Monday, 29 March 2010

Don't Laugh At Me...

In 1708 a correspondent in a British magazine asked, “Whence proceeds the making of April Fools?”

At that time the custom of April Fool’s Day was well established in northern Europe. However there had been few comments in written records about its origin. References as early as the 1500s were infrequent and often vague. Shakespeare in the 16 and 17th centuries made no mention of April Fool’s Day despite being, as Dickens described, a writer “who delights in fools.”

The popularity of Elizabethan jesters is shown in the plays of the time. Shakespeare characters included a Fool in Timon of Athens, the Clown in Othello, Costard in Love’s Labours Lost, Touchstone in As You Like It and Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Despite many suggestions the making of April Fools remains a mystery. A popular theory about the origin of April Fool’s day involves the reform of the French calendar in 1564 when the start of the year was moved from the end of March to January 1st. Those who clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate New Year in the week between March 25th and April 1st had jokes played on them. Paper fish would be stuck surreptitiously to their back. The victims of the prank were called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish. This is still the French term for April Fools.

It has been suggested that the first reference to April Fool’s Day can be found in Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Chanticleer, a vain cock, falls for the tricks of a sly fox and as a result is almost eaten. It has been argued that the wording meant that the event took place thirty-two days since March began, i.e., on April 1st. But other translations have placed the day as May 3rd.

It appears that the April Fool’s Day dates back to at least the 16th century and that it originated in continental Europe before spreading to Britain.

D’Amerval’s 1508 French poem uses the phrase “poisson d’avril” the French term for April Fool. However he may have just intended to use the term for a foolish person.

In 1539 a comical poem by a Flemish writer tells of a nobleman who plans to send his servant back and forth on absurd errands on April 1st. The medieval Dutch title roughly translates to, “Refrain on Errand Day/ which is first of April.” The last line of each stanza has the servant saying, “I am afraid… that you are trying to make me run a fool’s errand.”

In 1686 John Aubrey, an English antiquarian, researched popular customs and superstitions and wrote, “Fooles holy day. We observe it on ye first of April.” By 1698 it was a popular prank to send gullible people to see the lions being washed at the Tower of London. It became traditional for this prank to be played on the first of April; it was referenced as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

In British folklore April Fool’s Day is linked to the town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire. It was traditional in the 13th century for any road that the King placed his foot on to become public property. Hearing that King John planned to travel through the town, the people of Gotham refused him entry. When soldiers send by King John arrived they found the town full of apparent lunatics drowning fish or attempting to cage birds in roofless fence. Although their foolery was an act, the King declared the town too foolish to be punished. Since then, according to legend, April Fool’s Day has commemorated their trickery.

A 1630 woodcut shows a citizen of Gotham trying to trap a cuckoo inside a roofless fence. In Scotland a “gowk” is a cuckoo or a foolish person and April’s Fool’s Day was once called Hunt-the-Gowk Day. A traditional prank was to ask someone to deliver a sealed message requesting help. The message read, “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.” The recipient would then explain he could only help by contacting someone else. The unsuspecting victim was then sent onwards with an identical message.

If you decide to play a joke on someone on April Fool’s Day, just remember that April 1st is the day on which we are reminded of what we are on the other three-hundred and sixty-four.

Politicians seem to think we are fools. They should remember the words of Lincoln when he said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Be careful where you put your X at the forthcoming election and remember that the trouble with practical jokers is that they often get elected.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Published in Another Haircut - The Challenge 2009; a collaborative writing venture by members and friends of the Anna Reiers website [Editor: Marit Meredith]

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow.

It's a sight I don't often see these days. But then I don't visit the barbers any more. What sight do I mean?

You must have seen a young child, watched over by a hovering mother getting his or her first hair cut. I must have been about four when I was introduced to Mr Fawkes, known to everyone as Guy. He was an ex-service man invalided out during the early days of WWII and fortunate to be retrained as a barber.

I remember being forced to sit on a narrow plank of wood, rough enough to leave a splinter in your bum if you did not sit still. Not that you had much chance of moving in the vice like grip of Mr Fawkes. Children were never allowed to call him Guy.

When I was older and permitted to visit his shop alone I soon realized why everyone called him Guy. If he had been the real Guy Fawkes, whom we had learnt about at school, I don't think he would have been caught before he had had the chance to ignite the gunpowder in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament. Guy was an awesome sight with a lighted taper in his hand as he approached intent on singeing the hairs on the back of the neck and in the ears of the victim in the chair.

It was no fun waiting your turn. If an adult entered you went to the back of the queue. However it was informative to wait and see which staid gentleman accepted Guy's offer of ‘something for the weekend,' especially when it was the vicar.

Guy's shop has gone together with his red and white pole. Guy went as well some time while I was at university. There is no barber's in the village now. Even if there was it would be a unisex hairdressing salon with nubile young girls to cut your hair. Now this is something I miss as you will see as this tale unfolds.

The men on my side of the family have all gone grey and lost their hair. In my case the first signs of grey were pointed out to me when I was just sixteen. The receding hairline just crept up on me over the years. However I still had sufficient hair to feel shocked when I was subjected to the brutal trim administered by an army barber on my second day at Catterick as a National Service man.

Later I thought about auditioning for Hair. Eventually I decided against it. There really was not much point as I can't sing and with three left feet my dancing is more one-sided that England's football team. The audience would have left in horror at the scene in the nude. After all, who wants to see a hairy ape on stage?

Children have a habit of asking awkward questions. However there are some who come to their own conclusions. Once when I was not wearing a shirt I was told, "Daddy, I know why you have no hair on your head. It must have lost its way and grown on your chest instead."

Hair has its own way of telling you when you should get it cut. In the days when I had to wear a safety helmet at work I knew the time had come when my hair curled upwards outside the brim, preventing my ear defenders from being deployed. While I was in Norway, the one thing that delayed corrective action was the thought that a haircut would cost you an arm and leg as well.

Hair's a funny thing; it grows profusely where you rather wish it didn't, like down you nose and in your ears. Far be it from me to conclude that here it is well fertilised. Isn't it strange that the ladies, and men too I'm told, get their unwanted hairs removed by using wax?

I don't go to the barber's any more. I really miss the attention of those young nubile things. I'm told they are not good for my blood pressure, but that's not the reason I have given up. The cost of a haircut soared so much that it was better to invest in an electric trimmer.

This has it dangers as she who wields the clippers has designs on trimming the hair on my back - because it gets up her nose in bed. I suppose I must be thankful that my ears are intact. She draws the line however at using the attachment to attack those nasal hairs and those with their roots embedded in wax.

Finally here's a safety warning. If you approach me from behind you had better wear dark glasses. My polished pate shines brighter than a landing light on a fly's aerodrome.

Bob Scotney 2009