One of the fundamental rituals of British working life is the fool’s errand. This is where a new employee, usually young and inexperienced, is given tasks to do or asked to fetch things, that invariably end up with them looking stupid.
It sounds a bit cruel, but whenever I’ve been on the receiving or giving end of one, they’re always funny.
The first one that happened to me was in the summer before I joined the army. My eldest brother John is a painter and decorator. He and a friend were working on a house and my function was to make brews and perform the most menial of tasks; tasks that were supposed to mean I wouldn’t get paint all over me. John and Pat were a real double act, spending most of the day singing along badly to whatever was on Radio 1 and accusing each other of various crimes against humanity.
One afternoon, Pat shouted down to me,
"Charlie, get the lid off that tin of white emulsion in the hallway, will you?”
Eager to please, I raced off to find a screwdriver, then set about the lid. I should have noticed that the tin was a bit dented and - in hindsight - it didn’t seem quite full. After a couple of minutes faffing about, I eventually got some purchase and levered the thing off. Instead of 5 litres of white paint, I was faced with a huge human turd, swimming around in an inch of emulsion. The smell was horrific, the mixture of the chemicals in the paint with the gently marinating log had created something truly awful. It was only then that I could the giggling of two grown men coming from the top of the stairs. I had opened the ‘shitty tin’ an essential item for tradesmen to use when a house has no plumbing.
Joining the army was no escape, but I was a little more savvy by the time I’d got to my first working unit. I avoided the obvious ones and got to chuckle at newer arrivals than me being sent for:
Quick burning sawdust
A long stand
A bag of short circuits
The keys to the Assault Course
The keys to the Parade Square
A glass hammer
A goldfish fart for a spirit level
One fine summer’s day, we were on our way to the ranges in the back of a Bedford 4 tonner. The 'Robert Redford', as it was affectionately known, was the transport workhorse of the British Army and was used to move moderate numbers of troops about. They were usually reliable but it was only the most accomplished or slovenly soldiers who could manage to have a kip in the back of a four tonner, as their suspension seemed to be made from cornflake boxes.
About a mile outside camp, the thing packed up and the Corporal driving, pulled over slowly. We all de-bussed and sat smoking on the embankment whilst he decided what to do. After a short conversation with his co-driver, he shouted over,
“Who’s the sproggiest in the troop?”
All thumbs pointed to the new guy, who was trying to hide inside his own uniform. The Corporal spotted him.
“Right sprogladyde!! I need you to run back to the MT (Motor Transport) stores on camp and get me some fallopian tubes, so we can get this bugger fixed.”
He said it with such authority and confidence that I almost bought it, before conjuring up the correct gynaecological diagram in my head. Whilst the rest of us bit our lips, so’s not to give the game away, our young friend scarpered up the road, for a date with derision at the MT stores.
The wind-up is a great form of initiation. As long as the recipient sees the funny side and holds their hands up at being made to look stupid, they gain a degree of acceptance and hope someone replaces them as soon as possible, as the most junior in the workplace.
The one we used to love doing at my last unit in the army, was to call in the newest arrival, a couple of weeks after he’d settled into the troop. He would be given a fire extinguisher and a note and told to deliver them to the Squadron Sergeant Major. The desire to be seen as useful would override any of his misgivings or critical faculties and off he’d go.
The SSM is the discipline man in the Squadron and a good rule of thumb is to avoid him at all costs. If he has reason to speak to you, you’ve usually done something wrong and a bollocking or worse is on its way.
Our hapless victim would stand to attention outside the office and knock.
The SSM (in on the stunt) would impatiently shout, “What do you want?”
The nervous kid would reply,
"Corporal Bell sent this over, Sir.” Then he’d give him the note, which read:
GIVE US A DAY OFF, YOU BASTARD, OR I’LL SOAK YOU!!
The SSM said the look of terror on their faces when he got them to read the note out loud, would have him laughing for hours after.