Magazine article The Spectator

When Crossing the Road Ceases to Be a Joke for Some of Us

Magazine article The Spectator

When Crossing the Road Ceases to Be a Joke for Some of Us

Article excerpt

I cannot remember when I first laughed, but I recall perfectly the first time I heard a joke. I was five and sitting on the front at Lytham, attending the afternoon performance of the the Comedians. To my left was the little resort's famous windmill, behind its enormous green, and in front the endless mudflats of the Ribble estuary. It was 1933 and everyone was talking about the new film, King Kong, which I was not allowed to see. But I was allowed to see the Comedians because my mother said that they were 'harmless'. That is putting it mildly. They performed on a rocking temporary stage of wood and canvas, and must have been dropouts from the then enormous Lancashire entertainment industry, which specialised in comics. Just to the north of us was Blackpool, which boasted that you could see different live shows every night for a week, including Sundays. Some were said to be 'warm'. Not far from us lived George Formby and his formidable wife, Beryl. His notorious song `When I'm Cleaning Windows' was another item I was spared.

But the Comedians were safe, and specialised in jokes that had not brought a blush to Queen Victoria's cheeks when she was still a maiden. Two men came on to the stage. One said, 'I say, I say, why does the chicken cross the road?"Because the traffic-- lights say go.' `No. Try again.' `Because it's beginning to rain.' `No no, no. You don't know the answer, do you?' `No, I don't, Stanley, you're the clever one. So why does the chicken cross the road?' `To get to the other side.' `Ha ha!' `Ha ha!' How we children laughed. And the grown-ups laughed too, though they must have heard it before. The Comedians bowed and said, `Thank you, thank you,' and then went on, 'I say, Stanley, you know what happened to me on my way to the theatre today?' But I don't remember their other jokes. I was still hugging the first one to myself, and savouring it.

The joke loomed large in my mind because crossing the road was an important problem in my life. We were taught the drill: `Look right, look left, look right again. Then proceed' There was a rough little boy called Lukey Cunningham who had not, I was told, done this and had been `knocked down by a van and crippled'. (He had a different story, that he had been attacked by pirates and severely wounded after desperate resistance.) There were no zebra crossings then, and not many traffic-lights. Not until the next year did Sir Leslie Hore-Belisha become minister of transport and introduce what were officially called `amber globes' (titter ye not!) and were promptly dubbed `Belisha beacons'. My father used to laugh at his round, beaming face, so like one of his globes, and say, `That man knows how to get his name in the papers' - a dark, mysterious saying to me. But it worked, didn't it? All the rest of that government, except old Baldwin, are now forgotten, but Belisha still rings a bell.

I still look right and left and right again. These little road ceremonies please me. Once, it was the mark of a gentleman to offer to escort a lady across the road. In his charming essay, `Modem Gallantry', Charles Lamb recalls his old mentor Joseph Paice, whose delight it was to perform such a service: 'I have seen him - nay, smile not -tenderly escorting a market woman, whom he had encountered in a shower, exalting his umbrella over her poor basket of fruit, that it might receive no damage, with as much carefulness as if she had been a Countess.' It still happens. I saw such an incident the other day. And, not so long ago, old Lord Forte, the great hotel tycoon, said to me, `Do you know why I choose to live in England? …

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