I’ve received a communication from the Electoral Reform Services, containing a letter from the British Medical Association Scotland, a 12 page document entitled “Frequently Asked Questions”, and a ballot paper with the question, “Do you wish to see the proposed new Scottish GMS contract implemented?” I settled down to read the answers to the frequently asked questions, but I got distracted by pages 11 and 12 which were identical in both bearing a single, deeply mysterious sentence.
This page is intentionally blank.
I’ve come across this sentence before so it is not unfamiliar to me. I first came across it in RAF standing orders when I was in the University Air Squadron, and I’ve subsequently seen it in Civil Aviation Authority publications. The aviation world seems a natural home for such a sentence. The RAF would call it “bumf”. The question is begged: why? Why is this page intentionally blank? I found myself giving this question inordinate attention.
But of course the statement is false; the page is not blank. The page would only have been blank if the sentence were not there. I can’t think that a truly blank page would have caused consternation in any quarter. Blank pages are quite common at the end of a book; are they not called end-papers? To check this, I’ve just taken a book at random off my shelves. It is Nobel Laureate Alice Munro’s New Selected Stories (Chatto and Windus 2011), a beautiful volume. The last story, Free Radicals from Too Much Happiness (2009) ends on page 434 and is followed by 10 blank pages, 8 in white and 2 in orange. Neither Ms Munro nor Chatto and Windus felt compelled to offer an explanation.
So Chatto and Windus are quite relaxed about blank pages, but for some reason the RAF, the CAA, the BMA and the ERS are not. It must have something to do with officialdom. They might have written, “For your convenience, here are two blank pages for your own notes”. But maybe that’s the whole point. They are worried about sabotage; some rogue doctor and/or aviator might decide to invent and insert his own standing orders, so the idea is to endorse the pages in the way a reproduction of a bank cheque might be marked “Specimen only”. They might have written, “Do not write on this page” but that introduces an absurd element. It reminds me of a picture somebody sent into the Herald Diary column, of a sign bearing the legend, “Do not throw stones at this notice.” Might it have been better to state, in the interests of accuracy, “The obverse of this page is intentionally blank”, and then, intentionally, left it blank? That still leaves us with the conundrum, what did the writer or editor intend by blankness?
The fact that there are two sides to the page raises the spectre of the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. In his three volume autobiography (George Allen and Unwin, 1967) – a compelling read – Russell describes how he wrote on a piece of paper, “The statement on the other side of this paper is false”. Then he turned the paper over and wrote, “The statement on the other side of this paper is true”. Then he sat in silence and stared at the piece of paper for eighteen months. This is the sort of aberrant behaviour fathers write to their sons about when they see them entering a cul-de-sac in pursuit of some forlorn chimera. “I beseech you, my son, do not waste your substance on wraiths of gossamer. Play music as a hobby by all means. But come into the family business and manufacture ball bearings.” Russell started out thinking his quirky true/false paradox was just a light-hearted parlour trick, but he never solved the conundrum and he came to believe that the entire edifice of human knowledge was built on sand.
Perhaps in a similar vein of scepticism, I started by thinking that the intentionally blank page was just a trivial manifestation of bureaucratic farce, but its persistence goads me; I keep thinking the blank page has a deeper cultural significance for us. I’ve been struggling all week to think what it might be.
Then I read of the passing of Christine Keeler and, improbably, the jigsaw began to fall into place. In 1963, an iconic photograph of Ms Keeler appeared in the newspapers. She was sitting back-to-front astride a very 60-ish vinyl chair, a very beautiful brunette pouting at the camera. The only thing she was wearing was the chair. Just in case you don’t remember, Christine Keeler achieved fame, I will not say notoriety, in 1963 when the then Minister of War, John Profumo, had to resign from the government when it was discovered that his assertion that there was “no impropriety” about his relationship with Ms Keeler was an attempt to provide verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. If I render this in a Gilbertian way, it is only to accentuate the element of farce. It was said that Mr Profumo had to resign because he “lied to the House”, but I think everybody knew his sin was not that he had lied, but that he had been found out. He had to go because his real sin was that he had made the upper classes look ridiculous. I think that even then, child as I was, I realised this when I saw an interview on the BBC between Robert McKenzie and Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham. McKenzie asked the then potential prime minister if (because Ms Keeler was also thought to be involved with the Russian attaché Yevgeny Ivanov) he thought that Profumo’s affair constituted a threat to British security. Well! Lord Hailsham went ballistic. “OF COURSE IT IS – DON’T BE SILLY!” Shortly after the whole debacle, the government fell and a successor to Harold MacmIllan had to be found. The two front runners were Lord Hailsham, who was prepared to give up his peerage, and Rab Butler. I remember seeing Hailsham at a hustings, being confronted at close quarters by a protester bearing a placard. I don’t know what the placard said but I just remember footage of Lord Hailsham smashing it to bits with either a walking stick or an umbrella. Whether that did his electoral chances any good I couldn’t say. Of course the next Prime Minister was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, a Scottish aristocrat of such high caste that one had the sense he was quite indifferent to the premiership and only acceded to it out of a sense of civic duty. Lord Hailsham was a colourful character, and Rab Butler had the reputation for being politically astute. But both were polarising personalities and in the end the Conservative Party opted for an invisible figure for whom it might have been written, “This page is intentionally blank.”
The Profumo scandal ran for weeks. It ran in tandem with BBC’s greatest satirical show, That Was The Week That Was. TW3’s legacy was this truth, that a governing class can endure anything through two world wars, but one thing it cannot endure, is ridicule.
I know it’s irrational, but any time I see an official publication bearing the statement “This page is intentionally blank”, I conjure a sense of smoke and mirrors, of official subterfuge, obfuscation, and sleight of hand. Redact, redact, redact.