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Journalism

Ghostwriting
Lost Art of Handwriting
Rats
Mind the Gaffe
Jack and Zena Come Out
Under Pressure
It's A Jungle Out There
Just Williams
Inside The Jester's Court
Keeping A Sense of Humour
Castaway - The Inside Story
Cook Islands
Unmugged In Rio
Irish Country Houses
When Defiance Is
  A Death Sentence

A Craicing Good Time
My London Village
Capri
How To Speak ... Dance
South African Ghosts
Pseud Awakening
Mad Matt's
One Hundred Years
  Of Total Confusion


KEEPING A SENSE OF HUMOUR

(Traveller – 2000)
... while travelling


Much as I love travelling, I also find it intensely irritating. The American Mom next to you on the Eurostar sharing a crackling sack of candy with her fat-faced kid, while her equally plump older sister, the child's Ant, tells him that he's got a bit of French in him, in fact he's got a bit of German in him, in fact he's got a bit of everything in him, in fact he's whad you call a mutt. This wasn't what you went to Paris for, was it?

So look at it another way. It's funny! And contemporary! And a darn sight more real than a train full of claret-sipping onion-sellers in berets would ever be! So stop trying to read your boring book and just enjoy. And when the Ant asks the French guard how long it is before the train goes into the Chan-elle tunnel, and the French guard goes Pff, turns his back and walks off – that's hilarious.

Keeping your sense of humour not only leavens the traveller's way, it brings relief from the inevitable frustrations of travel. At Malaga airport I was once on the verge of strangling the representative of a charter flight operator who had shamelessly diverted our plane to service a football match in Dublin. Then, suddenly, watching a woman from Newcastle asking the glowering Spanish barman repeatedly, and ever more loudly, for "a small cock", my anger melted into laughter. In the end, she got her Coke (with ice, in a glass, no less) and we got our flight. What's a few hours of your life donated to the profits of a dodgy bucketshop anyway.

For the serious, long term traveller, being able to see the funny side of things can be a lifesaver, not just against external problems, but also the internal bogeymen: the exhaustion, loneliness and depression that can ambush you in even the most gorgeous of places.

Towards the end of a seven month trip around Australia I'd been driving for three days along the coast road from Adelaide to Melbourne. I'd started out cheerfully in the lovely Adelaide hills, felt exhilarated as I sped across the vast-skied, dazzling salt flats of the Coorong. But by the time I reached the wild-flowered hedgerows of Victoria, and finally the spectacular rollercoaster they call the Great Ocean Road, I was drained and nervy. At seven p.m. I finally had to admit to myself that I wasn't going to make my jolly Saturday night rendezvous in the Two Dogs Bar, St Kilda. It was going to be another grim hotel room in another resort where I knew nobody. But even that wasn't available. Typically, I'd picked one of the busiest weekends of the year and there wasn't a bed to be had on the coast. Just as I was in danger of driving off the cliff in a stupor of tiredness, I finally saw a gleaming pink Vacancies sign. The only room they had was $140 a night, the lisping Greek receptionist told me, a luck-thurry double thpa. For some reason, that thpa that did it. My self-pity alchemised into careless extravagance. I threw my budget to the Southern Ocean winds and lay alone in the huge, heart-shaped pool of bubbles laughing, profoundly grateful that a single word had delivered me from certain death.

Can humour actually protect you from physical danger? In Belfast I went exploring with an English friend down the infamous Falls Road, through the bleak estates where pro-IRA slogans are scrawled on every dirty grey concrete wall to a pub known as The Fort, whose windows were entirely covered with thick steel mesh. We ordered pints of the black stuff and sat down, sharing a booth with a pair of white-haired gents who seemed genial enough, yarning away to each other as Irishmen do. But hearing our English accents the mood changed. The older of the two leant forward to warn me that I should be very careful, an Englishman walking into a republican pub in an area like this. "Ten years ago, five years ago," he told me, "if you'd walked in here with that accent they'd have had you out the back." In the toilet, he elaborated fiercely, with a gun to my head, finding out exactly who I was. Maybe I was writing a book, but there were plenty of undercover Brits who'd come up with stories like that.

I was as open as I could be with him. I wasn't anti-republican, I said, if I could get to interview Gerry Adams I would. The other man laughed loudly. "Well, you've got the right feller here," he said. "This is Gerry Adams's brother-in-law." He was, too. The laughter broke the ice and half an hour later the brother-in-law paid us the compliment of telling us that the craic had been good. We wrote our names on a piece of paper and left feeling considerably safer.

There are numerous instances where a shared sense of the ridiculous can break down even the most vexed of cultural barriers. Visiting South African townships in the last days of apartheid, it was always laughter that bonded. "You know what that stands for," one township host told me, pointing thoughtfully to the label of his bottle of lager. "Let Africans Get Equal Rights." I was in another cramped dwelling with a few guys when there was a knock at the door and a pair of po-faced white American missionaries stood before us. Everyone was very polite to them, even when they asked, in deeply patronising tones, what we all "did". Geoffrey, whose house it was, went round with formal and elaborate career descriptions for each of our group in turn, ending, "and Mr McCrum tells us he is a writer. Indeed we were just saying how unusual it was for us to have a white person amongst us and now I'm beginning to feel like this is my lucky day." The missionaries nodded seriously, and suddenly I felt that the colour barrier was much less important than the humour barrier.

Being actively prepared to have the piss ripped out of you is in general a wise move. In Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, I stumbled one evening into a bar full of miners, yelling their heads off as they let off steam from their long day in the gold pits. Trying to buy a drink I was harangued by a huge bearded bloke with shaved head and elaborate tattoos who was intrigued by my unusual accent. "We've got a bloody Pom here!" he was soon bellowing, hand clamped on my arm, half turned in his seat towards the gallery of mates behind. Then to the bar girls, who were wearing – this being one of WA's famous "skimpy" bars – nothing more than bra and panties. "Mark's a Pom. The Pom wants to see your tits, Donna – I didn't say that, the Pom said it. Ha ha ha!" Not a situation I'd choose to be in again, but non-directional loud laughter did the trick and Rob ended up showing me the town.

While keeping your humour, don't go thinking that humour is the answer to everything. It's at the point where you're getting a joke that others aren't that you have to be most careful. Especially if they're carrying a machine gun or have the capacity to lock you up. On those occasions the ability to keep an entirely straight face is even more important. Even the twitch of a smirk could be your undoing.
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