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Fool for you

Behind the April Fool's Day pranks lies an ancient subversive tradition, Martin Wainwright writes

April 1, 2007
9 min read

Any day now an email is likely to wing its way around each of the main parties’ spin bunkers, saying: ‘Watch it on Sunday, April the First. Remember Coldplay.’ The note refers to a story a year ago in the Guardian, which revealed that Chris Martin and co had decided to lend their cool, young image to the Tory new boy David Cameron.You could even download a sample with lyrics to the pulsing beat of the band’s big 2005 hit ‘Talk’.They included the quatrain:

‘It was the Converse trainers that did it for me,

I got them in orange, wait till you see,

That’s what smashed my illusions about Tony Blair,

His shoes, his suits, his terrible hair…’

It had the New Labour rapid reaction phones ringing wildly until someone remembered what happens on 1 April. Pranks, tricks, skits.

It can all get a bit wearisome and anoraky, but the annual day of foolery isn’t just a time for the kids or smartypants at the Guardian.There’s a genuine political underlay to all the joking, and one that goes back as far as recorded history. Has there ever been a time when ordinary people didn’t dream of subverting the powers that be? The way that frustration bursts out from time to time in revolutions accounts for a lot in the long tradition of April Fools. It plays a part in one of the earliest known variants, the south east Asian festival of Huli at the end of March, when no one is immune from jokes and the notion of a fool’s errand began. Victims, especially pompous ones, were sent to non-existent addresses or to people who weren’t expecting them. Imagine a guy called Gordon, for example, getting a note saying: ‘Pop next door. Tony wants to see you asap about a big new job.’ It was that sort of thing.

In the west, the subversion really got going with the medieval church, whose powers of discipline were surely studied by the Mandelson/Campbell combo, not to mention the New Tories around David Cameron. Ignore earlier references to the Roman emperor Constantine handing over power every 1 April to his court jester in a symbolic gesture. This was revealed in 1983 by Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University; but it took the world, and especially its gullible media, a while to notice that his paper was delivered to the Associated Press on April Fool’s Day.

The church’s goings-on are another, and very well documented, matter. As part of the feudal state, the perversion of the simple teachings of Christ into a man-made system of privilege and ritual was the regular target of independent-minded people.These were few in number, but their greatest concentration was inside the church itself because of its virtual monopoly of learning.Their rebellion could be long term and serious, as in the case of ecclesiastical giants such as Martin Luther, but it burst out more spontaneously and basically on All Fools’ Day.

That very name apes the autumn celebrations of All Souls and All Saints, whose solemn procedures were extraordinarily satirised on 1 April in a world where ordinarily you could be hung for sticking your tongue out at a baron. The 12th-century cathedral cities of France saw an annual Feast of Fools, in which church services had the bishop replaced by a donkey, sometimes with a prostitute perched in the saddle, and the words of the Magnificat reduced to simple repetition of the phrase: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek.’ Freshly-cooked sausage was stuffed into the censers instead of incense and the congregations brayed the French equivalent of ‘Eeyore’ instead of singing responses.

It is disappointing, perhaps, that this subversion went only so far. Most local authorities took the line that it was good to let off steam, and drew the sting from more serious protests by allowing the fun and games for just the one day. They even collaborated to the extent of drawing up regulations. Instructions for the Reform of the Feast of Fools passed by a church council in France in 1444 include the rule that not more than three buckets of water should be poured over the Precentor Stultorum (Bishop of the Fools) at Vespers, the evening service.

We look in vain, so far, for an April Fool that actually lit the fuse of something more substantial in the way of turning the world upside down, but there are plenty of examples of authority going puce and spluttering. A cultural misunderstanding of the tradition led the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia in 2001 to warn Muslims not to play April Fools, because they involved lying and were a practice of the unbelievers. The latter is plain wrong: April Fool’s Day knows no religious or secular boundaries. Its power lies in the potential to upset the applecart.

Take two contemporary examples. The US campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals scored a huge, free, publicity bonus in 2000 by claiming to have doped the whole of a huge lake in Texas with tranquilisers, so that nothing would bite during the state’s biggest annual fishing tournament.They got terrific headlines and the chance to make their case nationwide, before scientists finally pulled the plug. It would have taken three sea-going oil tankers to carry enough sleeping tablets to have done the job.

The other one is Google, which always plays an April Fool and did an excellent one on GoogleEarth involving President Dubya’s top secret airbase at Area 51 in Nevada. Wandering bloggers are always checking out the runways and the Stealth bombers and so forth and on 1 April 2006 one of them noticed two little dots beside an F-15 fighter. Zooming in, he discovered two tiny turquoise aliens beside a flying saucer, one cleaning the windscreen while the other supervised a portable barbecue.

Okay, it didn’t bring down the presidency or stop the Iraq war. But April Fools can inform, educate, entertain – and embarrass, in quite a potent way.

The Guardian Book of April Fool’s Day by Martin Wainwright is published by Aurum Press, £12.99 or discounted at www.guardianbookshop.co.uk

In 1977 the Guardian published a seven-page supplement in honour of the tenth anniversary of San Seriffe, a small Indian Ocean republic consisting of several colon-shaped islands. The two major islands were called Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, with its capital called Bodoni and the country being run by General Pica. A series of articles described the beautiful scenery and culture of this obscure country, prompting hundreds of readers to ring the Guardian seeking travel information. Few people noticed that the islands’ features were all named after print terminology and the success of the joke is regarded as having inspired the subsequent April Fools pranks that have continued to appear in the media.

In 1991 the Times announced that the Department of Transport had plans in place to ease congestion on the M25 by making both carriageways travel in the same direction. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays traffic would travel clockwise, while on Tuesdays and Thurdays it would travel anti-clockwise. It was reported that the proposals had met with cabinet approval, provoking widespead protest.

A resident of Swanley, Kent complained that travelling to nearby Orpington would mean that ‘on some days this will be a journey of two miles and on others a journey of 117 miles’.

In 1992 ex-US president Richard Nixon announced his intention to run for the presidency again, with the campaign slogan: ‘I didn’t do anything wrong and I won’t do it again.’ His ‘candidacy speech’ was aired on National Public Radio’s Talk to The Nation programme, which was besieged with outraged calls until half way through the show when it was revealed to be a joke – with Nixon’s voice impersonated by comedian Rich Little.

A new charity was announced by the Phoenix New Times in 1999 called the Arm the Homeless Coalition. Instead of providing food or shelter, its aim was to provide the homeless with guns and ammunition. The Associated Press and several local radio stations covered the story before people realised it was a prank.

The Irish Times ran a story in 1995 claiming that Lenin’s embalmed body could be moved to Euro Disney. The communist leader’s corpse has been kept on public display in Moscow’s Red Square, but it was reported that Disney were negotiating the purchase of the body and the mausoleum and moving them to its Paris theme park, where Lenin would be given the ‘full Disney treatment’. This was to include using stroboscopic lights to improve his pallid complexion, playing excerpts from former US president Ronald Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ speech and selling Lenin t-shirts. Disney was said to have anticipated that this would attract visitors and boost revenue, and the Russians were reported to have agreed to the sale of the body but were still wrangling over the sale of the mausoleum.

In 1999 Radio Four’s Today programme announced that ‘God Save the Queen’ was going to be replaced by a ‘Euro anthem’ sung in German. The anthem was aired on the show and featured extracts from Beethoven’s music sung by a German choir. Apparently Prince Charles’s office then anxiously rang up Radio Four requesting a copy of the new anthem.

They later claimed to have been in on the joke and merely playing along.

In 2001 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired ex-US president Jimmy Carter being interviewed by respected broadcaster Michael Enright on its This Morning programme. At one point in the interview Enright suddenly called Carter ‘a washed-up peanut farmer from Hicksville’, greatly shocking the audience. Enright later revealed the whole interview had been faked – although many failed to find it funny.

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