Humour, Comedy, Being Funny, Banter, Mirth, Being tickled Pink: as I’m writing about Comedy, it seems perhaps sensible to start this piece with some attempt to define Humour, particularly as what one person may find rib-ticklingly hilarious can leave another stone-cold dead.
In the same way I am convinced one cannot possibly write a novel without being a prolific reader oneself so, it seems to me, a writer does need to have a sense of humour in order to write comedy and have her characters appear funny. But what is this sense of humour? We talk glibly about the British sense of humour – that presumably only those born a “Brit” can inherit – and scoff derisively at the stereotyped notion of what constitutes German and American humour. To me, and this is purely a personal opinion, having this sense of humour means being able to laugh, not only at the absurdities life throws us, but also able to laugh at oneself.
Last week I had a meeting with my agent in London and, being a Yorkshire lass, was delighted to find, by booking well ahead I was able to buy quite ridiculously cheap train tickets. The day before I was due to travel, I received an email from the train carrier with the good news that for an extra £20 I could upgrade to First Class on my return journey home. Having never aspired to the dizzy heights of First Class travel I was somewhat excited. For £20, the email said, I could upgrade, have free drinks, dinner, comfy seat and free films. What was not to like? All I had to do was sit in First Class, clutch my original ticket in one hand, a £20 note in the other and wink at the guard as he came round (Honestly!!)
So, at the end of a busy day of discussion with said agent (and, alright, quite a bit of shopping too) I somewhat tentatively made my way to First Class. The other elite First Classers tutted somewhat at having to move their bags, laptops, charging phones etc to make way for me and my (many) purchases, but I eventually settled in my (very comfortable) seat and with a £20 note clutched in my hand practised a few encouraging, if not downright flirty, winks while awaiting the guard. The drinks trolley arrived. ‘…Thank you, I’d love a gin and tonic…’ ‘…a glass of red wine please, if I may?’ ‘…smoked salmon sandwiches? My favourite. Lovely…’ ‘…Another glass of red? Go on then, you’re twisting my arm…’ Two hours later I was seeing double, but not even the whisper of a guard (single or double) came down the carriage with the result that, at the end of the journey, I virtually fell off the train, trailing packages in my wake as I stumbled drunkenly to find my chauffeur (my husband.)
I tell this tale not to boast of getting one over on British Rail (I have since felt very guilty at being wined and dined in First Class for the princely sum of a £7.50 advance economy ticket, and am thinking about – still thinking – sending the £20 to the favourite charity of a certain Mr Branson) but to typify what, to me, is being able to laugh at the absurdities of life as well as oneself.
I am often asked, as no doubt are all writers, where I find ideas for writing my books and I have to confess, when someone recounts a real-life funny happening, I will make a note and it’s a big possibility it will pop up somewhere in a story at a later date. Children can be incredibly un-funny when they’re telling jokes or long convoluted tales that theyfind hysterical, but hugely funny when they don’t mean to be. In GOODNESS, GRACE AND ME, my first novel, I have woven a number of anecdotes into the story, including the one where a ten-year-old looked me up and down in wonder before uttering the immortal words: ‘Miss, you’ve got the biggest tits I’ve ever seen.’ Wrath was gathering and about to descend on his trendily-shaven head when the little innocent added, ‘And they’re always in green, Miss, not like other teachers who always do ‘em in red…’
Probably my favourite funny story, and one I’ve dined out on as well as included in my second novel, THE ONE SAVING GRACE, comes from my work sitting in court as a local magistrate. You may be aware magistrates sit as a bench of three, all with equal power to make decisions, but with only the chair, in the middle, doing any of the talking and asking questions. One such bench, chaired by a rather elderly woman is listening to the case of a man accused of speeding.
‘…There’s no way I was speeding..,’
‘Oh? The police say you were.’
‘No, I couldn’t have been. You see I have a German car, fitted with a special machine that tells me if I’m speeding…’
At this point one of the male wingers, raising cynical eyebrows, scribbles a note and, without a word, hands it to his chair. The chairwoman reads the one word written there: BOLLOX and, after a couple of seconds, turns back to the defendant in front of her.
‘So, Mr Smith, this, erm, this BO-LOCKSmachine, is it in all German cars or just yours…?’
I love finding something so funny that laughing makes you cry, makes you snort and can, on occasions, result in wet pants. I was reminiscing, only yesterday, about my old girls’ grammar school head teacher who could fell her pupils, in assembly, with one terrifying glare. As a particularly giggly adolescent, I was taking my life in my hands by attempting to get a note to my friend three rows in front of me during an extremely long and tedious rendition of “Fight the Good Fight.”
‘Pass this to Clare,’ I whispered, covertly tapping the back of my friend, Liz in front of me. The look she gave me as she half turned and, in between singing ‘faint not nor fear, his arms are near,’ hissed back, ‘Who do you think I am, bloody Twizzle?’ rendered me so hysterical I was ordered out of the assembly hall to await the wrath of the despotic head.
Which, I suppose, just goes to prove my husband right when, on the many occasions I’ve recounted this tale to him, accompanied by energetic, Twizzle-like extending arm movements, he’s frowned, turned back to his (very unfunny) American sit-com and said, ‘You obviously had to be there…’
This post first appeared as an article in Books For Women in January 2017.