Taking the fall

Anyone who has seen a swan, tail thrust to the sky, neck submerged scouring the sea bed, knows that even that magnificent creature has moments without grace. As children we used to wonder whether her Majesty the Queen still felt like a queen as she wiped her own behind, for surely no servant did it for her.

We all know the story of the lumberjack who sawed off the branch he was standing on. He was not okay. His buddies had to scrape up pieces of his flesh from the caterpillar tractor at the foot of the tree. They drew lots to chose which one would inform his wife and children. A painful tragedy. A dismal failure of union regulations: "No worker shall be required to saw into any branch that supports his weight." And yet we laugh. He shouldn't have been tap-dancing on that branch. He shouldn't have been juggling with that chainsaw. He shouldn't have been screaming his prowess to the surrounding treetops. Simple justice has been served. The higher they climb, the harder they fall, and the longer we laugh. Hubris, darling, hubris.

But a fall is not always fatal, and when it is not, dignity must be re-established. There is even more comedy in the recovery. In modern times people are more and more responsible for creating their own images, and the maintenance of dignity is crucial to this process..

And hasn't it always? It used to be called "Keeping up appearances."

"Keep the flag flying," said Mom, the daughter of a naval officer, as she would thrust combs into our hands on the way to church. "We must support your father." My father's occupation as organist and choirmaster unfortunately demanded such delicate exercises in collective hypocrisy. "It's only theatre," Mom counter-preached prophetically between the hymns, to be seen later losing the communion wafer down her sleeve, and deftly recovering it from its position on her elbow in a discrete and highly skilled one-armed manoeuvre, brilliantly executed as the other hand steadied the well-wiped chalice being thrust underneath her nose. A couple of sharp eyed choirboys were deeply impressed. And well they might be. It had been a close call. The organist's wife had taken a fall and recovered most elegantly.

Glossary
Jonathan Paul Cook 2010