The theatre tour this year has been very arduous and the weekly change of venue, has found the company and myself, zig zagging up and down and across the country - Glasgow, Bournemouth, Ireland, Newcastle-upon-Tyne - of all the aspects of my profession, travelling is the part I would miss the least.
Touring requires both stamina and also a strong sense of a personal centre to cope, not only with different theatres, but also with the wanderers life-style of different "digs" and various accommodations each week.
Last year I was able to get home, at least for Sundays, but this year I am lucky if I see my home twice a month - and then only for a day or part of it.
This has also meant that my usual regular visits to Spiritualist Church have been interrupted. Perhaps oddly, I think that this may not be such a bad thing. During the first two years after Christina passed away, the church became my centre and my support, but I know in my heart that my centre should be within myself and not external, no matter how comforting that external support may be.
Neverthless, I was able to visit my friends at church, on the Sunday before we all flew to Belfast three weeks ago. The visiting medium was an elderly charismatic lady, who I immediately felt drawn towards and who, in her ‘messages’ to the congregation, turned to me and announced that there was a gentleman with her in spirit, who was here to help me.
Now I have received many messages through spiritual mediums, all encouraging me to write. The reason I have four blogs and a website, is solely through my experiences and contact from ‘beyond’. Yet I remain (and maybe always will) a sceptic when it comes to the existence and the nature of the spirit world.
The message was encouraging however, in that it seemed to be the same as all the others over the past three years. The medium described my spiritual helper as being:
’surrounded by books’
I suppose it was natural for me to assume that the ‘help’ would be with my writing…
Northern Ireland and Belfast has changed enormously since my first visit in 1980. At that time, the ‘troubles’ were at a high and everyone was affected by them. I expect there was some risk in being there at the time, especially being English, but the Irish are such a warm spontaneous people, that I seldom felt in any danger.
It was in this climate of unrest, that an eccentric professor of Modern History, became a leading figure in the continuance and development of the performing arts in Belfast.
My first impression was that I had met Fagin from Oliver Twist, in fact the character as played by Ron Moody in the film and stage musical version, could have been his twin brother, this likeness together with a total disregard for his own appearance, increased with time, until our last meeting in 1989.
Photo: Chris Hill
Last meetings grow with increasing years, but I was still a relatively young man, when Michael treated me to a banquet of a meal in the theatre restaurant. I can remember roast pork on a spit, roast potatoes covered in herbs and peas that tasted like they had just come straight from the pod. All that and a really beautiful bottle of vintage red wine. I was frankly overawed with the man; there is no other word to describe the disheveled academic other than ‘erudite’.
There is a natural gap or difference between the English and the Celts of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, that political correctness tends to avoid, but which is fascinating when traced right back to it’s origins, at the time of the Teutonic/Nordic invasions. So the unlikely success of Michael’s tenure as Artistic Director of the Grand Opera House and the affection with which he was regarded owed as much to his uncompromising aura of ‘Educated Englishman’ as it did to the natural Celtic appreciation and understanding of a man driven by the convictions of his heart.
At a time when British Actors Equity was advising theatre companies not to go to strife-torn Northern Ireland, Michael was persuading managements in England, Scotland and Europe, to send their productions over to Northern Ireland and to the Opera House. The current success and reputation of the Opera House is due in no small part to the shambling Professor Barnes.
Our current visit was the first in over three years and I noticed a painting of Michael in the ‘Green Room’ that seemed to be new - there was no indication that he had died, but I had a distinct feeling that he had passed on. The painting fascinated me and each day I spent some time, looking at the posture and expression of the man I remembered so well.
Everyone has good days and bad days and the first Thursday of our visit was one of the latter. I have a love/hate relationship with my work and on that particular day, I felt that I never wanted to see the inside of a theatre again, or choreograph, or act, or for that matter, dance again.
At one point during the dismal day, I passed through the Green Room and said firmly and loudly to the painting:
"Michael, I know you’ve passed on - What am I going to do with my life?"
Michael looked down from the wall, with an expression I remembered so well.
Belfast has now been transformed from a war-torn city, full of British soldiers, barbed wire, armoured tanks and constant searches and check-points, into a bustling city with shops, stores and a shortage of cabs on a Saturday night. After unsuccessfully trying for around half an hour the following Saturday, I was eventually successful in ‘bagging’ on of the busy drivers. My driver turned out to be from the Philippines.
Cab drivers, the world over, are natural conversationalists. I have in the past (now to my regret) cut short the first expected question of "What do you do?" opting instead for silence and thinking time. Since my Stonehenge transformation however, I have turned over a new leaf and in fact started off the chatter by asking my driver, how he came to be living and working in Belfast. It turned out that his wife was a nurse in a local old-peoples home and that he had come over to join her. His ability with the English language had not improved in relation to his smooth driving however and the conversation was slow - until I told him that I was working at the Opera House.
"You know Michael Barnes then?"
How on earth did a taxi driver from the Philippines know about Michael?
"My wife nursed him just before he died. He used to get out of bed, put on his dressing gown and dance with her"
"He just loved to dance"
and then I remembered the medium at church and the message of help…
Yes Michael, I’ve got the message
"I’ll keep dancing"
As Thomas is my patron saint, the doubts inevitably crept in. As I passed by the painting each day, I became less convinced that I had actually received a message from beyond - a spiritual medium, a message of help, a Phillipino cab driver’s wife who danced around hospital beds with Michael, only weeks before he died. It all made a lovely story - but maybe also a lovely illusion.
Like Thomas, I needed more proof…
The cost of hotels and guest-house accommodation has soared in Belfast, but I had managed to find a local woman on the theatre ‘digs-list’ who was delighted to let me stay in her spare bedroom for a nominal rent - except that, as she was having a conservatory built at the back of her house, there would be a lot of noise from the workmen - and there was!
On the final Friday, I pottered downstairs to make a cup of tea and found myself in a long conversation about Irish comedians as opposed to English ones. The whole thing developed delightfully into a Celtic-English contest, as to who could come up with the most names and the most memorable jokes. I must have done well, as one of the workmen suddenly said
"Do you work in the theatre then?"
When I affirmed that I did, his reply could have come straight from the mouth of the medium at the beginning of the story, or indeed from Michael himself:
"I worked for Michael Barnes, just before he went into the nursing home. I put up lots of bookshelves for him. He was surrounded by books you see. The whole house was full of them and he only had space for one chair in his living room because he was…
…surrounded by books."
I passed by Michael’s picture the following day and I swear he smiled at me…
(but maybe it was just a trick of the light)
Michael Barnes, OBE, arts administrator, was born on October 31, 1932. He died on May 14, 2008, aged 75
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