Humour gets you through dark times

May 10, 2003 ,

THIS week saw the release of a group of hostages who had been held in a remote camp by cruel captors who filmed their ritual humiliation in clear contravention of the Geneva Convention.

Yes the contestants on “I'm a Celebrity Get me out of here” crossed the bridge to freedom, in the same week that a real group of hostages held by terrorists in Africa escaped to freedom.

There is something about the human spirit that cannot tolerate captivity whether on a trivial game show, or in a real hostage crisis. Interestingly different people react in different ways.

Some became introverted and quiet, others moan and whinge, some try to take charge, others find refuge in humour; all show signs of the stress that humans suffer when locked up.

I believe it is a mistake when some people talk about having a much more punitive regime in prisons. The truth is that people aren't sent to prison for punishment, but as punishment. It is the deprivation of liberty that humans find so hard to handle.

Brian Keenan, the former Beirut Hostage wrote one of the best books I have ever read. It is called “An Evil Cradling” and describes how he and his great friend John McCarthy survived years as prisoners of Islamic terrorists in the Lebanon.

Some of the other hostages didn't do so well. He describes hearing Terry Waite sobbing, and watching one of the American hostages gradually go insane.

He and John McCarthy somehow keep their sanity, not least by maintaining their sense of humour. Their guards were unable to take away their human spirit because even in the darkest of times, they could make a joke about their situation.

It is phenomenon known to all dictatorships and evil regimes no matter how powerful; black humour and satire are often the best weapons against oppression.

I am sure that John McCarthy and Brian Keenan would have enjoyed the humour of the writer Pete McCarthy.

His book about visiting every “McCarthy's Bar” in Ireland has sold a million copies.

Last year I met him at the Hay Literature Festival, and discovered that his mother came from the same small village in the West of Ireland as my father. Last week he entertained a big audience at the Sherman Theatre and afterwards I took him for a drink in Cardiff.

He explained how he was sometimes confused with the aforementioned John McCarthy.

Once a taxi driver picked him up at Dublin airport, and said that he thought he recognized him.

“I'm the writer Pete McCarthy” he said. The taxi driver asked him if was the same fella who had been taken hostage in Beirut. When Pete explained that he wasn't the taxi-driver replied,
“Good, because I was just about to ask if you would you be more comfortable in the boot?”
Somehow I just know the real John McCarthy would be laughing at that one.