Everyone in Europe laughs at everyone else. Some, like the French and the Dutch, laugh at Belgians. The Russians laugh at Georgians. The Hungarians laugh at Romanians. The Spanish laugh at their Portuguese neighbours, and vice versa. Everybody laughs at Germans.
None of them, however, has the moral right to such mirth because they never pay the requisite price: laughing at themselves. The French, for example, take themselves extremely seriously, much as they love to have fun at everyone else’s expense.
For example, the French commentary on the Wimbledon final between Federer and Murray was one continuous giggle. Guy Forget and the other chap were laughing at everything: Murray’s facial expressions, his falls, Federer’s wife, British flag-waving fans, London weather, you name it. Yet their acute sense of humour was nowhere in evidence in the earlier rounds, when French players still remained in the draw. Then gravity was ousting levity, along, incidentally, with surnames. It was Jo-Wilfried this, Gilles that, Julien the other. Lopsided and scurrilous humour gave way to earnest and heart-felt affection.
The English and the Jews are the only people who deserve the right to laugh at others because they’re all too ready to laugh at themselves. As far as I know, Annie Harrison isn’t Jewish, but she’s definitely English, and in her new book The Oddball English she elevates the traditional English art to a height seldom scaled this side of P.G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward.
Her every line reminds us that humour can caress, not just cut. She laughs and we laugh with her, for once secure in the knowledge that no one is getting hurt. That’s not to say that Harrison’s humour lacks bite. It has plenty of it, but her teeth draw juice, not blood. Add to this her hawk-like eye, perfect aural pitch, a rare talent for social observation, inexhaustible imagination, and the book becomes irresistible.
But judge for yourself. When was the last time you laughed, and nodded agreement non-stop as if suffering from Parkinson’s, when reading a long list of anything? Well, let me tell you, Harrison could rewrite a phone directory in a way that would have you rolling on the floor.
Here are a few items from her very long list of those that sum up English aristocrats: ‘Golly gosh! frightfully posh; land-owning, fagging, shagging, debagging; the English summer season is quite exhausting; costly divorce, spring water bottled at source; Guards’ Polo, Savile Row, Ferragamo, Tally Ho!; po-faced, taxman-chased, showing hoi-polloi distaste; Sunday Times Rich List, in the Bullingdon Club getting pissed; old boys’ network, classical concert in one’s park’ – tell me where to stop.
English working class is described in the same vein: ‘Coronation Street, Heat, mechanically-reclaimed meat; England football team, slot machines, salad cream, lottery dreams; daytime TV, Page 3, Wii, KFC, WWE, QVC, OMG; The Royle Family, large plasma screen LG; mushy peas, where’s the rent money?; plastic front doors, soccer scores; bargain booze, white shoes, tattoos, stretch limo; cash for gold, Cheryl Cole, the dole; out on the razz with the lads; single mums, fairground fun, Blue Nun, The Sun; community hall, sod all; tool bags, WAGs, packet of fags; Blackpool, Margate, ‘It’s sorted, mate’; allotment shed, white sliced bread…’
Lest you might think that those in the middle were spared, rest assured – they weren’t: ‘Earl Grey, Coldplay, skiing in Verbier, latte, yay!; BUPA, brunch, credit crunch, meet for lunch; organic, balsamic, colonic; Prada bag (quality fake), cup cakes; Waitrose, Apple, Kindle, pension funds that dwindle; cashmere sweater, composter, Air Miles collector; ‘Do sign the guest book before you go’; antibacterial hand cleanse, having black friends; free range, climate change?; Rick Stein, large glass of wine, Jeremy Vine…’
And it’s not just the long lists one wishes were even longer. The book has sections on English food, sarcasm, xenophobia, speakin’ wiv a London accent – it’s England herself, in a couple of hundred pages. I bet Annie Harrison had a lot of fun writing this book – but not nearly as much as you’ll have reading it.
The Oddball English is for the time being only available on Kindle. By Harrison’s own criteria, this would make her middle class. By my criteria, people who can write so well can’t be pigeonholed within any social group; they’re always classless. This calls for another list, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps, but it would be very short indeed.