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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.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.