from: Jason Ward | oh comely <firstname.lastname@example.org>
to: Liz | oh comely <email@example.com>
date: 13 August 2015 at 12:10
subject: FOR LB’S EYES ONLY
I’ve been thinking. If we’re going to create an issue about secrets then we’d surely be
remiss if we didn’t attempt to keep a secret from the Oh Comely team. I’ve come up
with a concept for a testing feature that I think has the potential to be rather excellent.
I’m happy to give you the details, but I like the idea that even you won’t know what I’m
up to until the piece is finished. This would require placing some trust in me, of course,
but what’s a secret without trust?
The only thing I’d ask is for the relevant scrap of paper on the planning board to read
ANONYMOUS TWO-SPREAD FEATURE ABOUT NOTHING IN PARTICULAR PLEASE
GO ON WITH YOUR LIVES THERE IS DEFINITELY NOTHING TO SEE HERE HEY YOU’RE
BEING SUSPICIOUS. If anyone questions this, the correct response is to produce
the most unconvincing laugh possible and change the subject immediately to the
weather, or to flat-out deny that there’s anything on the board at all. At that point it
might be useful to jump out of the nearest window, but I’ll leave that to your discretion.
What do you think? Is this a good idea?
She said yes, and I stumbled into the dark.
Summer almost over and too early to have lunch, I found myself travelling through an undiscovered country, located somewhere deep within the continent of freelance magazine journalism. I had pitched without a pitch, lobbied for free rein to craft a feature without the careful process of refinement that precedes the commissioning of any sensible piece of journalism. With a single hasty email I’d achieved the dream of every writer: I had requested carte blanche and actually been given it. I had asked for the moon and there it was, bobbing around in my back garden tied to some string. I was, without question, going to mess this one up.
For an ideal reading experience, try to imagine that you have commissioned this very article and are now trying not to quietly panic. If I was more diabolical, this would be the juncture where I’d inconspicuously transition into that short story meaning to write about a reverse werewolf (he’s a normal wolf, you see, but once a month he turns into a human). Alas, I am of average diabolism: if I’m late to a social engagement, I will tell the person I’m heading towards that I’m almost there when I’m definitely nowhere near, but will feel guilty about it afterwards.
The idea I had was this: I would attempt to destabilise Oh Comely by forming my own secret society within the magazine’s editorial team. This society would exist in the shadows as its numbers expanded, operating covertly until it reached the point when everyone in the team had become a member. At this point I would expand its reach nationwide and make my first strides towards inevitable world domination. Or I would
write up the feature and email it in.
As I typed, “How do I create a secret society?” and, “Oh, also: what is a secret society?” into my search engine, I started to suspect that I wasn’t the devious mastermind I’d always assumed myself to be. Tin foil hat-sporting sections of the internet disputed what the essential distinguishing attributes of a secret society were, but they broadly seemed to agree that they involve two elements: how you get in, and what you do
when you are in.
It is the deliberate obscurity of the answers to these questions that explains the enduring appeal of secret societies. In the same way that people usually think something is valuable if it’s a secret, an organisation becomes more attractive if the passage of entry is difficult and the rewards of admission are unclear. A secret society intimates (but doesn’t promise) that it knows something everyone else doesn’t, that in figurative or literal terms it possesses the Forgotten Wisdom of the Ancients. They are first and foremost a triumph of marketing. What do they do in Yale University’s Skull and Bones? It doesn’t matter: they’re called Skull and Bones.
If I was to create a secret society that would become rapidly corrupt with power, I needed a strong name. The secret assassin cult who tormented India for 600 years were called Thuggee. The secret revolutionary groups from nineteenth-century Italy were called the Carbonari. The medieval German philosophical sect were called the Rosicrucians. An effective name for a secret society has to be mysterious, but with perverse menace creeping around its edges too: the Bavarian Illuminati’s name was potent enough to inspire conspiracy theories for centuries to come. On reflection, Skull and Bones somewhat over-eggs the secret pudding: it is malevolent enough to become ludicrous, the sort of name an enthusiastic child might give to a gang whose membership totals themselves and a younger sibling.
I found the middle ground I was searching for a short while later when I was copied in on a passive-aggressive email from a housemate. The message touted a “friendly reminder” about the cleaning rota. Are there any two words in the English language more ominous when put together than “friendly reminder”? It was perfect. With a name that good I didn’t even need my own remote island retreat to lure people in.
In spite of my excellent name, however, I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for potential followers to come to me. But what invitation would be fittingly enigmatic? I knew the home addresses of almost all of my Oh Comely colleagues: how difficult would it be to leave a scrawled handwritten note under their back door, or to move a few flower pots around in the shape of a puzzling, inexplicable symbol? As I pondered the logistics of rigging a paving slab to play a cryptic recording, I came to the realisation that the actions involved in setting up a secret society are not dissimilar to those of a well-prepared stalker. I was happy to become a tyrant, but I refused to end up as a creep.
To avoid becoming someone fated to cut eyeholes into newspapers, I briefly dropped any notion of secrecy whatsoever. At a small extracurricular get-together, I asked three members of the team if they’d like to join my new secret society. I don’t need to explain why I won’t provide their names here, but thankfully all three enthusiastically said yes. One of them—to protect her identity let’s call her “Siz Leabrook”—even came up with a uniform. By a splendid coincidence, all four of us in the Friendly Reminders had recently obtained tie-dyed t-shirts following a workshop run by the magazine. While I figured we would need to invest in masks at some point, or at least some special capes for rituals, we had an essential sartorial item. We were ready to begin.
My imagination was starting to get the better of me. It usually does. I had visions of persuading my colleagues to meet under railway bridges at midnight, devising elaborate handshakes, maybe even coaxing them into joining an insurgent second secret society which would actually contain all of the same members as the first but no one would know because we’d all be wearing hoods. Oh, the hoods: there would be hoods upon hoods upon hoods. Where was I going to find the time to make all of these hoods? I needed to learn how to knit, to begin with.
Unfortunately for the sake of my yarn-wrangling proficiency, this is not the point in the story where the Friendly Reminders takes great and terrible flight. This is the point in the story when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is accused of having sex with a dead pig.
David Cameron’s act of porcine perversion, it was claimed, had been undertaken at Oxford University as part of an initiation rite to join the Piers Gaveston Society, a decadent men-only dining club that was inherently a secret society with better refreshments. It isn’t for me to comment on how likely this allegation is, but whether it actually happened or not is almost beside the point: the reason it has taken root in the public’s imagination is because on some deep, fundamental level it rings true. The sort of person who would be cold and ambitious enough to want to join a restricted, aristocratic secret society is also the sort of person who would be willing to receive fellatio from a fallen hog in order to do so. He just seems like the type, doesn’t he?
In other words, by forming my own secret society I was at risk of falling into bed with the past, present and future associates of the Piers Gaveston Society, the Bullingdon Club and any number of similar groups that wallow in privilege and keep their doors closed to all but the richest and most obnoxious of rich, obnoxious men. What if the Friendly Reminders succeeded beyond my wildest dreams? Sure, its initiation rites currently consisted of me asking, “I’m forming a secret society. Would you like to join?”, but how long before I was sourcing animal parts from black market butchers and forcing future political leaders to get intimate with them? Just how far could this thing go? It had been a fun, silly little idea that came to me one morning, cackling in the shower, and now I was going to usher in another Conservative prime minister. My mother was going to have a fit.
A long shadow fell over me. Defeat lumbered in my direction. I sat in my room and thought about how the secret societies I’d explored had also been created by people sitting in rooms too. They were no different from me; they had just come to different conclusions in other places and times. Looking out at my back garden I watched the moon, bobbing away at the end of its string. It was a friendly reminder: I could make
anything I wanted. I had carte blanche, after all.
So, anyway, yes. Let’s try again. The idea I have is this: I’m forming a secret society. Would you like to join?
If you are interested in becoming a part of this secret society, which will be mentioned only here, now, in this one article, and never again, you have my solemn vow that you will never be forced to do anything horrible against your will, such as have sex with a dead animal or join the Conservative party. If you’d like, you can make yourself a tie-dyed t-shirt at some point, but that’s more like a secular version of the Hajj: as long as you get around to it eventually you’ll be fine. We have no aims at all. We’re not going to do a thing. But you’re allowed to join us anyway. All you have to do is speak a couple of words aloud, right now. I’ll do it too. It’s easy, just say: “I AM READY TO BE SWEPT OFF MY FEET.”
Did you say it? Alright then. Welcome to the Friendly Reminders. I’ll start knitting some hoods.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Eight.