This appeared today on Ben Hammersley’s blog.
I was reminded immediately of practical jokes pulled off by Virginia Woolf and her friends in the early years of the 20th century. The catalogue of an exhibition of documents from the archives of the British Psychoanalytical Society tells the story (Virginia’s brother Adrian became an eminent psychoanalyst):
“As a student at Cambridge [Adrian’s] sense of mischief and fun manifested itself in what became known as the Zanzibar Hoax. The Sultan of Zanzibar was visiting England and Adrian and his friends decided to dress up and impersonate the Sultan’s uncle (fearing that if they impersonated the Sultan himself they would be recognised and exposed).
They travelled to London, equipped themselves at a theatrical costumiers, sent a telegram to the Mayor of Cambridge informing him of the Sultan’s uncle’s imminent arrival. On returning to Cambridge, the hoaxers were escorted around the town and principal colleges on a grand tour.
The story was later leaked to the Daily Mail but they had got away with it.
They did not lose their taste for practical jokes. A few years later Adrian encouraged his sister Virginia and Duncan Grant to take part in another similar exploit, this time dressing up as the Emperor of Abyssina and his retinue. They informed the admiralty that the Emperor wished to visit the Channel Fleet of the British Navy and its flag ship the ‘Dreadnought’. They were received with the dignity and ceremony appropriate to their apparent standing. They talked in a mixture of Swahili and an invented language and Adrian acted as the group’s interpreter. Again their hoax was later revealed but the Navy were keen to keep scandal under wraps. It was not until much later when he was well established as an analyst that Adrian wrote up their exploits as The Dreadnought Hoax which was published in 1936 by Hogarth Press.”