Friday, 01 April 2016

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 1 April

Trust in the words of others is a bedrock of society – so who is the real fool on April Fool’s Day? Thomas Blaikie advises

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
I wonder how many readers are thinking of cooking up a prank for April Fool’s Day? Could you advise on how far to go?
Celine Howard, Welshpool

Dear Celine,
Do I detect a note of caution? I have never attempted an April Fool and rarely have I been the victim of one, as far as I’m aware. The tradition seems to be widespread and ancient, although in some cultures it takes a different form. In India, the spring festival of Holi is the equivalent, when children are allowed to throw coloured powder and water at grown-ups, although nowadays all ages participate, such is the attraction, presumably, of hurling paint at passers-by. But one can imagine this going too far and certain persons being far from pleased to find their important outfits stained. In this country, newspapers and TV often do April Fools. The classic is the 1957 BBC Panorama programme, which showed spaghetti growing on trees. Many did believe that spaghetti grew on trees and perhaps still do as a result of that broadcast. After all, it was on TV, so it must be true.

A good April Fool has to be sufficiently plausible to command belief for at least a short while but can’t be straightforwardly credible. An April Fool isn’t an ordinary lie. There’s no question that the aim is to trick and create chaos, turning truth on its head in a frenzy of spring fever and making others look gullible and ridiculous. Since most people do believe what others tell them in apparent good faith and trust is the essential engine oil of social life and even of society, the malignancy is directed pretty much at humanity in general. So I’m not at all sure that those concerned with decorum and kindness and good manners should be involved in devising April Fools of any kind.

I’m also rather against the requirement that, as a victim, one must take it on the chin and not be a spoilsport. Some April Fools, for instance telling a nervous poultryrearer that the chickens have got out of the run and a fox is looming, are just a bit nasty. I don’t approve of ‘physical’ pranks either, such as offering someone a toffee apple, which turns out to be a toffee onion. Very funny. But claiming that Marmite is to launch a clear version of its product, or that HM the Queen sometimes took over from Helen Mirren and played herself on the London stage – well, that’s quite amusing.

Perhaps the main purpose of April Fool’s Day is when it’s over and we can all appreciate that for most of the time we can believe what other people tell us – or at least that they believe it.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT… microphones

I attended a lecture the other day and the microphone didn’t work. Rather it did work, but caused an intermittent nightmare screaming as if appalling suffering were going on somewhere nearby. In the end the microphone had to be switched off with the result that the rest of the talk was watching the speaker’s mouth moving with no sound.

There were only about 50 people in a normal sort of room, not even a hall. Why couldn’t the lecturer make himself heard? In churches and other gathering places up and down the country ghastly malfunctioning sound-systems have had to be installed where more than a teaspoonful of people are to be addressed. Yet for centuries clerics have been audible in ecclesiastical venues. What about theatres? Did Edmund Kean require a microphone at Drury Lane? I said to the friend I was with at the lecture, who is a grandee in the civil service: ‘Why all these microphones?’ ‘Oh but you must,’ he said, ‘in case someone is hard of hearing.’

Even so, public speakers should learn how to project their voices.

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