December 0001

A Mystery Solved, Near Zero, and A Snail’s Pace From Pyongyang


We live in an era of open government, and the MI5 building near the Thames in London is much admired by passers-by, so it comes as a considerable surprise to many that it does not have any open days. In fact, they did experiment with allowing the public to visit immediately after the end of the Cold War, but encountered a number of problems. Firstly, most visitors could see nothing of interest - “It’s just wall to wall bureaucrats behind desks, and definitely not worth the £8-35 charge” said one. Secondly, most visitors were other civil servants (central government employees), and they were disgusted by the catering facilities available to the spooks. Not because they were bad, but because they were so much better than those available elsewhere in Whitehall. While the Department of Agriculture had to make do with deep fried beef burgers and microwave chips, and pay £3 for a small portion, MI5 employees got

Rognons farcis avec chanterelles et tetards sur des viands varies caramelisés for only 27 pence, with free seconds. The mistakes in the French are the Ministry’s and not mine, by the way.

The third reason was by far the most serious, however. Allow an MI5 spokesman, Valerie Jones, 26, to explain.

“Obviously we kept a careful record of all the tours we conducted. Not really for any particular security reason, but just because it’s the sort of thing we do. We ran twenty seven tours, of fifteen people each. That means we allowed four hundred and five people into the building. However, and we are sure of this, as we were most meticulous in checking names and doing body counts, only three hundred and ninety eight people left. We therefore have seven unvetted persons who have been wandering around for over ten years. We can be sure they haven’t left by other exits, as they would either have been picked up by security cameras or fried, and they can’t have died, as we would have found their bodies. At the moment we are working on the theory they were a group of social security claimants who set up their own very hush hush department in an empty office to benefit from the relatively good pay we enjoy. Unfortunately, our investigating group is not cleared to investigate MI5 employees at higher levels of security, as we come under public relations, which is a low-level function here, so we don’t know for certain, but we are very worried. Especially as we don’t know who they are investigating or what they’re doing. I should point out, by the way, that public tours have strictly speaking been suspended pending resolution of this matter, rather than abolished, but it comes to the same thing in the end”.

We were pleasantly surprised by the cooperativeness of MI5 in preparing this article.



Quite a lot of people get zero in exams. This usually happens if they don’t turn up, leave the paper blank, fail to put their name at the top, or, and this is surprisingly uncommon, write complete nonsense. However, it would be nice to know who got the lowest mark that was higher than zero. We decided to confine our researches to Oxford, as this is where most of the good stories come from, and we don’t think a lower mark can be found anywhere than the one we turned up. However, if you know of a worse result, do please tell us.

We phoned the Examinations Board of the University, and they proved to be very helpful, if a little difficult to understand. Araminta Chalmondley, their spokesperson said “You know that joke about the chap that gets only one percent, and that’s for writing his name correctly?  Well this happens quite a lot in reality, but Basil Ffanshawe-Hyena did even better, or worse, depending how you look at it, in a Fine Art exam in 1953 when he made some spelling mistakes in his name. He put a capital “F” in the ffanshawe, and forgot the “e” at the end, so they only gave him half a percent. Personally I think they were too generous, as he made two mistakes, and he should only have got a third or a quarter or something.”

Stop Press: It’s been pointed out to us that Mathematics is a completely objective subject, in which it is entirely possible to get 100% even at very advanced levels of study, so very low marks are possible too. We’ve discovered that Harry Jarvis got 0.01% from the Mathematics Department at Stanford in a Pure Math exam in 1972.



Travelers can endure this in North Korea. It runs between Pyongyang Central, and Saejong, an outer suburb. It is scheduled to take seven hours to cover five kilometers. Thomas Cook’s International Time Table describes it as a commuter train, but this is unlikely to be correct, as it only runs on alternate Thursdays.

A reader has sent us a little more information about this train.

I had to use the North Korean railway service you mention quite a lot when I was working in the Greek Embassy in Pyongyang in the mid 1980’s. Believe it or not, it was actually worse than your article suggests. For one thing, it never left on time. Once, it left two days late. Nor did I ever know it complete the journey in as little as seven hours. It usually took nine. But worst of all were the seats. They were made of wood, and had little points in the backrests to keep you sitting up straight. In addition to everything else it has to be the world’s most uncomfortable rail journey. And it was crowded! Far too many passengers, all with loads of luggage and livestock – mostly geese. Thank goodness I never had to go second class!

Stavros Papandreou, Thessaloniki.

Thank you Stavros!