The not-sofreindly skies

Why you should never make a joke at the airport, or on the way there

I observe but one Cardinal Rule as I am being prodded and scanned by sullen strangers in the meat processing and dignity rendering plants our airports have become.

No joking.

No one-liners, Shaggy Dog stories, gags, puns or witty banter with the wand-wielding Gorgons at Security. If I see my old pal Jack in the lineup I may wave, semaphore, whistle, warble or tweet a greeting to him.  What I will NOT do is bellow “Hi Jack!”

Generally speaking the Rent-a-Gropers who staff the security check-ins have limited imagination and absolutely zero sense of humour. I know that any behaviour I exhibit that separates me from the milling herd can lead to an exceedingly tiresome visit to, as Paul Simon called it, The Little Room.

And it’s not getting better. Paul Chambers, a 28-year-old Englishman was arrested and convicted for making a joke while on his way to the airport.

It happened this way. Chambers was en route to an airport in Yorkshire to take off for a winter vacation. A snowfall closed the airport.  Chambers tweeted to his friends: “Crap! The airport’s closed. They’ve got one week to get their s—t together; otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

A lame joke for sure — but Mister Chambers did not send the message to the airport headquarters or to a newspaper reporter or a radio station hot line show — he sent it to his small circle of Twitter friends. His message was somehow intercepted, sent to the Yorkshire police and Chambers was duly arrested, charged and convicted of sending a ‘message of menacing character’.

Mister Chambers hired a lawyer and went to the High Court in London to have the conviction overturned. His defence? It wasn’t a ‘message of menace’; it was a joke.

His lawyer opened the argument by quoting a line of poetry: “Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough…” Surely the author of those lines was at least as culpable as Mister Chambers?  Better hope not. The line comes from a poem by Britain’s one-time poet laureate, John Betjeman. And it was meant as a joke.

Exhibit B: Some scurrilous advice from a chap named Shakespeare who wrote, “Let’s kill all the lawyers.”

To which the Lord Chief Justice commented: “That was a good joke in 1600 and it is still a good joke now.”

Mister Chamber’s lawyer added “And it WAS a joke, my Lord.”

Indeed. I’m happy to report that Mister Chambers won his case, his conviction was quashed and it is once again okay to make jokes — even on Twitter. Even about airports

And there are some splendid airport jokes.  Such as the one involving a harried and self-important MP caught in a crowd at the MacDonald-Cartier airport in Ottawa. Once again, a snow storm had hampered operations; flights were delayed and re-routed, passengers were milling around like herring and the lineups were long.

Nowhere longer than at the WestJet check in booth where a harried ticket agent was doing her best to placate irate travellers. The MP barged through the line and bulled his way up to the desk, demanding a boarding pass. The ticket agent looked at him and said “Sir, as you can see, there are many passengers ahead of you.  We’re doing our best to get everyone through just as quickly as possible. I’m afraid you’ll have to get back in the line and wait your turn.”

The MP went postal. He thumped the desk and roared “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

Not missing a beat, the WestJet ticket agent picked up the public address microphone and announced to the entire airport “Attention, please. We have a gentleman at the WestJet ticket counter who does not know who he is.  Anyone who thinks they may know this man is asked at this time to please step forward and identify him. Thank you.”

The crowd roared. The man snatched his wheeled suitcase and blustered off, tossing an obscene two-word curse over his shoulder.

The WestJet clerk picked up the microphone again and said sweetly: “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to get in line for that, too.”


Arthur Black is a columnist and author and lives on Salt Spring Island

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