David Randall: Our raspberry response to all the other po-faced months

The silly season is upon us, and promises to live up to expectations of daftness

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There are circumstances in which a carp opening and closing its mouth one last time, and floating bellywards towards the surface would not make international news headlines. Nor would the failure of a record-breaking number of women to gather on the cool shores of Essex in their bikinis; the discovery of a recipe for haggis in an English cookbook 132 years before the first Scottish reference to the dish; or the claim by researchers that "sex without condoms can keep you sane", which will be news to Aids campaigners.

And, for those of you who've had your heads (or feet, anyway) in the sand for the past week or so, there are more sensations: the new national craze – back garden pig-rearing; a survey of 5,000 British women which claimed they expressed a preference for men with "a bit of body odour"; the four Wisconsin women who ambushed the man who had trifled with all their affections and glued his penis to his stomach; and, a personal favourite from these news-starved days, the 86-year-old recidivist shoplifter whose 61st arrest was for trying to liberate from a pharmacy two tubes of anti-wrinkle cream.

And don't expect it to stop for a while. This is August, the peak of the silly season, and it will take an event of very considerable proportions to knock the month out of its frivolous stride. The declaration of a world war might do it; or maybe some vast natural cataclysm – the sudden disappearance in a great tectonic shudder of all of California west of the San Andreas Fault, for instance. Even then, you guess, the August news media would busily seek the lighter side to the story, not resting until the comic possibilities of Los Angeles resting on the sea bed had been fully explored. After all, it's that time of year.

The silly season, is, I suspect, the most venerable of all mass media set pieces, with roots that go back far beyond the advent of the modern tabloid. The phrase was first spotted on the pages of The Saturday Review, that serious weekly of Victorian men of letters, as this, filed to The New York Times by a special correspondent, makes plain: "London, 22 August 1874. We are in the midst of what The Saturday Review has well called "the silly season", meaning the season in which the newspapers are open to the discussion of silly subjects and the publication of silly articles. The cost of funerals, the propriety of getting married on three hundred a year, overcharges at hotels, the advantages and disadvantages of travelling on the Continent as compared with travelling in Great Britain and Ireland, the treatment of domestic servants, the price of claret, are the sort of topics one is accustomed to see brought forward and worried in every possible manner during the do-nothing month of August."

It's a reminder that the rhythm of the official year has changed little (too little, say many of us) since the days of Benjamin Disraeli. Come August, the courts prorogued, Parliament recessed, and anyone who was remotely anyone decamped out of town to their country seat. Today, much the same happens, the generous expenses system ensuring that the tradition of MPs having capacious and well-appointed rural residences continues. Thus, for more than 150 years, the eighth month has seen the capital virtually empty of mischief makers and the news they generate. (Someone, of course, has to be left in charge of the shop, but there is a limit to the genuine events that can be stirred up even by the likes of Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson, the organ-grinder being in the Lake District and, thence, God bless him, on community service.)

Thus, then, a news drought; a drying up of the rivers of official happenings, sayings and pronouncements. In their place (for leaving blank spaces or silent air time where reports of PMQ should be seems rather a slack response) are the weird and the temporarily wonderful: obituaries of gullible carp (Benson, his name was, and he fell for the old hook-in-a-piece-of-bread trick scores of times), killer seaweed in Brittany, or men attempting to fly a bicycle from Land's End to John O' Groats – stories that might not, in a busy March or hyperactive April, bother the journalistic scorers at all, or else would be rendered down into the offal of a news brief.

But you get the sense that there's more to the silly season than merely filling vacated space. Into each newsroom flows, minute-by-minute, via the wire services, a torrent of happenings from around the world. It would be work of comparative ease for the more serious publications and broadcasters to browse these lower pastures and so fill the void. But no. Tradition demands – and readers, viewers and listeners expect – that this is the media's dress-down month, the time of year when they are let out to play, and return with something other than the diet of the rest of the year.

It has been that way since the first sea serpent story reared its head in Augusts of the 1870s, thereby setting a standard that successive Loch Ness monster sightings have manfully done their best to match. Bizarre creatures have done good service down the silly season years, but there have been many other diversions, too. A small selection: Robert Naysmith, the "human ostrich", who entertained crowds at fairs by swallowing nails, stones, glass and hatpins, and who finally succumbed to the effects of his diet by dying in the Islington Workhouse at 34 (1906); Mrs Elsie Osborne, a Kensington widow who enlivened 1938 with her plan to use the fortune her husband left her to found a colony in England of African witch doctors; an outbreak of women wrestlers and scooter marathons (1961); snapper turtles in Thames scare (1987); The Sun's memorable "Victor Meldrew found in space" (2005 – his features could be discerned by the imaginative in a formation of stars in the night sky), and cows that moo with a regional accent (2006).

Not that the media are entirely innocent revellers in such oddities. The clustering of such freaks in August suggests to sceptical minds that something other than mere coincidence is at work. They would be right, for there is a tradition of a certain connivance to uphold, albeit one that had evolved. The silly season in Victorian times was less a matter of asking reporters to slog around the countryside in search of multi-headed sheep and denizens of the local deep than of getting the readers to supply the silliness. The way it worked was this: the paper's journalists would dream up slight, but intriguing issues of life and manners, and a member of staff would be deputed to compose a letter to the editor raising the potentially controversial question.

Very rarely would the paper's more opinionated readers fail to rise to the bait. Thus, down the years, the silly season was marked by some unlikely debates: "Ought clergymen to wear moustaches?" (1878); "Are English oaths being replaced by American ones?" (1879); "Are frilled shirts coming back?" (1894); "Should there be mixed bathing on our beaches?" (1897 – one correspondent said he didn't object to the sexes mingling, but he would rather the classes were kept separate); "What is the proper age for women to marry?" (1909 – 22 seemed to be the consensus); and "Is friendship between the sexes possible without marriage?" (1911 – to which one wag suggested it was more likely than with it).

This pioneering form of interactivity continues today, not with vituperative letters from the shires, but with the participation of readers in hunting for that silly season's quarry. It might be super-wasps, mutant turtles (or terrapins, as they always turn out to be), big cats (the Beasts of Bodmin, Exmoor, Peak District, plus, of course, that old menace of the Home Counties, the Surrey Puma), crop circles (any year from the 1970s on), or, as it was in 2007, great white sharks menacing lilo-users off Devon and Cornish beaches. The Sun ringmastered that one, starting with "Exclusive: The Cornish Jaws", followed by "Jaws 2. Second sighting of Great White circling off the coast of Cornwall" – their efforts ably assisted by the likes of Mrs Catherine Price of Wolverhampton ("It was massive!" she said) – finishing off with "Jaws panic engulfing Britain", and some dubious pictures taken by Kevin Keeble, a bouncer at a Newquay nightclub. Such stories are done with a certain ironic excitability, and most readers (except for those whose wisdom is on a par with that of Benson the carp) buy into that. And herein, I think, lies the key to the silly season. It is not so much a conspiracy of journalists to disguise the dread lack of news, but an August game for us all to enjoy. People are on holiday; and silly season stories are our culture's end-of-the-pier show – not meant to be taken seriously, but a lark in which everyone joins.

And they are an antidote to all that we feel obliged to read the rest of the year: the drearily pessimistic warnings from pressure groups; the posturings and conceits of MPs; the drip, drip of reports charting targets not met; the relentless self-promotion of "celebrity" chefs; the constipated language of ministers; Bernie bloody Ecclestone; the inane stunts of "artists"; the blokey poses of Old Etonians; the "best practice" lectures from semi-literate officials; and the constant whine of special interest groups demanding their "rights". We need our break, and we need our silliness. It is our whoopee cushion – our raspberry response to all the other po-faced months.

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