Moscow police recently rounded up tramps and beggars and dumped them on a huge refuge tip outside the capital. One was found dead – three alive – among the rubbish.
There could be no more vivid illustration of the contrast between the failed Communist experiment and its aftermath and the continuing success of capitalism than the fact that in Russia misfits and inadequates are treated as human detritus, while in the West we solicit their opinions and print detailed analyses in national newspapers.
For instance, at an undisclosed cost in terms of money, effort and time, the views of 1,000 Britons were canvassed in a recent survey to find television’s sexiest personalities. This, then, is the reward for the energy and enterprise set free by unrestrained market forces. Not for us, thank heaven, bread queues, shoddy clothing and nights huddled within the sweaty walls of freezing apartments with only a vodka bottle for consolation. Bring us the shining smile and coy, uplifted chin of Carol Vorderman – the “most fanciable” woman on TV – and let us squirm excitedly at the earthy, muck-under-the-nails charm of Alan Titchmarsh – the second most fanciable man on TV and runner-up to heart-throb George Clooney.
I am dismayed to admit I have heard of not only Vorderman and Titchmarsh but also Clooney. Neither of those two masters of the columnar art, to whom I defer, Auberon Waugh and Keith Waterhouse, had heard of Helen Rollason or Jill Dando – two names and faces that were, to my shame, known to me. I also deplore popular culture but, unlike my heroes, seem unable to avoid contact with it. Where am I going wrong?
At any rate, it is a tribute to the life-enhancing powers of our enterprise culture that resources, both human and financial, are so readily devoted to creating something of no worth or value whatever, such as the information that, of all TV presenters, Vorderman is deemed most capable of stirring a twinge of arousal in the gently burping sedentary male.
Of even less interest, though of equal value, were the findings of another survey, this time into the expectations of the half-witted as the new millennium nears. Eight hundred people were questioned, of whom an imprecise number – categorised as “many” – feared nuclear war, mass-poisoning by genetically modified food and mass-starvation due to climatic change. Four per cent were pretty confident the next century would witness an alien invasion.
To what conceivable use might this information be put?
The authorities, which in this country means Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, can do nothing about nuclear war other than avoid starting one. And they are enthusiastic about GM food, if not mass starvation, which has the look of vote loser written all over it. As for invading aliens, this is a phobia best treated by counselling, and we already have a full complement of highly trained people with huge, soulful eyes and whinging voices ready and eager to comfort the bewildered.
Unlike us, the Germans are a practical race, cannot abide waste and feel compelled to put the findings of useless surveys to use. Thus when researchers at Berkeley University, California, discovered that Germans laugh only for an average of six minutes a day, whereas the British quota is 15 minutes, the French 18, and the Italians 19, the Teutonic brain ground into action.
While the British might have shrugged their shoulders and thought of Vorderman, the Germans resolved to put matters right and improve their performance in the laughter tables. A public-spirited citizen called Michael Berger founded a national network of laughter clubs to teach the Herrenvolk to recover an art they mislaid somewhere in the Wagnerian mists.
Naturally enough, club members do not meet to tell each other jokes. That would be too obvious, and probably pointless since it is extraordinarily difficult to tell a joke in a language which puts verbs at the end of sentences. As Mark Twain said: “The Germans take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between those two limits they just shovel in German.” What chance a joke? It just gets buried.
So what Berger has done is bypass the joke and concentrate instead on the mechanics of laughter. At the beginning of the sessions, club members form a circle, clap their hands and chant “Ho-ho-ha-ha-ha” as loudly as they can. (I am not making this up.)
You will notice the ratio of two “hos” to three “has”. This is unexplained, but precise, and seems to allow no variant. We are not told what would happen should a club member get it wrong and insert a “ho” where a “ha” should be. In the Germany of old, he would have been taken out and shot, which would have caused much laughter all round. In the enlightened Germany of today, however, the culprit would suffer nothing more than a sharp rebuke. In the UK, he or she would be given counselling. In Moscow, the penalty is being taken out of the city and put on a rubbish heap. Which is what we should do to opinion pollsters.