On a small island in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, a 50ft relative of the sausage tree towers above waters where hippopotami snort and yawn. Dangling from its branches, thin unripened seed-pods 15 to 20 cm long look remarkably like strips of pasta. So, perhaps there is such a thing as the legendary ‘spaghetti tree’ which first sparked a wider British interest in Italian dishes more than six decades ago.
The Okavango’s ‘pasta tree’ is real – a rare sub-species of Kigelia africana (the Sausage tree whose pods resemble plump pork bangers). The ‘spaghetti tree’ was a product of Richard Dimbleby’s vivid imagination. Dimbleby, father of today’s broadcastings brothers, was the BBC’s first war correspondent, and later, as its leading TV news commentator, was the first host of the long-running current affairs programme Panorama.
I prefer the calendar connection in which the New Year was celebrated on April 1.
His news report on the ‘Swiss spaghetti harvest’ aired on the programme on April 1, 1957, is still regarded by many as the greatest ‘April Fool’ spoof among the millions spun by children and fun-loving adults since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar during the 16th Century – where muddled dates produced the first ‘April Fools’, according to some academics.
With a suitably faked film – complete with buxom peasants in dirndl skirts, and with strings of spaghetti drooping from a tree’s branches – as his backdrop, the broadcaster told his millions-strong audience the early Spring Europe was experiencing had also hastened the spaghetti harvest. And he went on to outline the story of the pasta’s cultivation; how it had taken years of dedicated experiments to ensure that spaghetti’s lengths were all the same; and that the ‘ravenous spaghetti weevil which had wreaked havoc with harvests in the past had been conquered’.
The scam would have fallen very flat today, but 60 years ago there were only a handful of Italian restaurants in all of the UK; foreign travel and the discovery of new dishes that accompanied it were still very much the province of the well-to-do; and if the average Briton encountered spaghetti, it was in a Heinz tin and splurged in a sickly tomato sauce. When the programme was aired more than 250 viewers jammed the BBC switchboard – most asking serious questions: where could they go to watch the harvesting? Were spaghetti plants available in the UK? How long did it take for plants to produce spaghetti?
From such humble beginnings it spread into Britain and across the English-speaking world.
Though the theory relating it to the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar is widely accepted, the origins of April-foolery are obscured by a string of other theories. These range from a commemoration of ‘the fruitless mission of the rook – the European crow – who was sent out in search of land from Noah’s flood-encircled ark’ (according to The Country Diary of Garden Lore) to a link with the Romans’ end-of-winter celebration, Hilaria, to the end of the Celtic new year festival or to the Vernal Equinox.
Both the Encyclopedia of Religion and the Encyclopedia Britannica relate it to the timing the arrival of spring, when nature ‘fools’ us with fickle weather… though clearly the phrase ‘global warming’ would not have been coined.
I prefer the calendar connection in which, because the Julian year began on March 25 which fell in Holy Week, the New Year was celebrated on April 1. When the Gregorian calendar switched the year’s start to January 1, a common trick was to persuade one’s neighbour – or any other sucker, for that matter – that the year still began on April 1 and those believing it were dubbed ‘April Fools’.
It was particularly popular among French peasantry – who had very little fun otherwise, and were not noted for a subtle sense of humour – and from such humble beginnings it spread into Britain and across the English-speaking world.
Whatever its origins, April-foolery has developed its own lore and superstitions – one of these the belief that it expires at noon and any pranks attempted after that time will call bad luck down onto the head brings misfortune to prankster. Similarly, anyone who shows irritation or annoyance in response to an April Fool prank attracts bad luck to themselves.
‘Not all superstitions about the day are negative, though,’ says one source. ‘Young men fooled by a pretty girl are said to be fated to end up married to her, or at least enjoy a healthy friendship with her’.
Though its greatest delights are still those of children, particularly when teachers are the victims, many of the better hoaxes – as with the spaghetti harvest – are media-linked. In recent years the Chronicle has carried several clever twists. And, long ages past, I penned a piece for the City pages of The Times setting out details of the new hunting season for haggis, linking it to the £500,000 a year export of the rare tail feathers which were much sought after by Parisian couturiers and milliners.
It drew only one response – from the Commercial attaché at the French Embassy who, in all seriousness, pointed out to the City Editor’s secretary that there was no truth in the report. Perhaps he had not come across the term ‘poisson d’avril’ – an ‘April fish’; a young fish which is easily caught. But then, like the French peasants of the 16th century who coined their version of ‘April Fool’, French diplomats are not noted for a sense of humour…
*The original Panorama programme can be found on You Tube – enter ‘Swiss Spaghetti Harvest’.