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Mark Thomas: "My career is built out of the smell of burned bridges"

The comedian and activist on his new show and walking the "wall" between Israel and the West Bank.

The comedian and activist Mark Thomas has campaigned against the arms trade, tried to write a manifesto for a people's revolution and once wrote a column in the New Statesman joking that a bounty should be put on George Bush's head. His latest venture, "Extreme Rambling: Walking the Wall", involved spending eight weeks following the route of the "separation barrier" that divides Israel and the West Bank.

He describes it as "the story of 300,000 settlers, a 750km wall, six arrests, one stoning, too much houmous and a simple question . . . Can you ever get away from it all with a good walk?"

I attended one of the early shows in the run and thought NS readers might like to catch up with what Mark is doing now, so I collared him for a chat . . .

What was the most memorable thing about walking the wall?

Walking in Hebron was a very personal thing. There were about four of us and we got to the top of this hill. There's virtually nothing there. There is a wall, there are four houses. And two kids come out of the house.

They say "Shalom" and nip back into the house. The mum comes out and says: "Have you had breakfast?" We say: "That's very kind of you," so she comes out with this massive kettle of tea -- with all the little glasses.

Five minutes later, we are just finishing the tea when she comes out with home-made bread, home-made sheep's milk yoghurt, home-made sheep's milk butter, home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers and home-cured olives.

I sat there and thought: "I am never going to experience this again in my life -- this level of ingrained hospitality to strangers." It was so beautiful -- I don't want to sound this romantic but it was amazing.

What was most eye-opening about the experience?

Bureaucracy. If you are Palestinian, you aren't given building permits. In 2008, 128 were given to a population of a quarter of a million.

That means when your family gets bigger -- your son or daughter gets married and starts having children, for example -- you can't build extensions to your home. Just 13 per cent of land in East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinians. On top of that, you have to get permission, which you won't get. So Palestinians have to build illegally.

The [Israeli] settlers find out about this, they get court orders to shut down the rooms that have been added and then they try to gain entrance to occupy the rooms. This happens house by house, lot by lot.

Is it a depressing place to be?

What was brilliant was the number of Palestinians who talked about, and were committed to, non-violent resistance.

There were people from the "Stop the Wall" campaign, organisers from Jordan Valley, people who do tree planting and the Christians who issued the Kairos Palestine document, which is an answer to the people who say, "God gave us the land." When the Christians get it right, they do it really well!

And you have the Combatants for Peace: remarkable people who make these personal journeys of overcoming their fears and seeing through the prejudice.

What is interesting is that everyone is talking about non-violent resistance but there is not one of them who, at some point, will not have felt the rage that says, "Do unto them as they have done unto us." And that's completely natural.

What about on a broader scale?

Nationally, the politics is fucked; the national politicians are fucked. But the community leaders are astounding. Seeing those things gives you hope.

Tell me about your experiences at the refugee camp in Jenin.

There's this place called Freedom Theatre. I went in to see people studying drama. There are three women studying drama in a refugee camp -- they are the most erudite and lucid women.

One of them was called a slag because she does the drama course -- and some people put around leaflets saying she was a tart. Her family walked her in to the theatre to do the drama degree, physically fighting the people who were putting out the leaflets. It sounds awful but I thought it was fucking great. Someone fighting to let their daughter do drama!

One guy told me that suicide bombing was an option for him. He thought that it was a very noble thing to defend your community, until he discovered drama and thought it was this brilliant, brilliant thing. It presses all my buttons. This isn't flag-waving theatre, either: this is proper theatre. Its first production was Animal Farm. The Palestinian National Authority went fucking nuts and someone tried to firebomb the theatre.

Do you think that a lot of people have withdrawn from the debate about the West Bank and Gaza because it's such a heated one?

We can't make this a taboo issue. This is one of the global moral issues of our age. Burma is another one.

Have you mellowed as you got older?

Yes, I think I might have.

Did becoming a father make you more or less angry?

I do care what people think but I don't care as much. I'm very happy doing what I want to do and I don't have to care about fashion or fads.

I like the complexity of things. On the Palestinian side, for example, the gang masters are fucking evil pigs. They need to be condemned. You have to be critically engaged.

Of all the campaigns you've worked on, which was your favourite?

The Ilisu dam campaign. It was about the British government's financial support of dam-building in the Kurdish region of Turkey. Seventy-eight thousand people were going to be displaced in a recovering war zone. It had an evil vibe around it.

The people we were working with were wonderful; campaigners such as Nick Hildyard from the Cornerhouse. He said the first thing we need to do is go out into the Kurdish region and find out what they want us to do. There is no point working in solidarity unless it really is in solidarity. So we went there and what they said was: "We want you to attack the finances." We spent three years doing it and we stopped the dam being built.

I liked the fake PR company you ran, teaching arms dealers to overhaul their image.

That was funny because we used to stay in the hotel with all the old arms leaders. We'd get up and have breakfast with them and they'd be drunk. It was a credible admission of the use of UK equipment in East Timor and that was very important.

Do you vote?

Yes.

Is there a plan?

For me? For my career? Oh, fuck no. No, no, no, no, no. I'm rather proud that my career is built out of the smell of burned bridges. I have pissed off so many people. Me and Channel 4, we hold each other in mutual antipathy, if it ever crosses our minds to think about each other.

Is there anything you regret?

Masses of stuff. As a younger performer, I was very eager to get on. It meant that I was brusque in my relationships with people when I shouldn't have been. I should have taken my time. And there are things we did for telly that I regret. We probably should have stopped a series earlier than we did.

Are you compromising less now?

The way we funded this [touring show about the West Bank] was quite nice. I used the book money. You can get the finance by doing various bits and pieces. You don't have to go through the traditional routes. It certainly makes you feel happier. It doesn't make me feel like I've used someone, which is something you do feel in television, sometimes. It's a horrible feeling.

Are we all doomed?

No. If we look at the past century, we've got a fair chance of sorting something out.

"Extreme Rambling" is on tour -- full gig listings are available here. The book of the tour is published on 7 April 2011 by Ebury Press. You can pre-order it here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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