Musing on Amusement

Why am I so suspicious of laughter?  Not that spontaneous kind that bubbles up from a lively conversation or a shared observation of life in its many tricky forms.  No, not that kind.  I’m thinking of the canned variety, the forced ho ho ho of a dodgy looking Santa, or a comedian laughing at his own jokes.  Maybe it’s too many hearings of The Laughing Policeman on Two Way Family Favourites as a child?  Too many occasions of not seeing the joke and sitting stony faced in a room filled with empty hilarity?  Or more often seeing the joke coming a mile off and knowing that it won’t be funny when it lands like a dead bird in my lap?

Why is the analysis of comedy much more entertaining than the comedy itself; the intellectual endeavour more engaging than the damp squib silliness that results?

Why, when someone asks me to explain that piece of unhelpful writing advice show don’t tell, do I always use humour as my example?  If I read a description of something as ‘hilarious’ (or that theatrical review cliché ‘rolling in the aisles with laughter’), that’s an example of ineffective telling, as my automatic assumption is that something entirely unamusing except to an idiot has occurred, and I am bounced out of whatever world the writer was attempting to create.  In contrast, if I read a scene which brings a twitch to the corner of my mouth, then that is genuinely amusing, and the author has shown me something funny, and I have stayed in their world.

Is ‘funny’ even an objective measure?  Why do so many people insist so doggedly that X and Y are funny, apparently allowing no room for a different opinion, brooking no debate?

Maybe I could do a PhD on why comedy isn’t funny.  Would there be a market for that, I wonder?  I could have lots of good arguments along the way – so long as I didn’t have to go to any stand up comedy gigs. The last one of those was less than successful for all concerned.  It really wasn’t my fault the compere interpreted my hard fought for ‘neutral face’ as antagonistic.  I should just have relaxed into looking as bored as I felt.

I’m working hard here to avoid falling into another rant against the conformity of so called alternative comedy, canned laughter and the herd mentality…… Just so long as no-one tells me I simply have to see XYZ as ‘they’re really funny, honestly’.

Life might be so much easier if I were easily amused.  There would be so much more to watch on television for a start.  I might have to confess, though, that I spent six days at the Edinburgh Festival and didn’t see a single comedy act; apart from the fat fellow off one of those boys clubs TV shows who took the taxi we got out of at Bristo Square.  He was wearing a surprising amount of eye liner for a big bloke at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, Edinburgh notwithstanding.

Is that funny?  Interesting, incongruous perhaps, but no, not a titter, not even a twitch.

Let’s think instead of times that I have laughed, or had to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself…… that wedding of two young lawyers where the vicar progressed slowly, sliding inexorably, no way to stop him, from talking about how well they would have been trained in resolving disputes towards the topic of divorce.  Even when I gained control of my own suppressed laughter, I could feel the wooden pew shaking where someone further up the row was failing in their own attempts.

Or that Russian production of Anne of a Thousand Days where Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey dressed in tight lycra, striped to the waist and fought each other with whips….over the future of the Church of England.

But then, neither of these were comedies.

I always sound like a real misery.  Can’t tell a joke; doesn’t like comedy; gets bad tempered in a farce.  Just so long as no-one starts to counsel me about the fact that I do have a sense of humour.  We’ve been down that road before, when I had to endure a whole week of effective communication training being positively encouraged any time I said something remotely amusing.  It’s hard to tell someone so seriously sincere and yet so lacking in basic intuition that you were joking.

Everything but the Fuchsia

IMG_3344Only fuchsias are worth saving.

At a recent workshop run by my friend Nina she offered several sentences taken from gardening books as the prompt for a spell of writing.  While many of the sentences were amusing, in fact so deliciously amusing that we were a little at risk of spending too much time enjoying them, or wondering at their out of context profundity, than writing our own new words….. If you keep chicken you’re ahead of the game; spend as much as you can afford; this linguistic dithering is offensive and ought to be straightened out…… 

For me there was only one obvious choice.  Only fuchsias are worth saving.  It has a certain gnomic potency, a rule to live by……. something straight out of the screenplay for Being There.  It did however also generate an immediate picture in my head, and it was a picture of this fuchsia.  It’s a bold, rather brassy shrub, with large double purple and red flowers, ballerinas with full skirts, dancing in great troupes all summer long.  I now have a half written short story for which this was the jumping off point.

The weather this summer has been perfect for prolific flowers, and now I’ve overcome my childhood habit of popping the buds between my thumb and forefinger before they were ready, they are blooming in their own time.

Isn’t ‘fuchsia’ an interesting word?  It was only when I was writing this that I realised I didn’t know how to spell it.  According to one entry I found online (when I was checking) it is frequently misspelt fushcia, presumably by people like me, who sort of know the letters that are in there and try to arrange them so that they reflect the usual pronunciation.  And we’re all wrong.  But now, I think, I’ll remember it.  Maybe.

Drawn Forward

IMG_2936We had a few little flurries of snow yesterday.  Nothing that made any difference, other than to make a point of how cold it was, but those few little flakes dancing about on the wind reminded me of all the photographs I took when I went to Paris last month.  Then the snow was so thick on the ground it changed the look of the city.  It’s place I’ve visited many times and have taken scores of photos, but the whiteness of the ground and sky there everything into relief, compelling me to take even more.

It’s been something I’ve been thinking about in my writing recently too; taking something familiar, maybe overly familiar, and adding something new to make the perspective change, not something necessarily shocking or outrageous, but instead a salient detail which highlights the point of the narrative.

I like this photo of the gardens at the Palais Royal, because, although it’s possible to see how straight the avenues of trees are whatever the time of year, in the summer the leaves and branches create a shady walk, and on a ‘normal’ winter’s day everything blends together in a palette of greys, but on this snowy day, the eye is drawn inexorably towards the vanishing point ahead because of the dramatic contrast between dark and light colours of the elements in the view, and the geometric straightness of the line of trunks as well as the symmetry of the pruned branches.

What awaits the lone figure at the end of her walk?  An unhappy encounter with a faithless lover, or a warming cup of hot chocolate laced with cognac in a convivial café with her adult son?  Or something else?

It’s All Material

IMG00767-20130215-1405There are some experiences which are simply easier to cope with, if, while they’re going on, I think about how they are raw material, which I shall be able to use one day.  It is by no means always clear how I might be able to use them, in fact it frequently seems highly unlikely, but that doesn’t stop the thought process from being extremely helpful, especially when the experience in question has exercise in futility written all over it.

This all started when, for reasons that are far too dull to bore you with, I needed to take a reading off the water meter for my flat.  Now I’ve lived in the same flat for several years, and I pay for my water with regular monthly direct debits, and a couple of times a year I receive a bill, which, so long as, using that age old auditor’s trick, it looks much like the one for the previous year, I’ve never thought twice about.

According to these six monthly bills, they are calculated according to an accurate reading from a meter; so someone must come periodically to take the reading.   But where from?

Just outside, and around the corner, there are four manhole covers, down which I was promised I would find my meter.  Trouble was, no-one knew down which of the four it would be, nor which of the 8 dials in each hole would be mine.  I have a 16 digit alpha numerical identification code, but embossed plastic when down a five foot deep wet hole become encrusted with mud very easily.

I was lucky to have help from S, who came equipped with a crowbar to lever up the manhole covers, and the thick gloves necessary to operate this sophisticated tool; and thankfully, most usefully of all, he was prepared to lie full length on the muddy turf beside the hole to try to decipher which meter was which.  When this revealed nothing other than the installation appeared to be in a random order, I ran inside and sent a morse code message through the pipes by way of turning the kitchen tap on and off at 10 second intervals.

Ta da!  Finally it was identified.  It has left me with the lingering doubt that I have ever received a bill for the right supply, but, more importantly, I’ve seen down the hole, and through into an underground world where confusion reigns.

‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace

‘Harvest’, Jim Crace’s new novel, begins as the barley harvest is nearly over, the cutting has been done and the women and children are gleaning the last pearls before the pigs are allowed onto the fields to rootle around for the scraps.  It’s a routine familiar to every resident of the unnamed village, but their traditions are under threat.

The omens are poor when three strangers, a mysteriously appealing woman, and two men set up camp on the village’s common ground, and, on the same night, part of the manor house is set on fire.  At the same time, another man, nicknamed Mr Quill, is walking around the village scratching things in a book.

These events lead to violence, suspicion and destruction.  Over a period of a week, Walter Thirsk, the narrator, sees his adopted home ruined and his neighbours scattered.  The villagers punish the strangers cruelly, and as things worsen, turn on each other; while the landowner, newly arrived to survey the area, takes advantage of the resulting disorder.

The story is set in a past on the verge of change; old ways will be set aside to make way for sheep on the land.  It’s a time when a man might be fearful of being injured at night in case the pigs come to attack, and when the trouble caused by the arrival of strangers will so disrupt a community that they can think of nothing else, and leave farm and housework undone in order to plot revenge.

This is a book which is likely to provoke a variety of responses; dip into the discussion of it on Radio 4’s Saturday Review and you’ll get a flavour of the disparity of strongly held views.

I enjoyed it for the lyric fluidity of the prose, the evocation of an unnamed place in a time I will never know and the creation of a character I was not sure I entirely believed or trusted. But I was frustrated by the slow pace; what had felt like luxuriant description in the early chapters, got on my nerves towards the middle and end; and I was also puzzled by the narrative voice, by the complexity of expression of Walter, who declared himself to be such a simple man, but who had an extensive and elaborate vocabulary. While I was enjoying the read, I surrendered to the beauty of the voice, but, inevitably, enjoyment turned to resistance when I became impatient with the pace.

This has, however. broken a spell of my not enjoying reading anything I attempted, a time which made me feel out of sorts, and now, having found much to admire in this book, and having read it with an appreciation that took me away from being aware of the passage of time, my proper relationship with books has been restored, for which, a heartfelt thanks.

Hark at Us


What’s wring with red wine in the afternoon?

A Parisian café table, it’s just the place for debate and contemplation isn’t it?  You can sit with a friend and pretend to be Sartre and de Beauvoir, or Gertrude Stein and her coterie, whenever you are minded, you can set the world to rights or reminisce or tell tall tales; it’s also a place where it’s possible to sit in company and do entirely your own thing, reading, writing, drawing or simply watching the world go by.

Even travelling with a friend, and nowhere near the Left Bank, we were able to pile our books on the table and read, chat and do whatever we fancied.  At one café, on Saturday afternoon, G spent time sketching while I sat on the opposite side of the table writing.  Hark at us and our boundless creativity.


Getting lots of things done……

I so enjoyed my weekend that I think I have now regained my ability to enjoy the city.  I used to travel there regularly and frequently for work. They were not always happy sojourns, so that I developed a near physical aversion to Gare du Nord; the bap bap bada chimes which precede the public announcements in the station could induce a feeling of anxious nausea.  It’s such a relief to have new, good memories to overlay thepoor ones, and to remember and rediscover the fun of the place.

Do pop over to her blog and see the results of Gillian’s sketching.

The End of the Hiatus

You’ve probably noticed, I’ve had a little break since Christmas, a bit of a hiatus between post 699 and 700.  It wasn’t really a plan, but the result, probably, of feeling a little jaded and regrouping for a few days.  But as New Year relentlessly follows on from Christmas, we all have to face those dismal opportunities to reflect on the 12 months just about to finish, and feel the pressure to make something different happen for the coming 52 weeks.

I dislike the fakeness of it.  We can make a change, or remain the same on any day of the year, or at any moment during the day; instead of sitting wondering what to do next I could do something I’ve never done before now; I don’t  have to wait until an arbitrary moment as the page turns in a calendar.

There are many people who wonder that while I usually spend Christmas in Scotland, I very rarely spend Hogmanay there.  Isn’t Scotland the best place for New Year’s Eve? they ask, and I always have to say that I prefer not to.  It always feels like a rather forced celebration to me, and perhaps more significantly, it goes on for far to long.  I much prefer to go to bed at the usual time and then get up fresh and early the next morning.  Where’s the pleasure in being sleep deprived and a bit hungover after staying up longer than you really wanted to?

If pressed, I would say the New Year’s eves I remember best are the less elaborate ones, of going to a late afternoon showing at the cinema, a cup of tea with friends and then home before all the drunk people hit the streets, or the year I was sitting in my car in the tube station car park, listening to the radio as Big Ben struck midnight, waiting for a friend whose flight had been delayed, or the two years I went to Red Square in Moscow, because I could walk home afterwards, when the crowd started throwing fireworks and smashing shampanski bottles on the cobbles, or of being with friends having a nice dinner, glancing out of the window at the fire works in Prague or Edinburgh, raising a glass and then retiring to bed.

This year I shall be with friends, and I’m hoping for sun on January 1, as the South African amongst them is planning a brai.

Don’t be constrained by the conventional calendar constraints!

Conversation as Currency

There is an anecdote in Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde which has been in my mind a fair bit recently; at least, I think that’s where I remember it from.  and even if the story isn’t true, or I have not recalled it correctly, it still has a peculiar and compelling relevance.

Graham Greene recalled meeting Oscar Wilde in Paris when Greene was a very young man and Wilde was near broken and in exile after his release from prison.  They spent a congenial time together in a café bar, and Greene was gratified, but very surprised, at how Wilde entertaining was, that such an eminent man would be so gracious and engaging in conversation with young strangers; until he realised that Wilde was paying for the drinks Greene bought him in conversation, the only currency at his disposal.

A fair exchange.

On a Circular Roll

IMG_2911Not obviously photogenic circular things have been attracting my attention over the last couple of days.

This weekend, a friend brought a box of tea cakes to our writing group, and immediately we were thrown back on memories of childhood.  For those of you not familiar with a Tunnock’s Tea Cake, they are a biscuit topped with s sort of soft white marshmallow all covered in a thing layer of chocolate.  They are manufactured in a factory on the outskirts of Glasgow somewhere, and they are an intrinsic part of nostalgic memories for many Scots.

There is absolutely nothing nutritious about them, and they disappear in your mouth as soon as you take the first bite.  But there is something delicious about the first taste, while at the same time a box of six might be just a bit too much to eat alone.  The fact that they are wrapped in silver paper is important too; the unwrapping is a vital part of the ritual.  It wouldn’t be the same if someone else had unwrapped them first.

 I suspect they will last forever, so I’ve put them to the top of the cupboard in the hope that I won’t be tempted to eat them all at once.

It’s All Material

IMG00665-20121019-0948Ailsa suggested circles as a theme for this week, and I thought of this photo I took a month or so ago.  It’s probably a little bit odd to take a photograph of other people’s detritus in the first place, and then to post it and relate it to the rather lovely shots of fountains, flowers and architecture published by other people, is even odder.  Maybe it’s because Costa is in the news this week, largely on the basis that’s not Starbucks which is currently the subject of attention because of its tax affairs. (I can feel my fingers itching to write something on that topic whenever I read one of the more confused and under informed articles that are everywhere at the moment, but I’m not sure you’d be as interested in that as I am.)  But for whatever reason, that’s the way it is this week.

The cup of coffee’s mine, but the empty sugar sachets and cigarette butts were already there when I got to the table.  It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed, since the introduction of the ban on smoking inside any public building: the area outside, and any tables there, are dominated and occupied by people smoking.  I understand why, but it’s a topsy turvy kind of thing that the atmosphere can smell cleaner inside a coffee shop than outside.

But I suppose I was more interested in what the little pile of rubbish could tell me about the characters who left it there.  It’s one of the things that story tellers have in common, probably, that they look at things, ordinary as well as peculiar, and wonder what narrative led there, and what manner of people have left their traces behind.

So, who takes that much sugar in their coffee?  Did they try to arrange the empty packets in a pile which has been disturbed by the wind? Or were they untidy and left the paper where it fell?  Were they the types who shake the sugar sachets vigorously before tearing the ends off and then stir their coffee for longer than is really necessary?  Or were they simply slapdash?  How many people were there?One with a bad cold, perhaps, who tried to leave everything tidy, but who was foiled by his companions?

Was the smoker one of those who stubs out their cigarettes with little stabbing actions, or a deliberate twisting and pressing grinding into the ashtray?  Stub ends always look like they’ve been subjected to violence, but then, without the smoking, the techniques they tried to teach him at the anger management course are even more useless and ineffective.

Or maybe the table should have been cleared hours ago, but the shop was just a bit short staffed because a member of staff hasn’t arrived yet because of the black eye he sustained when he walked into a door by accident last night.  Or at least he’s going to tell them it was an accident.

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