Guest Post

Remembering Mike Marqusee by Liz Davies

July 20, 2021

Housmans are running a sale of books collected over the years by Mike Marqusee. Mike, who wrote several books, including two volumes of poetry, and countless articles about cricket, popular music, the Labour Party, the Indian subcontinent, US politics, the anti-racist struggle and much else, was also an enthusiastic collector. Over sixty boxes of his books are in the sale and for socialists it will be an opportunity to explore some items that have for long been out of print. Below we reproduce an edited extract of the Introduction to the posthumously published anthology of Mike’s writings Definable Traces in the Atmosphere (OR Books, 2018), written by his partner of 25 years Liz Davies.

Mike’s great strength, sometimes lamented by him, was his eclecticism. He loved discovering new interests. And those new interests would then be connected to existing passions, producing insights unique to Mike. The world never divided itself into disciplinary compartments or categories. He would read into a subject intensely, buy associated music, watch movies, and follow through odd connections. As his ideas formed, he would clarify his thought process by talking: on walks, to friends sitting at our kitchen table, whilst watching cricket matches, late at night. There was something magical in his ability to grasp serious heavy-weight ideas and recount them with a twinkle in his eye and a whimsical aside.

Politics was a driving force, combined with a deep sense of history, a love of art and human creativity, and a vision of a better future. Although he bemoaned his wandering mind, saying he couldn’t retain an audience because no one else wanted to read about cricket, Bob Dylan and the politics of anti-Zionism, he was also privately pleased by the depth and range of his knowledge.

When we first met, in 1989, he was an authority on cricket, politics (the British Labour Party, the American labour movement, Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam war protests), Renaissance art, racism and anti-racism, and Indian and Pakistani politics. During the following 25 years, he discovered Flamenco and South Indian Carnatic music, developed a serious understanding of nationalism, imperialism, and national identity, and developed theories about white supremacism and the inadequacies of multi-culturalism.

In later years, he returned to earlier passions as he researched William Blake, Thomas Paine and the radical politics of the 1790s in France, America and Britain. He had always been an anti-Zionist and a supporter of Palestine liberation, but he deepened that commitment as he explored his own Jewish roots and Jewish culture. He loved art in both its high and popular incarnations, and particularly enjoyed the explosion of popular culture that had occurred during his youth in 1960s America.

From 2005, Mike wrote regular columns for The Hindu, an Indian national English-language daily newspaper, and the British left magazine Red Pepper. He was also published in the Guardian. The Hindu column was titled “Level Playing Field”. In Red Pepper, he wrote under the rubric “Contending for the Living”, a quote from Thomas Paine who, replying to Edmund Burke in Rights of Man, wrote: ‘I am contending for the rights of the living against the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.’

Mike was a very active member of the Labour Party from the early 1980s to 2000. He was an enthusiastic and, as he later described it, unreconstructed Bennite. From the mid-1980s, and the defeat of the miners, the left in the Labour Party became ever more beleaguered. In 1994, after four successive general election defeats, the Labour Party elected Tony Blair as leader, and he immediately took steps to reshape the party politically. One of those steps was when he overturned my selection as Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate for Leeds North East, in a move against the socialist left of the Labour Party. For a brief period, Mike and I were in the public spotlight.

Mike was born in New York City in January 1953 and brought up in Scarsdale, an affluent suburb of New York, until he emigrated to Britain in 1971. His parents, Janet and John Marqusee, had been Communist Party members. When Mike was young, he observed them supporting the Civil Rights Movement and later organising against the Vietnam War. My impression is that as soon as Mike was old enough to hand out a leaflet, that’s what he was doing. By his mid-teenage years, he was an organiser, building the anti-war movement at his school, checking out SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Black Panthers. Simultaneously, he was reading widely (Thoreau, Paine, Shakespeare, Milton, Ginsberg, Blake), watching movies, listening to Dylan, the Byrds, the Stones, Captain Beefheart, growing his hair long, and beginning to write.

In 1971, exhausted by political activity, he escaped to study English at Sussex University, where he concentrated on literature and (unlike almost every other student at Sussex at the time) ignored politics.

In the early 1980s, Mike returned to political activity. He became a youth worker in Islington, and a Labour Party activist in Haringey, North London. Working at Highbury Roundhouse changed his life and profoundly shaped his politics; he engaged with working-class kids, black and white, boys and girls, and became a trade union shop steward and negotiator.

Around the same time, in 1979, he had made his first, and life-changing, trip to India, a place he loved. I used to think that there was a spring to his step whenever we arrived there. By the mid-1980s, Mike gave up youth work to concentrate on writing.

Mike established himself as an authoritative writer in the 1990s. “Defeat from the Jaws of Victory” (Verso, 1992, with Richard Heffernan) is an account of Kinnock’s battles with the Labour Party left, and the consequences for the 1992 general election. This came directly from the authors’ own experiences as Labour left activists, and the network of left wing members around the country whom they knew and had worked with.

Mike then switched tack to write “Anyone but England: Cricket, Race and Class” (published 1994, re-issued 2016 by Bloomsbury). He and I talked about its themes for several years, and became regular spectators at Test and County cricket matches. However it was only when it was published, that I came to realize how significant were Mike’s insights into national identity, the political context of sports, particularly internationally, and history. Mike’s great hero was CLR James, and he could not have been prouder when one reviewer said “CLR James started it. Marqusee is a worthy successor”.

In 1996, Mike’s “War Minus the Shooting” (Mandarin, shortly to be republished on line by 81AllOut Publishing Pte Ltd) was published. Its immediate subject matter was that year’s Cricket World Cup, played in the sub-continent and climaxing with Sri Lanka beating Australia in Lahore. Mike had attended the World Cup as a journalist, found himself supporting Sri Lanka from early in the tournament and was ecstatic when they won. Beneath the surface, “War Minus the Shooting”, like “Anyone but England”, was an early contribution to the political debate around globalisation, the role of multi-national corporations and the global media. In this respect they anticipated subsequent work such as Naomi Klein’s “No Logo”.

Now, predictably, Mike changed tack yet again, this time to consider popular culture, sport and politics in 1960s America. As so often happened, a defining book emerged from a small commission which took hold of Mike’s imagination. “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties” (Verso, 1999) came from an essay written for the magazine “Race and Class”. Ali’s life, and boxing, had been extensively written about, but Mike reclaimed the politics of the heavyweight’s extraordinary career. Mike’s interest in the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam enabled him to recount Ali’s involvement in those struggles and, as usual, he pieced together connections brilliantly.

“Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art” (The New Press, 2003), later re-issued as “Wicked Messenger” (Seven Stories Press, 2005), similarly draws on another of Mike’s early enthusiasms: his teenage excitement about Dylan’s music, in particular an appreciation of its strengths both as poetry and as way of connecting to 1960s American society. As he did for Ali, Mike reclaimed the politics in Dylan’s work. Mike used to say that Dylan was like blotting paper in the way he soaked up lyrical and musical influences. Mike understood Dylan at a visceral level, sharing many of the singer’s inspirations: Ginsberg, William Blake, the Old Testament, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson. “Chimes of Freedom”/”Wicked Messenger” explores the study of popular music, the politics of celebrity and Dylan’s complex relationship with left politics and anti-racism.

“If I Am Not for Myself: The Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew” (Verso, 2008) might, at first glance, seem like another big jump in Mike’s oeuvre. In fact, the Biblical references in Dylan’s lyrics, and his Jewish origins, had sparked a train of thought in Mike, which coincided with his acquiring his grandfather’s papers after his mother had died. The book tells two stories: his grandfather, a Jewish Communist Party fellow-traveller in the Bronx of the 1920-40s who fervently believed in the establishment of the state of Israel, and Mike’s own life, as a middle-class Jewish teenager who found himself at the age of 14 questioning an Israeli soldier who had referred to Arabs (the word “Palestinian” was not then used) in terms that reminded Mike of racists talking about African-Americans. “If I Am Not for Myself” sets out a political anti-Zionist argument; it also delves into Jewish rabbinical theology and philosophy, explores the teachings of some of the Prophets in the Old Testament (Mike greatly admired the prophet Amos), and locates the struggle for Palestinian freedom in the context of the 21st century “war on terror”.

A month before Mike finished the manuscript of I Am Not for Myself, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a type of blood cancer). Mike and I lived with his cancer from that diagnosis in 2007 until he died in January 2015. In this period his writing took a different turn; he sought fewer commissions and faced fewer deadlines. He also resurrected and re-shaped poetry that he had started writing from the end of the 1990s. His first poetry collection, “Saved by a Wandering Mind”, was published in 2009. “Street Music” (Clissold Press), a collection of poems written over the previous three years, was published in 2012. They deal with cancer, politics, music, living in Hackney, and love. I was immensely privileged to read these poems in various drafts. In 2016, Jeremy Corbyn read the title piece: Street Music, at an event with writer Ben Okri.

Eventually and typically, Mike found the strength to begin writing about the disease that was killing him. Various articles on the topic, including several for the Guardian, appeared. Mike and I had always understood politically how significant was the NHS is in British society, but now we understood it emotionally and Mike became a passionate campaigner for a health service founded by the 1945 Labour government. In his pieces he railed against privatisation, PFI (government schemes requiring private finances of the NHS, at great long-term cost to the public purse) and Big Pharma. “The Price of Experience” (OR Books, 2014) is a collection of those articles, with an introduction by Mike explaining that while the last thing he had wanted to do was write about his illness, he had come to realize that doing so was inevitable.

It would be an omission to chronicle Mike’s literary work without mentioning the great obsession of the last ten years of his life: William Blake, Thomas Paine and the politics of the 1790s, in Britain, France and America. Mike had been a disciple of both Blake and Paine since his teenage years. Blake’s poetry and art, and Paine’s political writing, had shaped him, and references to them appear in most of his books and many of his articles. For ten years, he researched their lives, their political activities and milieu. I have a treasure trove of Mike’s notes and incomplete chapters on this topic. With friends, it may be possible to reconstruct enough to publish as a forthcoming book.

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