I like a laugh, me. I’d do anything for a laugh. I look for opportunities. You have to. You have to watch out, be tuned. After a while you’re joking all the time. Which could be fucking sad. A person that can’t stop joking. You read about them – famous ones that were sad all the time when they weren’t telling jokes or doing their act. What is better is to know that if a situation arose in which it was advisable to joke all the time then you could handle it. This is very satisfying, like running the marathon. If you’ve run the marathon you know if someone fell off a cliff and was trapped halfway down you would be able to run reliably to the coastguard. In the same way, the fulltime joker would be able to stay with the person and tell them a great many entertaining jokes until help came.
At this point I need to tell you about Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was a member of the IRA who had been interned in Long Kesh, one of the notorious H-Block prisons set up by the British in their war against terror. He died in a prison hospital after a 65 day hunger strike.
Once I was sitting with some people outside a pub on a nice day in north London. We were all involved in making a film with Sally Potter and were waiting for the next setup. Around a table were six of us, including my dear friend Keith, although he was not particularly dear then, and his then girlfriend Marie. I began to tell a joke that I was fond of. You should tell them fairly soon after hearing them because they are usually gone after three days. It seems that when Bob Marley died he went straight to heaven, as you would expect of such a gifted artiste and who should he meet and he’d only been there a few minutes but Elvis. Wow, Elvis, I’ve always really loved your work said Bob and Elvis said That’s very kind of you Bob, I have enjoyed your music greatly as well. In fact said Elvis why don’t you come over to my place tomorrow we’re having a bit of a do. Fantastic Bob thought, I’ve only been in heaven a short time and already I’m going to Elvis’s place for a do. So next day he goes across to Elvis’s part of heaven and there are tables laid out with white cloths and everything but to his surprise he finds Elvis in a corner, crying. Hey
what’s the matter Elvis said Bob. It’s that fucker Bobby Sands said Elvis he’s eaten all the sandwiches.
At times the dedicated and adventurous humorist will make mistakes, often in the area known as ‘going too far’. This is an occupational hazard. In the area of sick humour, the humorist enters a rich domain in which schadenfreude, glee and the depraved eternally return, bursting forth under the intolerable pressure created by the unthinkable. The risk is that for every chorus of glee vented by those who are so appalled that they crave the exhilarating double shot of moral amnesty and anaesthesia, there is present in the house someone who has simply done the work, stared unblinking into the horror and suffered the suffering. These are the people who just don’t get it.
Having finished my Bobby Sands joke, I smiled complacently, awaiting the laughter that would be my reward. There were, indeed, some titters, but my enjoyment was curtailed by the look of profound unease on Keith’s face. As I turned to examine him more closely, I noticed that Marie had gone white. Her hand was clutching her glass tightly and her gaze had suddenly become baleful.
“Do you want this drink in your face, David?’ she enquired, rather quietly.
I began to stutter. Marie was obviously upset by the Bobby Sands joke. I had got it wrong. Not the joke, the audience. Without moving, all the figures around the table receded. As they drew into the distance, I noticed that they all appeared to be ill. Marie continued to glare at me coldly.
“Um…I…I’m sorry…that you didn’t like the joke,” I squeaked.
Marie got up and walked away from the table. Keith was the first to speak.
And then he said, “Marie works on the H-Block Committee.”
This committee, in case you’re in any doubt at all, was formed by Republican sympathisers to support those imprisoned in the H-Blocks.
Over the next few days I told people about my joke and Marie. They couldn’t see why I was upset. “Fuck her,” they said. “Tell her to get a sense of humour,” they said. And “Why on earth are you worried?”
Those who live by the joke know that when you go bog-snorkelling you do not glide above the mud, you wriggle through it. You cruise close to the coast of the unthinkable, taunting it with the unsayable, toying with the moral obliteration, saying the unsayable, gasping with glee in the temporary moral vacuum. So I wrote Marie a little letter, conceding that her presence in the firing line was unfortunate and that I was sorry. I couldn’t say that I had not meant to give offence because patently the giving of offence was very muchthe thrust. Ideally the gift is followed by its conversion into nervous energy: it backfires. On this occasion the gift fired.
My father died last year at the age of 90. He had no memory at all. Not just short term, everything. You’d say stuff and it was gone – straight through, never stopping. He was also very frail. Just a little bird of bones and shakey legs. I was leading him across the dining room in the retirement home. A lot of oldsters were eating lunch or sitting around. I let go of my Dad for a minute to retrieve my youngest daughter. I kept an eye on Dad though. Suddenly his trousers fell down. He’d forgotten to put a belt on. He was wearing battered old white pants with his shirt and vest tucked into them. His legs were very thin and shiny, with sores on them where he’d scraped his shins and they were taking ages to heal. His thigh muscles were wasted. I ran across the dining room and took hold of the trousers and pulled them up. Dad was muttering something like “What’s going on here?” Most of the old people were silent but two old ladies said “Oh dear” and laughed.