Tribute by Stephen Faulkner
London, 20 January 2015
I met Mike when I attended my first meeting of the Hornsey Vale Labour Party almost thirty years ago. I thought this was going to be a comfortable and friendly place to do constructive political work until we came to the main item on the agenda, which was whether or not the Hornsey Vale Branch would accept into membership, a comrade by the name of Tariq Ali. Mike spoke in favour of course, and then all hell broke loose. Mike was then roundly attacked by just about everyone else in the room except for a few other lefties present. I also spoke up in favour and after the meeting, Mike came up to say thanks for the support, and we talked and then went for a drink, and talked and talked. In fact, we pretty much talked and talked for the next 30 years even when we lived on different Continents.
Today I would like to reflect a little on the issue of Mike and friendship, and I hope within the context of his approach to life and politics and everything else in-between.
(By the way, we lost the campaign to have Tariq inducted into Labour Party membership, and I am still waiting for his note of deep and eternal regret).
Thinking about Mike and friendship, here is a reflection I am sure many here will recognise. Over the years, whenever Mike settled on a new writing or political project, for example a critical examination of a section of the works of Bob Dylan, a visit soon thereafter to Liz and Mikes house would entail climbing over every conceivable book, article, CD/DVD and reference on the subject that could be levered into an already book-crammed household. And incidentally Liz just lapped it up. It was clear she simply loved and shared his enthusiasm for a book or a cause, or a campaign, and jumped on board with great and unwavering aplomb! Just as well. A lesser mortal would have gone completely bananas!
This reveals one of Mikes most outstanding characteristics, and that was his infectious enthusiasm for learning absolutely everything he could about the subject or issue he was addressing. Colin and others have made reference to his meticulous scholarship, and also his passion for organising, and his uncanny ability of bringing together a range of ideas, thoughts, events and existing appraisals to inform and produce a stunningly fresh and compelling original insight. The energy he brought to his writing, or to organising a campaign was a marvel to behold.
His approach to friendship wasn’t too dissimilar actually as I hope to explain.
One of the defining aspects of Mikes life and activist practice (for want of a better term) was his capacity to engage in the highest levels of theoretical and intellectual inquiry without ever losing the ability to continue to connect with those who were often assumed to be the most distanced from it. Mike could connect! And this was especially the case if he met those who were experiencing unmitigated forms of oppression. Believe me, this is a very rare gift indeed.
I suppose what I am describing are the practicalities of the Marxist dictum concerning theory and practice, overlaid with what many of us have learned (are learning!) about the need to integrate the personal and the political. But there was also something else to add to this potent Mike mix, and that was simply, an ability to put himself in someone else’s shoes. To be thoroughly empathetic, and I might add, this might surprise a few people, to also be completely non-judgemental.
Mike had the dazzling ability of being able to engage with the world on so many levels, to bring a thrilling range of insights together not just for his writing, but also to fuel a deeply entrenched empathy and perhaps more importantly, a commitment to doing something!
I hope this does not sound too mechanical and crude. I am not suggesting that when Mike engaged with an exhausted super-exploited oppressed textile worker in Mumbai he would listen carefully and then suggest she read William Blake when she had a minute in her back breaking routine!
It didn’t matter if Mike was talking to eager postgraduate students at JNU in Delhi, or a beleaguered democracy activist in Swaziland, a wistful political refugee from Gaza, or a dispirited council worker here in London, he would listen carefully, ask dozens of searching questions, and if time and opportunity arose would say, ‘Have you thought about doing this?’ Or ‘What has been the reaction of so and so’. But equally importantly, the extraordinary testaments of so-called ordinary people would also find their place in Mikes canon of rich material to draw upon to deepen an understanding, and add to how we might change this sometimes cruel and wonderful world we live in.
In Mikes personal friendships, there were similar processes at work. He never failed to ask about loved ones by name, and then to ask about how a particular work, political, or other challenge had developed. He listened really carefully, and then he would help explore a couple of options.
For many years, I believed Mike didn’t give enough time for friends to ask about how he was doing. In fact, one of the ‘blessings’ (in inverted commas) of his illness has been to provide an opportunity for them to do just that.
Tony Benn used to talk about the crisis of representation, about how increasing numbers of people were feeling that no one was representing their interests, and that they felt alone, marginalised and powerless. Mike nearly always managed to make his friends feel as if their interests were important, that they had been properly listened to, and that he was prepared to give whatever support he could.
But there was a condition which some friends only discovered too late, and that was that if Mike thought that you could and should reciprocate when required, and for whatever reason failed to do so, he became very heart sore.
Now I do not want to paint Mike as if he were a saint! (He behaved infinitely better than most of those who have been canonised!). He was human! Not all of his friendships were successful. There were ups and downs, and sometimes, especially during those times when he felt blue, he often agonised about them, especially if he felt that what he had given to the friendship had been disregarded or overlooked, and hell, he could articulate it like William Shakespeare voicing a Chapter from the Tempest!
Mike literally pained when he thought an established and especially longstanding friendship, which had been mutually invested in, was ruptured, whatever the reasons. Sometimes a sense of betrayal could almost, almost, make him lose hope in redemption! But as witnessed by his reaction to his wretched illness, at his very core he was incapable of losing hope and that something could and must be done to make things well. Please be reassured those who might have been waiting for a friendship to be re-established, it was coming!
Over the last few years in particular, and clearly with the help of a number of special people here today, it was noticeable that Mike learnt to handle disappointment much more effectively. He was enormously relieved when a friendship that had been upset was put to rights, and he could once again count on it as a source of important life blood. Friendship for Mike was an antidote to the privatised, lonely and isolated world of capitalist exploitation.
And here is a truly selfish thought. I have to say that I don’t think there was anything I could not talk about with Mike, and believe he felt the same way too. There must be many here today and around the world who are feeling just the same. I may have this completely wrong, but such a friendship is a very rare thing indeed and should be treasured.
Now dear friends and comrades, what to do without Mike to talk to? What to do without Mike to read? It’s going to take some getting used to! Irreplaceable? Possibly. Forever missed? Certainly!
But here’s the great thing. Mike also connected many of us, and not least with his beloved Liz. He gave us opportunities to meet and befriend each other, to be part of a vibrant network of radical souls looking for meaning and change! So here’s to Mike, a comrade, brother, activist, intellectual, writer, poet, much-loved partner, and so much more, and of course, beloved friend.
Long Live the Revolutionary Spirit of Comrade Mike Marqusee, Long Live!
Hamba Kahle Mike*
(* ‘Go well Mike’ in isiZulu)