Familiar Old Ghosts

I was intending to write this last week. As so often, I got derailed. Now a sudden change has deepened and darkened my theme. So bear with me while I marshal my words as best I can. They do not come easily.

I originally meant to record a minor holiday, just before I returned to my time-honoured imprisonment at The York Dungeon. It was the Dungeon’s biblical flood – another time-honoured tradition – that granted me time and space for my own projects at the start of the year. It’s just what I needed after the manifold frustrations of 2015 – something I chronicled, via Anthony Newley, over here and here.

To briefly convert this time-based holiday into a land-based holiday – with trains and sight-seeing and people and such – seemed an excellent way to round things off. The result was a few snatched days of geographical interest: in Cambridge, then Leeds, then Blackpool. After recent events, I now realise that I was facing down some familiar old ghosts. Most of which transported me right back to York and far into that empty Dungeon.

Two weeks ago, I returned to Cambridge. My first time back in nearly four years. My absence from my old university town had evolved, little by little, into a point of principle. I was determined not to go back without a really good reason. In the end, I just settled for a reason. I went there to collect my honorary (read: falsified, worthless) MA, an arcane rite that extends to all Cantabrigian degree-holders. Essentially, this boiled down to some fantastical fancy dress and choreographed movement, with an audience in spitting distance – and all in Senate House, where sly old Henry Irving claimed his Doctor of Letters. Oh, yes. It represented my university experience very well.

Whence this dread of facing Cambridge again? I believe it was really the dread of facing myself – my ghost-self, as unstable and overwrought as I’d felt through university. Three exhausting years of slow metamorphosis. Never was I happier: creatively engaged on play after play, exposed to untold riches, making many of my very best friends. Never was I unhappier: feeling ever the outsider in acting and academia, awaking to quite how mediocre an intellect I possessed, experiencing some appallingly black moods.

All this found its most painful distillation in my second year, when I was deeply in love, and he was beautiful, and it was terrible, and it was wonderful, and – of course – it all went wrong. Old ground for me now, ancient history. I’ve written about the experience here; the fall-out from it, anyhow.

At this distance, I wonder if love was the only response to being so maniacally, so intensely alive. It required an equally strong force to balance me. That force was the Dungeon. Just before my second year, when all that feeling had opened me up, the Dungeon made me feel worthy of love. Armed me to go off and fight for it! And after my second year, the Dungeon gave me space to recover. It restored love to its proper place: from doom-laden soul-searching to simplicity, acceptance, warmth.

So as I knelt this time in Senate House, I thought on Henry Irving’s acceptance speech. Especially those words he cribbed from Polonius: ‘To thine own self be true.’ I stumbled on many bits of that self in Cambridge. But they were always tested and confirmed in York.

On with the holiday. I was next in Leeds, for a leisurely tea with my friend Simon. A man who has been crucial in my self-development, ever since I read his Shooting the Actor at age fifteen. He helped me to stoke my passion for acting, to make sense of my gayness, and to extend my interests in Dickens and Laughton and so many others among the Great Dead. Having done all this for me, it was perhaps inevitable that I would end up getting to know him personally. The Dungeon provided one of my earliest chances to test Simon’s exhilarating horizons for acting. I then saw transformation as absolutely central. How I strained to make my every character physically and vocally unique. To make them very unlike me.

Acting’s become more complicated in the years since. Most any craft is easier when primal. The sheer novelty of doing it convinces you that you’re better than you are. These days, acting is much more about accessing the soul. Which is difficult indeed; a lifelong journey. Just before I departed Leeds, Simon inscribed for me his latest book: an injunction to go on pursuing ‘the great and greatly flawed’. Eloquently put. For acting is rough-hewn hurly-burly: all mud and blood and fire and thunder. This essential roughness has been another of the Dungeon’s lessons. It’s not just okay that it’s not perfect. No, it’s an essential part of the deal. We must be flattered to be so flawed. It’s that which connects us to the human race.

The next day was the most emotional. I visited Blackpool to see my beloved friend Bryan. A long-standing colleague from – where else? – that Dungeon of York. Bryan embodies the murky essence of the place. This is a gift that reaches beyond acting, verging instead on the mystical. Bryan carries that atmosphere about with him; a natural emanation. He could indeed be a medieval monk or a viking king or a pagan war-god. More surely than anyone, he has converted the ghosts into friends.

Blackpool was also where I used to visit my grandparents, my mum’s mum and dad. I found their ghosts on the sea-front, mixed up with the spit and the pother, but even more in the Tower Ballroom. They had often danced there: probably to the same old standards, certainly to the same old organ. I sat there with my cup of tea for nearly an hour. I found myself almost ridiculously moved at the variety in the dancers: old men with old women, grandads with grandchildren, women with women, a mum with her daughter, another mum with her mum, men with men, two old widows. All those complicated chunks of humanity briefly thrown together and giving it all to the dance. This lent a certain resonance to when I met up with Bryan after his own dance, his devil-dance within The Blackpool Tower Dungeon. How wonderful to see him again in his proper context: restored to his full powers and exercising all the tools of his trade. How wonderful simply to embrace this man.

How I’d like to do that with another man now.

A few days ago, Mark – my manager at the Dungeon since 2008 – quietly passed away.

I am intruding on hallowed ground here. So many people knew Mark better than me, and longer than me. I know my loss is nothing compared to theirs. I cannot imagine their pain. I can only try to express mine, in flawed and dithering words. In this, I may light on some of what my colleagues are feeling.

What Mark represented to me was a whole comforting home. That warm and welcoming Dungeon home, which lives with me still, no matter where I travel. Over the years, I’ve had my gripes with the Dungeon; those periods of wishing I was anywhere else. I certainly don’t plan to stay there forever. In these respects, it’s like any home. Now a home that can never be the same again.

This idea of the Dungeon sustained me through the end of 2009, during my rocky first term at university. I had found the transition tougher than anything I’d expected, and was beginning to think I’d made a very big mistake. Here’s a little of what I wrote in my ever-uplifting diary:

Everyone here is better than me. They can talk to each other, communicate their wild and brilliant ideas without effort. I struggle so hard to form a coherent sentence, never mind the insurmountable difficulties in pretending to be happy.

I shrink with shame at that now. Knowing Mark’s great talent for happiness, for provoking it in others.

And yet he had provoked something in me. I went on, in this diary, to devise myself a back-up plan, where I would flee university and settle for a quiet and comforting life. And at the centre of all that? The Dungeon. I reduced it to a phrase:

The people there are wonderful.

I know that Mark was hovering at the centre of that sentiment – and therefore at the centre of all those testing years of finding myself out. It was the warmth and decency of Mark and his fellow Dungeoners that gave me the grit to stick university out. They would top me up when I saw them in the summer. And the thought of them gave me the strength, always, to keep on going. It’s a process that continues.

The darkest moment of that first term was when I found out that my grandad – that tireless romantic, that ballroom dancer – had also quietly passed away. I was by then too exhausted to entertain death. I sat at the same laptop I sit at now. Listened again and again to ‘Old and Wise’. Squirming, panting, smarting at this cruel new world, which seemed to be disintegrating beneath me. And still thinking to myself:

Don’t worry, don’t worry, the world is cold and dark now, the light is all but out… But I can still go to the Dungeon. I can still go home.

Now I do all of that all over again. All that time has passed, yet things are as they were.

As surely as Bryan is the Dungeon’s murky essence, so was Mark its living, beating heart. I feel thankful to him now in so many ways. It was Mark, along with Stuart, who gave me this first acting job in 2008. Mark helped to promote me from the shadows, encouraging some of my most purely happy assaults on acting. He inaugurated me as the Judge and as the Torturer. He gave me more pride in those outlandish creatures than I rightly deserved. That golden self-confidence that can comes only from someone you respect absolutely. With the result that he could pull me up short when I deserved it, make me feel utterly ashamed of myself. Such was the force of the man’s goodness. Only last Halloween, he bundled me swiftly home when I fell ill, defying all my croaking protestations. Then he laughed with me as I proceeded, croakily, to ring in sick.

He didn’t need to do any of that. How I’ll miss the absurd jokes and the infectious enthusiasm; the painful (usually accidental) ease with which you could make him jump out of his skin; the fact that he still addressed me as ‘Mr Swanton’ after eight years of friendship. By God! I’ll miss the joyousness! The sheer, luminous joyousness of the man. He lived to the hilt that which Dickens once wrote: ‘Brighten it, brighten it, brighten it!’ So often would he make me laugh till I cried. Now he makes me cry till I laugh.

His courage in facing down the end was little short of miraculous. I have never known a bravery like it. Never. I wish now, selfishly, that I’d seized the chance to tell him just how much I loved him. But that would have been to have Mark’s funeral while he was still alive. I don’t believe Mark ever seriously intended to leave the party. I still don’t think he has.

Besides. With a man like Mark, could love ever really, seriously be questioned? To him, it was the only thing. I am sure he knew we all loved him. Love was all he knew.

So thank you, Mark. You’ve shaped the course of my life, in ways that will probably always reach beyond my comprehension. You will forever be inseparable from the Dungeon. And it’s that Dungeon, that home of homes, that I carry with me, always – whether I am shouting within a dark building by (occasionally in) the River Ouse or somewhere else entirely. A home crammed with all those daft and delightful and lovable, loving people, with you at the very centre. Then. Now. And always.

Mark Pollard

Here’s the family in 2011. Mark is the bearded fellow at centre. I’m the grinning demon behind Mark; the distinguished greybeard to my left is, of course, Bryan. Also at centre, just below Mark, is Kayleigh – the love of his life, who he married last year. The best thing he did in a life crammed with the best.

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, The York Dungeon

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