Happy Birthday Nelson Mandela: I Was There When You Confused Leeds With Liverpool

In spite of all his achievements and being widely regarded as a living legend - it was his knowledge, or lack of knowledge, about UK geography that made this writer's encounter with Nelson Mandela memorable...
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In spite of all his achievements and being widely regarded as a living legend - it was his knowledge, or lack of knowledge, about UK geography that made this writer's encounter with Nelson Mandela memorable...

Lots of people have really inspirational tales about Nelson Mandela. About how his stand against apartheid inspired them to continue in their own life struggles. About how doing the right thing is always important, no matter what the personal cost. About how good will always win out over evil in the end, as long as you keep the faith.

This is not one of those stories.

Ten years ago, I rolled out of university and somehow into a job as a TV researcher at Yorkshire Television in Leeds. The work was hard, the hours were ludicrously long and the pay ridiculously small, but I didn't give a monkey's. I was now part of the media elite, dah-ling. Plus there were bonuses. I used to go and bother studio staff that had been there forever and ask where Rigsby had first serenaded Miss Jones. I once got pissed with Keith Barron whilst he regaled the gathered throng with stories of making 'Duty Free', the sitcom with the characters apparently permanently stuck in the Costa Del Sol. Richard Whiteley was forever forgetting his swipe card, so you'd see him trapped in corridors, begging to be freed from this prison of his own creation. It was completely outstanding and I loved it.

My immediate boss was a lovely woman, superbly intelligent, extremely daffy, and the sort of person whose extreme left wing attitude breaks TalkSport listeners out in hives. She spoke in the voice of the well-bred hippy, and had nothing but love and concern for everyone. Well, apart from anyone who was against anything. She was Auntie Anti-Anti.

One Tuesday morning, she called our production team together and informed us we were having the morning off. As I was about to curse her for not telling me the day before and thus affording me another beer with Keith Barron, she told us that it was an absolute human right to have the morning off, as Nelson Mandela was visiting Nelson Mandela Garden in Leeds (well, why wouldn't he?), and we were only doing our duty as good, civic minded human beings to go and praise him. Fine by me, a morning not kicking about the studios avoiding Carol Vorderman's hair.

So we piled into a taxi (paid for by ITV, those were the days!), and made our way into the city centre. I doubt there was very much productivity happening in West Yorkshire that morning, as there must've been about 10,000 people there, skiving off work to catch a glimpse of the Great Man. We hustled our way somewhere to the middle of the throng, and waited. And waited. Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock. And then some action! Oh, hold on, it was just Jon Snow off Channel Four News, evidently MC-ing proceedings.

Mr Snow came to the front of the stage and informed us that Mr Mandela was on his way, but in the meantime, we would be entertained by....oh, no...some kids from some school somewhere doing some traditional South African dancing. Interminable. So we stood and watched these children do their dance or whatever it was. I didn't care. I was bored.

I was disappointed he wasn't wearing one of his trademark wild, flowery shirts, it was still Nelson bloody Mandela standing in front of us.

Then Ladysmith Black Mambazo came out, and they did a song. Then the kids came back out and did another dance whilst Ladysmith Black Mambazo did another song. It seemed to me that Nelson Mandela was the South African James Brown, demanding a huge pre show to his appearance. I half expected him to come onto stage, eventually, with a huge cape on, pretend to be dead, and then majestically flick it off his shoulders before Moonwalking backwards towards his drummer and bursting into 'Living In America'.

Then Jon Snow came out again. Was this it? Was this the time we would see the South African leader? No, of course it fucking wasn't. This time it was Lucas Radebe's turn to come out and say a few words. You had to say it was fortuitous on the side of the organisers of this event to have the current South Africa captain currently plying his trade at Leeds United. As a Middlesbrough fan, I'd have normally booed him, but I didn't think that was particularly wise. He was a pretty eloquent bloke on this day, but it meant nothing to me. My impatience was rising. Nelson Mandela was keeping me waiting, what is this?!

Time passes.

More time passes.

More kids dance.

Someone plays some drums.

The kids dance again. Even they'd had enough by now.

Not soon enough,  Jon Snow was back again, this time telling us that Nelson Mandela was here and would be with us soon; in fact, what's that? He's ready for us now? A glimpse was caught of him, and the crowd erupted. Wild applause and the air was electric with the moment. A real moment, one that I found myself caught up in, all cynicism  cast aside; this man truly is a legend. Nelson Mandela took to the stage, and although I was disappointed he wasn't wearing one of his trademark wild, flowery shirts, it was still Nelson bloody Mandela standing in front of us.

He slowly walked to the microphone and an awed hush descended over the crowd. What wisdom would he impart on the people of Leeds? What would he say of his struggles and his triumphs to us mortals in West Yorks? He took the mic in one hand and said, in his best Harry-Enfield-doing-Nelson-Mandela voice:

"Hello Liverpool!"

The silence turned from awed to stunned. No-one said a word. Apart from me.

"Oh!" I said. Then I laughed.

I don't remember much else of what he said, I was too busy laughing and saying "Hello Liverpool!" in cod Sarth Ifrican, and being glared for such disrespect.

Later on, my lovely boss was waxing lyrical about what an experience it had been anyway and how she hoped no-one in the media concentrated on the slip up. "He is a rather old man, now" she said "and I think....yes, I think he IS going to Liverpool on this trip, so you can see how it would happen. I do hope no-one keeps going on about it."

The Yorkshire Evening Post arrived later that day. There were just two words on the headline, in 72 point print, along with a picture of Mandela. Of course, you can guess what they were.

"Well!", my boss said. "The shits!"

We didn't see her for three days after that.

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Nelson Mandela And The Soul Of Sophiatown

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