When my brother Roly gave up his Anglican parish ministry at the age of 31 to become a clown, nobody could have guessed that his untimely obituary would run at length in every national newspaper.But such was the impact his unique clown-priest ministry was to have.
It was at St Paul’s that a 15-year-old Roly had the defining experience of his life, when a football tour was cancelled and he decided to accompany his triplet brother Toby to a Christian Union house party instead. It was, he recalled in his book ‘Playing the Fool’, ‘both fun and holy and thus profound’.
The same could be said for his ministry, which he saw as in a tradition dating back to the medieval feast of fools. Roly used the props, language and trained showmanship of clowning in the service of a Christian message, travelling 30,000 miles a year and reaching as far as the US and Australia.
He was hosted by churches of many denominations, and also by schools, hospitals, and prisons across the UK, touching people whom churches could not reach. He revelled in debunking stuffed-shirt religion, claiming that he had “custard-pied ten bishops – and most were grateful”.
After studying theology at Bristol University and Cuddesdon, Roly was succentor at Southwark Cathedral where in 1984 he married Jane (they separated in 2008). He had been vicar at Tooting for six years when he took the momentous decision to train as a clown in Bristol, where he helped to found Holy Fools, a group of like-minded performers.
Roly latterly took over many duties in his parish of Olveston, where for 10 years until 2015 he tirelessly visited our mother in a local care home. His triplet sister Jennie died in 2012. He is survived by sons Jack and Sam, and Old Pauline brothers Toby, Simon and half-brother Ben. A memorial service was held at Southwark Cathedral on All Fools Day, April 1.
I met Robert on our first day in Miss McLaren’s form. 1A was on the ground floor of the old Victorian Colet Court in Hammersmith. We were in the same class for the next ten years until he left for Trinity College, Cambridge, with a history scholarship.
Robert’s early years showed great promise. He had a fabulous memory, was a ferocious conversationalist, an avid debater (President of the Chesterton Literary and Debating Society) and a trenchant writer. In our younger days we shared an enthusiasm for tri-tactics, a wonderful board game putting the player’s memory and tactics across land, sea and air to the test in an endless replay of World War I. As we grew older we both became fascinated by history and current affairs but Robert’s knowledge of the inter-war years and his soft socialism and concern about fascism were something else. His prodigious memory displayed to me most recently just before he died when he reeled off the 50 states of America in alphabetical order.
At Cambridge his journalistic and political enthusiasm brought him friendships with Oliver Letwin and Charles Moore, both of course destined for fame. If mental illness had not intervened I have no doubt that Robert, too, would have had a distinguished career as a journalist, lawyer, campaigner and possibly an MP.
At Cambridge he had started down that path at the Union and as editor of the Fabian Magazine. But, sadly, in his last year at university things began to unravel. Without any experience of mental illness it was hard for his friends to understand the gently increasing anxiety, irrationality, lack of social awareness and, later on, paranoid delusions. Schizophrenia had invaded him, as I now understand it so often does to people in their early twenties with the susceptibility and the circumstances. Robert managed it well for several years and was called to the Bar, but practising never became possible. For ten more years Robert wrote interesting and punchy articles for the New Statesman, Spectator and other quality papers, especially obituaries for the Times.
In the same period he began a PhD, supervised by Zara Steiner, looking at voting patterns and British Zionism and Fascism in the ‘30s. He was also an active member of the Hammersmith and Fulham Labour Party and put himself forward as a Parliamentary candidate.
But for the last half of his life focussed work was not a possibility and, hugely sadly, his friends watched as he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act seventeen times. Robert was the most gentle and peaceable man but when he asserted his freedom by refusing to take his medicine, he would end up attracting attention. Happily, with the support of a fantastic social worker, his last four years were calmer and he was never again sectioned.
For most of the time he lived quietly as a well-known figure in a neighbourhood just off The North End Road – a few hundred yards from where we had started at Colet Court long before. Just after he died I met a woman who lived in the same neighbourhood. She said with great warmth and affection that she had chatted to him many times as he held court to passers-by, sitting cross-legged and chain-smoking on the front steps of his house, characteristically without socks and shoes or even a jumper or jacket in mid-winter, often with an immaculately groomed local Siamese cat on his lap, in contrast to his own careless déshabillé.
A true individual, sometimes exasperating, Robert remained an important feature of my life – and that of other Old Paulines, Tom Hayhoe, John Reizenstein and Rebecca Fitzgerald – till the end. We all kept in touch by phone – Robert eschewed email and the internet – and regularly celebrated his birthday, 23 April, which he proudly shared with Shakespeare and St. George. He will be missed and should be remembered for his enthusiasms, energy and courage.