Only a fool would fall for that

 

Fabrications, fibs and falsehoods - it's all in a day's work for journalists desperate to dupe all those unwary readers on a day like today, writes Fiona McCann

YOU, READING THIS: proceed with caution. Note the date on the upper left hand corner of this page, and be reminded that any or all of the following could be a fabrication.

Actually, it's not, but if such were true, this wouldn't exactly be the first article in history to attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of a trusting public on the day that's in it.

Take for example the BBC's Panorama programme which aired on April 1st, 1957, featuring a family from Ticino in Switzerland carrying out their annual spaghetti harvest. Over footage of women plucking spaghetti from the trees, the sombre tones of respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby explained that the uniform length of the strands was the result of "many years of patient endeavour by plant breeders". The British public swallowed it whole - many so convinced that they even contacted the BBC to inquire as to where they could pick up their own spaghetti plants.

Here at The Irish Times, readers back in 1995 may have been surprised to learn from a front page report by then Moscow correspondent Seamus Martin that EuroDisney was in negotiations with the Russian government over the purchase of the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilich Lenin. The report explained that, should the deal go through, the body of the communist leader would be moved to Paris, where it would be given "the full Disney treatment". According to the purported Disney spokesperson, the aptly named Mr Pottier, Lenin's body would be "displayed under stroboscopic lights which will tone up the pallid face, while excerpts of President Reagan's 'evil empire' speech will be played in quadraphonic sound".

Martin's wasn't the only such story to appear in this newspaper over the years of April firsts, with several reporters taking advantage of the creative licence the date allowed them to tell tall tales.

While readers may gripe, it could comfort them to know that the tables can turn on the hacks just as easily, as one unfortunate Associated Press reporter found when he began his story on the origins of April Fool's Day back in 1983. Having been tipped off that a certain history professor from Boston University was the man to talk to about such things, the reporter in question duly gave him a call.

"It occurred spontaneously, I had not thought it out in advance," is the explanation offered by Prof Joseph Boskin for the elaborate story that he proceeded to fabricate, with the help, he admits, of "a few puffs of a joint". Boskin told the reporter that April Fool's Day had originated in the time of the Roman King Constantine when a union of jesters petitioned the monarch, suggesting that they could make as good a fist of ruling the kingdom as he was doing. Constantine decided to give them a shot, and put the kingdom into the hands of a jester for one day - April first, as it happens.

As he spun his story, Boskin was amazed that the reporter never once questioned its veracity. "Then he asked me a question that really threw me off," recalls Boskin. "He asked me for a name [ for the jester]." Boskin, high as a kite, immediately thought of Kugel, a dish usually eaten at Passover. "I said King Kugel, and I expected him at that point to say 'This interview is over,' but instead he asked me how to spell it, and then I knew that something was radically wrong." He pauses. "So I spelled it for him."

The story went out on the Associated Press wires and turned up in newspapers all over the world, with Boskin then inundated with calls from radio stations eager to hear the heretofore undiscovered story from the professor himself. "I tried to tell them that it was an April Fool's Day story, but they thought I was making up a story about the story," he recalls. Ironically, the radio stations assumed Boskin was April fooling about his original April fool.

When AP finally worked out what had happened, they had to print a retraction, and were none to happy with the prank, though Boskin says that, despite the irate phone calls he received from the news agency, he has no regrets. "Do you know what I now teach at the university? American humour!"

As delightful as Boskin's tale may be, it obviously doesn't answer the original question about where the April Fool's Day tradition began, though various theories abound.

While some suggest April Fool's Day is another feast that developed around the vernal equinox, others believe it started with the French, when Charles IX shuffled the calendar in 1564, making January 1st the new New Year's Day. Any traditionalists who insisted on celebrating new year's on April 1st, as in previous years, were ridiculed with practical jokes. The Scots developed their own version of April Fool's Day, known as Taily Day, and even the Irish caught on - as evinced in the fondness Jonathan Swift exhibited for the April Fool's joke.

"Swift was a great practical joker and he loved making people uncomfortable with practical jokes," explains Swiftean scholar Prof Andrew Carpenter from UCD's English Department. "He played a major trick on [ John] Partridge, who published almanacs in which he foresaw the future. Swift decided to write a mock almanac predicting Partridge's death. There were two or three published before the final day Partridge was due to die, which was April 1st, and then Swift [ under the name of Isaac Bickerstaff] published his obituary."

The "death" of the unfortunate Partridge was by then so accepted that the poor man found it hard to convince people otherwise, with many assuming he was a ghost when he emerged from his home on April 1st. The public refused to believe their own eyes, and the consequences of Swift's hoax lingered long after it was played. "Apparently people used to wake Partridge up during the night, mourning outside his window," says Carpenter. "Swift had a mischievous side to himself and All Fool's Day, as it was called then, was ideal for him." With Partridge unable to convince people for much of his life that he was still living it, Swift's joke is perhaps an illustration, at least from Partridge's perspective, of what happens when April Fool's jokes become a little too convincing.

Yet it seems April Fool pranksters still haven't learned. A hoax in 2004 backfired when two radio DJs from Indiana began a celebrity death rumour about baseball player Don Mattingly. The two DJs were forced to apologise after their joke became so successful that even Mattingly's children believed it.

It would appear that although April Fool's jokes have been coming round annually for centuries now, we still manage to fall for them. But if the consequences can be so upsetting, what's the point? According to Boskin, there is something to be gained from having a day dedicated to humour. "April Fool's Day stands for everything being topsy-turvy," he says. "You take the most logical things and turn them on their head so people can gain perspective on things. It's about absurdity, the absurdity of life, and it's one way to gain perspective."

To quote Homer - father of Bart, rather than poet of renown: "You couldn't fool your mother on the foolingest day of your life, if you had an electrified fooling machine." Which may well apply, but if Boskin is to be believed, there's much to be gained from trying.

Top five April Fool's jokes. Would you fall victim?

1BBC spaghetti harvest, 1957 Richard Dimbleby tells viewers about the terrors of the spaghetti weevil and documents a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland.

2Republic of San Serriffe, 1977 The Guardian publishes a seven-page supplement on this island nation, the two larger islands, known as Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, bearing a striking resemblance to a semi-colon.

3Patrick Moore's gravitational discovery, 1976 Eminent astronomer Patrick Moore (above, right) informs the British public on BBC Radio 2 that at 9.47am Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, causing a gravitational alignment that would reduce the Earth's gravity. Listeners were told that if they jumped at the exact moment of this one-off event, they would experience a temporary floating sensation.

4Sidd Finch, 1985 US journalist George Plimpton publishes a story in Sports Illustrated about a new Mets pitcher who can throw a baseball at 168mph, having mastered the skill at a Tibetan monastery.

5Alabama changes Pi, 1998 New Mexicans for Science and Reason publish a story reporting that the Alabama state legislature has voted to change the value of the mathematical constant, Pi, from 3.14 to 3.0, in accordance with cited Biblical references.