Conversation recall · On writing

A numerical joke, and its relevance here

My cousin Eamonn is a great joke-teller. He also knows the words to hundreds of songs. My brother shares these traits. As I have noted more than once, starting with this piece, there seems to be a link between people’s ability to tell jokes and their ability to remember the lyrics to songs. Many years ago, at my daughter’s baptism, Eamonn told a joke about an American tourist visiting Ireland, as follows.

An American tourist, visiting Ireland for the first time, is sat at the bar in a village pub one evening. As the locals arrive and take their places he notices a pattern to their conversation.

One chap comes in and says, before ordering his drink, “17”. The barman smiles, nods and pours him a drink.

Another man comes in, greets the other regular and the barman and says “32”. All three chuckle.

A third regular comes in, a big jovial chap, and says “21”. Everybody titters. He follows it up with “42” and the place erupts in raucous laughter.

When the pub has settled down the American tourist asks the barman what it all means. “Well, sir, we all grew up together and we’ve known each other for over 20 years now. We realized some time ago that we all knew the same jokes. We categorized them, gave them each a number, and now, rather than telling the joke, we just say the number. We all remember the joke and have a laugh that way.”

The following evening the American tourist is back at the bar. The previous evening’s scene begins to unfold. The first of the regulars arrives, says “19” and is rewarded with a wry smile from the barman. The second chap comes in, says “23” and there are a few mild chuckles. The big, jovial chap comes in and, before he says anything, the tourist seizes his opportunity.

“17”, he says.


He follows it up with, “32”.

Embarrassed silence.

He blurts out “42”, the number that brought the house down the previous day.

Deep embarrassed silence, all the locals staring at the floor.

He gets ready to leave and asks the barman, “What did I do wrong? 17 got a smile yesterday, 32 got a laugh. The place erupted when that fella said 42. I thought these jokes were funny.”

The barman pauses and says, simply, “It’s the way you tell ‘em.”


Why am I telling you this? Well, frequently my conversations touch on stories and subjects that are somewhere on this Blog. Like the joke-tellers in the Irish bar I could catalogue them and refer people to them when a specific subject comes up. Did I tell you the story of someone vomiting on my carpet in my first year at university? It’s here. Remember those sentences with adverbs that we used to make up (“Have you been to Norfolk,” she asked, flatly, or “No, I haven’t read that big book by Victor Hugo …” said Les miserably)? They’re all here. This became increasingly obvious earlier this month when I was visiting my brother in Spain. What do I really think of “Astral Weeks”? It’s here. What was that mnemonic for the former USSR states? It’s right here. And, still one of my favourite stories, that one about drinking Veuve Cliquot champagne the summer my brother got married, it’s recorded here. We told it to his 26-year-old son, possibly the first time he had heard it. Like the joke about the American tourist visiting Ireland it works best when spoken out loud, face-to-face, but I’ll continue to record such stories here. And if I ever get around to numbering them I hope that 42 is a cracker.




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