ball going? WHERE’S THE CUE BALL GOING?’ he will cry whenever it moves within six inches of a pocket.
This edit of his Wikipedia entry, dating from around the time of this year’s World Championship, contains a lengthy section, since excised entirely, devoted to Virgo’s catchphrases, which superbly combines the accurate, the false but credible, and occasionally the outrageous and/or sexually suggestive. The attention to detail more than anything is what impresses me. A selection:
“It’s all about the in-play.”
“That wiped its feet.” (when a ball rattles in the jaws, before going in)
“That’s one of his five-a-day.” (when someone pots the green)
“Is he having a laugh? Are you having a laugh?” (when Joe Swail misses an easy yellow)
“Peasants, pigs and astronauts!” (when the cue ball splits the pack of reds after hitting the blue)
“Well, roger me sideways and call me Mr. Bent-Back Tallywhacker.” (When a player goes in off the blue)
“Pot as many balls as you can.” (when Michaela Tabb enters the arena)
“There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
Even the user who took it upon himself to remove the vandalism stated his admiration for the perpetrator at the time.
But the most audacious vandalism I have come across recently concerns the entry for Frome (pop. 30,000 approx.), the Somerset market town where I grew up (which, in spite of the claims of the article, has never been referred to by anyone as “Europe’s new funky-town” or “the good-time capital of England”).
The edited page begins unassumingly, with a skim-read revealing no glaring inaccuracies. I have no idea, for instance, whether “The predominant wind direction is from the south west” or not, but it sounds as likely as not. Gradually, the lies begin to creep in. The paragraph in which things start to go off track may be this one:
The older parts of Frome – for example, around Sheppard’s Barton and Catherine Hill – are picturesque, containing an outstanding collection of late 17th and 18th century small houses. The Trinity area, which was built in the latter half of the 17th century and first half of the 18th century, is a fine (and rare) example of early industrial housing. Over 300 houses were built between 1660 and 1756 in a very unusual early example of a planned grid-pattern. Town landmarks include the Frome Archaeological Museum, exhibiting the Gold of Somerset, the Roman Baths, the Park Museum, the Naval Museum in the Villa Assareto displaying the museum ship Drazki torpedo boat, the Museum of Ethnography in an Elizabethen-period [sic] compound featuring the life of local urban dwellers, fisherfolk, and peasants in the late 19th and early 20th century.
From this point onwards the article amalgamates information about Frome with the entry for the Bulgarian Black Sea resort of Varna, incorporating some original flights of fancy. Perhaps the best part of all is this:
Two old mosques (one is open) have survived since Victorian times, when there were 18 of them in town, as have two once stately but now dilapidated synagogues, a Sephardic and an Ashkenazic one, the latter in Gothic style (it is undergoing restoration). A new mosque was recently added in the southern Asparuhovo district serving the adjacent Muslim Roma neighborhood.
I can’t begin to catalogue the inaccuracies contained in the paragraph above. This intrusion of the exotic into rural Somerset is ingenious. There is such an embarrassment of riches elsewhere that I can’t reasonably quote everything I would like to. “The National Revival Alley is decorated with bronze monuments to prominent locals and the Cosmonauts’ Alley contains trees planted by Yuri Gagarin and other French and Italian cosmonauts … Like other Somerset towns, Frome has its share of stray dogs, for the most part calm and friendly, flashing orange clips on the ears showing they have been castrated and vaccinated.” It’s worth a browse. The inclusion of pictures from the article on Varna is an inspired touch. There is no “Art Nouveau mansion on Prince Boris I Boulevard” in Frome.
There is a website where the formulation of fictitious encyclopaedia entries is encouraged. It is called Uncyclopedia and is a haven for the pathologically mendacious. Here you can learn, for instance, that Richard Littlejohn “donated half of the royalties from sales of his book To Hell In A Handcart to the Islamist terrorist group Hezbollah. This enabled Hezbollah to buy an extra pencil. However, it was a cheap pencil and the lead snapped in half.” (And that is the last time Littlejohn will ever be mentioned on these pages by me. You have my word of honour.) A lot of this is impressive in its way, but reading nothing other than what Stephen Fry might call a tissue of farragoes or a catalogue of litanies can be tiresome. It’s more fun, I think, to find that a piece which is generally accurate – moreover, meant to be accurate – contains a handful of cheeky falsehoods.