In the 1440s, Poggio Bracciolini, one of the great humanists of the early Italian Renaissance—the age of Valla, Guarino and Niccoli—compiled a book of jests, which he called Facetiae. The jests of the Renaissance were the same as the fabliaux of the Middle Ages—in this field there was much more continuity than innovation, and the jests remained hugely popular throughout Europe, from Chaucer and Boccaccio, through Poggio, to Till Eulenspiegel and An Hundred Merrye Tales. The 19th of Poggio's facetiae runs as follows:
A beaker of wine was once brought to an Englishman at a banquet, and all present took their wine from it. And while the Englishman was putting it to his lips, he saw a dead fly in it, which he took out. Then, after having taken his drink, he replaced the dead fly in the wine. Asked why he did this, he replied: "I, personally, do not like flies in my wine, but how am I to know if some of you do not like them?"We can read this story in two ways. Does the Englishman lack common sense, or is he witty, ironical and idiosyncratic? There are no clues in the telling; and it is this compressed ambiguity that lends the story its particular piquancy. I, of course, read it in a favourable light. My Englishman—by which I mean, me—is ironical and idiosyncratic. He is difficult, rebarbative, satirical; he is the man to whom Hitler referred in conversation in 1941, a rare moment of praise:
They have an unexampled cheek, these English! It doesn't prevent me from admiring them. In this sphere, they still have a lot to teach us.It pleases me to think that these two Continentals never knew quite where they stood with the Englishman: they could never quite gauge his sincerity or irony. And here arises the spring of English comedy—the eternal ambivalence, the making of humour from discomfort, social awkwardness, and even unexpected aggression. Perhaps it is Poggio, and not Chaucer or other native purveyors of occasional and conventional bawdiness, who gives us our first taste of what I think of as the genius of English humour.
Tonight, Mrs. Roth and I attended a show—Simon Munnery's warm-up for his forthcoming stint at the Edinburgh Festival. Munnery, to me, is the perfect English comedian—discomfort, awkwardness, and unexpected aggression are all there intact. He has the talent of making his audience laugh with shock and embarrassment, as well as in sympathy. One anecdote in his free-associative stream recounted the decision to buy up a stack of Daily Mails from a newsagent, and consign the lot to a recycling-bin—a little act of local heroism. As a titter and muffled cheer went up from the audience—young, bohemian, leftist—Munnery snarled, 'It'll be the Guardian next time'. The audience roared: they had been nailed, numbered, and they were delighted.
Halfway through the set, he did some character-skits. He paused to note a previous review: 'the change of character is little more than a change of hat'. 'Well,' he replied, 'this one is more than a change of hat—I'm taking my glasses off'. Munnery exuded all the charm of the half-organized and haphazard: he bumbled into each skit without apparent order, promised more minutes at the end, seemed to forget lines, but forgot them hilariously, remembered that this wasn't the last song, that's the next one, so actually we've got ten more minutes, so don't clap after this one, well you can clap if you want, but don't leave, because there's another one after it, and so on. He sings a song about his dad getting him out of bed in the morning—'although the cold hard world is on your side, mummy is on mine'—and does a poem about London. It takes two and a half hours to drive across London, he reasons, and you can fly to Rome in an hour and a quarter, which makes Rome a suburb of London. The city becomes a horrifying presence, absorbing people and other towns alike. (In a previous show he flashed up a map of Britain, marked 'Greater London'.) He does a skit with Dysmas and Gestas, rendered as crude drawings on a board with moveable eyes and mouths, and bickering pathetically in the wake of Christ's deposition. (What is it that draws the Englishman to comedify Calvary?) He pulls apart Springsteen and Lennon lyrics with a delighted contempt. He does a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, the story ending with an imagined roomful of people enthusiastically chanting 'Science!' at different pitches—and the narrative seems motivated by a surreal and inexplicable anger. The rhythm of Munnery's comedy has an unpredictable logic, and an unsettling insouciance. I could readily have imagined him challenging his audience on the possible appropriateness of dead flies in wine.