Introducing the latest adventures of Evel Knievel

Of course, it may just be that people are slower on the uptake in Chicago
FROM TIME to time people who know that I maintain a small humorous column in this corner of the woods come up to me with a newspaper cutting or overheard story which they just know will form the basis of an article. It's so funny, they say. And as soon as I hear them say how funny the item is, I know I won't be able to use it. You see, when an item is really quite funny, what is there left for a humorous writer to do except repeat it? You can't improve on it. You can't get comedy out of something which is already funny. The most you can do is bask in its reflected glory.

What comic writers have always got humour out of is serious things, or familiar things, or ordinary people. There was nothing intrinsically funny about a young man having a valet till P G Wodehouse got to work on it. The notion of three men in a boat is not funny, not by itself, nor is...

Well, you get the idea.

What makes it more painful for me is that when I go through papers, I too cut out odd and quirky items which I think are funny, which is a waste of time as then there is nothing I can do with them except make a pile of cuttings which the wife would dearly like to consign to the dustbin.

"No, don't!" I cry. "They may come in useful. I might meet a humorist who is short of ideas."

"But," she points out, "you've always said they would be useless to a humorist."

"I know. But it might at least infuriate him..."

Take, for instance, an item I have here with the heading "Deaf Friends Shot For Using Sign Language". Apparently five deaf friends stopped on the street in Chicago to have a conversation in sign language. Nothing very unusual about that. But apparently Chicago street gangs also use hand language to communicate secretly. Two passing gang members thought that these five must be members of rival gangs and shot at them. No serious injuries, I'm glad to say. But bizarre? I think so. Possibly even humorous...

I hasten to add (because I know from experience that people are sensitive) that I don't think there is anything odd or funny about being deaf. I once found myself in a pub in Exeter full of deaf and dumb people. It was their club night, I think, and we were the only people there who spoke. The only normal people, one is tempted to say, but because we were the odd ones out, the only ones not telling silent jokes in sign language and bursting into raucous laughter, it was we who felt abnormal.

I knew someone once who specialised in helping people who were deaf or dumb, or both, who were involved in law suits and who, when they appeared in court, simply could not avoid having to communicate with judge or counsel. She said they had tremendous trouble one day with an old man who simply couldn't understand anything said to him and couldn't read anything written down for him. It was revealed that the only person who could communicate with him was his grown-up son. The son was sent for.

"Can he understand you?" said the judge.

"Yes," he said. "What should I ask him?"

"Well, his name, for a start," said the judge. "We haven't legally established who he is yet."

"OK," said the son, and he went over to his old dad and screamed in his ear: "What's your name, dad?"

Of course, it may be just that people are slower on the uptake in Chicago. For years I had a cutting about a man in Chicago with a scam which netted him a considerable income without breaking the law. He simply put an ad in the local paper which said: "This Is Your Last Chance To Send Five Dollars To This Address!", and appended his address. According to the story he was sent hundreds of dollars and quite legally kept them.

The great thing about stories like that is that there is no way of checking them, and there is no way you would want to check them, because you want them to be true. It is like the cutting I kept for a long time, spotted in the 1960s in Time magazine, which revealed that Andorra was at war with Germany.

During the Second World War, Andorra declared war on the Fascist powers along with everyone else (except their rather more fearful neighbours Spain and Portugal) but forgot to rescind the declaration of war in 1945. So they were still at war with Germany until this moment in the 1960s, when they hastily withdrew their declaration in case the Germans staged an invasion. It said so. In Time. So it must be true.

I have just remembered that I had originally intended to tell you about 60-year-old Evel Knievel's latest motorbike accident, but I have run out of space. Tomorrow, then!