There’s a Ken Dodd anecdote that always makes me smile: he was coming out of the theatre after his matinee show, and he passed a group of elderly women also coming out from the show. He overheard one saying, in a very disgruntled voice, “Well, it was alright, I suppose…. if you like laughing. ”
I like laughing.
I think it’s one of life great delights, one of God’s best gifts. I don’t laugh in a ladylike way…. I laugh like Ted Heath used to laugh, I get breathless quickly, I’m fat so I jiggle, my eyes water and my glasses steam up…. I even get a stitch in my side when the laughter lasts too long …. and I love it! My husband was a great laughter merchant. He could reduce me to a shaking jelly with one quick Scottish quip and I could do the same to him. We wasted a lot of time in helpless laughter, and it was wasted time well spent. Oh, yes! Our daughter, Lou, slept in the next bedroom and there were times when an exasperated 8 or 10 year old would shout across the tiny landing “Stop laughing, you two! I’m trying to sleep!” And of course that just made it so much worse.
One of my ambitions as a working class woman, (left school at 16, etc etc etc) was to go to an opera. So Lou and I went to see Aida in the Birmingham- bloody-big- aircraft-hangar of a conference centre. All went well until the chorus of the Egyptian Army came in (I’m laughing as I type this). There they were- thirty men on one side of the stage, marching perfectly in step, dressed in what looked like tin foil…. and then their opposing cohort marched onto the other side of the stage… big strapping impressive men, also marching perfectly in step… and on the very end of the line one little bloke, quite skinny, knock-kneed and a good foot shorter than everyone else. But his uniform and his helmet were the same size as all the others. His helmet was like a bucket and he had to tilt his head back to see where he was going. I started to laugh. Lou started to laugh. BUT all the seats in that stupid arena were linked so as we both laughed the whole row began to shake… and shake… and then we were laughing at that, and then I started coughing, and we just whooped and choked and snorted for the rest of the act. At half time we sneaked up to another part of the audience.
Laughing. I love it.
When I write a script I can make myself chuckle, but in the next moment I can make myself cry. We can manipulate our own emotions as well as those of other people – emotions are such good actors that they can persuade you to feel one way when you’ve just been feeling the very opposite. I wrote a death on Coronation Street and I remember all the viewers who said to me “You made me cry!” as if that was the most amazing feat of magic the world has ever seen. It’s easy peasy, lemon squeezey. It’s a like falling off a very slippery narrow log in thick ice wearing wellies. If you can’t make a viewer cry, you’re not a writer. It’s much much easier than making someone laugh.
I’d love to make people laugh. I’m a frustrated comedy writer at heart. Yeah, yeah, a Bafta for a film about elder abuse, the Richard Burton Award for a play about sacrificial love, the Prix Europa for a film about an abandoned baby…. so what? If only I’d written W1A, or Fawlty Towers, or just one sketch on the Fast Show…. to have added to the world’s rich fund of rollicking laughter, how great would that be?
But that ain’t my gift. My gift is dialogue and motives, sub-text and truth. Dammit. I remember writing a film about breast cancer and coming out of my room very late one night, in tears, holding my breasts in sympathy, shaken by what I’d just written. George was on his way to bed, coming out of the bathroom and he paused , in sort of wonderment, and said “Och, Luce… Why don’t you write about happy stuff?”
My lovely George, practical and sane. But I can write about sad stuff only, about life and death and all the mess in-between. Drama. I wish I could write the funny stuff because I can certainly live it. Or I used to live it. Not so much now.
I was much nearer the funny bone a few years ago, before I came to West Wales. Here I’ve lost my social circle, the long silly evenings, the banter and nonsense, the people who understood me and who could let me be who I am, the language and the idiocy of me. There’s a delicious streak of rebellion, iconoclasm and the absurd in every witticism and here the culture is wary of rebellion, disapproving of iconoclasts, draining the absurd from every situation. Over the last 4 years I’ve lost the power to make people laugh even in conversation and I can feel my edges dulling, my wit flagging. Is it age? I think it’s a combination of age, place and culture. And dammit, you can’t play tennis on your own. No matter how well you lob a ball down the court, if there’s no one there to smash it back, that isn’t tennis. To be funny, you need other funny people. To laugh you need other people ready to laugh with you.
My daughter (happy birthday!) is a funny person, and so are each of my three granddaughters. Each of them can reduce me to tears of helplessness. I think it’s genetic. When I drive with Lou I very often have to stop the car because I can’t see for laughing, and the same thing happened with granddaughter Frankie a few weeks ago. In just one mile of a country road I had to stop the car three times. Delicious. Joy and laughter bubbling up. She is hilarious.
Would scurrying back to England help? I’m not sure. I’ll still be old, but it would be fun to find out. So tempting!
But hang on, I wrote ‘joy and laughter bubbling up’, so is joy the same as laughter? That’s what I’ve been pondering today. That’s why I’ve been moved to write this little exploration. I think that there is joy in laughter, that’s absolutely true. Delicious joy. But the two are not the same.
Joy is deeper than laughter. Serene. Laughter is here today and gone tomorrow. In fact it’s here now and gone a minute later. Like happiness. But joy is constant – it can exist in laughter, yes, but it can also be found in sorrow. Laughter is a passing gift, while joy true joy, lasts for ever.
If I had to chose between the two, which would I choose? Would I give up the excitement and rush of laughter for the still waters of joy?
I suppose I already have. I suppose that’s exactly what’s already happened. In finding the eternal, I’ve lost a little bit of the fleeting. And this blog is me considering that loss, wondering if it’s worth it.
Joy is more than laughter. Joy is indescribable and immovable, it’s consolation and assurance and peace. It comes not from wit or absurdity, but from truth. It will survive through all the sorrow, loneliness and losses of life.
Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. John 16:22