Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday 10 December 2013

'Oh what a circus! Oh what a show!'

Picture the scene, if you will; it is a Thursday evening in the mid-1980s in the home of a venerable seat of learning, and the smallest bar in town is hosting 'Red Shift', the weekly club night of University Left.

This political umbrella group embraces socialists of every hue, from earnestly myopic Fabians in ethnic scarves to donkey-jacketed hard-line Trotskyites, and this is where they all go to let their hair down among like-minded souls. It's not always easy - men can't ask women to dance because it upsets the feminists ('Don't you oppress me!') and, in any case, nobody wants to look as if they are having fun and ignoring the suffering millions.

But one thing is certain; as the strains of one particular track fill the room, the tiny dancefloor will suddenly be packed. This is the spiritual communion; the seemingly disparate united in song and dance, exhorting a detested regime to 'Free-ee Nelson Mandela'.

For three short minutes, everyone there is an honorary black South African, sharing the pain of an oppressed people and shouting their cause to the rooftops. The true cognoscenti alternate the lyric with 'Free Walter Sisulu', smugly demonstrating - albeit to the already converted - that their knowledge goes further than a mere song title.

It is, of course, compulsory; no one would dare sit this one out and risk the accusing looks and the taint of indifference to the cause or, worse, potential racism. It is the anthem that defines a generation of socialists, a manifestation of their political credentials as much as a genuine expression of belief.

This, I believe, is what is at the root of the BBC's all-encompassing coverage of Mandela's death, a juggernaut so unstoppable that it displaced not only the usual Friday night TV comedies but even the harmlessly soporific 'Book at Bedtime' on Radio 4.

For those 1980s left-wing undergraduates, the ecstatic unity of purpose evoked by 'Free Nelson Mandela' may well have provided their closest approach to a  religious experience, now imbued with an added glow of nostalgia for their gilded youth and the heady days of revolution and camaraderie.

Given the number of them who must now be in influential positions in the media, the extent of the coverage was surely as inevitable as the response to a Pavlovian dinner-bell.

As a remedy, for those weary of the crass media bombardment,  I heartily recommend the elegantly satirical prose of Caedmon's Cat.


  1. Thank you for the plug! Best miaows to you and your followers!

  2. My pleasure,CC.

    I'd slept late on Tuesday and, being woken by R4 (on a timer) blasting out 'The Long Walk to Freedom', my first bleary thought was that, not content with saturating the airwaves, the BBC were now proclaiming the Great Man's memoirs from vans in the street outside.

    Your piece was thus a welcome aid to restoring a sense of proportion - my thanks!

  3. For those 1980s left-wing undergraduates

    And even former 70s ones ...


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