Magazine article The Spectator

Hate Is Too Small a Word

Magazine article The Spectator

Hate Is Too Small a Word

Article excerpt

FOR the benefit of foreign visitors, I'm thinking of compiling a list of commonly used phrases that mean exactly the opposite of what they appear to be saying. The first one will be, `Look, I can take a joke as well as the next man.' The second, `You've got to laugh, haven't you?', followed by, `Here, this'll make you laugh.' Indeed `this'll make you laugh' is the single most depressing statement in the English language, because it's so often followed by the second most depressing statement: `There was this man.... '

Foreigners need to be told these things. They need to be warned, because jokes are what we're famous for. The Italians had conferred upon them sex, cowardice and ice-cream; the French were blessed with sex, wine and co-ordinated handbags; the Spanish got women with moustaches, naked Germans and fun with other species; the Germans got Lieder, philosophy and Poland. And we were left with the three Hs: history, homosexuality and humour. The funny men of Europe, that's us - Benny Hill, Norman Wisdom. 'Ho! Ho! The famous English sense of humour,' chuckled the Belgian tourist after his cab driver yelled, `Go screw yourself sideways, you tight-fisted Kraut bastard.'

Everything in Britain is a joke. `It's a joke' is another expression that can be added to the list. `It's a joke' is what you say when your flight's postponed for 12 hours, when the striped shirt that you sent to the dry-cleaners comes back without stripes, and when you get the astronomical bill for two cups of coffee. `It's a joke' is what I feel about jokes. To say that I hate jokes is an understatement. Hate is too small a word; it doesn't have enough syllables, sibilants or glottal stops. There should be a German word for the utterly rational abhorrence of jokes.

It's not just that I've heard them all before, and believe me I have, every damn one. Any man over the age of 40 who has regularly found himself in the company of other men has heard every conceivable punchline conceived, even the topical ones that come chuntering over the e-mail in screeds about Jill Dando or dead Kennedys before they've even boxed the bodies. E-mail, by the way, has turned out to be a medium exclusively for sending amateur patter acts and pictures of men with absurdly enhanced penises; which just goes to confirm everything we instinctively knew about the new technology in general, and Bill Gates in particular.

It's the obligation of being a joke recipient that I can't bear. No other social exchange, except perhaps meeting a widow at a crematorium door, imposes so much on your demeanour and physiognomy. There's the expectant and intensely encouraging half-smile you have to conjure up as the joker decorates his monologue like a piecework baroque plasterer, putting on accents that all sound Pakistani while gesticulating like the deaf signer at a Liberal party conference. And you just will him to get to the end and say, `And I'm not a nun either,' so that you can slap your thighs, wipe your eyes, shake your head and gasp that it is undoubtedly the funniest thing you've ever heard. Because if you don't get this little ritual right, you're in for a deeply uncomfortable time. He'll examine you like a bulimic praying mantis for any telltale sign that you're not genuinely moved. He'll say, `You've heard it before,' with the accusatory look of a wife who's found a lap-dancer in your shower. `No, no, really it's funny.' `You have heard it before, haven't you?' `Well, one a bit like it, but not told as well.' `You should've stopped me.' Stop him? The SAS couldn't have stopped him.

If failing that test is socially disastrous, usurping a punchline is a faux pas surpassed only by dropping your trousers, sitting in a duchess's vichyssoise and then passing wind. `You let me go on and you knew it.' `Oh, don't be like that, don't sulk, really, go on, tell me another. I bet you've got hundreds, I'm sorry.' It's insane. How did social intercourse ever get its knickers into this sort of a twist? …

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