Dear Mr Williamson,
You look more than usually frazzled at the moment so I thought I’d try to cheer you up. Would you like a joke about the Marmite shortage? It’s all stuck in a lorry travelling yeastbound. Sorry, perhaps that’s the wrong joke for someone accused of being asleep at the wheel this week.
Perhaps an undemanding film would help? Steve Martin’s 1987 Roxanne has long been a favourite on the Roberts sofa. He plays the frustrated Fire Chief of a small town whose crew are hard to train. At one point he says:
I have a dream. It's not a big dream, it's just a little dream. My dream - and I hope you don't find this too crazy - is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do. You can't have people, if their houses are burning down, saying, "Whatever you do, don't call the fire department!" That would be bad.
Maybe a political Drama? I’d steer clear of The Thick of It, to be honest, under the circumstances, but there’s a favourite episode of The West Wing where a briefing goes all to pot. (Series 1 Celestial Navigation). The Deputy Chief of Staff takes the podium instead of the usual spokesperson and ends up saying that the President has a secret plan to fight inflation which he’s not going to tell anyone about. I think a secret plan’s probably on a par with a ‘very big plan’ for getting everyone back to school or a ‘huge job’ to catch up disadvantaged children. The PM’s such a joker, isn’t he?
Children’s laughter is missing from HMS Tallis at the moment. While teenagers can be hard to amuse its great fun when you manage it. Even the coolest adolescent will eventually let a chuckle slip and the rolling eye and weary sigh is just a different sort of belly-laugh. Classes love to be diverted with a groan-worthily predictable witticism that makes a teacher memorable and a ridiculous joke can make the driest content palatable. I once heard a lunatic maths teacher declare that ‘fractions make you taller and more attractive to the opposite sex’ to year 9 and I worked next to a gifted mimic twenty-odd years ago who could do a whole lesson in a voice of the class’s choice. Myself, I use the Billy Conolly method and laugh immoderately at my own jokes well before I tell ‘em.
Of course, this only works if humour adds to the security and quality of the classroom. A good teacher keeps it witty and prevents sarcasm or unpleasantness. Children soon twig on if jokes are a distraction from a teacher not knowing their stuff: chaos follows that. No amount of droll banter appeases a class if their books are never marked or the lessons are rudderless and drifty. You have to earn their laughter.
We keep it light at Tallis and we try to look as if we’re enjoying ourselves, because we usually are. Sometimes levity’s just wrong – this isn’t a piece about racism, for example. Judging content and tone takes skill and experience. Everyone remembers cringeworthy moments when you’ve got it wrong, and can issue a quiet shudder. Leaders need to set the tone at every gathering, and I wonder if that’s what troubling you, Mr Williamson? You know, I don’t think it’s entirely your fault?
What about some poetry, then? One of my favourite recitations is Siegfried Sassoon’s The General which if you don’t mind I’ll quote in full:
Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He's a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Oof. I wonder, Mr Williamson, if this strikes a chord?
One of my personal cringe regrets is laughing at Boris Johnson when he used to be on Have I Got News For You. Sober analysts at the time warned me this was a ploy to get into the nation’s easily-amused hearts, but I still chortled through his blundering routines. He’s harmless, I said. A frothy cross between Stephen Fry and Bertie Wooster, a buffoon in the English upper-class-twit tradition.
But where has it led us? The CV-19 crisis lurches between underaction, overpromise and retreat. The star turn is exposed without the braying laugh-track of the Commons and his flannel misses the note nearly every time. It’s too painful to watch. A cheery old card indeed, and he may have done for us all, in one way or another, by his plan of attack.
Mr Williamson, there’s a time to weep and a time to laugh. For so many reasons, this is the weeping time. You look as though you might know that. Your colleague the Secretary of State for Health certainly does. He could have been the man of the moment. In March he looked reliable and on top of his brief but now he looks exhausted, all at sea. In his half-hours at the briefing he looks like he’s given way more than an armful.
I’m grateful to a colleague for this witticism, but it’s not really funny, is it?