Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

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

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee