You don't have to be mad to live here....

In praise of London's loonies

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idle classes used to pay one pence, old money, to visit the Bedlam hospital so they could gawp and laugh at the zany antics of the mentally ill patients who were incarcerated there.

Thankfully we live in more enlightened times and understand that charging people to gape at the eccentricities of the psychologically impaired is morally wrong. It’s much more progressive to shut the hospitals down and force the loonies out on to the street, so we can witness their ridiculous frolics for free.

Not only is that one pence, old money, saved for us all every single day (that’s a latte and a half’s worth per annum), it also gives our lives an extra exciting frisson: we never know when one of these nutty pranksters will push us under a bus or stab us in the face with a knitting needle or shower us in a heady cocktail of their own bodily fluids and then stab us in the face with a knitting needle and push us under a bus. Everyone is a winner.

But once you get over the moral indignation and accept that there’s nothing you can do about it, you do start to realise that those insensitive Victorians had a point: the non compis mentis are pretty damned entertaining.

There’s the ginger haired man who wears shorts, whatever the weather, who wanders up and down the Thames tow-path arguing with himself: firstly saying something calm and reasonable, and then immediately yelling (at himself) “Will you just fucking shut up?!” Quietly, he will try and defend his previous position and then loudly object, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Fucking shut your fucking face, you fuck!”

There’s the aged lady who stands on the traffic island on Trinity Road in Tooting in a flimsy nightie, merrily exposing her ancient private parts to passing motorists. There’s the man in Hammersmith who scurries around with his shoulder to the wall and his eyes constantly staring at the ground, holding a sign saying, “I am under surveillance by the British Secret Service,” which you can only think is something that would be making their job a lot easier, if it were true.

Admittedly, any humour here is grim, any laughter hollow and dry-throated. Our amusement relies on us being able to ignore their individual tragedies, but that’s something, as a nation, that we’ve got pretty good at doing.

The true fascination with madness and the mad is our unspoken awareness that the line between sanity and insanity is as flimsy as a Trinity Road nightie in a hurricane. Which of us haven’t heard ourselves pontificating and wished we could shout expletives at ourselves? Which of us haven’t dreamt of running naked through the streets? Which of us doesn’t secretly believe we are having our every private moment filmed by a reality TV show, which everyone else is watching, but that doesn’t appear on our own television and that’s why people laugh at us in the street?

The mentally ill aren’t consciously challenging our pre-conceptions of the arbitrary notions of what is and isn’t acceptable, but that’s what they do. I wish that we did more to help them (whilst not really being prepared to do anything directly myself), though I’m not sure locking them away from sight is any more of a solution.

In a city where trying to engage in conversation with someone on a train that you’ve never met before is the height of lunacy, whilst having full sexual intercourse with someone you’ve only just met in a night-club is normality, it is tempting to ask, “Who are the madmen?”

In this case it’s the people trying to talk to strangers on a train, when they could just as easily be shagging them in a toilet. What are they thinking? The nutters!

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.