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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable