Gillian Avery on recent attempts to make children laugh

Gillian Avery

  • The Children’s Book of Comic Verse edited by Christopher Logue
    Batsford, 160 pp, £3.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 7134 1528 2
  • The Children’s Book of Funny Verse edited by Julia Watson
    Faber, 127 pp, £3.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 571 11467 9
  • Bagthorpes v. the World by Helen Cresswell
    Faber, 192 pp, £4.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 571 11446 6
  • The Robbers by Nina Bawden
    Gollancz, 144 pp, £3.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 575 02695 2

What makes children laugh? First and foremost, disaster – other people’s disasters, naturally. My daughter, at the age of two, was so overcome by the exquisite funniness of her cousin knocking a plate from the table that she lay on the floor and sobbed with laughter. Disaster is, of course, a vital element in farce and clowning, but a child can find humour in the sort of domestic mishap that an adult would have to see on the stage before he could laugh. (Or does the humour of disaster appeal only to the Western mind? We were once the only Europeans present at a Boxing Day performance of Oh Mr Porter in a back-street cinema. Four men were whirled around on the sails of a windmill; we fell about with laughing, the Pakistani children who made up the rest of the audience were silent. They either found the situation totally unfunny, or else lacked the instinct that an English child would have, that everything would come right in the end.) It can go beyond ordinary calamity – Mitford aficionados will remember the glee with which that terrifying family chanted: ‘Crushed to death in a lift-shaft; man’s long agony in a lift-shaft.’

Impropriety comes second. One goes into convulsions of giggles at the daring of repeating surreptitiously words which adults have indicated are not for polite society. ‘Strumpet and stomach and damn must never, never be said,’ sang one Victorian vicarage family in the isolation of their nursery. ‘Red, white and blue, dirty kangaroo, sitting on a lamp-post doing number two,’ was what we used to mutter in our Surrey back-garden. My great uncle, a Presbyterian minister, once told my father the rhyme that had so delighted him in his childhood in the 1860s, a rhyme where the wicked word was never actually uttered.

Matilda ate jam,
Matilda ate jelly,
Matilda went home
With a pain in her –
But don’t be mistaken,
Don’t be misled,
Matilda went home
With a pain
In her head.

How little Rousseau understood child nature when he suggested that children’s acute interest in their body and its functions could be repressed by connecting coarse words with these, which they would be unwilling to recall.

And then of course there are the riddles and puns from which the six to 11-year-olds derive such inexplicable pleasure. ‘What did the cannibal have for supper? Baked beings on toast’: though one does not laugh so much as feel a profound intellectual satisfaction at the beauty of it – much as a logician might enjoy a Euclid proof. It also gives scope for the collector, who can rattle out his stock of riddles like a machine-gun, to the fury both of adults and of peers lacking such a capacious memory. The appreciation of irony comes at a far later stage. ‘Women, children and revolutionists hate irony.’ Conrad meant, as a weapon used against them. The first and the last hate it while understanding what their attacker is up to; the child hates it because he does not. One is usually adolescent before one can be certain whether adults are speaking seriously, or think it funny if they are not.

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