From Jacob Rees-Mogg to Boris Johnson, World War II rhetoric has never been far from the Brexit debate. The narrative has a powerful emotional pull. Plucky Britain winning the war – and the supposed ingratitude of the rest of the continent. The evocation of Blitz spirit. A quiet suspicion of German power.
WWII is a lodestar for British exceptionalism. So it’s a surprise when arch-Europhile Eddie Izzard launches into a Churchill analogy to explain her latest feat of endurance.
“I look at things in 50-year chunks. And this test was bound to happen,” says the groundbreaking comedian.
“Churchill’s generation was chosen by fate to fight against the extreme right. And our generation has been chosen again to fight against the extreme right. So that’s the way it’s going to be.
“This is our fight. This is a fight for people, for our place, our continent, for our world. For humanity. The fight is now and so we have to step up to the plate.”
That’s why, as you read this, Izzard is almost certainly running. Again.
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Izzard’s devotion to running as a way to bring people together and raise money for good causes started in 2009 when she ran 43 marathons in 51 days through England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, raising £1.8m for Sport Relief. Then in 2016 there were 27 marathons in 27 days across South Africa as a tribute to Nelson Mandela, raising more than £2.6m. Last year, it was 29 marathons in 29 days, through 29 European capital cities.
In her biggest charity challenge so far, every day this month she’s lacing up her trainers, getting on a treadmill and powering through 26.2 long, “mind-numbing”, indoor miles (thank you Covid). That’s 31 marathons to start the new year. It’s a paean to hope, a reflection of Izzard’s positive determination… and knocks most people’s resolutions into a cocked hat.
Then – as if that wasn’t enough – each night she’ll step on ‘stage’ (for which read ‘jump online’… thanks again Covid) to do an entire live stand-up show, revisiting some of the most quoted sections of her beloved back catalogue.
All with the aim of Making Humanity Great Again.
“At a time when some people say, ‘Come on, let’s break connections. Let’s retreat into isolationalism.’ I’m saying, no. Let’s use this time to make even stronger connections than we’ve made before,” she explains.
“It’s a positive thing at a time that’s very negative. People are having a very tough time. And the money raised goes into charities that make humanity great. So I think everyone will be positive about this, except the extreme right wing, who will hate it.”
A proud (and loudly campaigning) internationalist socialist and long-time Labour Party member, Izzard has been horrified as nationalist and right-wing ideologies have gained ground in the last decade. So there’s gleeful mischief in turning Trump’s slogan back on him – and Izzard does feel the election defeat was a sign that “a corner is turning, a tide is changing” – but she insists the threat is serious.
As coronavirus has torn through the planet, it’s offered new opportunities for nationalists to flex their muscles.
“This is an extreme moment, with Covid going around the world, and it brings out the best and the worst in people,” she explains. “Some people behave wonderfully, beyond the call of duty – like the NHS.
“Then there’s Covid nationalism. Some countries saying, ‘We’ve got the vaccine, and you’re not going to get it’. Certain people are going to be dying more in other countries. This is not the way forward for humanity.
“I’ve got a worldview that says everyone in the world should have the right to have a fair chance in life. Not a completely free life. Not a government-paid life. But a fair chance in life. And that’s hardly a huge ask for humanity. But it seems to be very difficult to make happen. So that’s what I’m fighting for.”
As we get inured to each new challenge Izzard sets herself, the bar keeps rising for the next time. Keeping the fight going requires yet more pounding of pavements (or treadmills). Raising more money means finding another endurance-smashing wrinkle to the story: “You just need to make people’s eyes widen. Each one you’ve just got to do a thing that’s striking.”
Yesterday Eddie completed Marathon 15 for Prague. Here's your roundup! Please donate and purchase tickets to a live streamed comedy show at https://t.co/Uby7ePWIzV Profits go to charities that #MakeHumanityGreatAgain – The Beekeepers pic.twitter.com/SMilMsHIQr
— Eddie Izzard (@eddieizzard) January 16, 2021
Yet, as it happens, in the days following our interview – before the first marathon has even begun – Izzard hits the headlines with significantly less physical effort.
On the Sky Arts programme Portrait Artist of the Year, Izzard is referred to as she rather than he. The change in pronoun leads Stonewall to say it’s “delighted that Eddie has been able to bravely share her truth with the world” and others hail Izzard as a “trans icon”.
Since Izzard has not long told me she “came out as transgender in 1985”, I’m tempted to say that the plaudits are a little on the late side. Indeed, Izzard’s publicist expresses some surprise at the furore when I check in about which pronoun we should use here.
She also passes on a message from Izzard: “As I consider myself gender-fluid and I now live my life some of the time in ‘girl mode’ and some of the time in ‘boy mode’, I have said that I would be happy if people use she/her pronouns or he/him pronouns accordingly. But if that seems complicated people can just call me Eddie.”
It’s not the first set of headlines about a supposed change in how Izzard identifies. But Izzard says they’ve all been about shifts in the world rather than anything internal.
“I’ve known I was trans since I was four or five. My feelings from the age of five have not moved an inch. Have not moved a centimetre, a millimetre even,” she says.
“Thirty-five years ago, I came out. The rest is language. If anyone was paying attention back in ’85, which no one was, I was ‘TV’ when I first came out. There was TS and TV – transsexual and transvestite.
“Then came the word trans and transgender. I thought, actually, that’s really where I am. And that’s, that’s what I have been since I came out. I went through such hell since ’85 that the idea that I’ve come out recently just sounds ridiculous.”
Since Izzard says she does stand-up, running and campaigning “in girl mode”, we’ve gone with she/her pronouns here. That’s most of what we’ve been talking about, after all. But there’s one place that Izzard still prefers to use a masculine energy.
“I do film roles in boy mode,” she says. “So I give myself permission to be gender-fluid. I have the gift of that.”
The flexibility is to be celebrated, Izzard adds. “We’re all heading closer towards the fact that everyone’s somewhere on the spectrum. A spectrum. Not necessarily a trans spectrum, but LGBT spectrum.”
That acceptance is a symptom of how far we’ve come in a few short years.
“It was toxic from ’85 until 2014,” she continues. “In 2014, three things happened. You had a series called Transparent about an older father in a family transitioning. And that started winning Golden Globes.
“Then you had Laverne Cox, black trans activist, in the series Orange is the New Black.
“And the third one was, of course, Caitlyn Jenner on the front cover of Vanity Fair. So even though her politics go this way and that way, the energy of that going around the world did make a change.”
It feels in keeping with Izzard’s positive nature that her focus would be on the progress made for trans people, rather than wading into one of the most fractious arguments facing the modern left. With Churchillian resolve, she’s focusing on uniting her allies against a common enemy – our generation’s right-wing nationalists.
“If we’re not moving forwards towards learning to live together and work together in some shape or form, I don’t know where humanity is going,” she says.
“Making humanity great again is about 7.8 billion of us. That’s what I’m pushing for. And that’s what I’m running for.”
To follow Eddie Izzard’s marathon progress, buy tickets for the nightly streamed shows or donate to the charity appeal, see www.eddieizzard.com