The Ghost of a Teacher is in the annual habit of retreating into the wilds of Wiltshire with his family. At Avebury he can swap phone signals and internet connections for a thatched cottage in a graveyard dominated by jackdaws, rooks and crows, all set within a few yards of the largest stone circle in the world and a mystical neolithic landscape. Nothing to do but tread the ancient ways, quaff real ale and read…
The intelligence of my corvid buddies notwithstanding, Mr McFarlane had persuaded me that the relationship between thinking and walking is deeply engrained in language, (check out page 31 for a most beautiful etymology, if you’re that way inclined…) but every time I donned my outer gear and stepped into the February rain and chill, I could sense the birds’ laughter in their calls. And yes, the way my thoughts inclined, I was persuaded they were laughing at me, the beaky bastards… But the avian jocularity had precipitated a mental avalanche… especially as I was Winnie-the-Poohing a hum at the time: Vanity, Insanity, Anxiety from the Bone Records’ imminent LP, written in 2016 and an ode to the zeitgeist…
After our most recent football game, a spiky disagreement about the accepted limits of passion displayed by members of the losing team culminated with a sudden silence into which our slinky star striker quipped, in his best strangulated tones, “Now don’t do it again!” It was very funny, but it also reminded me, painfully, that I can no longer show The Life of Brian in school, for the simple reason that the latest generation, unless lovingly tended by their parents, cannot understand what is so bloody hilarious. It had been coming… My daughter reports, when it was her turn to choose a musical film for her halls of residence, that her friends at Oxford University could not understand what was so funny about The Blues Brothers. (Altogether now, in your best Aretha Franklin drawl: “Shiiiiit!!”)
Is this a worrying trend? There I was in 2016, writing songs, fretting about the insanity of Brexit and the ascendancy of Trump, but the really disturbing thing was that our children, right beneath our noses, were losing their sense of humour!! And what a thing to lose!
The much vaunted British sense of humour is something we are accustomed to celebrate. The propaganda has been worming into the national psyche a long time, perhaps since the decay of empire. If we were no longer global top dog, at least we could be ‘best’ at something… I remember as a child simultaneously accepting this, whilst assuming other nations’ senses of humour were seriously lacking: the Germans indeed had none, and the Americans were rather simplistic with theirs. These days I have to stop myself bemoaning our children wallowing in US television comedy, written by committee and approved by more committees. I mean, it’s slick and often sharp, but it’s ultimately forgettably tepid, lacking the quirk, anarchy, irony and absurdity that only the Brits regularly master and which can irreversibly touch your soul. Realising this, you learn that the best laughter is not cheap.
If there is one thing that characterises the British humour I have treasured in myself all these years – nurtured through Python, Morecambe & Wise, Pete & Dud, The Young Ones, Blackadder, the wonderful Detectorists, the current This Country, and reinforced by a shared peer group experience – it is in the capacity of the British to laugh at themselves. Am I pissing in the wind here? Is this what we are best at?
Because if so (I ventured in slurry pronouncements in The Red Lion over successive pints of Avebury Well Water) then could it be that the British sense of humour has played a key role in history? Was this what made us the most successful imperialist power, and the least despised post-independence? Was it this that defeated the Germans, first the Kaiser, then the fascists? Yes, they were inhuman murdering bastards, but the real flaw with those fucking Nazis (and with all Nazis, dead or alive) is that they just couldn’t laugh at themselves!
Which reminded me of Jake and Elwood driving through the Illinois Nazis on the bridge; Belushi uttering “I hate Illinois Nazis!’ with the perfect throwaway contempt and give-a-fuck any fascist tosser deserves. And later, when the ale had tilted me maudlin, remembering the sheer overwhelming humanity of Mel Brooks’ The Producers: the hippie-shit beatnik portrayal of Hitler by Dick Shawn’s LSD, Springtime for Hitler, and the heartbreaking poignancy of naming your lead character Max Bialystok. (OK, so the Yanks can master humour as well…)
I worked in a doomed East Brighton school and was Year Head to a cherished cohort of students for five years. Despite the years of turmoil and pastoral duties that, in hindsight, now beggar belief, I regard it as the greatest achievement in my teaching career that at my final assembly I was able to say to them that despite the probable lack of academic glory the world would judge them by, I was immensely proud of them because they had developed the ability to laugh at themselves. Only those reading this blog who were there throughout those incredible years will fully understand the profound understatement of that last sentence.
And finally… There are 206 nation states listed by the United Nations. There are 206 bones in the human body. Coincidence? I think not! So is Britain the world’s funny bone? Are we still purveyors to the planet of the finest mordant, trenchant and absurdist wit? Or is the British sense of humour, just like the funny bone is not actually a bone but the ulnar nerve, a delusional non sequitur?
Postscript: After I wrote this blog I was teaching a lesson on the Ten Commandments. One of the students, in redrafting the school rules into a set of ten, came up with “Thou shalt not allow cigarettes on the premises.” The opportunity was too good to let go. The conversation that followed with the class went like this:
Me: I’ve got a dog called Cigarette.
Class: Have you?
Me: Yeah, he’s got no legs.
Me: Yeah, I have to take him out for a drag.
Class: (uncertain silence, some laughter, whilst I resist the temptation to say ‘Boom boom!’)
Me: It’s a joke.
Me: Drag, inhaling a cigarette… (I mime the action)
Class: So you don’t have a dog?
Me: No, it’s a joke.
Class: So how do you take him out for a walk if he’s got no legs?
Me: I don’t, I take him out for a drag.
Class: But you said you don’t have a dog.
Me: I don’t, it was a joke. You know, cigarette… drag… dog with no legs…
Class: How did it lose its legs?
Me: It didn’t.
Me: There was no dog. I don’t have one. I was telling a joke.
Class: That’s really funny, a dog with no legs.
Me: Actually it was the taking it out for a drag that was supposed to be the funny bit, but if you prefer dogless legs…
Me: I mean, legless dogs.
Class: Have you really got a dog with no legs?
I rested my forehead against the table in mock surrender at this point. No one noticed.
And so, without having the last laugh, I rest my case!!