Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Lots of Laughs

Last Thursday afternoon, I went for a walk across Southampton Common.  The morning had been bright, cold and crisp, but the light started to fail quite quickly -- the picture above was taken at 14:34, the one below at 14:54.  Bizarrely, there was no frost anywhere except at this one spot, wedged between a path and a stream.  There were even patches of ice where small puddles had frozen, too: it seems I may have stumbled over the single coldest location in South Hampshire.  No doubt when the next Ice Age begins this will be the starting point for a glacier.

Mind you, according to the weather-folk, the next Ice Age will begin on Wednesday, and it seems it's already sweeping into America's East Coast.  Wrap up warm, guys!

Any talk of snow at this time of year always puts me in mind of the last Great Ice Age, the mid-to-late 1960s, when rough beasts stalked the land, and the ground was deeply, crisply, evenly covered beneath what must have been at least several inches of snow.  Playing around with the new BBC iPlayer Radio app, it was a pleasant surprise to find that episodes of a show called I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again are being re-broadcast on digital channel BBC Radio 4 Extra.  Now, back in that last Ice Age, this was an innovative radio sketch comedy programme, a sort of pre-Python prototype.  It was very popular with some of the boys at school and, as with Monty Python later, breaktimes would be enlivened by the enthusiastic retelling of the previous night's feast of skit, wit and repartee.  Not having grown up in a "speech radio" household, I never did hear any of this show myself, and my memory of it is entirely second-hand.  So, I thought I'd have a listen, for old time's sake, and chose an episode at random from May 1966.

I was amazed, but not in a good way. The very first thing I heard was Bill Oddie assuming a bad generic "Jewish" accent, à la Fagin, as a booking agent handling Beethoven, although I suppose it might have been South African.  Are South Africans strongly associated with entertainment management? Not really... The cringe factor immediately went up to 9.  A few sketches later, we had Graeme Garden doing "Tales from Shakespeare, by David Pushoff", and the cringe factor went off the scale, and I had to stop listening.

I doubt David Kossoff is much remembered now, except possibly as the father of Paul Kossoff, the il-fated guitarist in the rock group Free, but his distinctive, avuncular storytelling style, with its kindly, sing-song Jewish inflections, was once a staple of British children's entertainment.  In the parody, Graeme Garden plays up the Jewishness for comic effect -- lots of "Oy! Oy!" -- and the wholesome-sounding audience laughs the laughter of "recognition humour".  Yes, Jews do have a funny way of speaking, don't they?  Ah yes, I've heard about Jews and their mothers!  That's funny, too, isn't it?

Now, clearly, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden are not, and were not, bad people.  They simply reached for whatever comic tools came to hand.  There was a fashion in the 1960s for dark, even "sick" humour, as an antidote to the bland and hypocritical pieties of an older generation, with the result that anything and everything was suddenly -- and confusingly -- fair game.  The boundaries of offense and "poor taste" had become blurred.  But this programme did remind me, uncomfortably, of the innocent, reflex racism that I grew up among and adopted, which I touched on in an earlier post.

Apart from staples like Jewish jokes (meanness with money), Irish jokes (stupidity), and "nig-nog" jokes (grotesque physical features), our white English schoolboy argot was suffused with casual, almost unconscious racism.  You would complain that someone had "wogged" your pencil, or that a friend was "jewing" their bag of sweets.  Inevitably -- with hindsight, incredibly -- the first black boy at our school was dubbed "Wog" Walters.  Homosexuality was, of course, even more beyond the pale of acceptability, and any hint of effeminacy was bullied mercilessly.  In retrospect, the playground atmosphere was pretty toxic, and the few representatives of those mocked and despised minorities must have walked in fear and held their tongues.

It's a obvious fact that nearly all comedy sparks off of our prejudices and preconceptions.  I watched a Frankie Boyle recording for the first time the other night, and was, well, surprised at the level of hostility he unleashes; I was even more surprised at the readiness of his victims in the audience to offer themselves up, and to laugh along.  Finding oneself funny can be a saving grace, but allowing oneself to be stereotyped for comic effect by others -- or, worse, to collude in that stereotyping -- is surely always a step in the wrong direction.  It's never really worked for Jews, has it?  I recently heard a female Asian comic quip that "brown people don't do camping".  It got a big laugh.  But, "brown people"?  Really?

The problem is that, as someone once said, most of us don't really have a sense of humour, but do love to laugh.  A good comedian knows how to give an audience permission to laugh, through the shape and rhythm of their patter: one ... two ... three ... laugh now!  But the content of the material is nearly always about Us putting Them back into their box.  With honourable exceptions, few comics ever get beyond the contemporary equivalent of, "Jews, they have a funny way of speaking don't they?  Ever noticed that?  Oy vey!" [Laugh now] ...

I mention this because today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  We're all Righteous Among the Nations these days, of course.  Who wouldn't have risked torture, imprisonment and death to rescue or hide Jews fleeing from persecution by a government we had somehow, in an inexplicable lapse of judgement, voted into power?  Who wouldn't have endangered their career prospects to speak up against the dismissal of Jewish colleagues, even though from 1933 onwards acquiescence was simply a matter of obeying the law?  Not us, I'm sure.  [Laugh now]...


Zouk Delors said...

"SAM"(bo) Walters, surely? Although the nickname stuck for a while as I recall, the racial abuse largely stopped when people realized they were likely to get beaten up on the spot. He's still about, I think, and is now plain Steve Walters -- good bloke apparently.

Heard this one recently, but I can't remember whose line it was: "My wife and I share a sense of humour ... which is just as well, because she hasn't got one".

Mike C. said...


Gary Younge of the Guardian has written some interesting pieces about growing up black in Stevenage. Lewis Hamilton is oddly quiet on the subject.


Zouk Delors said...

Well, the clue there may be in the words "of the Guardian": how many races has Younge won? I'm sure they each do the thing they do very well.

Hamilton did refer obliquely to his background a while back when he contrasted his upbringing with that of another F1 driver (can't remember which one) who grew up in Monaco. This drew a great deal of censure locally on the (unfair?) basis he was implying Stevenage was a scummy sort of place to come from. However, it didn't prevent him taking his place in the "Sporting Stars From Stevenage" photographic collage fresco in the walkway to the railway station.

I've got his unread autobiography somewhere. I'll have to dig it out and see what he says.

Mike C. said...

A note from The Censor:

Various comments have been received which have been noted with interest but will not be published, as they are either way off topic or take the discussion in directions that are or are likely to become "inappropriate", to use a censor's favourite word.


Zouk Delors said...

Found the book (My Story by Lewis Hamilton). He says, "... religion is not an issue for me -- any more than race is an issue [...] Some people think race, or skin colour, is an issue; some think religion is. Putting it simply, I do not like to see anyone treated badly [...] I had a bad time at school because there were some bullies around who were probably jealous of me going karting at weekends; either that or they just didn't like me. I tried to deal with that by defending myself, so I learned karate."

[Note: this is an edited version of an earlier post which did not pass the Censor.]

Martyn Cornell said...

"Lewis Hamilton is oddly quiet on the subject" – Lewis Hamilton was suspended from his (RC secondary) school, John Henry Newman, over an incident involving an assault that he said was mistaken identity – he says he was confused with another mixed-race kid – and which I'm inclined to believe was indeed just that. Subsequently he never returned. Bet his old school feels a bit sick now about having driven away (no joke intended) their most famous old boy.

A great many ISIRTA gags, I recall, involved Bill Oddie saying "how de do dere, honey?" every time the word "black" was mentioned. How we laughed …

Zouk Delors said...

Hamilton was suspended -- along with six others -- in January of 2001, months before sitting his GCSE's. He was reinstated after a successful appeal to the Local Education Authority's (LEA) Exclusion Appeal Panel but was nevertheless not allowed to rejoin his class, being offered segregated tuition instead. It was indeed this incident which led him to move out of Stevenage. He says: "When I look back on this, I think what a shame it was that the end of my Stevenage school years was spoiled for me. Although the LEA has admitted it was all a mistake, neither I nor my family have received an apology, private or public."