REPUBLIC OF SAN SERRIFFE: An entirely fictitious realm, originally created as an April Fools' joke. This great hoax first appeared in a 7-page “special report”, entitled San Serriffe, which appeared in the Friday, April 1, 1977 edition of The Guardian, one of the major British newspapers. The Republic basically consists of two islands, Caissa Superiore (Upper Caisse) and Caissa Inferiore (Lower Caisse), separated by the Shoals of Adze (a nice map of the islands can be viewed at http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/exhibits/recent/sanserif.jpg). Located northeast of the Seychelle Islands, San Serriffe was discovered in 1421 “by adventurers recruited by John Street, an English admirer of Henry the Navigator. The crew made their historic landfall in the Shoals of Adze.” After centuries of colonial rule, San Serriffe gained “Independence under Social Democratic Government” on April 1, 1967. “English is the working language. Caslon is used on ceremonial occasions and there is a language (Ki-flong) indigenous to the Flongs.”
The extremely ingenious supplement, which contains about 11 articles (on a wide variety of topics including business, economy, trade unions…) affectionately described the geography and culture of this obscure nation, is prefaced by a short paragraph: “The ten years of independence which San Serriffe celebrates today have been a period of economic expansion and social development probably unrivalled by any other new nation. With this achievement has gone a determined attempt, in part successful, to maintain the outward forms of a parliamentary democracy. This special report, edited and introduced by Geoffrey Taylor, attempts to recount the remarkable transformation in the life of the Republic, to inform British investors and visitors of the opportunities which have been and are being created, and not least to encourage companies trading with the Republic to call attention to their share in its development. Rapid growth brings its own problems, not all of which can be solved in total composure. The survey allows some of those problems to be brought under closer scrutiny.”
Taylor’s introduction, Three point key to prosperity, begins: “To those who have not followed its development at close hand, San Serriffe may be remembered only as a small archipelago, its main islands grouped roughly in the shape of a semicolon, in the Indian Ocean. Until recently, that would have been an adequate description: a punctuation mark, as it were, in a long chapter of oceanic exploration. But fifteen years ago came the phosphate industry, ten years ago the first tourist packages, and five years ago the resource which has added bounteously to its riches: oil. San Serriffe’s currency, the Corona [equal to 100 ems], is linked to its oil, making it one of the hardest in the world. It seems to appreciate, to the concern of foreign bankers, with every barrel that flows down the pipeline from the west coast to Port Clarendon. The people, likewise, are linked to the life of island insouciance which they once enjoyed and from which the Government, under General M.-J. Pica, is trying hard to advance them. Although it is true that the resulting social tensions are evident even to the most transient visitor he will also find a kindly and tolerant people: tolerant, in the eyes of people who cherish parliamentary institutions, to a fault. President Pica’s emphasis on economic development, which he rightly sees as the best way to enrich the islands, has led to practices which some observers describe as authoritarian and which the Opposition, under the ageing Mr Ralph Baskerville, believes are only temporary. From a diet of mutton, goat cheese, and damson wine it is a far cry to the international cuisine offered at many of the big hotels. The thatched huts still occupied by the irrepressible Flongs, an indigenous people at the tip of the southern island, are generations away from the two international airports at Bodoni, the capital, and Villa Pica. Yet something of the old tradition remains and not all that has gone was worth preserving. Like his predecessors General Pica inherited the old antagonisms between descendants of the original Spanish and Portuguese colons and those of the later English arrivals, sometimes humorously derided as the semicolons. Under the inspiration of his regime those feuds are forgotten.” Wealth, the key to anyone interested in the sociopolitical workings of San Serriffe, “is itself creating more wealth for the islanders, particularly for those highly placed in the Administration. By making the islands a tax haven and creating duty-free zones round Port Clarendon and Bodoni all Governments since that of Colonel Hispalis, which took office soon after independence, have attracted much hot and some questionable money to the islands. Once there, it has tended to stay. A number of large British companies are known to be interested in exploiting this aspect of San Serriffe’s financial profile. In almost all the social and public services San Serriffe is much in advance of comparable countries, with three geriatric teaching hospitals and a pioneer pre-school psychiatric unit attached to the university at Perpetua. The university itself has begun to acquire an international reputation for its work on thermonuclear fusion and other alternative energy sources. [a small ad on the same page, from the university’s Department of Lunar Studies, declares that ‘A vacancy will shortly exist for a READER IN LUNAR SPECTROSCOPY With special emphasis on the extraction of energy from moonbeams.’] And the schools are attempting a unique synthesis of the old and new so that in addition to mainstream subjects a San Serriffe teenager may well be offered pearl-diving as an ‘A’ level choice. British policy towards the Republic is described by the Embassy as ‘basically letting the chums get on with the show.’ General Pica’s Government is firmly allied with the West, to which his surprisingly powerful air force is a source of comfort in a potentially difficult area of operation. He has been known to ask, however, whether the West is firmly allied with him. Western Governments are aware of the fragile nature of previous Administrations and, while obviously avoiding any overt involvement in local politics, would not be disinclined to do business with a successor, should General Pica wish to lay down the mantle of office. Of that, however, there is no sign”
Taylor’s introduction broaches another important topic: “The constant erosion of the western coasts, with corresponding accumulation on the east, is a process which, unless arrested, will bring the Republic into collision with Sri Lanka. (Bodoni, now in the centre of the north island, Upper Caisse, was originally a port.) As an expedient, lighters make the daily journey from the new wharf at Port Clarendon, built by Costains, to take shingle from the eastern coasts and put it back where it belongs.” Thus, “Wealth has made it possible to solve, for the time being, San Serriffe’s most acute physical problem.” In Bold expansion in tourism, Keith Cohen (Travel Editor) describes this solution in greater detail: a flotilla of lighters (boat/barge with a flat bottom for carrying heavy loads) travels overnight from the east coasts of the equatorial islands to unload their cargo of shingle (British term that applies to sediments larger in diameter than sand but smaller than boulders; coarse beach gravel of small, water-worn stones and pebbles) onto the shorelines of the west coasts. They arrive at dawn by the dozens, and “the cargo that is unloaded with such ceremony each morning is the sand eroded the previous day from the west coast beaches by tidal currents and dumped without so much as by your leave [if you say that someone does something ‘without so much as a by-your-leave’, you mean you are angry because that person did not ask your permission to do it] along the less developed east coasts of this extraordinary archipelago.” This daily ritual takes place seven nights a week, and visitors to San Serriffe enjoy watching the unique spectacle from their hotel windows. In Transposed by the tides, Anthony Tucker (Science Correspondent) goes into great detail about “The extraordinary eastward movement of the San Serriffe island group”, which was first observed (accidentally) in 1796 by Sir Charles Clarendon (after whom the port is named) during an exploration of the Indian Ocean. It wasn’t until almost a century later, in 1886, that an expedition from the Royal Society conducted systematic studies and “brought back the first description of the complete repetitive cycle of erosion and deposition” a “pattern which continually shapes and reshapes the island group” and which has caused San Serriffe to be headed towards a collision course with Sri Lanka. “Linked intimately with the multiple tide system of the double island formation, with the biennial reversal of the main current flowing parallel to the East coast, and with an effect not understood by the Royal Society expedition but now known as a ‘double Coanda,’ the scouring and deposition has two alternating major phases. In one, during the neap tides, material is carried from the western shores of both islands and deposited in the form of a sandbank and spit which almost closes the strait between the islands, known as the Shoals of Adze, at low water and which reaches out eastward for about 1,000 metres. Deposition in this position depends on the existence of the remnants of an earlier spit, and on the fingers of material reaching out from both islands into the strait which result from the reverse flow patterns during neaps. With the spring tides” this is the second phase “the reduced channel width between the islands leads to very high flow rates. Since the main water flow during these phases is southward the material now being scoured rapidly from the bank and spit is deposited in different ways on the north and south islands. Deposition on the northern island falls uniformly on the eastward semicircular shore, while the stronger southerly movement draws out the deposition pattern on the southern island and accounts for the curious ‘tail’ which has developed over the centuries. But the phenomenon unique to San Serriffe, as far as is known, is that as the bank and spit erodes two or three ‘herring bone’ fingers are left reaching out partially across the strait. These are undoubtedly due to the creation of standing waves during the fast erosion phase, but if they did not occur accretion on the eastern shore could not take place and the islands would have disappeared long ago. As it is the islands are in a quasi-stable state but moving steadily eastward. Because the scour and deposition rate changes as the cube of current velocity, the islands will accelerate at first gently and then more rapidly as they approach Sri Lanka. Simple calculations based on the present movement of 1,400 metres a year and an exponential acceleration rate, suggest that the island group will hit the coast of Sri Lanka at a velocity of 940 km an hour on January 3, 2011.” The article is accompanied by a small diagram which illustrates “how the seasonal reversal of the main oceanic current affects the erosion and deposition patterns at the extremes of the tidal cycle.” Taking a cue from the peculiar mechanism that has made San Serriffe’s oceangoing peregrination possible, “Dr. John Funditor, of Imperial College, has put forward a daring scheme. This is to create a double Coanda island group in the English Channel where, according to Dr. Funditor, the current patterns would lead, not to an island movement but to the gradual building up of a Channel barrage. This would have immediate and obvious benefits. There would be a direct road and rail link between Britain and the EEC mainland; the barrage would become the major Europort, accepting traffic from either east or west and would entirely eliminate the present Channel shipping traffic problems; the argument about the Chunell would be silenced, and there would be a permanent reduction in the sea level of the North Sea. This last effect would be most important because it would reduce the costs of North Sea coast protection, reduce the risk of flooding, eliminate the need for a Thames barrage and make the arduous task of oil production a little easier. It may well turn out that advantages such as these, likely to be ignored in Britain, will be grasped by the Asian countries towards whom San Serriffe is moving. One fear, already being expressed in Karachi, is that as soon as the islands enter an economic zone as defined by the Law of the Sea, then its unique water flow pattern will be deliberately disrupted by an annexing state to prevent it moving out again. Since this could, however, destroy the islands completely, the view in both London and Washington is that this remarkable natural phenomenon should be allowed to run its full course.”
Cohen’s article provides a nice overview of the Republic: “No islands in the world can surely claim a greater population mix than San Serriffe. Just stroll through Bodoni, the capital, and one minute you will be confronted by a vast church, extravagantly decorated in the Portuguese Manuelline style, the next you may well find yourself in an Arab souk. With luck (or a good guide) you can manage to take the exit from the bazaar that is guarded by an ancient Spanish fort, its walls shored up in the nick of time by a team of visiting conservationists. In the country where the population of 1,782,000 consists of Europeans and mixed races, Flongs, Creoles, Malaysians, Arabs, plus a leavening of Chinese, it seems only right and proper that it should have been an international expedition that managed to preserve so much evidence of the improbable history of these islands. Spanish, Portuguese, and British by turn, they became independent in 1967. The usual upheavals followed until the current President, General Pica, restored peace and guaranteed prosperity almost overnight by declaring the islands a tax haven in which all and any foreign capital would be welcome. The result constitutes a fair degree of culture shock, from a network of motorways that make North American turnpikes and freeways look like so many country lanes, to two international airports. San Serriffe Airways, who already operate scheduled services to the capital, Bodoni, Upper Caise, northernmost of the two biggest islands, are also planning to operate to its southern neighbour, Lower Caisse, in the near future. Until recently, the islands have mainly attracted business travelers and the potential of Bodoni as an international convention and artistic centre has been seized to remarkable effect (the new trade centre, due for completion this year, and the splendid modern theater are both British enterprises). But it is Lower Caisse, separated from its northerly neighbour by the formidable Shoals of Adze, that offers the rosiest tourist prospects. Gillsands, stretching down for miles from the southernmost resort of Gillcameo, could well become a second Acapulco once a solution is found to the problem of sand erosion.”
Cohen then introduces us to the Flongs of Lower Caisse: “Although the hinterland is still largely swamp, malaria has been almost eradicated”. The main road, Highway General Pica, stretches “from the coast to the treacherous Woj of Tipe [the spacious marshland barrier which isolates the natives]. This effectively serves as a border between the rest of the island and the habitat of the Flongs. Isolationist by nature, this ancient, aboriginal race is only slowly being allowed to receive tourists with the same courtesy and warmth as the rest of their countrymen. For the time being, however, permits to enter their territory must first be obtained from the District Commissioner’s Office. You’ll need a plausible story to get there not to mention a strong constitution with which to confront the unmade tracks you hit with a bump when the motorway suddenly gives out.” In another article, Spiking the cultural roots, Tim Radford gives a brief description of the “Dance of the Pied Slugs”, a traditional ritual he observed in one of the Flong settlements. There is also a unique event known as the “Festival of the Well Made Play”. He interviews Lino Flatbäd, of the University of Uppsala in Sweden, who asserts that “to speculate upon the origin of the Flongs is to miss the central fascination of San Serriffe culture. These people all of them, colonists and indigenous, townsmen and peasants have developed to a fine pitch the Cult of the Sonorous Enigma.” A photograph adjacent to the column shows an archaeologist leaning against a massive artifact (it actually appears to be a stele filled with Mayan glyphs); the text furnishes a theory regarding the origins of the Flong: “The earliest known inscription in Ki-flong, on a stone outside M’Flong, describes ‘a great journey towards the sunrise.’ It almost certainly refers to the slow easterly movement of the islands across the oceans, and the script, variants of which have been found in Guatemala, suggests that the territory may originally have been located off the coast of Brazil. The subsequent movement must then have been round the Cape of Good Hope. Since the date of this inscription the written form of the language has undergone a number of modifications. The Flongs are not derived from any known African stock, but both the prefixes ‘Ki’ (for the language) and ‘M’ (for something of importance) appear in several African languages. It is thought that the Flong language may have been modified in relatively recent times during the transit of the islands round the African coast.” In Mitred rules, the Rt. Rev. Martin Goudy (Anglican Bishop to the Flongs) reveals that “I am often asked whether the Flongs are not one of the world’s most disregarded peoples, and although standards of comparison are difficult I am forced to reply that so far the Flongs have failed to benefit from the great riches newly acquired by San Serriffe. Doubtless it is for this reason that the Government in Bodoni discourages foreign visitors from penetrating their territory, and that in spite of the highly advanced transport network elsewhere it is rare to see any conveyance in M’Flong larger than an Audi 100LS Automatic.” Thus, the Church has chosen to align itself with the Flong Front and to support their demands (“to secession from Upper Caisse or to a say in the life of the Republic commensurate with their numbers”), which the indigenes have advanced with increasing urgency. “When this has been said, however, the Church equally condemns the violence with which some of the claims have been accompanied. The series of raids on tourist hotels at Cap Em and Villa Pica certainly achieved a purpose in drawing attention to the plight of the Flongs.” These assaults “may well have had a moral justification, and certainly they were carried out with commendable discipline. But the Church would be wrong if it did not express concern at the wholesale taking of life as well as denounce the geographical isolation of which the Flongs have for so long been the victims. The Flong claims are modest…The overriding priority is the drainage of the Woj of Tipe which cuts off the Flongs from the outside world and from the hope of freedom.”
In The leader’s rise to power, Mark Arnold-Forster provides a biographical profile of General Pica: “For the last six years San Serriffe has enjoyed stable government, rising prosperity, and freedom from strikes of any kind. This happy state of affairs is justly and widely attributed to the personality of the President, Maria-Jesu Pica. Born 37 years ago of poor but honest sisal grinders in a hovel on the outskirts of Bodoni, he is now generally regarded despite his relative youth as the father of the San Serriffian people.” He was conscripted into the army at the age of 16 and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a sergeant before turning 20 and a general by the time he reached his 29th birthday. “A romantic at heart, his feelings hidden by a bluff exterior, he married Miss Elizabeth Baskerville, the daughter of an impoverished English planter (now Leader of the Opposition), after a whirlwind romance in 1960, by whom he has 8 children. Sustained by his wife’s unfailing encouragement he studied long and hard, despite his military duties, to lay the foundations for San Serriffe’s present prosperity.” The President freely admits that the main lines of the Pica Plan were derived from British economists such as John Maynard Keynes. “Soldier, economist, and statesman, Maria-Jesu Pica is, however, above all a family man.” This quality is reflected in his choice of Ministers: every single member of his Government, “elected for life in 1971,” is a family member who shares the surname Pica. “The Government was formed following a coup on May 11, 1971, when seven regiments of dismounted cavalry, loyal to General Pica, overthrew the Government led by General Minion, of part Malaysian extraction. The coup was not altogether bloodless. Although reports vary the casualty list was considerable, with many Malaysian immigrants reported dead while resisting arrest outside the presidential palace. For seventeen days Radio San Serriffe broadcast nothing but martial music interspersed with appeals for calm. In his subsequent presidential address President Pica promised his people stability, two chickens in every pot, rigorous prosecution of General Minion and other enemies of the State, the abolition of Minionite newspapers, the establishment of a Government-controlled press and broadcasting service which would tell nothing but the truth, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly subject to licenses to be issued by the Ministry of the Interior. General Minion’s funeral was attended by only a handful of mourners, all of whom were later found dead.” How free is San Serriffian society, really? “No restrictions are placed on foreign visitors except that their mail is censored. General Pica, a comparative recluse, makes an annual public appearance on San Serriffian National Day, the anniversary of the coup of 1971. Traditionally he appears surrounded by the mounted cavalry and protected from the adoring crowds by bullet-proof glass.” Another composition provides the partial transcript of an almost incoherent Address by His Excellency, General M.-J. Pica, President of the Republic of San Serriffe, at a meeting of the National Assembly on May 11, 1976. He expresses a desire “to say a few brief words about the philosophy which underlies, and must continue to underlie, the endeavours of our glorious Republic. This philosophy has come to be known as Picaism and if I may say so I believe the name to be both appropriate and dignified.” But in his disconnected and rambling speech, he does not offer much substance and does not reveal any of the precepts, to which he alludes, of Picaism.
In At the East-West interface, David Fairhall (Defence Correspondent) reports that “San Serriffe’s disproportionate military importance derives from two simple facts: the island’s strategic position between two continents, and its somewhat eccentric ruler’s evident determination to equip ‘The Self Defence Forces of the Republic’ with the best weapons money can buy. General Pica’s administration has therefore been courted by both superpowers in the hope of acquiring base facilities on what a senior US admiral described as ‘one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the Indian Ocean.’ At the same time Bodoni has become a regular call for the arms salesmen from both East and West. The former USAF base was dismantled on independence, leaving only the exceptionally long runway to form the basis of Bodoni International Airport.” The reporter goes on to describe the military involvement in San Serriffe of the United States, Russia, Britain, and Israel.
Additionally, the supplement contains about 15 advertisements: One of them, from Kodak, makes a request of the special report’s readers, in bold letters: “If you’ve got a photograph of San Serriffe, Kodak would like to see it.” It then continues: “The beauty of San Serriffe is legendary. From the serene, stately grandeur of the Cap Em Opera House to the hustle and bustle of the harbour at Port Clarendon, the islands abound in colourful memories just waiting to be faithfully captured on Kodak film. Kodak are looking for photographs, taken by amateur photographers, which truly reflect the evanescent beauty of these fabulous islands. They will be collected together to form an Exhibition, entitled ‘The Legendary Beauty of San Serriffe,’ which will be mounted at this time, next year.” The people who do have suitable images which they are willing to volunteer are asked to ring a special phone number “before noon today.” Another ad is from The People’s Republic of Warrington (“The People’s Republic of Warrington extend joyous greetings to San Serriffe.” Eight brief paragraphs follow: “We the FREE peoples of the Republic of Warrington and suppliers of VLADIVAR VODKA to San Serriffe SALUTE the people of San Serriffe on the occasion of their glorious independence day. Like you we have suffered the yoke of FOREIGN DOMINATION, EXPLOITATION of our vodka fields and PILLAGE of our factory girls alternate Sundays…Like you, our people have overthrown FEUDAL torpor to joyfully embrace the white hot flame of TECHNOLOGICAL apathy…And like you, countless generations of our forebears have taken on the mantle of wisdom and IDEOLOGICAL ENDEAVOUR by rigorously applying themselves to the glorious and cultural task of collectively drinking VLADIVAR VODKA until this toilsome but HEROIC labour has reaped its fulsome HARVEST…In every home and welding-shop our wives and mothers join in spontaneous DEMONSTRATIONS of joy as they break out the ice and pour REVOLUTIONARY measures of VLADIVAR VODKA.”). Other ads include Costain (“COSTAIN IS CHANGING THE FACE OF SAN SERRIFFE. The Costain Group is building a new harbour for His Excellency General Pica on the east coast of San Serriffe.”), J. Walter Thomson Ltd. (advertising agency), Royal Douton Hotelware, Shloer apple/grape juice drinks, Texaco, Le Cricket lighters, Hirondelle wines, After Eight wafer-thin mints, Alexander Howden Insurance Brokers Ltd., St. Quintin Chartered Surveyors, and Guiness beer.
On April 1st of 1978, The Guardian provided its readers with a 10-page follow-up supplement commemorating the wholly imaginary island. Overall, its layout is quite different than the previous year’s “special report”. Each of its broadsheets is meant to convincingly represent the front page of 8 San Serriffian newspapers: SS Sunday Times, News of the SS World, The SS Irish Times, The SS Telegraph, The SS Times, SS Morning Star, SS Guardian, and SS Financial Times. In the middle of these, there are also 4 half-page “covers” of tabloid-style publications: The SSun, SS Express, SS Mirror, and SS Daily Mail. There are literally dozens of articles in the entire supplement. They are as imaginative and well-written as the pieces from ‘77, but their topics are much more absurd and bizarre. In terms of zaniness, the writers pulled out all the stops. And whereas a carefully constructed history of San Serriffe unfolded in a logical and sensible sequence in the pages of the original “special report”, the ‘78 articles are like pieces from a puzzle that has been wildly strewn about. I was actually concerned that I was missing a page or two, but Mrs. Nicole Schulz (Records Manager, Guardian News & Media) “checked our digitalk archive and” confirmed that there are indeed “12 front pages of spoof San Serriffe newspapers…So it seems that you have a complete set.” In order not to miss something vital, every paragraph needs to be carefully examined. While reading, I felt like I had walked into the final 15 minutes of a movie and was not able to figure out the basic plot. Luckily, the SS Guardian (the penultimate broadsheet!) provides the closest summary: “Today eleven San Serriffe newspapers and a foreign one by accident are merged into one by the Freedom of Information Act. It is inevitable. In any case it has happened.” (The SS Sunday Times, in a hard-to-spot “Comment” section, spoke out against the new Freedom of Information Act “Simply because it limits all newspapers in San Serriffe to one page a day.” In contrast, the Marxist SS Morning Star, in a small “We say” section, voiced a favorable opinion of the new spliced-together “Single-Newspaper”.) “The Junta which deposed General Pica on August 23 last year has many things to its credit, though Ms Finchley’s opposition party might dispute that. It has stopped the hurtling progress of these islands across the oceans. (They were rough days last October in the South China Sea.) Today we are firmly anchored in the North Atlantic. And if we are upside down we are also bigger, thanks to the remorseless action of the tides.” In an adjacent illustration, San Serriffe is shown to the left of the U.K., and it appears to be of equal size, if not slightly larger than that nation. Another illustration shows where San Serriffe was located on October 27, 1977: in between Vietnam and the Philippines. In both settings, San Serriffe is indeed topsy-turvy, like someone has turned the entire Republic 180° around. “But times are hard. We have lost our oil. Our inflation rate at 1,203 per cent is higher than many people would like. We have had to join the European Common Market for as long as we stay in territorial waters, and Brussels has its eyes on our whitebait. The language riots between the Flongs and the Phlongs in our North Island are unabated. Our disorderly houses are being nationalised and our corona devalued. Some cynics say we are becoming more like our new and nearest neighbours in Britain. We doubt it. San Serriffe has a life of its own.”
Some additional insight into the island’s recent wanderlust are found in one of “Letters to the Editor” from The SS Irish Times, in which its author complains about the “perpetual tow” to which San Serriffe is being subjected: “Why, I ask, or is it too simple a question, must this island be taken in tow around the world willy-nilly and against its better feelings and only because San Serriffe is unable to make up its mind whether to stay in one place and let the green moss grow over its grey stones and the fresh dew fall over its pastures or to be always moving around the world at a pace, not seen since Sharon My Darlin’ came second over 13 furlongs at Ballynahinch? A year ago and it was through the Indian Ocean they were not content with dragging us. And then do we not recall how we all had to labour and squeeze through the Straits of Malacca and what a tight position it really was for an island that is growing all the time in many, many cultural and historical ways? But that was not enough. Didn’t we all then have to set sail for the Cape Horn at the very tumultuous tip of the whole American continent, twisting this way and that way so that Baile Atha Bodoni knew not at all from one day to another whether it was in the North or South or East or West that it might be for ever taking its ease? And after a year of pitching and tossing through gales and high water the like of which a dog should not have to endure are we not fast approaching a stationary position in a strange ocean again? And where is it next that San Serriffe will be up and taking us? To the Baltic Sea and the coast of Finland and beyond?”
The SS Guardian contains a commentary which makes mention of the Flong/Phlong dispute: “The problem of whether the inhabitants of our North Island spell their name ‘Flong’ or ‘Phlong’ is clearly one which vitally affects their closest interests. It would be invidious for this newspaper to express an opinion either way; suffice to say that there are strong arguments both for and against each side.” The SS Times also mentions the disruptive ruckus, and that each adversary’s “view of the troubles which ravage the island” is itself a matter of contention and strife. Clearly, the North Island is a place where it is hard to achieve consensus on practically any question at all: “‘There are the Flongs. There are also the Phlongs.’ We wrote these words at the beginning of a leading article in 1842 and nothing that has happened in the meantime has caused us to make any marked change in that opinion except, perhaps, that with the passage of time and the sometimes hurtling journey of these islands around the world (for it will be remembered that only a year ago we were in the Indian Ocean) the opinion has acquired an emphasis and an urgency that it did not have before. The policy of the Government must therefore be even-handed and be seen to be even-handed.” The investigative journalism of The SS Telegraph offers readers a new twist: “Fresh evidence of undercover Russian intervention in the language riots in North Island has reached The SS Telegraph through another newspaper. It is not pretty reading, I can tell you. North Island has long been a happy hunting ground for fellow-travellers and their sympathisers who cannot resist the opportunity to pour oil on its troubled waters. This time, according to unimpeachable sources, they have gone too far. Subversive elements, who have clearly learned a thing or two from the Collected Works of Lenin, are reliably reported to have made contact with both sides those who call themselves Flongs and those who complicate matters by preferring Phlongs.” Apparently, a weapon known as the Borodin Mark XVII (which “has acquired a formidable reputation in military circles for its deadly inaccuracy”) has been clandestinely supplied to the two bitterly rivalrous factions by the communist “vultures”. According to the SS Financial Times, “Some 14,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the riots.”
The SS Guardian has yet another relevant exposition which sheds some light on the Soviet-inspired language riots: “Experts inquiring into the cause of language riots between Flongs and Phlongs in North Island blame radioactive emission from the British nuclear plant at Windscale. The experts, who decline to be named, say that since San Serriffe arrived near Britain a month ago the daily count of millicuries from the station has risen from .0065 per yard per year to .0140 per kilogram per acre. According to computer analysis this is an increase of more than 100 per cent...Exposure to only 2 rems per hectare per ounce per gallon per cubic centimetre per week, if concentrated in a single individual, would, in the opinion of the experts’ independent medical consultants, result in a probability of death from cancer of the toe of 23 per cent in 155 years. It is therefore clear that the population of San Serriffe is at serious risk. The experts are pressing the head of the Junta to recall the National Assembly to examine a highly significant confession taken from the Phlong recently found planting a nuclear device at a public house in Erbar. ‘There is no evidence,’ he told the police, ‘to suggest that I was not strongly motivated by the emissions from Windscale, which can have long-term and unsuspected effects.’” The article goes on to give some more hilarious statistics: “A dose of three rems per quintal per inch per corona per month is enough to kill a worm in 72 hours if the worm is deprived of food and water perforce. Significantly, however, none of the worms in the Junta’s research laboratories has been subjected to more than 2.8 rems over periods as short as 68 hours. All, significantly, were supplied with food and water…A suspicion that the course of the islands through the oceans has been deliberately slowed down in order to inflame the language riots in North Island received no reply last night from a spokesman of the Junta Department of Oceanic Travel. ‘We’re here because we’re here,’ he said. Asked whether powerful emissions from Windscale had interfered with the natural oceanic drift of the islands the spokesman replied, ‘No comment.’”
A piece from the SS Sunday Times gives an exclusive interview with “The Pimpernel”, a seemingly important (yet mysterious) figure/author in San Serriffe. As a young man, he had the opportunity “to browse through The Great Scroll of the Flongs” while visiting the Bodoni Caxton Mnemonic Library. “The Pimpernel, leafing feverishly through the forgotten pages of the Great Scroll, fast realised that he might, indeed, be Prince Selsdon, natural son of Harold the Comforter, great grandchild of Winston, Lord of the Flongs, a princeling cast adrift long past at the tender age of two weeks by the evil usurper Red Harold the Unscrupulous down the rolling river Erbane towards the sea in a papyrus and polyester fibre boat. Prince Selsdon! This revelation transformed his life. He educated himself omniverously. Learnt economics in the remote fastness of the Woj of Tipe from the Mad Prophet Hirshel. ‘My message has always been absolutely clear. We must rob the poor in order to make the rich richer. That is the Message of the Flongs. It is commonsense. It is my sense.’” The “notorious Pimpernel”, who lives in a “little cave”, has devised a “masterplan for the future of San Serriffe”, which includes “forced anchorage to the continent at a harbour near Brest” and “a network of ‘glasshouses’ for junta members”.
In News of the SS World, there is an interview with Mr. Douglas Macintyre, who is “The man behind the man who is rumoured to be the speech writer for the legendary titanium-haired opposition leader, Ms Finchley”. The reporter found Macintyre “crouched in an outhouse somewhere in South Island…To get to him, we were led two days blindfolded over rough moorland by long-haired Finchleyites we had contacted by secret signals in a teahouse in back-street Bodoni. Mr Macintyre denied that the Finchleyite forces are fragmented, demoralised and on the brink of surrender. ‘We shall fight for her on the last beach. You don’t understand how we feel about that woman. It’s like the ancient Britons and Boadicea or the Seven Dwarfs and Snow White,’ he said. His hand was clenched convulsively round a miniature rock salt sculpture of Ms Finchley. We asked Mr Macintyre about reports of heavy casualties suffered by the Finchleyites in a recent skirmish with marauding Pimpernel supporters in the foothills. He replied: ‘It was an unfortunate misunderstanding. The Pimpernel has always been a great admirer of Ms Finchley. Besides, if you’re talking about heavy casualties, you should have seen what those B-----------s looked like afterwards.’ Asked whether there was any possibility of Ms Finchley coming to terms with the Junta, Mr Macintyre struggled painfully to his feet and said: ‘We shall not flag or fail. Victory however long and hard the road may be. Give us the tools and we will finish the job.’” Mention is made, in at least three articles, of a libel case brought by Ms. Finchley against The Pimpernel (“and Others”) for passages contained in two of the defendant’s books, The Organ Grinder’s Guide to Navigation and What Every Mariner Should Know About Carol Singing.
What of President Pica? According to a piece in the SS Daily Mail, “General Pica scored over eight million votes from an electorate of less than four million in his last general election.” These statistics demonstrated the most sensational vote of confidence in any San Serriffe politician up to that time. News of the SS World features an interview (“THE DECADE’S MOST EYE-OPENING EXCLUSIVE”) with Belle Stark (“What an innocent child I was then! Just 17 years old, fresh from the South Island Institute of Pure and Applied Goat Keeping.”) and ex-lover of General M.-J. Pica: “My two thousand days of power and passion at the side of the Supremo of San Serriffe ended late one summer night on the balcony of our ten-bedroomed luxury love-nest as the smell of magnolias mingled with the unforgettable scent of Molotov cocktails from the square below.” Apparently, it was the night of the coup. Pica made his escape from the balcony by sliding hand-over-hand down a 150-foot rope. Belle followed, with Pica’s “emerald and platinum encrusted toothbrush slung around my neck as a souvenir”, but was immediately captured “by a revolutionary snatch squad while lying winded in the shrubbery…I am not hurt by all these reports that Piggles [her pet name for the General] is living in luxury on the proceeds of the jewels he bought for me. In spite of his three bottles of champagne for breakfast, his house staff of lovely young ex-models, his wild parties, his yacht, his swimming pool, and his two Jensens, I am sure that Piggles still misses me. I am sure that he often thinks, as I do, of those soft summer nights in our Mountain Home of Love, silent except for the steady tread of armed guards outside our window, as he gazed into my eyes and my questing fingers roved over his bullet-proof vest.” Where is the Generalissimo today? According to the SS Sunday Times and The SS Times, the ex-President Pica purportedly still resides at the Presidential Palace, but is also spends time at his “summer home, El Dorado, on the exclusive Flong coast”. At least we know that he is financially very well-off. The SS Guardian refers to an article from its August 24, 1977 edition, in which some unkind reference was made to M.-J Pica: “In particular it was stated that ‘in course of a long and tyrannous career General Pica burned 82 of his political opponents at the stake and embezzled 34 million coronas from public funds.’ The article went on to say that ‘these were among his lesser crimes.’ It has been pointed out to us by General Pica’s legal representatives that these words might be taken to cast doubt on the personal and political integrity of the General. Although on reflection we agree that the words might have been capable of an adverse interpretation, we wish to say that it was not our intention to portray General Pica otherwise than as a humane, honest, and conscientious ruler. We wish unreservedly to apologise to General Pica for any inconvenience which may have been caused by this misunderstanding. Alternatively, although we believe the words to be true, we have had difficulty in finding the evidence. A sum of money, sufficient to cripple this newspaper for years to come, has been placed in a numbered Swiss account.”
The ‘78 supplement contains about 10 advertisements. One of them, from second-time advertiser Alexander Howden, asks “What’s the greatest menace mankind has ever faced? That everyone’s talking about? That governments are expressing concern about? And that film makers are heralding as the most expensive event in history? The answer? San Serriffe, the peripatetic island that’s going places where no island’s gone before. But people, ordinary men and women, average businessmen and even above average businessmen, are also asking questions. What they want to know is can you insure against seeing it? Can you insure against proof of its physical existence? Can you insure against coming into contact with it? Alexander Howden Insurance Brokers, the experts on insurance in, on or around San Serriffe, now have the answer. The insurance situation in San Serriffe is so tangled that, to help you escape, we have formed, for one day only, a separate division.” Costain has also placed a new ad (“THANKS TO COSTAIN, SAN SERRIFFE IS NO LONGER GOING PLACES. The alluvial drift of the two land masses of San Serriffe was halted by the experience and skill of Costain. Two deep water cutter suction dredgers operated by the company’s dredging subsidiary, transferred 4.6 cubic metres a minute of fluidised sand/water slurry from the eastern seaboard, via six 14 inch land pipes to create polders on the opposite edge of the island, to counteract the movement. This artificial stabilisation allowed time for 630 ground anchors, sunk to a depth of 425 metres, to be drilled and fastened into the underlying dolorite bedrock.”). Other ads include Olympus Trip (a camera), States of Jersey Tourism Committee, St. Quintin, Advance Linen Services Ltd., Kodacolor 400 film, the Northampton Development Corporation, and the Bulgarian Tourist Board. The supplement also has 2 crossword puzzles (a regular-sized one and a tiny one consisting of only 4 questions and 4 boxes) and movie reviews (“The Flinger Not The Flong”, “The Flong Goodbye”, “Flong Day’s Journey Into Night”, “Flong With The Wind”, “Desert Flong”).
In the “Letters to the Editor” section of The SS Irish Times, “the nature of existence” (this really goes to the very core of San Serriffe itself) is questioned in a magnificent pair of missives: “It has possibly occurred to others of your readers, as it has occurred to me, that the status of this island in relation to San Serriffe is a purely metaphysical one. I wonder whether enough thought has been given to the implications of that status? For if I am right this island is not a corporeal or physical entity in any sense of those words, and hence all that is said and done here cannot be other than a work of the divine imagination.” The reply of Padraig Johnson: “That I am able to comment on the letter from Mr Tomas O Dowell on the same day that it is printed must reinforce the burden of what he says. It has been borne in upon me also during the past twelve months that the nature of our existence is ethereal and wanting in substance. I ask myself whether that fact should make any difference to our conduct, for it is possible to imagine a state of affairs in which God’s creatures, though lacking substance, act as though they were in fact substantial. Are we, perhaps, in a reverse category, that, having substance, we believe ourselves to lack it? And if that be the case, Sir, what point of reference shall we take?”
Clearly, the topic of San Serriffe has become somewhat of a “traditional annual deceit” at The Guardian. On 4/1/1999, readers were rewarded with Return to San Serriffe, which I found at the Web-site of the Guardian Unlimited (http://www.guardian.co.uk/). It begins with: “The centre of Bodoni, the capital of San Serriffe, was, as ever, confused last night as it prepared to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of its discovery, the most dramatic event in the patchy even blotchy history of this remote sea-girt nation.” But this does not make sense. Remember, the 10th anniversary (of its independence, NOT of its discovery) was in 1977, so the 22nd anniversary really should have taken place in 1989. The arrival of 1999 would’ve simply meant that 22 years had gone by “Since the country briefly hit global headlines” and the first articles about the “sleepy island paradise” were published in The Guardian (the feature prompted “$500 million of inward investment in just 12 months”). So if this the discovery of San Serriffe by the media is the actual anniversary the San Serriffians are supposed to be celebrating, why couldn’t the author just say so? Having said this, the following paragraph loses its punch: “the figure 22 has a peculiar symbolic power in the mystic tradition of the Flong people, San Serriffe's indigenous tribe. There are, for instance, (approximately) 22 people in a Serriffean cabinet, 22 verses in the national anthem and 22 miles between the Upper Caisse port of Adze and Cap Em on the southern island. Accordingly, traditionalists have this year secured funding from the San Serriffean National Lottery for a full programme of cultural celebratory events.” Previous anniversaries had come and gone with little ceremony, because under the stern military rule of unpopular strongman General Pica and his inscrutable successor “few Serriffeans felt they had much to celebrate.” However, since the island’s first free elections were held in 1997 “and the handsome, popular, charismatic, boyish, charming, dynamic, modest, new leader Antonio Bourgeois was catapulted into office, the atmosphere in San Serriffe has been transformed.” San Serriffe, a “fledgling democracy”, is now “a vibrant nation transformed by a visionary leader”. Indeed, “Much has changed since the long years of Pica-ist rule. General Pica maintained an iron grip on power until being forced out in a palace coup in 1990 by General Melior known as The Obscure One who tricked his way into the General's Office under the pretext of clearing away the coffee things. Pica is rarely spotted these days, emerging only from the ex-presidential hideaway to drink cups of tea and reminisce about torture techniques with other leaders from the old days. Elderly recalcitrant Pica-ists have grouped themselves round An Even More Obscure One, and conduct occasional meetings of dissidents in a Villa Pica telephone booth.” What of the natives? “The council of Flong tribal elders, which has retained influence over San Serriffean policies for generations, is to be abolished and replaced by a group of the Bourgeois family's dining companions, known as Antonio's Cronios...Power, meanwhile, is also being devolved to the regions. On Lower Caisse, where resentment has always festered about edicts from the distant capital, autonomy has been granted under the slogan: ‘Lower caisse solutions for lower caisse problems.’ The Government is insisting only that it approves those solutions in advance, and the identity of the people doing the solving.” The new minister in charge of Lower Caisse is Mr. Minion (whose government was overthrown by General Pica in 1971), who was “elected using the ancient tribal counting method whereby the candidate with the fewest votes was declared the winner.” Bourgois's deputy is Mr. Baskerville (former head of the Opposition), who “has taken personal responsibility for the nation's transport system. He is often to be found on the platforms at Bodoni Central or Perpetua Junction shouting at engine drivers.” Apparently, life is now very good for the average Serriffian. “The Government hopes to ensure that those of its people still forced to eke out their days doing humdrum jobs, like making cars, will soon be able to spend their days enjoying leisure pursuits without their lives being polluted by the sordid distraction of making money. It is this thoughtfulness about the populace that has made the Government so beloved, and the press coverage so adoring that, and the fact that Mr Courier [Bourgeois’s spokesman] has threatened to purge any elements on the Government newspaper, Nugradia, who say anything to the contrary.” The article is accompanied by a “Brief history of a nation on the move”. This chronology indicates that in 1972, San Serriffe was “expelled from Commonwealth and Organisation of Itinerant States (OIS)” and that in 1974 it was “readmitted to Commonwealth and OIS, and invited to join NATO.” In 1982, “General Pica rescues flagging popularity by personally leading commando force to liberate the island of Ova Mata, a Serriffean protectorate, following an invasion by Adobe forces.” In 1989, “General Pica is deposed by cabal of senior officers who declare they are tired of listening to his stories about the Ova Mata campaign. General Melior, formerly Pica's gardener, is appointed president.” In 1998, “Newsweek runs cover story asking: ‘Is Bodoni the world's coolest city?’” Elsewhere in the Guardian Unlimited, it was reported in 2006 that San Serriffe had experienced a growth in eco-tourism.
The brilliant prank that the newspaper launched on the world in 1977 not only fills a rich chapter in the annals of 4/1 hilarity but it has moreover achieved immortality. Martin Wainwright (the paper’s Northern Editor), in The Guardian Book of April Fool's Day (published in March of 2007), devoted an entire section to chronicling the history of San Serriffe. In a reply to one of my e-mails, he stated that the volume contains, in considerable detail, everything he knows about San Serriffe. “It includes material about Geoffrey Taylor and the various later references to San Serriffe but there were only basically the two large supplements. Otherwise the archipelago recurred in occasional smaller pieces on later April Fools Days.” The fifth chapter, entitled “Islands in the Sun”, is the main portion of the amply illustrated book which focuses its sights on San Serriffe. In it, Mr. Wainwright begins by explaining the importance of the humble “Special Reports” section of The Guardian, which was where San Serriffe (“the most successful April Fool in newspaper history”) had its unlikely origins. This section was “responsible for pull-out advertising supplements which combined editorial material with related adverts and used to fill the nation’s litterbins the following day. They still flutter out occasionally, but both advertisers and newspapers are much more sophisticated than in the 1970s, the genre’s heyday. Even then, special reports were one of the world’s great examples of wasted effort; millions of words which hardly anyone read.” They made a profit for The Guardian, otherwise they would never have existed. “Along with The Times and the Financial Times, the paper found that a monthly focus on a recondite subject brought in lots of money from themed advertisements.” Its Special Reports department developed, from time to time, a page or pages where a theme, perhaps a country or region, was chosen (in those days, “newspaper supplements on little-known countries were as much a part of British life as vagueness about the ‘-stan’ countries of Central Asia was…in the late 1990s”). Then, advertisers responded, and unenthusiastic editorial writers were persuaded to produce the copy. “The subjects were impressively varied, from sleep via shaving cream to Whither Nigeria?, and the man in charge of thinking them up was no dud. He was an advertising rep called Philip Davies who was a born wheeler-dealer and a man with his finger on the popular pulse…Davies was forever coming up with bright, money-making ideas.”
Mr. Wainwright then goes on to recount how San Serriffe was conjured up: The Guardian’s greatest hoax, “the invention of an entire country called San Serriffe,” was Davies’s idea. ‘The Financial Times was always doing special reports on little countries I'd never heard of,’ he says. ‘I was thinking about April Fool's Day 1977 and I thought: why don't we just make a country up?’ He put the notion to Gerry Taylor [the relatively new managing director] and in turn the witty editor at the time Peter Preston, who were both intrigued. Crucial enthusiasm, though, came from the second-in-command on the editorial side of Special Reports, Stuart St Clair Legge. He was the man who suggested the title which was to become a legend. San Serriffe part typographic pun, part credible name for a tropical isle. It also had the special appropriateness for the Guardian of challenging spelling. During its long relationship with San Serriffe, starting with the original supplement itself, the paper has printed the name with carefree inconsistency using every possible variation of ‘r’s and ‘f’s and on one occasion two ‘e’s. Davies’s original outline was modest…His new idea initially involved a page or maybe two at the back of the paper. The report would gently mimic the usual thorough examinations of higher education in, say, Botswana, or the prospects for tourism on the Ivory Coast.” In addition to being “A nice little joke”, it would also be “a highly sophisticated vehicle for mounds of advertising revenue. There might be some angry and made-to-feel-foolish readers, but the panache of the deception would keep their numbers small.” Gerry Taylor, ironically, “was an enemy of special reports because he thought they diverted energy from ordinary ads in the main paper…Phil Davies’s inspiration was another matter.” His “sense of fun and imagination leapt at the possibilities of the entirely fake island. Advertisers would love it, he said. Like children, they could play along with bizarre riffs on the theme, building their own fantasies on an entirely false portfolio of San Serriffian geography and history which the Guardian would supply to them. So it proved.” Davies enlisted the support of the chief exec of J. Walter Thompson (the biggest advertising agency at the time), who became entranced by the idea. “Sworn to secrecy,” he “called up his major clients and they queued to join in.” Phil Davies’s cautious plans soon expanded into a major, seven-broadsheet-page supplement. It was “bigger than the entire paper had been within staff memory since the Second World War, and the biggest special report the Guardian had seen. It needed a star writer and editor to make sure that it was a tour de force.” A famously deft, adroit and inventive staffer named Geoffrey Taylor (another Taylor!) was the person “deployed by Preston to oversee the editorial content.” He became the true architect of the hush-hush project. He did not want the San Serriffe material to turn into tendentious rubbish. “He knew the unctuous style and interminable detail of the supplements backwards, and set about realising San Serriffe with élan. He designed a shrunken semicolon-shaped version of New Zealand's twin islands, with which he had connections, and picking up Stuart Legge’s theme, based everything on the rich vocabulary of print. Leading islanders such as the dictator General Pica and places like the capital Bodoni were named after fonts of type and their measurements. It seemed at times a high-risk strategy because some of the terms are well known even to laymen. Basic grammar, for instance, was commandeered; the word ‘colon’ had fortuitous echoes of ‘colonists’. But the brio of the operation encouraged high-wire risks. Taylor and his band of fraudsters even got away with a wilderness area on the north island called Wodj of Type. Some of the paper’s best-known writers were enlisted in the scheme.” These included Mark Arnold Forster and Tim Radford. Taylor, the quintessential parodist, was definitely in his element. “As Geoffrey recalled later: ‘Articles were commissioned, photographs distorted, charts drawn, history invented.’ Like the Creation, albeit in rather more than seven days, an entire country took shape. Regularly supplied with top-secret drafts of the editorial copy, the advertisers joined in with a will. The islands were positioned off the Canaries and with just over three days to go, the final shape of the supplement was drawn up.”
Then, tragedy struck: in the late afternoon of March 27th, two jumbo jets collided in fog at Tenerife (the largest of the seven Canary Islands) airport, resulting in the worst aviation disaster in the world. There were 583 fatalities. “The delicate web of April Fool fantasy composed in Farringdon Road suddenly seemed marginal. Peter Preston teetered on the edge of pulling San Serriffe…But fortunately it was not abandoned. With a Herculean effort and overtime work at both the Guardian and the advertising agencies, the islands were relocated in the Indian Ocean. Their history, flora and fauna were completely revised and an inspirational article was added by the Guardian’s science correspondent Anthony Tucker…Transferring the islands inspired the idea that San Serriffe should be a nation always on the move. As the sea relentlessly eroded its western coasts, Tucker explained, tides carried the material round and deposited it on bays in the east. As he and the paper’s core Northern readers knew, this is a process which actually happens on the Yorkshire coast, where cliffs crumble into the sea and the debris is washed round Spurn Point by the tide, to resurface at Sunk Island and gradually enlarge the north bank of the Humber estuary.” Incidentally, “the sudden, last-minute move from the Atlantic helped to sustain the illusion in readers hoodwinked by the spoof. They were much less likely to be acquainted with the Indian Ocean and much more inclined to believe that unusual things might happen there.”
Finally, “the evening of 31 March came, the presses rolled and San Serriffe indelibly joined the map of the world.” The final batch of synopses, based on all the valuable work by Geoffrey and his quick-witted colleagues, was published, to much amusement and wide acclaim. “Next morning, the phone calls started early, the letters followed later. Thousands of readers were taken in”. When Geoffrey Taylor, in his usual unobtrusive way, slipped into the office canteen at lunchtime, the entire room burst into spontaneous applause. “Spin-offs soon included ‘I've been to San Serriffe’ car stickers and a T-shirt from the islands which sold a record 12,000 to Guardian readers. Geoffrey was awarded a trophy called the Golden Leg by the TV comedians of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Modest to a fault, he handed it on to Davies who still has it on his mantelpiece in Devon”. Immediately, “San Serriffe caused a sensation, partly because of its scale but more because it pitched at just the right, uncertain level of credibility. The good-hearted, credulous readers accepted it naturally. But thousands of sceptics also wondered: could it just possibly be true? Once the hoax was realised, people settled down to enjoy the sheer cleverness of the articles and the advertisements. There were scores of jokes within jokes and invitations for people to join in. Motions relating to the politics of General Pica were put down in the House of Commons and the European Parliament. A file on San Serriffe was added to the library in the Foreign Office’s weekend retreat at Chevening House. The investigative journalist Mark Hosenball, an American who was fighting deportation for breaches of the Official Secrets Act, announced in that night’s London Evening Standard that he had finally agreed to go to San Serriffe. The Home Office actually delayed the already endless proceedings just to check in case his spoof destination was real. Enthusiasts were inspired to their own heights of inventiveness. A fan in Houston, Texas, drove around for four years with San Serriffe diplomatic plates. A statistician at Liverpool University invented a game based on the islands, politely acknowledged by the Guardian’s circulation director Brian Connor with a note which managed the best Guardian misspelling yet of the islands’ name in its pay-off line: ‘PS I enclose our only remaining San Serriffee car sticker.’” The Guardian received tons of humorous notes from its readers, who “competed both to be in on the great joke early, and to keep it going for years.” One such letter was “from the San Serriffe Liberation Front, which had already organised a proper letter heading and plausible address. Naturally, the SSLF was furious about the pro-government slant of the special report. Many other letters debated the finer points of San Serriffian matters, enlivened by the paper’s consistently unreliable spelling of the islands’ name. A Friends of San Serriffe was established in Welwyn Garden City, an address which gave inexplicable satisfaction…Ultimately, and unfortunately, plans were set in motion for San Serriffe The Sequel, the following year.”
Mr. Wainwright then proceeds to convey his unfavorable opinion of 1978’s part deux: “This is the only sad coda to a story of inspiration.” He describes the final product as “a lumbering supplement of parody papers”. It “fooled nobody. Or hardly anybody there was just one brief glorious moment when the presses in Manchester which the Guardian shared with the Daily Mail nearly folded the SS Daily Mail into the real one instead of the Guardian. Alas someone spotted the mistake in time. There was fun to be had for San Serriffe obsessives and great was the joy in Welwyn Garden City. Advertisers joined in again too, and so the essential profit was made. But apart from one or two memorable headlines…the exercise collapsed under its own weight. I can be rude because I played a bit part myself, trying vainly to find funny jokes to put in the leaden SS Morning Star. Reason prevailed and San Serriffe sailed off into history, apart from a short retrospective some years later, annual cheeps in the letters column and occasional twitches”.
Geoffrey Taylor remained at The Guardian until he retired in 1991; he would go on to run a “sub-post office” in Littondale). “But two years after San Serriffe, [Philip] Davies was no longer there.” Having achieved lasting fame on account of those islands, he would go on to start a successful magazine called Revue and to later purchase the North West Evening Mail. Gerry Taylor also retired; on his desk, he still has a framed map of the islands that was given to him by his grateful colleagues. “And San Serriffe itself remains constantly able to spring back into life; indeed it helped the Guardian out of a tight political spot. In 1999 the paper’s environment correspondent John Vidal flew to Seattle to cover the WTO summit. The meetings were besieged by anti-globalism protesters and there was serious violence. Security was tense. To his horror, John found that he had been issued with diplomatic accreditation papers rather than media ones. On the spur of the moment, he filled them in as Hon. John Vidal, Economics Minister of San Serriffe. ‘No one batted an eyelid,’ he recalls. ‘Fellow delegates were politely interested and I discreetly passed on the latest news about the islands’ trade and development.’ Was General Pica still in charge? John no longer remembers.”
Mr. Wainwright also devotes a portion of chapter 8, “The Advertisers”, to San Serriffe. “In a guileless moment, you may be thinking that the media dreams up April Fool’s every year to add to the gaiety of the nation and give us all a harmless bit of fun. This is true up to a point, but that point is very soon reached. When the Guardian’s San Serriffe team held their secret meetings with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency everyone was thinking about the same thing. Money. And so it came to pass. The paper’s circulation lifted only slightly on the day, because news of the great spoof came too late for extra copies to be printed, but the supplement’s advertisements raised a handsome sum. How much? ‘I’m not sure that anyone could work that out so many years later,’ says Philip Davies. ‘But let’s say that I met my budget target very early indeed that month.’ Let’s say, by 2 April. San Serriffe was advertisement-rich to an extent which only the supplements commissioned in their entirety by the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung [his turgid opinions were largely unreadable] could match.” In fact, “Four out of the seven pages were taken up with advertising. But it was advertising of an interesting, and at the time mould-breaking, kind. Amid cloak-and-dagger precautions to avoid leaks of the impending prank, copywriters were let in on the secret and all their talents were let rip. Some of the best jokes in San Serriffe are in the ads.” As was hoped for, “All the advertisers reported a bumper response to their japes”. Elsewhere in the book, Mr. Wainwright again addresses this business aspect: “the fantasy islands taught two mouth-watering commercial lessons to senior newspaper executives. April Fool’s was absolutely up the street of bright young advertising agencies and their wealthy clients, and they had the potential to bring free publicity for a title all over the world. After 1977, everyone set about the annual hoax with a will. Top byliners and heads of department took charge. The results showed in two ways. A hit or miss quality attached itself to the spoofs, with all the resources and pooled brains either pitching at just the right spot or sometimes, as in the 1978 follow-up to San Serriffe, making a meal which was too rich.”
At the Web-site of the Guardian Unlimited, I found one other article, by David McKie, which sheds some additional light on the legacy of San Serriffe: “The impact of the seven-page survey was quite astonishing. The office all day was bedlam as people pestered the switchboard with requests for more information. Both travel agencies and airlines made official complaints to the editor, Peter Preston, about the disruption as customers simply refused to believe that the islands did not exist. Veterans of that time say there's never been a day like it in terms of reader response. Over the past 30 years, San Serriffe has entered the language as a kind of flawed utopia and one American writer has published a series of erudite books about its publishing industry. Geoffrey Taylor now lives in New Zealand, and messages reaching the Guardian early this morning suggest that San Serriffe is floating today just off the South Island.”
Thankfully, because it allowed numismatists like me to become acquainted with this amazing fictional nation, San Serriffe was later resurrected (not that the Republic ever actually departed) and elaborated upon as a labor of love by a publisher (mentioned above by McKie) named Mr. Henry Morris. “Since discovering San Serriffe,” the author writes, “I have taken it and made it as my own.” The Bird & Bull Press, his private press based in Newtown, Pennsylvania, has produced books which are based on the cultural achievements of San Serriffe about its booksellers, its private presses, its marbled paper thus contributing to the mythical lore of Upper and Lower Caisse. “A few years after I first became interested in coins I began to wonder what would be required to have a coin struck privately, and as time went on, such an undertaking became increasingly attractive.” He had by then become so enamored of San Serriffe, that “no one deserved the favor more.” The 100 Coronas, dated 1988, is Mr. Morris' addition to our “esoteric branch of numismatics”. The only way I could obtain it was by purchasing Henry Morris’ The First Fine Silver Coinage of the Republic of San Serriffe: The Bird & Bull Press Commemorative 100 Coronas, published in 1988. The coin itself comes in a protective capsule, and is held in a special folder, from which it is fully removable. The coin was originally distributed in this manner, and it is doubtful that many coins have been separated from their books. I purchased my volume from Oak Knoll Books: http://www.oakknoll.com.
Images of the San Serriffe coin can be viewed at the site of Mr. Haseeb Naz’s private collection:
Apart from the San Serriffe coin, Mr. Morris delved even further into numismatics with his Trade Tokens of British and American Booksellers & Bookmakers, With Specimens of Eleven Original Tokens Struck Especially for This Book, published in 1989 by the Bird & Bull Press. This edition is accompanied by a heavy die-cut board folder containing 11 different copper tokens, all enclosed in a slipcase. He has provided a history of these tokens and given a bibliography of all known British and American examples and included many illustrations of tokens reproduced from original examples. The participants include seven booksellers including Oak Knoll Books, the Bird & Bull Press, one marbler, one bookbinder and one papermaker. An image of these tokens can be seen at: http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byorg/gbw/gallery/bestofbest/exhibitors/blumenthal.html
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