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Tribute by Mark Steel

January 2015

We may all be unique, but few could be as unique as Mike Marqusee, who died last week, as it’s hard to argue that what the world has too many of is American socialist cricket fanatics.

Usually described as ‘writer and activist’, for Mike this phrase was nonsense, as each activity was meaningless unless they combined with and enhanced the other.

His life as a glorious mix of disparate cultures began on his first day, born in New York in 1953 to white Jewish parents, who became civil rights activists travelling to Mississippi to oppose segregation, and one day he came home from school to find Martin Luther King in the living room.

His attitudes were shaped partly by a youth spent in 1960s New York, when defiance of authority moulded every corner of culture. So as well as organising campaigns for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, he was embroiled in the battle for fun. He was captivated by the music, poetry and occasional spliff of the times, and developed a special affection for sport.

All aspects of this background landed with him, when he came to live in England in the nineteen-seventies. He joined the Labour Party, becoming a prominent supporter of Tony Benn, and more fundamentally became obsessed with cricket.

One product of this fusion was a book that helped to transform sports writing, Anyone but England, an account of the game that lauded its beauty while raging against the snobbery and racism that had spewed from those who’d controlled it throughout its history.

This was a blasphemy that must have burst a million arteries amongst those in charge of English cricket. Books about cricket were supposed to depict glorious summers and splendid figures and never stoop to ask grubby questions such as why the MCC supported apartheid, or why the odd England captain admired Hitler, because this was cricket. Anyone but England was cricket’s equivalent of a scientific breakthrough that smashes all previous laws. And he was American! The impertinence!

The book was shortlisted for the William Hill Sportsbook of the Year Award, and praised around the world by figures such as Pakistan captain Imran Khan. But its greatest effect was in enabling thousands of cricket fans, who’d always felt uneasy about English cricket’s   imperial image, to proclaim a corner of their peculiar game.

For Mike, cricket was probably the ideal spectator sport, because it allowed time to dwell. 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, then why all this contributed to the reason he got out to spin bowling.

His next book on sport analysed the figure that did most to unite the defiant culture of his youth in both sport and politics. Redemption Song – Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties ricochets between Vietnam, Alabama and knocking people out, each strand shaping the others, culminating in the thrilling scene in which Ali stands in a military office, refusing to cross a yellow line as his name is called out to be drafted into the army, declaring “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”

He employed a similar combination of admiration and enquiry for Chimes of Freedom, on Bob Dylan’s influence on the sixties. Then he confronted an institution arguably even more challenging than the cricket authorities; the state of Israel. ‘The Story of an Anti-Zionist Jew’ flashes between a personal account, and a history of the Middle-East that manages to embrace the prophet Amos.

It begins with his shock as a schoolboy at a Jewish Sunday School, when a young soldier who’s fought for Israel in the 1967 war is introduced to the class.

“He told us the Arabs are ignorant people, who go to toilet in the street. I’d heard this language before, from bigoted white Southerners towards blacks. I raised my hand and said this seemed to me, well, racist. Angrily the teacher turned to me and said there would be no discourtesy to guests in the classroom.”

This incident began a lifelong tussle with Zionism, never as raw as when he was accused of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ for opposing the ethics of the Israeli regime. He enjoyed quoting the Jewish son of a friend who was accused of this, and replied “No you misunderstand, it’s you I hate you bastard.”

Throughout each project he played prominent roles in campaigns such as Stop the War, and in local groups opposing cuts in his area of Hackney.

In 2000 he left Labour, assessing the radical change he supported was unlikely to be advanced by an organisation led by Tony Blair.

His partnership with Liz Davies, who he’d met when they were both in the Labour Party, was much more impregnable, and the constant pride they exuded for each other was almost implausibly heartening.

In 2007 he was told he had multiple myeloma, a cancer diagnosis that created a new subject for enquiry. Amongst the articles he wrote on his illness was one called The Bedrock of Autonomy, describing the multitude of characters that led to his treatment being possible, written while on an IV drip. It includes “all who contribute to the intricate ballet of a functioning hospital, the Irish physician Frances Rynd who invented the hollow needle, those who built and sustained the NHS… the drip flowing into my vein is drawn from a river with innumerable tributaries.”

One of his most frustrating times was when he was in a ward for 3 days with only one other patient, who appeared to have no interest in any subject at all. Eventually this chap noticed a headline in the newspaper about the Chinese army shooting at Tibetan monks and said “That’s terrible.” Mike thought ‘at last I’ve got something to discuss with this bloke’, until the other patient said “I mean, you can’t just let monks run all over the place like that.”

Despite this, throughout his illness Mike continued to write, speak about and be fascinated by William Blake, Kevin Pietersen, Indian poetry, the campaign against the Bedroom Tax, ways to confront UKIP and the corporate nature of the Indian Premier League, and how they all collide with and impact upon each other.

And he could convey his thoughts in a manner so inspiring they could make you thump the table and yell in public.

Because what seemed to drive him above all, was the idea that it makes no sense to have fun in this world, if you’re not prepared to insist that fun should be equally available to all of humanity. But there isn’t much point in contending for a fairer world, unless in the process you’re not prepared to have an enormous amount of fun.