April 02, 2016

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: Life is a slow Harold

“Do you know life is a slow herald?” P. asks me.

“Like, with trumpets or something?”

“What? No, like, when you notice: ‘That’s strange, there’s been a lot of yellow objects today.’”

“I have literally no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Like… ‘Why does everyone keep referring to…guinea pigs today?’”

“You mean coincidence?”

“No. I mean life is a slow herald.”

I mime a trumpet.

“No!” says P. “Harold. Like, the name. Life is a slow Harold.”

*

First act: find the game, and play it

They discovered Bowerman in Sydney, in the Botanical Gardens. By his side were letters addressed to his sister and the city coroner, and two bottles: one labelled “Atropine” and the other “Prussic Acid.”

The police took him to Sydney Hospital, but he only lasted for a night. Bowerman’s letter to the coroner explained that he had taken enough prussic acid “to kill three men”, but it had had no effect on him; trying again on another occasion, with an even stronger concentration, he had still failed to end his life. So he had turned to atropine, and finally succeeded.

Frank Bowerman was sixty-seven years old. The year was 1894.

*

Steven is an artist, and owns his own gallery, but he worked as a roofer for twelve years. “It was hard work, but I’d always been athletic. I liked the physical aspect of it.”

He offers me a beer while he’s telling his story in the corner of his place in Brisbane’s West End. He’s middle-aged, handsome, calm and charismatic. A laid-back dude in a singlet with a deep tan and long, shaggy hair.

“My Aussie friends were all tattooed types, caught up in crime. I moved in to a house full of artsy Kiwi surfers. I’d come back from work, lock myself in my room and draw for hours: all the things I’d been picturing while I was up on the roof. I could mentally enter my landscapes, wander around, then choose a visual which I’d turn into art.”

Steven remembers those years fondly. He worked on the Gold Coast and took backpacking trips to Europe. He also did a stint as a tattooist: “My first ink was someone’s whole back, freehand. A friend came to me and said, ‘Have my back.’ But I’ve got a certain confidence with art. I know what I can do.”

The work is heady stuff. Strange beings walk through fungal fantasy landscapes. Three women in crimson silhouette pose in the alleyway of some alien city overrun with vines. A psychedelic prism hovers against cloudy skies, tiny figures writhing within its facets. There are castles, too, which Steven has constructed; little models out of fairy tale which look more grown than built. They’re scattered around the place among knick-knacks from his travels: a plastic Hallowe’en toy, Celtic images, a samovar.

He calls his gallery Visions of Lost Realities.

*

P. struggles to explain about improv and the Harold, so she invites me to an gig on April Fool’s Day. She even brings me some class reading: an improvisation manual called Truth in Comedy.

We sit for an hour before P.’s show, drinking coffee as she talks me through the Harold.

“It’s a structure for long-form improvisational theatre. There are many variants but the beginner’s Harold - the training wheels version - is this: you take a suggestion from the audience, then tell true stories inspired by that suggestion. Then you improvise three scenes which explore the possibilities in those experiences. They needn’t be related: you take what you’ve heard, find the game, and play it. Call the scenes A, B, and C. These three scenes are the first act.”

P. gestures as she talks, creating a diagram in the air. Three acts each with three scenes; “it’s the structure of a play.” She looks around. “I need an invisible whiteboard to illustrate this. You okay with an invisible whiteboard?”

Sure, I tell her.

“So after the first three scenes of the first act - 1A, 1B, and 1C - you have a game or something like a little palate cleanser.”

*

A storyteller, a schoolteacher by day, relates a true story, inspired by a word from the audience. “Banana’’ leads to plantains eaten on a trip to Bolivia, and later to her fraught relationship with her brother. “He was so mean to me as a kid,” she tells us. “The worst insult he ever used? He called me a total waste of skin.”

The troupe take that and work it into a series of skits, with incontinent children and deadpan teachers, alcoholic parents and generations of a family at odds, before concluding with a greetings card company struggling for inscriptions. Their final entry: “You're a good use of skin.’”

Second act: raise the stakes - expand the world

Frank Bowerman had worked for years as a Clerk of Petty Sessions on the Darling Downs in rural Queensland. The Australian Dictionary of Biography says that “in that town he was regarded as a clear-headed, efficient officer and kind-hearted, affable gentleman […] highly respected among all classes of the community.”

Bowerman’s one great ambition was to become a police magistrate, and to that end he would exchange letters with the Colonial Secretary’s Department in Brisbane. His correspondence was answered by the Under Colonial Secretary, one A.W. Manning, and gradually Bowerman came to believe that it was Manning, personally, who was frustrating his ambitions.

In November 1868, Bowerman went to Brisbane for an interview with Manning. It did not go well. After a stormy encounter, Bowerman went to Queen Street - which is still the city’s main shopping drag today - and purchased a tomahawk. He then returned to Manning’s office and attacked the Under Secretary.

Four months later, Bowerman was tried for the crime of wounding with intent to murder, and sentenced to penal servitude for life. Medical experts were brought in and asserted that Mr. Manning’s injuries were so severe as to have shortened his life, and the Queensland Parliament rushed a special measure - the Manning Retirement Bill - which would provide a pension at full salary and, after Manning’s death, would also allow a widow’s pension at half-salary for his wife.

*

“It all goes back to being a kid. I started drawing intensely when I was five years old,” Steven tells me. “We used to drive down to Southport and on the way past there was a house with a sign that said ‘Artist’ on the front. All I needed was that sign to know it was possible; I realised that’s what I wanted to be.”

Steven grew up in a house with no books. “My first book of my own was Life Before Men,” he tells me. “A non-fiction book about prehistoric times. I was eight years old. I paid for it by washing dishes. I loved evolution and geology.”

Young Steven drew relentlessly, capturing the strange vistas of his imagination. “Growing up in the country opened my eyes to these visionary places. The landscape and the light are so beautiful, it becomes almost surreal. You're already living in a heightened reality when you enter the bush.”

I ask him what attracted him to the wilds.

“My upbringing was pretty rough and tough,” he says matter-of-factly. “My father died at fifteen in a big fight with a neighbour, over a dog. My mum went evangelical after that. My sister was pregnant at sixteen. My brother ended up in Boggo Road jail. It’s taken time for us all to reconcile. I spent those last years of my teens pretty much growing up alone, looking to my grandmother for support. And the country was a kind of escape.”

Steven’s story is so surprising and dramatic that I need some research to back up the facts. When I get home, I google his father’s name and the town he grew up in and the word “murder” but there’s nothing. The Australian National Library runs a digitised newspaper service called Trove, currently under threat from budget cuts, but it doesn’t cover regional Queensland papers in the years of Steven’s youth.

I tell Steven this and he emails me: “I just spent half an hour looking for the article, couldn't find. Unusual! I’ve found it many times.”

My notes from Steven’s interview sit for a week or so while I do other work. Eventually he visits the State Library himself, and begins digging into the microfilm archive.

*

“They didn’t even mean to call it a Harold,” P. tells me. “Back in ’67, a San Francisco improv group performed the first one ever. It was a long-form improvised show about the war in Vietnam. On the way home, they were talking about what to call it and someone yelled out ‘Harold’. Later they said they wished they’d come up with a better name.”

“So this is what happens next: after the three scenes of the first act, and the palate-cleansing game, the performers return to those original scenes for the second act. Now it’s 2A, 2B, 2C. You take things further. You could pick up right where you left off, or jump fifty years into the future, or the past. You start to see connections: maybe characters visiting the same location, or encountering the same problems, or things that happen in one set of scenes begin affecting the others.”

“There’s one more palate-cleanser, then in the third act you start to tie it all together. It’s all about listening for the patterns that naturally occur. The connections are always there: you don’t create them, you find them. They run through our work and through our lives. Life is a slow Harold.”

A second storyteller comes on, a stand-up comedian from an Indian family who arrived in Brisbane via New Zealand. He tells of being sent to an English-style private school in NZ. One day he went out to the sports field for afternoon games and was told to remove his jogging bottoms. He hadn’t brought shorts to go under the tracksuit and, he tells the crowd, “for some reason I’d worn my dad’s underpants to school that day: these huge, brown, 1970s Indian Y-fronts. I was humiliated but it was my brother who turned the tables on the staff. He wrote letters and petitions, declared it was a contravention of a UN charter on human rights, forced an apology from the teacher who made me do it. He’s now a lawyer; but I was his first case.”

Third act: connections and callbacks

Bowerman’s victim, the Under Secretary Manning, ended up outliving his attacker. At the time of Bowerman’s suicide, Manning was in his twenty-fifth year of retirement on full salary, living in Sydney in the best of health.

Bowerman spent twelve years in jail while his wife and friends from the Darling Downs campaigned for mitigation of his sentence. In 1874, Manning had refused a request by Mrs Bowerman to sign the petition for clemency: he told her that he still feared for his life if her husband were released.

Finally in 1881, Bowerman was freed from the prison at St. Helena, thanks in large part to his wife’s tireless efforts. The telegram announcing this news went to Mrs Bowerman but she was already on her deathbed. She wrote messages for her husband, but on the day of his release, she breathed her last.

Steven gives a wry laugh when he tells me the story of his ancestor Frank Bowerman. “Not all of them were like that,” he says. “Frank’s dad was Henry Boucher Bowerman, an artist. He sketched the countryside all around Moreton Bay. Let me show you something.”

Steven takes me to one of his dreamy alien landscapes and points to the greenery nestled in one corner. There are strange, spiderish plants there, with long crooked leaves. “See these? Henry Bowerman sketched the exact same plants. In all my studies of art history, I’ve never found anyone who draws plants like these. They’re ours. His and mine.”

He points to a dragon, which I hadn’t noticed before, up high on the wall between two of the model houses he’s built. “I always used to paint and draw dragons, too. When I was twenty-six, I went to Glasgow. I had a Scottish family connection through my mother’s mother and it took me to Loch Lomond. We’re related to the Richardson Clan and I began to explore their heraldry. The shield had three dragons on it. It was like the link was already there.”

“I’m always reading, always researching. Looking for new connections. I’m really into Grail mythology at the moment. Do you know anything about it?”

I shake my head. Disney’s The Sword in The Stone is about my limit.

“Romancing the Grail: it’s when you set off on a knightly quest for the Grail itself. But the thing about the Grail is, it transcends time. You can see it in the past and future. And for a true knight, achieving the Grail means both foresight and insight. I'm interested in landscapes that come before. Precolonial. And even pre-human. Time is segmented, forward and back. It's about perceiving what the future can be, too.”

I ask Steven about the name of his gallery: Visions of Lost Realities.

“My artworks are…” He hunts for the words. “…phantasmagoric visions. They create the story of my reality. Why do I say lost realities? I thought of them as lost because people didn't see what I was trying to say.”

When Steven told me about his tough upbringing, I’d struggled to find reports in the newspapers or the archives. After he took his own trip to the State Library, I received these clippings in an email:



Visions of Lost Realities will close at the end of this month. Developers are converting the building, which also hosts the Boundary Street Markets, into high-end luxury flats. Big Fork Theatre, P..’s comedy group, hold their last improv show at Visions on April Fool’s Day. The audience pack out the room on the second floor of a former ice cream factory, hidden up a staircase of peeling beige vinyl with old concert flyers and graffiti written in Sharpie: Love is all…apparently.

It’s standing room only in the gallery. We’re pressed shoulder to shoulder and people at the edges of the room have to be careful not to knock over any of Steven’s artworks. The Friday night crowd is loud and keen; there are friends of the comedy troupe on the front row, whooping it up and laughing heartily at every joke, but they’re not needed. The audience tonight are boozy and game for any entertainment.

At the end of the show, two of the troupe announce the new venue and thank Steven for hosting them. “We want to say thank you. We’re moving to a new place in Paddington but you’ve been a great host and a great man.” The crowd cheer Steven, and boo the new owners of the building.

Over a drink, Steven Bowerman tells me: “This room, this very room, has always been a place of culture. Even when the building was a factory, this was the workers’ canteen. The place they came together to eat and to meet and to celebrate. I talked to the developers and they listened to my ideas for this space. It’s always been a place of culture and I hope they’ll remember that.”

Steven’s visions are going to leave the city and migrate west to a new venue for artists on the Darling Downs. He’s writing a book which will tell the full story of the life he’s led, including the tales that were too scandalous or precious to share when we met.

The future is uncertain but somehow it’s all going to join up. When you look Steven in the eye, you believe it, whether or not you believe in Grail quests and lost realities. In the end, there’s a strange kind of sense to it all.

Life is just a slow Harold.

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