Normal service is being suspended as I have to write an obituary for a friend.
Anybody who has read the autobiographical fragments on this blog will know that I have led a far from the normal life that is expected of a child from a middle-class English family–school, university, career, family, retirement. My path through life has been a chaotic labyrinthian path, with the feeling that for much of the route my legs were tied together, and I was wearing a blindfold. Along the way a handful of people have had a massive influence on the direction my wanderings have taken, one of those was Michael J “Mike” Pearson, also known to me as Mr P, who I have just discovered from a Guardian obituary has died. I’m devastated!
Before I can introduce Mr P, I need to go back to four years before I met him. As I already explained in an earlier blog post, my mother died of a massive heart attack on Christmas eve in 1966, just after I turned fifteen. An event that scarred me for life. In the school year 67-68 my father entered me as a boarder at the grammar school I had been attending for the previous four years. We had moved from the rural Essex village, where I grew up to London, and he thought it would be better not to interrupt my education by moving me to a new school. It was a mistake. I was miserable, lost and didn’t give a fuck.
The following year the school acquired a new headmaster, who took the adage “a new broom sweeps clean” very seriously. By the second term of what was my first year sixth, it was obvious to everybody that I was failing miserably, and I was summoned to the headmaster’s study. He asked me what I wanted to study at university, they assumed you would go to university, it was that sort of school. I answered truthfully, history. He then, not unnaturally, asked “why then was I doing science A-levels”–maths, physics, and chemistry? I, “because that’s what I’m good at”. He trying to be helpful gave the matter some thought and suggested that I could study archaeology with science A-levels. I initially rebelled against the idea, my father was an archaeologist, but during the Easter holidays I was packed off to my first archaeological excavation, a small Roman site in Chelmsford. I loved it and a very beautiful lady, called Jenny, persuaded me to go to the big Roman excavation in Usk, in South Wales, in the summer of 69.
Having been expelled from my illustrious grammar school at the end of the school year, I duly trundled off to Usk and the world of Cardiff University archaeology. I had a ball and immediately booked to return for the digging season the following summer, 1970.
I spent the school year 69–70 at, the then infamous, Holland Park Comprehensive, consuming vast amounts of drugs and basically not giving a fuck about anything. I naturally screwed up my A-levels, despite prognoses from my teachers that I was destined to get three straight ‘As’, I was good at bluffing. But I still got a place to study archaeology at Cardiff through indirect nepotism, one of the lecturers was trying to suck up to my father, a big name in those days in the world of anthropology. So, in the summer of 1970, I set off for a full season of digging in sunny Usk, knowing that I would be going up to Cardiff to study archaeology in the autumn. This is when Mr P entered my life.
In the late 1960s early 1970s the archaeological excavation at Usk were one of the largest in the UK. Each summer about 150 “volunteers” laboured away at the pink clay revealing the remains of a 55-acre Roman fort. A large number of those who worked there were Cardiff University archaeology students fulfilling part of the eight-week practical experience requirement of their degrees. Mike was one of the Cardiff University conscripts, a student at the end of his second year. A big lad, with thick blond locks from near Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire. We hit it off immediately. I need to introduce two other figures from that summer at Usk. Mike introduced me to his mate Steve, a Cardiff drop out turned printer and graphic designer, who came to visit him one day. I also met for the first time, Dave, who would go on to become my best friend, a Cardiff conscript at the end of his first year, who had never dug before and who was given into my tender care with the instruction, “teach him how to dig”! Having discovered that we had both come to Usk via the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in Shepton Mallet, Dave and I also hit it off immediately.
On a large archaeology site there is always a team of mostly lightly insane people, who take on the construction tasks that occur on such sites, building scaffolding photographic towers, or creating spoil heaps, these have to take up as little space as possible but the paths up to the top have to have a gradient that a volunteer pushing a wheelbarrow full of heavy soil can still negotiate them. At Usk I was a member of that team.
Having become friends, Mike knew that I would be going up to Cardiff in the autumn and spoke to me about a project he was planning. It turned out that he was the driving force behind a student theatre group and was planning a production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women for the autumn term, to take to the NUS Student Theatre Festival in Southampton over the Christmas vacation. He envisioned a stage set constructed of scaffolding and ask me if I could construct it for him? Somewhat naively, I said yes.
In the autumn I set off to my student digs in Cardiff wondering what lay ahead of me. Mike P was sharing a flat with Dave and another Mike, Mike B, and I went to visit and to find out what I was going to have to construct. Today, with smartphones, blue tooth, and Airpods, it is easy to forget the time when music was consumed from vinyl albums on that high altar of hippie existence, the stereo system. Now, I, Dave, and both Mikes all had record collections but none of us owned a stereo system. I owned a fairly good quality turntable, for which I had built the plinth myself and which I had wired up mono into my valve radio at home. None of us had the wherewithal to acquire a fancy stereo system, so Mike P bought a serviceable stereo amplifier and a cheap set of do-it-yourself loudspeakers boxes, which I put together. Together, we now had a functioning stereo which resided on the sideboard in the living room of their flat, with our four record collections inside the sideboard. This meant that I spent a lot of time in that flat.
But back to The Trojan Women. By the time I got to Cardiff, Mike had abandoned his scaffold set concept and he and I together with other members of the cast worked out a new staging concept. There were four figures representing the four women of the play. These were open frame wooden pyramids with an approximately one and a half metre square base and standing about three metres tall, constructed out of planed two by one deal. I constructed these and they were dismantlable for transit. On top of the pyramids were papier-mâché heads about one metre high made by a member of the cast. Below the heads were two metre long one inch diameter rods thrust through as arms on which hung hands made of plaster of Paris filled plastic gloves. All-in-all, very impressive but also very grotesque figures. These were arranged facing inwards in the corners of a square, about the size of a boxing ring, that was surrounded by coils of barbed wire. It’s a play about war!
This set was placed, not on a stage, but on the floor in the middle of a large room surrounded by rows of stools for the audience on all four sides. The set was lit with four, five-hundred-watt Fresnel spotlights mounted on floor stands, which I also constructed, which were focused on the head of the diagonally opposite figure casting vast shadows on the walls and ceiling. I mention all this in detail because I was then eighteen years old and had never done anything remotely like any of this in my entire life. It was a case of make it up as you go along and hope it works. Did I mention that I’m good at bluffing.
Mike had reduced Euripides’ text to word fragment in a sort of vocal concrete poetry. This was recorded on tape by four actresses representing the four Trojan women. It was recorded in the universities small recording studio. Steve, who had some experience, was supposed to engineer the session but backed out at the last moment. He gave me a five-minute introduction to audio engineering and left me to it. Something new everyday
For the performance itself the recording was played, whilst the four actresses, dressed totally in black, sat motionless on their heels inside the barbed wire on the four sides of the square. In the middle, Mike, also dressed in black, with a lightning flash drawn in artificial blood across his face, mimed out the story, as the universal soldier. I sat at the back of the audience running the tape deck and turning the lights on and off depending on which of the women was featured in that moment.
Come the Christmas vacation we, Theatre in Transit, drove up to Southampton in a Ford Transit (pun intentional). Once there, I was in charge of putting up the set and sorting out the sound equipment, which the people in Southampton had arranged for us. Over the evening, I learned a lot about earthing loops and mains hum, finally getting the assorted heap of shit to work at about three o’clock in the morning. The performance was well received, all the effort seemed worthwhile, and I was now a bona fide stage carpenter and theatre technician.
A couple of years after this all began Dave, Steve, Mike, and I all lived in the same house. Dave and I in the first floor flat and Mike and Steve in the second floor flat. I would spend several years working on theatre projects with Mike under various different company names. Ritual and Tribal Theatre (RATT), Scarab, Cardiff Laboratory Theatre and whatever, as set and prop designer and builder, and as light designer and operator. By the time I stopped working with Mike, probably around, 1976, he was already am established name in Welsh alternative theatre or performance art as he preferred to call it. He would go on to become a major figure in European performance art.
Mike P, Mike B and Steve were all heavily involved in the Cardiff Students Union, and I slotted in there as well, working for the Union Events as a stagehand. As a theatre lighting technician, I also provided the light for a couple of concerts put on by the Students Union in Cory Hall, an old temperance hall from the nineteenth century. I did the lights for Loudon Wainwright III and Pentangle.
I dropped out of the university at the end of the academic year 1970-71, having decided that I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. What I really wanted to be was a historian of science, but I didn’t know then that it was even possible. However, I continued working with Mike and for the Students Union. I also worked as a stagehand for the Welsh National Opera and as either a lighting or a sound technician for the university’s Sherman Theatre when they were short a man. I was even theatre manager, that’s general dog’s body, in Chapter Arts for six months, an episode that ended badly. I toured Wales with a Welsh Language theatre company and learnt first-hand about the discriminatory and racist attitude that many of the English-speaking population have towards the Welsh speaking minority. I toured the South of England with a small independent opera company doing the lights for a Harrison Birtwistle opera with a really cool group of musicians, which included the cellist from Keith Tippett’s Ark, a wonderful lady, who took me aside to smoke a joint to calm me down, when I lost patience with a local BBC news crew, whose filming was preventing me from completing setting up the lights in a very narrow time frame.
In between working for Mike, I still took part in archaeological excavation at Easter and during the summer. Mike joining me for one final delightful summer at Usk, when we both needed the money. For Mike I worked at venues all over England and in the early seventies at what was then one of the biggest theatre festivals, the Festival Mondial du théâtre de Nancy, where the then current French Minister of Culture took Mike and I to tea in a vey posh café one afternoon.
Through Mike I became part of the professional world of theatre and music and when I left the UK and moved to Germany at the beginning of the 1980s, I drew on that experience to find my feet in my new home. I worked as a stagehand for big concert promoters, managed a jazz club for ten years, was evening manager of a culture centre for about fifteen years and was a sound and lighting technician for live music in that centre for most of that time.
Mike and I stayed loosely in touch over the decades and in the last couple of years that contact has been Mike first informing me that Steve had died and then last year that Mike B had also died. We talked about the fact that we should meet up again in person before one of us dies. Now, it is too late, and my heart is broken.
Mike’s simple question, asking if I could erect some scaffolding for him, inadvertently set me on the path that would shape a very large part of my adult life.
Mike apparently died at the end of May but I only found out on Monday through the Guardian obituary, which Dave posted on FaceBook. There is another much longer obituary from the Welsh theatre community here.
Normal service will be resumed next week!