CUCKOOED. Traverse, Edinburgh


Mark Thomas is the most intelligent of the modern leftist standups: impassioned, a practical activist emotionally driven but capable of rich mockery of himself, his confreres and the absurdity and illogic which threatens all human endeavours, even (or especially) the most sincere. In this riveting, headlong narrative about the Campaign Against The Arms Trade (CAAT) there are plenty of laughs at the expense of its fellowship, founded by Quakers, run by “atheist Guardian readers” and comprising “crusties, hippies, people who sing with nuns…”. Describing a protest at an Arms fair where he hijacked a party of credulous buyers and later chained his neck to the axle of a BAE Systems bus, he muses on those who cycle, march, and light candles for Peace – “This is our Ascot! Dress code, camouflage gear worn ironically”.

It’s a blokeish, beguiling way to take us in to the hard reality of the cause: hampering, mocking and exposing the illegal, criminal brutalities of a shady world of torture and genocidal cooperation despite its respectable top-dressing. He has scored plenty of closedowns and a few arrests. But it is a personal, conflicted tale he has to tell here, as well as a political cry of protest at the ubiquity of unpunished official and corporate spying on individuals: pretty damn topical after the Lawrence family revelations.

Though Thomas narrates in standup style, it is a genuinely theatrical hour: he pulls video screens from a filing cabinet to recreate interviews with colleagues, shows a clip of the bamboozling of an Indonesian general in a fake media training session, does the voices, flips around the stage with urgent manic energy. And emotion: for the story he is telling here is not just me-and-my-funny-clever activism, but a heartfelt, sorrowful account of how his close friend and fellow CAAT member Martin (whose identity he ruefully disguises) was spying, over years, for a company in the pay of BAE. Who, incidentally, were later forced to apologize to CAAT. In a sharp aside Thomas explains why the little pressure group was targeted by such a big multinational – it followed the acquittal of women who broke into a hangar to disable some fighter jets bound for bad doings in Indonesia. They were deemed to have committed a smaller crime to prevent a greater one, he says, and in one of his priceless asides, muses on how bitter it was for BAE not only to lose “but to have a 13m fighter jet which is not hammer-proof”.

The traitor Martin – working class, geezerish, jokey, solid-seeming – comes to life in the telling, and so does Thomas’ own furious disbelief, followed by stunned belief and years – culminating this spring – of trying to meet him and resolve the conundrum of a shattered trust. It is at times very moving: not least when he finds Martin depressed, living shabbily in a two up two down ‘so they weren’t paying him much”. Outrage,sadness, humour, and an underlying solid decency: whatever your politics and pragmatisms, an unmissable hour.

To 24 Aug. rating: four

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