In 1991 we moved to a house in Brixton, south London. Of all our welcomes, that of our neighbour, the actor Peter Bourke, was the warmest. Rather unimaginatively we called him Peter the Actor.
Peter is and was one of the most consistently cheery people I have met. He alone in our street seemed to know and have time time for everybody −from refugee families who spoke to no one, to elderly widowers, to the squatters whom the rest of us avoided− hailing them by name with his beautifully modulated voice often from hundreds of yards away. Yet I never heard him raise his voice.
‘You won’t have heard of me,’ he told us. ‘And anyway, that’s not important.’
He giggled, a gurgling, self-interrupting and delighting spiral that drew you in and made refusal impossible. He giggled a lot.
Between acting jobs (he actually used the term ‘resting’) he kept busy by renting rooms over pubs to read plays with acting chums to which he would invite his ‘civilian’ friends. ‘The tools must be kept sharp,’ he said.
He would also bake bread. Walking his daughter to school he would set off early and leave loaves on the doorsteps of his ‘customers’ (he refused to take our money), or, if we were in, hand them to us, wrapped in a tea towel, still warm. ‘Make me some jam,’ he would say over his shoulder as he left. ‘Write me a poem.’
The school was a two-minute walk away, but it took him a good half-hour.
He was relentlessly inquisitive. He wanted to know all about you. I think he only spoke of himself in terms of stories, the point of which seemed to be how many names he could drop without pausing for breath. ‘Dickie? Yes, Dickie. Dickie Attenborough.’
During one such monologue, however, he gave me some off the best advice I have ever been given. Moaning one morning as he handed me another loaf of bread that I had just received a rejection from a poetry magazine he told me, serious for a moment, that I was thinking about it all wrong. ‘Blondes,’ he said.
‘Blondes. They wanted blondes.’
‘Think of it as an audition. They’ve got someone in mind for the part, a shape or a hair colour, blonde, say, and sadly today you weren’t it. Your work is still amazing. It just wasn’t for them.’
‘Is that how you deal with it?’
‘Works every time,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t mean they’re not bastards, of course, just that I don’t need to hate them.’
‘That’s brilliant,’ I said.
‘Isn’t it?’ Then he giggled.
I cannot repay him. But I did get to write him a poem.
For Peter Bourke After Watching Him Play Clov
The Gospel choirs and evangelists
were in good voice
as I walked to the tube,
the night of the fifteenth World Cup
Final, a dénouement of blistering negativity
Baggio cancelling Romario, the existential
burden of not losing
crushing the beautiful game. Your timing,
Peter, was sharper—
I never saw you work harder
at not being jolly.
What I’ll take with me
is you rooted
motionless at the end,
unable to pick up your
suitcase and staring into the ether
as a ‘keeper might, the eternity
of extra-time a memory
blotted out now it’s penalties, the first
shot and every one after it sudden death.
from Full Stretch (Worple Press, 2006)