Two cautionary tales

Two cautionary tales

Dan O’Hara castigates Freethinker editor Barry Duke for ridiculing the dead American pastor, Kyle Lake, above. Diesel Balaam leaps to Duke’s defence.

HERE are two cautionary tales, both true. In late December 1995, a woman of 72 was refilling a burning paraffin stove at her home in Lewisham, England, when the paraffin spilled and ignited.

The house was partially gutted and she was rendered homeless. Many of her possessions were destroyed, but she fortunately escaped almost unharmed. A friend took her into his home until she was rehoused by the council a few months later. She was very lucky.

On October 30, 2005, a man of 33 was baptising converts in a pool of water in Waco, Texas, when he asked for a microphone to address the assembled congregation. It was handed to him, but unfortunately it was not earthed, and he was instantly electrocuted before 800 people. He was very unlucky.

How did the Freethinker report these events? The first – rather oddly – appears not to have been reported at all, even though the subject was (and is) well-known to all its readers. She was the President of the National Secular Society, and a regular contributor to the Freethinker, Barbara Smoker.

The second concerns a young Baptist Minister, Kyle Lake, whose last words on earth were “surprise me, God”.

Freethinker editor Barry Duke made no attempt, in the June 2006 issue, to disguise his glee at Kyle’s tragic and fatal misfortune, describing him as:

Too damn dumb to realise that in the real world – and not in the religious La-La land in which he dwelt – electrical equipment and water don’t mix terribly well.

Had Ms Smoker’s experience been reported, it might have been apposite to point out that it is also unwise to fill a paraffin stove while it is actually alight, although you may have done it before without mishap. Even so, there should have been no gloating at her – admittedly lesser – misfortune.

But Kyle Lake received no such sympathy or consideration, merely ridicule. How does the editor further view this young man? He describes him as:

First in line when boyish good looks and perfect teeth were handed out.

This suggests he might have thought Kyle better employed modelling for some of the magazines sold in the “shop selling adult material” where the editor now has a “hugely satisfying part-time job as a sales assistant”.

“Oh, what a pity [Kyle] did not stick around long enough to collect a decent dollop of common sense” coos the editor: but do we believe in his sincerity?

The rest of the story suggests we should not!

At least Ms Smoker lived to reflect upon her own lack of common sense, and perhaps on the different paths taken by those close members
of her family who did not reject the Catholic faith in which they were all raised.

As for Kyle Lake, the Freethinker predictably ridicules any suggestion that he might be enjoying a post-mortem life with the Lord he tried to serve.

It is almost as though it was his very faith – not an action no less unwise than Miss Smoker’s – that justified his fate in the eyes of the Freethinker.

Readers must, of course, make up their own minds.

Editor’s note: Dan O’Hara, ex-cleric, ex-President of the National Secular Society, circulated his “Two Cautionary Tales” on the web, prior to submitting it to the Freethinker for publication.

Among those who reacted in a calm and considered manner to his round-robin email was Diesel Balaam, who responded as follows.

I don’t think the editor of the Freethinker regards the fate of the unfortunate Kyle Lake as any less tragic than the fate of Barbara Smoker would have been, under slightly different circumstances (thankfully not so).

I’m sure if he had been a sceptical observer at Lake’s baptismal pool, he would have been the first person either to disconnect the electronic equipment in order to avert the tragedy, or otherwise offer cardio-vascular massage or mouth-to-mouth once it had happened (whether the preacher had boyish good looks and perfect teeth, or not).

Isn’t the – admittedly dark – humour in this story based on irony? The unforeseen tragedy of one who claims to have special insight, one who is trying to “save” others, one who believes himself chosen to do God’s work, and one who believes our benevolent Father will dramatically intervene to protect the righteous?

There is also something very British in enjoying the calamities that befall pompous self-regard and authority (hence our love of Hyacinth Bucket
and Captain Mainwaring). None of this detracts from the horror of another human being accidentally electrocuting themselves – it’s the circumstances surrounding the tragedy that are funny, not the tragedy itself.

The Barbara Smoker story holds no such irony or pomposity (and hence no comedic or illuminating value), although there is a small amount of irony in her surname and her momentary lapse in rational thinking. It’s worth remembering that no amusing joke or anecdote is ever in bad taste, there is only bad context (spatial and temporal).

The treatment of the Kyle Lake tragedy is amusing in the Freethinker; it would be cruel and reprehensible in Lake’s parish magazine, though less so, many years after the tragic event occurred.

Similarly, Barbara’s misfortune shouldn’t be made light of in the Freethinker, though it might well amuse a congregation of Texan evangelicals, should any of them be capable of grasping the scintilla of irony in her story.

Jokes and humorous anecdotes perform useful social functions, one of which allows us to cope with life’s often grotesque game of chance. I once laughed out loud after hearing that someone had died after being struck by a cabbage thrown at random from a passing lorry. Does that make me a bad, uncaring person? Of course not.

Rather like the editor of the FT, I’ve just got a Pythonesque sense of humour.


Graham Norton, above, got himself into hot water a couple of years ago for topically making light of the death of one of the BeeGees (was it Maurice?), by pondering aloud whether his heart monitor was singing “Staying Alive”. A funny remark, made on this side of the Atlantic, but possibly uttered a bit too soon on a TV programme widely syndicated in the US, where it was inevitably seen by the surviving Gibb brothers.

Even more controversially, there was the female Tory MP, who shortly after the Morecambe cockling tragedy in 2004 opened a private speaking engagement with a joke about two hungry sharks swimming up to Morecambe Bay because they were fed up of chasing tuna and decided they “should get some Chinese”.

And who remembers the (then) topical joke in the mid-1980s:

Why is a gay man like a turkey? Because they both go gobble-gobble-gobble and they’ll both be dead by Christmas!

What should our response as humanist freethinkers be to these jokes, given the pain of the tragic situations that inspired them?

Our first response should be to laugh, if we find them funny. Then we can marvel at the very human capacity to use black humour creatively as a coping mechanism for all the dreadful things that happen in the world, or that we fear might happen to us. Finally, we can admit to, and even celebrate, our own very human capacity for sadism and schadenfreude.

Freud wrote extensively about jokes, of course, and we should not underestimate their value, even if we find ourselves tut-tutting at the way our unconscious reveals our latent desire to think the unthinkable and speak the unutterable. Jokes are freethought in its purest form.

One of my favourite amusing anecdotes involves Noel Coward, who once attended a royal procession, during which a very large and regal black lady swept past in an open carriage.

“Who’s that lady?” someone enquired of Coward. “The Queen of Tonga” he informed them. “And who’s that little man sitting next to
her?” they asked. “Oh, probably her lunch!” he replied. Naughty and very un-PC, but I bet you smiled at that too, Dan.

Humour is amoral, because it mirrors our unconscious and the vicissitudes of the natural world, which are also amoral.

• This slightly amended piece first appeared in the September, 2006, edition of the Freethinker.

3 responses to “Two cautionary tales”

  1. John C says:

    What a rambling load of waffle, odd though Barry that you missed out on the irony of the name Smoker and a conflagration,lets face it, regardless of partisan loyalties,given the lucky survival, its good for a laugh.As to the other prat, “suprise me god “many would think he got what he asked for.

  2. What you dismissively describe as “waffle” John, is actually discursive polemic. Isn’t that what freethinkers are supposed to do – interrogate matters and try to get to the nub and essence of any given situation or claim?

  3. Norman says:

    I once laughed out loud after hearing that someone had died after being struck by a cabbage thrown at random from a passing lorry. Does that make me a bad, uncaring person? Of course not.

    Actually , it does. You sound thoroughly unpleasant. At the end of the day someone died, and in front of others which is quite horrifying. Laughing at someones death is vile. He didn’t murder/abuse anyone, he simply held different views to the writer. The writer may as well have written ‘someone died LOL!!’ and it would in essence be the same thing. The article indicates more how insufferable Barry is than anything else.