‘Politics is the battle of remembering over forgetting’

As he prepares to take his new show, The Red Shed, to the Edinburgh Fringe, comedian and activist Mark Thomas talks to Jo Lateu about socialist sheds, working-class stories and the importance of sticking together.
Mark Thomas outside the Red Shed

© Tracey Moberley

Tell us about your new show and your links to the Red Shed.

The Red Shed is a socialist shed in Wakefield and as a student at the nearby Bretton Hall College I first went there when I was 19. I did my first public performances in the Shed. Friends of mine and I would write shows for whatever campaign was going on and perform in the Shed to raise money for the campaign. We became fixtures and fittings there.

I often go back. Some of my closest friends are there and I have campaigned, performed and, indeed, recorded at the shed on and off for 34 years.

The show is about celebrating working-class stories, the North, Labour, the miners’ strike, memory, art, that politics is the battle of remembering over forgetting, Brexit and beer.

What message are you trying to get out in your new show?

Come and see it and then you’ll see!

You interviewed lots of people with connections to the Red Shed in preparation for the show – are there any characters or stories which have particularly stuck in your mind?

The ones that stick in my mind are the ones that end up in the show. As usual I have way, way too much material. What is brilliant about the Red Shed is that it is full of people who are ordinary people but have done something amazing. There is a fantastic bloke in the Shed called Vic who is on the committee and often helps collect the pots. Every time I see him he tells me not to forget the builders’ strike of the 1970s. One night I said: tell me about it – and sat with him and a recorder. Amazing. Amazing man who had been part of an incredible struggle.

The club steward when I first went to the club fought the Nazis in Greece and the Generals and helped unionize the merchant seamen. This was the bloke pulling the pints! So there are way too many stories to fit in the show – but every single one informs the show.

You were born and grew up in South London, moving to Yorkshire in the 1980s as a student. How did Wakefield differ from the life you were used to back home?

The South London I grew up in was one full of self-employed builders who had no interest in unions. The ethos was of acquisition and individual financial betterment. Harry Enfield hit the nail on the head with [his character] Loadsamoney, his brash mouthy cockney builder of the 1980s.

Wakefield and the north in the 1980s felt much more about community. People had to rely on each other at work and that sense of mutual dependence was palpable. Betterment was not just an individual endeavour but a communal one; the idea of solidarity was not just a notion – it was real. We all stick together to improve or we will all fail.

And going back to Wakefield now, more than 30 years later... what was that like? What has changed? What has stayed the same?

I have been back to Wakey off and on for years and I suppose the thing you notice most is the old pit villages are still the most deprived areas in the area. This is an open sore and wounds still run deep.

I was shocked when I was talking to an old miner, who I have known for years, who told me that he had only just got ‘straight’ with his finances after enduring the year-long strike.

You notice that some (not all, but a significant number) are frightened of joining the union where once it used to be the first thing you did. Although you get the feeling of a challenge to this, it is changing slowly, or at least not as fast as I would like.

Working with the Bakers’ Union has been an inspiring journey and seeing their organizers work and the support given to Kumaran Bose (more still needed) has been really exciting.

Other work places fight it hard not to let the union in the door. Unemployment may be lower but the types of jobs – part time and zero hours – have created chronic job insecurity in places.

The most obvious thing that has changed in the Red Shed is the beer; it is a real ale club and wins awards every year.

Labour clubs were a significant part of community life in the mining districts of Yorkshire. But the mines have all gone – do labour clubs still have a future?

See above. Real ale and real politics. The places that are surviving are the imaginative ones – Trades Club in Hebden Bridge for example – but it will always be about beer and community. I love the fact that the Red Shed is a place where the Derby and Joan meet to play bingo and anti-fracking meets after and you might be joined by a real ale group.

The age of austerity seems to be driving a wedge in community/social cohesion; funding for ‘non-essential’ council services has been scrapped, people are losing their livelihoods and struggling to keep their heads above the water. How can communities stick together at such times and build resistance?

Well, first of all, we have no other choice. We have to stick together.

I feel Left activists need to be working in community projects and not just organizing demos and protests. We must come up with community solutions. Refugees Welcome and We Are Wakefield are wonderful examples of this, working to fight racism here and support refugees in Dunkirk and Calais.

You’ve had a long and successful career as a comedian and activist. Of your many achievements, what are you most proud of?

Still performing for a living after 31 years – and whatever the next project is.

What do you think you still have to achieve?

I always wanted to bring about the downfall of international capitalism – oh well, still on the bucket list!

Look out for the September 2016 issue of New Internationalist on Trade Unions: rebuild, renew, resist.

Mark Thomas: The Red Shed at the Edinburgh Fringe:

VENUE: Traverse 1 – The Traverse, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
TIMES & DATES: 6 August @ 2:30pm / 7 August @ 6:15pm
9, 13, 16, 20, 25 August @ 1:15pm / 10, 14, 17, 21, 26 August @ 4:15pm
11, 18, 23, 27 August @ 7pm / 12, 19, 24, 28 August @ 10:30am
PRICES: £20.50 / £15.50 standard concession / £8.50 other concession
TICKETS: 0131 228 1404 / www.traverse.co.uk

Mark then takes the Red Shed on tour around the UK. For details, visit:

markthomasinfo.com / TWITTER: @markthomasinfo