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thoughts & musings :: CCC

Sunday, 6 May 2001

Rise of the Duck Man

As the ink begins to dry on my first novel, 'Broken Eggshells,' a chilling thought hits me - Christian who? Broken what?

I need some publicity. If I was a celebrity then I could churn out a ghost-written masterpiece without ever needing to write a single word (or even read it, if some of the industry rumours are to be trusted.)

But I'm not a celebrity, and despite the confidence I have in the official Broken Eggshells website, I am under no illusion - being a completely unknown author, no-one would even consider a second look at me unless I somehow caught their attention first.

Flyers are too expensive and you have to print off a whole forest's worth before you can even get 5 people to consider blowing their nose on them. Radio, TV and the newspapers are well worth a look but getting your foot in the door can involve a lot of tireless work with no reward. But with the Internet just a mouseclick away, a soothing thought envelops me, if a bunch of animated hamsters can land a record deal then surely I can get some publicity for my book.

The more absurd the better and fortunately, I didn't have to dig too deep into my head to unearth a vast vat of absurdity just waiting to spill into reality. When I got married in August 1999, I had done away with the guestbook and employed the services of 100 plastic ducks. When you think about it, it's logical - guestbooks can easily get lost, only one person can sign them at a time, and the blank white pages don't inspire anyone to write anything overly different. 100 plastic ducks with tags around their necks sort out all three issues in one 'fowl' swoop.

Thinking back to how people reacted to the sea of yellow plastic at the wedding reception, I quickly realised that an object placed out of context coupled with human curiosity was a sure-fire way of securing peoples attention. The less information available, the more the curiosity increases.

'I found a duck' was born. 500 plastic ducks, all left in London. All that would be on them was a unique ID number and the address www.ifoundaduck.com. The idea being that when people found them, they would log their find on the website and then leave the duck elsewhere for someone else to discover. 500 plastic ducks, 1 world, infinite possibilities.

Click, click, click... crunch. The third Dymo coloured tape embossing machine gives up the ghost. I open up the packaging of the fourth and insert some fresh coloured tape. For a number of months now, my flat has been overrun with plastic ducks and coloured tags. I have blisters from continually hand-punching the coloured tags on the Dymo (though I must confess my wife, Hayley, did most of this - the tags, not the blisters). There is a litter of discarded plastic ribbons that represent my various spelling mistakes - wwww.ifoundaduck.com, www.ifoundadud.com etc.

I do not want to see another plastic duck ever again... this is not the best frame of mind to find yourself in when you happen to have 500 of them sharing your living space.

At last, I was ready to evict the yellow army of squatters that had plagued my life for the previous 5 months. I began to plan the press releases. I decided to make mention of the futile terrorists from the plot of the book: Broken Eggshells is about a group of cynics who are so fed up with how futile the world has become they decide to payback society in a series of the most bizarre and pointless terrorist attacks ever. They plant large amounts of explosives in the middle of the Sahara, Siberia etc.

So having sent out dozens of press releases to, among other places, the BBC, about the plan to plant yellow plastic ducks in London in the name of a novel of futile terrorism, I returned to my flat, relaxed, and loaded up the BBC news homepage.

Bomb rocks BBC.

Damn.

Here I am, having just sent a press release to the BBC about quirky terrorists, threatening to leave 500 'ducks' around London, just in time for the front of the BBC's Broadcasting House to be blown to smithereens.

In seven days time I am planning to leave 500 plastic ducks in our nation's capital whilst the police on the news continually preach the message- 'If you see anything strange on the floor, do not go near it, call the police.'

I go to work as usual on Monday, half expecting a call on my mobile from Scotland Yard. By lunchtime, I have convinced myself that I am the most wanted terrorist in the UK. I am known merely as 'The Duck Man' and I run the most ruthless terrorist cell on the mainland. I imagine myself leaving a coded warning: 'This is the first time we have contacted you. We did the plastic ducks, you will hear from us again.'

Perhaps a phone call would be a good idea. Best call them before they call me. I phone the Counter Terrorist Branch and explain the situation.
'I guess now isn't a good time for me to leave 500 plastic ducks all around London.'
'No, now is not a good time. We have people phoning us up even if they find a burger carton in the street.'
'So when would be a good time to leave to leave 500 plastic ducks in London?'
'That's a good question.'
'How about if I gave you a map of the route we'd take and gave you photos of all the people helping out. Would that be acceptable then?'
'I can't say a yes or no to that. At the end of the day, it's entirely up to you whether you go ahead with this. But personally, I think that if you do go ahead, you will cause chaos.'
'Oh.'

With that vote of confidence, I decided to postpone until Easter Saturday. The postponement itself spawns two articles, in 'The Big Issue' and 'Timeout,' and so traffic to the website starts to build. With the appearance of so many Easter chicks in the shops, an extra 500 plastic ducks should blend in quite nicely. Easter Saturday being the anniversary of the Easter uprising was a concern, especially as the IRA seem to be a stickler for dates, but the date was set. Saturday 14th April was D-Day.

The day arrived and seven of us set out to flood London with yellow plastic. Myself, Hayley (she of aforementioned non-blister fame), Adam (my brother), and Nick (responsible for that insane foot-tapping duck jingle on the website) will all be working on placing the ducks down as subtly as possible. The other three are all present as impartial observers - Neil and Steve handling the photography for the day and Mark is present in order to film a documentary about the scheme.

Adam has obviously had his haircut especially for the occasion and looks as if he has said "make me look like a terrorist" to the hairdresser responsible. Even the impartial cameraman has a black dockers hat that gives him that 'keep a close eye on me, I might well kill someone if I get bored' look.

London was on high security alert, we soon noticed a Police van circling around us for about half an hour. It eventually departed once we had proved to be harmless. We had plastic ducks, not plastic explosives. We soon split up, myself and Hayley head off across the middle of Hyde park, taking note of the mounted Police watching nearby.

Halfway through the Park, I notice a large empty fountain that is just screaming out for a duck to be sat on top of it. I check the scene and the coast is clear. As I am about to place the plastic quacker in pride of place, I am suddenly jumped upon by a gang of joggers. There are four of them, all in white with matching caps and they seem to be jogging even when stationary. I very quickly notice that they have 2 ducks in their possession already and are looking hungry for more.

"What are all these ducks about?" They have obviously spotted the aforementioned quacker in hand and can see into the huge bag of ducks at my side. Throwing logic to the wind I thrust all mitigating evidence behind my back and say "What ducks?" (it always seems to work for Bugs Bunny.)

Ignoring my obvious innocence, they dance around me, Red Indian style, chanting "we've found the duck man, we've found the duck man."

They hold up their own ducks like bait, attempting to entice their plastic siblings from behind me. I am rapidly realising that they obviously think it's some cash draw where you have to find that one lucky duck, they were probably looking to grab as many ducks as possible to increase their chances of getting rich. I calmly tell them to visit the website where they will be given full instructions.

With no other information available they default back to jogging mode and bound off towards the middle of Hyde Park. I place the duck on the fountain and walk away, only to turn and see the keep-fit herd rapidly moving in on the freshly laid bait. Fortunately they are joggers through and through and thus have no running capabilities at all. I reach the duck long before them and rescue it to sighs and groans from the exhausted duck stalkers.

The incident quickly drops from my mind, other than the haunting chants of "we've found the duck man" that are still ravaging my brain. The self-styled quirky author of the hip post-modern black comedy thriller, 'Broken Eggshells,' has become... the duck man? It is entirely my fault - I am my own Frankenstein's monster.

The whole group meet up again and someone mentions that we are nearby 'Speakers Corner' the last bastion of British free speech. It seems a waste to come all this way, fighting for the cause of freedom for plastic ducks, and miss an opportunity such as this. I cannot remember much of the speech, it was very Churchillian. '...never in the field of publicity stunts, have so many ducks been placed in so many places by so few... ...and they will say- this was their finest hour... , ...we will place them on the benches, on the lawns, on the pavements... and so on.

The day was fast entering a level of surrealism only ever experienced by Dougal and the rest of the cast on 'The Magic Roundabout.' We decided to move off in the sublime direction of Oxford Street. So far, we'd had no bother at all and things began to settle into a more sensible routine on through Leicester Square and towards Trafalgar, leaving a duck here and there en route.

At Trafalgar Square, Neil, the 'impartial' photographer, marches brazenly across the paving, five ducks in hands, and launches them all straight into the nearest fountain. Hopefully this hasn't raised too much attention, several people are already risking pneumonia in order to retrieve the ducks from the water, but everyone seems quite pleased with the mysterious appearance of the ducks.

My mobile starts ringing. It's Steve, the photographer. Considering he is in Trafalgar Square as well, the fact he needs to phone me can only be bad news...

'Hi.'
'Security are picking up the ducks.'

Steve said more than that but I missed it. I scan the surroundings to see Neil the photographer being accosted by two security guards. It is clear from the body language that up on the main pavement, a 'good cop/bad cop' playlet is being enacted - badly.

By the time I arrive, bad cop has become bored of not being able to shoot anyone and has wandered off. I am told by good cop that we cannot place plastic ducks in Trafalgar Square without written permission. I start wondering whether they have a specific by-law for every possible object you could leave here or whether they have one 'catch all' rule. For the sake of amusement I opt to believe in the former myriad of statutory codes, I picture myself in some parallel reality with the Square covered in Formica hippos. The security patrol are flicking through a huge tome of by-laws muttering 'Damn, they overlooked this one.'

Meanwhile, back in reality I am beginning to realise that good cop/bad cop are in fact can't be bothered cop/off to kill someone cop. We offer to pick up all the ducks but his namesake can't be bothered and just tells us to move on.

My terrorist brother is oblivious to all of this. He is perched on top of one of the four large lion statues surrounding Nelson's column. Three of the lion's noses now have ducks on them and, if the negotiations with the two awkwardly placed German girls succeed, the final duck should soon be in place within a minute or so.

We move on and eventually all the ducks are out of my care, we retire to the comfort of a decent Irish pub. That evening, the 'Real' IRA blow up a small Post office in Hendon.

Maybe all the ducks will get picked up by street cleaners and trashed forever. Maybe they will all hover around London for months on end before one finally reaches distant Kent... the wait starts. By the time I get home that evening, the first few reports are already drifting in. Within 36 hours, a duck will be in the United States.

Within 2 months there will be ducks in Austria, Belgium, The Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Finland, France, Greece, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, The Bahamas, Canada, The United States, Japan, Turkey, Pakistan, Australia, and even Kent.

Articles began in the UK but media interest quickly spread to the Netherlands, the United States and Australia - 16 articles in all within the first 2 months including two radio interviews.

The area on the publishers website that gives stunning, whizzy real time feedback on sales and royalties is down, not to re-appear until late in the year. I shall have to wait for the regular bland quarterly statement to arrive.

In the meantime, all I have to go no is the sales rank on Amazon.co.uk which seems to dance around wildly (sometimes I am up as high as position 1,836, next minute I'm back up in the 20,000's). Each new article that brings fresh traffic to the site causes the sales rank to rise a little bit more.

I e-mail Amazon and ask them to decode these mystic figures. I am told that the calculation is based on Amazon.co.uk sales and is updated regularly. The top 10,000 best sellers are updated each hour to reflect sales over the preceding 24 hours. The next 100,000 are updated once a day. The rest of the list is updated monthly, based on several different factors. Suddenly, I realise I am back in a game of monopoly and my brother is instigating some three way money exchange that settles everyone's debts and seems to furnish him with Mayfair.

Now, when people ask me about sales I simply reply- the figures on Amazon have danced around again, it's just something they do.

This all just leaves one vital unanswered question- there's a plastic duck in The Bahamas, so what am I doing here in Surrey?

I sit in the waiting area to BBC Radio London Live, I have just passed a very famous person who I didn't recognise in the slightest, a crowd of people rushed up to him wanting an autograph. There are no big crowds with copies of 'Broken Eggshells' to be signed. Then again, there are no big crowds with plastic ducks to be signed either, which is a good thing.

I am here to be interviewed by Amy Lamé about the ducks and the novel. Rest assured I shall be steering the conversation onto the novel as much as possible.

Whilst I am waiting, the producer walks in and looks me up and down for a few seconds. She then drums her pen down a list on a clipboard and then looks up at me again.

'You must be the duck man, right?'
I let the words sink in and nod slowly. 'Yes, that's right,' I answer, resigning myself to the fact.

I am the duck man.
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