A Ramble with Mark Thomas

Political comedian Mark Thomas walks us through his latest method of grassroots activism.

Feature by James McColl | 04 Apr 2016

Fondly referred to as a ‘general rabble-rouser’ by the Metropolitan Police, Mark Thomas seems adamant to live up to the name.

His activism has taken him on some pretty amazing journeys, from walking the Israeli Separation Barrier to flash mobbing an Apple shop in protest against the company's tax avoidance. For some, it might be surprising that he’s found time to undertake a new show, but while talking it is clear that his passion for political engagement and performing has not wavered. His most recent shows are theatre performances, mixed with the stand-up, activism and journalism which he's well known for. His latest offering, Trespass, arrives in Glasgow this month and continues the trend.

Like most of his work, it is hard to distinguish the show from this activism, which seems to suit him just fine. At a time when the government has sold off the majority of our communal spaces, Trespass sets out to carve a small space in the urban world where mischief and random chance lurk. In order to do so Thomas draws on a seemingly odd weapon of choice: rambling.

“I’ve always been rambling,” he says, and you can hear the grin form on his face. “My house is full of old maps. It’s just a beautiful thing – even in London there are these amazing walks you can do, it’s not just down in the countryside. Me and my mates, we had this really weird one where we went up to the Kinder Scout – up to the peak district.”

Mark Thomas on the politics of rambling

The mass trespass of Kinder Scout, it transpires, was one of the most notable acts of initial trespass undertaken by ramblers in 1932, which suitably serves as the inspiration for Thomas's new show.

“We were at the top of a waterfall,” he explains, “and it was flying back in our faces and we all just went, 'Fuck – we don’t belong here.' It’s a weird feeling of being alienated... All sorts of writers talk about the alienation of people in cities when actually cities are where I feel most at home. It’s often the countryside where I feel alienated. I feel like I’m photobombing nature.”

Most people wouldn’t consider rambling as a political practice, yet it seems the perfect activity to reclaim these lost spaces in our inner cities. “I think we are on the verge of forming an 'urban ramblers'. That is going to be really interesting as it means we are going to be fighting for rights of way, for access and for public space.”

Much like the fight for public access in the countryside, there seems to be a fight for public access and public land in the city.

“Well it’s not just public access,” he says. “Do you want the right to just walk along a barbed wire corridor through someone else’s land? No. That’s not access, that’s being shuffled through. Quite often if you get out in the countryside and you actually go walking, some of the routes we’ve got – some of the rights of way – are these awful barbwire corridors, and it’s just crap. It’s about feeling a belonging to a place; thinking it’s ours; having a space and being able to use the space; being able to experiment and create in it. That’s not a wishy-washy thing, that’s a real thing, that sense of belonging.

"Every time you see a sign saying 'no loitering' or 'no busking', it’s another nail in the coffin of being able to feel free. It’s a really important thing – feeling that a place belongs to you, feeling that there is a sense of freedom, feeling that you are a part of this. It goes straight to the core of who we are, of our self-identity and so when you say 'access', I think it's way more than that."

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One of the most powerful elements of Thomas's show and activism is that they bring different people and groups together, planting the seed of communal spirit. “Communities exist whether we like them or not,” he says. “They are not always recognised as communities but they are [communities]. One of the stories that I tell in the show is about trying to create a community on a footpath because there is a community of people who use them. They're just always on the move.”

His projects have a life beyond the stage and always start from a desire to make a difference – even if it is a small one: “What we did in that particular instance was to set up stalls and just offer free tea and cake, and discussion, and create this event where people stop and recognise that they are in a community. It should be said, of course, that it’s on someone else’s land – who was very upset that we were there, which was part of the purpose of it." Thomas takes a boyish delight in ruffling some feathers, hence the ‘general rabble-rouser’ title.

Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP: the rise of grassroots politics

Trespass also deals with the current issue of certain people being shepherded out of London. 

“There is this whole process of moving people out and creating these yuppie condos and flats,” he tells us. “It's a massive issue in London, a massive issue in New York too. What we have to do is address it on a fundamental level, what we’re seeing is the end result of years – 36 years – of privatisation. If 36 years ago someone said, 'We’re thinking of selling off council houses and getting private developers who will build homes that no one else will be able to live in except for the rich,' everyone would have gone nuts. Now it’s a commonplace idea and a commonplace practice.”

Despite this, Thomas doesn’t think people are less interested in getting engaged, nor more apathetic.

“Look at what’s happening with the major parties. It doesn’t matter what you think of Jeremy Corbyn, the importance of his election is the rise in grassroots movements. The Green Party and the rise of the SNP are all signs that people aren’t happy with business as usual, so I’d argue that it’s not about apathy. There is a seeding anger that’s out there.”

Ever the optimist, Thomas is rather excited about the current boom of grassroots groups. “It should always be an exciting time for grassroots because grassroots are created by us and we need to get out there and do the work,” he says. “I love social media, I use Twitter a lot, but you can’t beat hooking up for a good demo. The interesting way people get their news is actually through coming together, going on demonstrations, talking to each other, hearing different opinions and different viewpoints and different experiences. That is a way of getting news that is often ignored.”

Mark Thomas: Trespass, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 13-15 Apr, 7.30pm, £10-£16