Jez's Blog

The Strange Story of How I Found a New Band

A Salute to My Influences

Celebrating Our Differences

Daring to Use the Four-Letter Word

What Is The Real Olympian Spirit?

Watching The Olympics Opening Ceremony

How Good Service Turned into a Speed Trip

Blurring the Line Between Fact and Fiction

How Creativity Keeps Moving On

How an Artist in the Kitchen Revealed my Inner 'Foody'

Synchronicity - an Everyday Sort of Magic

Does This Make You Laugh?

The Magic of Storytelling

How Good Design Serves the User

Learning to Love Creative Blocks

Creating The CLUB

How a Kiss Missed Its Target at a Posh Do

How Bob Dylan refused the Box labelled ‘Protest Singer’

The ‘Get Back in Your Box’ Syndrome

What’s all the fuss about?

Reflections on Learning and Teaching

The Third in my Triptych of Entries about Thought

Happily disconnected in Cornwall

The Best Way to Sell is to Do Something Well

Life is Good

Zen & the Art of Birdwatching

Blurring the Line Between Fact and Fiction

Apple Mac’s ‘patent on the rectangle’; the world’s first ever ‘crop square’ - I enjoyed this year’s annual crop of April Fool’s jokes but for me none matches the classic ‘Spaghetti Tree’ hoax from 1957. This was the first prank ever shown on the BBC; it was so good that even though it aired two years before I was born, people were still talking about it when I was old enough to appreciate it over a decade later. The story described how the elimination of the ‘spaghetti weevil’ led to a booming pasta crop on the spaghetti trees in Italy. Unbelievably many people wrote in wanting to grow their own spaghetti tree and were told to plant a sprig of spaghetti in some tomato sauce and hope for the best!


Perhaps this hoax worked so well on me because it was the first time I’d ever encountered the idea of April Fool’s jokes. Previously I never knew that adults, even those who published serious newspapers and made TV programmes, could act like children and play jokes on other grown ups. I thought it wonderful that for at least one day every year they were ‘allowed’ to play such pranks.


Because April Fool's jokes are told in such a deadpan way and planted on a page or in a news programme surrounded by ‘real’ stories, our brains can be temporarily tricked into taking artfully constructed fictions as serious facts. Eventually the story starts to strain against credibility; then the artifice gives way as logic reveals the deception. But in real life, as we know, fact is stranger than fiction.


I remember in the seventies when I first heard that women in California were having plastic put into their breasts to make their cleavage bigger. At the time the concept seemed utterly fantastical; surely this was some April Fool’s joke par excellance! These annual hoaxes are a nod to the fact that in real life the dividing line between what is fact and what is fiction is quite elastic. On that point, I would like to share with you a story of my own, but first a bit of background:


When I was a teenager my best friend was a Pakistani boy called Abeed. We had what modern parlance would call a bro-mance; aided by our shared sense of humour we surfed those difficult teenage years together and delighted in exploring new experiences which, at that age, are in plentiful supply. We listened to Brian Eno’s Ambient music whilst trying spliffs. We earned our first ever wage packets together (£25 a week!) working at a part time job producing sachets of dried soup and in true Clapton/ Harrison style we even shared a girlfriend for a while (but that’s another story !)


Abeed was the first of us to get a car (a dark blue Triumph Herald) and to celebrate we decided to go on a road trip. We had no plan of where to go, only the firm conviction that wherever it was and whatever happened would be part of a wonderful shared adventure because when we were together, that’s always how it was.


So picture the scene as, feeling very grown up, Abeed and I set off from the leafy suburb of Surbiton and head north from London up the M1. Oh the youthful carefree excitement of it all! Two hours later as the Triumph Herald thrums around a roundabout somewhere near Birmingham we are still laughing at the delicious spontaneity of it all; a small turn of the wheel to the left meant we would go to Wales, leave it two seconds later and the next exit would take us off to the north of England. With no money for accommodation we know that the North is quite long way away and perhaps a bit impractical. On our second circuit of the roundabout Abeed pulls hard left and we find ourselves on the way to North Wales. We keep driving until the fading light prompts us to stop somewhere; this is how we end up in a little town on the North coast of Wales called Conwy.


We park up on the beachfront and manage to buy some soggy chips (french fries) just before the chip shop closes. As if to illustrate the Emerson maxim ‘Life’s a journey, not a destination’ it becomes apparent that since we had arrived at our destination all the excitement had suddenly drained out of our adventure. There is nothing to do in this sleepy seaside town, people are shuffling out of the pub and before long Abeed and I are the only two people around. Back in Surbiton our romantic plans had been to sleep on a beach under the stars but the idea of lying down on these cold hard Welsh pebbles is unthinkable. We are already freezing cold sitting in the car, whose seats don’t recline enough to allow us to sleep comfortably on them. And so our teenage adventure comes to a rather anticlimactic end overlooking the dark Irish Sea, or so we thought.


 ‘Can you see that?’ asks Abeed in a calm voice. With a slight hint of concern I reply that ‘I can’. I ‘ve been watching something in the sky for a few minutes trying to work out exactly what it is. Hanging there, perhaps a mile out over the inky sea, glows five different coloured lights in a row. Suddenly our trip becomes interesting again. We tick off a checklist of what these mysterious lights couldn’t be; planes (they don’t hover), helicopters (no noise), satellites (too low, not moving) and so it continues until we exhaust all obvious rational explanations. Are we going mad? We have each other’s confirmations of what we are seeing but both of us look around for verification from a neutral bystander. But it is by now around one a.m., no one else is about - it seems to us that the whole of Conwy is asleep.


Things take a dramatic turn when, in unison, the five lights suddenly zoom forwards in our direction. It is a movement that is shocking in its speed and unexpectedness; what else can move like that? In an instant the slightly on edge curiosity we are experiencing turns into panic. I hear myself command Abeed to ‘Start the car’ but by now he is already fumbling for the ignition. Perhaps it is the panic or a growing sense of paranoia but whichever direction we take, the way out of the town somehow eludes us. Just as things seem like they couldn’t get more ‘Spielbergian’ - blessed relief, a sign to the main road appears up ahead. As Abeed hits the gas he keeps calling out ‘Are they still there?’ Yes, they are, as if mocking us they stubbornly remain in my field of vision just as matter of factly as Conwy castle to our left or the road signs which whizz by overhead. In fact the mysterious lights are still there as we are accelerate away down the motorway back in the direction of Birmingham. If only the camera phone had been invented back then, I would have a real image to show you capturing this highlight of our teenage adventure rather than this crude mock up.

I know this may sound like some naff science fiction story, and you are probably waiting for me to deliver the twist which reveals the April Fool element but the twist, or double twist, is that this story is true. This is exactly what happened as observed by myself. I have very rarely told this story in the intervening years, mainly because I found that when I did it brought out people’s prejudices so that rather than a thing of wonder it became an invitation for some people to invent ways to write it off.


What’s my take on what happened that night? To me this is a UFO experience in the original sense of the phrase, in that we saw objects ‘fly’ which were indeed unidentified. Speculating further on what they were is a whole other step which, having exhausted the obvious explanations, I don’t go down. Mysteries, by definition, don’t have answers and that’s fine by me. Someone once said ‘Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.’


I did once go back to Conwy; perhaps twenty years later I was invited to visit a school there. As I was back in the very location where the event happened, I couldn’t help telling the story to my host, who was a librarian. Her response was to look at me as if I’d just told her that every night I have tea with the pixies in my garden. (Perhaps this is your response too?) With some degree of resignation she agreed to look up in her reference library newspaper records to see if there had been any strange sighting around the time of our close(ish) encounter. She was pleased to report that there hadn’t, but it really made no difference to me; I knew what we had seen that night and somehow it was even more special that Abeed and I had been the only ones who saw it.


You might be wondering what happened to Abeed and our friendship? We had one more travelling adventure after Wales; a three-week journey through Pakistan and India. It was a strong trip for both of us and somehow the experience, both metaphorically and physically, pulled us apart; by the last week we split up and travelled alone. The bromance was over but the UFO incident remained like a sacred pact between us, an amazing secret which only we had shared because Abeed had turned that wheel towards Wales and set us on course for our encounter of the unexplained kind. Abeed went on to become a Doctor. I sometimes wonder if, between practicing his scientific skills, he ever thinks about that mysterious night on the beach in Conwy.

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