A sense of humour

A sense of humour

The true sense of humour is entirely different from wit. It is almost never an attack on someone else. It consists in looking at one’s own misfortune from above and finding something to laugh at in it. Budo teaches calm endurance, but humour teaches more than that.

I have visited some prisons in London and know what they are like. They are crowded. Britain has more people in prison proportionally than other European countries. On the other hand, there is less crime in Britain than in most other countries. I once read the memoirs of a former prisoner, who was sentenced to four years for burglary. He said that the food was very monotonous, and some of the prisoners appointed him their spokesman to complain to the governor. The governor was a just man and was respected. The prisoner saw him and stated the complaint.

The prison food has been approved by the independent prison inspectors’, said the governor. ‘They confirm that it is well balanced and healthy. And I have exactly the same food myself here every day. I do not expect you to eat what I do not eat myself’. The prisoner looked at the governor’s face and knew that it was true.

Yes, but yours is cooked specially for you, isn’t it? Ours is cooked by mass production’.

The governor replied seriously: ‘Yes, probably mine is better cooked than yours and a bit more tasty. But after all, if you don’t like prison food, why come to prison?’ The prisoner said he could not help laughing. The governor laughed too, and the interview was ended.

In his memoirs the prisoner wrote: The governor’s words— ‘If you don’t like prison food, why come to prison?’—were a great help to him then and also afterwards in life. He never offended again. If he was tempted, the phrase floated up from his memory: ‘Why come to prison?’ In his heart, he thanked the governor, who had used the sense of humour to awaken a sense of responsibility. The prison circumstances did not change, but they became bearable.

Even in very small things, humour can be a great help. Once a year my accountant comes to my house to make up my income tax accounts. He brings a little portable calculator, which makes a buzz as it prints. I must be in the same room, because he occasionally has a question. One day I sat on the other side of the room, trying to do an urgent piece of writing. It was very irritating to be constantly interrupted by the bzz-bzz of the little printer. The young accountant, a good friend of mine, realized this. He stopped for a moment and said, ‘Every time this printer goes bzz, it means that you will pay less tax’. We both laughed. In a way it was ridiculous, but in fact I was no longer irritated by the bzz-bzz. The situation had not changed, but now I welcomed it.

A sense of humour is not part of the gentleman ideal, and as far as I know it is not part of Budo. But it is perhaps a very useful addition to those ideals. Here is a last example. When the Soviet space programme began, they sent up insects, then some rats, then dogs, and finally in 1961 Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. It was arranged that Gagarin should make international tours. He was a handsome modest man, and crowds lined the streets in London to see him pass. He stood up in the car, and the people clapped and waved.

The then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, with some of his friends, watched Gagarin pass. They remained quite calm outwardly, like gentlemen or bujin. But one of them murmured to Macmillan, ‘This is a tremendous propaganda triumph for the Soviets’. ‘No’, replied Macmillan. ‘And perhaps they have missed their chance in Britain. Thank Heaven! They did not send one of the dogs!’



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