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Jokes aside, there are many ways of coping

Who wants to hear a funny story about the death of my dad? The scene is the Institute of Physics teachers' summer school, held in Dunfermline in the last week of May.

The principal characters are John, who is coming from points north to talk about a proposed curricular development, and Geraldine, a well-loved and now sadly moved-on admin lady.

Geraldine meets John in the foyer of the conference centre where the day's workshops will take place. She decides it would be tactful to fill him in on my situation, in case he has doesn't know. "Have you heard about Gregor?" she asks. John looks a little blank, so Geraldine helpfully adds, "his dad".

This is said in a gentle South African accent that has charmed a myriad of hotel managers and suppliers over two years. Unfortunately, John hears "his dad" as "he's dead". He begins to crumple at this news, but it is the next statement that really floors him. "It's OK, he's here. The funeral's not until Friday."

The above anecdote, with its image of me lying in state in front of 20 physics teachers, has just the right balance of bad taste and irreverence to have appealed to my father. I told it at the sausage roll and sandwich bash after the funeral ceremony, along with a Billy Connolly joke my dad liked, about a man who buried his wife in the wash-house but left her behind sticking up.

My mother worked in special education for a time and I suppose some of the staff humour in a few of these places could be considered off-colour. The version of "Beautiful Sunday" she and some fellow college students made up mentioning all the conditions they had to learn about, complete with actions, would not appeal to everyone - "Hy-per-active, hy-po-tonic ."

This seems to be a coping strategy of all the professions, though most examples I've seen in teaching are tame in comparison to the spoof helpline a psychiatrist I know told me about. "If you're an obsessive compulsive, press 3. Then press 3 again. Then press 3 again ."

Gregor Steele can be contacted at, for those who need to know the punchline of the wash-house joke.

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