Prima aprilis

The procession from March Fools’ Day (which is also Saint David’s), to April Fools’, to May Fools’ (also called “May Day”), to June Fools’, and so on, is a tradition of some historical standing, going back as it does to the Second Punic War. That the pagan Romans celebrated the Veneralia on the kalends (first day) of this month, in honour of Venus and her vestal virgins, I was told as a schoolboy, but by a Latin teacher who may have been joking; not about the festival itself, but in certain details of its celebration, which struck me as implausible. However, the prospect for undressing attractive young women and tossing them into fountains — we may have had our French teacher particularly in mind – seemed grounds good enough for a revival of this custom. It could be explained as “scholarly.” As I recall, overcome by timidity, the lads did not get beyond the kidnapping stage.

The teacher was Scottish, and spoke French quite fluently, though with a brogue and a lisp, which had already inspired some satirical gestures. She had a sense of humour, to be sure, but within the usual limits. She found it easier to command affection than respect, and so the idea of trying something on for the kalends got quickly out of hand. I was incidentally of the killjoy faction, and rather than participate in the plot, ran to fetch a vice-principal. This being an old-fashioned, tightly-disciplined “British” school, the plotters were of course detained, tortured, and killed. (Perhaps I exaggerate.)

“Boys will be boys,” it has sometimes been alleged — or even used as an improbable defence. My own view is that prudence dictates some thought on the likely consequence of one’s action, and while I’m generally against prognostication, in cases like this a moral argument can be made. April Fools’ jokes should be, in the first instance, genuinely funny, to the broad audience, and not merely cruel to certain members. But no cruelty at all might be too little.

The mediaeval conception of fools, intended foolishness, and celebratory misrule, is lost on us moderns. They did it in high spirits for a moment of relief, then returned to order voluntarily. We do it in the name of progress, and never look back.

With a (very Catholic) gentleman of my parents’ generation I once unexpectedly crossed the path of a “Gay Pride Parade,” whose exhibitors were disporting themselves in ways I would rather not describe. I worried that my elderly friend would be outraged, and make a scene. Instead he found it amusing (he’d never seen such a thing before), as if the world had been turned upside down for a joke. He could not stop laughing. I found his response instructive.

“Fake news,” likewise (gentle reader may remember this example); it wears somewhat, when it becomes a feature of everyday life, and is not reserved for special occasions; when, moreover, the will is to keep the audience fooled in perpetuity. This is among my criticisms of the “Main Stream Media,” today. Seldom, any more, do I see a news article that has been played straight. I could laugh at the distortions, but one can only laugh so long. Moreover, in politics, high spirits and the old virtue of a belly-laugh has receded so far, that when something fairly innocent is done to disturb the grimness of our public life, arrests may follow; and the fellow who was trying to “lighten everyone up” will be compelled to attend Maoist self-criticism sessions. Only if he was a certified “progressive” can he hope to get his career back.

April Fools’, and any other fool days, are among our losses. There is no “normal” to invert any more; and there will be none for the foreseeable future — except among our friends, until the surveillance technology has made it impossible to have any.