Holiday Snapshots

Cordoba is, or feels like, a happy town, and its people are good at existing in public space. Because, for much of the year, it’s warm enough to wander around comfortably, hanging around on the street is not confined to teenagers, and therefore is not seen as disreputable by those who have their own homes to go to. Everyone seems to be out on a Sunday afternoon, dressed up smartly and walking along the esplanade.

The Mezquita-Catedral sits on a flat plinth, so that its big square warehouse form could be accommodated on a sloping site. Where the plinth hits the street, it forms a high ledge, four or five feet above the pavement. Opposite the Mezquita, there’s a bar called Los Santos. There is barely any space inside so people spill out of it onto the street, clutching plastic cups of beer and big yellow slabs of potato omelette just a little paler than the crumbly stone of the Mezquita’s gigantic wall. Couples stand against the ledge as though it were a bar. Teenagers settle around it like flocks of birds, some sitting on the plinth, and some standing by it.

The other night there was a man on a bicycle with a couple of dogs – a little short-legged terrier and a taller, leggier one. He leant his bike against the wall of “Los Santos” and was served through the window. He teased the dogs by brandishing a half-empty bottle of water at them and squeezing it till it crackled. The terrier leapt up and seized it, and the man shook it around until (I guess) the terrier’s teeth lost purchase on the slippery plastic and it had to let go. Then he feinted theatrically with the bottle, while the dogs waited, agog; then finally sent it skeetering down the street. This time the longer-legged dog had the advantage, and got there first. The terrier tried to get it off him and the two of them squabbled over it all the way back up to the bar.

Then a dad came out onto the street – a youngish man with a hefty black beard and a baby girl, of about nine months or so, the age when babies really want to walk, but haven’t quite got the strength or the motor skills to do it. He walked her along the street, her chubby legs under a short pink dress planting themselves down almost by accident, like those of a marionette. Then he swung her up by her hands, showing her nappy off to the world, and onto the plinth, so that she could believe that she was walking along it, as high as the crowd. Then he swung her down again and encouraged her to pet the dogs (who had left off the bottle fight for the moment). She was keen to approach them, lurching her unstable little person towards them, but just lost her bottle when she got really close, so that her dad had to pat the taller one’s head for her, just to show there was nothing to be scared of.

The man with the dogs finished his beer, mounted his bike and set off again. The dogs picked up the bottle and followed him at a trot, growling and whining at each other until they were out of sight.


Laughter and Identity

The other day, I burst out laughing in the Co-op because the store radio had started to play a certain song. As I paid for my groceries and stepped out into the street, I was aware that my expression was that of a person fresh from a conversation or embrace with an illicit lover: secretive, exultant and ever-so-slightly superior.

It related to my sister’s fortieth birthday party a couple of years ago. Late at night, the children and grandparents having retired, the only people left awake were my generation: my brother and sister, the two girls we grew up with*, and several partners. We decided it would be a good idea to record ourselves singing “Looking Back Over My Shoulder” by Mike and the Mechanics. Nobody knew the words. Nobody who knew how to play the guitar was sober enough to do so. It was utterly shambolic. But, oh, we did laugh.

Funny memories, of course, are first cousins of private jokes. Only a few people “get” them. If they had general appeal they wouldn’t be so highly prized by their chosen people. Like jargon, and tradition, jokes are all about tribe.

Whatever is about defining a tribe can sometimes change its focus and become about defining what is not tribe – creating a sense of inclusion by virtue of identifying the excluded. I think that’s why I don’t like stand-up. Firstly, because of its tense and gladiatorial culture: the comedian must create a sense of identity between himself and his audience by making them laugh, and if he does not – if they fail to admit him – then he may be subjected to jeering and abuse. Secondly, he sometimes creates that sense of shared identity by mocking those that are not present. Even though the days of racist jokes and mother-in-law jokes are hopefully behind us, I still find this distasteful. It reminds me much too much of school, where mockery is used as a weapon and the amount of laughter relates not so much to the skill of the humorist, but their position in the playground hierarchy. It all reminds me much too much of the House of Commons, which is probably very reminiscent of the Playing Fields of Eton.

I idly followed a link to a clickbait site the other day advertising “11 jokes only smart people will get!” The jokes in question all made reference to some kind of academic concept – an example being “Your mum is so mean, she has no standard deviation!” and you didn’t need to be that clever to get them. All jokes require a certain amount of intellect to understand, because they require you to make some kind of connection – between the two meanings of the words in a pun, for example – but a joke that requires too much analysis is generally not immediate enough to be funny. What the jokes required wasn’t cleverness, but awareness of the concepts. In the example above, you don’t actually need to know what a mean or a standard deviation is. You only need to know that they’re different. The point of the list was to make people with a certain level of education think that they belonged to the Tribe of the Smart People. No wonder I, with my pathetic desire to belong, clicked on it.**

There’s a slight insincerity in the way I characterise my family’s happy evening of, ahem, music-making: we aren’t always like that. Though we are excessively fond of one another, we are all volatile and argumentative, and we have known each other a very long time. We squabbled as children and we flounced and slammed doors as teenagers. I could try to characterise our adult relationship, but it might well start an argument. At an early age these people were my tribe, the city from which I feared to be banished. My worst experiences constituted exclusion from it, and my greatest desire was to rest within its collective embrace.

Like staged photos, shared jokes and favourite memories remind us, not of what a relationship is really like most of the time, but of what we would like it to be. Or, put more positively, they celebrate the best of it.


*English, I have heard, is very poor in kinship terms. All of my adult life I have wanted there to be a term which indicates “the children of your mother’s close friend when you were all children”. It is a more specific relationship than “friend”, which has become an increasingly baggy term in the Facebook age. I have invented “pseudo-sister” which works for me, but I don’t think anyone else uses it. Perhaps German has got one.

** I did rather like “Pavlov is in his lab when the phone rings. He says ‘Oh, damn, I forgot to feed the dog.'”