During the time that I was studying at Brighton University, I got the opportunity to supplement my meagre scholarly income by doing some teaching over the summer, at one of the very many foreign language establishments in the city. To be fair, I didn’t have a TEFL qualification but in this instance, as far the company I was working for was concerned, it didn’t seem to matter. Thus, I was able to deduce that we weren’t talking about the most upmarket operation in town. But given the level of popularity that it enjoyed, an operation that was clearly within reach of a certain budget: the fact that some English was being taught seemed almost incidental to the process.
In truth, the whole thing seemed to function as a means by which the reasonably well-off parents of foreign children, offloaded the responsibility of their teenage offspring for two or three weeks during the school holidays, on the spurious notion that they were being ‘educated’; whilst the parents presumably continued to live the childfree existence to which they were accustomed. As a consequence, my mind was continually subjected to images of a multiplicity of both European and International kiddies singing ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah’ as they wept into their host family’ pillows.
Such was the cut-price nature of the enterprise that I was frequently subjected to the kids complaining about, not only the temporary accommodation they were expected to inhabit (spare rooms in council houses in some of the most deprived parts of the city), but – worse for them – the food that was being stuffed into their less than appetizing lunch boxes.
Picture then if you will, affluent Norwegian students, filled with burning indignation, pulling apart the paltry offerings contained within the plastic re-sealable packaging that passed for the aforementioned lunch boxes; one step shy of the old Sunblest variant, myself and many of my contemporaries had known during the period of our own sweet youth.
‘Sir, what is this?’
‘My goodness, that’s Sandwich Spread. I haven’t seen that in years’
‘It looks and tastes like vomit. It makes me want to throw up just looking at it’
‘Well, there’s no faulting your grasp of English is there? Nor your ability to use aspects of the vocabulary in a suitably expressive manner. Your parents will be pleased.’
Or – on a similar tip – Finnish students decrying the lack of hygiene and sauna facilities in relation to their respective abodes.
‘Well there are saunas in Brighton. Public ones. But I think you might have to be of a certain age before you can attend’
Despite the various pitfalls, I – nonetheless – saw it as my duty to try and enhance the students’ experience in whatever way I could, and as well as teaching the perfectly reasonable material in the text books that were on offer, I took every opportunity to add my own thoughts and experience to the mix; sometimes even going as far as to create bespoke lessons inspired by events or conversations in class. None more so than when the opportunity arose to teach puns to a bunch of German students: an opportunity arising out of an innocuous exchange during a break in proceedings.
‘Would you like a chicken crisp sir?’
‘No thank you, they’re fowl’
It’s worth pointing out that, in the ongoing progress of this particular stage of my life, I had already been putting myself out there as a stand-up comedian. That is to say, alongside my teacher-bound studies, I’d been attempting to further supplement my student income by routinely travelling up and down the train line to London, a number of times over the period of any given week, with a view to not only learning the craft of the comic, but also get paid for doing so. And even though it might be described as a bumpy ride – learning the craft of the stand-up comedian, that is – I was doing sufficiently well enough to know when a humorous remark warranted some sort of a response? Added to which, there was the fact that I had been using humour socially for as long as I could remember and more often than not, getting said response, in so doing. Otherwise, why would I even contemplate the life of a professional humourist? So I said it again:
‘No thank you, they’re fowl’
Floundering, I began to explain the joke: ‘Y’know, foul as in ‘awful’ and fowl as in ‘chicken’?
The metaphorical tumbleweed once more brushed past and caressed my ankles.
There’s an old saying in stand-up comedy – attributable to the American humourist E. B. White – ‘Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.’ But here was an instance whereby dissecting the frog was not only desirable, it was imperative: the lesson possibilities opening up like a new dawn in Anglo-German relations, as a result. Obviously, overriding any cheap attempts to seize upon the word ‘frog’, explore the synonymous content therein, and bond over mutual and historical enmities.
That night I went home and googled hard, searching for the sort of tortured wordplay that illustrates a huge facet of English life and language: our strange reliance on crap puns. A reliance primarily illustrated in the form of newspaper headlines and the names ascribed to hairdressing salons… for reasons best known to ourselves.
The next day, I headed back to the classroom filled with the sort of enthusiasm it’s impossible to manufacture, and armed with a bunch of worksheets, designed specifically to fulfil my chosen mission: to initiate a bunch of German kids into the ways of the crap-end of British humour. Phrases like ‘Otter Devastation’, ‘Warnings about Lights Were Kept in the Dark’, ‘Curl Up and Dye’ and ‘Crops and Bobbers’ dancing fervently in the forefront of my psyche. Obviously, great pains were also taken to avoid the likes of ‘Germans Wurst at Penalties’, and ‘Nayim Lobs Seaman from the Half Way Line’, for fear of crossing the boundaries of what might be considered to constitute ‘good taste’.
And it was hard. Not because of the longstanding and tiresome cliché about Germans not having a sense of humour. They do. It’s just that the German system of grammar and word construction is not suited to the ways in which the English construct certain types of jokes, puns in particular. And anyway, our assumption about the Germans and their humour tends to reside more upon a longstanding orientation towards remarks specifically about ‘the war’ which, given the possibility of the roles reversing, I’m sure we would find equally uproarious.
But no, the reason it was hard is because in the end, most of the wordplay stuff that was on offer passed for wryly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious.
‘This is funny?’
‘Well no, not funny-ha-ha more funny… er, funny… well, funny as in… it makes you smile’
So I’d now gone from the business of explaining the English disposition towards puns, to requiring a lesson on the possible responses to different types of jokes. The frog was not only dying in the process, it was being subjected to an ever increasing number of dissections, in the hope that this would somehow assist its potential to be revived.
Nonetheless, I laboured onwards, if not actually convincing my German protégés that all of this was in any way funny, then at the very least, managing to convey to them, a playful facet of the native language; and a means by which we as a nation, manage to keep ourselves amused in the process of digesting our news, and cutting our hair.
And did I succeed? It’s difficult to say. While I can’t assert with any great conviction, the extent to which ‘Sandwich Spread’ has impacted upon the northern reaches of Scandinavia, in the same way that I could suggest that every home in the Brighton has yet to succumb to the idea of a personal sauna, there is a part of me that imagines a small group of Germans amidst the larger population, channelling the occasional English-inspired linguistic double-meaning. Maybe, a gentlemen’s’ barbers with the name ‘Herr Kutz’? Or post-EU offerings such as ‘The English have bitten the Hans that feed them’ and ‘Do not put all of your eggs in one Brexit’?
In which case, my job as a mild mannered teacher of foreign students by day, versus that of a rambunctious stand-up comic at night, will have been done.