The dangerous sport of book editing

You would never have thought that book editing was a dangerous practice, would you? The kind that elicits high insurance premiums, like surfing or investigative journalism? But I would suggest that it is.

I've just spent the last 40 minutes laughing uncontrollably in a coffee shop. Nearly wet myself. And it is my duty to tell you, as my faithful readers, just what I was laughing about.

I was sitting editing the first few chapters of a book that my dear friend and collaborator, fellow laughter facilitator & 'terminal cancer' survivor Kit Hammond Stapely, is hoping to send to a publishing house tomorrow (I am a magazine editor by profession - and sometimes do this kind of work). I could just about contain my giggles when I was reading her (true) story Amanda and the nighties, but when I got to the story entitled St John the Divine, I wasn't quite so lucky. Read on, you may see what I mean.

She writes: 'When I was living in New York I tended to use my ability to get a cab as an indicator of my spiritual alignment. Amazing things happened when I was in spiritual harmony. ln sudden heavy rain at the height of the rush hour, a cab stopped to let someone out - right where I was standing trying to shelter with my toddler son - and, acing the ruthless NYC competition, I slid us smoothly in. When I was frazzled and jangled and could not get a cab to save my life it was a sign to me to realign with my spirit.

'One evening in rush hour I was desperate to get a cab from West 110th Street home to 59th Street and 2nd Avenue and I offered up my usual cab prayer. We had plans to be collected by friends on the kerb-side en route to a smart dinner and I needed to change. I was running late and dreaded my husband’s fury if I screwed up the plans with his friends. Then I realised that, after the strange way I had spent the afternoon, I would probably never get a cab again.'

Feel the tension mounting? She goes on...

'It had started well - Susan, a photographer friend, had invited me to be part of a photo-shoot Life magazine had commissioned. It was to be in the baptismal chapel of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, the famous New York landmark that had taken over 100 years to build and which was reportedly still unfinished. It looked pretty finished to me and I had spent a wonderful afternoon tranquilly needle-pointing, listening to a choir practising Ave Maria and talking to the sumptuously robed cleric - 'The Star' and other cathedral clergy who came to watch - as the shoot progressed in front of me.

'The taxi-blighting recollection was the result of a naughty impulse that had got a bit out of hand. During the long, drawn-out, light-setting process which seemed to be part of any high quality photographic shoot in those days, Susan had said to me, “You look great today, I’d like to do some shots of you afterwards. Think about what you’d like to do.”

It was then that the subject matter started to get a bit risque - and I could feel the giggles bubbling up inside me as she wrote:

'I was conscious that, having lost a bit of weight, under my clothes I was wearing a glamorous lacy black all-in-one. So I told her I’d like to be photographed in my underwear in the enormous stone font - preferably with a champagne coupe (to echo the shape of the font) in my upheld hand.

'It was a joke - and we laughed at the incongruity - but Susan loved the underwear-in-the-cathedral idea, so later I found myself sitting on a prie-dieu in my glam undies, laughing uncontrollably in front of an eight-foot-tall carving of a crucifix. The cathedral seemed deserted except for us, but we were all uneasily aware that if any of the clergy returned it might seem a bit of a bloomin’ liberty and we were all frequently burst into laughter. It has long been my downfall that for me naughty laughter is irresistible.

'This scene loomed in my mind as I scanned the road for a cab. The menacing but empty road made me wonder if I’d ever be seen again. Once again my terrible lack of foresight and judgement had combined with what I liked to think of as spontaneity and a misplaced sense of humour had landed me in a situation that could quite easily get out of hand. It was obvious that I had got carried away, was going to be late for a previous obligation but West 110th St at dusk did not seem a healthy place for a lone woman from the upper East Side.

'A police car across the street had its lights on, doors open and engine running. I couldn’t decide whether this was ominous or reassuring. My husband was given to tirades that characterised my behaviour as stupid beyond belief with a failure to judge the sanity of my choices that bordered on imbecilic and sometimes it seemed to me that whatever I did I couldn’t get it right.

'A cab breasted the hill going in a downtown direction. Its light was off but if I were a cabbie with an empty cab, mine would have been too. I peered into it as it passed. Darn! Two passengers. It pulled up at red lights a little way beyond me and the driver leaned out of the window.

“Where you headed?” he yelled.

“59th & 2nd,” I yelled back in sudden hope.

“Get in,” he shouted and, in a state of bemused wonderment, I did.

'Guess where it turned out that his passengers were going? 59th & 2nd EXACTLY. My head was reeling with the total amazingness of what had just happened. This was Manhattan. Things like this just didn’t happen. This was a miracle which must mean - what? That I wasn’t damned to all eternity for posing in front of a crucifix in my scanties and laughing fit to bust? It was all a mystery to me but I was home, changed and on the kerb at the appointed hour.

'Susan told me later that she had a blow-up of one of the laughing photos in her studio and a visiting University Professor had insisted on buying a print, with a long explanation about the brilliance of an image depicting laughter and spirituality. I have a copy of the picture but I must say I was disappointed (well, it’s not my best angle and I hadn’t lost as much weight as I thought).'

OK, so did you get through that one without losing it? I nearly did. But when I read through another of Kit's stories, (below) I totally lost it and I had to ask one kind lady if she'd mind my bag while I recovered in the ladies'.

Here's what I was laughing about:

'There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote that says that he would rather laugh than cry because there is less cleaning up to do afterwards. This is not always true.

'My earliest memory of helplessly irresistible laughter was when I was six. I was at school and we were learning a new carol for Christmas:

Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, do not stir;
We will lend a coat of fur.
We will rock you, rock you, rock you,
We will rock you, rock you, rock you.
See the fur to keep you warm,
Snugly 'round your tiny form.

'I loved Christmas and all the carols - Away in a Manger, The First Noel, Once in Royal David’s City, Silent Night and Oh Little Town of Bethlehem were some of my favourite songs. But this one just made me laugh. Something about imagining Jesus as a tiny baby wrapped in fur, struck me as so ludicrously funny that I dissolved into helpless laughter and I found I couldn’t stop. Another girl caught my eye and my laughter and in a split second we were in fits of uncontrollable giggles which escalated as the “rock you” repetitions built.

'The teacher frowned repressively at us and we fought to subdue our mirth as the others continued with the second verse...

Mary's little baby, sleep, sweetly sleep,
Sleep in comfort, slumber deep.
We will rock you, rock you, rock you,
We will rock you, rock you, rock you.
We will serve you all we can,
Darling, darling little man.

'My fragile composure was severely tested by more ‘rock-yous’ as the chorus rolled around but “Darling, darling little man” was the coup de grace and, no longer aware of my co-laugher, I laughed in an ecstasy of total abandon that I still remember today.

'Unfortunately in that total abandon I lost control of my bladder. I can still recall the joy of that total lack of inhibition and my uncomfortable consciousness that I was in deep disgrace. It set a pattern for my life - and from that day on I found that my misplaced sense of humour often got me into deep trouble. Looking back it comforts me to know that it also helped me to recover from the deadly threat of first ‘incurable’ and then ‘incurable and aggressive’ cancer.'

My friend Kit is, it has to be said, a bit of a laughter pioneer. She believes in its power to transform any situation and is quoted to have said, 'if you can laugh at something - I don't care how 'serious' it is - you can survive it!' And she would know! She said that without the ability to laugh, she simply wouldn't have survived. Kit has now, curiously, outlived her two oncologists!

And of course there are taboos around laughter - none of them stronger than the one that exists between laughter and religion - the two words are rarely used in the same sentence! And Kit actually brings this taboo out into the open in her introduction to the first story by using a quote from Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister, George MacDonald: 'It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in His presence'.

I'm all for breaking taboos myself: surely God, Source, Spirit (or whatever you choose to call it) can cope with that.... Why limit the divine?

If you have strong views about it, I'd love to hear them... I'd also like to know whether you got through this post without either laughing or crying...

Join us for An Introduction to the Joy Club in Guildford on Thursday April 18th (7-9 pm) or contact Kit at kit@stapely.com or www.miraclesdohappen.org.uk/

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