Laughter. Where would the human race be without it? Considerably sadder and more miserable, our lives more barren, methinks. After all, doctors tell us that a good dose of laughter on a regular basis is good both for our mental equilibrium and our longevity. They’re probably right. Intuitively you feel they are, anyway. Laughter is the best medicine, as the cliché goes. There’s a grain of truth in it, as far as mental illness goes, at least.
Going slightly off topic, the city of Liverpool lost one of her favourite/most famous daughters recently with the sad demise of Cilla Black. Cilla wasn’t renowned for her humour; she brought happiness to many people in other ways, as singer (I’m old enough to remember her in her youth and her rendition on black-and-white telly of Anyone Who Had A Heart way back the 60s), entertainer and all-round good egg and National Treasure.
No; Liverpool’s funny people were Jimmy Tarbuck and, particularly, Ken Have-You-Ever-Been-Tickled-Missus Dodd. When Ken shuffles off his mortal there’ll be many a tear of happy remembrance shed.
I don’t know about you, but most of my own memories of funniness are from days gone by, as if there’s an inextricable link between humour and nostalgia, punctuating the remembered, now rapidly receding years, thanks to entertainers like Morcambe and Wise (think the Andre Preview piano sketch), Monty Python (e.g. ‘He’s a very naughty boy’ from The Life of Brian), Cook and Moore (‘I’ve nothing against your right leg; unfortunately neither has it’) and even, dimly recalled, Milligan, Secombe and Sellars in The Goon Show. What a tonic for grey, weary, rationed, post-war Britain they must have been.
I have memories of laugher shared in the company of non-famous people too. I fondly remember my friend and fellow-student Ted from our days together as callow youths at art college back in the 1960s. Here is an extract from my autobiography Wishing for the Better wherein I reminisce about my time with Ted. (I wonder what became of him? To my regret, we never stayed in touch.)
Back in Leicester for the new academic year, Ted and I found ourselves a flat. No, that’s too grand a term. It was a bed-sit, so basic that it consisted simply of a single first floor room. No washbasin in the corner. No gas ring. Just two single beds, two wardrobes and a table with two dining chairs by the window. It was some way downmarket from Mrs Mullen’s: an anonymous terraced house in one of Leicester’s many anonymous red brick streets, it was owned by a Polish family and therefore had a tinge of exoticism, which appealed to us. As far as facilities went, we shared the family’s bathroom and downstairs toilet. We also had use of their kitchen, on a priority basis. This meant we had to ask if the lady of the house was about to use it. If she was, we had to wait (which was fair enough of course) until she called up the stairs to say it was free.
So it wasn’t really very different from lodgings, in terms of space anyway, except that we didn’t get meals cooked for us. We had to fend for ourselves, which was a novel experience as we were useless boys as opposed to capable girls. Still, it was a learning curve, as we cooked our food, carried it up to our room on the tenant’s plates allocated and then conscientiously returned to wash up afterwards. Having to integrate like that, we couldn’t get too much into squalid student habits. And in terms of freedom it was a slight improvement on the lodging; it made us feel more autonomous, more grown up.
Living with a like-minded companion like Ted was good. We had a lot of laughs and many youthfully earnest late-night debates, the pearls of naive wisdom winging between our beds through the dark. Ted had a huge sense of humour; he would find my occasional mild witticisms uproariously funny. Once, on the top deck of a corporation bus, the conductor was doing what some did then: calling out the names of the streets along the route, as if the passengers might not know them, like some old-time seafarer sighting land. I said something like ‘Magellan down there’s on form tonight’. Ted exploded in a paroxysm of mirth. His face reddened and took on an agonised expression as he emitted a loud, strangulated, continuous cackle that went on and on. The conductor must have thought something was wrong, because he came running up the stairs and took an anxious look at the doubled-over Ted, before gathering himself, rolling his eyes and returning with dignified step to his station. In the crow’s nest. Ted’s agony lasted the entire journey.
You know the expression ‘rolling in the isles?’ Another time, we were in the typo design room larking about a bit before the session started and I said something funny (I can’t remember what it was). Whatever it was it started Ted off again, totally uncontrolled, and he really did collapse to the floor, red faced, eyes closed and face set in a rictus grin, cackling, where he rolled around clutching his sides. Of course the sight of him set us all off, and the room was in uproar as Tom Wesley, the senior lecturer, walked in. A rather pompous red-faced man, not unlike Captain Mainwaring, who didn’t suffer fools, he was not amused, and we had to try and compose ourselves. That was a difficult session, punctuated with suppressed sniggers as first someone then someone else remembered Ted’s discomfiture. Fortunately, Ted himself managed to maintain control.
Sometimes mirth can so take you that it does indeed hurt. And it can be just as awful if you have to suppress it. Another time, Ted, another student, Ivan (his surname was Atanasof, but he was Austrian, not Russian) and I went to a lunchtime concert at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. Someone was going to perform on a ‘water harmonica’. We were intrigued. So we turned up, in our duffle coats and college scarves, incongruous in a room full of genteel middle class ladies; rashly choosing seats in the front row. Then the musician appeared, to polite applause. Just the sight of him was enough to set to set our lips twitching. He was from somewhere in eastern Europe, and looked it. Like someone from a black-and-white film of the thirties about a bespectacled, wild-haired eccentric musician. I found myself thinking of Groucho Marks. He completed the image by wearing, at midday, full evening dress. And then he began to play. Knitting his bushy black eyebrows together in a Bohemian frown, he caressed the surface of the water-filled instrument, a bit like a string of long glass cones with tanks of water instead of notes. It was the same principle as running a finger round the rim of a wineglass to produce a noise.
It was an undeniably beautiful sound: incredibly pure and sweet in a liquid sort of way, but because it took so long to produce each note it was difficult to discern a coherent melody. His appearance and his rather bizarre performance were irresistibly funny. Writing this I’ve just reminded myself of the classic Monty Python fish slapping sketch (the one where Cleese and Palin slap each other in the face with fishes while doing a silly, rather camp dance to music on a canal towpath. Eventually Cleese produces a monster fish and smacks Palin in the side of the head, pitching him into the water). Well it was a bit like that. I stole a sideways glance at Ted. His face was reddening and his jaw was clamped ferociously shut. It was just like the scene in The Life of Brian where the Roman soldiers are desperately trying not to snigger at Biggus Dickus’s lisping.
‘No, Ted, please’, I thought, ‘don’t!’
He was managing to control himself, but now the damage was done. I felt a massive surge of mirth welling up. On my other side, Ivan was obviously in trouble too. It was awful, like trying to hold back an orgasm that’s teetering at the point of no return. With a tremendous effort I clenched my teeth, closed my eyes and tried to think of something else. After a while the feeling subsided a bit, but it was always there, like a lurking sneeze refusing to go away. But if a faint strangulated titter came from either side of me, the awful insistent need to explode with laughter was straight back. We had to sit there, each of us desperately clinging to self-control, for the entire performance. We didn’t dare look at each other again. The good ladies behind us must have known from our occasionally shaking shoulders that we weren’t taking the performance seriously, judging by the clucks of disapproval. Eventually the agony came to an end and the performance finished. As if desperate to throw up, we bolted for the door, to fall about outside howling in blessed relief. There were some very stony looks from the leaving ladies as Ted writhed about clutching his sides on the ground.
If you’d like to read the entire autobiography, it’s serialised on this site. Clicking the cover image at the foot of this page takes you to the blog in which it begins. Chapters of it are then appended to following blogs. Or you can read it where it’s currently being serialised on this site:
Click the entries on the home page to read.
Speaking of Liverpool again, my latest novel, Secret Shame, which is not a comedy at all but a heart string-tugger, is set in that proud city. It’s free on Amazon this weekend (and for some of next Monday, according to where on the planet you live, because of the differing time zones).
More about it can be learned on here by clicking the cover image at the side of the page, or here.