Express & Star

Toby Neal: When mass hysteria is a default condition

Toby Neal casts his eye on the world of politics.

Latest storm - Sir Gavin Williamson and Wendy Morton

The other day comedian Ben Elton said something which wasn’t very funny.

“Our generation was all about breaking rules,” he said. “It seems like the younger generation is all about making rules.”

In a couple of sentences he summed up our times, in which anybody can be bludgeoned out of a livelihood by self-appointed arbitrary rule-makers who have nothing better to do than spend all their time on social media, a place where mass hysteria is for so many the default condition.

In a similar vein, the comedian Jimmy Carr has said that the joke which will end his career is somewhere out there. Given some of the tasteless stuff he has used as a vehicle for comedy, heaven knows what that joke might be.

The rules in such matters today are whatever the rule-makers may decide they are at any particular moment – and different rules apply to different people, especially if those people are not coming from the “right place”.

Now I can’t say I’m a great follower, or lover, of alternative comedy, which presumably is no longer alternative, having being brought up in an era when jokes often relied on stereotypes. There was an Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman ...

The age of enlightenment has banished such fare, and it wasn’t because of discrimination against the Welsh who, for some reason, never got a look-in in this comedy staple of the past.

It is just a little leap from comedy to politics, especially these days and politicians have been telling us repeatedly when it suits them politically, that they, and particularly their opponents, are supposed to set an example of how to behave and the language to use.

It should be moderate, reasoned, and reasonable. Ha, bloomin’ ha.

There’s a Parliamentary standards watchdog whose role is to raise standards in political life, although if it is succeeding in that aim I can’t say I’ve noticed. Instead it has been weaponised and is a mechanism by which politicians can try to score points off each other, and claim occasional scalps.

As everybody seems to hate Sir Gavin Williamson, there has been little sympathy as he headed towards the exit door again. As part of a withering attack, Sir Keir Starmer described him in the Commons as “a pathetic cartoon bully with a pet spider”.

Now I won’t defend Sir Gavin Williamson if he acted in the way alleged. But hold on, and I realise I am being old-fashioned here, but isn’t there supposed to be a process about such things?

For a start, he has denied the allegations. Yet in the space of 0.1 political seconds Sir Keir Starmer has made a finding of guilt and bad character which pre-judges the investigation. Sir Keir has chosen to inhabit the realms of anger and outrage even before the evidence has been examined and verified. And this is from a lawyer and former Director of Public Prosecutions.

Back to the jokes. Not everybody knows that Roger Squires, the world record-breaking crossword compiler from Ironbridge, was an all-rounder entertainer and compere, and a few years ago he showed me his joke book.

So to prove that you can still tell jokes from yesteryear without being locked up, I’ll dip in to tell you a few of them.

“Doctor, doctor, please help me – every time someone comes in our yard I bark like a dog.” Doctor: “How long have you had this problem?” Patient: “Ever since I was a puppy.”

Joke number two, perhaps quite appropriate for these austere times: “This year I’ve bought my wife a watch for Christmas. Next year I’ll give her the works.”

And then there’s: “I went to a pub and a man at the bar with a pint said ‘It’s my 21st. Are you going to buy me a drink?’ When I did, he lifted it up and said: ‘That’s my 22nd’.”

Another one: A cyclist runs over a pedestrian. As the pedestrian brushes himself down, the cyclist says: “You’re lucky, mate.” “What do you mean, lucky?” “Normally I drive a lorry.”

Lastly, proof that Roger was telling mother-in-law jokes – now rarely heard as they are frowned on – long before Les Dawson: “I bought my mother-in-law a chair for her birthday. But she won’t plug it in.”