A VERY funny story going the rounds by email is The Bricklayer’s Lament which is supposed to be a letter to an insurance company that explains how the tradesman received severe on-site injuries.
Ah yes, I said smugly when someone sent me a copy. I have an LP recording of it, as told by the late Gerard Hoffnung at the Oxford Union in 1958.
Hoffnung was a musician, cartoonist, broadcaster and humorist. At the Royal Festival Hall, he memorably presented composer Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture, opus 57, dedicated to US President Herbert Hoover that was scored for several vacuum cleaners and other domestic appliances.
His slow and ponderous delivery of the Bricklayer’s Lament was hilarious. But the story was not his.
Irish singer-songwriter Pat Cooksey used the story for his song Paddy and the Barrel in 1969.
Cooksey says: "The song was based on Gerard Hoffnung’s wonderful address to the Oxford Union, but the story in a more simple form dates back to the English music halls in the 1920s."
But wait. There’s more.
According to Snopes.com – the website that gets to the bottom of most urban myths and legends – the story was first sighted in an 1895 newspaper, has been published in various forms since and was used as a visual gag in the 1937 Laurel and Hardy film Way Out West.
Here is a shortened version of the story now going the rounds about the bricklayer’s letter to the insurance company:
"When I completed my work on the sixth floor, I had some bricks left over which weighed 240lbs. Rather than carry them down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley which was attached to the side of the building.
"Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out and loaded the bricks into it. Then I went down and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent. Did I mention that my weight is 135lbs?
"Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground, I forgot to let go of the rope and proceeded at a rapid rate up the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor I met the barrel which was now proceeding downward at an equally impressive speed. This explains the fractured skull, minor abrasions and the broken collarbone as listed in Section 3 of the accident report form.
"I continued my rapid ascent, not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulley. The barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel.
"Devoid of the weight of the bricks, I began a rapid descent down the side of the building as the now empty barrel began to rise.
"In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles, broken tooth and severe lacerations of my legs and lower body. When I fell into the pile of bricks, I cracked three ribs.
"I am sorry to report, however, as I lay there in pain, I lost my composure and presence of mind and let go of the rope and could only watch the empty barrel begin its journey back down."
No doubt a version of it will still be circulating in another 100 years.