The late and won­der­ful John Clarke on the New Zealand sense of hu­mour

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The late and won­der­ful John Clarke on the New Zealand sense of hu­mour

Think­ing about hu­mour, I am re­minded of an old army story. In 1945 the New Zealand Di­vi­sion fought a costly streetby-street bat­tle against the re­treat­ing Ger­man army to take the city of Tri­este in north­ern Italy. Once the city was se­cured, the Amer­i­cans de­cided a vic­tory pa­rade was in or­der, to be headed by the elite US Marines. It was pointed out that the Amer­i­cans had arrived af­ter the bat­tle had fin­ished and that the fight­ing had been done by the New Zealan­ders. The Ital­ian cam­paign was nev­er­the­less be­ing run by US Army com­mand and the pa­rade went ahead as planned. In front came the US Marines, with a large ban­ner bear­ing their em­blem and the words “US Marines. Sec­ond to None”. Be­hind them marched the New Zealan­ders car­ry­ing a large sheet upon which was writ­ten the word “None”. This squares my shoul­ders nicely. I’ll have what they’re hav­ing.

The New Zealand sense of hu­mour is said to be la­conic, un­der-stated and self-dep­re­cat­ing. Even if true this is not very help­ful, as the same claim is not un­rea­son­ably made for the hu­mour of the Scots, the Ir­ish, the English, the Aus­tralians, the Rus­sians, the Cana­di­ans and the An­cient Greeks, among oth­ers. North Amer­i­can hu­mour rests on a writ­ing tra­di­tion also rich in irony, la­conic de­liv­ery and litotes. Mark Twain, Robert Bench­ley, Thurber, Dorothy Parker and Ruth Draper were all peo­ple whis­per­ers. Dave Barry and many other writ­ers en­rich this tra­di­tion to­day.

In An­cient Greece, irony was con­sid­ered “the glory of the slaves”, sug­gest­ing that you can’t have irony from above. How the world can con­sist only of un­der­dogs is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. It may be that an iron­i­cal per­spec­tive emerges from the un­der­class of each so­ci­ety or in each of us, and that these are not na­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics at all. When my gen­er­a­tion was grow­ing up there was no tele­vi­sion and no New Zealand ra­dio com­edy. This was not be­cause New Zealan­ders weren’t funny. A lot of our par­ents had just re­turned from the war and if they had a gift for hu­mour it wasn’t much use pro­fes­sion­ally; it was just part of their per­son­al­ity. They didn’t tell jokes, they just talked very well, of­ten about lo­cal things. A man once de­scribed a friend from the hill coun­try as hav­ing ears a bit fur­ther back than the rest of us. “It’s the wind,” he said, “They get these very big west­er­lies. He had to go and get his wife from up near Opotiki the other day. She’d gone to hang the wash­ing out. She still had the peg bas­ket.”

World War II was the big­gest con­flict in hu­man his­tory. Sev­enty mil­lion peo­ple were killed. An im­por­tant as­pect of deal­ing with the car­nage, the tragedy and waste was hu­mour. It helped ar­tic­u­late what the Al­lies were fight­ing against and it for­ti­fied res­o­lu­tion and hope. There was hu­mour in con­certs for the troops, in books and mag­a­zines and there was ra­dio. Hu­mour that is iden­ti­fi­able as com­ing from New Zealand emerged at this time.

The most fa­mous car­toon­ist in Bri­tain was David Low. He rein­vented the draw­ing style and pur­pose of the news­pa­per car­toon, re­mov­ing cross-hatch­ing and class-con­scious trivia and in­tro­duc­ing bold lines and a moral stance on po­lit­i­cal is­sues. He spot­ted Hitler and the Nazis well be­fore they came to power and por­trayed them as liars, thugs and mur­der­ers. He op­posed ap­pease­ment and was deadly and re­lent­less in sub­ject­ing Hitler and Mus­solini to con­tin­u­ous, open mock­ery. His de­pic­tion of the Nazi Soviet Pact be­came one of the most cel­e­brated cartoons of the cen­tury. Af­ter the war it was dis­cov­ered that Hitler had pre­pared a list of the peo­ple he would kill when he con­quered Bri­tain. Low, a Pres­by­te­rian so­cial­ist from Dunedin, was num­ber five.

The most suc­cess­ful wartime ra­dio show was It’s That Man Again, broad­cast by the BBC from 1939 to 1949 and fea­tur­ing the co­me­dian Tommy Handley. The show, known as ITMA, was the com­edy equiv­a­lent of Vera Lynn and it sus­tained the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion through its dark night. It also changed the way ra­dio com­edy worked, es­tab­lish­ing new forms to which the tele­vi­sion sit­com owes a sig­nif­i­cant debt to­day. ITMA was writ­ten by Ted Ka­vanagh, from Auck­land.

Dur­ing the cam­paign through Greece, Crete, the Mid­dle East and up into Italy, the New Zealand Di­vi­sion ex­pe­ri­enced a steady pro­ces­sion of suc­cesses and set­backs, not al­ways of their own mak­ing. One dan­ger would be averted, one cock-up sur­vived, one vic­tory won, when a fresh dis­as­ter would ar­rive and all hope would seem lost. In re­sponse to this pat­tern the di­vi­sion adopted in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer Paddy Costello’s sar­donic and per­fectly bal­anced “Hooray f***”.

A ma­jor point of con­tact be­tween my gen­er­a­tion and these men and women was The

Goon Show. It ran on ra­dio through the 1950s but was es­sen­tially a World War II show in which the mad­ness wit­nessed by sol­diers like Spike Mil­li­gan and Harry Se­combe and the New Zealand Di­vi­sion was de­fused by logic dis­posal ex­perts us­ing sur­real lan­guage and op­er­at­ing in a land­scape of id­iots, ex­plo­sions and death. Only the Bri­tish class struc­ture held firm, just in case you didn’t get

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