When the random cruelty of the world arises from a silly joke, our sorrow is all the deeper

Don’t underestimate the sense retribution can appear to make of what is otherwise senseless

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The Independent Online

A child walks into a local supermarket and is caught in the cross-fire of rival gangs.

She is paralysed for life. A woman on the eve of her wedding is killed on a quiet street by a drunken driver. A cyclist on an Alpine road... But why go on? Every day another cruel mischance to make fools of those who would see order and meaning in the universe. Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. Only even that’s a rational explanation too far. There are no sadistic deities playing games with us for the fun of it. We are random, floating particles, that’s all, and we collide fatally or we don’t.

So why does the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse unlucky enough to take a hoax call from an Australian radio station, strike everyone as uniquely sad? I don’t mean the question to sound heartless. I find her story pitiable beyond words. A life taken, for what? But I find the fate of the little girl who went into the supermarket at the wrong time pitiable beyond words, too.

I haven’t been anywhere this past week where Jacintha Saldanha was not the first topic of conversation. Why did we all feel this tragedy – there truly has been a unanimity of sorrow – as we did? Her being a nurse had something to do with it. We hear of nurses trained to a level of efficiency that renders them unfeeling. Jacintha Saldanha was clearly not that. She was doubly isolated, Indian born and living away from her family home in Bristol, in order to work at the hospital. So she must have been lonely. And we know she was ashamed. The capacity to experience shame, we feel, attests to a person’s worth. The more shame they suffer, the more finely touched their spirit. And this was more shame than she could bear.

But that’s still not the end of it. Lying like a dead weight on the tragedy is the fact that it was precipitated by a joke. That’s the juxtaposition that has us shaking our heads. I recall reading a while ago about Phoebe Prince, an English girl living in Massachusetts, who hanged herself after her existence was made intolerable by bullies. Another wasted life. But at least this was a moral universe we understood. Children are evil little bastards, and Phoebe Prince was a victim of their malevolence. We could lock them away and destroy their mobile phones. Don’t understimate the sense retribution can appear to make of what is otherwise senseless. But a joke! Or rather, for even this affects the pitch of our sadness, a prank! How do you weigh justice against a prank?

I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of practical jokes. Candid Camera did nothing for me but teach me to be careful not to pick up £5 notes in the street. I lived in dread of being the butt of practical jokes at school, and then, to my eternal regret, I played a particularly disgusting one – I cannot bring myself to divulge the details – on someone else. My own sensitivity to being made a fool of should have stopped me, but it worked the other way. It made me crueller. It taught me how to hurt. Maybe pranksters all start out with hearts of butter. Remember that the next time a comedian on stage in a comedy club makes fun of what you’re wearing. Or better still, stay home.

This is not something I ever expected to hear myself say, but you can have too much mirth. Too many comedians, too many audiences ready to laugh before anyone’s said anything funny, too many pranks. Make it carnival every day and you squander the bracing shock of the exceptional. I don’t, in this instance, blame the jokers who rang King Edward VII Hospital. There have been many lamer hoaxes – Russell Brand’s and Jonathan Ross’s guying of Andrew Sachs to name the lamest – and the object of this one was not, in fact, Jacintha Saldanha, who just happened to walk into the supermarket at the wrong time, but us, reader, you and me (I’m using the royal “you and me”) and the lunatic amount of time and attention we were giving to a coil of House of Windsor foetus.

But in the end, it’s immaterial how good or bad a hoax is. Eventually, we just stop laughing. And it might be partly this we’re regretting now, in the face of Jacintha Saldanha’s tragedy: the endless empty laughter our culture condones without a thought of consequences.

We knew ourselves better when we were crueller and accepted that practical jokes existed to exact revenge, bring down pretension, or just do damage for the hell of it. Rabelais doesn’t give two hoots for the feelings of the hoity-toity lady on whom half the dogs in Paris are encouraged to urinate. Chaucer has the clerk Absolon get his come-uppance when, instead of her lips, Alison presents her arse which he kisses “full savorly”. We liked that at school. But then at school we were still living in the Middle Ages. In Shakespeare, the practical joke continues to be relished but is darker. Malvolio suffers a greater humiliation than he deserves and I, for one, always hope he succeeds in taking his sworn revenge. It seems the skin grows thinner with every century that passes. We become more exquisitely tuned, more susceptible to shame.

Could it be, then, that we are reaching a level of refinement where, for all the non-stop laughter – or maybe even because of it – we can no longer bear the pain that lies on the other side of japes? That would be a loss, if so. Robustness has been a distinguishing mark of our national character and art. But our response to Jacintha Saldanha’s tragedy exposes our sense of frailty. At the very least it reminds us that not everything’s a lark.