Of all the political sensations that broke upon the airwaves on New Year's Day – the frailties of the major UK parties as detailed by the pre-election polls, the prospect of yet another member of the Bush family running for President in 2016 – by far the most significant, from this coign of vantage, involved the belated exposure of what most commentators would define as a vulgar practical joke.
The venue turns out to have been a summer conference in Bordeaux convened by the rightward-leaning Front National, the perpetrators were three disaffected party members, the intention to embarrass a local chieftain opposed to gay marriage and the victim no less an eminence than the organisation's vice-president – and the boyfriend of its major-domo, Marine Le Pen – Louis Aliot, who has declared himself opposed to "marriage for all".
As for the jape itself, well, among various minor embarrassments, Mr Aliot turns out to have had a laxative introduced into his glass of wine. The consequences, alas, are shrouded in secrecy. Whether this titan of the French right and potential office-holder – it is thought that the FN would probably win the first ballot were a presidential election to be held tomorrow – was forced to cut short an address or otherwise run for cover, as it were, is uncertain. What we do know is that messieurs Jean-David Eyquem and Jean-Baptiste Defrance, two of the three ingrates detected in what the party disciplinarians have termed a "destabilisation manoeuvre", have been expelled from the party and the third severely censured.
All of which confirms a lesson I first learned at the hands of the somewhat pompous marketing partner of the firm of Coopers & Lybrand, chartered accountants, back in the 1980s: a joke, unless all those involved think it is a joke, can be a very serious business.
At the same time, the combination of mild amusement and fellow-feeling with which I greeted this revelation – after all, having a laxative slipped into your drink can't be much fun, whatever your views on gay marriage – was swiftly countered by the itch of memory. Like Evelyn Waugh's Charles Ryder, fetching up at a requisitioned, war-time Brideshead, I had been here before. All of a sudden well-nigh a third of a century slipped away and I was standing in the front quadrangle of St John's College, Oxford, listening to an undergraduate whom even now discretion impels me to call Kevin Annis, rather than his baptismal name, explain how he intended to annoy the president of the Graduate Common Room. Never in my life had I met anyone with such a profound understanding of the heights that a practical joke could reach in the hands of someone who regarded it as an aesthetic exercise rather than a straightforward act of revenge.
There had been practical jokers at school, of course – the boy who purloined the sports trophies the afternoon before sports day, the scientific genius who manufactured some nitroglycerine and left it in a cupboard in the chemistry lab before leaving for the holidays, at which point it became dangerously unstable – but these were lower-league amateurs compared to Kev. His exploits at St John's included fabricating parts of an increasingly puzzled correspondence between two post-grads – one of them the current MP for Henley – who were supposed to dislike each other, masterminding fake numbers of the college newsletter claiming that Elvis Costello had been signed up to play the college ball and encouraging one of his friends – myself, in fact – to abstract someone's lunch from the canteen so that he could return it, by post, with an apologetic letter from the college steward.
One of the great disadvantages of the practical joke, once those involved own up, is its instant descent into puerility. Thirty years later I have an idea that Annis and his satellites, of whom I was one, and whose defence of any gag they concocted was merely that "It seemed a good idea at the time", were not much more than public nuisances. On the other hand, there are practical jokes and practical jokes, the mechanism for embarrassment tending to vary from territory to territory and age-group to age-group. The jokes played in transatlantic teen movies of the American Pie school are simply exercises in cruelty, whereas spoofs enacted on the grand scale, intensively researched and orchestrated and, in ideal circumstances, victim-free, can, at the very highest level, almost attain the level of an art-statement.
Take, for example, the celebrated Bruno Hat hoax of the late 1920s when a group of Bright Young People advertised an exhibition by an émigré German artist whose impeccably avant-garde paintings were displayed on rope-framed cork-boards. Evelyn Waugh wrote a jargon-strewn pamphlet under the signature "A R de T", entitled "An Approach to Hat", the man himself was impersonated by Tom Mitford, brother of the six Mitford sisters, the press arrived in droves and Winston Churchill and Lytton Strachey were among the guests. And, like many a practical joke, the hilarity had its downside, its unadvertised private sorrow, in that at least one participant recalled that Brian Howard, who devised the art-works, among them "The Adoration of the Magi" – in which three matchstick figures are seen worshipping a geometric representation of Mary – secretly believed they would be acclaimed as modernist masterpieces.
All a terrible waste of time, of course, and eight-and-a-half decades later no more than a footnote in social histories of the Twenties. And yet, as with all halfway-decent practical jokes, there is a moral point involved, in this case the exposure of an inter-war era art-world that the pranksters thought gullible in the face of modernist excess, and a newspaper culture obsessed with novelty to the point where only its newfangledness mattered. Like a satirical novel, or "The Dunciad", or Blackadder Goes Forth, the practical joke is there to draw attention to folly – however savage the treatment – and the fact that this criticism is couched in the form of an anonymously perpetrated gag usually stems from the fact that no other means of redress is available.
P G Wodehouse makes this point with some force in his early school stories whose heroes, "decent chaps" tyrannised by exacting and self-important schoolmasters, have no way of getting their own back except painting the tyrant's dog pink or breaking out of the school at night. Transferred to the world of work, as in Psmith in the City (1910), they are alarmed to discover that revenge is beyond them – as Psmith puts it, you can't rag Mr Bickersdyke, the bank manager, for he commands your destiny. In much the same way, the only way in which Annis and I could disrupt the college ball, to whose staging we objected, was to circulate misleading information about it.
Which takes us back to the vice-president of the Front National and his poisoned wine. Few of M Aliot's personal characteristics, sad to relate, are in the public domain. He may not be in the least pompous, or overbearing. His alliance – both political and emotional – with Mlle Le Pen and his views on gay marriage may be just what the French political scene needs. On the other hand, they may not. There is a rather significant moment in Brideshead Revisited in which Lady Marchmain, divining that certain practical jokes have been played on her son's donnish minder, Mr Samgrass, remarks that if she were a young man, she would probably have done the same herself. Substitute M Aliot for Mr Samgrass and so – short of popping laxative in his wine – would I.Reuse content