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Memo to self: don’t tell Bernard Manning gags

Blog | By Matthew Norman | Jan 11, 2024

‘Do you reckon,’ I enquired on a visit to my wife in bucolic Dorset, ‘that this is an early sign of frontal-lobe dementia?’

Rebecca, who underscored her high intelligence and flawless judgement by vacating the marital home 13 years ago, pondered this.

I had prefaced the question with a report, laden with gasps of disbelieving self-hatred and flashes of the face from the Munch painting, of a recent incident over dinner with a friend, his partner and the latter’s twentysomething daughter.

On hearing the word ‘pumpkin’ in the context of Halloween, I said, ‘That reminds me of a joke. But I can’t tell it. That would be wildly inappropriate.’

The relief was unmistakable. Of course it was. You can’t tell vulgar jokes in decent company these days, least of all in the presence of civilised young people. Any dunce knows that. You just can’t.

For reasons best devolved to a psychiatric conference, I mistook the palpable relief for a cue to continue.

‘Cinderella’s going to the ball,’ I intoned in the gravelly tones of a northern club comic not wholly unredolent of Bernard Manning.

‘The stepmother says, “You must be home by 12. If you’re not–” No, no, I’m stopping there.’

A second gale of relief, many rungs higher up the Beaufort scale from the first, blew across the table. No one on nodding terms with sanity could have misinterpreted the mood.

‘ “If you’re not back by midnight,” ’ I went on, ‘ ‘‘your fanny will turn into a pumpkin.” No, I’ve gone way too far already. I’m so sorry. I will now fall silent.’

So I did. For two or three seconds.

‘There she is at the ball, and she meets this fella. Ooh, a right handsome bastard.

‘ “What’s your name?” he says.

‘ “Cinderella. What’s yours?”

‘ “Prince Peter the Pumpkin-Eater. What time do you have to be home?”

‘ “Not till dawn.” ’

Downcast eyes and cheeks blanched by the draining of blood (a cute contrast with mine, blushing electric crimson) greeted the punchline.

‘I don’t know how even to begin to apologise,’ I murmured. ‘I think it must be an illness.’

No one demurred at the time, though a week later Rebecca was unconvinced. ‘Why do you think it’s frontal-lobe dementia?’ she asked.

‘Because disinhibition on this scale is a classic symptom.’

‘Do you think I had frontal-lobe dementia when we had dinner with ******?’ she asked. That memorable night, a couple of decades ago, a friend mentioned a new girlfriend. When he named her, Rebecca let out an elongated ‘uuuuggggghhhhhh’ of disgust.

Her reaction was so spectacularly divorced from normality that she got away with it unscathed. It was like Basil Fawlty opening the biscuit tin to reveal the rat. The hotel inspector couldn’t compute that this had happened, and so let it pass.

But that was different. Rebecca hadn’t seen the juggernaut headlights from 500 yards away and knowingly driven into them. Hers was a purely reflex response, not a wilful act of social suicide.

She took the point. ‘OK, but you can’t have had frontal-lobe dementia when you were 16.’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’

‘The dwarf,’ she replied. ‘I’m talking about the dwarf.’

Of all the myriad misdeeds and grotesque faux pas that take turns in flashing to mind when I wake in anguish at 4.30am, not long before the grinning Cinders gets home, this is among the worst.

The recital of that joke, the latest addition to the roster, barely makes the top hundred. But the New Year’s Eve party of 1980 at my godparents’ house (mentioned on this page long ago, and reiterated here in another futile stab at expiation) is right up there jostling for a Champions League slot.

Efforts to chat up this enchanting little person were going well enough to raise hopes of pre-Auld Lang Syne intimacy when I leant suavely back on my chair – and tipped over my godmother’s most prized pot plant.

‘I have to fix this or she’ll kill me,’ I said. ‘I think the tools are in the garage.’ On reaching it, with the young woman in attendance, I picked up a garden hoe.

I saw the lights of the approaching juggernaut and trembled with terror at the prospect of impact. But it couldn’t be averted.

I put the implement over a shoulder, and sang ‘Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go.’ Perhaps understandably, the young woman looked horrified. I didn’t know what to say.

I did know exactly what not to say.

I said it. ‘I feel,’ I said, powerless to stifle it, ‘just like one of the Seven Dwarfs.’

‘So do I,’ she said, very quietly.

I didn’t stay long after that. Unlike Cinderella, I was home before midnight, unsmiling and celebrating the new year with nothing for company but the shamed resolution henceforth to be a more restrained linguist, if not necessarily a more cunning one.

Forty-three years on, on the cusp of turning 60, I think there is work to do yet.