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Ems Coombes - disability arts online
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Disability Arts Online

Ems interviews Garry Robson, Director of Fittings Multimedia Arts / 1 April 2011

The Artist's Treasure Hunt

Garry Robson: I loved to perform when I was a kid. But was told fairly early doors that, because I was disabled, there was no point. Because, you could never be an actor, because you’re disabled.

I think I was told that when I was about 12, you know. So my way around that was to be a musician instead. Because nobody cares about musicians to say, you know –

Ems Coombes: Yes, tell me about. (Laughter)

GR: You know what I mean. They can be all sorts of shapes and sizes and whatever. And malfunctions. So I came into it kind of sideways really as a musician.

EC: What was the first inspiration? Whether it was a piece of art work, a practitioner? Maybe it wasn’t even any of them. Maybe you found, I don’t know, a
book or something. Like if there was one thing?

GR: Sure. No, I was thinking about that. And I can trace it back, I think, to when I was about 15, 16. And there was a guy was – you know like people are put down a year sometimes if they were kind of bad or didn't complete the work? And I remember this guy being put down a year. And I think it was because he'd been ill. He was called Alan.

He was a little guy; small stature. And speccy and a bit geeky and a bit strange really. And he introduced me to lots of things. He introduced me to jazz, which was really, you know, at 15, 16 something like that – fairly avant garde jazz. And he introduced me to movies.

EC: Have you got a jazz composer?

GR: Yes. It was kind of two. Coltrane, John Coltrane, and Dave Brubeck actually were the two kind of key ones. And he introduced me to.
And he introduced me to films, like – I’d seen films since I was a kid. I’d come from a film age group. You know, like films were brilliant, you know. But he introduced me to sort of more challenging films if you like.

And I remember in particular Clockwork Orange and If and so – Lyndsey Anderson was a key director for me when I was 15, 16 years old. Which is great. 

So Alan brought this kind of musical thing, the film thing. And also he was big pals with a guy called Bobby who was a kind of folk singer. He used to sing around the pubs and sing mainly trad stuff. And I fell in love with that as well. This notion of just sitting around with a guitar performing in pubs. It could be a great idea. You could sing and drink]. My life’s never been the same since. (Laughter)

EC: That’s what I love doing is, you know, before The History of Lies I was just sort of – I did lots of folk and still I’m into my folk.

GR: Yes, we could say, this is alright. It’s okay. We’ve come out of closets now.

EC: It’s alright. We can admit it now.

GR: Acoustic music was okay. We can admit it. Yes, that’s right. We’re alright now.

EC: Yes, exactly.

GR: We’re alright. (Laughter)

EC: We brought weirdness to the forefront. Which is great.

GR: Absolutely, yes, yes.

EC: But, you know, I find that it’s – it’s quite accepting. Folk music.

GR: Yes, I really found that. And Bobby was terrific. And he’s a bit of a wide boy, you know. But great. And I started performing and singing in pubs when I was like 15, 16, you know, which was terrific.

So Alan was very pivotal for me really. It was only because you asked me the question – you know, you suggested one of the questions, that actually made me think about. And Alan suddenly came into my mind. I’ve not thought about him for years.

EC: Do you remember his surname?

GR: No. I mean, I can vaguely picture him. You know, but – you know.

EC: I think that’s nice to know. Yes.

GR: Yes.

EC: The third question. It’s a third parter. (Laughter)

We all have moments in our lives that changed the direction of our careers or our, well, of our lives basically. You’ve got three pivotal moments in your life, Mr Garry, sir. What were they?

GR: Good God.

EC: Either positive or negative. Because negative have good moments.

GR: Yes. Artistically or just generally?

EC: Artistically or generally. Do you see what I’m doing here? I’m being vague on purpose. So –

GR: Yes, okay. Dear me it’s a tricky one that.

I think artistically was having the confidence to say I was an artist really. I mean that was quite important. And that I had a voice. That I had something to say.

EC: Do you find that you still get a lot of people, especially friends, I find, as well, that will – that you’ll be excited about something that you’re doing and stuff. And they’ll be looking at you as if you are a div. And you didn’t, you know –

GR: No, I don’t really get that anymore. I mean, I think because I’ve been doing it for such a long time that it’s kind of – it’s what I do now, you know.

So I think – I mean, no. Because I don’t – I ignore them anyway. (Laughter) Just, you know, when I’m excited by an idea, I kind of just pitch it everywhere. I talk about it a lot because I find that a way to sort of tease out what I’m about anyway. So I tell people.



No, so I mean, I think actually making some sort of mental decision. Which kind of came from a good friend of mine, Billy, who I was in bands with. Because, you know, I was in bands for years. And Billy was a Glaswegian. A Donegal Glaswegian. A lovely man. We’re still good friends. And he would always talk about going to work, you know, with the band.



And I kind of – yes, that’s great. It is actually, it’s a job, isn’t it? You know, and it’s great. And if you start looking at it like that, then I found it – it’s not a hobby. It’s not a pastime. It’s not something to fill up the hours. It’s actually a job. It’s what you do. It’s your kind of raison d’etre in life.

And from that, it was a small leap to a definition of myself as an artist.

So I think that was kind of important.

Having kids I found really important to me in my life. That changed my life considerably because you have to start thinking about other people.

EC: What age did you have – ?

GR: God, I would have been late 20s I guess. So I wasn’t young. You know, sort of late 20s when I had kids.

That was really important. That was really pivotal.

I think having – getting diabetes actually. (Laughter) Because I was really living a really, really, really poor lifestyle. I mean I was drinking myself stupid and I was doing whatever drugs fell into my lap. And my diet wasn’t very good.

And I just really wasn’t looking after myself at all. I became diabetic.

EC: At what age did you become diabetic?

GR: Oh, God. Again, I don’t know.

EC: Are we talking before your children or after?

GR: It was – oh, no. My kids – I had kids by then. I was not a good dad. You know, I was all over the place really. With bands, you know, because I was working with bands and it was just touring a lot and I was drunk a lot.

I’ve probably been diabetic now getting on 20 years; I think it was just about 20 years ago. Yes.

EC: Strange enough, do you think that saved you?

GR: I do. I honestly think, you know, I’d have been pretty fucked up really. Because I was riding for a fall. You know, physically. And  as it happened, it was a fall that was due. So I had to kind of – used to – I had to start listening to my body really. That’s what you have to do as a diabetic is kind of listen to your body.

And that helped in all sorts of ways. I thought I was going mad. I thought I was going really crazy. And it was a lot to do with just the way my body was. So – yes, that was really important.

EC: And a nice conversation with you and your body.

GR: Yes.

EC: The change instead of you, well – you.

GR: Yes, me, me, me. You know. I’m still a bit me, me, me. You know, (Laughter) people will still tell you. But probably less so than I was then, you know. I was, you know – I was a massive ball of ego. A massive ball of drunken ego. Which is not the most attractive thing in the world really.

Did I mention Ian Dury?

EC: No, you didn’t. But I was actually going to mention him because –

GR: I mean, I know it’s the Ian Dury. He is really pivotal to me.

EC: I was going to say, I think that as – as artists and musicians, we can’t really – we can’t really skirt over him. Because I think he’s really, really important from a poet’s perspective.

GR: Yes, yes. He was a beautiful poet. I love him as a writer, you know. And I mean, I didn’t know he was disabled when I first saw him. I went to see him when I – because he was doing it – in those days, we kind of hid it. And I just thought he was a spindly drunk. You know, like me. So that was alright. I had no idea. And somebody told me he’d had polio. And I said, "What? Fucking hell." You know, same as me. Wow!

EC: Oh, wow. (Laughter)

GR: And then, you know, watched him I guess with another eye. And then his writing, you know, once he came to terms with talking about his disability and discussing it. And being an advocate, I guess. In a way.

I grew to love him even more. Tremendous. Spasticus Autisticus

EC:  Spastic is fantastic.

GR: That’s the best statement ever still.

EC: Yes, totally. Totally. "I hobble when I wobble."

GR: "My middle is a riddle." (Laughter)

EC: Is a riddle indeed. Indeed. I just – I think it’s very important.

GR: Do you like my orange shoes -  my Tigers. I just I want to get those on film.

EC: They’re beautiful.

GR: Thank you, darling.

EC: They’re beautiful.

GR: Thank you.

EC: Just thought I’d let people know –

GR: Marvellous. Great.

EC: – how lovely your shoes are.

GR: Thank you very much.

EC: But I think it’s really, really important to have disabled role models. And I think Ian Dury’s great. Because he – how can I put this? He had sort of an invisible impairment. But it wasn’t an invisible impairment.

GR: No, no. It really wasn’t, I don’t think. 

And I mean, role models is a funny old business. And I know what you’re saying. He was a bit of a bastard really. He was a bit of a, you know – a bit of a misogynist and whatever. So I wouldn’t say he was role model. I just liked what he did. I liked his music. I liked the way he looked. I liked the fact he was a cripple. And he was out there.

EC: And the fact he was doing what he wanted to do.

GR: Yes.

EC: You know. And had his own style as well, you know. If you listen to loads of the tracks. Like My Old Man as well.

GR: Yes, beautiful.

EC: Absolutely beautiful. The lyrics are just so normal and, you know, it could easily be a piece of prose.

GR: Yes. That’s a great poetry. It’s like a conversation.

EC: Exactly.

GR: It’s lovely.

EC: It’s just – it’s –

GR: Well every night, you know, because it was in ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’ as you know, at Stratford East and Ipswich. And Stephen that – a lovely young actor, who would sing that every night. And there just wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It’s a great poem – it’s great.

EC: I think he’s very – I don’t know. I – from when I first found out – when I first found out he was a polio sufferer, I don’t know –

GR: Victims. We’re called victims. Polio victims.

EC: I don’t want to call him – no I got told – I got emailed by someone when I was first disabled.

GR: I kind of like that. I like being a victim. I’m a polio victim. (Laughter)

EC: But people told me I’m not allowed to be a stroke victim.

GR: No, no.

EC: I’m not allowed to be a stroke victim. I’m –

GR: That’s because we’ve monopolised it. Because polio’s –

EC: Oh, alright. You’re taking it back. (Laughter)

GR: We are. We are reclaiming victim. Polio victim is me.

EC: (Laughter)

GR: Cool. Is that it?

EC: Yes. I think that is that.

GR: Good.

EC: Thank you very much for taking part in An Artist’s Treasure Hunt.

GR: Ems, it’s such a pleasure. And Ems, really lovely working with you these last couple of days. Thank you.