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2 January 2007

Why did the old man cross the road?

Other people's anger is an amusing thing - the more trivial the reason the better

By Richard Herring

Other people’s anger is an amusing thing, provided you are not the focus of it. When the rage pours out over some trivial issue it is, on the surface at least, even more entertaining.

I was in Chiswick, waiting at a pelican crossing for the green man to show. An old fella started to cross the road, just as the traffic lights changed to allow the cars in front of us to move. His badly timed amble meant that the cars in the queue were delayed by maybe five or six seconds, but the driver at the front of the queue did not take this inconvenience as an excuse to run over a pensioner and waited until the codger was out of his way before proceeding.

The man in the car behind him, however, was not so imperturbable. He beeped his horn impetuously and then as he finally was allowed to get on his way after this intolerable one tenth of a minute delay he passed by, with a look of complete incredulous fury on his face. He was a man of around about 60 himself and had you seen a photo of his contorted features at this point you might have guessed that his entire family had been senselessly killed in a terrorist attack, rather than this slight provocation.

Although I was unable to hear him, he was clearly venting his indignation by shouting swear words at the oblivious pedestrian. I am no lip-reader, but the exaggerated animation of the slighted man’s rant meant it was perfectly obvious what he was shouting out in his sound-proof cocoon, “You fucking idiot!” he was decrying, “You fucking stupid bastard!”. The tirade continued as the car disappeared out of sight and for all I know continued onwards to Barnes or Richmond or beyond.

It wasn’t only the disproportionate level of this response to a minor inconvenience that was amusing, it was also that fact that this unvented spleen was coming from the mouth of a man who looked like a bank manager, rather than some young, shaven-headed van driver, which prejudice might more readily expect – not an entirely unfair prejudice I would argue – just the other day I saw such a man calling a young female cyclist he had nearly knocked off her bike (entirely through his own incompetence I should add), “a fucking cunt”. Chivalry is not dead.

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Of course truth be told in cases like this, the minor incident is just a catalyst that has released some pent-up wrath that was no doubt created by something entirely unfunny and unpleasant. Anger surely comes from impotence and one can only imagine what horrors might make a man become so immediately incensed. For a man to be this wound up there must be some dark and awful hollowness and pain in his life. But to the casual observer all that was apparent was a sweary old man getting upset over nothing and so I laughed like a drain.

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And this incident might go some way to illustrating what all comedy is essentially about.