Being Silly and Laughing in the Face of Disaster

Photograph by Joshua Earle, via

Photograph by Joshua Earle, via

by Tom Hodgkinson

“You’re a poo-poo head, Daddy,” the little ones say to me, and titter. The substitution of words with the word “poo,” and indeed the word’s liberal use in any sentence, is, as has been observed by the semiologist Gregory Rowland, a cornerstone of the wit of small children. But they’re right, it’s funny. Children love to play with words, they love jokes, and most jokes are based around puns or wordplay. And they love pulling faces and tumbling and making farty noises. And so do I. [I]t’s wonderful to have kids as an excuse to be able to express all that silliness again. Human beings are naturally fun-loving, but we lose this instinct as we grow older, serious and businesslike. Kids remind us of the things that really matter.

Children also seem to possess an innate delight in the rupturing of everyday order. Put the wrong word in a sentence and they will guffaw helplessly. They also love it when things go wrong in the adult word, when, as Penny Rimbaud would put it, “consensual reality breaks down.” That is the reason for their fascination with fire engines—somewhere the ordered universe of the grown-ups has gone kaput. In the same way that some people love a road accident and will crowd around the scene of the crash offering advise, so kids love it when the clock-bound parental systems grind to a halt. That, after all, is when the natural humanity and generosity of people emerge. Disasters can be a sort of liberation from the grim efficiency of industrial capitalism. When my brother and I were growing up, one of our favorite stories was about the time we had to be rescued from the rocky coast of North Devon by helicopter, because my dad had got the tide times wrong. And indeed I can remember that incident almost perfectly, even today, such was the intense pleasure of that rapture. Another time we were on a skiing holiday and my brother and I went each morning on our own to buy a Fanta. One morning my brother dropped his glass on the floor, smashing it into tiny pieces. We looked up at the café owner expecting to be told off. But instead he gave a huge bellowing laugh, a wonderful and entirely correct response to mess. I am always getting angry with Henry for spilling things. But wouldn’t it be better to laugh at the mess? Getting angry doesn’t help to clear it up.

They say that children like routine, but do they? The times that stand out for me from my childhood are the times when the routine was broken: fire alarms at school, broken glass, the stray match that landed in the fireworks box, cars breaking down. Broken routines add intensity to life. I am slowly learning from my own children to enjoy disasters when they happen. One Christmas Eve last year my van broke down on a roundabout when we were on our way to visit relatives. I was on my own with three kids in the back and no cell phone. I suffered a moment of irritation, but what followed was in fact quite enjoyable. We walked over the roundabout to the gas station, where the staff let me use their phone to call the towing service. The children had a McDonald’s milk shake and fries, and rare treat in this anti-consumerist family. Back in the van, by pure chance, someone I knew from home, a hundred miles away, saw us and pulled over to help. He towed us off the roundabout and out of danger. Then the tow-truck driver arrived. And the police. And then Victoria, who was traveling in the other car. It was quite a party down there on the Hazelgrove roundabout on the A303. I met lots of people and had a good time. And I came away with a good story to tell. When I mention that I’d broken down to adults at parties, they put on a sympathetic face, automatically assuming it was a “nightmare”…but I’d put them right and explain what enormous fun the whole thing can be. Somehow, in the middle of disaster, you give yourself up to Providence and delight in the failure on man’s plans. And it was the children who taught me how to enjoy it. I distinctly remember making the deliberate choice to view the incident as an adventure rather than an insupportable inconvenience. I looked at the situation from their point of view and saw a story, a tale, an expedition. The secret is to not take life too seriously but to laugh at it all the time, as children do. That way lies the strength to cope with hardships.

Excerpted from The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson, Tarcher/Penguin, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House. © 2010