John Bird: Laughter is a very serious business

Humour with purpose could be the way through these troubled times, but we're going to need a lot of jokes

Spending much of one’s time bigging up your own work, and by that yourself, comes at a price. You must have to lay down the burden of self-promotion sometimes. For at times it makes you into a weirdness.

Performing one’s act, of comedy and purpose, does not look good the morning after. It feels like you’ve fooled around too much, exaggerated too much, boasted and boosted too much: and claimed too much.

I mean, after all, my large and loud mouth and stupendous claims are based on inheritances from former large mouths I must come from. My mother being the greatest example in my life of a woman who “could talk the hind legs off of a donkey”. Hence at her knee I must have picked up the fine art of blarney.

My inheritance was humour mixed with story-telling and it comes so natural to me that it’s like breathing. At the “drop of a hat” I’m off telling a tale and trying to tie up an audience. And causing laughter and mayhem in thinking.

But it has not always been “all cakes and ale”, as Shakespeare would put it. Rejection and distain have been mixed in there. One time at a party aged 15, having charmed the host’s girlfriend to sit on my knee as I bombarded her with comedy I was set upon by the family, beaten senseless and thrown out into the street. My clothes all torn and my face all cut.

Thank God my mother had donated me her Irish mouth and wild exaggerated love of chatting

Or other times when punches rained down on me as I competed for the most adorable party guest and I had to fight my way out. Or went into work and my fellow factory workers had been worn out by my constant showing off. Hotel kitchens whose staff did their best to get me sacked because I wouldn’t stop chattering and promoting my humour. And girlfriends who suddenly lost the will to live.

These reflections are based on a few days last week when at the Hay Book Festival I talked and joked and performed on stage, in the caff, and in the street, the local library and in bookshops: of which Hay-on-Wye has many. And waking in a friendly house converted to a B&B for the festival’s duration.

What a colossal arrangement of trees and hill and dale! Everywhere green and lush. What a surprise to wake among such fecundity. And then remember all of the comedy of the night and day before.

And this strong feeling that this permanent performing can turn you into a right pain in the rear. And with this insatiable need to promote the work I’m involved in around poverty, by dispelling ignorance and quelling social pain.

A one-man-show on springs you might call it.

It has to be about the fight to save libraries and bookshops and preserve our high streets against the plundering of the largely untaxed

The Hay Book Festival is so full of the chance to indulge in books and authors. But I am there to perform, to show off for the common good, humorously. Thank God my mother had donated me her Irish mouth and wild exaggerated love of chatting, else what the feck would I have to say?

The only proviso though is that I have to try and talk sense through the entertaining humour. It has to be about human rights and human wrongs, it has to be about the blind waste of people’s lives through neglect and misuse of resources; it has to be about lifting people out of grief and not hold people back in their escape from poverty.

It has to be about our low-wage economy where being in full-time work can never always get you out of need. Or our low social security economy where only just enough is given to keep you ticking over.

It has to be about the plight of the bee and the death of the tree and the murderous attacks that are made by humankind’s consumer revolution on our once snow-deep poles.

It has to be about the fight to save libraries and bookshops and preserve our high streets against the plundering of the largely untaxed.

Humour with purpose: yes I do take my comedy very seriously and wish more recruits to the cause.

Over dinner I sit with a mother worried about her son. He seems under-motivated. He has no project, not even himself – in his life. He is listless and lost. What can be done for him?


Our vendors buy every copy of the magazine from us for £1.25 and sell it on to you for £2.50. Which is why we ask you to ALWAYS take your copy of the magazine. We believe in trade not aid.

This alienation crops up everywhere. Should we allow people to drift? What are we doing that is wrong? What is the cure for inertia and disability of the mind? Of course I do not have the answers. But I know closing libraries and out-pricing bookshops from the high street will not improve our search for answers. And if I do know something it is that a healthy, fully functioning local community does wonders to break down the isolation within families. A shared problem is a problem halved.

There is so much to do though there is not enough comedy to go around. Perhaps we need to create a school of purposeful comedy; and not just a stable of laughers at the foibles of state.

But that is a whole new debate I shall leave to another time to relate.