Toyah and cancer

'Perhaps the Travelodge likes to list the first name of every employee on these badges and then bene

I spend a good portion of my year on the road and so have much experience of this country’s cheaper hotels. This week I stayed at the Manchester Ancoats Travelodge. Can my life get any more glamorous?

It's a fairly basic hotel, but right next door to the Frog and Bucket where I was performing and thus very convenient for the drunken stagger back from the club. The venue had booked me in, but when I got there there was no record of the booking. Luckily there were rooms available, but I was at reception for a good ten minutes trying to sort out what had happened.

I noticed that the receptionist was wearing a badge with her name on it. Her name was Toyah - I imagine her mum became impregnated whilst "I Want to be Free" was on the radio.

Toyah was written in large letters in the centre of the badge, but beneath it in smaller letters was the word "Cancer".

I wondered what this meant. Was her name really Toyah Cancer? I suppose it's possible, though that makes her sound like a punk from quite a poor band from 1976. So if not that then what?

Does Travelodge put the star sign of each of its employees on their name badges? This would seem like a very odd thing to do, almost like imposing a religious philosophy on everyone who works there.

What if you don't believe in astrology? Wouldn't it be pandering to people who think they can lump you into one of a dozen groups of types of people? Surely there must be some law against labelling people in this way?

Alternatively perhaps the Travelodge likes to list the first name of every employee on these badges and then beneath it list any disease that they are currently suffering from.

This would seem a bit more intrusive and I hope it's not the case as Toyah was young and it would be a shame for her to be stricken down with such an awful condition and then be forced to wear a badge letting everyone know.

At least, if this is the case, I could be sure that she didn't have herpes. So there are some advantages to the system. But if that's the case then the Travelodge organisation is akin to the Nazi regime. Surely it would be illegal to do this, even were it voluntary.

I was tempted to ask her why her badge said "cancer" on it, but was more concerned with getting a place to sleep sorted out so it slipped my mind. But in a way it's more fun not knowing. Did she just have an unusual surname, was she born in late June or early July or did she have a tragic illness? Or is there some other explanation I hadn't thought of?

Possibly the Travelodge likes to put the latitude of birth of each of its employees on their name badge, usually this would be a number, but as this woman happened to be born 23° 26′ 22″ north of the Equator, right on the Tropic of Cancer, they have been able to use the word rather than the numbers. No, that doesn't seem too likely.

It's good to have mystery in one's life and I guess one of you may be able to answer this conundrum, but I am not sure I actually want that.

Mystery can be better than knowledge.

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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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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