Tomorrow is 1 April. Am I alone in hoping, after more than a year of lockdown, someone somewhere is putting the finishing touches to an idea the rest of us will remember with joy – and chortle? For years, increasingly elaborate jokes, linked to an ancient custom with its origins in the middle ages, brought a light touch to the news. People reading the papers and watching television, on this particular day of the year, learned to be extra careful, just in case.
Was there anyone who didn't take it seriously when Richard Dimbleby revealed, in a special Panorama
report, that spaghetti grew on trees? Come on, those of you who witnessed the actual transmission, be honest! At the very least, didn't you find yourself wondering, why are they bothering about the Swiss? Isn't it the Italians who eat spaghetti? And didn't the idea that farmers, anywhere, were enjoying a bumper crop, thanks, in this case, to a mild winter and the elimination of the spaghetti weevil, make you feel good? CNN (awed, perhaps, by Dimbleby's involvement) claimed it was 'the biggest hoax that any reputable news organisation ever pulled'.
Twenty years later, The Guardian
(still a broadsheet) joined the competition with an elaborate seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe, a semi-colon-shaped territory located somewhere in the Indian Ocean near the Seychelles. Attracted by the delights of its fun-filled capital, Bodoni, the islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse were the new in-place for discerning tourists, the newspaper reported.
Historians trace people's abiding interest in April Fool jokes to 1582 and changes in the Julian calendar. Much sky-searching and calculation by intellectual giants such as Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei demonstrated the world was wrong in its belief that a year lasted 365.25 days. The correct figure was 365.2422. Pope Gregory XIII, revealing, perhaps, a surprising willingness to take account of modern thinking, authorised changes which included moving the start of the year from 1 April to 1 January, ignoring the spring equinox.
Anyone among the lower orders who refused to abide by the new calendar was dismissed as an 'April Fool'. Making them the butt of (quite often) silly jokes and demeaning pranks was an easy next step.
The best April Fool jokes should be audacious, funny, and relevant to their time. Example: New Mexicans for Science and Reason accused the Alabama state legislature of passing a bill which redefined the mathematical constant of pi to the biblical value of 3. State legislator Leonard Lee Lawson believed it was important people realised 'the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter was not 3.141592653589793, etc, etc, but plain ol' 3, as verified by the Scriptures'.
Combine mankind's eagerness for knowledge with an all-too-common desire to save money and the result, most likely, will be immortality. For example, during the early days of television, Swedish viewers were advised that a nylon stocking, properly applied to the front of an ordinary black and white TV, produced colour. Heavy with information, a lengthy public service-style presentation, broadcast on the main channel, explained the physics involved.
My own all-time favourite dates from the mid-1970s and features a Scottish invention, a revolutionary rubber-shafted golf club, designed and manufactured in his Hillington factory by master craftsman John Letters. This game-changing development was exclusively revealed on Scotland Today
by the programme's longest-serving frontman, John Toye.
Brainchild of a young TV producer named Alistair McLeod, himself a keen golfer, the new club had been rigorously tested (for the benefit of STV cameras) by star golfer Bernard Gallacher. He had been amazed to find that the flexibilty and accuracy offered by the new design reduced the most difficult par 5 to a simple drive and an easy putt. There wasn't a leading player, anywhere in the world, Bernard forcast, who wouldn't want one in his bag. The commercial possibilities were endless. Even the Forestry Commission could expect to benefit, due to a sudden demand for locally produced rubber, with land in Cowal already earmarked for development as Scotland's first rubber plantation.
Did anyone believe it? The following day I received a telephone call from a leading industrialist (and prominent member of the R&A) wanting to know how he could get his hands on the rubber-shafted club, as seen on Scotland Today
the previous evening. Was he fooled? I'll never really know. One thing is for sure, we both enjoyed the moment. Isn't that enough?
Russell Galbraith is a writer and former television executive