I was partly brought up in Ilford in East London and went to school near Gants Hill which was, at the time, extremely Jewish. When there was a Jewish holiday, class numbers were so depleted that teachers at my school tended to abandon the lessons and have general knowledge tests. One of the bonuses of going to my school, though, was that I got endless top-notch Jewish jokes told by Jews.

Next week, Wednesday to Saturday, comedian Ivor Dembina is performing his show called Old Jewish Jokes at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.

“It came about because of my previous solo show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy,” he told me yesterday. “That was a story with jokes about the Israel-Palestine conflict seen through the eyes of a North London Jew.

“Some people complained it was ‘too political’. So I came up with the idea of preceding it with a 20-minute curtain-raiser called Old Jewish Jokes. Then I was going to have an interval and perform This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy.”

In fact, Ivor never did this. Old Jewish Jokes developed into its own one-hour show.

“One day,” he explained to me, “I did a gig at a Jewish venue and, before the show, the organiser asked me: You’re not going to do jokes about the Holocaust, are you? That slightly threw me – not because I actually do jokes about the Holocaust, though I do jokes about the way people use the Holocaust to fit their own agenda – about people appropriating history for their own purposes. I think that’s fair comment for the current comedian.

“But there was something odd about being asked beforehand about material I was not going to do. So I have worked that idea of being told by a venue owner what jokes not to tell into a narrative in which to tell the old Jewish jokes: Jews and Israel, Jews and money, Jews and sex. There ARE lots of jokes, but it’s underpinned by this story of what it’s like being a modern Jewish comedian when you’re given a shopping list of things you’re not allowed to talk about.

“I tested the show out last August at the Edinburgh Fringe – on a small scale at the Free Festival – and it sold out on the second night and then every night throughout the run. What was clear and heartening was that at least 75% of the audience was non-Jewish. So I thought I’d try it in London. The tickets for the Leicester Square Theatre show are selling really well without any great PR. If it works well there, I’ll probably take it back to Edinburgh again this year, maybe in a bigger pay venue.”

“The title is great,” I said. Old Jewish Jokes. You know exactly what you’re going to get.”

“Yes,” said Ivor, “People don’t come to see Ivor Dembina, by and large: they come because of the title.

“I’m just a typical London-based alternative comedian. I’m used to writing stories about myself or whatever. But I’ve found actually standing on stage telling jokes is really hard. You could tell the best jokes in the world for an hour but, about 10 or 15 minutes in, the audience’s enjoyment will start going down. Which is why it’s so important to have the story in there. It gives the audience a breather and an additional level of interest because it becomes not just about the jokes themselves but about ethnic minorities having a fear of people making jokes about them.

“Black people can make jokes with the word ‘nigger’ in. White people can’t. Jews can make jokes about being mean with money and use the word ‘Yid’ but non-Jews can’t. What’s that all about? All those issues are kind of bubbling underneath and I think that’s what makes this quite an interesting show. The old jokes are great. I don’t have to worry about the jokes. But hopefully the audience may go away thinking about acceptability. Why are some jokes acceptable and others not? Why is the same joke OK in a certain context but not in others? It just stirs it up a little and I like that.

“In London, the Jews still have something of a ghettoised mentality; they tend to live in North West London or Ilford. Most Jewish entertainers work the Jewish community – the culture centres, the synagogue halls. Which is fine. But no-one – particularly in comedy – has yet stuck their neck out and consciously decided to try and take Jewish humour of an English kind out of the community and target it fairly and squarely at the ethnically-mixed audience. That’s what I’m trying to do. Instead of Jews just telling these jokes to each other, the whole culture of Jewish jokes could be opened up to a much wider audience.”

“But surely ,” I said, “Jews have been telling jokes about Jews forever? There’s that whole New York Jewish thing.”

“Ah,” said Ivor. “That’s America, Over there the whole Jewish schtick is much more widespread.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “There are loads of British comedians who are Jews, but I can’t think of a single famous comedian over here who you could describe as doing his or her act as ‘a Jewish comedian’. Bernard Manning was a bit Jewish. Jerry Sadowitz is a bit Jewish. But you couldn’t describe either of them as being ‘Jewish comedians’ in the genre sense.”

“Mark Maier does a bit about it,” said Ivor, “and there’s David Baddiel, but you wouldn’t say he’s a specifically Jewish comedian. Lenny Henry was the UK’s ‘black comedian’ but there has never been a comic who became Britain’s Jewish Comedian.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“America’s a much bigger country,” said Ivor, “and they have a predilection for ethnic assertiveness – I’m an American black! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Jew! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Italian! – I’m proud! Jews in America see themselves as American first and Jewish second. In Britain people see themselves as Jews first and British second.”

“Really?” I said, surprised. “I’m not English, but I’m Scottish and British equally.”

“In my opinion,” said Ivor.

“Lewis Schaffer – a Jewish New York comedian,” I said, “surprised me by saying he was brought up to distrust Gentiles.”

“Well,” said Ivor, “I was brought up to fear Gentiles.”

“They are shifty, untrustworthy?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Ivor. “You can’t trust them. That was what I was told. In a way, the reason why Israel is so important to the Jews is because they see it as a bolt hole to go to if anti-Semitism gets too bad.

“I think what drives most Jewish behaviour is fear. Because of the experience of our past… I was brought up to think You can’t trust non-Jews. Obviously you find that same mentality in Israel: You can’t trust the Arabs. Shoot first. Ask questions afterwards. And, in the diasporait’s even more so. If anyone begins to raise a dissenting voice within the community, you get labelled as a traitor. I get hate mail just because I’ve dared to question the prevailing ethos through my comedy and through my very low-level political activity.”

“How did Jews react,” I asked, “to your show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy? It was about you actually going to Palestine and what you saw there. Did you get hassle about being perceived to be pro-Palestinian?”

“I get loads,” Ivor replied. “Hate mail.”

“Even now?” I asked.

“Not so much now,” said Ivor. “What happens is they try to marginalise you. Its main function is to intimidate you. Life would be easier if I kept quiet. Or to provoke you into doing something or saying something outrageous that will make you look stupid or like a villain. To get under your skin, to make you angry. I’m used to it now. I don’t take any notice of it.

“I don’t do much. I took part in that Bethlehem Unwrapped thing where they did a replica of the wall separating Palestine from Israel at that church in Piccadilly. I did a comedy show with Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and a couple of other Jewish comedians. And there was a line of people outside complaining Ivor Dembina makes jokes about the Holocaust! Which I don’t. But they’re very organised these Zionist people. It’s like banging your head against the wall.”

Daphna Baram as ‘Miss D’ - Does she deserve to be killed off?

Daphna Baram as ‘Miss D’ – Does she deserve to be killed off?

Daphna Baram is an Israeli living in the UK. Formerly a lawyer in Israel, she is now a freelance journalist who writes for newspapers such as the Guardian. She also performs as a comedian under the name Miss D. Until this year, she has always kept her Daphna Baram and Miss D personas separate.

But her Edinburgh Fringe show this year was called Killing Miss D.

I saw it in London last week and she is about to tour it round the UK.

“In the past,” I said to her, “you’ve had members of the Palestine Solidarity Group coming in to see your shows.”

“Yes,” agreed Daphna. “In Edinburgh and in Glasgow, I was calling on people to join the Palestine Solidarity Group. Though when they do come – a lot of them are serious political activists – they like the political bits in my shows but I’m not sure how comfortable they are about the Miss D bits. I think that is the thing with my shows. Nobody ever gets everything what they expect; they always get more than they bargained for.

“I’ve been an activist on Palestine for many years and it comes into my writing and my comedy and journalism and everything I do. But I can’t do only political material.”

“Which,” I said, “is the divergence in your shows between Daphna Baram and your comedian persona Miss D.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “So Killing Miss D is about the gap between Daphna Baram, the good conscientious political journalist and ex-lawyer who wants to liberate Palestine… and Miss D… and how I try to kill Miss D because you and all sorts of people kept saying: Stop performing as Miss D; start performing as you.

Miss D - pushy, sassy, rambunctious?

Miss D – pushy, sassy, pretty rambunctious?

“I tried and tried to be solely myself, but Miss D kept pushing me off the stage. So, in the end, the division of labour on Killing Miss D is this: Daphna has written the show but Miss D says she is performing it because she is the better performer. And, the way Miss D sees it, she performs it because she is pretty and I’m not.

“Instead of trying to eliminate each other off stage, we are talking together about how we tried to kill each other. Miss D by giving Daphna a heart attack, by living a wild life, by taking all sorts of risks and misbehaving. And… well, in the show, Miss D explains how Daphna is trying to kill her.”

“So,” I said, “it’s just a comedy show. Not therapy.”

“Massively therapy,” replied Daphna. “Very Gestalt. But I don’t like shows that are therapeutic in the sense that the act is falling on the neck of the audience and asking them for salvation. I think it’s good to do a show that is therapeutic after you’ve already done the therapy and done the process of integrating your characters. I could not have done this show while Daphna Baram and Miss D were very acrimonious to each other.”

“What’s the difference between the two?” I asked.

“Miss D is funny.”

“But Daphna Baram is funny too,” I said.

“Daphna’s funny,” admitted Daphna, “but she also knows irony and has political jokes. Miss D is… Well, reviewers always say she’s sassy and vivacious and loud. One word someone suggested on Facebook was ‘rambunctious’ and I like the sound of that. I guess she’s most often called ‘sassy’.”

“I instinctively feel you are,” I said, “but I’m never too sure exactly what ‘sassy’ means when referring to comedians.”

Daphna at the Fringe in August

Daphna was at the Fringe this August

“I think it means ‘has big tits’ doesn’t it?” replied Daphna.

“That would be it,” I agreed.

“My act is difficult to describe,” said Daphna.

“You were,” I said, “in a ‘Best of Irish’ show at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Despite the fact you’re an Israeli Jew.”

“I think it’s easier for people from the Eastern Mediterranean,” she said, “to gel with the Irish than for us to gel with the English. I don’t know if it’s a Celtic thing. Maybe it’s a bit of a Catholic thing.”

“You gel with them because you’re Catholic?” I asked.

“I think all Jews are kind of Catholic.”

“Maybe it’s the guilt,” I suggested,.

“I think,” said Daphna, “it’s something to do with the sense of… I think… I think when I met Irish people, I mainly thought They’re Arabs.”

“You are an Israeli,” I pointed out to Daphna. “You’re not supposed to get on with the Arabs.”

“But we ARE kind of Arabs.”

“Semitic, yeah,” I said.

“We’re similar in our traditions,” explained Daphna, “in the way we view the… We have big families… We have a strong sense of friendship… Our friends become part of our extended family… You can very quickly become someone’s Best Mate after three hours of drinking.”

“So this is an Israeli admitting the Arabs and Israeli are actually all the same Semitic people?” I asked.

“It’s not a race thing…” said Daphna.

“You may be right,” I said. “The Irish like killing each other… just like the Arabs and Israelis like killing each other. It’s like supporters of two football teams in the same city hating each other.”

“This is not what I’m trying to say,” said Daphna. “Maybe I just like the Irish cos they’re great guys.”

Daohna Baram in Dublin last week

Daphna Baram looking surprisingly Irish in Dublin last week

“So how,” I asked, “did they explain on stage that, in a show billed as ‘Best of Irish Comedy’, there was suddenly a Jewish Israeli woman performing.”

“They didn’t explain,” said Daphna. “They just introduced me.”

“That’s very Irish,” I said.

“I had to go on stage and explain which part of Ireland my accent stems from. I said I was from the Eastern Colonies.”

“Well, to look at you,” I said, “I suppose you could be Spanish and there’s lots of Spanish blood in southern Ireland from the Armada when the sailors got washed ashore from the ships that sank.”

“It’s not a race thing,” said Daphna.

(This piece appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian site We Speak News)

Yesterday seemed a good day to go see Miss D’s Silver Hammer, the weekly New Act comedy night in London’s Hammersmith, run by Israeli comedian Daphna Baram.

The death toll in Gaza had reached over 100.

Daphna started her career as a human right lawyer and a news editor on a paper in Jerusalem.

“Basically,” she explained to me last night, “I was representing Palestinians accused of security offences at military courts in the West Bank and Gaza. I was – still am – very political. But the only thing I liked about lawyering was performing. There was lots of performing. I had a robe, I was young and I felt like I was an actress.”

“So you were a frustrated comedian?” I asked.

“No,” said Daphna,” it never occurred to me for a minute. I never saw live comedy.”

She moved to the UK ten years ago but even then she was not particularly interested in comedy until something dangerous happened.

“When I was 39,” she told me, “I had a heart attack while I was at the gym, I was struggling with diabetes which was diagnosed when I was 37, I’d lost a lot of weight and was really sporty. I was running five times a week, I was looking like Lara Croft. I got to the hospital in a good shape, except for nearly dying.”

“So that was your Road to Damascus?” I said, choosing an unfortunate phrase.

“It was,” she agreed. “While the thing was happening, I was quite jolly and everybody in the ambulance was laughing and the doctors were laughing and I was cracking jokes all the time.

“Once I was in the ambulance and they said I was not going to die, I believed them. So I thought How can I get drugs here? This is an ambulance. They asked me Are you in pain? and I wasn’t but I said Yes I am and they gave me the morphine and the pre-med and everything. By the time I got to hospital, I was really happy and there was a really good-looking doctor waiting at the door.

“So I was in quite a good mood and they put a stent in my heart, but the next morning I woke up and started thinking Fuck me, I’m 39. I just had a heart attack. My life is over… I’m never going to have sex again, because people don’t want to have sex with women who have had heart attacks. What do you think when the woman starts twitching and breathing heavily and stiffening and her eyes widen? Do you keep doing what you’re doing or do you call an ambulance?

“At that time, both my best friends were getting married. One of them a week before the heart attack and one of them a month after. I did their wedding speeches, which went down really well; people were laughing. At the second wedding, there was one guest called Chris Morris who I’d never heard of because I knew nothing about comedy.

“He said to my friend Kit, the groom: Does she have an agent? And Kit said: Yes, I’m her personal manager. Chris Morris asked Is she doing it for a living? and Kit said No, but I think she might and then he was on my case.

“I’d just had a heart attack, I was turning 40, I felt I needed to do something creative, something new, perhaps write a book. But I’d already written a book in 2004 about the Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last hundred-and-something years.”

The book is still available and Daphna writes occasionally for the Guardian on Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

“What’s happened in Israel this last week,” I suggested, “must be a joy for a comedian.”

“Normally,” she explained to me, “I open on Israel stuff about how aggressive we are and how I can kill and it kinda works with my persona which is quite authoritative. But the war broke the night I was in Glasgow and I did about ten minutes of just taking the piss, all the sex stuff, the fun stuff, the growing old stuff and being a reluctant cougar. Then I started talking about Israel and told a few jokes about that and people were not feeling uncomfortable about it.

“So I said Hold on, I want to stop for a minute because I have a lot of these self-deprecating jokes about Israel, but I’m feeling terrible telling them today, because my country has attacked Gaza, which is basically a massive prison surrounded by a wall. They are bombing them with F-16s jets and this will only stop if there is international intervention. The place is the size of Glasgow but without the drugs. I thought Obama was chosen to be the American President but, reading a statement that came out of the White House today, I realised it was really Mitt Romney. People were clapping – some of them were standing up and clapping. Then I went on to talk about pervy Englishmen and it went down really well.

“When that happens, you come out and you feel exhilarated. People laughed on the one hand, but also listened to what I had to say. Comedians want to be seen and heard. Maybe all of us were children who were not heard enough. Being in comedy is a little like being in prison or an asylum. Nobody is here for no good reason. Nobody stumbles into it by mistake. There’s something driving people to do it.

“I know one main thing which took me from lawyering to journalism to comedy was I need to be heard. I have opinions. I have thoughts. I need people to hear them. And I felt very ‘heard’ last week in Glasgow.”

“But you’re unlikely,” I said, “to do so well with Jewish audiences at the moment.”

“Well,” said Daphna, “there’s a website called the SHIT List. SHIT is an acronym for Self-Hating Israel-Threatening Jews. I think it came out around 2003. I’m on that list; my dad’s on that list; my uncle’s on that list.

“But Jews are not a homegenic crowd. Of course a vociferous majority both here and in America are very pro-Israel… Israel is like the phallic symbol of the Jewish nation. We’re the cool ones! We’re aggressive! We’re in your face! We don’t take shit from anybody! At the same time, we’re also embarrassing and rude. We’re a bit brutish. I think there is a dichotomy about the way British Jews feel about Israelis. Right wing Israelis who come here and speak can seem crass and sometimes people feel that they sound racist. There’s a feeling they don’t word it right.

“Leftie Jews come here and are quite critical of the Israeli government and some liberal Jews think You invoke anti-Semitism and you’re not even aware of it because you’re not even aware of anti-Semitism. And it’s true. We grow up in Israel where we kick ass and we’re the majority.

“There’s a lot of self-righteousness in Israel – a sense that we are right. But we have taken another people’s country and we don’t understand how come they don’t like it. That is probably my best joke ever, because it encapsulates the way I see the Israeli-Palestinian problem. First the taking over and then the self-righteousness, the not understanding how come the world cannot see we are the victims.

“But they’re not going to let us be the victims forever. Not when you see on television pictures of victims being dragged from the wreckage in Gaza and taken to shabby hospitals in a place that is basically a prison.”

“So,” I persisted, “maybe Jews won’t like your act at the moment?”

“When British Jews complain to me about something I’ve said in my act,” Daphna told me, “they don’t say it’s not true. They say Why do you say that? Why do you bring the dirty washing outside? When an Israeli comes out and talks like I do – because Israelis are the über-Jews and we are the ones who are there and have been though the wars – they find it quite difficult to argue with us.”

“Until last year,” I said, “you wrote serious articles under your own name of Daphna Baram, but performed comedy as Miss D.”

“I was worried that people who read me in the Guardian would… Well, no heckler that I’ve ever encountered has been as vicious as people who write Talkbacks to the Guardian after your article has been published.

“Hecklers sit in an audience. Other audience members can see them. When you write a Talkback to the Guardian, no-one can see you. So people are vicious.

“This is why I started gigging under the name Miss D – because I was scared. I thought These people are so vicious they will come follow me to gigs and, because my on-stage persona was so new and vulnerable… Look, it’s scary coming on-stage and telling jokes when you think you have a lot of enemies you don’t even know. Even now, after I ‘came out’ under my own name in January last year at preview gigs for my Edinburgh Fringe show Frenemies

“Look, when I started doing comedy, I was worried about these things…

“In my first year, I was not talking about Israel at all. I was doing some sort of reluctant dominatrix routine partly because the material was not coming. I was taking all the aggressive traits of my persona. I was dressed like a sexual predator. I wore corsets and the premise of my set was I’m scary and I don’t know why people think I’m scary. It’s still a theme in my comedy, but I think I’ve learned to put it in a less crass way. My premise now is that I’m not hiding behind my scariness.

“There’s something interesting about wearing corsets. You would think when you want to hide you cover yourself. But sometimes just exposing yourself is also a kind of cover. Being sexy on stage is a kind of cover. You’re a character. You’re somebody else. I don’t think I’m there yet but, more and more, I envy the comedians who stand on stage and they are who they are and just chat.

“When people talk to new stand-up comedians, they say: Oh, just go on and be yourself. As if that’s easy. It’s not. The whole journey of becoming a good comedian is managing to be yourself on stage as you are when you are funny in real life. I think it can take years.”

(A version of this was also published by the Indian news site We Speak News and in the UK edition of the Huffington Post)

I am allegedly a UK consultant for the Inbrook entertainment company in New York. This means that Inbrook boss Calvin Wynter occasionally phones me up at odd hours from New York. Well, odd hours for him. I think he may never sleep.

Yesterday morning, he phoned me up to talk about two shows which Inbrook is promoting at the Edinburgh Fringe next month. One is an Israeli show; one includes in its title a reference to the Hamas organisation.

Repertory Theatre is being produced by The Elephant and the Mouse – the only Israeli production company at this year’s Fringe.

Jennifer Jajeh’s show is called I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You.

This morning, Calvin phoned me from New York to tell me that “Jennifer Jajeh  has received death threats and there are calls to boycott her show at the Edinburgh Fringe… and now I too am being threatened and called an anti-Semite.”

Unconnected to these death threats, Calvin – who is incidentally a  black American – earlier this morning received this e-mail:

_______

From: Steve Malone <editor2@insidehoops.com>

Date: Thu, Jul 26, 2012 at 3:06 AM

Subject: Supporting suicide-bombing Jew-hating manaics

To: Calvin Wynter

You vile, antisemitic pieces of garbage should go rot in hell.

Fuck you, and fuck your piece of shit parents for creating you.

Steve

__________

Bizarrely, this appears to come from www.insidehoops.com which describes itself as “the most popular independent pro basketball website in the world”.

Calvin seems particularly bemused by being called an anti-Semite.

“For the record,” he says, “my great grandmother was a Sephardic Jew from Syria. In essence I am being attacked because Inbrook is promoting both a Palestinian American Christian – Jennifer Jajeh – and two Israeli Jews – The Elephant and the Mouse.”

He tells me he thinks what this exposes is “The ignorance of blind hate”.

Yes indeed. And it is ironic, too, given that the email allegedly from Steve Malone is apparently opposed to terrorism.

My dictionary defines Terrorism as “The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”.

The emphasis is mine.

The sender should also note that, in the subject heading of his e-mail, he has mis-spelt the word maniacs as “manaics”. This is never a good start.

In those less cyberspaced days before I blogged, I occasionally kept notes in diaries. These are extracts from 2002, when Queen Elizabeth II (or, if you are being very Scottish, Queen Elizabeth I) was celebrating her Golden Jubilee.

Saturday 1st June 2002

I went to see comedian Charlie Chuck at home in Leicestershire. In the local pub in the evening, there was a noisy disco – people wearing St George’s flag clothes amid Union Flag bunting.

Sunday 2nd June 2002

Actor Mike Wattam told me that, in the Vietnam War, the Vietcong hung prisoners upside down with bags on their heads. The bags had rats inside. The prisoners’ blood rushed to their heads. The frightened and hungry rats ate the prisoners’ faces.

On my way home, I drove through a street party in Radlett, Hertfordshire. Union flags and St George’s flags flying, bunting, trestle tables with food, lots of children excited at a licence to do pretty much whatever they wanted.

Monday 3rd June 2002

Extracts from an Instant Message with a friend in Washington DC:

Her: I met a twat hack from the Washington Post last night. Complete arrogant tosser.

Me: You have a way with words. What was wrong with him?

Her: I told him : “At least you’re consistent, as all the bars and restaurants you recommend tend to be crap.”

Me: Bunting, St George’s flags and Union flags aplenty here.

Her: He told me: “Oh, I only recommend places that I think readers will like, not places I like.”  Critics don’t do that!  It’s egocentric that brand of journalism.

Me: It’s normal!

Her: Really?

Me: Like TV producers looking down on punters and making programmes they wouldn’t themselves watch.

Her: So film critics don’t recommend movies they like, but that they think other people will like?

Me: I think tabloid journos probably do that.

Her: Well I still think it’s wrong.  He recommends very expensive very bland places where he gets free drinks.

Me: It is wrong

Her: The place I went to last night he said was the most disgusting skanky place in DC. It’s actually a really nice private house with eclectic decorations (you would love it), full of interesting people. But he is so goddamn arrogant because people in DC cannot go out without consulting his reviews. You would really like it. He started to insult me because he thought I was stupid (I mentioned I had friends in the Independent Media who are Socialists)

Me: What’s the Independent Media?

Her: dc.indymedia.org Free press. I told him I’d rather live in a society where people get free healthcare and education and he left the room.

Me: In the US, “Liberal” means Communist, so “Socialist” must mean “In League With the Devil”… Americans!

Her: I think Socialism means Communism here.  He said he’d read Marx and I told him he obviously didn’t know what Socialism actually is. I think he got pissed off when he realised I was more intelligent than him.

Me: I should tell him kibbutzes are Socialism in action. Communism, indeed. Ironic that right-wingers in the US support Israeli kibbutzes.

Tuesday 4th June 2002

Live Jubilee coverage all over the TV. Somehow it seems bigger than the Silver Jubilee.

Wednesday 5th June 2002

I talked to someone who has dealings with prisoners. She says prison letters all have the same smell. Slightly musty, slightly medical.

She told me about an old woman of 78 who reads newspapers then, unsteady on her feet, moves around her home by touching the walls for support. She leaves black finger marks everywhere – which she can’t see because of her bad eyesight.

‘Britain’s Most Violent Prisoner’ Charles Bronson, has been inside for 28 years. This week he was given a TV set for the first time and, for the past three days, he has been totally docile – watching episodes of the children’s series Teletubbies.

(This was also published by Indian news website WSN – We Speak News)

The Daily Telegraph said my chum the late Malcolm Hardee was “godfather to a generation of comic talent”; the Independent said he was “the greatest influence on British comedy over the last 25 years”; and the London Evening Standard, with considerable justification, said he was “one of the most anarchic figures of his era”.

Although I would say he was apolitical, he twice stood for Parliament – once in a 1987 Greenwich by-election, when he ran as the ‘Rainbow Dream Ticket, Beer, Fags & Skittles Party’ candidate, polling 174 votes. And again in the 1992 General Election in order to publicise his comedy club because he discovered the election rules allowed him a free mail shot to all registered voters in the constituency.

Malcolm was very proud of his two children. Well. Sort of.

They are both well-brought-up, honest, genuine and… well… good people.

As Malcolm said to me once: “They don’t tell lies. They wouldn’t steal a car. Where did I go wrong?”

He would be even prouder of them now, if he had not managed to drown in 2005.

Malcolm used to say he went to Oxford University… and then add it was “last Thursday afternoon”.

But his son Frank actually did go to Oxford University as a student and then successfully taught at two English public schools. He is now teaching in South Korea and widening his world knowledge, I suspect, for a career in politics. A Hardee in Number 10, Downing Street?… Now THAT would be something!

Malcolm’s daughter Poppy is in the Middle East.

After competing in the London Marathon in 2010, she caught the running bug and decided that it would be exciting to train for and run another marathon further afield.

She is currently working for the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem, an NGO based in the Palestinian West Bank and thought she would like to run in the Jerusalem Marathon.

She signed up for it at the beginning of November last year and having paid the $60 entry fee was excited, shortly afterwards, to learn that she had been awarded a place. (You have to apply.) However, yesterday she told me…

In my ignorance, I had not really understood the full political implications of applying for a place. After being accepted, I started to research the Marathon route, its sponsors and its entry criteria. I realised that, rather than being a positive event, bringing together different people through sporting achievement, it actually served to further discriminate against Palestinian citizens and normalise Israel’s ‘apartheid’, thus making it appear acceptable to the outside world.

It became clear to me that paying to enter and support such an event only benefited Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians. For one thing, the Marathon is organized by the same municipality that routinely organizes housing evictions, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and demolitions in East Jerusalem. Its route takes runners through illegal settlements, past views of the segregation wall.

Secondly, in terms of entry criteria for international runners, there is an option for persons with West Bank residence and nationality to apply. But, given the restrictions on West Bank citizens’ movements in and out of Jerusalem – even if awarded a place – there is a high likelihood that they would not be granted access to travel to the city to run.

As for Palestinians with a Gaza ID, there is no option for them to run.

This is another measure that ensures the event will be exclusive to Jewish Israeli competitors and their international supporters.

It seems quite clear that this marathon is an attempt to normalise Israel’s actions again Palestinians, by holding an internationally-attended and witnessed sporting event in the state’s ‘capital’… One can easily forget the discrimination and hurt that is being caused by Jerusalem municipality against Palestinians on a daily basis.

Scenes from last year’s marathon show thousands of Jewish Israeli and international participants running through this disputed capital, arms aloft proudly carrying Israeli flags, asserting an exclusively Israeli identity on Jerusalem lands. Given that much of the international community does not recognize any part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (particularly because, under UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), Jerusalem was established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime), these scenes are extremely politically and culturally controversial.

Added to this, there must be an awareness of how offensive the marathon must be to the many Palestinians evicted from these lands and placed under occupation from Israeli authorities. Now virtually excluded from running in such an event, they also seeing Jerusalem’s authorities gaining recognition and financial gain from hosting a marathon in their city.

After drawing these conclusions and feeling ashamed of my participation in the Jerusalem Marathon, I decided to withdraw from the race.

However, when I contacted the Marathon organisers, I was told that the entry fee was non-refundable. I therefore decided that the best way to approach this dilemma was to keep my place but turn it into some sort of political protest/awareness-raising campaign. 

Therefore, I have made the decision to run the Marathon in support of Palestine – by wearing full Palestinian colours and carrying the Palestinian flag for the whole route. I hope that this will give a Palestinian presence to the race, highlighting both their exclusion from running in this race and Israel’s deliberate erasing of the Palestinian identity from daily life in Jerusalem.

I have been training in both the West Bank and in Jerusalem – something which has further highlighted for me the discrepancy in opportunities for citizens of each area. A lack of gym facilities and even running routes in Bethlehem (where I live and work) meant that I often had to train in the better equipped Jerusalem, something which is not available for Palestinians who have their movements restricted through the frequent denial of access to Jerusalem lands and regions.

The most disappointing thing for me about this Marathon experience is that running is a sport that usually brings people and communities together – you train with someone, you befriend the person next to you running in a race, you get support from the communities of the areas you run through. I do not expect the Israelis to support me as I run in recognition of Palestinian causes, nor do I feel this is an event which truly brings people together. 

While it may bring together Israeli and internationals, in doing so it further strengthens the Jewish identity being imposed on Jerusalem, serving to marginalise Palestinians both in the race and in the city as a whole. 

Through my actions, I aim to bring a Palestinian presence to the race.

(The Jerusalem Marathon takes place this Friday, March 16th. You can follow Poppy’s progress on Twitter via @poppy_hardee )

The Lebanese Civil War (depending on how you calculate such things) lasted from 1975 to 1990. I have blogged before about being in Lebanon in 1993/1994. This is part of a diary entry for 3rd January 1994… exactly eighteen years ago today. At the time, Beirut was occupied by Syrian ‘peacekeeping’ forces:

* * *

The currency here is the Lebanese pound (L£).

I was told today that an official ‘taxi’ in Beirut will cost me L£5,000 but, if I get any other cab, it will cost only L£1,000. All the official taxis are Mercedes-Benzes marked ‘taxi’. And all the ‘other cabs’ are unmarked Mercedes-Benzes.

This morning, leaving Beirut, there was a solid, un-moving rush-hour traffic-jam of Mercedes-Benzes entering the city.

As we left, I asked about a shelled hotel nearby. It was not shelled in the recent Troubles, I was told: it had been half-built when the Israelis shelled it back in 1984.

We left through the southern suburbs, heading towards Israel.

On lamp posts, there are big 15-ft high cut-outs of the Ayatollah and others raising their hand in greeting or perhaps blessing. At one point there was a little community of oblong-shaped tents by the roadside. My driver told me with distaste that they were “gypsies” and, during the Troubles, there had been a famous massacre of them. I thought I must have misunderstood and that he meant the massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila ‘refugee camps’ because, at this point, we were near them. But he reiterated these were “gypsies from Greater Syria”. He did not specify if he thought Greater Syria included Lebanon.

Further along the road, we passed a group of about ten men in the wide central reservation. One man was in the process of swinging a tyre iron  at another. Perhaps if you have become used to satisfying bursts of anger with bursts of machine gun fire and then peace comes along….it must be difficult to stop anger bubbling over into violence. He was swinging the tyre iron at the other man’s head. We had passed before it made contact or the man ducked: I will never know what the outcome was.

Yesterday, on a road in the Bekaa Valley, I saw someone pushing a vehicle which had broken down. He became annoyed by the car behind him in slow-moving traffic. He just turned round, put his hand on the car’s bonnet and did nothing for all of a very long ten seconds. Just a long, long, very hard, unblinking stare at the driver of the car. Then he turned back and carried on pushing his broken-down vehicle.

Further down the coast this morning, we passed through an area where all the scattered buildings on both sides of the road had been blown up. I asked if the Israelis had done this and was told, no, the Lebanese government had done it in 1984. Christians fleeing Beirut had tried to resettle in the houses in this previously Moslem rural area. The government did not want to risk unsettling traditional religious areas, so blew up the houses to prevent the Christian refugees settling there.

Still further south down the coast, there started to be a more visible military presence: three tanks dug-in at one point – two with guns out to sea, one pointing South down the road towards Israel.

As we entered Sidon, there was a flurry of checkpoints. Generally there are checkpoints every 5-minutes or so as you drive along a road. As we entered Sidon, there were three within 100 yards.

As we passed through the town, there was what looked like a poster of British Radio One DJ Dave Lee Travis in a turban and a banner on the other side of the road in Arabic with some words in English – INDECENT PROPOSAL – ROBERT REDFORD. What on earth do the Islamic Fundamentalists make of this? I wondered.

Overlooking Sidon on a hill, there was a giant statue of the Virgin Mary standing on top of a large cone. An interesting concept. And, on a facing hill, a mosque.

Sidon is a Christian town.

As we looked at the statue of the Virgin Mary, a jet flew low over a nearby hill to the east.

“Israeli plane,” my driver told me.

Then we were off southwards again.

In a small town/village by a river and the inevitable checkpoint was a 40 ft high orange monument which, at first sight, seemed to be a crescent but was actually a grey hand holding aloft an orange scythe. It was a memorial to a boy who mounted a successful suicide attack on the Israeli Army. Towards the bottom of the monument was a banner: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING SOUTH LEBANON.

South Lebanon is noticeably different to the northern part of the country. The south seems less bleak, greener, with more trees plus banana and orange plantations etc. Also, the military checkpoints seem more serious with tanks and/or armoured personnel carriers plus artillery either dug in by the roadside or standing by the checkpoints themselves. The soldiers, rather than wearing just uniforms, are in full battledress with pouches round their belts, knives sheathed in the small of their backs.

As always, some checkpoints are Syrian, some Lebanese.

The Lebanese Army, strangely, seem to have better weaponry than the Syrian Army. The Lebanese (but what do I know?) have weapons that look like Armalites. The Syrians have less substantial, more basic-looking automatic guns.

When we entered Tyre (about 20 km from the international border with Israel and about 10 km from the start of the Israelis’ self-declared “Security Zone”), there was a Lebanese Army patrol walking down both sides of the road, looking around, rifles held horizontally. In another part of the city, I saw two UN soldiers. The UN has been in Tyre since 1978. With little effect.

The reason I went to Tyre was to see a massive 20,000 seat Ben-Hur style Roman stadium. Well, in fact, there is almost nothing left. But you could see the size and shape and, from some 1960s reconstruction, get an impression of what it must have felt like.

Massive.

To be there when it was built and operating… well… you must have felt the Roman Empire was so unimaginably mighty it would never end.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings indeed.

The gigantic standing temples at Baalbek must have awed the local peasants. Just these remains of the arena at Tyre awed me.

I guess all civilisations seem like they will never end.

But they do.

I used to have a company called Shivadance Productions. In Hindu mythology, Shiva is the god of destruction, but also of creation. The Dance of Shiva creates a new world out of destruction. You cannot destroy anything without creating something new. You cannot create anything new without destroying what was there before.

The world turns.

We drove back to Sidon and its Crusader castle defending the port. Then back to Beirut, where it started to rain.

I had decided to get dropped off at Verdun Plaza, an expensive new apartment block with three floors of ultra-modern plush shops below. Very plush. All marble and expensive trimmings. Then I went off to the main shopping street and the downpour started in earnest. The rain was bouncing: it was not rain but little hailstones. After that, for about 15 minutes, it became giant white hailstones thumping down onto the streets, making people scurry for cover. Then came deafening thunder and lightning.

At the moment, Beirut has no proper drainage/sewer system so, in downpours, the water builds up on the streets.

The day was rounded off nicely by seeing a sign which read:

NEW PERFECT HOME: THIS WAY

The sign was leaning against the boot of a gleaming new Mercedes-Benz.

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