As sentient humans, most of us will face tough times in our lives. It is a truism that in life, we have to take the rough with the smooth. Maybe it’s also true that through navigating hard times we learn who we are and what strengths we possess. The past few months have been testing for everyone. This is especially true for those who have been bereaved or suffered economic hardship as a result of the Covid-19 virus.
A few years ago was an especially bleak time for me. My Mum died after a long illness and this was followed shortly after by the unexpected death of my younger brother. Coming so soon after, the return to the funeral director to plan another funeral felt surreal and numbing. My brother had been living with my Dad and they had a close bond. I knew how much he was hurting, so I was shocked when he cracked a joke, ‘Will you let me daughter have three for the price of two if I die in the next twelve months?’ he quipped. It was incongruous to the situation and it hit me like a thunderbolt. However, my Dad’s gallows humour wasn’t an indication of his lack of feeling or detachment., Quite the reverse, he’d used a joke as a defence mechanism to avoid delving into deeper feelings that I suspect that he subconsciously knew he wasn’t able to process in that time or space.
In the months that followed, My Dad came to stay with me to recover from the trauma. We walked and talked and spent a lot of time reconnecting and reminiscing. Inevitably tears were shed but more often there was laughter as we recalled happier times. Sometimes the laughter dissolved into tears and occasionally tears were brushed aside with a laugh. More often the humour was the trigger that allowed us to talk about some of the emotional turmoil we were feeling. The dual emotions of happiness and sadness lived side by side often inhabiting the same moment – impossible to separate. I feel them both now as I recall and write about that unique time when I spent more time alone with my Dad than I had done since being a child.
The joke turned out to be a cruel one and less than six months later I found myself sitting in the same chair talking to the same funeral director and recalling my Dad’s joke. In that instant, I heard my internal voice recall a quotation from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, ‘To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing may be regarded as misfortune. To lose both can be regarded as more like carelessness.’ A joke that felt inappropriate and surfaced unbidden, a strange and unnerving echo of the previous visit.
I am not trivialising the emotional pain of losing my Dad when I say that strength was found in sharing happy anecdotes with his friends and neighbours and that through what were usually humorous stories, I came to know my Dad as a complete human being, not just a father.
This experience is by no means a unique one, but it has led me to reflect on how complex humour is and that it can be exactly what we need even when we expect it to be the last thing we should reach for.
A couple of years ago I was listening to a programme on Radio 4. ‘It’s Just a Joke Comrade: 100 years of Russian satire. Comedian and Russophile, Viv Groskop was analysing the role that humour played as a coping strategy. These jokes took the most frightening aspects of life under a repressive regime and turned them into something to wrily laugh at: What’s the definition of a Russian string quartet? A Soviet orchestra back from a US tour. Along with stories and music, humour seems to be something we reach for when we are in a decidedly unfunny situation. If you would like to hear more, you can listen to the two episodes of this programme on iPlayer
Of course, the coping function isn’t the only benefit we experience from having humour in our lives. It is a fascinating and complex area of study which embraces psychology, cognitive science, sociology and linguistic theory. It’s linked to wellbeing, positive student/teacher relationships, sticky learning, group cohesion and bonding, the development of inference etc. I am not going to write about all of these benefits here but I touch on them in a chapter of the latest edition of Exploring Children’s Literature, which includes references to different theoretical perspectives. We will also be drilling down into this subject in one of our online summer school sessions, where Mary Anne Wolpert joins me as a special guest. And if this subject interests you then Michael Rosen’s How to Make Children Laugh is the first port of call. My purpose in this blog is simply to say that humour is important and can’t be dismissed as ‘silly poo, fart, bum jokes to keep the children amused’ (though the belly laughs that a single word can stimulate is delightful too).
Where does this lead us when we are thinking about children’s reading and the full return to school in the autumn? The most obvious answer is to make sure our book corners and libraries are well stocked with the full range of funny books. Even in this short blog, I have referred to several types of humour, the incongruous joke and political satire, for example. Humour isn’t a homogenous genre. You are probably aware of either sharing the same sense of humour as members of your friends and family or being completely out of step with the jokes that they enjoy. I often cite the differences in humour preferences amongst my colleagues. They know that I appreciate dark humour, Edward Gorey’s The Gashly Crumb Tinies, Gareth P Jones Death or Ice Cream and Bong Jo-Hoon’s Parasite. It’s not to everyone’s taste. Making sure we cater for readers who don’t share the same preferences is something we always have to be alert to as teachers and librarians.