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The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures

Stephen Pile

Rugby League team which went winless between 1988 and 1991. The whole team, which included a one-armed player, went on strike for more money. Management offered only to increase their winning, so the team, and coach, stood in the grandstand and booed their substitutes. The reserve team had a new coach, a born again Christian who came out of retirement to play and was sent off after eleven minutes for foul play. They lost 92-2.

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In a 1974 baseball game the Cleveland Indians, hoping to attract more spectators, offered as much beer as you could drink at ten cents a glass. 25,000 fans turned up instead of usual 8000. By the time the game started, most of them were pissed. A large woman started the fun by running onto the field and baring her enormous breasts, to sustained applause. This encouraged a streaker to run round the bases, hotly pursued by a security guard. While that was going on a father and son ran out and mooned the crowd. Then when someone tried to steal a visiting players cap, he tripped and fell. Thinking he'd been attacked the rest of the team rushed onto the field waving their bats. From there things went downhill. The TV suspended its sports coverage in favour of riot viewing. Fights broke out all over the pitch amid a rain of cups, cheeseburgers hot dogs and basically anything not bolted down.

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William Pulteney, the first Earl of Bath, was Prime Minister of England for two days in Feb 1746. He was unable to find more than one person prepared to serve in his cabinet, and abandoned the attempt after 48 hours.

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In 1994 Jacb Hauguard stood for Danish parliament as a practical joke. His manifesto included free beer, more Renaissance furniture in IKEA, continuous green traffic lights and the reclassification of all people without a sense of humour as disabled. Predictably the joke backfired and he was elected with 23,000 votes.

The English writer Graham Greene reviwed a new film 21 Days which he described as 'slow, wordy and unbearably sentimental'. At the end of this caustic and unforgiving review he revealed that he had in fact written the screenplay himself.

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A Turkish driver unfamiliar with concept of speed cameras, was caught four times in two minutes. Helped by the two roundabouts on either side of the camera, he went back to try to figure out what was flashing the light at him. He also did it at increasing speeds - 36mph then 39, 42 and finally 47 mph.

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During the Falklands War British paratroopers set up a secret camp near Goose Green, ready to attack the Argentine troops. Somehow the BBC were told about it, and they broadcast the story on the news. The British forces heard it, but it was too late to do anything about it. The Argentinians also heard broadcast but decided it must be a trick and ignored it.

In 1997 a poll revealed that 2/3 Anglican vicars couldn't recite the 10 Commandments. taking a stern view of this, the Independent published the list to help them out. Predictably it was a complete cock-up. They got two of them wrong, left out the fourth entirely ('Though shalt keep the sabbath holy') and came up with a completely new one 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house'

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For a 1979 Wexford Opera Festival performance, the stage was covered with formica to look like the marble of a Roman temple. Because formica can be a bit slippery, they covered it with nice sticky lemon juice. Unfortunately they forgot to tell the cleaning lady and she not only got rid of the nasty lemon juice, but she also buffed the formica up to a nice shine. The curtain rose, a Roman general strode forth singing lustily, and within seconds was flat on his back sliding towards the footlights. He made several unsuccessful attempts to regain his footing, singing all the time, until the female lead entered, arms waving. She went down, crashing into the hero and they both slid into the orchestra pit. They clambered back on stage, and, clinging to each other, made for the security of a pillar upstage, still singing. At this point matters were considerably improved by the arrival of the chorus. The whole lot - generals, centurions, gladiators and vestal virgins wound up in a big daisy chain of mutual support around the pillar.The audience was so moved by this performance that most were weeping and some struggled for breath.

During his 30 years as a missionary in Africa, David Livingstone converted only one person to Christianity. And he later excommunicated him when the guy went off and set up his own church. The convert was the King of BaKwena tribe. But as soon as he was baptised he lost his rainmaking powers and there was a drought. But big problem came when DL insisted that the guy give up all but one of his wives. That didn't last long and DL had a hissy fit and excomm him. So the King set up a better church which properly understood polygamy and rainmaking rituals, and the drought ended soon after.

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Glynn Wolfe, a baptist minister and marriage counsellor, has been divorced 28 times. He divorced wife no 23 because she used his toothbrush, and wife no 28 because she ate sunflower seeds in bed. His 29th marriage was to Linda Essex, the world's most divorced (26 times) woman. When she was young, she said "All the boys in the neighbourhood wanted to marry me." By 1997 most of them had. Wolfe died in 1997, aged 88.

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In 1986 the Bath City Council found that they'd paved over fire hydrants in the main street. So an expert fireman was sent forth with a metal detector to locate them. After they'd dug seven large holes in the road, none of which yielded a hydrant, the expert realized that he'd been detecting the steel toe caps in his work boots.

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(Then London Times published this:) It is a grave misreading of the human predicament to suppose that everything is going to work out well. Happiness lies in not only accepting that things go belly up, but also rejoicing in them when they do.For years we have been told that success is the thing. But in Britain, for example, it only took John Sergeant to start dancing a few years ago for the whole nation to rise up in his support. The sleeping giant awakes. We rediscover our ancient qualities.It is not just in Britain that this happens. When Eric "the Eel" Moussambani practically drowned in his Olympic qualifying heat the whole world rose to applaud him. When the Jamaicans entered the Winter Olympics, came last and fell off their bobsleigh, Hollywood was on the phone straight away and made a film about them.

It seems a long time now since I formed the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain back in the simpler days of 1978 with myself, cocooned in administrative chaos, as president. To qualify for membership you just had to be not terribly good at something and attend meetings at which people talked about and gave demonstrations of their main area of expertise. We had some glorious evenings when you heard snatches of heart-warming conversation ("Yes, sheep are difficult" - Not Terribly Good Artist). Eventually I was thrown out as president and the club voted itself out of existence when it received several thousand applications for membership, some from as far away as Botswana. This can only be read as yet further proof of humanity's preference for the worst over the best.

The least successful attempt to go to the lavatory

On a flight from Florida to Hanover, Johann Peter Grzeganek, a German tourist, was desperate to relieve himself shortly after takeoff. He could wait no longer, despite the insistence of the cabin crew that he stay seated while the seatbelt sign was on.It was far too late for this so Grzeganek jumped up from his seat and, giving a top drawer performance, shouted in German: "I have to go urgently to the lavatory; otherwise I will go through the roof. I am exploding."Hearing the words "Ich explodiere", the cabin crew, who spoke no German, assumed he was a suicide bomber and alerted the pilot who dumped all his fuel and did an emergency landing at Fort Lauderdale. There Grzeganek was arrested and imprisoned for 10 months to await trial. When his case eventually came to court the judge dismissed it as ridiculous and apologised to him. Even then his ordeal wasn't over. Rearrested outside the courtroom because his tourist visa had run out, he was sent back to prison in Miami to await deportation. In the hands of a real artist even the simplest everyday event can be transformed into a surreal drama of many acts.

The least successful survival talk

Invited to give a lecture on how to survive in the wild, Alistair Emms arrived early at Allhallows school, which is perched on remote cliff tops near Seaton in Devon. Having time to spare on that fine day in October 1992, he decided to go for a stroll before delivering his talk. When he had not returned an hour later coastguards were sent off to search for him.Failing to find him, the police and two other coastguard units were also called in. By this stage 40 local people, five police officers, a tracker dog and two helicopters were involved. It took five hours to rescue the intrepid explorer. Jeremy Willis, the school's head of music, said: "One team scaled the cliff face, cutting through bushes and eventually found him." He was winched onto the helicopter. The lecture was not delivered.

The worst-selling film

January 2001 is remembered as the launch date of Harry Potter and the Never-Ending Sequels. Sadly, it drew attention away from Offending Angels, which was released in the same week and became the worst-selling film in cinema history. It had a fabulous plot about two laddish, layabout housemates who occasionally go outside to play cricket. God takes pity on them and sends a pair of guardian angels, Zeke and Paris, to lead them back to a life of virtue and industry. Happily, Paris used to be a dolphin and Zeke was formerly a squirrel so divine intervention proved a bit of a mixed blessing. Eventually they all fall in love.At a cinema in Croydon, south London, the only people who saw the film all week were the projectionist and the usher. Fewer than 20 people around the country paid to see it. After Vat and the cinemas' cut, it made a total profit at the box office of £17. When the DVD came out it became a cult collector's item.

The most overenthusiastic armed response

In March 1998 police squad cars roared into Rolvenden, Kent, with sirens wailing and blue lights flashing after a gun was seen being fired from a cottage window. More than 30 armed officers surrounded the cottage and the village was sealed off for two hours as police waited for the suspect to emerge. Marksmen trained automatic rifles on the building and a negotiator crouched behind a car, shouting through a loud-hailer: "We have you surrounded. Come out with your hands in the air." Inside, Violet Hook, 86, who was hard of hearing, made herself a pot of tea and relaxed in her kitchen chair, oblivious to the drama. Eventually she heard one of the calls and came out, still carrying the cap gun she uses to scare rooks from her roof, demanding to know what all the fuss was about. When the police screamed at her to throw down her gun, she replied: "I won't. I don't even know you. And besides I'm going out and I am busy getting ready."

The worst safe sex campaign

In February 1999 David Nowitz, marketing manager of the Society for Family Health in Johannesburg, South Africa, admitted that its safe sex campaign had dramatically increased the danger of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. The society had distributed thousands of pamphlets in Zulu, Xhosa, English, Sotho and Afrikaans, all featuring the character Johnny the Condom and warning against unprotected sex. A free government condom was attached. Unfortunately all the condoms had been perforated when stapled to the leaflet. "We made a deal with a low-budget distribution company," Nowitz said.

The most pointless election

Since the dawn of democracy we have waited for the definitive election in which no candidate polled any votes at all. It finally happened when Pillsbury in North Dakota held a council election on June 10, 2008 at which no one voted, not even the people at the ballot station. It is the first time that six candidates have stood and not one of them has got in. "Everybody has got a job and they're busy," said the mayor of this small rural community, who was going vote for himself but had crops to tend.

The fastest stage walk-off

For a quarter of a century the great actor Alan Devlin has stood untouched in his masterful ability to leave the stage in mid-performance with no warning. His finest hour came in the 1987 production of HMS Pinafore at the Gaiety theatre in Dublin. He had delivered half his lines when he turned to the audience, said, "F*** this for a game of soldiers. I'm going home," and clambered through the orchestra pit shouting, "Finish it yourself". Really great actors live on in the mind long after they have left the stage and Devlin was no exception. Still wired for sound, he could be heard ordering a round of drinks in the pub next door. This was the third time that he had shown his mastery of the premature exit, but he always did so halfway through a production to give the audience some idea how dull the evening would be without his intervention. In January 1998 he met his match. Adrian Hood gave the performance of a lifetime playing a stand-up comedian afflicted by anxiety in Weekend Breaks by John Godber. Setting a new world record, he walked off after the first line. Our man walked into the spotlight, said "I hate flying I do" and left the stage, never to return.

The most boring day

Feeding 300m facts into a specially designed search engine, the British researcher William Tunstall-Pedoe found that April 11, 1954 was the dullest day of the 20th century. On this day almost nothing happened. There were no coups, no crashes, no monkeys in space.On April 11 the Oldham Athletic footballer Jack Shufflebotham died at the age of 69 and there was a peaceful election in Belgium. It was also the birthday of the electrical engineer Abdullah Atalar whose later research interests included "integrated circuit design and the linearisation of RF power amplifiers".Apparently, there were also plans for a coup d'etat in Yanaon, a one-time French colony in India, but this did not materialise.

Least successful disguise

In September 1999 police arrested a woman in Los Angeles who was stark naked with a bucket on her head. Asked to explain this state of affairs, she said that while undressed she had stepped briefly out onto the balcony and the door had locked behind her. Thinking laterally, she put the bucket on her head to hide her identity, went for help and got lost.

The least successful mugger

In March 1993 a mugger approached Roger Morse of Winnipeg, Canada, and shouted "Give me your wallet". Thus far it was a completely traditional mugging transaction after which the mugger stole C$20. What was much less traditional was that Morse himself next shouted "Give me my wallet back" to the mugger. We were now entering uncharted and highly experimental waters.Stunned by this unorthodox request, the mugger handed over his own wallet by mistake and fled the scene of the crime, leaving his victim C$250 better off.

The least successful citizen's arrest

On a sunny October morning in 1995 a young man was lurking suspiciously outside a Dublin branch of the Allied Irish bank when a security guard walked out with a case full of money.Suddenly the young man shouted, pulled a gun, seized the money and leapt onto a getaway motorbike that roared up driven by an accomplice. As they veered off into traffic, only one man acted. A passing van driver saw the whole thing and reversed his Renault into the escaping motorbike. The two villains were thrown onto the bonnet of a nearby car. They stood up and stared at the van driver, aghast and disbelieving. Aghast and disbelieving also were the director, the sound man, the cameraman and everyone connected with Crimeline, the hugely popular Irish TV programme, which was reconstructing an earlier robbery to help police solve it.

The least successful aftershave

The top male fragrance for people of our tastes is the exquisite Ieuan No 14. In 1995 the perfume company L'Essential decided to launch a new line of aftershave. Boldly, it was named after Ieuan Evans, the Welsh rugby international winger. It was withdrawn after selling only 30 bottles because women did not want their menfolk smelling like a rugby player. This is now the most exclusive fragrance in the world as only 30 people on the planet walk round smelling of it. It is extremely difficult to get hold of. "I do have a few bottles of the stuff," Evans wrote in his memoirs, so you might have to get some from him.

The least successful practical joke

In the 1994 Danish general election Jacob Haugaard stood for parliament as a joke. His manifesto included free beer, nicer Christmas gifts, more Renaissance furniture in Ikea, Nutella in all army field rations, continuous green traffic lights, the introduction of several whales into Randers fjord, the right to impotency, a tail wind on all cycle paths and the reclassification of people without a sense of humour as disabled. To support his candidacy he wrote a book entitled If Work is Healthy Give it to the Sick. The practical joke backfired, however, when this fine man not only got elected with a staggering 23,253 votes, but also had one of his manifesto policies made law: Nutella in all army field rations. The stunned new MP for Aarhus said: "It was all a practical joke, honestly. I guess people elected me because my promises are just as trustworthy as those of conventional political parties." He decided not to stand for re-election.

The most speeding offences in one go

A motorist from Turkey set a new all-comers record in November 2005 when he was flashed by the same speed camera four times in the space of 1 minute 37 seconds. Throughout this record-breaking run in the Swiss town of Kreuzlingen he had no idea he was passing a speed trap. Baffled by the repeated flashing, he passed the spot again and again to investigate. This accomplished driver, whose identity was protected by Swiss privacy laws, told police that he thought someone was trying to annoy him with a flashgun and he wanted to check "what was going on". His achievement was made possible by the location of two roundabouts on either side of the camera.

The least successful breakfast show

Early morning radio is full of bright and breezy disc jockeys whose irritating chirpiness only makes things worse. Showing a rare and wonderful consideration for his listeners in June 1998, Phil Holmes set a new benchmark when he fell asleep for 30 minutes while presenting his breakfast show on the Sunderland radio station Sun FM. He was woken up by his boss at 7.30am. "One minute I was sitting there reading my advert list; the next I had him shouting at me to wake up," Holmes said.

The least successful branding campaign

The latest branding idea from Saatchi & Saatchi in New Zealand was its "Our Auckland Big A" campaign. The idea was to foster civic pride by encouraging residents to greet each other with a signal in the form of an 'A' made by joining the thumbs and fingers of both hands.The campaign was abandoned when complaints were received from the Deaf Association of New Zealand and various women's groups saying it was not only the internationally recognised sign for 'vagina' but also very like the sign language symbol for Aids.

The least successful stage set

Never have the possibilities of a sloping stage been more innovatively explored than in the celebrated 1979 Wexford Opera Festival performance of Spontini's La Vestale. The exciting decision was taken to cover the floor of the vestal virgins' temple with Formica, which not only looks like marble but also has the added attraction of acute slipperiness. The plan was to cover the stage with lemon juice so the cast's feet would stick to the floor. Fortunately, a cleaning lady was so professionally affronted by the state of this stage that she washed and polished it that afternoon, helping to create the most inventive and free-range choreography seen on the operatic stage for 100 years. The curtain rose and the Roman general Licinio strode onto the stage, fell flat on his back and slithered towards the footlights. Singing throughout, he got to his feet. After several plucky attempts to walk back up stage, he decided to stay where he was, no doubt calculating that the next character to enter, his friend Cinna, would shortly be joining him near the footlights anyway. On came Cinna, arms waving, who hurtled down the stage and crashed into her chum at speed. They were propelled towards the orchestra pit.Averting disaster at the last second, they worked their way gingerly along the edge of the stage "like mountaineers seeking a route round an unbridgeable crevasse", according to the critic Bernard Levin, who looked on with a growing delight. Still singing and clutching onto each other, the pair decided to make for a pillar bearing the sacred vestal flame that was three feet further up and embedded firmly in the stage floor. At this point matters were considerably improved by the entrance of the chorus. They also decided to make for the fixed pillar which was now becoming quite crowded. Happily, this chorus of centurions, gladiators and vestal virgins decided to form a daisy chain of mutual support, leading from the pillar across the stage with everyone clutching on to each other until all were accommodated. The audience was so moved by this performance that most were weeping and some struggled for breath.

The least successful attempt at talking to animals

In a pioneering advance for inter-species communication, two neighbours in south Devon hooted at one another for a year, each thinking the other was an owl. Neil Simmons had been studying the calls of tawny owls in an oak tree at the bottom of his garden when he decided to attempt conversation with his own periodic hootings. It was not until Fred Cornes moved in next door that his persistence finally paid off. Success was instant. Nightly for 12 months they both crept into the garden and every single one of their calls was met with an instant and gratifying reply. They would still be doing this pioneering work but for a chance conversation in which Mrs Simmons was telling Mrs Cornes about how excited her husband gets when the owl hoots back. "He logs each call and is trying to modify his too-whit too-whoo to mimic the other owl," she explained. "That's funny . . ." said Mrs Cornes and the research project came to an end.

The least successful discovery of a new species

Amid international excitement a new species of mammal was discovered in an isolated area of Vietnam. Known as a tuoa, this small deer-like creature was hailed by the Vietnamese branch of the World Wildlife Fund as "the biological equivalent of discovering a new planet". The animal was found in December 1995. The next month it was eaten by villagers.

The least successful minute's silence

Congleton town football club gave its oldest supporter, Fred Cope, a terrific send-off in February 1993. In the programme there was a moving notice announcing Cope's death at the age of 85 and describing how he had followed Congleton as man and boy. The players lined up in the centre circle for a minute's silence with their heads bowed. Taking his place as usual on the terrace, Cope asked what was happening and it was not until he was shown the programme that he found out."The players were already standing on the pitch when we spotted Fred coming in," said the Congleton press officer, Chris Phillips. It was hurriedly announced that the minute's silence was now, in fact, going to be for England player Bobby Moore instead.

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