The adventures of a wrecked ship can be pieced together from entries in its log book. The last moments of some doomed flight can be reconstructed by consulting its black box. If Dominic and I come a cropper here on the hard shoulder of the Cairo– Alexandria desert road, our iPhones will tell our story in Google searches:
23:30: ‘how do you get out of Cairo airport?’ 00:07: ‘why don’t Egypt drivers use headlights?’ 03:00: ‘Toyota Corolla won’t start’ 03:30: ‘How to deactivate Toyota Corolla immobiliser?’ 04:00: ‘Hertz Cairo number’ 05:00: ‘Hertz worldwide emergency number’ 05:14: ‘What time sun rise in Egypt?’ Soon after that, the iPhones’ innards will record that both batteries died, abandoning us to our fate beside the motorway, rocking in the violent wake of passing trucks, waiting for dawn.
Alittle sleep deprivation can make any holiday excitingly surreal. By the time we climb out of Toyota number two in the coastal town of Mersa Matruh, just east of the Libyan border, we’ve been awake for 36 hours and the pavement seems to swell and roll beneath our feet. Mersa Matruh has a romantic history — Antony and Cleopatra came here on holiday to frolic in the bay — but to our sleep-starved eyes it looks just like Brighton: the same faded beachfront hotels and out-of-season melancholy; street lamps painted that same duck-egg blue. But it’s Brighton in a dream: the sea seeps on to the main road; skeletal cats with wise, old hungry faces haunt the cafés and cows wander the promenade where the hen parties should be.
The next morning we begin our pilgrimage, south through the desert to the once-celebrated oracle at Siwa — the oracle consulted by Alexander the Great before he set out to conquer the world. Alexander travelled by night from Mersa Matruh, guided by the stars. We spin across the sand in an air-conditioned bubble — but even so, I can hear the dark crunch of his soldiers’ feet keeping
time. After 300 kilometres, the land rises up into rocky hills and the road descends between them to an oasis in a sea of palm trees. Above the jungly tree tops, perched on a cliff: the temple of the oracle, just as it was 2,300 years ago. We follow Alexander’s ghost up the temple mound, through the gate, then more cautiously, into the inner sanctum where the world’s greatest warrior once stood alone in the flickering torchlight and whispered the question that had burned in his mind since he was a boy: ‘Am I really the son of Zeus?’ We can see now what Alexander could not: the hidden corridors built into the temple’s walls that allowed a sneaky priest to hear the question and prepare the oracle’s answer. But though the secret of the oracle’s success has been exposed, Alexander’s remains a mystery. He left here, his mind up-ended by revelation: ‘So it’s true! I am the son of a god!’ What a strange thing to imagine oneself to be. Stranger still that there’s almost no better explanation for the terrible enormity of what he went on to achieve.
Siwans, who are mostly descendents of ancient Berbers, don’t think of themselves as Egyptian and they don’t set much store by strangers. Princes and
‘Apart from that, how was Sharm el-Sheikh?’
generals have visited throughout the ages, from Alexander’s day to ours, but to no great effect. The only non-Siwan who seems to have made a decent impression was Rommel.Whilst allied troops passed their time here bitching about the squalor and chipping away at the ancient hieroglyphs, that clever old desert fox brought tea and sugar to the Siwan sheikhs, who told him everything they knew. Even today, there is a garden and a bicycle hire shop named after him.
The desert seems like the right place for soul-searching, so I have packed a helpful book. It’s an excellent one by the American psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés but because my soul is still shallow and cowardly I am embarrassed by its title: Women who Run with the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman. Our hotel is isolated, right on the edge of the oasis just before the Great Sand Sea. No one in sight to sneer, so I take the book and scramble up the chalky rock behind the hotel to get archetypal in front of the setting sun. Light dies quickly in the desert. Before long I start to feel anxious about the deepening dark, so I close Clarissa and turn back. Only a few steps later, there in front of me appears… a wolf! A shaggy, lean, bushy-tailed wolf, say 20 feet away. Clarissa would have smiled calmly. I flee in a primitive panic, blindly scrambling down the rockface, heart thumping. When I turn around, the wolf is looking confused. At the bottom of the hill I realise the awful truth: I have contacted my inner wild woman and it turns out that she runs from wolves.
At El Alamein, on the way back home, the sunlit tops of gravestones in the allied cemetery shine in quiet lines. Here’s a boy from the Durham Light Infantry; there’s two from the Coldstream Guards. It’s easy to think of them as far from home. But then — at home, war memorials make do as urinals for drunks. Here, an Egyptian soldier in immaculate white holds open a little swing gate for visitors and someone has spent hours kneeling beside a prayer inlaid in bronze, polishing up the word ‘God’ as if to reassure visitors that He keeps an eye on Africa, too. As we leave, the call to prayer unfolds across the graveyard.
the spectator | 1 January 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Lords of laughter Great actors and great sportsmen now almost expect a knighthood.
Why are great comedians limited to lesser honours?
What do the following comedians have in common? Morecambe and Wise, Ronnie Barker, Frankie Howerd, Bob Monkhouse, Peter Sellers.
They’re all dead, yes. But something else. None of them was knighted. Instead they were all made OBE, an honour Michael Winner once charmingly described as ‘what you get if you clean the toilets well at King’s Cross station’. Still, they did better than Les Dawson, Tony Hancock, Tommy Cooper and Peter Cook. Those four got nothing.
I find this curious. In most cases, at least. Hancock died a bit too young (suicide at 44), and accepting anything from the honours system would have turned Cook from satirist to court jester, in two ways a fool. But the rest? These men entertained millions, and yet the automata in charge of doling out titles apparently treated them as though they were cheery amateurs rather than masters of their art. Perhaps the automata, being automata, have no sense of humour, a suspicion reinforced by the knowledge that in 1999 they awarded the CBE to Lenny Henry.
When the New Year’s Honours were announced, no one expected a knighthood for Bruce Forsyth, Billy Connolly or Eric Sykes (all CBE), or a damehood for Victoria Wood (also CBE). Consider how rarely the higher honours go to comedians, and how often they go to dramatists and non-comic actors. Sir Arnold Wesker, Sir David Hare (establishment-savaging left-wing playwrights do love a title), Sir Ronald Harwood, Sir Peter Shaffer. Or Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir Antony Sher…
Enough lists. We see the problem. The automata are evidently under a common intellectual delusion: that humour is frivolous, and that the serious must be taken seriously.
Where does this delusion come from? Presumably to the humourless, laughter seems an unworthy, trivial response to the miseries of life. They think the correct response to those miseries is to ponder them extremely earnestly, as if this will somehow solve them. Such people are never entirely happy unless they’re frowning.
Perhaps they assume that drama is harder to write than comedy. I don’t think you need to have written either yourself to see that this is false. It must, at a guess, be harder to write a competent comedy than to write a competent drama because often a dramatist’s subject matter will do half his work for
Presumably, to the humourless, laughter seems an unworthy response to the miseries of life. Such people are never happy unless they’re frowning him. Say he writes about poverty, or alcoholism, or loneliness in old age. The result, if he’s even moderately gifted, is almost bound to be moving to some degree — not, or not only, because of his skill as a dramatist, but because the topic itself is moving. To write about death and make it sad does not take talent. To write about death and make it funny — that takes talent.
The humourless don’t grasp this, which is why the top acting awards so frequently go to those who have played the mentally ill or the victim of some historic atrocity.The judges seem to imagine that to make an audience
‘Fortunately the local council have taken on the job of trying to keep him healthy.’
the spectator | 1 January 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk feel unhappy is a titanic achievement, as if most people by nature were cloudless optimists on whose lives unhappiness scarcely intrudes.
In any case, the best comedies are nearly always tragedies. Not tragedies in a classical sense, but tragedies in a human one. Steptoe & Son, Hancock’s Half Hour, Fawlty Towers, The Office: they’re about people who are wretchedly and eternally trapped, whether by social class or family or their own ineradicable ineptitude. Why is the best Blackadder series Blackadder Goes Forth? Because, by some miracle, it extracts hilarity from the trenches.
As well as tragedies, these great comedies are farces, at least in the sense that they demonstrate the absurdity of both human behaviour and fate. Farce may be a pejorative term, but in the end farce reflects life more truthfully than any other art form, because life itself is farcical. Even the cruellest, least funny elements of it can be farcical. A relative of mine is undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumour. The doctors have given her pills to stop her vomiting. The trouble is, she keeps vomiting them up. There’s nothing amusing about that. But it is farce. It’s the dark, heartless irony of the universe.
Dark, heartless irony is the key of all those great sitcoms I mentioned. Two of them, incidentally — Steptoe & Son and Hancock’s Half Hour — were written by the same duo: Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Both OBE. Nothing higher.
It’s not just the honours system that undervalues comedy. Comic actors tend not to win Oscars. Comic novelists tend not to win the Booker: just three — Kingsley Amis, DBC Pierre and Howard Jacobson — in 42 years. (Amis, as it happens, did get knighted, in 1990, although this was probably more for being noisily pro-Thatcher than for writing funny books.) Perhaps the arts are ruled by a junta of the humourless, who think making jokes is easy. They should try it.
Comedians might not care.After all, they get plentiful other rewards — sex, money, fame. But they’re needy and neurotic (that’s what made them want to be comedians in the first place), and so, in return for a career devoted to mocking vanity and self-importance, they ache for a trip to the Palace and a title to impress waiters with. Look at Forsyth. Time and again journalists ask him whether he’s upset not to have been knighted, and time and again he puts an unconvincing brave face on it. ‘If [the CBE] is as far as it goes, that’s as far as it goes,’ he said on Piers Morgan’s chat show last March. ‘A knighthood would be nice for the family, though.’
If they give him it now, after all his years of public hoping, it will probably be more out of pity than admiration. Poor old Brucie, they’ll think. Here, have a prize. You know, like on one of your silly TV shows.