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 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, 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.
Two or three times a week we would go running together. I think Peter thought of it as training. He did it, he told me, so stay trim. ‘You never know when Dickie is going to call with a play.’ As always with Peter, there was a lot of nattering involved. But he was focussed, too. Running with him was the only time I saw him not stop to talk to passers-by. Round Brockwell Park we would pant, merrily trying to outdo each other with stories of rejection. Until one day he got serious. ‘The Great West’s coming up,’ he announced, ‘and we’re down for it.’ He would brook no argument against it (the only time I saw this too).
‘How long is it?’ I asked.
‘Just a half.’
‘Half a what?’
‘Marathon,’ he told me, dead-eyed. ‘Sunday we’re off to Battersea!’
‘What, running there?’
‘Well, we’re not going to drive there, are we?’
‘Of course back.’
And that is when I began to hate running. It wasn’t the puffing, I didn’t mind that. It was the pain. Specifically in my knees. Somewhere on Lavender Hill I lost him and walked the rest of the way home. He rang me later with some news. His wife, a physio, strongly recommended I did not run through pain. As much as I had begun to dread our sessions, I now felt elated. ‘It was probably that school you went to,’ he said. ‘No one had the proper kit in those days.’
‘Yes, probably,’ I murmured, silently punching the air.
I hadn’t hated running at school. I hated that they made it a punishment. Steep and narrow paths, called drungs, treacherous in winter, linked the school campus to all available routes out of it, for fair purposes or foul. If you were caught doing anything a prefect did not like you would be given a drill, three circuits involving two of the steepest drungs, to be completed at 6.30 on a Friday morning.
The other thing I hated about running was that they didn’t teach it to you. Bowling they taught. And rowing. Or being in the front row. But not running. Either you could do it or you couldn’t. Peter was my first and last teacher of the art I had performed all my life and never got to grips with.
‘Run like a trapper, not a crapper,’ he would say. ‘Low slung, kissing the surface, not banging into it. And the other thing is: short steps uphill. Quick and short, like me.’
I had not thought about any of this until, out on my own in the dusk a couple of weeks ago, I watched some swans bobbing on the swollen floodplain. It occurred to me suddenly that no one would be any the wiser if I had stayed at home. No one is making me do this, I thought. No one is thanking me for it either. Rather like Peter training for his half, or reading with chums in the upper room of a pub. ‘You won’t have heard of me, but that isn’t the point.’ Which is why I need to do it, to get me out of myself, to give myself the chance to notice whatever comes along.
I cannot repay him for such wisdom. 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.