Steve Canavan debates ending a lockdown tradition, but finds he is distracted by tales of a mythical Scottish monster

My sisters and I do an online quiz for our mother every Saturday night, primarily in the hope she won’t cut us out of her will.

Thursday, 13th May 2021, 12:30 pm
Loch Ness monster
Loch Ness monster

We started it during lockdown – like half of the population (has the phrase ‘ideas for quiz rounds’ ever been googled so often as it has in the last year?) – when she was feeling lonely, and we also included my 83-year-old auntie from Canada, who was in the same boat.

Naturally my mum loved it, and I did too to be honest – especially as it meant I could also spend time with my aunt who, for pretty obvious reasons (ie, because she’s 3,800 miles and an ocean away), I don’t see too often.

However, 54 weeks after beginning this quiz, and with lockdown now as good as over, spending every Saturday night speaking to my aging mother and auntie isn’t quite as attractive a proposition as it once was. Don’t get me wrong, I love them to bits, but I also love my cat and I wouldn’t want to spend every Saturday evening with her either.

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“Mum,” my sisters and I have tried to hint on the phone in recent times, “shall we, erm, maybe think about making the quiz monthly?”

“Are you bored of it?” she’ll respond in accusing/hurt tone. “Well, that’s fine. If you don’t want to see your auntie and I, we’ll leave it if that’s what you want.”

At which point we’re, of course, racked with guilt and can do nothing but say, “no, no, it’s fine, we enjoy it – let’s carry it on.”

I fear only imprisonment or death will get me out of the commitment. Actually, probably only the latter (I can picture the scene now… ‘Hello. Is that Belmarsh? Could you put me though to E Wing, cell 248 please? I need to speak to Steven, it’s quiz time’).

Anyway, during Saturday’s, one question asked which lake holds the biggest volume of water in the UK?

The answer – because I know you’re just dying to find out – is Loch Ness (so deep it actually contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined), which is vaguely interesting, but not enough to write a column about.

However, I read the next day, weirdly, that it’s 87 years since the famous pic which adorned the front page of every paper, the one taken by a surgeon purporting to be of the Loch Ness monster.

Looked at now, it looks like a floppy, overcooked piece of tenderstem broccoli rising from the water, but back then – in 1934 – it was a phenomenon, proof there was a wild beast living there.

The legend of a monster living in Nessie – as its close friends call it – dates back to the 1870s when a local man saw something ‘wriggling and churning up the water’. The myth took off, though, in the 30s after a lady called Aldie Mackay described seeing an enormous creature in the water while she and her husband were driving past.

“The creature rolled and plunged for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron,” said Mrs Mackay, who, I’m guessing, was one of the top students in her creative writing class.

“It disappeared in a boiling mass of foam,” she continued, “and the beast, in taking a final plunge, sent out waves big enough to have been caused by a passing steamer.”

This sparked a series of sightings, one from a Londoner who described it as “the nearest to a dragon or pre-historic animal I have ever seen” and having – and I like this – “a long neck, which moved up and down in the manner of a scenic railway”. A month later, in July 1933, a Mr George Spicer claimed he and his wife saw a 25-foot long creature with a wavy neck and no limbs lurch across the road, ‘leaving a trail of broken undergrowth in its wake’.

People flooded to the area – one assumes the local tourist board did little to discourage the idea of a monster – and shortly after that most famous of all the Loch Ness pictures was taken.

It was snapped by Robert Kenneth Wilson, a surgeon – clever, as who could possibly doubt the word of a well-educated, upper-class bloke who takes bits out of people’s bodies? – and was sold to the Daily Mail for the then princely sum of £100 (the equivalent of about 10,000 quid in today’s money).

It was taken – he said – during a fishing trip with a friend. Wilson attempted to keep his identity a secret (thus it became known as ‘the surgeon’s photograph’), but the British Medical Association found out and fined him for a breach of professional ethics.

For the next 50 years there was heated debate about the image. Many thought it genuine (anyone in this camp we can generally label insane) and an equal number felt otherwise.

Not until 1994 when a chap called Maurice Chambers died (the friend on the fishing trip with Wilson), did his personal papers reveal the truth – that it was, surprise surprise, a hoax. It had been taken a minor film-maker who had bought – wait for it – a toy submarine and added to it a ’head and neck’ made of plastic. What? Half a century of discussion and debate sparked by a head-shaped piece of plastic? Wilson had agreed to be the front man because he liked a joke and realised his status as a physician would lend credibility to the story.

It says much about the notoriety of the photo that despite Wilson going on to become a Second World War hero – parachuting behind enemy lines in France and Borneo – his entry on Wikipedia reads, ‘the man who supposedly took a photograph of the Loch Ness monster’.

Still, one shouldn’t feel too sorry for him. He made a few quid and had a hell of an anecdote for dinner parties.

Must dash now, need to write some questions for Saturday quiz…

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