Comic life

“Alec, would you see to that?”

”I’ll do it directly.”

My grandfather’s answer to my grandmother was familiar. Organised, focused, tidy, my grandmother liked things done in a systematic manner, she liked tasks completed, she liked planning and order. A gentle, eirenic, conciliatory man, my grandfather would agree to whatever request was made with the usual enigmatic response, “I’ll do it directly.”

Literalist in childhood days, I always thought it meant that my grandmother’s wish would receive immediate attention. Only with the passing years did I realise that “directly” meant directly after he had done everything else he intended, so might not be done at all.

“I’ll do it directly” was a private joke, a humorous dismissal of my grandmother’s hectoring approach, although he would never have admitted to assuming such an attitude. To suggest his words were a joke would have been to lose their subtlety, and their capacity to maintain domestic harmony.

My grandfather never seemed to suffer angst about anything, life was lived with a sanguine, good humour. Setbacks were something at which to smile, for what other response was possible? If a small farmer became downcast at every difficulty, then life would have been filled with gloom. To joke was a realistic response to the experience of daily life.

Had my grandfather been someone who listened to rock music, the lines of Bob Dylan’s All along the watchtower might have  resonated with with his quiet stoical attitude:

“No reason to get excited
The thief he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate.”

The reflection on life as a joke was not something that originated with 1960s song lyrics. In Christian tradition, holy foolishness was regarded as a virtue. Dante’s description of life as “commedia” became The Divine Comedy. The Russian writer Dostoevsky took up the theme of the holy fool in The Idiot. If spiritual and literary writers could think life was a joke, then my grandfather stood in a centuries long tradition.

Perhaps the number of those who agree with Bob Dylan’s lyrics has increased, for what other response can there be to the stories that daily appear on the television news? My grandfather listened to the news on the wireless each morning, lunchtime and evening. He would have shook his head as he went out the door, going out to do things directly.

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