Much beloved by schoolchildren, newscasters, practical jokers and Internet-meme starters, April Fool’s Day is almost with us again. What can we expect this year? Spaghetti trees, Google pet-voices or videos of flying penguins? Or maybe a renewed request for decimal time?
Unlike other long-established calendar events, April Fool’s Day is not religious, season-related or (sadly) celebrated with a day off. It seems, in fact, to have been plonked down at the start of April in a fairly willy-nilly fashion, with even Wikipedia being uncharacteristically cautious about its origins. It’s wacky, creative and irreverent. And to the delight of every British child learning French, in France it’s bewilderingly but unforgettably translated as ‘April Fish’. So what is it all about?
Here’s what I like about it. For a start, it has universality. Anyone, from the smallest child to the geekiest of Google greats, can have a go. And, delightfully, they do. Okay, having your child leave a fake plastic poo in the hall may pall a little when it’s done for the third year in a row, but generally, all April Fools are funny. In fact, it’s often the case that the simpler they are, the funnier they can be. Humans are immensely gullible, and, ironically, they are most taken in by the people at the extremes of knowledge – the simpletons, and the experts. That’s why children and Internet giants are the greatest setters of April Fools, whilst vast cohorts of the rest of us, trapped by our own world-weariness, have to settle for annually being taken advantage of.
Another thing I like about AFD is that it’s not ‘worthy’. We have so many awareness days now that it’s rather refreshing that we have a day that’s just, well, there, apropos of nothing, on a date we can remember, with no expectation of us other than the necessity to be silly. Don’t get me wrong – I do think it’s important to be aware of issues, and I admire those who open our minds and make us better people. It’s just that the year has now become so crowded with ‘awareness’ that its effectiveness has started to become diluted; a national half-day of larking around seems, in contrast, rather attractive.
Then there’s the sheer inventiveness and originality of some of the April Fools we’ve seen in the media. For the writers and creators, it’s an escape from the humdrum and the routine. It’s a chance to be inspired, to ‘think outside the box’. It doesn’t happen very often. Maybe, in fact, the rest of us should try it sometime. But even if we prefer to sit back and wait for the cracker to be pulled, that’s entertaining too – a new subject to be discussed at the office; a chance to start the spring with a spring in our step, a reason to put a smile on our face. After a long winter, it’s very welcome.
So who, or what, is the actual Fool? Is it the joke itself? Or the person at whose expense the joke is set? Or, even, the joker? Well, possibly, as befits this strangest of days, all three. We might read the newspaper and exclaim ‘That’s an April Fool!’ (though not without checking the date first: that would be very foolish…) or, as children, having set the trap into which an unsuspecting comrade has fallen, point gleefully at our friend and shout ‘April Fool!’ However, we should check the time carefully, for if we unwittingly scam others after midday, the tables are turned and we ourselves become the fool. A very real case of ‘the joke’s on us’.
There is a long tradition, in fact, of this curious switch between joker and ‘jokee’. Shakespeare was its greatest proponent, with more than one appearance in his plays of the ‘wise fool’: the character who, by telling jokes and appearing simple, can speak the greatest truths in apparent jest, and make the mighty seem stupid. Then there are other stories, like that of the Wiltshire ‘Moonrakers’, who, by pretending to be apparently fishing for ‘cheese’ (the reflected moon), outwitted the customs officers and successfully kept hold of what was actually hidden in the pond: a large barrel of French brandy.
So, what is April Fools Day all about? Well, as the Bard put it (via Touchstone, in As You Like It): ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool’, which translated means, I think, that admitting you don’t know something is actually quite clever. So I’ll come clean: I don’t really know what it’s all about. No-one does. But it’s April Fool’s Day, so isn’t that the point?