Although I’ve been married to an English man more than sixteen years now, some aspects of the culture are still as clear as mud to me. A certain kind of humor (or “humour”), for example.
Last weekend we attended the second wedding of a dear friend, and my husband was asked to “speak” on behalf of the bride. It was a very intimate wedding – thirty people, give or take a few, and all of them family or very close friends. Both the bride and groom had difficult first marriages; there’s an example of English understatement for you. Let’s just say that the couple are bringing five children, two volatile ex-spouses, four weary parents and an awful lot of emotional baggage into this new relationship. Nearly everyone in attendance had been to either the bride's or the groom's first marriage.
It was our first “second” marriage, and the tone was less giddy expectation and more sober hopefulness – not to imply that the wedding was a teetotal affair. To the contrary, like marriage itself, it required no small measure of endurance. The bride’s first marriage had been in June, and it seemed like everyone was starting out with their adult lives; this one took place on a rather muted October day, which better suited our middle-aged selves.
We were, in many ways, a gathering of marriage veterans from the same company: all of us scarred to some extent, and most of us aware of the more bruising skirmishes of our fellows. So within this context, I begged my husband to keep his speech short, sweet and sincere. Although inappropriate humor is a typical element of these speeches, off-color jokes are such uncertain missiles. With so many raw nerves, I didn’t think it appropriate to risk hitting any.
Anyone who has seen Four Weddings and a Funeral will be aware of the apparently obligatory mortifications of the best man’s speech. It is more roast than toast, really. In the guise of celebrating the new bride and groom, the best man feels it is his duty to single-handedly lower the tone. The speech is not considered to be a success unless all of the members of the wedding party have been insulted and/or embarrassed in some way. I’ve never really understood this tradition, but perhaps it has something to do with the English fear of being earnest. Any possible flowering of emotion and sincerity really must be squashed.
Although the groom’s speech went a little close to the bone, and I doubt that the new husband of the matron-in-law was very happy about it, he was forgiven a certain amount of plain-speaking. Most people put it down to the fact that he is from Yorkshire. (Jokes about the difference between Northerners and Southerners? Also obligatory.) My husband was up next, and I’m happy to see that his words managed to be gently funny (and true) without actually being hurtful. But then came the best man’s speech . . . and oh my goodness. We talked about it all night, and I’m sure we will talk about it for years to come. I guess, from that point-of-view, it was a kind of success. It was also the most cringe-making speech that I’ve ever heard, with no taboo subject left uncovered. You know, rather vicious cracks about ex-wives really don’t go down that well when their teenage children are there to bear witness. The groom later told us that the best man had rejected a joke that went along these lines: The groom’s first wife (insert real name) was very temperamental. 50% temper and 50% mental. Truly, that would have been preferable to most of what he did include. No one laughed much; of course that was an embarrassment, too.
Not long ago, Dick was speculating about the nature of English humour over at his Patteran Pages. (I wonder if he could explain the best man's speech?) Dick listed several examples of jokes which really tickle him – and although I could kind of see that they were funny, none of them made me laugh. Not properly laugh, anyway. I was reminded, instead, of the occasion several years ago when we attended a Christmas Pantomime with my parents and my mother-in-law. The panto style of humor is rigorously formulaic: either sexual double-entendre or slapstick silliness. My English husband and his mother howled with laughter throughout the performance, while my parents and I were left stony-faced and slightly embarrassed.
Sometimes, there really is no translation.
Hopefully not lost in translation: I'm not really a shoe person, but I happily submitted to the "shoe quiz" administered by Dan, from The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes. Dan's blog highlights the best of creative Twitter -- but he made an exception for me, as I'm not a Twitterer, either. You can hear Dan read from his work at The Albion Beatnik Bookshop in Oxford at 6 pm on October 29.