Sorry Ricky, that joke isn't funny any more

"Mong face" is just a punchline desperately in search of a set-up.

I once went to see Bernard Manning and I laughed so much it hurt. It was the night he died.

No, it wasn't. It was during my days as a provincial hack, when Manning had come to do a show, I was offered review tickets and I went out of idle curiosity. Turning up a little late, Manning wheezed onto stage -- he was in his 70s -- and complained about how he'd got his Rolls Royce lost in Tooting.

"It's full of fucking Pakis there, isn't it?" he roared, and you could sense the relief and joy in the room. Yes, we were going to get our racist jokes. All was going to be right with the world. Here we were, in a safe place from nascent political correctness, which was already going mad.

I did laugh a lot at his jokes at first. Manning, whatever else you think of him, had great comic timing, and some of the material was funny.

I say this, as you know, as a fully paid-up member of the PC Brigade and the fun-hating Left (capital L essential). But about halfway through, I found I wasn't laughing so much. Bernard packed the second half of his act with more and more (badly crooned) songs; even after a lifetime in the business, his material didn't stretch to more than an hour. Because there came a point when, having heard gag after gag in which the Jew, the Paki, the nigger, the woman or whoever was on the receiving end, it became pretty predictable. And you got the sense that he knew that himself.

Which brings me to Ricky Gervais. After tweeting a picture of his "mong face" the other day, he unleashed a gentle tornado of disapproval. Many condemned him for the use of the word; others were disappointed with his behaviour afterwards, in which he claimed that "haters" were just jealous of his success.

Richard Herring, who knows a sight more about comedy than I do, wrote a well-crafted blogpost about why it jarred with him.

It jarred with me too, not because of the word itself but because, as was the case with Bernard Manning, there can come a point where offensive jokes stop being funny, where the situation shifts and it begins to look like simple trash talk, of one stronger person picking on a weaker person. For me, the time when Gervais's followers started berating anyone who had taken offence was when it stopped being funny, if it ever had been.

I'll put my hand up now for the avoidance of doubt and say I like offensive jokes. On his most recent tour, I saw Jimmy Carr complete a night of brilliant gags with an encore in which he tested his audience by telling increasingly shocking jokes. It culminated with a one-liner so extraordinarily filthy that I really can't repeat it here -- suffice it to say it was truly vile and unpleasant. And hilarious. But your mileage may vary. You may have sat through it in stony silence, horrified, wondering why on earth anyone would find that amusing. Not me; I loved it.

I think comedy can be about testing boundaries and revealing to ourselves the prejudiced, awkward, dark and downright unpleasant folk we sometimes are deep down inside.

Whether it's Frankie Boyle mocking the weak or Stewart Lee honing a typically convoluted riff about wanting to see Richard Hammond decapitated, it makes me laugh. Look back at now revered classics like Derek and Clive or The Producers, and there are still parts that should -- and do -- make you wince. But I find myself laughing, too.

And one of my all-time favourite moments of TV -- Alan Partridge temporarily escaping from his crazed stalker, Jez -- relies on the line "No way you big spastic, you're a mentalist!"

So what's the difference there between Partridge's "spastic" and Gervais's "mong"? Why do I find one funny and the other tragic? I think it comes down to a question of tone. Partridge is berating someone who's tried to imprison him, and you can forgive his use of the playground slur as a punchline; with Gervais there is no set-up, there's just a punchline. Mong. I look like a mong! Mong. That's all there is to it.

True, some people do go out of their way take offence, others can't help being offended, and others aren't offended at all. I tend to fall into the latter category when it comes to comedy, but that doesn't mean I can't see understand why people are upset, offended and dismayed by certain jokes. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you're going to hurt others' feelings.

Sometimes that's a price worth paying for a laugh, and sometimes it isn't.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror