What makes a good April Fools’ Day hoax? Certainly not the infamous spaghetti-tree documentary that was shown on Panorama in 1957, which is often cited by journalists too young to know as ‘the spoof that fooled the nation’. It didn’t, of course. A nation brought up on macaroni cheese and spag bol at the local caff was not going to be fooled into believing that pasta grew on trees.
By contrast, the story that was broadcast on Radio 4’s Today programme on 1 April this year was a gem. We were told by John Humphrys that excavations on the site of Shakespeare’s last home had found evidence that he was half French. Since Birmingham Archaeology really is carrying out an excavation at New Place, in Stratford upon Avon, there was a ring of truth to the story. Equally disarming was the interview with Paul Edmondson, Head of Education at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, explaining the reasons for the dig.
Next up came an archaeologist who, in that slightly breathy and reverential tone that people use when discussing archaeological ‘treasures’, told us that a locket had been found that, when viewed under ‘infra-red light’, revealed the inscription ‘A mon fils Guillaume; Marie Ardennes; Marie Stuart; 1587′. The inscription implied that Mary Arden was French and an admirer of Mary Queen of Scots. Those missing years in Shakespeare’s life, the suggestions that he was a covert Catholic … if his mother was French, it all began to make sense.
Alarm bells should have rung when the interviewer talked to ‘Jacques Longue’, a man with a hammy French accent. The BBC no doubt counted on us to think this was former Culture Minister Jack Lang, who represents the Pas-de-Calais in the French National Assembly. Lang or Longue grudgingly conceded that there might be room for Shakespeare in a crowded French literary pantheon that already included Racine, MoliÃ¨re, Hugo, et al.
Confession time: your diarist was completely taken in and got straight on the phone to this magazine’s editor: ‘we’ve got to follow this up as the lead news story in the next issue of the magazine’. ‘Chris,’ said Lisa, ‘haven’t you even the slightest suspicion that this might just be an April Fool?’ Deep blushes followed. Oh well; the lesson from this is that a good prank depends on mixing a dose of the authentic in with the fictitious, and then playing on the listener’s desire that the story should be true.
Earlier this year, two antique ‘sex toys’ were sold at an auction in Brentwood, Essex, for £3,600. The catalogue entry described them as ‘Lot 340: designed to please, an extraordinary and exceptionally rare travel godermiche‘. For those not acquainted with antique dealers’ jargon, godermiche is a term designed to spare the blushes of maiden aunts derived from the French godemichÃ©, a dildo. In this case, ‘a pair of wooden phallus [sic] contained within a fitted kid-leather-covered treen case with strap, one phallus 10 inches and with testicles and the other 11 inches and without’. A spokesman for the auctioneer said that they were made of rosewood, dated back to the late 1700s and were — as if this explained everything — ‘probably French’.
But of course … it goes without saying, only the French would spend millions restoring the home of a famous Parisian prostitute. In London, we can look forward to visiting the newly restored home of Victorian artist Frederic Leighton, with its floor-to-ceiling oriental tiles, its splashy fountain and golden domes. This is all tame compared with the exotic gold, marble and onyx staircase, ceiling paintings of libidinous nymphs and shepherds, and the erotic-themed bathrooms of No. 25, Avenue Champs ElysÃ©e, in which the Marquise de la Paiva, one of the most successful prostitutes in history, used to bathe with her aristocratic clients in milk or champagne.
The restoration was carried out by Etienne Poncelet, France’s Architect in Chief and ‘Inspecteur gÃ©nÃ©ral des monuments historiques’, using government grants (imagine English Heritage asking the Department of Culture for money to restore a brothel). Millions have been lavished on ‘putting the spark back’ into a mansion constructed in 1865 that was the scene of some of the most decadent parties in the history of Europe, where courtesans mixed with royalty, statesmen and the leading figures of the day. Presiding over them all, was ‘La Paiva’, (in real life Esther Lachmann, born of Polish peasant stock) whose house this was, the personification of the louche, sexually permissive upper-class demi-monde that was Paris in the 1850s and 1860s.
Only in France, we are apt to say of such blatant sexuality, and yet London’s underground at the moment is decorated with pictures of an aristocratic mid-19th-century lady looking — to put it delicately — rather flushed. This concupiscence (surely never intended for such public display) is different from the adulterous French kind, because it is directed by Queen Victoria (for it is she) towards her handsome young husband, Prince Albert, father of her nine children. The Royal Collection’s ‘Art and Love’ exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, for which the poster is an advert, contains many more such private tokens of a happy marriage, including erotic paintings and sculptures given by the Queen to her Consort that belie the idea that Victoria was a maidenly prude.
Perhaps Queen Victoria was a secret cider drinker. The connection is a recently published study of sex and marriage showing that Devon is the least abstemious county, whereas the good people of Surrey are the most abstinent. One can think of a number of reasons why this might be, but the fact that Devon is also one of England’s great cider-making counties might not be unconnected (a different county, of course, but think Cider with Rosie).
And can there have been a more suicidal act than the last Government’s proposal to impose a higher rate of tax on cider just a few days before an election? Alistair Darling is clearly a politician without a sense of history. When, in 1763, prime minister John Stuart, Earl of Bute, introduced a levy of four shillings a hogshead on cider to help pay off the national debt that was run up during the Seven Years War, there were riots in the West Country. Bute was unable to venture out onto the streets of ciderland without a bodyguard. He was ousted in the following election of 1766, and the hated cider tax was repealed, ‘which does the kingdom greatly please’, a Herefordshire folk song of the time recalls.
Alistair Darling justified the proposed tax increase (subsequently defeated in a Parliamentary vote) on the basis that so-called ‘super-strength ciders’ are the drink of choice of under-age and binge drinkers. Award-winning cider maker Julian Temperely dismisses this as ignorant nonsense: ‘in our world we don’t sell to hooligans,’ he says, adding that ‘you will not solve the social problems of the big cities by taxing cider’.
Talk of suicide, the French, sex, and adultery leads inexorably to Madame Bovary and the subject of arsenic. Easy to buy, simple to administer and extremely effective, arsenic was — according to a new book called The Arsenic Century by James Whorton (Oxford University Press) — ‘the tool of choice for murderers and suicides alike’ in the 19th century. People less smitten by their spouse than Queen Victoria could clear the way for a new improved partner by the simple addition of arsenious acid to his or her cup of tea. The difficulty for the courts was to decide whether arsenic poisoning or cholera, both of which shared similar symptoms, had carried the deceased to his or her grave.
Frighteningly, arsenic was also commonly used as a green dye in fashionable wallpapers, paints and textiles (including those of William Morris), in brewing and candle making, and as both a pesticide and a food colouring. Indeed, the presence of arsenic in the body of the deceased did not automatically indicate foul play — in many cases it was the doctor that did it, as arsenic was also an ingredient in a huge range of medicines routinely prescribed for acne, boils and all forms of lethargy. Today’s teenagers don’t know how lucky they are.