The Tolpuddle Martyrs get the last laugh

The front row of the socialist choir began: "There's a rumble in the air tonight," while the back ro

For a while I've found unlikely figures speaking out against the Iraq War inspiring, but also slightly disconcerting. I accepted Jimmy Hill and Burt Bacharach and Joanna Lumley and Eminem. Then I saw an interview in my local paper with Leo Sayer advertising his show at the Fairfield Halls, and in the middle of a question about his Seventies perm he informed us that George Bush was a war criminal. This was like a puzzling dream, where you wake up gibbering about being in a canoe with Eddie Large who was yelling, "I can't sell my gooseberries because of that bloody illegal occupation." Would we get as far as Roger Whittaker releasing an album called "Whistle Against the War", with Des O'Connor reading extracts from Robin Cook's resignation speech?

Sticky wicket

Even more remarkably, while I was driving to do a show at the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival in Dorset, I was listening to the Test Match commentary. Jonathan Agnew was complaining that security had been so tight it took him an hour to get into the ground. So out of nowhere came Geoffrey Boycott, who sneered: "We've Tony Blair to thank for that."

"I'm sorry, Geoffrey," said Agnew, with a hint of WILL YOU KEEP QUIET, but Boycott continued. "Tony Blair was told if we went to war with Iraq it would increase the risk of terrorism, but he wouldn't take any notice." "Well," said Agnew, "I think it's the terrorists to blame, really," mumbling as if he had a dozen producers yelling into his earpiece, SHUT HIM UP.

But Boycott held firm, which was how a British radio broadcast, for surely the first time ever, included the sentence: "We should never have invaded Iraq in the first place that's pushed out gently on the off side and there's no run."

My 11-year-old son came with me to Tolpuddle. He was telling me about a computer game he played at a friend's house that involved the usual assassination of zombies. I said, "Aren't there any nice games where you travel through medieval Europe as a Franciscan monk being kind to animals?" And without looking up he said, "I've played that game, Dad. It's crap - you always die of leprosy," and left the room.

Festival giggles

The festival was bigger and more relaxed, more exuberant and more colourful than I'd imagined. There were a couple of socialist choirs meandering around, performing impromptu renditions of "The Red Flag", which I'm not sure helps to attract the hip-hop generation to the movement. I was reminded of the evening I was speaking at an anti-war meeting, and thought, "Well, there's about 30 here, that's not bad." Then the chair announced: "Before Mark begins, we're very lucky to have with us tonight the local socialist choir." Twenty of the 30 stood up and came to the front to sing to the remaining ten. The front row began: "There's a rumble in the air tonight," while the back row sang, "Oh no, it's an imperialist bomb." I really, really tried, but after a minute I began to giggle, and it got worse until I was shaking, and was still fighting the odd splutter when I was talking about Fallujah.

Gutsy labourers

The show itself was a chaotic joy, as there were 1,000 or so people in the tent, including about 30 kids by the stage. A cherubic toddler was playing with one of those slinky toys that wriggles itself down stairs, so I began by suggesting to his mum that 90 minutes of me might not be the ideal show for him, as the next morning he'd be saying, "Mum, I want to play with my fucking slinky." He giggled at that and I think we created a bond.

But the wonderful part was that the Tolpuddle Martyrs, in their day a humble bunch of gutsy agricultural labourers transported to Australia for forming a trade union, are now celebrated by thousands, while their jailers are forgotten or reviled. On the other hand, it doesn't look as if much happens in Tolpuddle when the festival's not there. And I've never been to Australia, but it sounds thrilling. Maybe those martyrs got off the boat and thought, "Bloody hell, this is a result."

Mark Steel's "What's Going On? The Meanderings of a Comic Mind in Confusion" is published by Simon & Schuster (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games