Tuesday 11 December 2012

The practical joke: never practical and never funny

I pride myself on my catholic sense of humour, so am looking forward to some belting jokes when the Pope finally starts Tweeting as @pontifex.

(We must hope, incidentally, that His Holiness saw the funny side when his aides broke it to him that his real title of @pontifexmaximus had already been claimed by some would-be comedian from East Kilbride with 43 Twitter followers.)

I find that I quite often cause confusion when I use “catholic” its sense of “comprehensive” or “universal”, rather than to make any religious distinction. So, to be clear, I am prepared to laugh at most things: from the childish antics of Mr Pastry through the mainstream laughter-making of Eric Sykes, Benny Hill or Morecambe & Wise to the shock tactics of Frankie Boyle.

Like everyone, I have my blind spots. As a child, I found Laurel & Hardy utterly hilarious and Charlie Chaplin almost completely unfunny. I remain of the same view, though over the years I have had arguments with several intelligent people who feel exactly the opposite. They remain wrong, but I respect their right to be wrong.

Other assessments change over time. As a schoolboy and undergraduate, I used to be rendered literally helpless with laughter by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Today, if I catch a repeat, I wonder what I ever found funny at all.

Hancock’s Half Hour, Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army, by contrast, seem as amusing today as when they were first broadcast.

My one total and lasting sense of humour failure concerns the practical joke. I did once, as a small boy heavily influenced by Dennis the Menace, try balancing a bag of flour atop our kitchen door on April Fools’ Day. But my mother explained to me in no uncertain terms why this was a thoroughly bad idea and the lesson stuck.

Even back then, I used to cringe as my parents chuckled at Candid Camera (practical jokes played on others apparently fell into a different category to pranks played on them). I never willingly watched its 1980s incarnation, Game For A Laugh, and until the day he died I struggled to suppress a desire to put my foot through the TV screen every time Jeremy Beadle’s sinister, grinning face appeared on it.

Far more likely than Crimewatch to give me nightmares

So I cannot even begin to understand the thought processes of those who decided that it would be a great idea to make a broadcast phone call to or about a sick woman in hospital, whether she be a pauper or a princess. And I would have written that even if it had not led to the tragic consequences we now all know so well.

If anything even faintly positive can emerge from the desperately sad death of nurse Jacintha Saldhana, please let it be a universal acceptance that the “prank phone call” is not funny, and that anyone attempting to raise a smile by making one is not just barking up the wrong tree, but is in the wrong forest on the wrong planet.

As I was saying: NEVER a funny idea

Perhaps we might also pause to reflect on what purpose is likely to be served by tying the UK print media in fresh knots of regulation, when goons from every corner of Earth can subject us to their half-baked attempts at investigation, analysis and entertainment through the World Wide Web.

For myself, I find that threats of dire personal consequences are quite effective at keeping would-be practical jokers at bay. They even managed to see off the bunch of grinning idiots who were intent on making my wedding night one to remember for all the wrong reasons.

So, if you ever find yourself in need of a best man who can make a reasonably amusing speech but is guaranteed not to subject you to an apple pie bed or a kipper tied to your exhaust manifold, you now need look no further.

I think we may safely assume that the Vatican is a whoopee-cushion-free zone, too. On which basis I shall add the Pope to the select list of people I follow on Twitter. Well, at least until my favourite religious joker Rabbi Lionel Blue gets on there.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Why dearer booze and free news are both seriously bad ideas

The proudest moment of my life was opening last Friday’s Journal and finding myself described by former Fleet Street editor David Banks as a “journalist”.

Up until then I had thought of myself as simply a misplaced PR man with an unprofitable hobby.

It is entirely typical that I should finally gain this longed-for recognition just when journalism is under a three-pronged attack of unprecedented ferocity.

First from the internet, and the growing assumption that all news and comment should be available instantaneously, and completely free of charge.

Secondly from the alliance of crime victims and celebrities who would impose tighter regulation, backed by statute, on the printed media. Just when the floodgates of the worldwide web stand open to disseminate limitless quantities of tittle-tattle and misinformation with almost zero prospect of correction or redress.

And finally from the threat to impose minimum pricing on the hack’s traditional relief and recreation: alcohol.

Let me deal with the last first. Apparently we all need to pay more for our booze because the centres our major cities have been made a “living hell” by cheap drink.

Really? Might it not have more to do with the halfwitted decision to abolish traditional opening hours, and the oversight of licensing by magistrates, in the vain hope of creating a sophisticated “continental cafĂ© culture” rather than having the young lying around the streets in pools of their own vomit?

Not that it is just Yoof that Nanny cares about. According to campaigners, this more expensive drink will also “save the lives” of 50,000 pensioners over 10 years and massively reduce the burden on the NHS.

Except that, in the real world, those pensioners will surely die of something else that will almost certainly prove every bit as expensive to treat.

On this logic, we should also be imposing massive new price hikes on food to counter obesity, and on skis, horses, motorbikes and rugby balls to save the NHS from treating the resultant accidental injuries.

There are already laws against serving alcohol to those who have plainly consumed enough, and against being drunk and incapable or disorderly. Just as there are laws against the unlawful interception of communications through phone hacking.

Rather than holding inquiries and adding more pages to the already bulging statute book, why not first have a try at enforcing the laws we have already got?

Meanwhile the relentlessly increasing domination of nearly all our lives (not you, Auntie Leslie) by the internet makes the attempt to impose fresh rules on newspapers as relevant as the actions of those courtiers who egged on poor old King Canute to plonk himself in the path of the rising tide.

Yes, I know they call him King Cnut these days, but I couldn't risk a misprint

We need a free and unfettered press that asks awkward questions, highlights injustices and exposes wrongdoers, without outrageously invading the privacy of those who have never sought to be public figures, or otherwise breaking the law. For that to happen, we also need people willing to pay a few pence each day for a newspaper or its online equivalent.

Becoming a writer was my lifelong ambition, in admittedly lazy recognition of the fact that stringing words together is the only small talent I possess. I am delighted that it is now easier than ever before to get my work published; but considerably less happy that it is also increasingly difficult to make any money by doing so.

Yes, there are J.K. Rowling and that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, but they are to the mass of authors as lottery jackpot winners are to the other mugs who fork out for a ticket.

In my ideal world, reasonably priced alcohol would be served principally by responsible landlords who would ring a closing bell at 10.30 or 11pm, and send home before then anyone who was clearly the worse for wear.

Those patrons who were not engaged in conversation or traditional pub games would while away their evenings happily reading newspapers, or perhaps my latest book.

The really sad thing is that, well within living memory, something very like that earthly paradise actually existed, and it is never coming back.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.