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Thursday, June 01, 2006

An unusual gig

In over 21 years of performing I have done some weird gigs. I have been threatened at Glastonbury by a bloke on acid; I’ve dressed in green Speedo trunks and jumped on stage wielding a butter knife. I’ve had a Tory councillor resign after a gig at a council-sponsored show. I have performed at everywhere from Jewish stag parties to striking miners’ soup kitchens. I have shared dressing rooms with strippers in Paris (embarrassing), sniffer dogs looking for bombs in Belfast (alarming) and, in Canada, a man who makes his living by farting tunes and firing darts from his anus (let’s not revisit that one).

But speaking for 50 minutes in front of a hundred arms dealers on the subject of export law reform, on a boat in the Thames, has to be among the strangest.

The Export Group for Aerospace and Defence, the arms industry’s lobby group, asked me to speak at its annual meeting. Perverse pleasure and self-righteousness forced me to accept, and so, 24 hours before the event was due to take place, I was e-mailed the name of the venue and directions. The organisers believed, I suppose, that if they let me have the details any earlier I might pass them on to anarcho-peaceniks, who would turn up and picket the event. And they had good reason to think I might. I have done everything from lobbying against the arms trade to chaining myself to a bus load of arms dealers destined for a trade fair.

HQS Wellington, moored on the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge, was the venue. Inside was a whitewashed metal-hull decor, with copious brass bells dangling from the ceiling and display cases full of medals lining the walls. Decorating the carpets was a coat of arms featuring a horse with flippers and a crown. It looked like it belonged to the Subservient Order of Mariners or some other pseudo-Masonic, City of London guild, where they probably spank each other with paddles before swearing allegiance to the Queen.

The speakers used PowerPoint and talked about compliance evaluation criteria and intangible transfers. Sitting waiting to speak was both boring and terrifying. “In a minute Mark Thomas will be up here,” said the chairman. An arms dealer nearby snorted, “To do some of his stand-up,” implying that my presence had somehow lowered the tone.

All too quickly it was my turn. I would describe their welcome as polite clapping, except it wasn’t. It was the sound of two people clapping, realising no one else was, then stopping. Cricketers leaving the crease with a duck get better applause. Standing in front of a court-like wooden bench and three throne-like chairs, I confessed to the crowd: “The last time I stood in front of something like this I was on trial for chaining myself to a bus full of BAE Systems dealers. So I am not exactly a natural ally of the arms industry.” There was a second when you could have heard a pin drop, and as this lot were arms dealers it could have come from a hand grenade.

The room was not strictly full of arms dealers: they were compliance officers for major arms companies – the folk who tell companies what to do to remain within the law. And to my surprise some were friendly. I was there to suggest a few places where the law on arms control could be tightened.

Years ago, a British company exported special white-noise generators and strobe lights for police cells in Dubai; everyone in the deal knew the equipment was to be used to soften people up for interrogation by depriving them of sleep. It was perfectly legal to sell the items despite the degrading purposes they would serve, perhaps even torture.

Such a deal would still be legal today, because the government insists on itemising the torture equipment it prohibits, rather than assessing equipment that might be used for torture. The solution, I suggested, is a catch-all clause: if a dealer suspected that the equipment it was supplying to a police or military buyer might be used for torture, then the dealer would have a legal requirement to report it to the authorities for assessment.

The assembled dealers were genuinely shocked at the examples of torture equipment, and the majority seemed, if not supportive, at least not hostile to the idea.

Things then began to pick up. Admittedly I might have alienated some when I compared their industry (and, by implication, them) to paedophiles and drug barons. But let’s face it: if you are going to make a faux pas, you should at least make a decent one.

I ploughed on: “Why not register arms dealers? After all, we register bouncers.” It would make the more complicated prosecutions of unregistered arms dealers much easier, ran my logic. Someone later told me that it slowly dawned on the audience that a register would actually affect their companies, which is when the questions began.

After 50 minutes it was over, the applause a little louder than at the start. A group of the dealers shook my hand; some even came up with suggestions on how to make the register of arms dealers work. One whinged about the catch-all clause: “Why not ban cigarettes? They torture with them.” But others were genuinely sympathetic.

It was a weird event, part campaigner’s rite of passage and part lobbying under fire. But bizarrely, I’d do it again if asked.


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