By Amber Massie-Blomfield
Two glasses of wine in and my friend and I are reminiscing about our experimental arts degree. It’s been more than a decade. We talk about the time we confused our neighbours by stripping to our underwear in the garden of our student house and covering one another in paint. The time we took over an abandoned warehouse in South London and made an opera based on each of us losing our first tooth. The time we danced naked on the stage of the Barbican. We talk about the house party where the invitation was to ‘Wear What You Always Want To Wear But Never Do’. I wore dungarees. She wore leg warmers. One of our friends came as a bag of Skittles.
Then she tells a story about another experience she had while we were studying. It’s a perfect account of the sort of thing that happened during our degree, and these stories are precious to us, are a kind of talisman of our shared history: we tell them to other people to set ourselves apart, just a little bit, and we tell them to each other to remind ourselves of the things that bind us, to redraw the circle of our friendship. So I listen to her tell it, knowing I’ve heard it before and knowing I’ll hear it again, settling into the creases of it.
In this story, my friend, as part of her research for her dissertation and at the behest of one of our wackier tutors (and they were all pretty wacky), gets a train to Birmingham, arriving as dusk settles. It’s winter, and dusk settles early in Birmingham. She’s alone, and on a crumpled piece of paper in her pocket – because smartphones and TomToms and googlemaps are yet to be part of our world - she has directions to an address she doesn’t know.
A taxi drops her off, not at a fashionable arts venue as she’d anticipated (a renovated chapel with exposed brickwork perhaps, or a converted warehouse on the waterfront), but at a neat, unremarkable house in a Victorian terrace. I imagine my friend, who is slight, and feminine, and who has always looked a little young for her age, but is also fearless and strong and underestimated at cost; I imagine her standing in this street in a Birmingham suburb with a name like Sarehole or Pype Hayes or Rubery, and I hold that image of her for a moment, alone in a strange place beneath the orange of a single street lamp.
The door is opened by a stranger in a white uniform, that of a beautician, perhaps, or a nurse. He’s a large man, with thinning grey hair, a flush to his cheeks and skin so smoothly shaved it catches the glow of the light. He takes her into the kitchen and makes her tea – “I don’t drink regular tea, so he made me herbal” – and gives her a chocolate chip Bakin’ Boys cupcake. They talk for a while, chatting about her day, the weather, the things people talk about when they meet for the first time. He explains what’s going to happen. With permission, he puts his hand on her thigh. “We get close, because when you touch someone like that, you have to”. After a while, he takes her upstairs, lies down on the bed with her, and for fifteen minutes, in silence, he spoons her. Then, they say their goodbyes, and she leaves.
Often when my friend recounts this it’s an oddity, an example of the eccentricities of the performance art world, and she tells it knowing it will raise a chuckle. After all, it’s pretty weird to let someone you’ve never met before spoon you. But beyond that – beyond the weirdness – there was something lovely about it, lying there in a quiet that began to be comfortable, the rain lashing at the window outside. She says when she describes it now: “it’s something you don’t forget about, something you won’t experience again.”
The man with the Bakin’ Boys cupcakes knew this. ‘It’s all allowed’, was his mantra. Those words are perfectly shaped to that moment: they contain the permission to find the situation strange, and funny; the hint, perhaps, of potential debauchery. The possibility of being moved in ways we might not have foreseen. The invitation to be whoever we are within the moment, without fear of judgement.
The name of this artist was Adrian Howells. A few years after my friend’s experience, after we’d graduated and I’d landed a job as a PR representing a bunch of hepcats on the left field of London’s theatre scene, I ended up doing a gig representing a theatre festival in which he was performing. The premise of the event was that every show in it was designed to be staged for just one audience member at a time, and I had the job of explaining the significance of all this to a bunch of jaded journalists who had been dispatched to write about it. As I herded them through a series of ‘One-on-One’ encounters (in which they were strapped into wheelchairs, asked to lie down in coffins and suspended from a third floor window), I tried desperately to convince them that the whole thing was nowhere near as gimmicky as they desperately wanted it to be.
I spoke to Adrian a few times during those weeks, and he was kind to me, really kind. He took great care to find out about my interests, my history, my life outside my work, which was nowhere near as typical an experience for a young PR working in the arts as you’d hope.
In a festival of work that was often preoccupied with testing ethical boundaries in a way that could be seriously unsettling for those who experienced it, Adrian’s performance was distinctive for the simplicity of its invitation: to explore what might happen when we allow ourselves to be unguarded with one another. In Footwashing for the Sole, Adrian would bring his audience member into a quiet space, illuminated by candles, invite them to sit in a chair, kneel on the floor in front of them, and slowly, gently, wash their feet. He’d performed it all over the world, in Glasgow, Ireland and Australia. In Palestine and Israel, where he’d washed the feet of the Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Every time, he’d lift the feet to his mouth and kiss them at the end. No matter how calloused, blistered or fungal they were, he would always lift them to his mouth and kiss them.
To hear Adrian speak about his work was to ache for touch. He’d talk about how rarely as adults we experience physical intimacy in forms that aren’t sexual, and the damage this does to our connections with one another, with our own bodies. For him what touch could be, and was a metaphor for, was kindness.
Several of the artworks in the festival centred on a small betrayal of trust: a hidden camera, say, or a disclosed secret. One-on-one performance is by its nature often an exploration of intimacy, and sometimes, of how easily intimacy can be faked, or manipulated. There was a cruelty at the heart of these pieces that Adrian found difficult to stomach. He recognised that they unsteadied the ground for all one-on-one performance makers: that the thorn of cynicism they left with those that experienced them meant they could never engage with another one-on-one performance in quite the same way again.
And Adrian’s work rested on that faith. The beauty of his work was in his bond with the audience member, that their exchange, which might well have seemed strange, was held up by the grace of two people consenting to do something they normally wouldn’t. So he was frustrated by these other works. More than that: he was angered by them.
It wasn’t until Edinburgh Fringe 2011 that I finally experienced his work first hand. The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Holding and Feeding took place in a relatively high-end city centre hotel. I remember rushing through wet streets, discarded flyers beneath my feet, torn posters flapping like prayer flags against the grey sky, the Royal Mile full of young people with loud voices and painted faces and great big dreams. I was irritable, most likely hungover, and I was running late – at the Edinburgh fringe I was always running late.
I pushed my way through a heavy rotating door and found myself in a hotel lobby full of white furniture I couldn’t imagine anyone sitting on. My hair had gone wild with the weather and my shoes left damp marks on the floor. I was shown to a bedroom on the second floor. Adrian opened the door like he’d been expecting me. “Hello, Amber,” he said. He wrapped his arms around me, and held me for a long time.
He showed me into the bathroom, explaining that he’d return in a few minutes. The room was lit only by candles, glinting on the surface of the bath. The water was deep, filled with something milky and sweet smelling, rose petals scattered on its surface. It was the stock cliché of a relaxing bathing experience, the kind that gets wheeled out ad nauseum in adverts for certain high street pharmacy chains, but right then, when I was exhausted and my brain felt totally bruised by the rigours of a month on the fringe, it was perfectly lovely.
I wiped steam away from the mirror and gazed at my reflection. Loose strands of hair were stuck to my face with rain, and the candlelight made the bags under my eyes flicker. I began to undress. Adrian was going to bathe me. I had my swimsuit with me, but when I took it out, I decided on the spur of the moment not to put it on. Why did being naked matter? Much like physical intimacy, as an adult nakedness is so often synonymous with sex, but in spite of that – or perhaps precisely because of it - it seemed then to be a simple signal of the fact I was going to trust him. I looked at my body in the mirror, pale, a little flabby from all the festival boozing. It’s all allowed. I put my swimsuit back in my bag, and stepped in the warm water.
Adrian came into the bathroom and said: “it’s an honour to bathe you”. He said it with such sincerity that it couldn’t be received in any other spirit. He began by lifting my leg from the water, taking a sponge, and ever so gently lathered between my toes. We didn’t say a word to each other, as he took each of my limbs in his hands and washed them, then my face, with care. At first I was nervy, self conscious, but as the minutes passed, I relaxed, and my eyes closed.
For half an hour I was the object of his undivided attention. I try to think of other occasions when I’ve been bathed by someone and I can’t think of a single one, not even from my childhood – of course my mum must have given me baths but I can’t think of a single example. At the heart of it all, there was melancholy. I had heard Adrian speak about how unbearable he found all the loneliness in the world. The Pleasure of Being… was a salve for that. But could it be enough, when it was so fleeting, when in a few minutes, it must be over? Afterwards, he wrapped me in a huge towel, sat me on his knee, fed me a piece of chocolate, and held me. I felt cared for. I felt loved.
While I’m writing this I go to visit my grandfather in hospital. He’s my last remaining grandparent, and he has cancer. He’s no longer able properly to digest food, so we visit him as often as we can, spending hours gathered around his bed, holding upbeat conversations about how good his garden is looking, England’s failure in the rugby. My dad makes too many jokes about Arsenal beating Tottenham in the league. Sometimes he wants to talk, sometimes he doesn’t. He is coming to the end of his life. We try, tentatively, to push him towards the topics we suppose we will regret not having discussed when the time is too late. We ask him to tell us who his heroes are. We remind him of the holiday we took together when I was three. He was in the war, I think, there must be questions I haven’t asked him about what it was like to be in the war.
But it is all too conspicuous; it underlines how much we haven’t talked about, because there wasn’t enough time, there is never enough time. He asks me to massage his feet and his legs, and I’m grateful: it’s a gift to let me do something for him when I’m so unsure of what I can do. People tell me I’m good at massage and although I’ve never trained I find something instinctive in it, somehow I’m able to imagine myself into the other person’s skin, to feel what they are feeling. Nurses come and go and make too many jokes about how it’s their turn for a massage next. I tell them to form an orderly queue, and we all laugh too loudly. I throw myself into the task, lose myself for ages in rubbing his papery skin, the bones like sticks. In this I am able to express the care I struggle to put into words. My understanding of the power of this act – the kindness I am able to give without speech, through touch – would be lost on me if it wasn’t for Adrian. I don’t realise as I squeeze cream from a tube, take his rake thin leg in my hand and begin to rub it, that this is the last time I will ever see my grandfather. But later, I will be glad that we spent it together like this.
I found out about Adrian Howells’ death when I was home alone, sliding my thumb across the blue screen of my mobile phone in the minutes before sleep like I’ve so often told myself not to. Suddenly my stream was full of emotional status updates relating his passing, testimonials to Adrian and the impact he’d had. They were the kind of dispatches that usually accompany world disasters, earthquakes and tsunamis, and perhaps that’s because in the little corner of space we shared it really was like something seismic had happened. At 51, he had killed himself. When I learnt of his death, I cried.
In the weeks that followed there were tributes to him, so many tributes, people who knew him well and loved him and were bereft, and people who, like me, hardly knew him, but were touched by his art and his generosity. Andy Field recalled “his broad smile… the warmth and gentleness of his arms as they wrap you in a welcoming hello… a “how are you?” that really meant: How are you?”. Chris Dupuis said: “Adrian gave me a certain kind of hope…Maybe he recognized we were both oddballs and had to stick together. Or maybe he just cared a lot about people.” Battersea Arts Centre lit a candle for him and wrote: “He taught us about theatre, care, love, regret and hope. May he rest in peace.”
I talk to my friend about how it was to learn about his death like that, someone I knew, but didn’t know at all, really. The weight of the grief I felt, which didn’t seem like it should belong to me, of struggling to know how to express it. Being naked with him in that bathroom, then figuring out how to participate in mourning his death online: these were two disorientated intimacies in contexts I had no precedent for.
I wondered about the strength of my response, and was suspicious then about whether I’d in fact been duped into a false connection by his performance, the feeling of touch, the sense of risking something and having that risk met and protected, all adding up to more than the sum of its parts. I had felt so cared for, as if for those minutes we spent together I was the only person in his world, but so must the next person and the person after that, each demanding a genuine connection in exchange for the price of a fringe theatre ticket. And what of the people he instinctively disliked, for there must have been those, the people about whom he’d thought, I’d never want to go for a pint with you? What if that was me? What must it have cost him?
The internet tricks us into false senses of intimacy too. Through it I maintain a simulacrum of connection with 750 Facebook friends, the 1,487 people I follow on Twitter. There are people I wouldn’t say hello to in the street, but I’ve spent a good twenty minutes looking at pictures of their wedding, read their eulogy to a recently deceased relative, seen the ultrasound of their unborn child. I imagine I know them. It’s an illusion, of course. People aren’t their wedding photos.
The evening my friend and I spend discussing Adrian is a few days after the Paris massacres. On the night it happened, I was home alone, watching the news unfold on my laptop in bed, horrified. I was completely floored by the events, a genuine pain that was again disorientating, that I didn’t know what I ought to do with. I watched as grief unfolded against the window of my social media accounts, individuals who didn’t know anyone killed, but were moved to put into words their sorrow for what had happened and those suffering. Letting something flicker alight, because an acknowledgement, an expression of solidarity, felt important.
It all seemed insufficient - it was too quick and easy, it cost too little. An individual might update their networks about their sadness for the victims and their families, and in the next moment be searching amateur porn sites, or ordering extension cables on ebay. A genuine expression of care can’t be so easily packaged or moved along from.
In the days that followed there were debates about this online, gerrymandering at the borders of sorrow. Bickering about Facebook capitalising on people’s desire to turn their profile pictures the red, blue and white of the Tricolor. There was condemnation of the undue weight given to these massacres as opposed to all the others that happen around the world everyday, condemnation of the media for failing to give all these other massacres adequate coverage, then the riposte that those making this criticism weren’t getting their news from a broad enough range of sources. On the night it happened, someone pulled a stunt: they posted a picture on Twitter of the Eiffel Tower in darkness: ‘Lights off on the Eiffel Tower for the first time since 1889’. It was nonsense – the Eiffel Tower’s lights are turned off every night - but nearly 30,000 people shared the post, and it was widely reported in the media. Everything about the hoax left me dizzy. I stayed silent.
The internet is an emotional wild west. There are no paradigms for how we ought to behave. Adrian saw his work as a counterpoint to the emotional dislocations caused by modern life, particularly our online interactions. “It’s such an irony that we’re so technologically advanced… but we’re not advanced in terms of nurturing each other. That’s where I come in,” he said.
In some ways, the artworks that he created, in all their glorious weirdness, how he asked us to be intimate with a stranger in fashions we are so unused to: these were emotional wild wests too. Adrian was at home in liminal spaces. In his earlier years he’d been a member of The Citizens’ company, known for its exploration of sexuality and gender, and had been a part of the experimental cabaret scene, in the guise of his drag alter ego, Adrienne. I imagine that these communities fostered an understanding of what it means to be conflicted, and that there can be beauty and strength and discovery in that. I suspect his work was made possible by that backdrop. It’s all allowed.
I think, again, of him in that bathroom, of my friend lying with him in bed on that rainy night, how what he seemed to be communicating was that in the midst of it all, of this muddling and unnavigable world, kindness can be a rudder. It seems a naïve strategy. But in the uncertain landscape we live in, where a night might begin with enjoying music in a concert hall and end with a leap from a top floor window to escape gunfire, it could be the best one we’ve got.
My friend speaks about her regret that she wasn’t able to give him something back. She received an email feedback form a few days after the performance, and didn’t complete it: it seemed too impersonal, too poorly fitted to the shape of her experience. The sad truth is we were ill prepared for the intimacy he offered, and didn’t know what to do with it. “Did it mean anything to him? Did he think about me, afterwards?” my friend wonders. It’s a conversation we can never now have.
I stayed silent when Adrian died. I felt I had so little to add. Bringing my voice to the chorus that marked his passing would, I imagined, dilute it, not enrich it. But after our conversation, when I’m home alone again, I decide to write up this account of Adrian, of what his work meant to my friend and me. When we go we leave behind us a million and one traces like this, people who we barely knew but whose lives we touched, who we influenced in tiny ways that will mostly pass unspoken. What Adrian Howells gave me was another talisman: something small and graceful to take out and show to people and perhaps to let them hold it. I think if I tell people about it, and they understand what it meant, they will understand a little bit more about me. And maybe if they do then we can cast that magic circle anew. It’s something to hold on to. I hope it’s enough.
Originally published on 18 Mar 2016 at ducksonandpinker.tumblr.com
Amber Massie-Blomfield is Executive Director of Camden People’s Theatre and a freelance writer.
Buy It's All Allowed: The Performances of Adrian Howells' edited by Deirdre Heddon and Dominic Johnson
LADA Screens: Adrian Howells
18 July at the Live Art Development Agency (LADA)