I will hazard a guess that few of us paid regular attention to the Suez canal until a container ship got knocked off course by “a gust of wind”, blocking one of the most important trade routes in the world. Although there were serious repercussions (billions of pounds’ worth) a 220,000-ton ship being bested by a gentle breeze was in some ways the farcical crisis we all needed.
As the ship refused to budge for an entire week, we followed the story with an intensity that cynics might attribute to there truly being nothing else going on. My favourite commentary on the excitement? The writer Ben Jenkins pointing out that the captain of the first ship to go through the unblocked canal had the opportunity to do “the funniest thing in the world ever”, by also getting stuck.
Every now and then, niche stories capture our attention en masse. Sometimes it is the outlandishness, sometimes the banality (see Jackie Weaver and the Handforth parish council meeting). The Suez canal drama appealed, I suspect, because it was everyone’s worst traffic jam experience writ large. But the bizarre always brings me a buzz.
I remember, from 2015, two escaped llamas in Arizona having the time of their lives (Llamas on the lam) as television helicopters shot footage of hapless sheriffs trying (and failing) to lasso them. How the entire internet cheered those llamas on! I recall the Guardian office gripped by a live feed of a large puddle in Newcastle, and the spectacle of passers-by attempting to negotiate it. A daring jump? Tentatively edge around it? We lapped it up. Meanwhile, are we even sure the Gatwick drone existed? I know I’m still waiting for the film adaptation.
I love these stories, because they bring us together when too often we spend our days ripping each other apart. (Though there is something known as “milkshake duck” – which is the rule that with most charming viral stories, the protagonists are not the wide-eyed innocents they seemed to be. It was disappointing to realise that the Drummond Puddle was the idea of a social media marketing manager and not, say, a bored student.)
I also love the stories that become in-jokes among friendship groups. I remain obsessed with a piece in my local paper about how Myleene Klass introduced a “giant, rat-eating, exotic crab” to Hampstead Heath. Six years that’s been bringing my local crew joy (even if Klass later poured cold water on it). A giant thank you to Suez canal traffic jams; parish council meetings; puddles in Newcastle and escaped llamas everywhere.