Is it right to laugh in times of mortal fear? A few days ago the Daily Telegraph cartoonist Matt showed one endangered species commenting on another. Two bumble bees were flying over a self-isolating town. One said: “Have you noticed you see far fewer humans around these days?”
On the same day my contribution to the coronavirus crisis was tips on how the over-70s might disguise their true age and slip out of isolation and into town. A reader harangued me thus: “Peddling irresponsibility in a form of humour in suggesting how folks will ignore sensible Government restrictions in my opinion is not very clever.”
Well, maybe it's not very clever but what is the appropriate reaction to a disease which makes us feel so helpless? Abject panic? Doom and gloom? There is something deep in the British psyche that makes fun of un-funny situations. It's as though terrible things can exist on two distinct and contradictory levels.
Amid the mud and blood of the Western Front, Bruce Bairnsfather created his “Old Bill” cartoons, while the editorial staff of the Wipers Times in 1917, carried spoof adverts for courses offering “a guaranteed cure for optimism.” On the one hand, the German occupation of France from 1940-44 was an appalling experience. On the other hand there was 'Allo! 'Allo! The reality of the First World War was unspeakable. And then along came Blackadder.
The danger, in such a fast-changing crisis, is knowing how far to go. Last week's innocent joke is today's hideously offensive gaffe. But does April's grim reality make it wrong to have laughed in March?
This item is guaranteed entirely humour-free. An apologist for the pandemic profiteers writes: “There is no such thing as profiteering, people can only charge what idiots are willing to pay.” Face it, sir, you're just not a very nice person.
Back in the 1970s Three Day Week, we journalists were all regarded as essential workers. Our office lights blazed brightly while the estate agents, solicitors and restaurants in the same street were in darkness. By the 1990s fuel crisis “those engaged in newspaper production” were allowed to fill up but I, as a humble writer, was turned away from the pumps by a stroppy policeman. Twenty years on, I am mortified that newspaper columnists, bloggers, or any other self-opinionated old farts appear nowhere in the Government's list of those “key workers” whose children are still allowed to attend schools. Not that I have school-age kids; it's the principle of the thing. It's all about priorities. Why, if it wasn't for us clever media types spouting off every day, the nation would be utterly deprived of, er, no, hang on, no, wait a bit. It'll come to me in a minute . . . .
Maybe we should focus on non-pandemic subjects. Such as comedian Rob Auton's definition of CCTV: “A very, very positive Spanish television channel.”
I was due to appear at Codsall Arts Festival next week. As you may have heard, the festival has been cancelled.