Friday, April 16, 2021
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A Right good laugh

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WHY are so many on the Right in politics utterly humourless? I confess I am conservative, but I hope my talks and articles contain the spice of wit. Well, I know they do – because my friends on the Right tell me off for it. Their excoriations typically begin, ‘You shouldn’t make jokes about serious matters.’ To which there is only one answer: ‘Of course I should. No use making jokes about frivolous matters, for these are jokes already.’ But many of the conservatives among my pals go around with faces so long that they look as if they’ve been reading John Milton all day and John Knox all night. I find this almost pathologically odd, for conservatives are supposed to be full of common sense. The American philosopher William James said ‘A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.’ Humour is in Technicolor, so why do conservatives prefer to stay in monochrome?

The most talented – certainly the most literate among them – were renowned for their wit. Even Sir Alec Douglas-Home knew how to crack his face. When the upstart Harold Wilson, full of the politics of envy, derided him in the 1964 General Election campaign as ‘the thirteenth Earl of Home’, Sir Alec quipped: ‘And he, I suppose, is the fourteenth Mr Wilson.’

Jonathan Swift was the archetypal conservative and yet he could scoff at statesmen in high places, going about serious things, scorning them as glum and turgid men whose work was as absurd as if they were ‘embarked upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers’.

If it were possible, in Samuel Johnson the stamp of conservative was even more deeply ingrained than in Swift. After he published his Dictionary, two prudish ladies approached him and complimented him on having left out the rude words. Johnson, off the cuff: ‘I see you have been looking for them, Mesdames!’ Some of my Tory chums are like those old biddies: people for whom jokes are no laughing matter. But Johnson knew that humour belongs with humus: ‘For some weeks the one thing that got me out of bed in the mornings was Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

Charles Lamb not only knew that serious affairs call forth the best jokes, but he practised that calling as an art: ‘Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.’ Perhaps at the same funeral where the parson began his oration over the deceased with the words, ‘I am the light of the world.’ That parson was a very small man, and the funeral was in Yorkshire. A voice from near the back piped up, ‘Well, turn thi’ wick up a bit, lad!’

G K Chesterton knew it was no use writing books of wit and then other books of wisdom: the wit and wisdom are always combined. For instance, of those enthusiasts who are forever instructing us about our duty towards distant foreign parts, he said, ‘The sect that did so much to liberate Africa, the Clapham Sect, did so little to liberate Clapham.’ I’d love to hear what he would have to say about today’s Third Worlders. Asked to reveal the secret of his success as a journalist, GKC replied: ‘The secret is to write one article for the Church Times  and another for Sporting Life – then put them in the wrong envelopes.’ His serious political comments were also entertaining one-liners: ‘The Whig aristocrats made the Revolution – and incidentally their own fortunes.’

Or take the arch-conservative Evelyn Waugh’s acute observation: ‘You never find an Englishman among the underdogs – except in England, of course.’ He should see us now! And of the increasing secularisation of the Church of England: ‘There is the species of person called a Modern Churchman who draws the full stipend of the beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief.’ Only too true in the age of Williams and Welby. And as amusing as the day Waugh spoke it. Which goes nicely with former Archbishop George Carey’s description of the Church of England: ‘An elderly lady who mutters away to herself for hours in a corner, and no one takes any notice of her.’

Even – especially – in the midst of death we are in life, and we dare to be jolly. A plaque on the wall of a church in Edinburgh says: ‘Erected to the memory of John McFarlane. Drowned in the water of Leith by a few affectionate friends.’ Another epitaph: ‘Sacred to the memory of Captain Anthony Wedgwood, accidentally shot by his gamekeeper while out hunting. Well done thou good and faithful servant!’ Adam Smith was a conservative if ever there was one. His dying words were ‘I believe we must adjourn this meeting to some other place.’

A serious speech or article is lifeless without humour. Moreover, it is bound to be an inadequate presentation of reality. For life is a unity. You can no more separate the serious from the comical than you could remove the filling from between two slices of bread and still call it a sandwich.

I was once conducting a funeral in my Yorkshire country parish. It was for one of two sisters – the thin one. The fat one was standing by my side as we lowered the coffin. When her time came, it was her will that she should be buried in the same grave. She leaned towards me and said, a little too loudly I thought, ‘By hell, it’s going to be a tight fit!’ All the villagers laughed. And they laughed afterward in The Boot and Shoe where there was a piano and singing. And a multitude of jokes.

We can be both righteous and riotous, you know. Are you listening, all ye of the Right?

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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