Lyubow Orlowa cannibal rats: Don't let facts get in the way of a good story
A ghost ship, devoid of people, but populated by 'cannibal' rats, lost and adrift in the eastern Atlantic – and potentially heading our way. The story is, as I know from experience, of a kind irresistible to any editor.
Oh, those eerie, clanking chains. The Arctic wind whistling amidships, icicles gilding the frozen hawsers.
That lawless freighter of the damned, its bulwarks groaning as it climbs the mountainous waves, driven relentlessly eastwards towards the European seaboard; both Mother Ireland and Blighty at risk.
And what horrors lurk below the haunted decks. Gigantic rats, demented with hunger, turn upon each other, feasting, feasting ...
Until all that remains is a master race of super-cannibals, merely waiting to be unleashed on those hapless humans as might get in their way.
(What's that? Stephen King's publisher is on the line? Tell him to hold, I'm only getting into my stride.)
Woe betide the blighted country where that killer crew makes landfall, as waves of super-rodents scurry ashore, gorging and ripping ...
That, at least, was the scenario conjured up this week with reports, published widely across the UK and Irish media, including the Belfast Telegraph's website via a syndication copyshare agreement under the headline: 'Lyubov Orlova: Russian ghost ship full of cannibal rats is adrift in the Atlantic and could be heading towards the UK and Ireland.'
The Lyubov Orlova, an unmanned cruise liner named after a Russian actor, has been drifting across the north Atlantic for almost a year and salvage hunters reportedly believe there is a chance it is heading towards us.
Experts were quoted as saying the ship is likely to still contain hundreds of rats that have been eating each other to survive and must still be out there somewhere, because not all of its lifeboat emergency beacons have been set off.
Two signals were picked up in March, thought to be from lifeboats, which fell away and hit the water, showing the vessel had made it two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic and was heading east.
A week later, an unidentified object of about the right size was spotted on radar just off the coast of Scotland, but search planes never verified the find. So it's out there and it must be heading our way. With Its Terrifying Cargo.
Well, yes and no. Of course, you can't disprove a negative – the ship may not have sunk (unlikely). The Atlantic is an awfully large place, so the chances of it docking here are very small. But possible.
As to those rats? Well, the cannibal line appears to have been based on a quote from Pim de Rhoodes, a Belgian salvage hunter. "She is floating around out there somewhere," he said. "There will be a lot of rats and they eat each other."
Note: there will be a lot of rats; and rats are the kind of creatures that eat each other.
Actually, rat-lovers would dispute the second statement, saying rats are no more likely to turn to cannibalism than humans.
So "ship full of cannibal rats heading our way", is starting to look, well, unlikely, if theoretically possible. And theoretical possibility is, of course, what the headline leans on.
Readers who commented on the story share my scepticism. 'Sequel to Snakes on a Plane – Rats on a Boat?' hooted one, referring to the 2006 Samuel L Jackson movie.
Others suggested unkindly that 'cannibal rats on a doomed sinking boat' was a euphemism for Northern Ireland's politicians and the Stormont parliament.
'Nothing to worry about,' said another commentator. 'Presumably, by the time it gets here, all that will be left will be one very well-fed rat.' And very seasick, too, I'd have thought.
Perhaps there's no need to call out the SAS just yet.