Familiarity (With What You’re Talking About) Breeds Context

I was thinking yesterday about context – or, perhaps more accurately, about how recently-lingering memories or experience can colour an opinion or reaction to things, as well as seeing items within their background.

Oddly enough, the thing that drove me to think about it was hearing a singer in a pub yesterday afternoon. The chap was called Dave Brooks (can’t find an online link for him, but he did a decent job) and he was singing the Eric Clapton song ‘Wonderful Tonight’. To be honest, it’s not really a song that does a lot for me, and I think this is partly because the first time I ever heard it fully was when it was being played at a friend’s house, and the father of the house was miming along with it and making as if he was singing it to his wife. It was kind of cheesy to my teenage eyes, but also a little bit unconvincing, as the husband was one of those people who (generalisation ahoy) was more concerned about his work than his wife, and as if to salve that he also claimed that the song ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ was about her. I suspect she might have preferred him to dedicate more time and attention, and fewer songs, to her, but there you go.

Anyway, that kind of left me feeling a bit ambivalent about the song, but yesterday in the pub, as Dave sang it, I noticed a chap who was – yes – singing along to the woman he was with, and as he did so, they held hands tightly and she was smiling broadly. Forget my own ambivalence, it was clear that she was really taken with him associating the song with her, and really liked it, so I had to admit to myself that whatever I might feel about the song, it’s pretty clear that for some people, it’s really rather romantic.

And this, in some strange no-I-dunno-how-either way, set me to thinking about how you have to see things in their context; ‘Wonderful Tonight’, when fake-sung by an inattentive husband, seems like a slightly nasty attempt to get Eric Clapton to do the hard work of being nice, whereas when mimed by another partner, seems like a cute, if slightly twee, gesture.

Thinking about context led me to muse how insane the media appear to have gone over the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin; for those of you who’ve been lucky enough to miss the ludicrous amount of coverage which has been spilling out of every news outlet over the past couple of weeks, during a speech at the rally at which she accepted the party’s nomination for V-P, Mrs Palin made the following joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?
A: Lipstick.

Now, it’s an okay gag (though it has a touch of ambiguity that allows the possible interpretation that pit bulls wear lipstick), but to judge from the reaction of the crowd in the hall, and indeed the news media generally, you’d think it was, without doubt, the funniest joke ever. I think it’s fair to say that it isn’t – yes, humour’s subjective, but I’m sure you can think of better jokes – but to my mind, the fact that it’s received as the greatest rib-tickler of all time suggests that one has to look at the context; it stands out as a great joke because, let’s be honest, politics is a pretty unfunny business.

It could be argued that humour has little place within politics, but I’d disagree; the ability to take in something that’s been said or done and to articulate a response which highlights an irony or folly that lies at its heart would seem to show a ready intelligence, and surely that’s a trait to be wished for in anyone in our power? Instead, most political ‘jokes’ are pretty weak, and instead the mere fact that a politician has tried to make a joke seems to make the often-mediocre puns seem to be received as if they were the best of Wilde or Swift.

It is, I’d say, a question of context – the world of politics is so lacking in humour (possibly, I suddenly think, because much of it is either at the expense of others or self-deprecating, both angles which could be feared to make a politician ‘lose support’) that anything remotely resembling a jape is given far more treatment than it would deserve. Indeed, during the 1997 comedy show The Election Night Armistice, this point was proven by a number of comedians performing politicians’ jokes verbatim in a comedy club, and getting what could generously be referred to as a poor reception.

Oddly enough, this kind of thing applies not only to comments made, but also to Mrs Palin’s appearance; the Sun newspaper refers to her as a ‘beauty’, though as far as I know they’ve never said that about Tina Fey, to whom she bears more than a slight resemblance, though that could be to do with the old nonsense about funny women not being attractive (well, not attractive to men who dislike the idea of a quick-witted woman, but I think that reveals more about the men than anything else). In much the same way, the British press was in a right old state when Carla Sarkozy (nee Bruni) visited the UK the other month, like a bunch of sixth formers meeting the pretty new French teaching assistant or something. How much coverage did they give her when she released her second album, a year before marrying Monsieur Sarkozy? Not so much.

It’s all rather questionable and strange, and I suspect I’m not necessarily making any kind of blazingly new insight here (though I guess that implicitly I’m suggesting that you can get away with being dull-witted in politics, hardly a new idea) but it was just one of those moments when my brain made a little connection between a couple of apparently unrelated topics… and in the same vein as my chum Steve’s book, I realise that I can bring things full circle by pointing out that Carla Bruni, as referred to in the paragraph above, was once romantically involved with Eric Clapton, whose song started me thinking on this topic, as described way back at the start of this post.

Almost enough to make a person think I plan these posts out as I go along, isn’t it ? But then again, looked at in the context of this blog as a whole, I think we all know the truth…


It’s Not You, It’s Me…


And Doesn’t Melvyn Bragg Evince His Oft-Expressed Love For Cumbria By Spending Much Of His Time In London?


  1. I have had my own little spat about the Pit Bull … it just scares me that someone so ill-informed, small-minded and untravelled (if there were such a word) can be potentially in the running for what is arguably one of the most powerful positions in world politics. Sigh. But, as you say, context is everything.

    And it was a crap joke.

  2. Perhaps, within the context of available candidates, she was the best qualified in all those regards? Therein lies a scary thought, I’d say…


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