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Radio review: Ian Hislop’s Oldest Jokes and The Failure of the Future

02 February 2024

BBC/Hat Trick

Many of the gags in Ian Hislop’s Oldest Jokes (Radio 4, weekdays of last week) were drawn from ecclesiastical history

Many of the gags in Ian Hislop’s Oldest Jokes (Radio 4, weekdays of last week) were drawn from ecclesiastical history

“THE old ones are the best.” If that were true, we would be rolling in the aisles at Pope Gregory’s gag about the English: “Non Angli sed Angeli.” In Ian Hislop’s Oldest Jokes (Radio 4, weekdays of last week), the longstanding editor of Private Eye did his best to convince us that the Venerable Bede shared the same delight in word-play as Ronnie Barker, or that there was an unbroken continuity between the prurient ribaldry of the tenth-century Exeter Book of Riddles (News, 21 January 2022) and the lyrics of George Formby.

The programmes were rich in exempla, many of them drawn from ecclesiastical history. Thus it was that Leofric, Bishop of Exeter, gave all those bawdy riddles to the cathedral; and the most grotesque depictions of bodily functions can be found decorating the stonework and crouching under the misericords in our most distinguished cathedrals and chapels.

Is there a case for claiming that certain genres of humour are particular to the British? Mr Hislop seems to be a patriot when it comes to national humour; and the untranslatable nature of so much comedy makes it impossible to judge. Perhaps it’s best not to ask too many questions, for fear the humour dies under such forensic investigation.

Certainly, Johny Pitts would argue that Japanese culture has a distinctive playfulness, which is often missed in translation. In his four-part series The Failure of the Future (Radio 4, Tuesdays), Mr Pitts is looking at Japan’s cultural, economic, and technological development since the Second World War, and, in particular, at how the boom experienced in he 1980s and ’90s — when Japan appeared to offer a vision of future civilisation — has deflated. This is an outstanding series, and full credit to the commissioning editor who allowed Mr Pitts the generous air time.

Forty years ago, Japan was the world’s second largest economy. It had a dedicated workforce, whose reward for loyalty was the promise of employment until retirement. A worker’s identity was bound up with his company; thus, you were not Johny from Sony, but Sony’s Johny. To accommodate such a workforce, architects developed visions for living which involved modular units that could be moved from place to place on the back of a lorry.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower — a monument to this vision — was finally closed in 2022; and many Japanese have now experienced the discombobulation of unemployment. And yet, as described by the author Matt Alt, the intellectual curiosity of Japanese youth continues to drive innovation. His example: the reinvention of technology for wholly different uses. Thus it was on the streets of Tokyo that texting languages took off, where emojis were pioneered, and where young women with sticker machines would assemble images of their friends into facebooks.

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