Monday, 15 September 2014
You've Got To Laugh
I am now into my first weeks of retirement, and I can report that, so far, it feels just like a holiday. Not in the fun sense of enjoying yet another day away from humdrum reality, but in the more unsettling sense that -- in the background, like the rumble of traffic -- the uneasy prospect of an inevitable return to work is lurking. The fact that I need never return to work has simply not yet sunk in: this still feels like a temporary respite.
After 30 years or more of wage-slavery, this is hardly surprising: I still dream about taking exams, after all, and the last exam I sat was in 1980. Who knows, maybe work will now take the place of exams in my subconscious, and I will awake from anxiety dreams at 3 a.m., only to experience the profound relief that, no, I really don't have to give a presentation tomorrow on the migration of metadata standards from AACR2 to RDA, for which I have not done a stroke of preparation. Phew.
On the subject of anxiety, I recently had a day in hospital (a first serious brush with Old Man's Stuff -- don't ask) and spent much of the time lying around in a post-anaesthetic haze, idly listening to the conversations and exchanges going on around me. It began to dawn on me that the British have a problem with humour.
We're famous for it, of course. Ah, you British, with your sense of humour! It's a coping mechanism, obviously. It's no accident that our strongest comic traditions come out of the pressure-points of industrial working-class life -- places like Liverpool, London, Newcastle, and Glasgow. An acute sense of the absurd expressed as blunt ironies; anger, outrage and frustration sublimated into laughter; a love of wordplay, shot through with the edgy, proletarian pleasures of double-entendre and "dumb insolence": these are the hallmarks of our humour. Max Miller used to ask his audience: "Listen, I've got two books of jokes here: do you want the White Book or the Blue Book?" They always chose the blue*.
It can be confusing for foreigners. I ran into problems with this myself in Austria. At every turn, it seemed, I managed to offend somebody, quite unintentionally, generally by assuming that it was understood that, in pursuit of a humorous moment, one might often say the complete opposite of what one actually meant, or might even appear to insult someone as a form of friendly inclusivity. I dread to think what they would have made of an Australian. At any rate, several people there are no longer replying to my texts or emails.
But, in hospital, I began to feel a little like a foreigner myself. The formulaic banter of people under stress began to drive me crazy. Is it possible, I wondered, for an Englishman confronted by a form which asks "Sex?" not to respond, "Yes, please!"? Or, if asked by a nurse, "Would you like anything else?", not to reply, in an apparently hard-wired reflex, "Well, it depends what else you are offering!"? It was like sharing a ward with several shop-worn avatars of Benny Hill. Even doctors -- pressed for time and exhausted by long hours -- in order to extract the simplest information had to endure their patients' anxious attempts to lighten the mood, serially, all without themselves resorting to sarcasm or physical violence. I don't think I could do that.
It then occured to me that perhaps some apparently irrational acts of heroism in situations like the trenches of the First World War might have had a simple, rational cause. Anything -- anything -- up to and including spontaneously leaping over a revetment and running across No Man's Land to single-handedly storm a machine-gun post, would be better than continuing to share a dugout with several dozen British men nervously jesting and joshing away the discomforts and indignities of war. Enough! Stop! Not everything has to be funny, all the time, just because there's nothing you can do about it! Which may, of course, be the exact opposite of what I mean.
* "Blue" humour, in English slang, is risqué or "off-colour" humour, generally of a sexual nature.