Mark Thomas visits Cambridge, talking about the privatisation of public spaces


A timely issue given what’s happening in Cambridge

Given what happened to Allan Brigham in my neighbourhood recently, it’s ironic that the venue for Mark’s energised performance at The Cambridge Junction on 29 Sept took place on the same privatised bit of land. I’ve blogged about the privatisation of public spaces before – see from 2011.

Mark Thomas, comedian, writer, broadcaster has been campaigning on a whole host of issues for quite some time. Here he is with a brilliant and unique expose on the arms industry – showing how school children were able to set themselves up as arms dealers and procure weapons.

Scroll to the end of this page from the Commons Export Controls Committee to see the transcript of exchanges between Mark and MPs on the committee. In particular from Q67 here.

Minor acts of dissent

Mark’s show was about his new book (See which featured a humorous wander through a number of events and actions in London that featured some familiar faces from the world of Puffles. First off was Vanessa Furey and the campaign to stop the Royal Parks from charging people to play organised games in Hyde Park. They won. The threat of judicial review was too much.

The importance of upholding our legal rights

One of the common themes in Mark’s show was the upholding of our legal rights – and forcing the hand of institutions to either justify the legal grounds they have in which to act, or withdraw. I recall a line from one of Mark’s earlier shows when a police officer said to Mark, paraphrasing as:

“We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way, it’s your choice.”

To which Mark replies:

“Um, no. We have this abstract theoretical concept called the rule of law. You may have heard of it in your training. We’ll do it that way if you don’t mind.”

To which responses from police or security guards all too often is:

“Stay there! I’ll call my boss!”

Institutions behave differently when you start quoting bits of law at them – in particular when you tell them they are not complying with a piece of legislation that particularly applies to them. For example when the Home Office didn’t release the information I had asked for in a Freedom of Information request, rather than forget about it, I threw some bits of law at them and suddenly lots of information came out. See here.

“Minor acts of dissent?!? That sounds like anarchic vandalism if you ask me!”

There are numerous examples on the Twitter account @100acts of mainly mischief-making. Things such as tabloid-free-zones on trains to Nigel stickers on wheelie bins. It’s not the revolution by any means. A theme that runs through is that stupid rules and laws will breed stupid responses. Such as London’s Sky Park which brands itself as a public park but for which you have to bring ID in which to enter.

Dissent also means playing with the minds of institutions – as Puffles did in 2014

What started out as a spat between me and local councillors back in January 2014 (see & subsequent posts) led to some councillors saying ‘If you feel so strongly about it, why don’t you stand for election?’ Which is a very fair response. One of the things that slightly irritates me with some figures in campaigning charities (esp if they are well-paid) is that they don’t stand for election but expect someone else to take the flack for difficult decisions. How often do you see news reporting charity figures praising politicians in the face of genuinely difficult decisions in a media storm?

Councillors called my bluff – so I called theirs back, standing for election not as me, but as Puffles. We ran a campaign publicising all of the other parties, encouraging locals to get in touch with all the candidates and to ask them questions. We said only think about voting for Puffles if you are unimpressed by the other candidates. Because having a dragon fairy as a councillor would be stupid…wouldn’t it?

Coleridge Results 2014

As it turned out, eighty-nine people in the ward of Coleridge, Cambridge voted for the dragon fairy in May 2014. As they had no candidate, despite a massively expensive campaign backed by newspaper headlines, Puffles beat UKIP. At the ballot box. And in 2015 in the by-election next door in Romsey just over a year later, UKIP managed 46 votes and the Conservatives 100.

“Anything missing from Mark’s show?”

A challenge to the audience really – ‘What one off small action or behaviour change are you going to undertake to make your area/the world a better place?” After all, The Junction was packed out that evening. It’s one of those things where I wonder if local councils should send their community development officers along to engage with audiences at these sorts of events. The reason being that the audiences are self-selecting. You have a group of civically-minded and educated people at these things. How about doing something for local democracy, even if it’s as simple as sending an email to a councillor or an MP? Other than that, a splendid show!

Mark, Puffles & me at The Junction in Cambridge.
Mark, Puffles & me at The Junction in Cambridge.

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