(first published in Idle Ink, 22nd April 2019)
It happened this way. I’m a criminologist with research interests in white-collar crime and for the last few months I’ve been working on a new project – internet fraud. You know the sort of thing: you get an email from an Arnaud Sansculottes, ex-financial advisor to the ex-President of Haiti, soliciting your good offices in moving a $9.5 million secret fund from Port-au-Prince to your bank in Dunblane. You delete it with a sigh. Secretly, you’d love to correspond with Arnaud: you picture him with a pencil moustache, a double-breasted suit with padded shoulders, shiny two-tone shoes and a fat cigar; he has a lady-friend called Angelique, to whom he is devoted, and a large dog called Chichi; he is very knowledgeable – and opinionated – about air-conditioning. Well, I get to correspond with Arnaud. Not bad eh?
So, I get into the office just after nine (okay, nine thirty) on the Monday. My PC, with the spam filters off, has a couple of hundred new emails. I scan the list, looking for familiar names. My current favourite correspondent is Desiree Agnela Soyinke, nineteen year-old daughter and heir of a deceased former Nigerian Defence Minister: Desiree is in a bit of jam, but if I can lend her fifteen hundred quid, she can engage a lawyer who can secure her inheritance, enabling her to fly gratefully into my waiting arms at Heathrow. It seems Desiree’s had a pretty tough weekend. There are three emails from her. The last one expresses her agony of mind over whether or not I am her true friend after all. I print it off and put it in the ‘true friend query’ folder, the thirteenth email I’ve been able to file in this way. I send off my standard ‘true friend query’ reply and add a postscript repeating my previous request for more details of the services her lawyer can offer.
The only other familiar name is a correspondent in Costa Rica who is in a position to offer me a share in a lucrative investment opportunity. That one is quickly dealt with and I’m onto the unfamiliar addresses; this is where it gets tricky – sorting out the sheep from the former goats. For instance, take a mail offering for sale a wee device for obliterating nasal hair and hairy lug-holes: a fraud or ‘a ground-breaking advance in male grooming’? I have to be pretty quick with my decisions because the spam is still pinging in. About eighty emails later, I come across one entitled ‘Can you assist?’ from‘TommyFez1@gmail.com’. It’s probably best if I just copy the whole thing:
From: Tommy Cooper [TommyFez1@gmail.com]
To: William Anderson [AndersonW@stirling.ac.uk]
Dear Mr Anderson,
Please forgive this enquiry ‘out of the blue’. Signor Virgil, an eyetie chappie who acts as a sort of Information Officer around the place, suggested your name. The signor is a bit odd in some ways (wears some dead leaves on his head, for one thing), but I find he’s generally on the money in the Advice Department. Anyway, the signor says you’ve switched off your ‘spam filters’ (whatever that means) and so my email won’t get ‘blocked’.
I’ve been trying to contact a few people for a while and apparently these spam filters have prevented any of my emails getting through. That explains a lot. I wasn’t really expecting much from that Philip Hammond, but I did think that the Queen might reply – we had a good laugh about her unwanted Cup Final tickets at the Royal Variety Performance.
So I was hoping that you might help me sort out a few things, right a few wrongs, kick a few arses, etc? Do let me know if you’re willing to pull the old rabbit out of the hat.
Some grand courses in your neck of the woods, I remember. Ever played over at Dollar? Very tricky blind second hole.
I read it twice. Any Nigerian fraudster who knew that Tommy Cooper had once asked the Queen for her Cup Final tickets was clearly unusually well informed. I guessed it was a hoax email from my old mate in Modern Languages, Joe McCarthy: he and I exchange puerile home-made jokes and this email seemed to carry Joe’s hallmark.
Coincidentally, a few minutes later, Joe put his head round my office door: ‘Lunch?’
Digging through the pockets of my jacket, hanging on the back of my chair, I muttered: ‘Hang on, Tommy. Just searching for my wallet.’
Joe stared: ‘Ok, but why the “Tommy”?’
I stared in return: Joe’s innocence seemed obvious. I hesitated – it contravened research subject anonymity – but I showed him the Tommyfez1 email. He read it over my shoulder. I said: ‘God knows what this “dead leaves on his head” stuff is all about.’
‘Plain to see that you never had a classical education, Bill, you numpty. The Roman poet, Virgil, guided Dante on his descent into Hell. Virgil’s usually depicted with a wreath of laurel leaves around his brows.’
By the time we were sat down in Dog’s Breath Central (aka The Staff Dining Room), Joe had convinced me that the only possible TommyFez1 was some wily fraudster. After lunch, I re-read the email. I then googled the Dollar Golf Club: the second hole did indeed have the reputation of being the trickiest on the course. Further googling turned up a number of Tommy Cooper golf jokes and also, of course, that Tommy had died in 1984. I stared again at the email. There was no request for money or bank details, but fraudsters frequently make no mention of money in their initial contact email. I didn’t know what else to do, so I sent my standard cautious researcher’s reply:
From: William Anderson [AndersonW@stirling.ac.uk]
To: Tommy Cooper [TommyFez1@gmail.com]
Thank you for your recent email. In what way were you hoping that I could help you? Could you be more specific?
After I’d sent the email to TommyFez1, I got to work scanning the rest of the inbox spam, but I couldn’t concentrate. As always when I’m fretting, I set out for a walk. A wonderful hill, Dumyat, is only a couple of miles from my office and, in dry weather, a pair of trainers will suffice to get you to the top. With the wind whipping my hair, an uplifted skylark above me, and the mighty meanders of the River Forth at my feet, I suddenly felt a lot better. I was standing in the remains of an old hill fort and I reflected that if I could face with indifference the bloody ghosts that might haunt these old fortifications, then I had little to fear from the shade of Tommy Cooper. I headed back.
When I returned, I found that a dozen new emails had pinged in. Nothing from TommyFez1. I buckled down to clear the inbox backlog: I make it a rule never to leave the office for the day with unopened emails. Desiree had replied: it seemed that her lawyer needed his big fee because he had to provide a ‘gift’ to a gentleman in the Probate Department; Desiree bemoaned the fact that there were so many dishonest people in her beautiful country. Joe McCarthy had sent a puerile joke about King Arthur and Merlin at the annual Camelot peat-cutting competition. Strawberry Fields Forever had emailed to say that my clogs had been dispatched (I know, I know, but I find them really comfortable). There were more details about the Costa Rican investment opportunity – an eco-tourism hotel. It was quarter past seven and I was just about to log off, when TommyFez1 pinged in.
I won’t reproduce Tommy’s email here. For one thing, it ran to twenty-one printed pages, with sixty-seven pages of technical annexes. Tommy had a long list of practical proposals ‘to make things a bit more cheerful’ (his phrase). They included a mix of local, national and international initiatives. Gwent Council in Wales should refuse permission for a supermarket on the Abergavenny Cattle Market site unless the developers included provision for a cinema. No more wind-farms in Scotland: instead, there should be a massive new hydro-electric scheme programme. Graduated VAT: all private purchases over £15,000 (except house purchases) should carry 50% VAT. And so on. Some proposals were a little quirky: dating agencies were to be nationalised and run as a social service by Council social work departments – ‘everybody should have somebody to love’, Tommy wrote. Some proposals went right over my head: balance-of-payments deficits were to be eliminated by floating exchange rates; and the UN’s International Maritime Organisation should take responsibility for ship inspections. It seemed Tommy had received some help: the technical paper on floating exchange rates was written by a JM Keynes, and the one on hydro-electric schemes by a retired Scottish civil engineer. I printed the whole thing off and then headed for the chip shop.
I pondered as I stood in the chip shop queue. As far as I could judge, Tommy’s proposals seemed eminently sensible. But his email carried no hint of how I was to bring them into being. I couldn’t think what I could do with them, aside from taking them to my MP/MSP. If that proved inadequate, would that provoke The Wrath of the Netherworld? I didn’t fear being haunted for the rest of my life by a tall man in a fez, muttering ‘Not like that, like this.’ But I didn’t relish it either. And neither did I fancy posing as a one-man social policy think-tank. I was so wrapped up in these ponderings that I forgot to stop the woman at the counter putting salt and vinegar on my fish supper – I hate vinegar.
Starving hungry, I ate my fish supper (vinegar and all) on a bench over-looking the Allanwater. I guessed Tommy must have at least considered the problem of how to put his proposals into practice: that was why he’d tried originally to send them to Philip Hammond and the Queen. So I could be honest with him about my powerlessness, relative to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I went back to the office and emailed him accordingly. I hung around for a while, but there was no reply. Desiree had emailed to tell me how much she was looking forward to coming to the UK, where people were honest and trustworthy, just as soon as I transferred to her the fifteen hundred quid.
When I got to the office the next morning, there was Tommy’s reply. He said I should go ahead and talk to my MP, but he’d had a word with Harold Macmillan who’d suggested I also talk to someone called Sir Christopher Soames. There was also a belated proposal to replace the plain Belisha Beacons with different illuminated yellow animals to make zebra crossings more attractive to toddlers. Right away, I started to search the net for the details of my MP’s constituency surgery. But unbeknown to me, the rot had already set in.
It seems Harold Macmillan must have blabbed and given my email address to General de Gaulle, who in turn had given it to Maurice Chevalier and Marcel Duchamp. Chevalier, in turn, must have passed it onto his Hollywood buddies – Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Claudette Colbert, and a load of people I’d never heard of, including the guy who used to do Bugs Bunny’s voice in the cartoons. One of them, in turn, seems to have passed my email address to a whole posse of deceased American baseball players. This was bad enough, but Tommy’s original altruistic objective had sunk without trace. ‘The Voice of Bugs Bunny’, for example, wanted my help in getting a plaque erected outside his birthplace in San Francisco. John Masefield (where did he spring from?) wanted my assistance in issuing a public apology to the world’s seafarers for that crap he wrote about ‘tall ships’ and vagrant gypsy’ mariners. The emails were arriving faster than I could read them and the senders were becoming more and more remote historical figures. I logged off, right after an email pinged into the mailbox fromWilliam_Ewart_Gladstone@gmail.com. I put in a handwritten request the University Computing Department for a new email address with the usual spam filters.
That was the end of it. Except that, once the new mail address was set-up, I did write to Transport Scotland about those animal-shaped Belisha Beacons. I didn’t mention Tommy: didn’t want them to think I was a nutter. And I sent an apologetic mail to Desiree: didn’t seem quite right just to leave her hanging.