Like Dante, as the Inferno unfolds, I found myself at a crossroads on St Andrew’s Day, and the way forward was unclear. I had a little time to kill: I could walk round the block, or dive into a pub. Within minutes, I was soaking up the warmth in The Bluebell, a decent pub I’ve not been to in several years.
The place was almost deserted. For the rest of the world, it was that limbo between going home for tea (those who had already been drinking), and going to the pub for a couple after work. For various reasons, I fell between both those stools. So it was me, a pint of Titanic‘s Plum Porter, Aidan behind the bar, and Jamie – who had a bus to catch.
Somehow, I have no idea how, to be honest, we started talking about puns. I gave them a couple from The Comedy of Errors. As you do, with complete strangers. Picture three non-physicists at a bar talking about how single words can be like those sub-atomic particles that can exist in more than one state at a time. How they can change definition, even change word class, according to how you perceive them.
Or those pictures where you can see one thing, then with an effort of mind, see the other, but not both at once. Old lady, young girl? It’s the sort of conversation I can only usually have late at night, when the whisky’s been flowing for a while. Philosophy should be reserved for 11:45pm onwards – not 5pm.
Aidan christened the Punatomic Particle – if it ever catches on, the glory is his alone. A play on words that exists only if you recognise it. I reckon Shakespeare’s skill with these was remarkable, partly in producing puns which aren’t punchlines. The dialogue often continues apace whether or not the joke has been recognised. It makes the writing snappy, the pace quick, and the writing either hilarious or dull as dishwater, depending on your outlook and sense of humour.
Jamie missed his bus.
His next one wasn’t for ages, either. He’d popped in for a quiet drink and we’d blown his world. By 5:15 we were all questioning whether we actually existed. Or whether Jamie’s bus had, given it had gone without him.
Later, persuaded that I existed and had a home to go to – and a couple of pints of Titanic to the good – I started doing some research before realising that I am not and never will be a quantum physicist. Whilst I want to talk about ‘quantum superpositions‘ and/or ‘multi-stable perceptions‘, I’d better recognise my limitations. Speaking of which, I took my (our) theory to She Who Must Be Obeyed (SWMBO): the one who finds Shakespeare dull and predictable. Puns could, I said, be in two states:
- not understood, in which case the script needed to resume its flow, like a river after a pebble has been dropped in;
Within minutes SWMBO left me no better off than poor Jamie. I was accused of having missed the intellectual bus, and – what’s worse, – of having wasted time in a pub. Like time is EVER wasted in a pub. She’s told me to say how very grateful I am for her contribution, and how this article would have been poorer without her, though. After an argument about whether or not you were stupid if you didn’t get the pun (where, ironically, we were both arguing the same point – ‘not necessarily’), within category (b), we thrashed out three subs:
b1) understanding that a joke’s been attempted, and hating the teller for its feebleness;
b2) appreciating the craft in the joke, but finding it unfunny;
b3) actually finding the pun funny
I hover between categories b1 and b2, apparently. Of course, I laid myself wide open by asking in the first place … or actually by choosing the Bluebell over a brisk walk. It was worth it – thanks, Aidan and Jamie!