Archival Humour: The Strange Case of the Ulster Boat People

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The story as it first appeared on the Guardian website.

The story as it first appeared on the Guardian website.

Many of us will have read the article in this morning’s Guardian (3 July 2015) and, like its author Owen Bowcott, initially have believed the details in it about relocating the entire population of Hong Kong to Northern Ireland. This is not in any way because the idea was a good one, or even plausible. In fact, it was a terrible notion and one that even the insensitive 1980s British Government was unlikely to have generated seriously, much less embraced (though an academic at the University of Reading did suggest it). 1983, the year from which the newly-released documents date, was the height of the Troubles, with bombs going off in Northern Ireland almost daily. Moreover, the population of the entire island of Ireland at the time was only 5 million – half a million less than the Hong Kong population that officials proposed to move!

But we chose to believe the documents because we were told that they came from an official archive, leading us to give them not just the benefit of the doubt but a special status as official recorded history. The revelation, just before 8.30am on Radio 4’s Today programme, that the papers were, in fact, deliberate spoofs (apparently the word “spoof” is written across the front of one of them) then abruptly blew this notion out of the water.

Excerpt from the Today programme's running order, describing David Snoxall's confession that the documents were spoofs.

Excerpt from the Today programme’s running order. David Snoxell, who wrote one of the documents, confessed that they were spoofs and sounded delighted to have taken so many people in.

Later Guardian readers, armed with this additional information, may have wondered at the naivety of the rest of us who had been taken in by something so patently false. Yet the simple fact is that, however much we have it drummed into us that we should never trust a single source, we frequently end up doing just that, particularly if that source is a priori considered to be authoritative.

In writing this blog, I have often wondered about the truthfulness of the archives I am reproducing. At times, I have been surprised at the extent to which Cabinet minutes and other papers appear faithfully to record dissent, but on other occasions it is all too obvious that they are deploying weasel words or deliberate omission to hide the facts.

I have also been constantly looking out for archival humour, but such humour as I have found up to now has all been unintentional. Today’s publication, therefore, is both a very helpful reminder of the potential unreliability of even the most trusted sources and a wonderful addition to the all-too-limited treasury of intentional archival wit.

From this...

From this…

... to this?

… to this?

The National Archives has not yet digitised the Northern Ireland/Hong Kong file. I will update this post with the full text when it becomes available.

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