Black humour helps us through dark days

Writer Rosemary Jenkinson argues that dark times call for a light touch

Dark times call for a light touch. William Shakespeare’s literary career was often interrupted by plague but he admirably rose to the challenge. When the plague closed theatres from 1593-4 did he turn to the equivalent of reading doomsday tweets or chatting on Zoom? Was the only book he read Facebook? No, he diversified into writing sex and love poems. Creativity will always find a way to mutate even more quickly than a virus.

To be fair, theatre people have a hard time respecting self-isolation as kissing is like breathing to them. In early March a director tried to hug me and, when I rebuffed her, she replied, “Just for that I hope you get the virus!” Little did I think the only standing ovations I’d give were not in the theatre but in the street to NHS workers.

Good things can spring out of times of fever. My grandfather moved to Dromore as a young bank clerk in the 1920s and lodged with a family. He fell dangerously ill with scarlet fever and was nursed back to health by the daughter of the house whom he fell in love with and married. I should actually be thanking rogue viruses for my very existence!

Rosemary Jenkinson: It seems our cultural stereotypes are killing us. For instance, the Italians kiss too much and we Irish drink together too much.

Right now, in the midst of this pandemic, we need comedy more than ever. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his comic plague story King Pest in response to the 1832 cholera pandemic that almost killed him. It’s both fun and macabre although not everyone appreciated such frivolity. Robert Louis Stevenson was so incensed by King Pest he wrote that Poe had “ceased to be a human being”.


Black humour, however, lifted us through the dark days of the Troubles. The old Belfast jokes on how you can only buy toilet roll on the brown market are doing the rounds again. Black humour equally eased Nelson Mandela through his decades of incarceration, prompting his later joke, “I went on a long holiday for 27 years”.

That’s exactly the way we should view our self-isolation. Let’s just think of it as a staycation. After all, imagine how much worse it would be if instead of self-isolation it was enforced socialising! If, as Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” then surely we’re in heaven.

Social distancing is ludicrous in itself as we circumnavigate the automatic doors of supermarkets with a kind of strictly ballroom sashay away from an oncoming shopper. And as for any enemy encroachments on our airspace – just back off. It’s mad; it’s like even the dearest, sweetest old lady has turned into the Grim Reaper. Her cough has turned into an AK47. It transpires we’re only one bound from modernity to having no immunity from infection, and overnight we’ve suddenly transformed into the Sentinalese repelling intruders with spears from our doorsteps.

It also seems our cultural stereotypes are killing us. For instance, the Italians kiss too much and we Irish drink together too much. The latter must be true – look at the uproar when Stormont designated off-licences as non-essential. In the event of the supermarket shelves being stripped bare again, I’ve personally made sure I have enough wine (grapes being one of my five a day), beer (grain for roughage) and poteen (carbs from potatoes). Nothing like having a healthy, balanced diet.

I know all shopping trips should be essential, but I have to confess I’ve gone on the odd Tayto and chocolate run. The problem with staying in and flattening the curve is that we’re fattening the curves.

I do see some benefits to living in this new twilight zone. When the workmen stopped noisily constructing the flats at the end of my road I cheered. Isn’t it a tad ironic that the government has been building ever more piddly-sized flats to help incubate the virus? Sometimes I enjoy roaming the deserted streets imagining starring in my own zombie movie. It’s strange to see the ghost buses without passengers flying past empty bus shelters – instead of the Flying Dutchman it’s the Flying Busman!

The biggest boon is that people are more caring in this new era. I’d find their texts and messages even more touching if it wasn’t for the suspicious part of me that wonders if I’m being insulted: “Are you just checking up on me because you think I’m old?”

It does strike me how wrong George Orwell got the future. Instead of his totalitarian vision, laissez-faire governments have failed to clamp down on the virus and, far from Big Brother watching you, all of us creatives are posting YouTube videos literally begging to be watched.

It may be true that all we have to show for this year is a scored-out calendar and hair wilder than a woolly mammoth, but just think how we’re going to have the mother of all parties once the coronavirus is kicked to the kerb. It’s going to be glorious like the Roaring Twenties all over again, I’m going to drink more champagne than F Scott Fitzgerald, I’m going to be wittier than Dorothy Parker, but the lessons of this time will have been learnt. Just so you recognise me, I’ll be the one in long white gloves like the Queen and the diamante face mask.

Until then – lie low, aim high, and remember that coronavirus will never be as infectious as laughter.
Rosemary Jenkinson's new collection of short stories, Lifestyle Choice 10mg, is available at, supported by ACNI. A memoir will follow