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Ask a Silly Question

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Some people collect glass fish. Others collect train numbers. I collect Questions To Which The Answer Is No. It all started with the Daily Mail, a bishop and a grudge against Marks and Spencer. I came across this long headline in the Daily Mail on 6 February 2009:

He's the outcast bishop who denies the Holocaust - yet has been welcomed back by the Pope. But are Bishop Williamson's repugnant views the result of a festering grudge against Marks & Spencer?

Such was my youthful arrogance that - I can admit this now - I did not read the story at the time. I knew that I did not need to. Luckily, I was right. Three years later, I can confirm that it quoted Edna Andrews, the family's housekeeper, who said that Bishop Williamson's mother thought that his father, a hosiery buyer, had been denied promotion at Marks & Spencer because he was not Jewish.

At the time, I named it my "headline of the day" on The Independent blog and thought little of it. But it was like that scene in a film where our innocent hero shouts to his friends, behind whom he is lagging, and the echo reverberates around the mountain, triggering an avalanche. (Can that actually happen, I wonder? That, too, is probably a Question To Which The Answer Is No.)

People who read the Daily Mail and minority-interest websites rather more than me started to send me examples of other questions that implied the answer was yes when it was really no. Thus began my series, described - admiringly I think - by fellow blogger Matthew Barrett as "the most useless collection of headlines in the blogosphere".

Many of them were picture questions, with a bias towards aliens and monsters. "Is This Atlantis?" (The Sun, February 2009.) "Is This the Monster of Lake Windermere?" (Mirror, February 2011.) "Is This a Squadron of UFOs Flying Over California?" (Daily Mail, May 2011.) "Is This a Secret Space Station on Mars?" (Mail Online, June 2011.) "Is This an Alien Spacecraft Parked Next to Mercury?" (Daily Mail, December 2011.) "Is This Life on Venus?" (Mail Online, January 2012.) Most of those could have been entitled, "Is This a Speck of Dust That Has Been Magnified So Much That It Looks a Bit Like Something Else?"

Any picture that included anything that could have been a blurry human-shaped figure would be headlined "Is This Bigfoot?" or "Is This Finally Evidence That Bigfoot Exists?" Or "the Yeti".

One of my early favourites was "Is the Turin Shroud Genuine After All?" a lovely question in the Mail on Sunday in April 2009, especially for that highly-collectable "After All" at the end, which brilliantly implies that the Mail on Sunday knows perfectly well that the shroud is a fake, but that some startling new evidence has come to light that suggests that the fruitcakes had been right "all along".

The series might have been made for Twitter, on which it acquired the hashtag #QTWTAIN, and entries continued to pour in. Even the starchy Economist noted that this "rolling log of press headlines that fall into the category of Questions to Which the Answer is No" had acquired a "cult following". Which was actually a way of covering its embarrassment at asking a QTWTAIN of its own: "Is Britain's tabloid press getting serious about improving standards?"

The collection now has 882 exhibits, the best of which are selected for a book published in time for Christmas by Elliott & Thompson. And there has been no falling-off in quality. Martin Jacques recently asked on the BBC News website: "Is China more democratic than the West?" The Daily Mail is still on form with: "Would you dare to wear the romper suit for grown-ups?" And local newspapers continue their proud tradition of leading the way, Get Reading (that is Reading the place, rather than reading a newspaper) reporting the US President's re-election last month by referring to his visit to Wokingham in 1996 and asking: "Was Barack Obama inspired by 1990s Berkshire visit?"

Questions To Which The Answer Is No is published by Elliott & Thompson £11.99

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