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Case of truth being stranger than fiction in some April fools

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: April 01, 2014

  • Ticket that sent gullible Victorians to the Tower of London

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IF you've ever been taken in by an "April Fool", sent on "a fool's errand" or simply been the butt of a practical joke, you may be wondering how it all started.

Whatever the case, it pays to be on your guard on April the first.

While the origins are not clear, it's thought the custom arrived here during the late 17th century, via Germany and France. And, by the 18th century, most Britons were familiar with it. Whatever its provenance, the custom took hold and April the first became known as "All Fools' Day."

Trickery and deception are as old as the hills and All Fools' Day may be one of many traditional "mischief" days, when normal rules were suspended or inverted. Mischief was expected and condoned, and people needed little excuse to let off steam.

Some more bizarre theories regarding the origins of April Fools' Day suggest it was the day on which Noah sent the dove on its fruitless quest to find dry land. Hence, the popularity of sending people on a fool's errand. In earlier times, you might be asked to fetch "pigeon's milk", "hen's teeth" or a "book about Eve's mother" – or other traditionally "rare" objects!

Newcomers, whether from out of town or new to a workplace, often bore the brunt of April Fools' trickery. Naive, young apprentices were sent out to fetch "straight hooks", "left-handed screw drivers" or "striped paint", depending on their particular trade. Those in on the joke had to keep a straight face and whatever happened, the fooling had to be over by midday. Those failing to keep the noon deadline were branded April Fools themselves, to cries of:

"April first is gone and past

And you're the biggest fool at last."

By the mid 1800s, the trickery had turned to practical jokes. Unsuspecting victims struggled to pick up coins glued to the pavement or parcels that were suddenly whisked away by invisible strings.

Other favourite pranks included having your coat tails pulled or rude messages pinned to your back. This last trick is similar to the French April 1 tradition called "Poissons d'Avril," when children pin paper fish on to people's backs.

In more recent times, the media has done its best to keep the hoaxing tradition in the public eye.

One of the most famous mass hoaxes was first recorded in 1698 in London. Apparently it was so effective it became one of several stock jokes Londoners played on unsuspecting provincials. The last instance of it was recorded in Robert Chambers' Book of Days, published in 1864:

" ... in March 1860, a vast multitude of people received through the post a card (saying) ... Tower of London ... admit the bearer and friend to view the annual ceremony of washing the white lions, on Sunday April 1, 1860. Admitted only at the White Gate. It is particularly requested that no gratuities be given to wardens or attendants ... "

By noon, crowds were waiting outside the tower, keen to see the spectacle – blissfully unaware that lions, let alone white ones, had not been kept at the Tower for centuries. Eventually, the crowds slunk away, realising they'd been duped.

Another famous hoax happened during the First World War with the Germans being caught on the back foot. Apparently, in 1915, a French aviator flew in very low over a German camp, dropping what looked like a huge bomb. As you would expect the German soldiers fled for cover, waiting for the bomb to explode. Minutes passed and nothing happened. Eventually the soldiers summoned the courage to approach the device – only to find a football with a note attached, saying "April Fool!"

One of the most famous media April Fools in living memory must be the "Swiss Spaghetti Harvest" hoax of 1957. Back then, most Britons deemed spaghetti and other continental cuisine as too exotic. Rationing had finished only three years previously and there was a general mistrust of foreign food.

Armed with this knowledge, the BBC's Panorama team produced a three-minute feature about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. Viewers were shown idyllic pictures of happy farmers pulling long strands of pasta from the trees. The bounty was attributed to unusually mild weather and the "virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil". The feature ended proclaiming: "For those who love this dish, there's nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti".

With veteran broadcaster Richard Dimbleby's voice giving authority to the report, many viewers fell for it. Hundreds phoned the BBC, wanting to know how to grow spaghetti trees at home. Tongue very much in cheek, the Beeb advised them to: "Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best." Panorama's famous hoax is thought to be the first instance of an April Fool on TV.

By the 1960s the BBC was still up to its old April Fool tricks. In 1965 they broadcast an interview with a "professor" who claimed to have invented "Smellovision". Using the boffin's amazing, new technology, viewers were hoodwinked into believing they'd experience smells produced in the studio. To demonstrate, the "professor" sliced an onion and brewed some fresh coffee. Several viewers rang reporting success. The amazing power of suggestion!

BBC radio also got in on the act. In 1976 the late British astronomer and national treasure, Patrick Moore, told Radio 2 early morning listeners about an extraordinary astronomical event. Apparently, at exactly 9.47am that day, the planet Pluto would pass directly behind Jupiter, in relation to the Earth.

This rare alignment, explained Moore, meant the combined gravitational pull would exert a stronger tidal pull, temporarily blocking our planet's own gravitational pull. Consequently, owing to what Moore called the "Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect" people would weigh less during this phenomenon.

The former 'Sky at Night' presenter told listeners they'd feel a strange floating sensation if they jumped in the air at the precise moment the alignment occurred. At the appointed time, Moore told listeners to: "Jump now!"

Minutes later, the switchboard was jammed with people calling in to claim it had worked. On April 1 that year, I was one of the April Fools. As soon as I jumped I knew I should have paid more attention in physics! Still I wasn't alone!

Apparently most callers were ecstatic about the "sensation". But not everyone was happy. Reputedly one caller complained of rising so rapidly from terra firma he'd bumped his head on the ceiling – and wanted compensation!

In 1979 Capital Radio listeners were told that "Operation Parallax" would soon take effect. This was a Government plan to re-synchronise the British calendar with the rest of the globe. Apparently since 1945 the UK had gradually become 48 hours ahead of other countries because we were switching back and forth from British Summer Time. To rectify this, Britain was abolishing two dates in April – the 5th and 12th – from the calendar that year. Apparently Capital Radio received many calls from angry listeners with birthdays on those dates. An employer even rang to ask whether workers had to be paid for the missing days.

Over the years, newspapers have come up with some gems, from reports on "whistling carrots" to "rogue bras" containing copper wire causing "widespread television interference". In 1982, Daily Mail readers were warned: "Do not adjust your set – it could be your bra!"

Of course the Internet is a breeding ground for all things weird. In 2007 millions online began discussing fairies as an April Fool spread through cyberspace. The hoax began when images of an eight-inch mummified creature was posted on the website of the "Lebanese Magic Circle Company". Apparently the creature had been discovered by a dog walker in rural Derbyshire. As word spread internet speculation as to whether it was proof that fairies existed gathered apace. By April 1the website had received thousands of hits and emails. By end of the day website owner Dan Baines had owned up. A real life Jonathan Creek, Baines had used his skills as a magician's prop maker to create the mummified fairy. Strangely, even after Baines had confessed he reported receiving many emails from people refusing to accept the fairy was fake.

A case of truth being stranger than fiction!

What was your favourite April Fool? Email editor@black countrybugle.co.uk or write to use at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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