Like most people, I love a good laugh. Indeed, when it comes to escaping the humdrum and lifting the spirits, laughter is probably as good a remedy as any. The butt of jokes is often a politician or a political event, or perhaps a social injustice. Whatever the target, for most of today’s laughs we rely heavily on professional joke makers – the comedians – who make rich pickings out of our need for laughter. But, there are also the equally funny, quirky, amateurs who go about their business in a quiet, unspoken and often anonymous way. Unlike the tears and belly laughs engendered by comedians, the laughs these amateurs engender are often essentially internal.
We all know examples of such work, for instance the graffiti seen on a poster outside a church: “If you want to give up sin come inside”. To which some unknown hand had added: ‘If you don’t – phone 07315….’ .
The work of such public humour made me laugh twice recently, once it was triggered by an event that occurred in front of Buckingham Palace and found on the BBC website, and then again by some ingenious graphics I saw at the exit of a car park in France. And both contained that important element of subversion.
On the face of it, the guard standing in front of his sentry box by a gate of The Palace looked in every way unremarkable. There he was, bolt upright and motionless with his tall busby, scarlet jacket, black trousers, polished boots and menacing rifle – just another guard doing what must be a very boring job. But when he started his patrol routine – fifteen paces to the left, then fifteen paces back – his behaviour was far from the ordinary, indeed it was seriously odd. As he walked this guard sometimes went fast, sometimes moved slowly, sometimes almost shuffled; sometimes the position of his leg would freeze in mid-air, mid-stride, knee aloft. Sometimes the swing of his right arm – his left was occupied carrying the rifle – was out of sync with his legs; on one occasion he halted and bent over to pick something up – perhaps a cigarette end; and on several occasions, as he neared his sentry box, he pirouetted.
Here, then, was an incongruous, deeply amusing Chaplinesque performance of the highest order and with it, our anonymous guardsman managed to cock a snook at the army, at military pomp and even at royalty. As might be expected, the military bigwigs were not amused and are now considering what disciplinary action to take.
While the guard was making his comedic palace contribution, a very different joke was being played out in France. Overnight a local artist – people seem to know his identity but are keeping it a secret – had deftly embellished the predominantly red no entry signs that stand on either side of the exit to a parking area in front of the town hall. Using carefully cut-out black sticky tape, the white bar across the centre of one sign had been modified to show a swimmer reaching out from a pool. On the other sign, the cut-out transformed the bar into a heavy load being carried by, or possibly crushing, an athlete.
With a few ingenious cuts our artist had de-sanctified those rather pompous and unyielding road-side commands. It was difficult not to laugh, though naturally the mayor immediately announced that he was disgusted with such irresponsible defacement; he would be seeking to prosecute the person or persons responsible. Within days the signs had been cleansed.
Apart from finding their art funny and subversive, I wondered what was ticking in the minds of these two comic heroes. What drove them to do it? After all, in both cases their work might have gone unrecognised and they certainly will not have received any remuneration. What was their ultimate purpose – was it to amuse us, to undermine authority, or was it simply to give themselves fun? And of course, knowing that each ‘event’ would have taken hours of rehearsal, how/why would they have found the time? In the case of the guard, where, in a busy army barracks, can one practice a silly walks routine without being spotted? There was also the question of their courage – their jokes could easily result in a court martial for one and a heavy fine for the other. Why take the risk? Finally, there is the obvious observation. By these particular acts it was inevitable that the authorities, however they reacted, would appear to be sad killjoys – was this part of their plan?
The reminder that there are still anonymous subversive people ready to cock a snook at the establishment and make us laugh, gives me hope. Congratulations to you both – long may you flourish.