September 2023

Life Sentences

‘May condors never land on your tongue’

By Andrew Denton
A quizzical line from the author’s father has always reminded him of the importance of playfulness, whatever one’s age

Such was the farewell from Oglethorpe Smashfang the Third, also known as my dad, which regularly marked departures in our family. This (along with his Continuing Creed of the Dauntless Dentons: “One for all, all for one, and some abstaining”) has stayed with me since childhood. True, I’ve had little use for either phrase in everyday conversation. But the invitation they contain to be playful has remained a constant in my life.

Playfulness. When we talk of admirable qualities in humans, we tend to settle on the sober, nobler ones: courage, integrity, decency. All fine qualities, of course, but where is playfulness? I’m not simply talking about humour or wit or wordplay (even though playfulness can involve all three). By playfulness, I mean play – just as we did as children. With glee. Simply for the fun of it. Silliness without agenda.

One of the loveliest things about playfulness is that it is generally very intimate. Often between two people; sometimes just for yourself.

Many years back, I found myself a guest at the Sydney Peace Prize where the honoree was former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix. You may long ago have forgotten his role in uncovering the truth that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But you may still remember his appearance as a puppet in the movie Team America, created by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Memorably, “Hans” ends up being fed to a shark by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who initially greets him with the mildly racist “Hurro, Hans Brix”. (Okay, considerably racist, but this is from the makers of South Park, who appear to be cancel-proof, so…) I was mingling with my fellow peace-prizeniks after the event, when I suddenly realised Hans Blix was right behind me, briefly on his own. I can still remember that devilish thought entering my mind: “Well, you’re never going to get this chance again.” So I turned around, stuck out my hand, and, with a smile, gave my best puppet-Kim impersonation. “Hurro, Hans Brix…”

Hans looked at me inscrutably. It was a look that seemed to say, “What is wrong with this guy?”, but which may equally have been saying, “Not again.”

Either way, we exchanged pleasantries and moved on. I doubt he thought any more of it. The encounter was entirely private and had lasted less than 30 seconds. But, for me, such joy! I couldn’t wait to tell my wife, Jennifer, as we left the event. Her initial reaction – “You didn’t!” – quickly gave way to a burst of laughter. It was such a silly thing to do, and we both knew it.

All these years later, that playful moment – not for any audience, just for the fun of it – still brings me joy.

I sometimes wonder how much kinder the world would be if our leaders, when they met at summits, not only had to wear shorts but had to offer each other a picture of themselves at the age of eight, then speak to who that eight-year-old was. Who knows how many conflicts might have been avoided by a top-level game of Twister?

The late Australian writer Bob Ellis once described humour as being “the sparkle on the dark water”. He could have been talking about playfulness. Because, God knows, there’s a lot of dark water to go around. Much of it rising. Some of it now boiling, it seems. Who among us hasn’t learnt the meaning of the term “doomscrolling”?

Any friend of mine will tell you that I am not naturally inclined to optimism, being more of an “every cloud has a silver anvil” kind of guy. Yet, as I charge on through my seventh decade, I realise that the people to whom I am most drawn are the playful ones. The ones with that mischievous glint in their eye, who are up for a bit of silliness.

Jennifer and I are in firm agreement that one of the secrets to our startlingly long and still very happy marriage is our mutual commitment to being silly. This tends to surprise. Jennifer is, after all, a Serious Journalist. And, by default, this makes me Serious-Adjacent. But our days are often bookended by laughter: shared stupidities, some dating back decades, that mean nothing to anyone else, but which bring us delight.

If life can sometimes feel grim, playfulness is the antidote. At the very least, it’ll keep the condors off your tongue.

Andrew Denton

Andrew Denton is a broadcaster and television producer. He is the founder and director of Go Gentle Australia.

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