That’s a couplet I remember in Punch about 30 years ago, and which has stuck in my mind ever since because, I suppose, it was then quite daring to take the mickey out of advertising and quite daring to use Christmas as a pretext for humour. There was a piece about the same time by Alan Coren about the Christmas plans for a big department store, which involved putting a Christmas crib in the middle of the display and then gradually building up a huge capitalist cornucopia of consumer goods. Finally, the manager looks at the display, decides it’s not quite right and orders the crib to be taken out.
I don’t think any of that would work today. The religious overtones of Christmas have become so faint that you can’t shock people with talk of cribs (a long green laser beam or a load of lights in regent Street is more of a Christmas symbol these days), and there is something extremely old-fashioned about attacking advertising. There was a time when you could make a tidy penny with books, which exposed the wickedness of Madison Avenue, but we have all grown so familiar with the trickery that we take it for granted. And advertising is going through such a sticky period right now that we tend to feel sorry for the people involved, rather than shocked by them.
Does this mean that we don’t make jokes about Christmas any more? Absolutely not. All that happens is that ideas get recycled, reshaped, reused. In the world of humour, just as in nature and in sport, there is a seasonable rhythm, and age-old return to the values and instincts of yesteryear.
Whenever I feel the approach of one of these great festivities, and the ghost of the editor seems to point a finger at me across the desk, saying: ‘Be funny about Christmas or else,’ I take courage from the memory of the funniest piece I have ever read about Christmas. It starts as follows:
“At Christmas time, about three years ago, I found myself detained by chance in a small prison in Yorkshire, awaiting trial on sundry charges of theft, swindling and blackmail…”
An arresting opening, you will admit. A bit modern and black, perhaps, but different. The piece develops into a surreal account of a one-legged jailer, the jailer’s daughter, snow in prison… And what is extraordinary about the whole piece is that despite its modern overtones, it was written around 100 years ago. By a Frenchman. The French have produced very few humorists, but Alphonse Allais is a shining exception, and when 15 years ago I translated enough of his pieces to form a book for an amazed British public (too amazed, most of them, to buy a copy), I discovered that among other things he was probably the very first humorist to tackle ecological subjects. He did not, in fact, use the word ecology, but he did refer to people who cared about the world’s resources as “géophile”, or friend of the earth, and if that is not prophetic, I don’t know what is. Here is the opening of another piece:
“You may have noticed that I have spent most of my waking life writing distraught pieces about the imminent disappearance of the world’s trees, brought about by our insatiable demand for paper.”
As a humorist, I find it very encouraging that Allais was making ecological jokes 100 years ago (he died in 1905). As a humorist, I also find it very depressing that even though satire was on the side of ecology 100 years ago, it seems to have absolutely no effect on people’s thinking or to have slowed down our wastage of our resources. But there again, as a humorist I have come to the slow but firm conclusion over the years that humour has no effect on people, apart from sometimes making them laugh. Every editor of Punch, every producer of Spitting Image, will solemnly tell you that humour changes people’s minds, or that ridicule (their favourite phrase) “pricks pomposity”. I don’t believe a word of it. If it were true, politicians would not ask cartoonists for their originals.
Although I have read far and wide through the works of Allais, I have yet to find a piece which was about both ecology and Christmas – an “I’m dreaming of a Green Christmas” piece. That piece is still to be written. I, I suppose, could write it. However, I seem to have painted myself into a tight corner here- if I really believe that humour has no socially beneficial effect, what on earth would be the point of me writing such a piece? Hmm. I shall have to go away and think about that. Meanwhile, I shall take courage from the words of the great Frenchman himself who, when asked if he hoped to change the world through his writing, said: ’No. I am higher than that.’
issue no 55 Dec. 1991