Sunday, 17 July 2011

"My God, a Doctor! What here in the hospital? Whatever can we do?"

One of the things I love about the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans has nothing to do with all the clever prejudice-inverting stuff when the actual Germans arrive. Some of the best lines are the scenes in the hospital when Basil is being sarcastic to the staff.

I adore sarcasm. I couldn't care less about all this "lowest form of wit" malarkey. A piece of brilliant sarcasm has the searing edge which can slice through the sheer banality of most of our lives and raise a smile to boot.

Sarcasm is something you have to dish out with unabashed vigour - that is the only way to do it if you’re going about it properly. You can’t go pussyfooting your way around being sensitive and carefully judging to whom you can be sarcastic etc. You have to be ready to strike and it has to be instant.

I think it's generally a very honest form of expression. It may be about saying one thing while clearly thinking another, but the point is that you make explicit that this is what you're doing. Not mere snide remarks, this is robust, withering sarcasm.

It's also extremely versatile: A dismissive remark with added sarcasm can give your contempt that special extra frisson: not only do you not like the subject you are, furthermore, not afraid of it and comfortable enough to make jokes at its expense.

Flip that around and sarcasm can also be very romantic: verbal dexterity at each others' expense is one of the best things about being in love and, to my mind, one of the signs that it's a healthy relationship of equals. (I should in fairness note that I also think rubbish tips and derelict houses are terribly romantic locations so I may on my own with this one.)

The gripe I do have with sarcasm is that it can make you feel terribly insecure if you don’t spot it - or, to be precise, if you don’t spot it in time. There’s a kind of awareness window attached to it.

It has on occasion taken me years to spot sarcasm. My uncle once claimed he’d never heard of North by Northwest and was it about American Indians. Two years later I realised he was probably joking. I like to think he was or I wouldn’t still be speaking to him for being ignorant.

You look can look utterly humourless if you don’t get it in those crucial few seconds. It's like falling over in public: unless you're seriously injured, you have a tiny window of opportunity to realise what's happened and get up laughing at yourself. You fail to do so at your peril. By such threads do our daily lives hang.

So if we should ever meet and I am sarcastic in your presence though we may be little more than strangers, there are two likely causes: either I have a deep seated love for you or I am in a bad mood. It may well be both simultaneously. Either way I hope you will lap it up and allow me the space to practice my art.

Failing that, just tell me to fuck off.

Here's Mary Hopkin singing a song by Paul McCartney.