Archive for the ‘literature’ category

Demons, ghosts, warriors and superheroes: Irish comics today

February 22, 2012

Demons, ghosts, warriors and superheroes: Irish comics today
LookLeft #9, December 2011

Growing interest in recent years has seen a burst of activity in the home-grown Irish comic/graphic novel scene; LookLeft reviews some current titles.

The League of Volunteers

The League of Volunteers
Atomic Diner

The League of Volunteers transports readers to an alternative WWII-era Ireland, where vampires roam Dublin’s streets and mythical characters from Irish folklore exist alongside costumed superheroes. Despite Irish neutrality, De Valera has organised patriotic heroes into a secret League to protect Ireland from the Nazi menace and other dangers of a more supernatural nature – namely the goat-headed demon Bocanach, freshly released from its eternal prison by those always foolish Nazi occultists. Centuries of isolation have left Bocanach with only one objective:  the demonic reconquest of Ireland.

The mix of superheroes, mythology and alternate history invites, not unflattering, comparisons with the likes of Alan Moore’s own League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hellboy and Sláine. Robert Curley serves up a smörgåsbord of curious characters including the anti-fascist street fighter Glimmerman; ex-Blueshirt Archer; human-demon hybrid Blood Rose; Lúgh Lamhfada of the Tuatha Dé Danann; and even Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The exciting plot is full of historical and folkloric references and in-jokes, and characters appear interesting and rounded (e.g. it’s implied that Glimmerman and Archer fought on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War). Meanwhile, Barry Keegan’s simple, energetic greyscale illustrations are highly effective, giving the feeling of watching an old war film. Though perhaps not as polished as the above mentioned titles, the first two issues are extremely enjoyable.

Róisín Dubh

Róisín Dubh
Atomic Diner

It’s the dawn of the 20th Century, and Rose Sheridan’s cosy middle class life is irrevocably shattered when her parents are slain by a freshly liberated vampiric sorcerer. Herself injured in the attack, the catatonic Rose is unwillingly bound to obey Donn, Lord of the Underworld. Donn tasks her with re-vanquishing the supernatural leech, who now has a 1,400-year-old blood thirst to quench. Thus is born Róisín Dubh, demon hunter.

Issue #1 is writer Maura McHugh’s retelling of the legend of Abhartach, a power-lusting Derry chieftain whose magical dabblings render him immortal, with a taste for human blood. Hated and feared by his subjects, he was eventually imprisoned by a rival. Stephen Daly’s high contrast monochrome artwork is a perfect accompaniment to the brutal tale, and this deliciously bloody apéritif whets the appetite for the next course.

Jennifer Wilde

Jennifer Wilde
Atomic Diner

Of all three offerings from Atomic Diner, this is certainly the most original. We’re promised a 1920s trans-European romp featuring “death, espionage and revolution”, in which young artist Jennifer Chevailer and the wisecracking ghost of Oscar Wilde attempt to discover the strange secret behind her father’s murder. While extremely enjoyable, issue one is mostly exposition and scene setting, so it’s difficult to tell where the story is going. Nevertheless, its smart, sassy and sophisticated stuff from Maura McHugh; fingers crossed it will fulfil its potential.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

The Cattle Raid of Cooley
Self-Published

Belfast writer/artist Patrick Brown has been publishing his brilliant adaptation of the epic Irish legend Táin Bó Cúailnge as a free webcomic for three years. Part of the Ulster Cycle Legends, the Táin relates Cú Chulainn’s defence of Ulster against Connacht’s Queen Medb. It is a violent, visceral and darkly comic tale and Brown’s interpretation doesn’t leave much to the imagination; the single-colour artwork, raw and frenetic, is reminiscent of Eddie Campbell’s work on From Hell and the story is well-crafted with an obvious passion for the subject matter. The webcomic stands at 140 pages with more promised, and if you like it you should support the creator by buying the print editions.

The Curse of Cromwell

Cromwell and William’s Irish Wars
Moccu Press

Writer Dermot Poyntz and artist Lee Grace have produced a trilogy of historical graphic novels dealing with the Cromwellian and Williamite wars in Ireland (Curse of Cromwell, War of the Two Kings and Plight of the Wild Geese). Similar to Blood on the Rose (reviewed in LookLeft #5), while historically accurate, they lack a sense of engagement. While enjoyable enough, often they feel like perfunctory military or Leaving Cert-esque histories with images added on.

Brian Boru: Ireland's Warrior King

Brian Boru: Ireland’s Warrior King
O’Brien Press

Much better is Damien Goodfellow’s debut offering, chronicling the life and times of Brian Boru of the Dál gCais who rose from minor Munster chieftain to become High King of Ireland. There are no heroes in this story, just a cast of power-hungry Gaels and Vikings whose alliances and intrigues are constantly shifting. Narrated by the wily Gormfhlaith, wife and ultimate betrayer of Boru, the book traces his life from his rise in Munster to his death at the Battle of Clontarf. The art – jagged, dark and bloody – reflects well the times depicted; unrelentingly harsh and marked by constant warring. While the Brian Boru’s legend is open to historical critique, this is a rollicking good read.

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Two reviews of Dr. David Landy’s ‘Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights’

January 25, 2012

Below are two, essentially identical, reviews of Dr. David Landy’s Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel, for LookLeft magazine and SIPTU’s Liberty newspaper.

Identity Crisis? Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights. Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel by David Landy (Zed, 2011)
LookLeft #8, October 2011

Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights is a ground-breaking investigation into the relatively recent phenomenon of organised international Jewish criticism of the Israeli state. From the outset Landy, an Irish-Jewish academic in Trinity, opposes the much touted rightwing view that those involved in this field are either “self-hating Jews” or suffering from “identity crises”. He instead asserts that such groups, in their various different forms, exist because those involved are universalist in outlook and feel that, as Jews, they can play a role in ending Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

While not uncritical of these groups, Landy points out that they have played a very important role in making both Jewish and non-Jewish criticism of Israel more “acceptable” in the mainstream than previously. This is especially true for Western Europe, where the shadow of the Nazi holocaust still looms large – no longer do people have the same fear of being painted as “self-haters” or “anti-Semitic” by Israel’s supporters. However, their positive role in wider society aside, outside of providing a relatively safe avenue for Israel-critical Jews to “come out”, these groups have thus far failed to make a serious impact within the Jewish diaspora. Landy also outlines some of the problems with the worldviews of some of these groups, a major one being that Palestinians can be essentially eliminated from their discourse, treating what is a national liberation issue instead as a “Jewish issue” that will only be solved by Jews.

In conclusion, Landy points out that although his is the first such study of this emerging movement, it is not the “definitive” account. These groups have grown and developed over the past decade – some even moving into the “boycott and solidarity” camp – and will continue to evolve in the future. Despite the sometimes slightly alienating academic jargon, for anyone interested in the Palestinian solidarity movement and/or the long history of progressive and critical Jewish thought, this book is highly recommended.

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Palestine’s Jewish Lobby: Book about Jewish opposition to Israel launched in Dublin
Liberty, November 2011

Prof. David Landy

The long-standing concern for Palestine in Ireland was evident in the capacity crowd which attended the launch of Professor David Landy’s Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Opposition to Israel (Zed, 2011) in Dublin’s New Theatre on the 1st November.

The book is a groundbreaking examination of the relatively recent phenomenon of organised international Jewish criticism of Israel. Landy, an Irish-Jewish lecturer in Trinity College, opposes the right-wing view that those involved in this field are either “self-hating Jews” or suffering from “identity crises”. His view is that such groups exist because those involved are universalist in outlook and feel that, as Jews, they can play a role in ending Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

While not uncritical of these groups, Landy points out that they have played an extremely important role in making both Jewish and non-Jewish criticism of Israel more “acceptable” in mainstream discourse – no longer do Israel’s critics harbour the same fear of being painted as “self-haters” or “anti-Semitic” by that state’s supporters. However, notwithstanding this positive role in wider society, outside of providing a relatively safe avenue for Israel-critical Jews to “come out”, these groups have so far failed to make a serious impact within the Jewish diaspora itself.

The book outlines the problems often associated with the world views of some of these groups. Often Palestinians can be essentially eliminated from their discourse, treating what is a national liberation issue instead as a “Jewish issue”. As Trinity Professor Ronit Lentin, herself an Israeli, said at the launch; “The book does not shirk from the difficult question as to whether movement members’
activism is about constructing a ‘better’ Jewish identity or about genuine solidarity.”

Wrapping up the event Professors Landy and Lentin said that although this is the first such study of this emerging movement it could not be considered “definitive” as these groups have developed significantly over the past decade, and that “the thing about social movements is they are always moving”.

A recording of the launch – which was a collaboration between Zed Books, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Trinity College Department of Sociology and Poster Fish Promotionscan be heard online here (Note: I also spoke at the launch)

Audio: Launch of David Landy’s ‘Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights’

November 2, 2011

The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign has posted the audio I recorded of the launch of Dr. David Landy’s new book, Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Opposition to Israel earlier this week. Along with my good friend David, Prof. Ronit Lentin from the TCD Sociology department and myself also spoke, and the meeting was chaired by Raymond Deane from the IPSC.I also reviewed the book for the current issue of LookLeft magazine.

Copied from the IPSC website:

Audio: Launch of David Landy’s ‘Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights’

Tuesday 1st November saw the launch of Professor David Landy’s Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Opposition to Israel (Zed, 2011) at a standing room only event in Dublin’s New Theatre. The book is an outstanding, ground-breaking examination of the relatively recent phenomenon of organised international Jewish criticism of Israel. More information on the book can read here.

To download and listen to the audio recording, please click here (MP3 format, right click and ‘save target/link as’).

Speakers: Dr. David Landy (author and TCD academic), Dr. Ronit Lentin (author and TCD academic) and Kevin Squires (IPSC National Coordinator). Chair: Raymond Deane

The book was launched in conjunction with Zed Books, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Department of Sociology in TCD and Poster Fish Promotions. Audio provided by Citizen Partridge.

Book Review: Revolutionary Pirates?

September 21, 2011

Review: Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on the Golden Age of Piracy by Gabriel Kuhn (PM Press, 2010)
LookLeft #7, July 2011

Almost 100 years before the French Revolution gave the world the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, the imperial sea-trading routes were plagued by “floating republics”. These pirate ships of the Golden Age (c.1690-1730) and their crews of “rebels, robbers and rovers” plagued the high seas from Madagascar to the Bahamas. Much has been written about these “republics of rogues”, from both radical and reactionary perspectives. Kuhn’s short book, an attempt to distil the reality from the myth, draws on many sources and illustrates what was indeed revolutionary about these pirates and their rejection of the aristocratic status quo – turning their backs on “institutionalised authority” and attempting to build internally “egalitarian communities” that were the antithesis of the dictatorial regimes that existed on the imperially-sanctioned vessels on which many of these pirates once served.

Kuhn himself is an anarchist, but unlike some other anarchists, he does not ideologically romanticise these Golden Age freebooters either. He is careful to point out that there was much that was decidedly unprogressive about their behaviour – they were brutal, violent, often slave holders and while their democratic form of organisation was revolutionary, generally “they had no social ideals at all” and that if anything, the perceived radicalism of these pirates lies more in their symbolism than in their actuality.

Finally, it has to be said that while the book is not a chronological history of Golden Age piracy – for the most part it explores themes and ideological interpretations – it is an extremely engrossing work that anyone with an interest in this era of history will be rewarded for reading. 

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Audio recording of book launch of ‘The Provisional IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament’ by Tommy McKearney

August 11, 2011

On Wednesday 10th August 2011, Tommy McKearney launched his book The Provisional IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament in Connolly Books. Over 70 people crowded into (and some had to remain in the street) the small shop to hear veteran trade unionist Mick O’Reilly and éirígí chairperson Brian Leeson talk about the work and its lessons for, and relevance to, the Irish struggle for social and national liberation today. Tommy himself then spoke (very briefly) about the book.

I have not yet read the book (I bought my copy at the launch today), but judging by the great blurbs and superlatives by friends and comrades, it seems like a must-read. You should go and buy it from Connolly Books! Anyway…

To listen to/download the recording in mp3 or ogg format, please go here.

Speakers:

Pauline Conroy (Chair)
Eugene McCartan (General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland)
Mick O’Reilly (Vice President of Dublin Council of Trade Unions)
Brian Leeson (Chairperson of éirígí)
Tommy McKearney (author and former Provisional IRA member, blanketman and 1980 hunger striker)

And here is the blurb from the publisher’s (Pluto) website:

This book analyses the underlying reasons behind the formation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), its development, where this current in Irish republicanism is at present and its prospects for the future.

Tommy McKearney, a former IRA member who was part of the 1980 hunger strike, challenges the misconception that the Provisional IRA was only, or even wholly, about ending partition and uniting Ireland. He argues that while these objectives were always the core and headline demands of the organisation, opposition to the old Northern Ireland state was a major dynamic for the IRA’s armed campaign. As he explores the makeup and strategy of the IRA he is not uncritical, examining alternative options available to the movement at different periods, arguing that its inability to develop a clear socialist programme has limited its effectiveness and reach.

This authoritative and engaging history provides a fascinating insight into the workings and dynamics of a modern resistance movement.

About the Author

Tommy McKearney was a senior member of the Provisional IRA from the early 1970s until his arrest in 1977. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he served 16 years during which time he participated in the 1980 hunger strike in Long Kesh. He is now a freelance journalist and an organiser with the Independent Workers Union.

Tommy McKearney, author

Mick O'Reilly, DCTU

Brian Leeson. éirígí

The Art of History: Non-fiction through the medium of graphic novels

April 30, 2011

The Art of History: Non-fiction through the medium of graphic novels
LookLeft #5, February 2011

Many intelligent people still stereotypically consider comics to be for “kids and teenagers”. However today there is no escaping this fact: comics are big business. A slew of Hollywood films based on comics have led to the medium’s repopularisation – while the humble comic has progressed vastly since the early days of characters like Spiderman and Batman. In the late 1970s and 80s there was a revolution as comics like 2000AD, RAW and Warrior introduced intelligent, controversial writers like Alan Moore to the world. The underground became more mainstream, gone were the Boy’s Own style adventuring and all-American heroes, replaced by altogether darker themes and characters. If Moore’s Watchmen (1986-87) and V For Vendetta (1982–89) – both now mediocre films – proved that comics could ‘do’ serious and thoughtful fiction, then the Pulitzer-winning Maus proved that comics could tackle important issues of non-fiction too – in Maus’ case, the darkest episode of 20th Century history, the Holocaust. Below I review some of the best (and unfortunately, in one instance, not-so-best) graphic non-fiction available today.

Maus: A Survivors Tale (1977–91) – Art Spielgleman

Maus

Maus is the story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek’s Holocaust survival, and also of Spiegleman’s strained relationship with his father as he interviews him about his experiences. Vladek was a Polish Jew and Maus follows his story fighting in the Polish army, escaping deportation and living on the run, eventual capture and his survival of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.  Interwoven into the Holocaust narrative are snapshots of Vladek’s contemporary life in American suburbia where we see the psychological effects the Holocaust has left on his family; his first wife’s suicide, second loveless marriage and tense relationship with his son.

A truly harrowing work, it is also brilliant, standing out among reams of Holocaust literature – original in concept, human and complex in narrative (Vladek is no hero, he just resourcefully does what he must to survive) and steers away from cynical ‘Holocaust exploitation’. The artwork – minimalist, monochrome and bleak – works perfectly, while the portrayal of Jews as mice, Germans as cats etcetera was meant, Spiegelman says, to “self-destruct” the idea of Nazi racial divisions.

Of course, graphic non-fiction existed before Maus, but there is little doubt that this work ensured comics were viewed as legitimate a medium for non-fiction as literature and film. Indeed, as one review said, Maus is a work that would be “impossible to achieve in any medium but comics”.

Palestine (1993-95) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009) – Joe Sacco


Sacco is a Maltese-American ‘graphic journalist’ – he travels to conflict zones and illustrates (visually and verbally) his experiences, the people he meets and their stories. Sacco first travelled to Palestine in 1991/92 during the dying days of the first intifada, and Palestine is a chronicle of this era. Sacco presents us with ordinary people’s everyday stories and oral histories, giving us entwined narratives that both reflect then-contemporary events and outline the broader historical injustices – 1948: expulsions of 700,000+ Palestinians to facilitate the founding of Israel, 1967: occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, 1987: outbreak of the intifada etc – that have resulted in Palestinians’ woeful situation. Above all, unlike many dry texts I’ve read, Sacco achieves the humanisation of Palestinians – they are not statistics or pawns, they are people and – agree or disagree – have valid things to say. In telling this story, Sacco is knowledgeable, self-depreciating, humourous and critical. Sacco’s artwork is amazing and has an unparalleled ability to convey emotion. That this is an illustrated work gives it added potency as he can draw what would be unavailable to a photographer and descriptively unwieldy for a writer – eg, Israeli torture and sensory deprivation methods.

Click for full size

Click for full size

Footnotes in Gaza sees Sacco return to Palestine to investigate the story of two overlooked Israeli massacres in Gaza during the 1956 Suez Crisis. UN reports say Israeli forces killed 275 civilians in Khan Younis and 111 in Rafah in acts Sacco describes as “airbrushed from history”. As with Palestine, there are two narratives – the contemporary set against backdrop of the second intifada in 2003 as he searches for stories, and the historical as he unlocks people’s memories.

Both Palestine and Footnotes are fantastic, if ultimately human stories and therefore subject to human error. For me they are better introductions to Palestine than many history books – indeed I would argue that Palestine is one of the greatest works about the region in any medium.

Che: A Graphic Biography (2008) – Spain Rodriguez


Che Guevara’s iconic image is an ever-present feature of life, adorning everything from t-shirts to beermats as capitalism continues to commodify the “revolutionary chic” of this unyielding fighter for socialism. As Lenin said, great revolutionaries are hounded by the ruling classes during their lifetimes, and converted into harmless idealistic icons upon their deaths. Rodriguez’s book is a conscious antidote to this tendency, using the visual medium to recontextualise Che’s image, life and ideas. On a short, exciting journey through Che’s equally brief and eventful life, Rodriguez takes us from his birth and travels in Latin America – which would have a politically formative effect on him as he experienced the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala – to his first meeting with Fidel Castro. We then explore his leading role in the Cuban Revolution, both as a commander and later as he dealt with post-revolutionary and geopolitical realities, and finally his futile militant activities in Congo and untimely death, aged 39, at the hands of the CIA in Bolivia.

Thankfully this is not one man’s wild and romantic adventure story, Rodriguez is careful to place Che in the context of his era; social and political struggles against economic realities are not ignored in pursuit of some ‘great man’ theory of history. This Che will be familiar to those who have read J.L. Anderson’s biography – Che is not presented as an infallible secular saint, he is a man who makes mistakes in pursuit of a better future for humanity. Hopefully those picking up this comic and knowing little beyond the iconography will develop an understanding of this socialist fighter who believed in, fought and died for the unity of all oppressed peoples – something as necessary today as in Che’s lifetime.

Blood Upon The Rose: Easter 1916 (2010) – Gerry Hunt


The best that can be said about this work is that it is unique; it is basically an Irish Boy’s Own comic – which for someone who grew up reading English and US war stories was an interesting experience. Unfortunately, for an adult this is a major failing – Hunt’s version of 1916 is pure militaria, lacking in socio-historical context, interesting characters (and given those involved in 1916 that in itself is an unenviable achievement) or engaging dialogue. It simply bumbles along from one badly-drawn shootout to the next.

From an historical point of view, the story is accurate. However, making history interesting depends greatly on an author’s storytelling skill – a good writer can make even the most boring subject engaging. A major failing of this work is that it’s very much a history of the 1916 Rising as a military event; we begin on Easter Sunday and end with the execution of the Rising’s leaders. It lacks historical context – what are the motivations of those involved? What is the historical, social and economic background? How did such an “unlikely band of freedom fighters”, as Hunt calls them, get to this point? What did they realistically hope to achieve?

Instead, we are presented only with the deconextualised brave rebel leaders and volunteers of bourgeois republican myth, who fight and die for “dear old Ireland”. The dialogue rarely raises itself above the level of a 1980s British war comic, indeed if the British were German they would be screaming “Achtung! Achtung!” and “Gott in Himmel!”  However, the main failing of this work is that it is just not engaging – perhaps because it just flits from firefight to firefight, one doesn’t build a relationship with the rebels. I think the author recognises this, and bookends the main story with Plunkett’s death-bed marriage in a failed attempt to give it some human context – but given how little we see of Plunkett in the story it feels crowbarred in. It is not impossible to weave an ‘ensemble piece’ in graphic format, but perhaps this would have fared better had it focused only one or two of the leaders or volunteers and showed us the Rising from their unique perspectives.

Undoubtedly there is a gripping comic to be written about the Irish Revolution. This, alas, is not it.

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Comedy, activism and Palestine: An interview with comedian Mark Thomas

April 25, 2011
Mark Thomas in Palestine

Mark Thomas in Palestine

In March 2011 I interviewed the English ‘activist-comedian’ Mark Thomas in Dublin. Mark was once a familiar face on British television with The Mark Thomas Product and various one off features. Today sadly, it seems he’s been relegated to BBC Radio 4 – though his output is still great. Mark was performing his new show and promoting the tie-in book Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Barrier. For Fun.

The afternoon before the show, I get a call asking me to meet Mark in one of Dublin’s most upmarket hotels, a scene most definitely at odds with the image I have of this muck-raking lefty, whose career I’ve followed for the best part of twenty years. Happily, as Mark arrives for the interview, virtually his first words are “let’s go somewhere else”; he clearly feels as uncomfortable as I do in these plush surroundings. The lobby staff, who’ve been eyeing me with suspicion for the past fifteen minutes, also look relieved to see the back of us too. En route to a nearby cafe a man bounds up to us, hand outstretched to shake Mark’s. He’s a big fan, would Mark pose for a photo? Ever the gent, Mark is happy oblige.

As we begin our discussion, what really strikes me is that Mark is soft-spoken and reflective, totally unlike his highly animated and agitated stage-and-screen persona. At times I’m concerned my temperamental dictaphone won’t pick up his voice  over the general hubbub of the cafe. I’m happy to report that Mark was a thoroughly nice chap, and remains a courageous, trouble-making, muck-raking, rabble-rousing lay preacher of truth, justice and progressive action – an enemy of all the right people and funny to boot.

An opinion I’m sure you’ll share once you’ve read through the interview below.

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KS: Your new book is about walking the length of the West Bank Wall. This is probably a bad question to begin with, but I’ve been a fan of yours for almost 20 years, and this is the first time you’ve done something on Palestine. If this isn’t too bad a question, how come it took you so long to get around to Palestine?

MT: No that’s not quite right. There’s a lot I’ve done on the arms trade that went back into Israel and went back into the UK government’s relationship with the Israeli and the Defence Forces and certainly there’s a lot of stuff about the Head-Up Displays and the armoured vehicles that were used in the occupied territories by the Israeli Defence Force and the Air Force so I slightly dispute that, I’ve done quite a lot on this before.

KS: No I do apologise, I’ve just remembered that it was also actually here in Ireland where you brought the Israeli stone throwing machine manufacturers over. The whole “shoot sweets at Palestinians” thing!

MT: Also there was some of the companies we had thrown out of the London Arms Fair were Israeli companies, we’ve organised pickets outside Rafael which is an Israeli company, we’ve done stuff to coincide with Tom Hurndall’s anniversary, and we did quite a successful embarrassment of the Israeli Embassy when they agreed to pay the family some of the cost of transporting Tom and the cheque bounced, which was really, really out of order.

KS: I had not heard that at all, wow!

MT: So we did an action, a bring-and-buy to save Israel from going bust. So there’s been quite a lot I’ve done, including a number of benefits and so on as well.

KS: Haha! Yes, well I retract my original question, I guess what I was trying to get at was what was it that made you actually want to go to Palestine and do this amazing tour of the Wall?

MT: In all the stuff that I do, people make this great mistake and say, is part of your job to go and help, to tell people your message so that they can go away. Well I think it’s pointless for me to do this stuff unless it’s part of some process of change. But part of that process of change first and foremost is me. So it’s me finding out things, it’s me going to work out how things are, and if I can go and find this thing and examine it and find out how it works then come back and tell the story, then other people will sort of get to see it as well. So for me, part of the reason I wanted to go was curiosity. And really, I mention this in the show, that the second intifada made me switch off. I just really didn’t care a huge amount, I did carry on working on the stuff about the arms trade, but actually the second intifada was this huge, y’know, bloody mess and lots of Palestinians you’d speak to would say ‘Oh we lost everything’. Certainly international support was lost during the second intifada. And I know there are traditions in the international solidarity campaign that say we have to support this, it’s not up to us to choose the direction. And that’s fair enough, and that’s true, but it’s also up to me to decide whether I support something or not, and the direction that something goes in becomes a factor within that. So part of the reason I stayed away from the issue – and I have done a lot on it, but part of the reason that I hadn’t grasped it perhaps as firmly as I have now – is because the second intifada just switched me off it.

KS: So what switched you back on?

MT: What switched me back on was Operation Cast Lead. And I suppose both of those two things are important moments, not just for me but I suspect for many fellow travellers who would be like, y’know, ‘we don’t want anything to do with this shit’ – I mean the suicide bombs were horrendous, and yes there are the arguments about proportionality: there were more Palestinians killed than Israelis – which is true – but that doesn’t therefore justify the use of indiscriminate violence. These are kind of issues that somehow people either swerve or excuse – and I think actually it’s like the issue of, you know the Israeli soldier who’s been imprisoned?

KS: Gilad Shalit.

MT: Yeah, he’s been there for four years now and y’know, he’s just got to be released, y’know it’s just inhuman to keep someone in solitary confinement for four years. It’s as simple as that. And yet thousands of Palestinians are in jail. I went to see the Israeli military courts in action, and they are really unedifying. One guy was jailed for ‘harbouring a wanted person’, he was a taxi driver and the guy was in the back of his cab! It was like ‘Oh my Lord!’, y’know? So there is of course disproportionate abuse of human rights [by Israel], but that doesn’t excuse it on any count. I suppose my journey from going just ‘I don’t wanna know about that’ to being involved is one that lots of lots of people made, I suspect.

KS: I’ve certainly found that in our work. After Cast Lead, people became far more interested. Obviously Cast Lead was this totally brutal assault…

MT: It was. It was just hugely cruel, y’know, no matter what the analysis of it, no matter what viewpoint you had, you had to actually come down and say ‘you’re dropping banned weapons on a captive civilian population’. I think that was quite an important moment in me going ‘I wanna find out more’.

KS: And did the Flotilla have any effect, or were you already out there when that happened?

MT: I’d already been out there and back by the time the Flotilla happened.

KS: You’re not planning on going on the next one yourself are you?

MT: You know I’ve got a few dates to put in the book haha. I don’t know… maybe. Maybe. It’s one of those things I think you have to consider very carefully and think about a lot. Perhaps.

KS: I’ve heard that Russell Brand might be going, but whether that happens or not is another story obviously.

MT: I like Russell, he’s a great guy. He’s far more moral and intelligent than people portray him as. I think he’s a good fella.

KS: So obviously I only got the book this morning, and I haven’t seen the show yet, so when you walked the wall, you actually went out twice, is that right?

MT: That’s right.

KS: And did you start at the bottom and walk to the top? Or…

MT: We started at the top and went to the bottom. We started right where the River Jordan meets the Jordan Valley, right at the beginning of the very first part of the wall, basically the furthest east that we could and then just came all the way around.

KS: How long did it actually take?

MT: The whole thing took about eight and a half weeks in total. And that was because we were working with Israeli fixers and Palestinian fixers and all sorts of groups and we stopped to do interviews as we went along the wall. Sometimes we did interviews with people we’d just meet, sometimes people who were bussed in, sometimes just, y’know with whatever was out there. When we talked to the mayors in the settlements or with the army people that we spoke to, those took some getting in just to speak to them, and invariably there’d be times when someone would agree to an interview and we’d be in the south and have to get back up north to do the interview etcetera.

KS: These were filmed interviews?

MT: Yeah.

KS: So will there be a DVD coming out?

MT: A film, hopefully.

KS: On Channel 4 or what?

MT: In the cinema, we hope!

KS: Well that’s great, something to look forward to, fingers crossed anyway. Again this is from my brief flick through the book, it seems you would have met a lot of the same type of people I would have met when I was out, people from the non-violent resistance Popular Committees. People who I found really inspiring, what are your thoughts on them?

MT: I think they are inspiring. The non-violent resistance movement that is building there is really, really exciting and it is incredible. I mean, the national leadership is fucked, on both sides, and actually, y’know is just fucked. The most interesting stuff is the grass roots stuff, that’s what’s really interesting, the community leadership that’s coming out and the community action that’s coming out is just superb. It really is brilliant! And I love the fact and I find it really intriguing that people are quite honest about their approach to non-violence. The people I met would talk about, a lot of people would say to me ‘it’s way to do it, it’s the way to change things’. Other people would say ‘I was in jail and we started reading and discussing Gandhi and we’re not winning militarily, we need to change tack’. Other people would say ‘we’re giving it a go because violence hasn’t worked’, other people would say ‘we’ve just found it’, or what have you. People were very honest about it. And I was fascinated by the fact that there was discussion all the way along the walk about non-violent resistance and what it meant, whether it was like the anarchists over in Bil’in who talked about ‘unarmed resistance’ versus ‘non-violent resistance’, or campaigning work, whether it was attacking the theological underpinnings of Zionism through the Kairos Palestine document or what have you. I met some of the guys who drafted the Kairos document and they were wonderful, y’know? And the bits I enjoyed most of all were walking with folk and just getting into nice long conversations. Those were the most pleasurable. I have to say I found the Israeli activists absolutely morally on the money, and that was really exciting. I mean, I expected the Palestinian grass roots groups to be good, but I just didn’t have the Israeli activists really on my radar. People like ICAHD [the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions] I was aware of, but actually Combatants For Peace, who I met quite a few people from who I adore, just absolutely wonderful people, and also Breaking The Silence who are absolutely amazing, with a real moral sense of purpose. That I found really surprising, and absolutely brilliant, just absolutely brilliant. I suppose you get shocked by the things you don’t expect, and I didn’t expect that.

KS: I was actually going to ask you about the Israelis that you met, because last night we organised a talk with Gideon Levy, the journalist from Haaretz, and he painted a very, very pessimistic view of the Israeli society. I don’t know if I’m as pessimistic as him, but I wanted to know your general impressions of those that you met from the Israeli side, because I think it is important to recognise that it’s not just Palestinians involved in resistance, there is, I think, a growing sector of Israeli society that is involved.

MT: I’m not an expert, but I don’t know whether they are growing.

KS: Oh, really?

MT: No, I’m not saying I question your analysis, I mean that I genuinely just don’t know. What I think was very clear was obviously that Israeli groups and activists are coming under increased political pressure. Whether it is the criminalisation of advocacy of BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], whether it is investigations into foreign funding of groups that criticise Israeli policies as is the case with Breaking The Silence. These are obvious moves that show that the Israeli authorities are worried by the campaign for sanctions and boycott, they genuinely are.  Despite the fact that there is, if I could generalise for a moment, a certain bellicose nature, that’s a bit Millwall – ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’. And I’ll argue with Israelis, saying ‘you’re gonna be isolated, you’re gonna be isolated from the world, that’s what’s gonna happen’ and they just go ‘ the world deserted us in 1936’, y’know? But you were stateless then! I think there’s a very interesting mood, the Israelis that I met were the rump of the activist movement, and everyone seems a bit knackered, almost as if the second intifada just burned everyone out and y‘know I remember speaking to people from the Al Aqsa Brigades up in the north and they were also saying everyone’s tired. Everyone’s just keeping their heads above water. And to see all these different attitudes, these attitudes which were about trying to get non-violent campaigns off the ground, whether it’s challenging the wall, organising stuff, whether it’s Budrus or Bil’in or what have you, you know that there’d also be this feeling of actually, people are a bit shattered.

KS: Yeah, I kinda got that impression myself the last time I was out there. Ten years of the intifada and aftermath, it’s a long time to exist like that.

MT: Yeah. Hope and optimism isn’t in big supply out there. But I think the one thing that is, is the fact that the Palestinians have just remained there. One thing that somebody said to me on the first day was the thing that they were most proud of was the fact that ‘my people are still here’. I think by the time I got to the end of the walk I kind of understood a little bit about that. And that’s actually quite amazing and stunning that people have withstood the onslaught that is going on. That is quite amazing.

KS: As the slogan on the wall in Bethlehem says, ‘To Exist is to Resist’, I think encapsulates it.

MT: Absolutely, you’re right, it encapsulates it.

KS: Obviously when you were going along, doing your thing, you had cameras with you.

MT: One camera.

KS: Did you encounter much hassle from the military?

MT: Loads! Loads! Why do you think it took eight and a half weeks? Because we kept getting detained. There is a very weird thing in Israel that people believe that actually you can’t film them, y’know ‘you can’t film me, you can’t film me!’ You’re in a public place, and I come from that sort of culture, you know, you’re in a public place, of course I can film you!

KS: Ok so final question, it’s more about comedy really, as a vehicle for, well topical comedy as I called it earlier as opposed to satire.

MT: What I do isn’t stand up. What I do has a foot in theatre and a foot in comedy. But it’s not stand up. To me it’s about getting out and telling the stories and taking people on a journey, taking people somewhere they didn’t expect to go, that’s tradition that I sort of started in – you go to see a cabaret or you go to see a performance because you don’t know what you’re gonna see. You might see something that you really like, and you didn’t expect to see it. That was the gig, that you’d and see something that you didn’t know about. I think the major sea change that has happened is the proliferation of very cheap panel shows and comedy shows and stuff like that – and they are very economically viable to make, because you don’t need a script or an editor or a producer or a cast or rehearsals, you just have very highly motivated individuals with a vested interest in doing the best they can writing their own material. Which is very much a sort of neo-liberal version of economics. And people will go see a comedian in the O2 after doing a couple of series of a panel show… and it’s a fucking panel show, y’know?! I’m always amazed at how easily people will be fobbed off, that actually you buy a Frankie Boyle ticket and you’ll have seen all the stuff already on TV. The sea change that happened was that people started to go and see things that they knew they would like, and they knew what they were getting, ‘I wanna go and see Andy Parsons’ – good fella – ‘cos I know what I’m getting with Andy Parsons’. So people will turn up going, ‘I know what I want’ rather than saying ‘well, what’s on?’ And for me that’s always been part of the gig, I mean I was doing a gig the other night in Cardiff and the best moment of the night was finishing the set, packing up to go, and the bouncer just came up and said to me ‘that was fucking great, I’ve never seen anything like that. That’s marvellous!’ My job is done! Do you know what I mean? You can talk about anything, you can put anything into performance, you can put anything into writing… there should be no boundaries on art, simple as that. I just depends on the individual, whether they think it’s suitable or not. There are certain Zionists who are very upset that I’m even talking about this, because they say that even to criticise the wall is to criticise Israel and therefore to be an anti-Semite which is madness.

KS: Madness which is unfortunately accepted in certain sectors of society…

MT: I don’t think it’s hugely accepted, y’know, if you start going ‘we will decide what you can and can’t talk about on stage’, no you won’t, you’ll fuck off! I think quite a lot of people still think that about journalists – ‘fuck off you can’t tell people what to say’. But also I think there is a mood that is generally going ‘oooh you shouldn’t upset people’, and that’s to do with perceived racism, and that’s akin, there are parallels here, people are frightened of being accused of being an anti-Semite, regardless of whether you are or you aren’t, there is a fear that if you engage with the issue, you might be perceived as an anti-Semite. And that’s really awful that that fear is out there, in the same way – I don’t think it’s huge by the way, I don’t think it’s as big as people sometimes think – there was the play up in Birmingham, the Sikh play that was taken off because people from the Sikh community demonstrated against it, woah woah woah woah, no way! Once you start determining what constitutes what we can talk about and what we can’t talk talk about in public we’re on a really slippy slope about what constitutes freedom of speech and what constitutes state or religious control of speech. And I suppose the Zionist movement who would advocate and say that if you criticise the wall you are an anti-Semite, they’re part of that nexus of religious and ideological censorship.  For me it’s really about, I love the fact that I get people sending me little messages and texts and what have you, just going ‘great, I’d never thought about this or I’ve never realised this’ y’know? And to me it’s actually exciting, it’s really, really exciting and it’s just me saying how I started in my state of ignorance and learned a little bit, not a huge amount – I’m not an expert – but having done this walk and met these people, it’s very much about the people I met.

KS: If I could just big you up here to yourself, when I was I guess 14 or whatever I first saw one of the Mark Thomas Comedy Products on Channel 4, I’d grown up with y’know Fawlty Towers and all this kind of stuff…

MT: Which is great.

KS: … oh no, don’t get me wrong I love it, but I’d never seen comedy that could actually have a social purpose.

MT: Well for me it was about actually not just being a cheerleader for change, but being an instrument of change, and actually just going ‘you can get things done!’ And I love the fact y’know that when people go ‘well what good has come from your work’, I’ve got a small list that I like to look at! That’s really exciting, and there has to be a purpose to art, there has to be a purpose to all our expressions – whether it is right-wing literature or whatever, there is no such thing as an ideologically neutral piece. There is a very odd thing that happens, I mentioned it to someone this morning, there’s thing that happens that on the left we’re constantly questioned, people say, ‘what comes first, the politics or the comedy?’ Or ‘do you think comedy is a good vehicle for politics?’ Nobody turns around to Jim Davidson and says ‘Jim, is it the racism or the laughter? Tell me is it the bigotry that’s most important to you, are you getting new bigots?’ Do you know what I mean?

KS: That’s a very good point that I’d never really thought about before.

MT: So there’s always, always a political slant, just mine is slightly more pronounced and declared.

KS: So can we expect to see you back on television any time soon, no?

MT: [Laughs] Someone asked me that last night from the audience when we were finishing up, and I replied ‘I looked out this window this morning and there’s still no ice in Hell!”

KS: Well that’s very unfortunate.

MT: It is and it isn’t. The point being that with this tour, there’ll be 50,000 people that see the show. In the space of a year, that means the programs for the show, we’re doing these programs that have actually sold out before we got to Dublin, but we have these programs which are all about Zaytoun and their olive oil and about farmers struggling for economic viability, as so part of the profits go back to them. At the end of it all, I think we’ll have made a few quid for Zaytoun, we’ll have covered all the costs of doing the thing in the first place, and kept me and my family with our heads above water. We’ll have performed to 50,000 people, the program will probably sell something like 10,000 to 15,000 copies, which have got articles by Jamal [Juma’], Zaytoun, Stop The Wall, Ben Yeger from Combatants For Peace, War On Want on boycotts and divestment, we’ve published the BDS call from Palestinian civil society on the back of the program, we’ve got the maps that show the reduction of Palestinian land since 1917, y’know there’s all sorts of stuff that’s quite exciting for people to take away, it’s also like intellectual ammunition to take away with you so you can come out fighting at the end of it. And the book, well I don’t know how many people the book will reach, maybe 50,000 maybe 100,000 copies, I don’t know. And who knows what will happen with the film. They’re still quite good figures. It’s not as much as telly, but I’ve got complete control over the thing. I seriously had a producer, someone at Channel 4 had suggested a program for me to make, it really sort of symbolised the end of our relationship, the program that she asked me to consider making was Celebrity Guantanamo Bay. Now at that point you have to question whether there’s anything viable there. And I’m really pleased with this work that’s going to get out to 50,000 people, that’s gonna go to Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds festivals and y’know all those places where it’s not just the usual suspects, and that’s exciting. I don’t really wanna get into sort of the state of play of TV comedy cos that’s just… [long pause]

KS: Depressing?

MT: Some of the people in it are really good, some of the people are really, really great. And there is some great stuff, like Inbetweeners, Phone Shop and stuff like that are really great programs, really good programs. I was doing a benefit the other night for the Linda Smith [Tribute Fund]…

KS: What’s it now, her fifth anniversary?

MT: Yeah. It was great cos there was lots of us in unions who were all mates with her, and she was a righteous drinker. And so there was Jo Brand, John Hegley and myself and Andy Hamilton and Rory Bremner as well, and a jazz pianist called Ian Shaw who really is quite remarkable, and so there’s some of the most creative and original voices of my generation are on this stage and they’re still doing their stuff. Rory is brilliant, really sharp as a dart and the two Johns [Bird and Fortune] are incredible. So on one hand you have got 8 Out Of 10 Cats saying ‘my cock is bigger than yours’ or whatever, and on the other hand you have performers like Rory and you have programs like Inbetweeners which are genuinely brilliant, really fantastic TV, and there’s also the sort of like, I love all the state of the nation stuff that comes out of HBO. I adore y’know all the stuff like Breaking Bad which is a really incredible state of the nation declaration about this is what happens when you take money out of the public sector and these are the consequences of when we go down this route, when we don’t back teachers, when we dump them. There’s lots of good stuff coming from HBO. There’s loads of amazing theatre as well, stuff like Black Watch which was a show about Iraq which really was quite an amazing piece of drama, this is stuff that moves people and affects people in a very profound way. Does it get a little complacent? Yeah it all does at times. Does it need a kick up the arse? Yeah of course. But with television [becoming] a kind of awful freeview satellite [thing],  I now say ‘this is shit’ about eighty times a day!

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Mark’s new book Extreme Rambling was published by Ebury Press on 7 April. The live show is touring Britain until 25 September 2011. Mark’s website is www.markthomasinfo.com

An edited version of this interview, combined with a review of the book and show appeared on the Electronic Intifada website on 13th April 2011.

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