openDemocracyUK

Being in the same room with Mike Marqusee

A journalist's salute to a man who was more than a writer. In memoriam.

Paul Mason
23 January 2015

Mike Marqusee, American writer, journalist and political activist, who described himself as a "deracinated New York Marxist Jew", was born in 1953 and lived in Britain from 1971. He wrote mainly about politics, popular culture, the Indian sub-continent and cricket, and was a regular correspondent for, among others, The Guardian, Red Pepper and The Hindu. After he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2007, he wrote extensively on health issues, and in defence of the National Health Service. His, The Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer was published in 2014 and he gave openDemocracy's ourNHS permission to publish what was then an exclusive extract of his forthcoming book. He died after a lengthy battle with cancer on January 13, 2015.

So Mike Marqusee is gone. Very hard to believe and accept. The thing about producing transcendent work in journalism is that it does transcend - time and place - and is bound to survive even as people get old, sick, die or even worse become reactionary bores repeating their old nostrums.

Mike's absolute masterpiece was Redemption Song - a book about Muhammad Ali. And though I cannot see the point of cricket I came closest to doing so by reading his book Anyone But England.

However Mike was more than just a writer: I properly got to know and work with him when the anti-war movement was trying to calibrate its media response during the run up to the Iraq war and the series of mass demos that preceded it. At meetings with Mike I realised this was somebody who'd been left wing all their lives but knew how the real world worked; knew how you had to use the power of the powerful against them. I can't remember who exactly it was who suggested they hit the BBC with a strong legal letter outlining that if the anti-war marches received any less coverage than the Countryside Alliance march there would be a case to take before the Human Rights Commission, or its predecessor, but it was a good idea and Mike warmed to its execution with great enthusiasm.

I loved being in the room with him. New York jewish leftists of the old school are like the opposite of Orwell in that Italian Soldier poem: they are born knowing stuff everyone else has to learn. Anyway, I am sad that I didn't run into him much in the past few years. I totally respect the new generation of leftists that's on my timeline, but what you lose when you lose a veteran of all the struggles Mike lived through is very difficult to replace.

The movement he helped build in the months before the Iraq war had an impact way beyond its raw street power because people like Mike acted like the shaped charge that blows a hole in the side of a tank; the tank here being the establishment. It has never recovered from the moral defeat of the Iraq war and that is an historic achievement for all who engineered that. Against that, the failed struggle to stop Labour falling into the hands of Randian technocrats pales into insignificance. Goodbye my grinning, ironic, warm, poetic fellow writer. Next time Lorca's moon shines over Hackney...

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