The Blog

Interview: Mark Thomas on Palestine, Free Speech and Christian Festivals

Anti-terror laws, government-sponsored arms-dealers and testing the limits of free speech and protest: Mark Thomas has tackled them all.

Anti-terror laws, government-sponsored arms-dealers and testing the limits of free speech and protest: Mark Thomas has tackled them all.

His comedy manages to be full of conscience and political righteousness without descending into buzzkill. That's particularly impressive when dealing with material based on walking the length of Israel's wall of separation - a structure of oppression that is dispossessing people of their land and making peace difficult across Palestine's occupied West Bank.

Thomas toured his show based on these experiences in 2011, and the paperback edition of Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel's Separation Barrier. For Fun is now available all over the place, including Mark Thomas' website.

One of the places Thomas performed was Greenbelt, a festival of art, music and justice that is still predominantly attended by Christians. A week or two later I caught up with him at one of his shows to ask the son of a lay-preacher and brother of a C of E vicar about his own religious views, what Palestine was like and whether Christian and leftist groups need to learn from each other. He's a really nice man.

You have to be fairly brave to take on the subject of Palestine in comedy, don't you?

The thing is, as soon as you start thinking you shouldn't deal with these subjects you start having censorship. And there's no fucking way on God's earth that I'm going to do that. The whole point is that we can say what we like. If people don't like it, don't come. Say you don't like it. That's how it works. That's called freedom of speech.

An Israeli orchestra was heckled at the proms. Have you had any interesting zionist walk-outs during any of your shows?

No. I'm sure some people have left at the interval because they didn't like the show. And that's fine. But there's been none of that.

Way, way long ago when we were just getting the show together, I was running two shows: I was rehearsing for this show and then also doing a show called the manifesto where we'd get ideas from the audience, discuss the ideas and vote on the best policy. And I was running one week with the manifesto and one week this show, trying to get this show up and running. And about 45 minutes into the manifesto one evening, somebody mentioned Israel. I just told a joke, just a flippant joke, something like: 'Israelis are always welcome here. Mainly because, you know, if you take the piss out of the Israelis, they'll jump on stage, start building settlements, tell you God gave them the stage and the stage belongs to them in the Bible and all that.

At this point, two people stood up and said: 'you're an anti-semite, you're a bastard,' and then they went out, telling everyone in the theatre: 'he's an anti-semite, he's a bastard, you've booked anti-semites, you've booked bastards,' and I suddenly thought: 'Oh my lord, they came to the wrong show!' They came along wanting to heckle the Israeli wall show, and only by chance was Israel mentioned, 45 minutes into it. They must have been sitting there, just going: 'we've come to the wrong show. Oh geez.' Suddenly, someone mentions Israel and they go: 'quick, go, go go! Now! Shout "antisemite" and run!'

What I did was I posted a note on the website saying: 'thank you very much for the heckle, I've donated your tickets to a Palestinian medical charity. Any time anyone does something like this in future I will do exactly the same.

The one time I went to Palestine, I found the IDF terrifying. Do you think of yourself as brave?

No, I don't. I take calculated risks, which are entirely different. I don't think I'm brave, I just think I'm of a habit where I get in people's faces. And I don't see why I should back down. If people say: 'you can't do that', I say: 'Why? Why can't I?' I want to find out why I can't do something. I assume that I can do it. I like that idea that you can do it until you're told not to. Because actually many of us live our lives like we shouldn't do things: 'we can't get away with it, do you think we should?' Fuck it. Assume that you can and then wait until you're told you can't. That's a good way of living.

That's an idea you captured in 'My Life In Serious Organised Crime'.


Was this as much fun?

Yeah, this was, hugely. It was a different type of fun. It was very intensive, very emotional and very surprising. Very shocking. And you'd move from one state to the next very quickly. So you'd start the morning with with a panic and a rush to get everything ready - you had to prepare everything. Make sure all the kit was dry, make sure you had waterproofs and sunny clothes, make sure you had what route you were taking, who you were walking with,your translators, all your cameras and phones charged up, and then you get out. You'd start, you' stop, you'd start with an interview, something happens, you get dragged off somewhere else, then you suddenly go: 'fuck, we've got to get to the walk!' You start the walk, something else happens, you meet someone, you get stopped, you move somewhere, you discover something - and then suddenly it's dark and you have to get back home. And then you just strip the kit down, load everything on a computer and prepare for the next day and then you're exhausted, you're knackered, you're asleep.

That's every day. I remember we were walking once and we thought we'd got off to a good start. This was in the afternoon so we'd had the whole morning. In the afternoon we were mushroom-picking and we bumped into a bloke. The bloke has been moved off his land. He tells us all the story. We see this other bloke who lives on the other side of the wall and hasn't met his mother in four years, then we fall over, we get lost, we fall into a swamp, go mushroom picking, but accidentally pick up some live ammunition by mistake and then finally end up in this rather beautiful almond grove. And then it's dark. And suddenly you're looking at the green lights on the minarets and hearing the imams call the faithful to prayer. And they become like these little belisha beacons for us in those first winter weeks. Because they call you in. that's where you're going to finish your walk. you're finishing in the villages and the towns. The green lights and the sound of the imam calling the faithful for prayer became very synonymous with home and the end of the day for us. It became this lovely sound that was very relaxing and soothing.

A different kind of religious experience is the Christian festival. Tell me about playing Greenbelt?

Gigs like Greenbelt are important. They are really important. Because people are more willing to be engaged with the issues. I loved it. One of my favourite festival gigs. I really really enjoyed being there. I was in such a bad mood when I arrived. I was really tired and really lacking coffee. I walked into the wrong door at reception and couldn't open it. Someone came up to me and asked: 'can I help you?' and I was so tired, I went: 'No!' And then had to spend two minutes going: 'I'm terribly sorry. I'm not normally like this.' But it did really surprise me. It was pleasantly surprising.

At the end of Greenbelt you came back for an encore and said someone had asked why you were playing a Christian festival and you said: "missionary work". Is there some truth in that?

The whole tour is missionary work.

For the Palestinian cause?

Not necessarily for the Palestinian cause, because I think the Israelis have got as much to gain as the Palestinians. You've got to remember this is about their liberation. A chance to live in a genuine democracy that isn't pump-primed full of fear. And where their children aren't forced into military service. That's really quite a lot to gain. To not sink into the oblivion of becoming the pariah state of the world. To not be isolated by the international community. To not be in a situation where your orchestra is heckled. These things we see as gains, as positive things.

So, for me, it's not about waving a Palestinian flag or an Israeli flag. it's about justice and it's about human rights. Palestinians have got an an enormous amount of ground to make up on when they either get statehood or there's a one-state solution. The ground that they have to make up on is actually that their leaders are just devoid of human rights at the moment. Their leaders don't know how that bloody works. This whole idea that they get behind the cause is distracting from the corruption of Fatah or the stupidity of Hamas and the brutality of the police. I met Palestinians who said, 'we'd rather be arrested by the Israeli army than be taken in by the Palestinian police.' It's not about flag-waving. It's about human rights. They're universal. It's for everyone. that's the gig.

So it's missionary work, but missionary work about what I saw and what I think people should engage with. The atmosphere at Greenbelt was one very much of acceptance. And it was about the ideas which was wonderful.

For me, it's actually about the faith groups taking leadership. The thing that I said was that the reason I had come there was because the faith groups have to be the bedrock of this campaign. You have to say we're not going to have another apartheid. You have to support BDS. And actually, the faith groups have to lead on this. Absolutely, fundamentally, faith groups have to show leadership. The trade unions have prevaricated to a degree. And they have to show leadership too. If we are to get anywhere with this, then it is the faith groups and the trade unions that will form the bedrock of the campaign.

You made a joke about how you left the world of schism in Christianity for the unity and friendship of leftist politics. There are many similarities between the two groups.


Do you think they can learn from each other or would they would encourage the worst in each other?

I don't know a huge amount about the way in which churches cooperate these days. I meet a lot of people who are really good, and who I like. And on the left you meet a lot of really great grassroots campaigners. It's just all the leadership that just do your head in. There is a feeling that the leadership of these two camps, which often intermingle, are far more conservative than the people they purport to represent. I love the fact that Methodists get stuck in there. I really do. I love the fact that the Church of England eventually get there. And it's really important that these groups actually react to the grassroots pressures.

What can they learn from each other? Campaigners need to learn that what we need to learn above all else is to mistrust our leaders and always fucking tell them what to do. You know, in a vacuum, unless we tell our leaders what to do, they will do all sorts of shit that we don't want them to.

So assume that we're in the driving seat. that's what we have to do. Behave like were' in the driving seat, because we have to be. Because we are.

You did a great joke about telling your sister the vicar to 'get inside before the neighbours see you!' Is there any seriousness there?

I've said before I'd rather have a Christian socialist than an atheist capitalist and that's heartfelt. I love the fact that there are Christian campaigners who use their faith for courage rather than some kind of solace at times of trouble. Yeah yeah, that's fine. Yeah, yeah, it's human. Yeah, we'd all like to be able to say 'we're immortal!' But, what I like are the Christians that go: 'I'm going to have these bastards because it's wrong.' I work with all sorts of people from the Quakers through to Methodists, C of E's and all of that. It doesn't matter what you believe about the afterlife. It matters what you believe here.

Mark Thomas is currently touring.You should check him out.

This piece first appeared on the Narnian Socialist Review

Before You Go