Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Elfriede Jelinek

My daughter recently introduced me to Elfriede Jelinek.  It was not so much a recommendation as a complaint.  Having run out of subjects that interested her she was forced to study postmodern literature to complete her major.  Jelinek's Women as Lovers was on the reading list.  I said it sounded interesting.  She handed it to me and said "it's all yours".

It was interesting, too.  Jelinek is a Viennese novelist and plawright, largely unknown outside the German-speaking world until the 2004 Nobel Literature Prize thrust her reluctantly into the global spotlight.  The Nobel judges cited her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clich├ęs and their subjugating power."

I suppose that's one way of putting it.  Women as Lovers, written in 1974 but not translated into English until 20 years later, is a parody of the romance novel.  It traces the courtships of two women.  Brigitte, a poor factory seamstress, pursues Heinz, a young electrician destined for modest financial success in his own electrical business.  Paula, an apprentice dressmaker, chases after Erich, a dashingly handsome forestry worker.

This is no Jane Austen romance though.  The men try to avoid marriage if at all possible and are finally forced into it via pregnancy.  Paula dreams of love, learnt from cheap magazines, but ends up married to a violent, stupid alcoholic and living in her parents' spare bedroom listening to them saying "we told you so".  Brigitte has no expectation of love - indeed, she hates Heinz more and more bitterly as the courtship progresses - but wants to get her hands on the family crockery and earn the right to evict her parents-in-law from their own home.  These two women are far from unique - their community is a collection of violent, exploitive and bitter relationships.  Alcoholic men beat their wives and children, the children escape into marriages where they either beat or are beaten.  The bleakness is only relieved by the iron discipline of Jelinek's prose, her spare, short sentences and caustic wit.

If it was not for this prose, and the date of composition, I would have gone no further.  The world in which women have so few options is rapidly fading.  Women as Lovers is little more than an historical curio for a young woman like my daughter, but I am old enough to remember that it was such feminist tracts that pushed the very changes which make her able to dismiss them so easily.  So I read on.

The bleak family relations of Women as Lovers re-appear in The Piano Teacher (published in 1983), but they are a kind of background noise, emotional wallpaper for something altogether more disturbing.  The Piano Teacher is a parody of another staple of romantic fiction, the affair between a young man and an older woman.  The woman is supposed to gently teach the boy the art of love and then just as gently release him back into normal life, transformed from a boy into a man.

The older woman in Jelinek's recasting of this tale is Erika Kohut, who teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory.  Trapped in a suffocating relationship with her mother (they sleep in the same bed, despite Erika being in her 30's), Erika escapes through sordid and sometimes dangerous acts of voyeurism and agonising self-harm.  This troubled woman is pursued by her student Walter Klemmer, who is fascinated by the idea of overcoming his stern teacher's reserve. 

Eventually, Erika gives in, but the result is not what either of them expects.  I'll spare you the brutal details.  Suffice to say that Walter mainly learns the depths of cruelty to which he is capable of sinking, while Erika's fragile mental health is shattered. 

The fact that Jelinek is such a gifted writer only makes the novels worse.  If she wrote badly, I could have just stopped reading.  Instead, the delights of her prose drew me on.  I was sucked into the claustrophobic mental worlds of her characters, and even as I cringed at their callous selfishness I wondered, is this what life is really like?  Is this what Jelinek thinks it's like?  Is her own marriage like this?  Were her parents this abusive?  If she has children, are they safe?

So now I'm struggling up for air.  I'm reminding myself that my parents really did love me, that I have a healthy marriage, that I have left my children free to work and marry as they choose.  I am reminding myself that most of my friends and family are the same.  I am reminding myself that the realities of domestic violence and child abuse are aberrations, not the norm.  Because if the world depicted so skillfully and passionately in these pages is the real world, I want out.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Size Does Matter

As I was making my lunch today, I noticed the label on the margarine container (pictured).  It occured to me to ask - why are the large bold words "Lowers Cholesterol" followed by the small-type word "absorption"?

I'm sure you don't need me to labour the answer.  The message the Unilever marketing department wants me to get from the package is not the literal meaning of the words, even though these are actually the truth.  They want me to get the much more hopeful (but untrue) message in bold type.

Meanwhile, having survived floods, cyclones and the GFC, the Queensland Labor Party is faced with what may be the biggest disaster of them all, a landslide at the March 24 State election.  Forecasts indicate mass unemployment for current Labor members of parliament.

Cue the arrival of some marketing material from my local MP, Simon Finn.  Mr Finn's name and smiling face loom large on the flyer, listening carefully to local constituents, acting on local issues and claiming credit for things like new bus routes (oddly, since these are delivered by the Brisbane City Council), kindergartens and schools. 

Meanwhile, some other things are in very small print.  Like the Labor Party logo, and the photo of Premier Anna Bligh flying her helicopter over a flooded landscape.  Notably, she does not appear in any pictures with Mr Finn.

I think you can see where I'm going with this.  Simon Finn wants me to see the message in the large print and pictures.  He is a great guy who helps local people.  This is quite possibly true - I'm not sure since I've never actually met him.  Nonetheless, he is duty bound to include the full context of this information even if it does appear in small print.  He is a Labor Party member, the party led by Anna Bligh whose approval rating is currently hovering at 41%.

Sadly for Mr Finn, most of his constituents understand the trick.  Flora Pro-Activ will not lower my cholesterol, only its rate of absorption.  Simon Finn is a Labor member of parliament.  However much he cares about his community he will vote with his party at all times.  Even more sadly, given that the alternative is the rather absurd Liberal-National party, he may well be buried in March's landslide.  The size of your caucus definitely does matter.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Language of God

I first heard of Francis Collins in Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain, where his faith journey served as a contrast for Shermer's own journey from evangelical Christianity to atheism.  The Language of God is Collins' own telling of that story, along with his reflections on the relationship between science and faith.

Collins is famous for his role as the director of the Human Genome Project, in which a host of geneticists pooled their efforts to develop a complete map of the human genome.  He is also a committed evangelical Christian, and this makes him something of a poster boy for the idea that Christianity and science can be compatible.  After all, if such a distinguished scientist is also a believer then faith must be smart.

The Language of God opens with his own description of his conversion.  Brought up in a non-religious household, he more or less drifted into atheism as the default option for a budding scientist, before his switch to medicine brought him into direct contact with the faith of his patients and challenged his own unbelief.  His growing dissatisfaction with atheism led to a long investigation of the basis for belief. 

Two things stand out as lying behind his decision to become a believer.  One is his conviction that his seeking God was in itself evidence that such a being existed.  However, by far the greatest justification behind his faith seems to have been the idea of the Moral Law as explained by CS Lewis - the idea that all humans have a shared sense of right and wrong and that this points to an absolute moral standard built into the cosmos by its Creator.  Finally, his moment of conversion came amidst an emotional experience of the beauty of nature.

The voice of Lewis permeates this book, along with that of Augustine of Hippo.  However, it seems the main reason he ended up a Christian, rather than a Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, is because when he sought God the people on hand to help him with this quest were Christians.  He expresses a great deal of appreciation for the wisdom of these alternative faiths even as he maintains his preference for his own.

You will notice that none of his reasons for believing have anything to do with science.  He was not convinced of God's existence by scientific evidence, and is clear no such proof is possible.  Instead, his aim in the main part of this book is more modest - he merely sets out to demonstrate that science doesn't disprove the claims of religion.

He thus criticises three positions which dominate the debate on the interface between science and religion.  The first is the "strong" atheist position of the likes of Dawkins and Dennett.  The problem with these thinkers, he says, is that they refute a "straw man" version of religion, and overclaim on the scientific evidence.

The second position he refutes is that of young earth creationism, and he attacks it from two angles.  Firstly, he is quite clear that to accept this view is to reject the findings of almost every branch of science we have including physics, cosmology, geology, biology, and his own field of genetics.  Secondly, he calls on Augustine as chief witness to the notion that belief in a young earth was never seen as essential to the understanding of Genesis.  The accounts of creation can be understood poetically, allegorically or theologically and were never intended to be the basis for a science lesson.

More interestingly, he also rejects the "softer" view of creation embodied in the intelligent design movement and the ideas of irreducable complexity championed by John Lennox among others.  A key problem with the idea of irreducable complexity is that scientists are already finding ways to reduce it, squeezing the "God of the gaps" into a tinier and tinier space with each new discovery.  Secondly, in his view intelligent design fails as science - it leads to no hypotheses which can be tested by further experimentation, and so is a scientific dead end.

So if none of these popular responses to the intersection of science and religion are tenable, what is a believing scientist to do?  Collins' answer is the idea of "theistic evolution", which in true Dawkins/Dennet style he christens with a new term, Biologos.  This view, he says, receives little airplay in the public debates about science and religion, but is actually the view of most believing scientists.  All the evidence for the origin and age of the cosmos, the process of evolution, the descent of humanity, and the relatedness of living creatures is accepted as valid scientific knowledge.  These are the mechanisms by which the Creator brought the creation into being.  They are open to investigation by humans and we should rejoice in these investigations.  Religion does not attempt to answer these scientific questions, but rather to answer questions of meaning and purpose - why is there something rather than nothing, what is our purpose in life, how should we live?

So, interestingly, he ends up in much the same spot as the atheist Stephen Jay Gould with his "non-overlapping magisteria".  Science is the means for investigating the natural world, religion is the means for understanding moral and spiritual questions.  Science will neither prove or disprove religion because it is about something different. 

I took an instant liking to Collins, with his modest outlook, his tolerance of difference, his desire for harmony between science and religion, and his compassion for those who suffer.  He also made me think again about apologetics.  It seems to me that the purpose of apologetics is not to convince, but to support.  It may be that belief is reasonable, but Collins will only get as far as convincing you that it is not unreasonable.  Conversion (or indeed deconversion), as Collins himself experienced, comes from other sources - from our search for an emotional centre, our encounters with other people, our apprehension of beauty.  It is a largely intuitive process.  Reason comes later.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Tower of Babel

The final fall story in Genesis is the story of the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11:1-9.  Here it is.

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Unlike the earlier stories, here we are leaving the "dreamtime" environment and starting to enter the realm of history.  The story has an identifiable place - Babylonia or Shinar - and highlights a historical conflict, although this isn't all it does.  It carries echoes of both the universal rebellion of the flood story, and the hubris of the Garden of Eden with humans tempted to challenge God.

The story is located in Babylon, but the name of that city, which in Akkadian means "gate of god", is parodied with a pun on the Hebrew word "balil", meaning confusion.  The tower which is at the centre of the story is the Etemenanki Ziggurat in Babylon, a 91m tall temple built in typical Sumerian style.  In Babylonian mythology, this temple was built at the centre of the world, on the axis of the universe, and served as a bridge between heaven and earth.  Ordinary mortals were not permitted to ascend to the shrine at its summit, but the King and the High Priest would go on their behalf to sacrifice at the shrine and, for all mere mortals knew, speak face to face with the supreme god Marduk.

The original of this temple may have been built as early as the 14th century BCE, but was destroyed by the Assyrians in 689 BCE and rebuilt by the Neo-Babylonians in the late 7th century.  Given the history of composition of Genesis, the final form of this story could date from either period, but perhaps the destruction suggests a later period.

Either way, it is clear that the Hebrew authors are not as impressed with the mighty ziggurat as the Babylonans would like them to be.  The story implicitly accepts the Babylonian explanation of their temple as a bridge to the heavens, but does not accept the corollary - that all the peoples of the earth should be united in revering it.  Instead, its creation is seen as an act of presumption, as a threat to the LORD's sovereignty.  Perhaps we see here a kind of heavenly rivalry, with the Hebrew God YHWH (rendered here as the LORD in accordance with Hebrew scribal tradition) challenging the Babylonian Marduk and defeating him. 

However, it is also a comment on the human desire for domination, the drive for empire.  The Babyonian vision is for one people, one language, one nation and one religion.  It can sound attractive, but the LORD is not convinced.  "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."  This much power and dominance can only be dangerous, and the LORD puts a stop to it, destroying the tower and spreading confusion and diversity.

I have mentioned that each fall story carries a hope of redemption.  After humans are evicted from the Garden, the LORD teaches them to make clothes.  After the flood comes the rainbow, after Cain is outed as a murderer he is given the mark of the LORD's protection.  In this case redemption is at the heart of the story, not tacked onto the end.  Empires are all very well for the elite who control them, but for the little people who are controlled they spell trouble.  The message of hope here is that their power will never be absolute.  No matter how dominant they may seem, the LORD is greater than them, and can confound them at will.  The little people need not despair.

The warning applies to all our empires. I could talk about the Greeks who attempted to impose their own worship in Jerusalem in the second century, about the Romans, so graphically compared to the Babylonians in the Book of Revelation, even the empire builders of Jerusalem trying to impose their temple worship on the surrounding communities.  Instead, maybe we should think about our own behaviour.  The English conquerors of Australia, including the Christian missionaries, attempted to enforce their own culture and language on the 500 Aboriginal nations of Australia, settling them in missions, providing them with tailored clothes, educating them in English and trying to prevent the continuation of traditional rituals and customs.  Even now, education in traditional languages is subject to regular attacks because it doesn't prepare children for the "real world".  Is this the world of the LORD, or is it the world of Babylon?

Monday, 13 February 2012

A Heart Needs a Home

For the past couple of weeks I've been obsessing about Richard and Linda Thompson, and in particular their beautiful song A Heart Needs a Home.

Richard and Linda first met around 1969.  Richard was already famous as the guitarist and sometime songwriter with folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention, his guitar playing reportedly the reason for their initial recording contract.  Linda, then performing as Linda Peters, was a struggling singer,  recording advertising jingles and doing folk club gigs in the evenings.

In 1971 Richard left Fairport, seeking more scope for his own songwriting.  In between earning his living as a session player he recorded his first album, Henry the Human Fly, with a band that included Linda as a backing vocalist.  By the end of 1972 the couple were married and officially performing as a duet.  Richard had found his muse and Linda her voice and a set of songs to sing.  Of course it was not an entirely equal partnership.  Richard wrote the songs, played guitar and shared the singing.  Linda merely sang.  Still, her beautiful clear contralto enabled Richard's songs to go to places they never would have if he was writing for himself.  None of his solo work sounds like this.

Then something else happened.  Early in 1974 Richard, and perhaps also Linda, converted to Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam.  This was no shallow, whimsical flirtation with religion.  From 1975 to 1977 they withdrew from the music industry and lived on a Sufi commune.  While Linda was less enthusiastic than her husband (commenting later that the main thing she learnt in the commune was to stay away from cults) Richard remains an active Muslim to this day.

Not that you'd necessarily know it.  Unlike his more famous contemporary Cat Stevens, Richard neither changed his name nor wrote overtly religious songs.  Yet you can hear a subtle change in his songwriting as his faith deepened.  Earlier offerings were in the maudlin tradition of the English folk ballads he had helped Fairport Convention to transform, like The Poor Ditching Boy.

I was looking for trouble to tangle my line
But trouble came looking for me
I knew I was standing on treacherous ground
I was sinking too fast to run free

With her scheming, idle ways
She left me poor enough
The storming wind cut through to my skin
But she cut through to my blood

Soon however, he adopted the Sufi method of writing to Allah as a lover.  As a result, the songs can be heard as simple love songs.  The couple's "coming out" album, Pour Down Like Silver, contains many such songs.  Its centrepiece, Night Comes In, carries all the longing of mystical worship and, for those who know, the Sufi tradition of sacred dance as as a medium for mystical union.  The closer, Dimming of the Day, one of the most covered of Richard's extensive catalogue, evokes the sorrow of separation shot through with the hope of future reconciliation. Allah is never mentioned and the songs could simply be sung of a human lover.  Yet the love was purer, more holy, than anything they had sung before.

No song expresses this love and longing more directly and simply than one of the first, A Heart Needs a Home, recorded on their earlier album Hokey Pokey amidst other, more worldly offerings.

I know the way that I feel about you
I’m never going to run away
I’m never going to run away
Never knew the way when I lived without you
I’m never going to run away
I’m never going to run away

I came to you when no one could hear me
I’m sick and weary of being alone
Empty streets and hungry faces
The world’s no place when you’re on your own
A heart needs a home

Some people say that I should forget you
I’m never going to be a fool
I’m never going to be a fool
A better life, they say, if I’d never met you
I’m never going to be a fool
I’m never going to be a fool

Tongues talk fire and eyes cry rivers
Indian givers, hearts of stone
Paper ships and painted faces
The world’s no place when you’re on your own
A heart needs a home

They could be singing this song to each other, that beautiful serene couple seemingly oblivious to anything beyond the song they are singing.  Or they could be singing it to their God, lost in contemplation of things too holy for this world.  Perhaps Linda sang to Richard while Richard sang to Allah. 

It was too good to last.  Perhaps it was never really that good.  The religion that liberated Richard oppressed Linda, a reluctant convert pressured into a subordinate role by the leaders of the community.  By 1982 their marriage had disintegrated, its painful last rites acted out on stage in their final tour.  Linda literally lost her voice and has only sung intermittently since,  afflicted by dysphonia brought on by the stress of the breakup.  Richard kept on writing and recording to continuing acclaim, but his acerbic bite and pessimistic gloom returned.

Yet songs have a life of their own.  Time passes, people change, what was true once can be true again.  We look for love in all sorts of places, and we are often disappointed, but it takes a lot to make us give up.

Jet plane in a rocking chair
Roller coaster roll nowhere
Deaf and dumb old dancing bear
I'll change this heart of mine
This time, this time

Sea cruise in a diving bell
Run a mile in a wishing well
Soft soap and nothing to sell
I'll change this heart of mine
This time, this time

Here comes the real thing
I've been waiting, for so long
For so long
I've been looking for a love like you.

(If you like, you can read more about Richard and Linda Thompson here.)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Cain and Abel

Sandwiched between the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden and the story of Noah and the flood is a very different kind of fall story - the story of Cain and Abel.  Here's the story as it appears in Genesis 4.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

10 The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

15 But the LORD said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

This scene contains some similarities to the Adam and Eve story, but there are also some obvious differences.  The LORD is still the same person-like figure who appears in the Garden of Eden, "walking in the garden in the cool of the evening", but the human race is more extensive, allowing Cain to both fear retribution and find a wife. 

We generally think of this as the story of the first murder.  However, murder is not Cain's original sin, it is a consequence of it.  His original sin is to offer the LORD the wrong kind of sacrifice.  While his brother Abel offers "fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock", Cain offers some of his crops and is rejected. 

What's going on here?  At first sight it seems unfair.  Cain is an agriculturalist, Abel is a pastoralist, both bring the LORD some of their produce.  Nor is this simply a foreshadowing of later Levitical regulations - the Israelite sacrifical system included grain offerings alongside animal sacrifice.

I think perhaps we can see this story in the light of what Finkelstein and Silberman tell as about life in Bronze Age Palestine.  They tell the story of small, subsistence-oriented agricultural villages sharing the land with semi-nomadic groups of pastoralists.  We don't know a lot about these two groups, but they must have interacted, at least to trade crops for animals, perhaps also for mutual protection.  How distinct were these two groups?  Were they ethnically different?  Did they have differences in language and customs?

This story seems to point to the primacy of pastoralism in this relationship.  Even though it is acceptable to grow crops, it is not acceptable to offer them to the LORD.

After his original failure, Cain is offered not one but two chances at redemption.  First of all, the LORD assures him that his mistake is not terminal.  "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it."  He is not to be cast out for his mistake, he is simply warned - do better next time.

However, it is not that simple for Cain.  Perhaps it is simply sibling rivalry but more seems at stake than that.  Cain is being put into a situation of dependence on, and subjugation to, his brother Abel.  Abel can offer his own produce to the LORD.  Cain must obtain an animal from Abel - no doubt in exchange for the produce of his garden. 

Cain finds this intolerable.  Perhaps it's symbolic that Abel is lured into the field, the subject of the dispute, in order to be killed, and ironic that Cain subsequently disclaims all knowledge by asking "am I my brother's keeper?"  What would his nomadic pastoralist brother be doing in the field?  How would Cain know where he has wandered to now?  Yet as in the Garden, nothing can be hidden from the LORD.  It is also perhaps ironic that now it is is Cain who is turned into a wanderer, unable to till the earth.  After killing Abel, it is almost as if he takes his place.

Yet even now, Cain does not receive the full penalty for his crime.  He is cast out from the LORD's presence to wander in the wide world.  Yet he is also offered the LORD's protection.  The famous "mark of Cain" is not a mark of his shame, so much as a mark of his favour.  "Whoever kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over".   Cain suffers the consequences of his sin, but is not robbed of God's care.  This is not the harsh, vengeful God of the Deluge, but much closer to the patient, persevering God of the Garden and of later Jewish and Christian tradition.  The tension between these two views is played out throughout the Old and New Testaments and is already here in the earliest stories of the Torah.

And perhaps like Adam and Eve, Cain is also us.  Condemned to wander, struggling to wrench our living from an uncaring earth, fearful of our fellow humans, we can still rely on God's protection and care wherever we wander.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Drugs Free

Long ago, but not very far away, I was asked to cast my eye over the advertising poster for a youth event organised by my employer, and sponsored by the Queensland Health Department's anti-drug campaign.  They wanted a proof-read.  The names, location, dates and times were fine, but along the bottom it had a tag.

Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs free.

I burst out laughing, and asked the organisers if they really wanted it to say that.  They laughed too, and rang their contact in Queensland Health.  Yes, they really did want it to say that.  They were baffled.  What was the problem?  This tag-line went on everything they put out.  We laughed some more, and the posters went out as they were.

At the time, I wondered if perhaps I was just a little bit too pedantic.  Now, however, I blame my youthful exposure to British television comedy.  My parents were big fans of any funny person with a British accent.  Political correctness had not yet been invented and so sexism and racism ran riot and it did indeed corrupt me. 

We watched Dave Allen, the Irishman who sat in his chair in front of the camera and told jokes, just as if he was sitting in your lounge-room.  I remember the one about Rev. Ian Paisley getting more and more excited as he preached hellfire on sinners and Catholics.

"And they will be cast into the outer darkness where there will be great weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth."

A little old woman in the front row piped up timidly, "But I don't have any teeth...".


Allen didn't go in all that much for double meanings but Benny Hill more than made up for it.  We watched Hill's show religiously.  Lots of it revolved around boobs and buttocks, but his funniest moments involved extremely silly situations leavened by ridiculous puns.   Like Ernie, who drove the fastest milk-cart in the west

She said she'd like to bathe in milk, he said, "All right, sweetheart,"
And when he'd finished work one night he loaded up his cart.
He said, "D'you want it pasturize? 'Cause pasturize is best,"
She says, "Ernie, I'll be happy if it comes up to my chest."

Or the sweet romanticism of "Garden of Love".

Now there’s a beetroot for the day you said that you’d beetroot to me
A sweet pea for the sweet way you always smiled at me
But you had friends who needed you
There was Ferdy, there was Liza
So, just for them, I put down a load of ferdy-liza

The sun and the rain fell from up above
And landed on the earth below
In my garden of love

Or if you can still stand more check out his gig as a German professor lecturing on English culture.   But I think his best moment is a few brief seconds where he is embracing a woman in a darkened alley and she asks him passionately, "What is this thing called, love?"

However,this post wasn't really inspired by either of those comedians but by The Two Ronnies, appearing as their alter-egos Big Jim Jehosophat and Fat Belly Jones complete with the worst mimed guitar playing in television history.  As well as the glorious "It Blows My Mind" ("And when the wind is blowing from behind..."), they sang a song called "We Knew What She Meant".

She invited the preacher to her house they say
She said, "It's a party, I'm nineteen today.
Ma bought me a dress and a bonnet so cute
So come round and see me in my birthday suit."

We knew what she meant, we knew what she meant
We heard what she said but we knew what she meant.

Take that, Queensland Health!