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"All right!" cried Patrick. "Here's an easy one! I am going to describe someone and you've got to tell me who he is!"

They all looked expectant.

"It's a famous lord!" cried Patrick. "A bit of a layabout lord who behaved badly while everyone felt sorry for his wife! A layabout lord who got into such terrible financial difficulties that there seemed no way out! And then he wrote a best-seller which at one bound put him back on top ! And then became so wildly unpopular with his sexual shenanigans that he had to do a runner! And he was - anyone?"

"Jeffrey Archer!" roared the small crowd that had gathered.

"You're absolutely wrong!" cried Patrick. "The man I was describing was Lord Byron! Yes, two hundred years before Lord Jeffrey Archer soiled the name of Weston-super-Mare, Lord George Byron had done everything Archer did - and miles better! Archer wrote an airport novel or two. Byron wrote some of the greatest poetry in history. Archer fell from grace because he had got mixed up with prostitutes. Byron, much more grandly, was accused of having an affair with his sister! Byron went abroad and half the women in Europe fell in love with him, until he gave the English language the word Byronic! What word has Jeffrey Archer given the English language?"

There was a chuckling silence.

"Yes, sad, really, isn't it?" said Patrick. "Jeffrey Archer has left the English language untouched, especially when writing his books, whereas Byron is still a byword for the moody magnificent lover. Archer was a moody lover all right. But magnificent?"

The crowd laughed.

"Now, here's an interesting thing. One thing they have in common was their interest in Middle Eastern minorities. Byron went off to help the Greeks fight the Turks. Jeffrey Archer collected lots of money to help the Kurds. The difference was that Byron did actually arrive in Greece. Have the Kurds seen the money yet...?"

The crowd laughed.

Patrick's show was going very well.

This was the third performance of the day of his Edinburgh Fringe Show about Byron.

The only snag was that this wasn't Edinburgh he was performing at. It was the main concourse of a large airport near London.

Patrick had been waiting for his flight to Edinburgh for nearly three days now, but the whole place had been paralysed by a monster computer breakdown. Patrick had been so frustrated at not getting to Edinburgh with his show that he had got bits and pieces of his props out to practise, and when people had shown an interest, had decided to put it on there and then, for his fellow captives waiting for their flights.

It was a smash hit. Not many of them had heard of Lord Byron, but a good story is a good story, and when the best thing available is a departure screen offering apologies, then a free show is going to be a smash success.

"He's causing a riot," said the director of the airport gloomily, staring down at the crowds in the concourse. "Shall we chuck him out?"

"Not bloody likely," said the deputy director of the airport, thinking of newspaper headlines saying "Fringe Show Is Smash Hit in Airport". "He's saved our bacon. Let's hire him full-time. Actually, let's go and see his show. It's meant to be very good."

"Now, we all know that Archer was a compulsive liar," said Patrick to the crowd. "But Byron was something even more dangerous. He was a compulsive truth-teller. His memoirs were so honest that when his executors read them after his death, they said they were too honest, and burnt them."

There was a gasp in the airport concourse.

"But which is right? Is it better to lie or tell the truth? Perhaps I can bring the audience in on this one. You, sir, in the front row - tell us, are you wearing a toupee or your own hair?"

Though he did not know it, he was addressing the deputy director. There was a gale of laughter, in which the airport director laughed the loudest.

"He's good," said the director. "Let's hire him for next year."

And so they did. In fact, the next year the airport had its own Fringe Festival, and within five years there were more than sixty shows in the Airport Fringe, and by then people were already saying the Airport Fringe Festival was going commercial, but that's the way it always goes, isn't it?

The Independent Friday Aug 16 02

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© Caroline Kington