On the bus with Izzard

Matthew Collins - 04 05 10

So I was on the bus with Eddie Izzard today, when Billy Bragg rung me…" I’m just waiting for my friends in Australia to get out of bed so I can begin that conversation.

Some of you may even have shared a tube journey with Mr Izzard today as he made his way out to Barking on the District line. I picked him up in my bus. Our driver Steve normally manages to remain aloof, but he allowed himself a rare moment today when his composure slipped and he gave me a rundown on a story about Eddie Izzard speaking in French and Darth Vader at a motorway service station. Confused? Me too. Then, there was Steve again, casually walking across the line of photographers from a host of national newspapers to get a close up of Eddie for himself. We didn’t even know Steve had a camera!

Still, he was a super-trooper the big man, getting out of bed early and ferrying activists across to Barking and Dagenham on the bus. I may replace his knackered SatNav by way of a thank you.

While we were ferrying people over to Dagenham, exitement was already building there. A queue had begun forming of people wanting to deliver anoher killer blow to the BNP. The fascists cannot match a well organised and disciplined campaign, and the further into the darkness of paranoia and madness the BNP descend, the stronger and more capable and professional the antifascist campaign becomes.

In all 380 people came to Barking and Dagenham today to campaign, many of them locals but some from as far as Hampshire, one woman telling me on the bus that she just has to be part of this. "I’ve watched this campaign grow and grow, and felt that I had to be a part of it. I had to do something to help stop the rise of fascism."

Under somewhat of a media scrum, Eddie Izzard took a stroll with B&D faith leaders, telling the Bishop of Barking, "I’m not a Christian, I don’t believe in God. But like you I believe in spirituality." Seemed like a good way to break the ice.

Over at another church, this time St Margaret’s, on Dicky Barnbrook’s doorstep, the BBQ was firing up, the music was on, and a feast of international foods was laid out. The GMB union had a marquee up and local residents were sitting on the grass with antifascist activists, communicating, talking and sharing time and space. As the big red bus drove through B&D, lots of people tooted their horns, reminding us that although we have a real struggle there, there are of course thousands upon thousands of decent people who want the BNP gone and real solutions to their problems. Dicky Barnbrook riding a knackered old pony is, of course, not going to help anyone.

When Eddie arrived at St Margaret’s, a team from Thompsons were on hand to accompany him on a delivery of leaflets. The sun kindly shone and there was Steve again, this time photographing Billy Bragg who was signing copies of this month’s Searchlight with Pete Dunwell’s picture of Billy confronting Barnbrook on the front page.

Billy had his wife and son with him. The last time I saw Bragg Jnr he had "procured" some life-size cardboard cutouts of the characters from Star Trek and during his father’s book launch stood them in the cubicles in the ladies’ toilets. Gregg and I thought it hilarious at the time, but Bragg Jnr didn’t seem to want to be reminded of it today. These days he’s wearing a leather jacket and playing guitar in his old man’s garage. He has roots in Barking too, his nan lives there.

Izzard and Bragg together caused a bit of a scrum: fans and photographers. You’ll be pleased to hear I got a whack in the face from a Johnny Foreigner press photographer, kneed in the back by the Mirror and had a TV camera reversed into my groin by Channel 4. Bragg and Izzard have quite different politics, they’re both antiracist and antifascist and both patriots. They are part of the diversity of progressive antracist and antifascist politics.

Izzard is however unusual for a comedian. Not only is he quite serious, he is also quite funny in person, something you don’t always find with comedians. Not that he stands there cracking jokes all the time, but he is quietly spoken and thoughtful and obviously, as having run all of those marathons in such a short time proves, incredibly driven. So who knows whether suggesting that Bragg takes an ice bath is sound advice or not? But they click, as they did a few years ago in a museum in Scotland apparently. Bragg likes nothing more than showing off his roots and as Bragg likes enthusing, so too as I learned earlier with the Bishop of Barking, Eddie Izzard wants to listen and ask questions.

With fame comes poking and prodding. Both men were prodded and poked, photographed on mobile phones and asked hundreds of quickfire questions by children, parents and grandparents. And as we all cramped into the GMB marquee for a Bragg singalong, "our own little Glastonbury" as he called it, the calmness, discipline and good spirit of our collective became apparent. We sat down so those at the back could see, we sang along, we made space for one another as we sung and we cheered loudly. Then a woman from the BBC went to the front with her camera, bumped the mic and nearly took out Billy’s front teeth. That’s rock and roll!

"I’m here because I support this campaign" said Izzard. "I’m here because there are good people doing positive things and that is important. I’m here because I want people to come out to vote and defeat the BNP." When he left, he went back on the District line, sitting and chatting with campaigners all the way back to London.

Bragg and his family went up to his mum’s. He’s from Barking in Essex.


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