In 1977, readers of Great Britain’s newspaper Guardian were treated to an in-depth look at the tropical paradise of the island nation of San Serriffe. The newspaper devoted a 7-page supplement in honor of San Serriffe’s 10 years of independence. For most of the readers, this was their first exposure to the tiny country in the Indian Ocean. The supplement featured interviews, descriptions of the tourism benefits, and enticing photographs of the islands that were sure to provide the idyllic backdrop for any vacation. advertisements from major companies. Sure enough, it wasn’t long after publication that travel agents started receiving an onslaught of requests to book flights to San Serriffe. There was only one problem — San Serriffe doesn’t exist.
The San Serriffe story — published on April Fools Day — was conceived by the Guardian′s Special Reports Manager, Philip Davies. In a 2007 interview, he said “The Financial Times was always doing special reports on little countries I’d never heard of. I was thinking about April Fool’s Day 1977 and I thought, why don’t we just make a country up?” Special Reports editor Stuart St Clair Legge suggested the name San Serriffe. Geoffrey Taylor designed the semicolon-shaped map of the island, based on a shrunken version of New Zealand.
The 7 pages of the supplement contain multiple wordplays relating to printing, such as font names and the names of the two principal islands: Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Originally, the location of the nation was going to be in the Atlantic Ocean near Tenerife. The tragic collision of two airliners in that area just a few days before publication sparked the decision to move San Serriffe to the Indian Ocean, near the Seychelles Islands. In light of this last-minute move, the editors decided to make San Serriffe a moving island. Between the coastal erosion on its west side and fresh deposits of soil on the east side, San Serriffe is said to be rushing toward Sri Lanka at the rate of 1.4 km/year.
Once the San Serriffe publication came out, the editors of the Guardian started receiving letters and phone calls from the public. Many spotted the joke from the beginning and capitalized on it, sending written memories of happy times spent on the islands. The newspaper also received a critical letter from the “San Serriffe Liberation Front,” complaining about the biased reporting.
Not everyone was amused. The newspaper received a number of letters from airlines and travel agents, who wanted the newspaper to issue a retraction. They were getting bombarded by customers who wanted to book flights to San Serriffe for their next vacation and would not believe the travel agents’ insistence that no such country existed.
Since that time, the legend of San Serriffe has taken on a life of its own. A Wikitravel site, a featured page on the University of California, Santa Barbara Geography website, and other fansites have generated a large body of secondary work about the fictitious nation. Bird & Bull Press published several books about esoteric subjects relating to the country, including Booksellers of San Serriffe, First Fine Silver Coinage of the Republic of San Serriffe, and The World’s Worst Marbled Papers. Being a collection of ten contemporary San Serriffean marbled papers showing the lowest level of technique, the worst combinations of colors, and the most inferior execution known since the dawn of the art of marbling.
Others have capitalized on San Serriffe’s quasi-famous status. Computer scientist and professor Donald Knuth offers a reward to anyone finding a mistake in one of his publications. The payment originally went out in the form of a check drawn on the bank of San Serriffe, but since October 2008, he sends out a “certificate of deposit” to the same bank.
If you want to investigate for yourself to see whether San Serriffe is real, you’d better do it soon. Given the constantly-moving nature of the islands, the country was projected to crash into Sri Lanka in 2011. As of this writing, such a collision cannot be confirmed, so it is possible you might be able to find it if you look hard enough.
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