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A tale for our times: laughter is still the best medicine | Nancy Banks-Smith | World news


Gather round my skirts, children, while I tell you about the great plague of 1919. It killed my Aunt Lucy, who was not, as her name suggests, an elderly spinster.

She was young and pregnant and wore a yard of red gold curls piled on her head. To have hair long enough to sit on was considered a mark of beauty. My grandmother always blamed her husband, believing the pregnancy had killed her. He may well have brought the virus back from the front. Either way, she never forgave him. Good at incubating a grudge, my Grandma Nancy.

So when my mother was pregnant, she moved in, scrubbing the linoleum, boiling the sheets, keeping some daughter-killing dread at bay with her bare hands and Lifebuoy. When I was born she dried her hands on her pinny and said: “So, you are going to call her Lucy?”, and my mother said: “No, I’m going to call her Nancy.”

Now this is the interesting bit. Lucy left a small son. One day my mother took the child to the pictures to see Charlie Chaplin.

My mother had lost her first husband in the war, right at the end when it all seemed over. I don’t think she ever recovered from that blow. She told me the child sat on her lap and they laughed so much he wet himself and her. Which made them laugh all the more.

Hands up anyone who thinks Charlie Chaplin funny! We know he must have been funny because WC Fields refused to go on stage after him saying he was a god-damn ballet dancer. And because for one moment of time a hundred years ago a widow and an orphan, washed up together by war and plague, were obliviously, helplessly weak with laughter.

Until the vaccine arrives, try Reeves and Mortimer.

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