Which story is the April Fool?

After a quick look through the tabloids’ websites, it’s quite difficult to tell.

Oh, we have a laugh, don't we? April Fool and all that. Hyuk hyuk hyuk. The day when you can't believe anything you read in the papers!

Take, for example, this story in the Express: SALT BANNED IN CHIP SHOPS. I mean, we're not really meant to believe it, are we? Come off it. Classic April Fool japery, and very well executed – the casual observer could be lulled into thinking that salt really was being banned! The SALT BANNED headline and the intro "Salt shakers are being removed" make it appear to be a genuine story – but it has all the hallmarks of an April Fool spoof.

Props to the Express, though, for including quotes from the Taxpayers' Alliance and the Monmouth MP David Davies to make the nonsense appear more believable. But really! They'd certainly check the facts before lending their respected voices to a story that isn't all it seems. So, well done to them for playing along in the spirit of 1 April.

Oh.

The date on that "salt banned" story appears to be 31 March, not 1 April. And it seems that it was put out there as a real story claiming SALT IS BANNED, despite the salt not being "banned" at all, but merely tucked away behind the counter.

I suppose if that's a ban, you could say cigarettes are BANNED because they're behind the counter: you know, BANNED in the sense of being "available to customers". That kind of BANNED. The same kind of BANNED that cars are thanks to bonkers Brussels beaurocrats, as reported in Tuesday's Daily Express. When the headline says "Cars face ban from all cities . . . another plan forced on us by the crazy EU", that encapsulates a story in which no one is demanding that cars be banned from any city (let alone all) quite neatly.

If you've tried scouring through the tabloids' websites this morning, thinking to yourself "Which one's the April Fool?" I don't blame you if you've given up in the end. Is it the boy who assaulted someone with a marshmallow? The travelator on the golf course? The poodles dressed as koi carp and a panda? How are we supposed to tell the difference?

April Fool spoofs work because of a level of trust in the other 364 days of the year; if you're largely expecting what's presented to you to be entirely accurate, you could easily be fooled by a plausible enough tale this morning. If you get told about bans that aren't bans on a fairly regular basis, you might look at the April Fool stories and think: Oh well, it's no less ridiculous than what we had the other day.

It's all coming to an end, this annual silliness, for a few reasons. First, because readers can quickly seek out information to debunk the stories. Second, because we're all becoming even more healthily sceptical about what we read in the papers than we ever were. And last, because the EU has BANNED April Fool stories for reasons of health and safety. You couldn't make it up . . .

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear