A short time ago, I attended a seminar at the Scottish Oral History Centre at the University of Strathclyde. Professor Callum G Brown was discussing “Laughing Out Loud in Oral Testimony: what does it mean?”. Callum was talking about personal testimony interviews he had been recording as part of the research for his latest book, stating that he had noticed a discernible difference in the way men and women used laughter when discussing periods of stress and trauma. Women, he was gradually discovering, were more likely to laugh when discussing a traumatic event in their life. He is very early on in his analysis, and only has a small sample to choose from, but it got me thinking about laughter in literature and how we use this as a method to illustrate emotion and plot.
My debut novel, The Birds That Never Flew, has dark humour at its soul. When I think of the key characters, Elizabeth, and the Virgin Mary..I hear their quick wit and humorous retorts, their warmth and pain entangled in who they are. In response to Callum Brown’s research it struck me that I when I listen intently to Elizabeth and Mary’s voices I don’t actually hear their laughter, despite there being so much humour in their conversation. Alternatively, my ears hone in on their sadness, the sheer weight of pain that is inextricably aligned with their ability to make their ‘audience’ laugh.
They, like many women in the ‘real’ world, possess a composed will to reveal their torturous burdens without imposing their pain on others. I admire their determination to, brutally yet tenderly, express their painful situation honestly whilst caring about the emotions of others. In revealing an abusive past, each character carefully ensures that they don’t inflict pain too much pain on the recipient as they laughingly divulge torturous events. Just to be clear, they don’t laugh about their situation, they use humour as a tool to break up the pain, to temporarily tear themselves away from the reality of it all. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion. It’s admirable, and yet I wish they weren’t so accepting of their situation, so protective of protecting everyone but themselves.
In my experience this is a very traditional Scottish working class trait; our women have sharp tongues and minds and we’re not afraid to find a way to laugh our way through indescribable trauma. That laughter, however, isn’t always shared. On eleven occasions in TBTNF I used the word “laughed” in conversation, (their humour was expressed regularly without using the description) but on reading the context, on most situations the emotion is being used as a method of control, a way to climb back from the brink of becoming lost in the sheer agony of life. This book is very much a perspective, a snapshot in fact, of Scottish working class life; of the mental, physical and sexual abuse many are subjected to, and the way in which many women climb through the trauma using wit as their only available weapon.
The novel’s characters reflect a time and a place, and manner of living, both in speech and actions. In my mind we don’t hear voices like this enough. Helen MacKinven does it beautifully, as does Jenni Fagan and Kerry Hudson, a person’s soul truly reflected in a voice that embodies culture and authenticity.
When the writer, comedian and actor Caroline Aherne died recently, her co-star Ralf Little spoke of how he mourns not just his friend but the lack of working class voices in British television. He says: “Caroline was a leading light in showing that working-class people can be on TV, being ourselves. That you can be a working-class kid, living out your life, and that can be interesting and funny and dramatic and entertaining.”
He added: “Right now, I don’t see anyone else doing what she did and I do think there is a noticeable gap left in Caroline’s wake. Her death is a reminder how much she and her writing were, and still are, the exception.”
We should write about them too. Everyone deserves a voice, whether they are laughing or crying.