Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Thanks to Joy for the use of this anecdote.

"On a train from Manchester to London, an American passenger was berating an Englishman who shared his compartment. "Look here," the American said. "You English set yourselves apart from the rest of the world, with your stiff upper lip and snobbish pretentions. You should be more like the rest of us. Look at me. I'm part Italian, a little Irish, with some Portuguese and Polish, too. What do you have to say to that?" The Englishman looked over his newspaper, lowered his glasses and said "How jolly sporting of your mother."

Bill Bryson is actually an American-born humourist and writer, but has lived in England for forty years. He is able, therefore, to write about the English as someone who lives with them, but is not quite part of them. His "The Road to Little Dribbling" is a collection of episodes of a walk around the island of Britain. His adventures are amazingly funny, but what strikes the reader is his endless fascination with the strange, endearing, sometimes frustrating, and always entertaining eccentricities of the English people. To a quick reader, Bryson sometimes comes off as insulting, but a careful read shows a writer who is a huge anglophile ... and who loves the strange sense of humour of these people. Bryson is also brutally honest: some of what he encounters on his rambles is unbelievably stupid. He pulls no punches when discussing how many English cities have pulled down wonderful old buildings and put up modern monstrosities, especially in the dour and uncertain post-war period from the late-forties until the mid- to late-sixties. Having toured many of these cities, I would lend my voice to this criticism. Bryson is an unabashed fan of the English countryside. He comments on the fact that England has no natural wonders, no huge mountains, nor impressive wide rivers, and is very crowded. But the countryside is an unbelievable wonder, and almost completely man-made. He is constantly fighting to preserve the countryside from developers, a situation we find here in Ontario at this time. Still, despite the criticisms and negative feeling of these items, Bryson never descends into anger or bitterness. His humour, a combination of an American willingness to poke fun and a British willingness to take a joke come shining through.

The English writer Nick Hornby's latest novel, "Funny Girl" also gives a glimpse at English humour at its best. Hornby has had a long and productive career and his novels and screenplays all have a funny-sad quality about them that I particularly enjoy. In this novel, a young girl from Blackpool wins the title of "Miss Blackpool 1964" and then promptly resigns to pursue a career in television at the BBC. The story is easy to follow and terrifically funny. It also gives insight into how England changed during the early to mid 1960's from a dowdy and quaint little country, still reeling form the privations of the war, into a modern and fashionable country. It is a situation that, to a large extent, England is still trying to come to grips with well into the 21st century. But through it all, through all the trials and uncertainty of the main characters, there is that English sense of humour that Hornby has mastered. It is understated, slightly fatalistic, tremendously ironic, and often self-mocking. It is wonderful and it's good for what ails you.

If England faced nothing but disasters, defeats and humiliations for the rest of its history, they would always be able to make a joke of it.
We could all learn an important lesson from them. Laugh it up when things get heavy .... but do it with style, a sense of flair, a sense of class.

You've got to love the English !