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.

6 comments:

Martin Hodges said...

Hope you're now fully recovered from the NHS/Kwik-Fit 'once over'. I also hope you're sleeping soundly. My 36 years of wage-slavery has left no visible scarring, and I had very little trouble forgetting a whole host of totally forgettable posts I'd held. Eight years on, and life is still good on the retirement side of the fence. Happy days ahead for you, Mike.

Mike C. said...

Martin,

Thanks -- has it really been 8 years?

I think I'll miss the people. Although, shamefully, I seem to have forgotten a fair few -- I made a list of just those who'd worked for me -- over 50 names!

Now the real work begins... And, taking of which, shouldn't you be writing??

Mike

Martin Hodges said...

I find I remember some first names, but surnames are often lost to me.

The writing is as slow as ever, but I'm buoyed by Malcolm Bradbury's stress on finding the right voice. Apparently, he advised, if a writer has twelve months in which to pen a novel, by all means spend ten of them finding your voice, and the remaining two writing the first draft.

Mike C. said...

Martin,

Yes, voice is all-important, though I doubt Bradbury is the man to listen to... I'm currently reading a lot of "voice" thriller writers (Lee Child, John Sandford, Elmore Leonard, etc.), who write the same book every year, and whose readers lap it up, because it's the voice they (we) love!

Mike

Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Mike, Glad to see you back. I'm semi-retired. When I work it's twice as hard for half the pay. Ha Ha.

Your choice of authors is excellant; I particularly enjoy John Sandford. The "Reacher"novels don't seem to have the staying power. You might enjoy Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake. The "Parker" novels.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Bron. Funnily enough, it was realising frequent TOP commenter John Camp was a pseudonymous thriller writer that got me started on John Sandford -- he's really very good.

Mike