Remembering Mike Marqusee

by Tom Wood

I hate the fact that I am writing this. It’s something I never wanted to write. It reminds me that life is random, brutal and cruel, and that natural justice is an obsolete concept believed in only by fools.

A friend is dead. First there was shock, then sadness, now rage. I am reminded of the words of the American writer Henry Miller: “I had no more need of God than He had of me, and if there were one, I often said to myself, I would meet Him calmly and spit in His face.” Yet this story is about another American writer. His name was Mike Marqusee, and using the past tense to describe him feels as obscene as it does unreal.

Mike was born in New York in 1953 of Jewish parentage. He became socially aware and politically active as a teenager, drawn to the counterculture in general and to the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements in particular. He moved to England in 1971, reading English Literature at Sussex University before settling in North London, where he became a youth worker.

He lived around the corner from me, but that was just coincidence, that wasn’t how I knew him. Our paths crossed because of something we shared: cancer of the blood. Mike described it to me, the first time I met him in hospital, as like ‘winning a bad lottery ticket.’ I thought of him at first as a fellow patient, then as a friend, and now as a member of the cast in life’s Tragi-comedy. Therefore, I never really thought of him as Mike the writer, I just thought of him as Mike, and I’m sure – given his motivations and passions – that would have suited him fine.

Yet Mike the writer he most certainly was, and an indefatigable one at that. His prolific output during the course of his illness never ceased to amaze me, because the treatments for blood cancer suck the life out of you. The amount I have managed to write in the last eight years has been meagre compared with Mike.

Throughout his life he wrote extensively on politics and culture, but it may be more accurate to describe him as having been a political activist. He cut his teeth at the age of fourteen, organising a school walk-out in protest at the Vietnam War.

Prior to that, he had a baptism by fire when he committed an almost unspeakable heresy in front of his parents. Mike declared that, as a Jew, he could not accept that the creation of the state of Israel could be justified, as it had been engendered, to a large extent, by the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from what had then been Mandatory Palestine.

His moral dilemma was compounded by the fact that his liberal, left-leaning, anti Vietnam War, pro Civil Rights father rebuked him for his views. This seemed like a double standard to Mike’s young, open mind. It was a contradiction he would never be able to disentangle, and this incident was perhaps the germination for his self-definition in later years, as a “deracinated New York Marxist Jew”. His stance as an anti-Zionist Jew is outlined in his 2008 book If I Am Not For Myself, and demonstrated no more clearly than by his last request: that, rather than buy flowers for his funeral, his friends should donate the money to the charity Medical Aid For Palestinians.

Mike described himself to me as a Socialist, not a Communist: the type of society he hoped for bore no resemblance whatsoever to the totalitarian USSR.

In younger years I considered myself a Socialist, then an Anarchist … and without a pigeon hole ever since. I have become dubious of ideology in general, of its workability in particular. ‘There is nothing permanent except change’, as Heraclitus observed.

Nevertheless, my ideas have never shifted to the right. The individualistic, competitive-aggressive, money-oriented aspects of our society mean nothing to me, and neither does our antiquated class system. No wonder Mike and I were to become friends. Besides, I knew from the start he was genuine and he cared. And here’s how…

There had been a thief on the ward. Perversely, it was a fellow patient. One positive aspect of hospital life is that people tend to look out for each other, forming social groups to soften the constant threat of death. But a thief is like a fly in the ointment.

I had woken up one morning and reached for my mobile phone as usual … but … it had gone. Having your phone stolen in hospital is like having sand thrown in your eyes when you’re already suffocating. So I asked around the ward for a phone to borrow. And that’s how I met Mike: he was sitting on his bed, tapping at his laptop, with his partner, the housing-rights barrister and social campaigner Liz Davies at his side.

When I explained my predicament I could immediately see he was aggrieved, and that he empathised with me. That was Mike: he recognised the human commonality of all people and was angered by injustice. In his numerous articles on the NHS he would always commend the cleaners alongside the consultants.

That was in 2007. It’s hard to believe that was nearly eight years ago. It’s hard to believe, not only because the haematology rollercoaster has warped my sense of time, but because Mike was then given just four years to live. He knew his cancer was incurable: ‘but that’s okay’, he would say, with a graceful, accepting shrug. His type was Multiple Myeloma and mine Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. Whilst I was only given a twenty-five percent chance of surviving beyond four years, I never forgot it was more than Mike had.

We discovered we had more things in common than malfunctioning DNA: we lived in the same area, were both into writing, and were both massive Bob Dylan fans. But Mike was a real writer, i.e. he had had books published, whereas I had only dabbled with short stories and sketches.

His most recent publication had been a book on Dylan: 2005’s Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and The 1960s. He gave me a copy. Refreshingly, it is no biography. It places and examines Dylan’s artistic evolution within the social, political and cultural contexts of the 1960s, all of which are studied in great depth and with precision.

Widespread rage at America’s racial segregation laws – and their concomitant beatings and killings – had crystallised into mass protest movements on an unprecedented scale. These were spearheaded by black student activists and supported by left-leaning whites – by trade unionists, artists and intellectuals of all colours.

It is impossible to separate the young Dylan from the Civil Rights movement, and while some may have lampooned him as a white, misguided, middle-class college kid, his authenticity was indisputable, his language, on occasions, more radical than some of his black counterparts. In the early 1960s he called for nothing short of total social revolution.

The book reveals Dylan as a complex and seemingly contradictory character. Famously, Dylan largely abandoned acoustic protest music in 1965 in favour of dirty electric blues with increasingly surreal lyrics. In so doing he alienated many of his fans, and his critics called him fickle at best and fake at worst. Yet such analyses are simplistic and superficial. They consider neither the inner world of the artist nor how it relates to the ever-changing outside world. Mike surmised that Dylan: “wasn’t out to educate or agitate, but to participate and express himself.”

Dylan was as bewildered by the turbulence of the times as anyone else, and he soon became wary about becoming anyone’s mouthpiece or mascot. These were things Mike himself would come to understand all-too well, as he experienced the flip side of campaigning: the infighting, the agendas, the unrealized visions. The often paradoxical relationship of the individual to the group – and the wider society – was one with which he struggled, and he understood and shared the artist’s dilemma: “Throughout the sixties, Dylan is writing both within the historical tide and against it.”

If Dylan is a man of apparent contradictions, so was Mike. One of his other passions was cricket, which is unusual for a Dylan fan, and even more so for an American. He had fallen in love with the game in Sussex and, as with all things that fascinated him, he threw himself headlong into learning and understanding everything he could about it … and then wrote about it.

The investigative journalist Duncan Campbell and the Indian historian Mukul Kesavan have both described Mike’s 1998 book Anyone But England as the best book ever written on cricket. It was praised by the Pakistan captain Imran Khan, and shortlisted for the William Hill Sportsbook of the Year Award.

The book is meticulously researched and informative. It is also a literary hand grenade lobbed into the stuffy confines of the English cricket establishment.

I have never liked sport, particularly not cricket, due to its associations with empire and aristocracy. While my sentiments are shaped by my own culture, Mike, with his comprehensive perspective, was able to love the game for what it is. Perhaps it needed an outsider’s objective eye to scrutinise the issue that became his biggest target in the book: the racism endemic in English cricket, particularly that aimed at the successful West Indian and Pakistan sides. Yet Mike did more than write about it: he co-founded the campaign group Hit Racism For Six.

It seems naive to think that sport and politics can ever be completely separated. In many ways they share an affinity. Indeed, through cricket Mike learned a lot about England’s history, of its colonial relationship with India in particular. The comedian Mark Steele noted, in his tribute to Mike, that: “A day watching cricket with him was an extraordinary education, as he’d discuss which province in India the batsman came from, then the role that region played in winning independence, its architecture, the poetry the batsman read…”

India was to become another of Mike’s passions. He and Liz visited several times, and he secured a regular column for the English-language Indian daily newspaper The Hindu. Interestingly, he told me once how ironic he thought it that, compared to most of their British counterparts, The Hindu ‘always paid on time.’

Another book Mike gave me was his 2012 poetry collection Street Music. He signed the flyleaf with a wry smile: “To Tom – In haemoncolgical fellowship”. We often joked that we were blood brothers, and while bad blood is something I could do without, that sonofabitch did bring me a friendship with Mike: a Bohemian alliance amidst the turmoil.

It was unfortunate that Mike’s public readings from Street Music occurred at a time when my newly-transplanted immune system started short circuiting and attacking me from inside. I emailed Mike, explaining my predicament and apologising for my non-attendance.

His response was as unexpected as it was touching: he said he would come over and visit: “in solidarity”, as he put it, as if I were one of the many political prisoners he supported right up until his final days.

He came over and we stumbled to the high street. He sat me down and he bought me lunch. We put the world to rights and barely mentioned cancer.

Later, back at my flat, we talked about books and writing. At the time I was working on a Horror short story, and I ran the idea by him for feedback. He was very encouraging, and also said he thought it sounded good, although I must say I doubted his honesty there. I suspected he pretended that he liked it, so as not to dishearten me. My assumption was based on both the quality and depth of his work, and on the notion that hardcore Leftists tend to hold the Horror genre in contempt. The usual accusation is that it is decadent: that its non-naturalistic, non-sociological mode renders it futile and superfluous. As Tom Stoppard put it: “The further left you go politically the more bourgeois they like their art.”

Yet as the publisher Colin Robinson noted in his obituary to Mike in the Guardian : “The distinction, so often snobbish, between high and popular culture held little appeal for Mike.” It was the core essence that mattered, the ‘refractory, authentically individual creativity’ as he defines it in Wicked Messenger. He didn’t condemn on the basis of type, yet he knew all-too well that culture is susceptible to dilution and pollution in commercial, mass-produced form.

Mike was a non-conformist at heart, but one with enough wisdom to know that sometimes the biggest conformism to watch out for is one’s own non-conformity. It was perhaps this spirit of independence, coupled with his vigorous intellect that precluded his becoming too entrenched in any political organization. He had been a founding member of The Stop the War Coalition, but later fell out with its Socialist Worker sectarians. He had joined the Labour Party in 1980, identified and fought against the advent of New Labour, but eventually left the party because of it.

There were many sides to him. The afternoon he came over I discovered he was just as at home discussing Kesey and Burroughs over a couple of joints as he was talking politics over coffee. It was perhaps his inner Beatnik that spawned both his rebelliousness and his wariness of signing any oath of allegiance in blood. He was a child of the counterculture and, despite his atheism, I sometimes thought I saw something of that movement’s mysticism about him. Indeed, William Blake – that heavyweight mystic so often cited as a progenitor of modern counterculture – was another influence on Mike.

Yet while the 1960s’ meme that saw consciousness as the basis of all change might have made an impression on him, it was by no means an indelible one. Not only was dialectical materialism too convincing an argument for him, but, as he told me on one of the last times we met: “Cancer strips you of the illusion that you’re in control.” We had a similar outlook in that regard that might be best described as Taoist. The idea of ‘battling cancer’ was something we would laugh about over coffee.

It was more a case of just doing what you always did, while accepting the reduced parameters. And in Mike’s case that meant writing a 100,000-word book comparing and contrasting the lives of William Blake and Thomas Paine.

Professional to the end, all of that work amounted to what he described only as a ‘first draft.’ I think he knew he would never finish it, but that never stopped him. Blake and Paine were two of his biggest inspirations. Both were radical non-conformists who forfeited their reputations for socially-progressive ideas which at the time were considered incendiary. Broadly speaking, Blake’s vision was spiritual and Paine’s political, and weaving together such seemingly disparate threads was where Mike excelled. I saw how brightly his vision burned but alas we shall never share it.

* * *

Everyone must die, and roughly one in four will die of cancer. The rest will most likely die of a heart attack or stroke; that’s if you’re lucky enough not to have been killed in a car crash or by war, poverty or general stupidity beforehand.

Globally, 2.2 billion people live on less than £1.34 per day, the majority in the developing world, where millions die from illnesses that are preventable or curable in the developed world. Having cancer in a first-world country might therefore be a preferable option … but that depends on the type and the way it unfolds. The best treatment in the world couldn’t save Mike, and although he almost doubled the amount of time he was expected to live, his quality of life was rarely good.

As a contributor to the Guardian he reached a wide audience, and in his articles on cancer I was always pleased to see him tearing down those clichés of sound-bite psychology such as ‘just stay positive’. When you’re living with a death threat you’re likely to feel a wide range of emotions, from defiance to deflation, and everything in between.

Remaining continually in one state of mind is an unrealistic proposition for anyone. Life is rarely that simple or one-dimensional, and suppressing your natural feelings will most likely do you more harm in the long run. Yet the sick and the dying are somehow expected to ‘just stay positive’, as if that alone will save you. Isn’t it, rather, a convenient way for the emotionally inept to close down a conversation that they don’t want to have, that they don’t know how to have?

Mike noted pertinently in one article that: “We lack the ritual and social contextualisation of death found in pre-modern societies”, elaborating in his penetrative way that: “A society that vaunts individual success, where nothing is disdained so much as a “loser”, does not quite know what to do with the ill or disabled. Unless our suffering can be sentimentally packaged, or recast as part of the neoliberal cult of “can do, will do”, it remains unrepresented.”

But I never thought of him as Mike the cancer sufferer: I just thought of him as Mike … in the same way, perhaps, that I think of myself – for there always seems to be an irreducible part of you that exists outside the storm. Or perhaps it is denial: a coping mechanism that tricks you into thinking none of this stuff is really happening to you.

When I last bumped into Liz on the high street I asked her how Mike was. She shook her head and said: “They’ve told us there’s nothing more they can do. There’s only a few months left.” I guess that’s when you stop tricking yourself. My stomach turned cold as she told me, but still my inner trickster stood its ground: “Nah, Mike will always be around.”

In what seemed like an act of defiance Mike and Liz booked a holiday. Travel had always been a big part of his life and he had seen many parts of the world, but there was only one place he would consider for his final trip: Andalucía in southern Spain. The warmth of its people, the taste of its wine and the language of Lorca had drawn him back over the years. Yet the thing that drew him most was flamenco.

Only Andalucía, with its long history of cultural fusion, could have given rise to flamenco, which has Arab, Berber, Jewish, Byzantine, Spanish American and south Asian influences. The songs, expressions of Gypsy life, often tell of angst and loss, of dispossession, of love and death. Yet there is a spirit of defiance, of protest, within that plaintive cry.

Mike described it as if he were describing life itself: “Abrupt and angular, frequently harrowing, sometimes ecstatic, always spontaneous and at the same time meditative.” Mike recognised and identified with that voice. He was an internationalist. His own rootlessness had made him empathetic. Nationality mattered little to him: he cared about the underlying humanity, the plight of those with no direction home.

*          *          *

Article by Tom Wood

For more information about Mike Marqusee, his life and his work, visit his website.

Thanks to Liz Davies and Rab MacWilliam for input and advice. 
MIke Marqusee 27 January 1953 – 13 January 2015.
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