It has become common for U.K. newspapers to treat their readers to elaborate April Fool articles.

On April 1, a friend telephoned and said he understood I had asked him to call. When I denied it, he turned to his wife, and I heard her say: “April fool”.

The tradition of getting people to believe something that is not true, at a personal level or more widely, for example in carefully structured newspaper articles, goes back many years though there is uncertainty about when it actually began.

It is now common in the U.K. for newspapers to treat their readers to elaborately structured April Fool articles. One of the best, still quoted with admiration, was the publication by The Guardian in 1977 of a supplement devoted to the (fictional) republic of San Serriffe, consisting of several semi-colon-shaped islands located in the Indian Ocean.

A series of articles affectionately described the geography and culture of this obscure nation. Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Its capital was Bodoni, and its leader was General Pica. A few people – but only a few – noticed as they read the article that all the names in it, including that of the fictional republic itself, were based on printing terms.

The Guardian has built on this tradition, with annual April Fool pieces. This year it treated readers to an article reporting that the Labour Party is planning to embrace Gordon Brown's “reputation for anger and physical aggression” in a pre-election poster campaign. There was a clue in the attribution of the article to the anagrammatic Olaf Priol. (However, in the current fevered pre-election atmosphere in the U.K. even the most improbable assertions can appear almost believable.)

The BBC's spoof

The tradition of elaborate media April Fool spoofs can probably best be dated to 1957, 20 years before The Guardian's San Serriffe masterpiece. In that year the BBC news feature programme, Panorama (which is still running), reported in what seemed to be authentic detail that because of a mild winter farmers in Switzerland were enjoying a bumper spaghetti harvest. It fooled many people – partly, no doubt, because the BBC had a reputation as a wholly serious broadcaster, partly because at that time British diet was far less international than it later became. Spaghetti was something that one bought in cans (in tomato sauce) and most people probably had no idea what it was made of. Many years after the Panorama move into April Foolery people continued to speak about it.

As the tradition developed in the media, it became more common for the April Fool events to be politically based. In 1992, for example, in the United States, the National Public Radio Talk of the Nation programme announced that Richard Nixon was seeking election as President again, with a campaign slogan “I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again”. It produced outrage; until it was revealed that it was a practical joke.

More join in

Back to the current year, and The Independent married contemporary science and politics, claiming to have seen a preliminary study commissioned by The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) into the feasibility of creating a second Large Hadron Collider in a tunnel in the London Underground Circle Line; with the proton beams colliding under Portcullis House, which contains the offices of more than 200 Members of Parliament. The story said that health and safety advisers warned that the experiment could create “a mini black hole at Westminster”.

Another newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, carried a report that a team “of specially trained ferrets are being used to deliver broadband to rural areas following groundbreaking techniques used by an Internet provider”. The ferrets were said to wear jackets fitted with a microchip which is able to analyse any breaks or damage in the underground network.

The Sun invited readers to lick a page, claiming it had perfected a new printing process, by which it could inject flavours into paper. As in The Guardian, there was an anagrammatic clue in the name of the alleged new process: Flair Spool.

A similar anagrammatic clue appeared in the Daily Mail's story about a breakdown rescue service launched by the Automobile Association, involving a rapid-response patrol of “AA Rocketmen” who could reach motorists more quickly by soaring over traffic jams. The story referred to a “future technology strategist” – Raif Lopol.

These, now traditional, annual media excursions into April Foolery provide us with harmless fun, but I sometimes feel that they provide a reminder, particularly in the current political climate, that fiction is not necessarily stranger than truth.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. E-mail him at:


Cambridge Letter: In perpetual motionDecember 14, 2009