Robin Thomson, 66, is a marvellous gentleman – he’s also a sculptor and a school technician. I met Robin on the plane to Morocco in 1985. He re-appeared at the performance of Dance Me To Death in Kensal Green Cemetery. Here he kindly answers AofA’s questions in a fulsome way.
What is your age?
66 last time I counted
Where do you live?
Raynes Park, West Wimbledon
What do you do?
I’m a Sculptor and School Technician in Design Technology
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
Very cool. I’m in good health and financially secure, I have many lovely and loyal friends, a close-knit band of siblings and a clear conscience. I feel lucky to be in good health – lucky firstly in the lottery of genes, and grateful to have been brought up with a positive attitude to health. My parents were vegetarian and didn’t taste meat until age 16. Except for a spell (18 – 30) when I sampled everything from black pudding to ostrich, I’ve stuck to a vegetarian diet, though since my mid 50’s I’ve included fish and seafood. I’ve always been active – my workshop has been my gymnasium, and gardening and walking have kept me fit.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
My own home, a job that I LOVE, happy memories and brilliant experiences enough to fuel reminiscences for years to come, a more complete understanding and outlook on life, and a collection of obsolete technology.
What about sex?
It’s a wonderful thing but, for me, it seems to have been a complication to relationships that I am happy I no longer need to worry about.
Intense relationships never seem to work for me long term. I was married for three years after living with a girlfriend for six. We divorced in 2000. We have no kids but we keep in touch and care for each other. I had one partner since then, 15 years younger than me. We were together for 3 years.
I have many lovely friends, stimulating, fascinating and supportive, and I make new ones from time to time. A few are very special to me and I know it’s a mutual feeling. My close friends range in age from 10 years senior to 47 years junior.
How free do you feel?
With no dependents or partner, no “ties”, I’m used to immense freedom about what I do and when. But I’m inclined to get sucked into projects, and sometimes feel enslaved by them. Usually, it’s a cathartic experience and no less rewarding for that. These can be of my own making – like the total refurbishment of my own bathroom I took on a few years ago or starting a sculpture work in my studio that started small but has grown both in scale and time input to become a magnum opus. They can also be work-related, like my commitment to a Summer School this year – there was only a week’s paid work but the planning and preparation dominated four weeks of my Summer break. Did I mention that I LOVE my job? If I didn’t have that I’d feel free to up sticks and leave the mothership that is London, though I wouldn’t want to be too far from friends and family.
What are you proud of?
My work; my achievements in the pursuit of excellence!
Apart from some exceptional bespoke furniture that I produced as a designer/maker between 1985 and 2002, I’m proud of my contributions to Education in my second career, maybe I’m more proud there because the benefits to the next generation will outlive me and anything physical I’ve produced.
Working in an Inner London Secondary school since 2011, I’ve enjoyed the interplay of support and inspiration I’ve shared with students aged 11-18. One annual seasonal highlight has been a Drama production, usually a musical. On my part the input was both technical and artistic, designing set and making props and scenery. I know that my designs and products took productions to another level from the audience perspective, but I always felt I was putting my best efforts into supporting the latent talent of the young performers, giving them a professional setting to match their aspirations.
I also designed and planned the construction of a ‘model’ Saturn Five rocket for a Science day. The finished article was 30’ long, 1-metre diameter and hung in an atrium space until Xmas, when it acquired Santa as a jockey, wearing a mask with an uncanny resemblance to our Headteacher.
What keeps you inspired?
The expressions of joy that come naturally to the young; they shriek, sing, dance and, often literally, embrace and celebrate racial, gender and so many other differences (replacing the exclusion, sexism, division and bigotry that seemed the norm in my youth).
The expressions of surprise on the faces of students seeing the results of some practical skill or technique I have taught them.
Seeing young people gaining confidence and strength, through their formative years.
Meeting former students now “comfortable in their own skin” and succeeding in the wider world.
When are you happiest?
Sensory phenomenon bring delight of course; music, dance, art, the natural world all bring pleasure, but I’m happiest in a creative mode. I’m in a “comfort zone” when working on something, refining a surface or a form, or arranging parts in a pleasing composition. When something I’ve worked on succeeds, that’s when it becomes happiness; getting feedback in the form of acknowledgement or praise, or seeing the delight and wonder it might bring someone else.
And where does your creativity go?
In my day job, I have lots of opportunities for creativity, from arranging a spreadsheet so that it’s easy to read and identify key data, to creating displays, props or scenery. Sometimes, without being asked, I’ve produced a display item destined to be seen by the whole school.
In the run-up to Halloween one year, I led students in assembling together a few redundant dome tents to make a sphere. We then taped big bags together and stuffed them full of crumpled newspaper to make huge sausages that were draped top to bottom, and tied around the tent-dome. I then stitched fabrics – anything orange or tan in colour – together, to clothe the whole thing, which was then hoisted high into the atrium.
It was at this point that the Headteacher in passing said “Robin, would you mind telling me what this is supposed to be – just in case anyone asks?”
When I had added a gaping gap-toothed grin and sunken eyes, illuminated from within, it became obvious it was a giant pumpkin-head – well most people got it after they were told what they were looking at!
What’s your philosophy of living?
A fellow gardener once said his philosophy was “Leave your little patch in better heart than you found it” I can’t top that.
My dad died when I was a wilful and rebellious teenager. He and I had been going through a difficult patch – perhaps the tension was heightened for him as he had suffered a “warning” heart attack. So, I was stunned when he died during surgery. I’m sure that, today, a 16-year-old would be offered bereavement counselling. As it was, a couple of years passed before I grieved his passing. I think I have had an enhanced sense of mortality as a consequence, often contemplating the natural cycle of life and death, ruminating on how I would be affected by the deaths of others, and I think this helped prepare me for my mum’s death in 2010. As to my own demise… I’m not expecting an “awfully big adventure” – I think that when we’re gone, we’re gone, but my main concern will be for others to know that I was happy with my time on Earth.
Are you still dreaming?
I love this question – it should be song lyric! If you’re asking about the unconscious at play while we sleep – yes, I love my dreams and their constant ability to surprise me!
If you’re asking about ambitions – I suppose I would like to see myself playing some role in the transformation that has to happen if life on Earth is to be anything more than a blip in geological time.
I think my role may be in encouraging urban young (and old) to make an emotional connection with the natural world. The joy that that could deliver might compensate for the hardship that I think must be entailed in letting go of fossil fuels, of failure to process waste in a circular economy, of casual materialism. Maybe my dream is now that we stop dreaming and wake up!
What was a recent outrageous action of yours?
The assumption that I must have done something outrageous recently – how very dare you?!
I’ve shared my surprise at this question with a few friends and colleagues. Their response has been more along the lines of “Which to choose??”
Would it be the giant cardboard bicycle decorated with colourful butterflies, caterpillars, flowers and seeds, now hanging in the atrium at The Elmgreen School?
– or could it be that incident when the Punk Rock Goblin invaded the stage at the end of the school production of “We Will Rock You!” snatched the tribute bouquet from the Headteacher and threw it into the audience?
– or was it the theft of whole branches full of ripe cherries that somehow fell from a neighbour’s tree into the yard at Parade Mews Art Studios and was shared by fellow artists and potters last Summer?
– or would it be the mysterious arson attack on the isolationist allotment neighbours’ fence? Oh, strike that last one, it hasn’t happened yet!