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“The whole thing was a circus, so I played the clown”: Laurie Penny talks to Jonnie Marbles

Jonnie Marbles, who was imprisoned after attacking Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie, talks about his time inside.

Activist and comedian Jonnie Marbles was jailed for two weeks for attacking Rupert Murdoch with a foam pie. Millions around the world watched as the 26-year-old lobbed a plate of shaving foam at the ageing billionaire during the select committee hearing on July 17. I came to meet him on the day of his release from Wandsworth Prison, where he talked to me about activism, fatherhood, and what life's like on the inside.

Hi Jonnie. How was Prison?

Prison was less scary than you might imagine. The first day I was in there, still feeling quite nervous and not knowing where I was, I went back into my cell during the social hour to make a cigarette, and four people stood around the door looking out for the guards. I thought, oh no, here we go, and this small, beefy guy came right up to me, looked me in the eye, and said 'Are you Jonnie? Murdoch sent me.' And a tiny bit of my brain was convinced I was about to have my first prison fight. Then we both broke into these huge grins and shook hands, and he got me to sign my autograph on a copy of the Sun! I ended up in the same wing that Charlie Gilmour was on, and I understand that he made friends there as well.

So - why the pie?

Some people I met in in prison said I should have thrown a grenade instead, but I'm not a violent person. There's a tradition in comedy of throwing pies at people - it shows they're human, it shows they can be brought down to size. Rupert Murdoch is one of the reasons that democracy hasn't flourished in the way that it should in the Western world. I try not to hate people, but it's hard not to hate a man who does so many bad things. I talked to a few friends about it first, most of whom thought I was joking, but I was quite determined that, if the opportunity arose, I was going to put a pie in Rupert Murdoch's face.

You were attacked by Wendi Deng. Did she draw blood?

At the time I thought she'd missed, but the next day I looked in the mirror and realised there was a scratch right across my face. It was probably the adrenaline, and the sheer weirdness of the situation. Time slowed down, as it does at those moments. I felt scared, i knew it was something that was going to be a big deal one way or the other, and i just focused on getting it done. She stood up, and I just managed to get it onto his face, then she scratched me across the face, and - fair play to her - picked up the pie and threw it back at me. I have this really clear and vivid memory of looking into her eyes, and seeing something really deep and scary there. Love's always a good thing, no matter who it's between. But to portray her as a ninja or some sort of Asian tiger, like the press have been doing, strikes me as racist, and actually takes away from what she did, which was very brave, at the end of the day.

Some people say you interrupted the course of justice...

During Tom Watson's speech, I actually thought, "maybe I won't have to do this, he's bringing this man to such amazing account that i can just go home.' But during the rest of the hearing I started despairing, because no-one was asking the Murdochs anything incisive. If we'd had ten Tom Watsons sitting around that table i wouldn't have done what I did.

I think the reason that a lot of people were so negative is that they really thought they were watching a trial, a trial I had interrupted. But a select committee has so few powers. The judge at my appeal compared what I did to contempt of court, but if they had been in a court I wouldn't have done it, there'd have been no need. If we had any real justice in our society, the dock is exactly where the Murdochs would have been. Instead, it was a circus, so I played the clown.

You received a lot of criticism for your stunt. Were you surprised?

A lot of people think I did this for publicity, and maybe that's understandable -if I wasn't me, I'd probably think the same thing, but actually I hadn't thought about the aftermath. Over the two weeks while I waited for my court hearing, I basically stayed in hiding. The day afterwards I had to go out, so I put on a hoodie and shaved my beard off as an attempt not to get recognised - but funnily enough, I found I hadn't got any shaving foam left - I'd used it all on the pie!

I was shocked at some of the reaction in the media and on Twitter, and some of it really upset me, because clearly some people thought it was so wrong, and I've always respected other people's opinions. I did question what I'd done afterwards. But the fact that I've also had a huge number of positive reactions from people makes a difference. I can't name names, but some celebrities and MPs sent me notes to say well done.

You weren't expecting to be sent to prison, though.

When I heard the verdict, I was in shock - nobody had expected me to go to jail, but the judge in my case, Daphne Wickham, is known for being very hard on protesters of any kind. I kept a brave face while they took me down, but I did get very upset during the processing period, I actually did cry, because I started thinking about my son, and how upset he'd be, and how he was going to have to come back from the holiday we had been planning to take together. Luckily, one of the guards was very nice to me - he didn't seem to care what I'd done, just saw another human being in distress. People are awesome - people are the best thing there is in this world, and we should all care about each other more

So what was your routine like in prison?

I was taken straight to Wandsworth, where you're locked in for about 23 hours a day in a small shared cell, with a television, two bunkbeds, a little desk, and a toilet with a curtain that you pull across so the other person doesn't see you. Wandsworth is one of the worst prisons in the country. All I could do was sit and write to my friends. For the first few days inside I found myself trading tobacco for paper, and I very quickly had a bit of a racket going on!

Prison isn't like American TV dramas. You get given a rubbish red or blue t-shirt, a rubbish pair of jogging bottoms, a rubbish grey jumper, and a welcome pack with a plastic knife, spoon, cup, fork and bowl, one piece of writing paper, an envelope and a pen. Most of the food is so horrible that you end up throwing it away - they're given about two pounds per day to feed each prisoner.

The thing that really struck me about prison was how nobody cares about you. Your fellow prisoners care about you, but the institution doesn't care about you. I didn't get to make a phone call for six days, because the administration is incompetent, even though I needed to sort out childcare with my ex-wife. Apathy and incompetence is no way to punish people - it doesn't breed respect for the system, it just breeds contempt.

On my last day of prison, I went along to the church service, partly becuase it got me out of my cell for an hour - you quickly learn how important that is. So I sang along with the hymns, and then one of the ministers started talking about Rupert Murdoch, and how powerful God is, and how if you wrong him he'll humble you. The minister said, Murdoch is a man who kings and heads of state would bow down to, and then he was put in front of the committee, and a man came up and threw a pie in his face: praise be! I went up to the minister afterwards and said, "I hadn't realised i was doing the Lord's work.'

Your real name is Jonathan May-Bowles. Are you secretly posh?

My mum was a librarian and my dad was an accountant. I had a relatively normal middle-class upbringing in Windsor, and went to a grammar school. I became a father when I was seventeen, so I went straight to work for Ladbrokes for three years, which was a fascinating experience. I got involved in activism almost by accident in 2009, when I went on the Great Climate Swoop as a favour to a friend of my sister's - my sister is an amazing activist and a great inspiration to me. I just turned up, and suddenly I'm running through the woods being chased by horses, trying to improvise consensus decision-making with people I'd never met before. It was one of those moments where you know, instantly, that nothing's ever going to be the same again.

My family have been completely on side. My mum said the most wonderfully mum-ish thing in the world - she said, 'I don't think that was a wise thing to do, but it was very brave.' My girlfriend has been amazing. The next day, when I was dealing with all of the press in the world trying to get in touch, and Twitter, and all the criticism, she was the person who made me shut down the computer and go to be

Was it strange, being inside during the riots in London?

I was actually moved wings because of the riots, they needed space in E Wing. The response from prisoners was interesting - some of them were annoyed they couldn't be out there looting as well, and some of them were absolutely appalled. At least it meant that people suddenly wanted to watch the news. Before that, Come Dine With Me is what we were mainly watching. Endless, endless episodes of Come Dine With Me.

More and more young activists are being imprisoned, some of them for much longer stretches than you. Do you have any advice for them?

Firstly, you get used to prison very, very quickly. Try to find positive ways of using your time while you're in there. Don't just vegetate in front of the TV, no matter what everyone else is doing. Even if they're not giving you work programmes, you can write, you can read, you can talk to other people, you can meet some of the most fascinating and amazing people in there, whether or not they're good people. I don't think prison helps anyone - but activists need to not be scared of prison if we want to change the world.

Are you sorry?

No, not at all. If anything, I'm less sorry now than I was before prison.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue