When I got out of the car at Newby Bridge tears were streaming down my face. It was if I had been training to stand on a podium listening to the National Anthem with a gold medal in my hand. But these tears weren’t of joy or sentiment or of my deep and abiding love for my coach, they were tears of laughter. I’d been listening on the radio to a recording of Gerard Hoffnung’s speech to the Oxford Union in 1958 in which he read out a letter from a bricklayer to his employers explaining why he needed a period of sick leave. The letter, which was described as “a striking lesson in keeping the upper lip stiff” has become known as “The Bricklayer’s Lament”.
Hoffnung died of a brain haemorrhage aged 34, a year after the recording was made. He had already made a name for himself as a cartoonist, humourist and broadcaster. He was a regular on the radio show, One Minute Please, before it changed its name to Just a Minute. Hoffnung was German. If he’d survived I don’t think anyone would be making jokes about the Germans not having a sense of humour.