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Tribute by Colin Robinson

London, 20 January 2015

As well as being Mike’s friend I’m also his publisher – and the two roles, inevitably, became mixed together. I remember when Redemption Song, his wonderful book on Muhammad Ali, came out in the summer of 1999. We had a launch party in New York. Mike’s parents were there – I recall how proud they were of him that day, and then Mike and I set off for a promotional tour in California. The first stop was an interview at K-POO, a community radio station in San Francisco. K-POO styles itself poor people’s radio. It was the first station on the West Coast to play rap music and, as we discovered when we arrived, it’s run entirely by black radicals. As Mike settled into the studio with the host, and I watched through a window with the producers, it was hard not to sense a feeling in the place of “What’s this white guy from London doing here, come to tell us about Muhammad Ali.” The interview was supposed to last 10 minutes but Mike was so extraordinarily eloquent and engaging, swooping around an astonishing range of sources, as he always did, from Ali’s fights, to his relationship with Malcolm X, to the music of Sam Cooke and the politics of the Nation of Islam, that the producer let it run for nearly half an hour. When we left the there were big smiles and high fives all round, and an insistence that we come back soon. We’d become brothers. It felt just great.

We drove down to LA for a reading there and then headed out for a short break to Joshua Tree National Park. We were taking in the spectacular scenery and Mike was filling me in, from memory, on Pinto Culture, and how Gene Autry filmed in Pioneertown nearby, and then it started to get dark so we looked for a place to spend the night. We arrived by chance at this run-down little motel, a collection of shacks really, surrounded by cactus. The owner told us she had only one free room, with just a double bed. So we took it, drank some tequilla on the porch, and turned in. The next thing I knew, I woke up suddenly. It was too dark to see anything but I could feel the room shaking wildly. Next to me, Mike was awake too. I asked him what the hell was going on and he said, very calmly I remember, that it was likely an earthquake and we should best go outside. The following morning it was confirmed that a 6.5 quake had hit the area. And so I am delighted to be able to put on record here that, in all my years in publishing, Mike was the only one of my authors I shared a bed with and, furthermore, on that magical night, I did indeed feel the earth move.

I want to say a few words about Mike’s most recent book: The Price of Experience. It’s an account of his dealings with cancer and it beautifully encapsulates what I believe is most original and wonderful about his writing, namely his ability to draw on a vast range of different interests, melding them together to create dazzling new insights. Mike once told me that he never intended from the outset to write any of the books he published. He’d just start off with one idea and then follow it to another, and then another, and that he often surprised himself with where he ended up. In this little book, it’s just 120 pages, he takes his title and the theme of his preface from a William Blake poem, then rails at the grotesque political economy of Big Pharma, proceeds to lay out the issues at stake in the fight against cuts in the NHS, links calls for bravery on the part of sufferers to the individualism of the free market, and ends up parsing with great sensitivity the way we talk to each other about illness. The result is more than its parts; it’s a refraction of the whole world seen through the experience of being ill. There is a sort of magic to it.

Mike understood, with a depth that is rare, how everything is connected, and the way that people can achieve far more acting in concert than alone, with each person’s role important to the overall project. Here he is, in the Price of Experience, writing about his hospital, St Barts:

‘Any big hospital is a complex and fragile mechanism. So much can go wrong at so many stages. Take the administration of a single dose of chemotherapy… It relies on tasks performed correctly and promptly by receptionists, nurses, technicians, porters, pathologists, pharmacists, clerical assistants, cleaners, IT experts, supplies managers – not to mention doctors. It relies equally on “backroom” and “frontline” staff. It’s as coordinated as a ballet or symphony orchestra, and I never cease to marvel that it works.’

Well, I’ll never cease to marvel at how Mike Marqusee worked. I feel so lucky to have had him as an author and a friend.