The great Gateshead Mandela dilemma

A joke is basically made up of two parts; both parts are truisms of some kind. The first part – the set up – provides some context for the joke; the second part – the punchline – in some senses appears logical, but provides an unexpected twist. The listener is wrong footed by the joke; tricked. That’s what they find funny.

The replay against Gateshead was approached with a degree of excitement; we were on telly, which is pretty much enough to get us excited. What became abundantly clear from the early minutes of the game, was that for a number of reasons, this was going to be the worst game in the history of mankind.

In reality, as the days have passed, the performance appears marginally more impressive. The weather was terrible, it went to extra time and we ended with six under 20s. It wasn’t nice to watch, but it was a job well done in adverse conditions.

Of course, most people would have looked at that fixture, quickly have reached the conclusion it wasn’t up to much and not bothered to tune in. We, on the other hand, had something invested in the fixture.

As the game meandered on, there was admirable gallows humour flitting around Twitter. We drifted into the second half and the tweets faded to nothing. We were like a married couple on their first night out together after a new baby; after checking that the baby was OK, then joking weakly about how everything had changed, we eventually fell silent unable to muster any meaningful conversation. It felt like our souls were draining away.

Then, in an improbable turn of events, Nelson Mandela died. And that was awkward. We were presented with a dilemma; do you ignore it until after the game, acknowledge the death of a iconic inspiration then return to, what was by some distance, a trivial game or give up on the game as a mark of respect and join in the global grieving?

There really is no rule book on how to behave in such moments.

Then, of course, there was The Joke; Oxford v Gateshead was the set up; the Mandela death was, and I don’t say this with any great pride, the punchline. Had the game finished him off? Was the combination of the worst game in the world and the death of Mandela the signal that we were entering a new dark age? Was the greatest tragedy of them all is that he died never knowing that Deane Smalley had put us through?

Now, when Oscar Pistorius shot Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day with the defence that he’d done it by accident after being spooked by a noise, Jamie Cook tweeted:

Roses are red
Violets are glorious
Just don’t go surprising
Oscar Pistorius

Was that too soon? It’s not a joke that would have worked on any other day in history. He just had to get it out there. It was brave, potentially offensive, but it was funny.

Could we ‘do’ The Mandela Joke? We couldn’t really even discuss whether we could do the Mandela joke. But it was there to be told. When was the last time Oxford were on TV at the same time a global icon died? I’ve had a look and we weren’t even playing the night Rod Hull died.

But, here’s the thing. If you’re a global figurehead of peace, or even if you’re a beatified communist, as Nick Griffin charmlessly tweeted, you’re probably capable of distinguishing the difference between a light hearted joke and something offensive.

Griffin aside, who is evidently a gormless buffoon, Mandela’s legacy is pretty much a given; BT Sport really didn’t need to hurry away from their coverage in order to find out that Gary Mabbutt thinks he was a good man. Radio 5 Live dedicated practically all of Friday to people who had met him who would ‘never forget it for rest of my life’.

As if people forget they’ve met Nelson Mandela.

“Did you ever meet Nelson Mandela.”
“Um, er, no I don’t think I did.”
“What about this photo?”
“Wow, blimey, I don’t know, I’ve got a memory like a goldfish”

So, I really don’t see that solemn reverence is absolutely necessary when remembering someone’s life; particularly when that life has been 95 years old. Context is everything, of course, but making a light hearted joke is not in itself offensive. And that’s not just my guilty conscience speaking.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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