Six arrests and a stoning

Mark Thomas.   Picture: Idil Sukan
Mark Thomas. Picture: Idil Sukan

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According to the Oxford Dictionary, to ramble is to walk for pleasure in the countryside. But, when comedian/activist Mark Thomas goes rambling, it’s not your ordinary scenic stroll.

He calls it ‘Extreme Rambling’ and he’s named his new show after it.

During the tour, which comes to Fareham and Southsea next week, he will recount an eight-week walk along the Israeli Separation Barrier.

When we speak, he’s just kicked-off the tour in Reading and he’s still working on the programme.

He explains: ‘I’m just doing a bit of writing, trying to get a programme printed.

‘Various groups that I encountered on the walk have written pieces for the programme and I’m writing introductions for each of the groups.’

The programme has two aims. Firstly to serve as an aid to help audiences understand the issues covered in Mark’s show and, secondly, to raise money for a Fairtrade organic olive oil company in Palestine.

He’s also busy sorting through maps and pictures and pieces for his Extreme Rambling book.

It’s typical Mark Thomas. Not only does he manage to create something enlightening and entertaining in a live show and book, but he’s raising awareness and money in the process.

Mark’s political and comic achievements are too many to list here, but some of the more impressive/obscure include organising a mass paging of Labour MPs during the 1998 party conference. It instructed MPs to call ‘encore’ at the end of Jack Straw’s law and order speech, which they did. He also put a £5,000 bounty on President Bush in 2002.

Mark was a regular on the first series of Radio One’s Mary Whitehouse Experience in 1989. He was nominated for the Perrier Award in 1992. And he made six series of his own show for Channel 4. In 2004, he was awarded with a United Nations International Services Association Global Human Rights Defender Award. And, in 2006, according to Guinness World Records, he attended the most number of political demonstrations in 24 hours.

His 2009/10 tour, People’s Manifesto, saw him canvas the opinions of ordinary Brits (including the good people of Gosport and Southsea).

Together they came up with both serious and silly suggestions, such as the idea that fashion models should be chosen by secret ballot to ensure a physically representative cross-section of society.

Extreme Rambling sees him hit the road for more than 40 UK dates to talk about his recent travels in the Middle East. But how did such a mammoth project come about?

‘I really, really like rambling,’ says the 47-year-old, who lives in south London with his wife and two children aged 15 and 10.

‘Whenever I go on tour, I try to go off walking around stone circles and things like that. And, if the weather is all right, I often drop the kids at school and get a train to the Thames Barrier, then walk into London along the river,’ he continues.

It’s a big jump from the Thames Barrier to the Israeli Separation Barrier, but Mark says the idea came about organically.

‘It slowly dawned on me that I wanted to do it, though I wasn’t really sure why I was doing it when I started.

‘I just like doing things that no-one else has done,’ he exclaims.

Funds for the project came from programme sponsorship, Mark’s own pocket and The Metropolitan Police, who paid compensation after wrongfully stopping and searching him.

Mark explains: ‘I was making a speech at a protest at an arms fair in the East End of London and, as I was leaving, officers stopped and searched me.

When I asked their reason (you have to have a reason to stop and search someone), they said “it’s because you look over-confident”. So I asked if that is a legal reason and they said “we think you’ve got things about your person that could be used for criminal damage”. They then searched my wallet.

‘I know lots of lawyers. They’re very sweet. They take it in turns to answer my calls.

‘We put in a complaint that the search was unlawful, had no merit and was done on a whim. It was an invasion of privacy. If they were looking for weapons, why were they searching my wallet?

‘We won a ruling from the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Met paid me compensation,’ he continues.

Mark gave half of the money he was awarded to the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation and half went towards funding his ramble.

‘I’ve written to the Met to tell them I’m using their logo on my posters, since they are one of the organisations that have financially assisted the project. But I haven’t had a response,’ Mark laughs.

He has found the responses he has had, when telling people about his project, have been surprising.

Mark explains: ‘Three days after I got back, I was doing this parents association quiz night, to raise money for my children’s school [he was asking the questions] and we got chatting in the interval.

‘Someone said “oh God, it must have been so terrible for you”. I said “you’re kidding –it’s the best thing I’ve ever done”.’

He continues: ‘It wasn’t what I expected. It was both far better and far worse, but it was all a great experience and I feel very privileged to have done it. It’s the most beautiful country and the hospitality outweighed the hostility by far.’

Mark and his camera man, Phil, built an hour into their schedule each day to allow for Palestinian hospitality (‘teas, coffees and lunches’).

‘On one occasion we got to the top of this hill. It was in the middle of nowhere, but for four houses. These kids came out asking what we were doing, then their mum says “have you had breakfast?”. The next thing we knew she emerged with a massive breakfast of tea, freshly-baked bread, home-grown tomatoes, cucumber and olives and home-made sheep’s milk cheese,’ he remembers.

As well as the abundance of hospitality, there were daily oddities too.

At one point Mark unwittingly walked into the middle of a stand-off between the army and villagers protesting about their presence.

Another time, he walked around the back of a school to find a playing field carved in two by the wall, leaving a goal on the Israeli side and one on the Palestinian side.

He even found himself being stoned by a gang of youths while walking with an ex-Israeli soldier and ex-PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] member. The irony is that the three were discussing non-violent ways to achieve peace.

‘Every day we would see wonderful, exciting, weird and extreme things, from huge meadows of poppies to animals like the hyrax (which looks like a rat got lucky with a rabbit), to walking through an ultra-religious community during the Jewish festival of Purim, where the kids were in fancy dress as Biblical characters. The streets were full of mini-prophets,’ marvels Mark.

Mark and Phil had a translator with them each day and they were joined by all sorts of other characters as they walked.

Mark says: ‘We walked and talked with architects involved in building the wall, workers who crossed the wall illegally, officers who were patrolling the wall, students, farmers, shepherds, police, political prisoners...

‘Some walks got quite big. One day we ended up with 10 or 12 people, a mixture of Palestinians and Israelis. It turned into a picnic with strolls in between,’ continues Mark, nostalgically.

Now that sounds like my kind of rambling.