1 OCTOBER 1988, Page 58

Home life

Not so funny

Alice Thomas Ellis

The other day a man said to me, 'The harpist's arrived — unfortunately', and I don't know why, but I laughed for hours. (I can't be bothered to go into details but circumstances demanded one, and she had.) Then Beryl rang up to say that life reminded her of those pot plants that you keep for ages; and their lower leaves shrivel and then their upper leaves, and you keep on watering them . . . . I thought she was going to say 'and then suddenly they put out a little bud and it blossoms', but she didn't. She said, 'and then you throw them away.' I found this vastly more cheering than the expected tiresomely hopeful bud.

There's an anthology of 'comedy clas- sics' on the drawing-room table. I think I must have bought it myself in a moment of despair as a stocking-filler for one of the children. I almost remember doing so and I can't think of any other reason why it should be next to Ford Madox Ford and Colette — who are there because I read them in another moment of despair and couldn't be bothered to put them back on the shelves. In yet another such moment I began to read this anthology and found my spirits instantly lifted by a remark from Richard Gordon's Special Delivery to the effect that midwifery is a subject 'which usually produces a sharp reactionary attack of misogyny in its students'. I knew that it did because a trainee doctor had told me so and I had felt sympathetic despite being about to give birth to somebody or other. I could see exactly how the whole business could easily pall on one after a very short while. I quite understand Richard Gor- don's Lamont who had 'been so moved by his experiences he was on the point of breaking of his engagement. "The frightful women . . . I can't understand that anyone would ever want to sleep with them. That someone obviously has done so in the near past is quite beyond me." ' When I was really fed up with childbearing — i.e. when I was in the throes of it and just remember- ing how painful, uncomfortable and simply humiliating it could be — people were wont to say it was all perfectly natural, and a lot of people also held that it was very beautiful. I don't know what their criteria were, but I could never see it myself. I find Lamont much more understandable and reassuring.

You could trust a doctor who spoke his mind like that. I suppose humour is some- thing to do with truth and a little to do with high-flown sentiments. I still can't see why it's got anything to do with big shoes and a bowler hat or breaking plates, or custard Pies, but then there's a lot I don't under- stand about other people and what makes them laugh is some of it. Half the nation used to roar at ITMA when I was a child and I never could see why. I quite enjoyed it but it didn't make me laugh. Then along came Take It From Here and that did, whereas my mother rather disapproved of it and couldn't understand what I was falling off the chair about. It is odd. The same things make people cry, and indeed much the same things make people happy. The area of disagreement lies not only in Politics, religion, race, but in what you find funny. I hope it doesn't occur to anyone to go to war about it.