The body in the Flowerbed

When your first publicity stunt pushes the General Election result off the front page, what do you do for an encore? This was a question I was asking myself in 1975 when Plymouth Rag Week came around again. After all, this was my last chance. My finals were eight weeks away and if I didn’t organise something, I’d have to revise.

I spent days thinking. The previous year I’d liberated the country next door. Was France up for another revolution? How easy was it to build a guillotine?

Then it came to me. I’d bury a body in a flowerbed.

What? You have to remember that this was 1975, a year when, according to a reliable source (a tabloid journalist who’d just come back from the pub), ten per cent of the Western World were actively trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records. And the title most craved that year was ‘person buried alive the longest.’

The papers were full of record attempts. Every week someone was having a go. No one knew who started the craze – Vincent Price, maybe – but it caught the imagination of an increasingly sedentary public. Here was a something that a couch potato could excel at – lying down for weeks on end. And become famous too! All you needed was a box, a breathing tube, a feeding tube and six foot of soil. And, let’s face it, either extraordinary bladder and intestinal control or a knack for building en suite facilities in restricted spaces.

Now, my woodworking skills in 1975 were undetectable – even under laboratory conditions. And I didn’t even want to think about intestinal control so…

That only left one option – the hoax!

After all, what did anyone see at the surface of these record attempts? Two tubes poking out of a patch of disturbed earth, and a group of supporters.

So, first port of call was the police. Big smiles and, yes, it’s me again. Remember last year? The revolution? The odd outbreak of hand to hand fighting on the outskirts of Truro. You do? Well, this year I want to bury someone in a flowerbed.

There is probably a language – conjugated by a race of ancient stoics – that has sixty words for silence. The strongest word would just about describe the reception my words met at the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary HQ.

“You want to bury someone?”

“In a flowerbed. There won’t actually be anyone in there. But I’d like you to pretend there was.”

If there’d been sixty words for relief – about forty of them would have been fluttering between the ears of the man on the other side of the desk. No problem. He’d pass the message along.

So, me, Burke, Hare and a handful of accomplices gathered at the most prominent flowerbed – a polygonal raised bed (see top left of pic) in a paved shopping area just by Tesco and C&A – in the busiest part of Plymouth. It was 3 a.m., and we had our tubes, shovels and placards.

We dug. We landscaped. We arranged the tubes. And our mythical hero – Arnie Saknussemm, a student from the Jules Verne Geology department – was interred six leagues under.

Then the publicity started. Flyers, posters, placards, megaphones. Give generously to charity and support the brave student as he attempts the record. Volunteers manned the flowerbed and kept him company. We even invited local rustics and pirates (see pic)  to sing and dance for him.

Not everyone believed he was down there, but the majority appeared to. Even when we tied a string around a Cornish pasty, lowered it down the feeding tube, and it came back up unnibbled.

“He’s not hungry,” I said. “I expect he’s worried about what happens if he eats too much. If you know what I mean…”

Enough said. Knowing nods. Who wouldn’t starve if the other option was … well, the other option.

I thought we’d be able to keep the stunt going a day, maybe two, before people twigged. But never underestimate the gullibility of humans.

It went on for days. Road sweepers read him stories in the early morning. Volunteers sat up all night to keep him company. Even when people commented, “he doesn’t talk much, does he?” I managed to counter with: “He never did. That’s what made him the ideal volunteer. He’s always been a loner.”

After six days the stunt came to a spectacular end. A group of men coming out of a pub late at night decided to investigate the flowerbed. As they tugged at the tubes, concerned passers-by called the police.

“They’re killing him!” one woman screamed down the phone. “He can’t breathe!”

The police responded in a measured way (think of a language with sixty words for measured and square the strongest). The fact that the burial was a hoax hadn’t got through to every member of the force. The boys in blue descended upon the flowerbed and took it apart, convinced that Arnie had to be down there somewhere. And how deep was six leagues?

I arrived the next morning to find a minor spoil heap where once there had been flowers. And a tunnel that, if it didn’t go all the way to the centre of the Earth, could only have missed by a few feet.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his  BVC bookshelf .

Recently released from Book View Press: French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.

International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a  glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget  Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!

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The body in the Flowerbed — 8 Comments

  1. I hope you raked in a bunch of money for the charity! I can just imagine how far (NOT VERY) you’d get in the USA today trying that stunt. You’d have to be very persuasive and get the PR department firmly behind you — and have a great charity to boot involved.

    An excellent prank — today, you’d use wireless to talk to the person, and have a camera showing the head of someone in a coffin who really doesn’t want to talk about the catheter you can’t see — oh, the fun we are missing!

  2. Oh wow, there is just something so . . . so seventies about that prank–what a different world it was then!

    And oh, I did so fall in love with the London of 1972.

  3. Do you remember Biba? *The* London fashion shop of the 60s, early 70s. I went to its closing down sale in ’75. By then it had a huge store with a roof garden and was as much a tourist attraction as a shop.

    You can’t beat black and gold.

  4. I might have walked past it, but I was so broke it was either eat or take the underground and walk, because every spare penny went toward the books I spent hours and hours poring over at Foyles, in order to make my money stretch. My fashion statement was pretty much my California beach scene clothes.

    One nice thing about not taking the underground was the walking–I was used to walking in Vienna, so I happily walked miles and miles all over central London. Oh, those memories are so vivid even now.