Reading about recent events in Bristol took me straight back to an incident that occurred some three years ago, when I underwent a crash course in consciousness raising. And, I should say, if you’re out there, Mark, please get in touch!
My “lesson” began in the deep end, when an egg smacked me on the side of the face. At the time, I was performing as a living statue just outside St Nicholas Market in Bristol, not really conscious of who it was I was portraying. I simply liked the look of the man, his clothing and pose, and had copied it: the flowing locks of his wig, the swaggering frock coat, the knee-high boots and long cane. I’d spent ages getting that look right, and it cost me a fair bit, too.
Outside the market I would stand, stock still, leaning on my cane, right hand cupped over its metal head, while my left elbow was propped on the back of this hand. I also cultivated the man’s pensive expression, my chin cradled in my left palm. Of course, the whole ensemble, including my face and hands, had been sprayed with bronze paint. I looked just the thing.
It worked fine for a couple of weeks. Then, as I said before, one day this egg stung me on my right temple, the fragments of shell exploding like shrapnel. Warm albumen and yolk slithered down onto my coat. I was nonplussed. I struggled to hold my pose as a second egg struck me on the arm.
What was going on? My performances had been quite successful up to this point, and I’d now perfected my act. I would stand with heron-like stillness for a while, then indulge onlookers with a subtle twitch or wink. You should have seen them jump! And, occasionally, I’d execute a more dramatic move, which almost always elicited screeches and screams from those nearby.
Up until the fateful day, I’d experienced only one mishap, when I startled a young girl whose ice-cream had leapt from its cornet and landed smack on my thigh before sliding gracefully down the inside of my boot. That took some cleaning off, but eggs!
Despite the pain, I managed to maintain my pose, although it meant that I couldn’t turn to see who was throwing the missiles. They were coming from somewhere off to my right, where I was aware of a rowdy group of people. They’d been disruptive for a while, but the background noise was so loud I couldn’t make out exactly what their problem was.
Before I could perform one of my dramatic shifts and orient myself in their direction, a young black man, whom I’d spotted lurking amongst the bystanders, came leaping across to me. He looked like a warrior, having stripped down to a pair of tiger skin briefs. His lithe body and long femurs were very graceful, but the expression on his face was intimidating: teeth clenched, eyeballs hard as marbles.
He ran straight into me and, with one deft movement, grabbed my cane and began poking me with it. I hoped that someone in the crowd might intervene or at least protest on my behalf. But no one said a thing. They were enjoying the spectacle. Some even began to cheer. It was very distressing.
The man then grabbed me by the back of the collar. I remember it vividly, being on the verge of coming out of character, for I’d had enough. Until, that is, I noticed how the crowd had swelled.
At this point, my antagonist pulled me close. I thought he was going to bite me. But he simply whispered into my ear, “Play along. We’ll make a killing.” I didn’t like the sound of that last phrase but, ever the performer, I complied.
Before I could say anything in reply, though, he sank down on one knee and jerked me, still gripping my collar, across his outstretched leg. My head was close to the ground, such that my pantalooned buttocks were now airborne, and clearly on show as the tails of my frock coat parted. My antagonist then applied the cane to my rear.
“Ouch!” I yelled, abandoning my dumbshow. I don’t think anyone in the crowd heard me, though. They were too busy cheering. The man was feinting to some extent, but it was still a traumatic experience.
After some six strokes, he stood up, tumbling me onto the ground. The man then placed one foot on my back and held me, face down, against the pavement. Again, the crowd roared their appreciation. Over the noise, I could hear what sounded like a shower of rain. There were coins bouncing off the pavement all around us.
I was later informed that while I was in this prone position, Mark – for that was the name of my antagonist – had struck the exact pose of my statue. It was this final tableau that had brought the house down and precipitated the downpour of money.
Once the show was over and people began to disperse, Mark helped me up and we spent some time collecting the proceeds. It was the most I had ever made from a single performance. Almost sixty quid! Of course, we split it fifty-fifty. Without him I’d have earned little more than bruises and egg stains!
It turned out that Mark had come along with the rowdy group, but had forsaken them, following a disagreement over tactics. Rather than egg throwing, he’d seen my performance as an excellent opportunity to engage in some agitprop street theatre. I wasn’t quite clear what he was on about, but I was certainly keen to repeat our act, preferably on a twice-daily basis.
Mark, however, would have none of this. “It was a ‘happening’,” he insisted. “A one-off. And anyway,” he added, “I’ve a job as an extra in a West End play.”
That was almost the end of the story, but not quite. While the two of us were talking and Mark was dressing himself, Bill, an older street performer I knew, approached us. He’d obviously been eavesdropping.
“If he can’t do it,” said Bill, gesturing towards Mark, “I’ll take over.”
Mark gazed at him, disbelievingly. “No offence, man,” he said, “but aren’t you the wrong colour?”
“Not a problem,” replied Bill. “I can black up.”