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11 March 2015

A modern history of hoaxes: without pranks, there’d be no Apple

From Bansky to Martin Bell, Kembrew McLeod's Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World shows how pranks shake things up.

By Robert Twigger

Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World
Kembew McLeod
NYU Press, 364pp, £18.99

Pranks, hoaxes, practical jokes and cons merge into each other. In Pranksters, Kembrew McLeod (is that name a hoax, too?) writes about the history and connections between them all. His inclination as a political prankster (dressed as a silver robot, he once confronted Bill Clinton at a conference to draw attention to race issues) is to consider pranking as something that can be utilised for specific and beneficial effect. After reading his book, I view it as much more anarchic and its results uncertain.

Take Steve Jobs, who graduated from such pranks as printing “Bring Your Pet to School Day” posters and planning to lower a sheet showing a raised middle finger at his high-school graduation to devising with Steve Wozniak a device that interfered with nearby televisions, causing them to lose reception. The joke was to operate it secretly, forcing students watching, say, a crucial ball game to go through incredible contortions holding the aerial – whereupon the TV would be allowed to work again. From this the jokers went on to build a “blue box” device that could mimic the tones used by AT&T’s phone system to make free calls. Jobs later said, “If it hadn’t been for the blue boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple. I’m 100 per cent sure of that.”

Pranks aren’t side-splittingly funny. They are often rather crude and obvious yet they share with humour a way of short-cutting through the accumulated unwisdom of the day. Both Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Swift tormented prominent astrologers by printing fake predictions of the imminent deaths of the said astrologers. Pranks can be brutal and they can easily tip over into becoming a form of hazing or bullying.

The essential element is neither cruel nor kind but creative. Pranksters are anti-authoritarian by default but they can hail from anywhere on the political spectrum. The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (Witch) staged a carnivalesque protest against a Miss World pageant. In 1967, Abbie Hoffman disrupted the New York Stock Exchange for several minutes by pouring dollar bills on to the trading floor from the balcony – traders apparently fought for cash rather than following the market. And there was the 1963 “Fuck communism!” poster produced by Paul Krassner, the Realist magazine founder, which created a loop between the establishment’s hatred of communism and its hatred of seeing the F-word in public: an Escher’s staircase of a prank. In 1863, the word “miscegenation” was invented by racist pranksters to undermine Abraham Lincoln’s election campaign.

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Pranks can be simple: the Czech author Jaroslav Hašek used to put on a white coat, walk into a library and shout, “Everybody out!” Dutifully the readers would leave. Or they can be extremely complicated: Banksy made a batch of fake banknotes featuring the head of Lady Di rather than the Queen. They were so convincing that people started to accept them without checking. Some would argue that Banksy is a prankster rather than an artist but then much of modern art is driven by prankster-like impulses, often dignified by referencing culturally approved “seriousness”. It’s hard not to see Damien Hirst’s corpus of corpses as one long prank on the Saatchi Gallery.

Things get interesting when the prank takes on a life of its own. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), as well as being one of the first novels, is a pastiche of the “true adventure” story that was so popular at the time. The Rosicrucians began as an invented cult satirising religious conformity but by using real materials from the mystical traditions of Islam and Judaism, they started something that resonates with followers even today. In 2001, I registered a green political party called “the Extinction Club” (which had the natty strapline “You’re already a member”). The party’s name was also the title of a book I had written and was desperate to promote. In the general election that year, I contested Oxford West and Abingdon wearing a three-piece suit made from camo material – an ironic comment, supposedly, on Martin Bell’s “man in the white suit”. I fantasised about winning and entering parliament, even though I had no chance – but my prank was “real” in the sense that winning was theoretically possible. (I got 93 votes, in case you’re wondering.)

Pranking loves the internet. Visual tricks such as the 2012 picture of a scuba diver swimming in a flooded subway station after Hurricane Sandy hit New York go viral without the fact-checking of “official” media. Young people can devise prank films and upload them for the world to applaud or condemn. It is, as Mikhail Bakhtin was fond of pointing out, an unofficial force in history. This review is being written on a machine that resulted from a prank. It is perhaps time we paid more attention to the jokers and less to the pack.

Robert Twigger’s books include “Red Nile: the Biography of the World’s Greatest River” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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