Revisiting San Serriffe

The most excellent Strange Maps blog has just published an article about The Guardian‘s fondly remembered 1977 April Fool supplement on the island of San Serriffe.

(Well, I say fondly remembered, though I do not personally remember the, fondly or otherwise, seeing as I was only rising one at the time. Over the years I became aware of it, though, by way of the 1999 reboot of the spoof, and also in much the same osmotic way as I know about the Tomorrow’s World piece on spaghetti trees.)

Talking of fake-stories-as-Grauniad-news, I am reminded of the (and correct me if I am wrong) 1976 piece the paper published in which a reporter related the story of his chance encounter with a member of the SAS on a train.

The journalist – a sceptic of the British military strategy in Northern Ireland – had recently been writing about the deployment of SAS troops to the province, and in none too complimentary terms. IIRC he suggested they were swaggering cowboys who offered little to the peaceful resolution of the Troubles.

And lo, by complete serendipity he happened to meet one such soldier (in civvies) on an InterCity, who, during the course of a spontaneously-struck up conversation, turned out to be articulate, erudite, and anything but macho. His opinions on British policy in Ulster shifted slightly, and he wrote up the story for the paper.

Then many years later it transpired that the whole ‘chance encounter’ had been a psyops fabrication; the journalist had been picked out as a possible target and a well-briefed and affable serviceman been placed on a train he was known to be travelling on in order to casually strike up a conversation with a view to modifying his opinions.

I’ve no idea whether that is a true story, as I can’t remember where I read it. Perhaps I imagined it? But it sounds like it might be a Colin Wallace one. I know the original story exists, as I read it in one of those Guardian Yearbook thingummies which they used to publish.

Can anyone fill in the details? The source of this tale swimming round my rapidly-shrinking brain? The journalist it seems to be about? The year, even?

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