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Being Human

Sue Gaisford

Filed under: Biography

An interview with the RSL’s new Director, Tim Robertson

The Northern Line is never fun. If you escape, at King’s Cross, from its enforced and foetid intimacy only to find yourself scaling the steep north wall of a defunct escalator, pressed on all sides to climb ever faster – well, frankly, you feel lucky even to survive. Imagine, then, how lovely it is to walk a few level yards along the street before taking a properly working lift, up to the very top floor of a block of sensible red-brick flats, and emerging on to a narrow, open, sky-high corridor, whose view of the London horizon extends from the Shard to the St Pancras clock. Acrophobia? You’d welcome it.

This is where Tim Robertson lives. He is sympathetic to the horrors of the Underground, but unused to them, as he prefers cycling. And it shows. Lean, tall, and energetic in appearance, with a tidily trimmed beard that’s a long way from a Corbyn, he is welcoming and genial. And, most happily, he makes a strong, restorative cup of coffee.

On the walls of his sitting-room, besides innumerable books, CDs and DVDs, are some remarkable pictures. One seems at first sight to be a piece of framed graffiti. Looking more closely, there are several sketches of a smiling blonde woman. In one, she is surrounded by hearts, while a disembodied arm reaches out across the page – but the words read, ‘Too drunk to care about you.’

Another – his favourite – again takes some concentration, but proves to show two halves of a monster, on an angry red and black background. But, as Tim points out, over the whole thing hovers a little sketchy drawing of a benign angel.

These were both produced by serving prisoners. Tim remembers those artists, and speaks fondly of them. The pictures come from his time spent as chief executive of the Koestler Trust, the UK’s best-known prison arts charity: it is a period of which he should be proud. Under his direction, it has grown from a small organisation, exhibiting prisoners’ art in church halls, into a serious contender in the arts world. By getting Grayson Perry to curate it, in 2007 he put on a major exhibition at the ICA, since when it has moved to the South Bank Centre under the guidance of ‘the brilliant’ Jude Kelly. A major triumph was the inclusion, by Jeremy Deller, of a couple of the prisoners’ pictures in the Venice Biennale.

At these exhibitions, the offenders themselves are trained to help with greeting and welcoming visitors, which often leads them into careers in the world of hospitality. Tim loves the fact that he can sometimes go to the theatre and be shown to his seat by a Koestler graduate. He also introduced a mentoring scheme, so that established artists can take on released offenders and help them develop their skills.
Tim left the trust last spring. Though it clearly remains important to him, ‘nine years was enough to be talking about prison arts. I really needed something else to talk about.’ Looking further back on his career, his first love was literature, which he studied at university in London and in America. An irresistible urge to do something useful had led him initially to take up social work – and again he is full of stories about those days, when he worked for Camden Council in child protection, having to make, he says, ‘some of the hardest decisions in the world’.  He also helped set up some magnificent Sure Start programmes, with the help of generous funding from the New Labour government.

But even then, he knew that the arts, all the arts, were vital. One of the people he most admires was the chairman of Koestler, Sir Joseph Pilling, who once said to him, ‘If they could prove that the arts had made not one jot of difference to re-offending rates, it wouldn’t matter. Art is an essential part of being human, being civilised.’

And now he is returning to literature, a world he had never really left.  He smiles to remember that, when he applied for this new post, he chose to send in not only a conventional CV, but also a literary one: ‘I think that’s what clinched it.’ He’s probably right: it is a remarkable document. Despite his hectic day-jobs, Tim proves to have written and published poetry, attended Arvon courses, worked on the editorial board of Magma and founded, judged, chaired and joined innumerable literary groups. He is formidably well read and, you might say, bang up to speed.

Tim’s father was an officer in the Royal Engineers; his mother a gold medal-winning nurse, from the West Country. When Major Robertson left the army, they applied jointly for jobs at Rishworth School, near Halifax – he as a physics teacher, she as Matron. There Tim and his older brother enjoyed a happy and nurturing childhood. Tim, the only straight-A student of his year, says now that he owed much of his academic success to Jennifer Barraclough, an erstwhile teacher whom he used to visit every Saturday in Manchester, by bus, just to talk books and poetry. He had seen Jennifer only the day before our interview and was eager to pay tribute to her lasting influence. (Isn’t there always a great English teacher behind all the best people?)

When we met, he had been in post for barely a month. He was sensibly concerned not to be seen as hasty in his plans for the RSL, but to let it tick over while he consults the Fellows, and talks to Jenny Uglow about where progress needs to be made. Increasing the membership will certainly be involved, and fundraising – but, as a former Koestler colleague said of him, ‘His enthusiasm and commitment are so strong that people can scarcely resist giving money to him.’ He is interested in making use of the Society’s royal charter and he is ultimately working towards the bicentenary in 2020, when, he hopes, ‘it might be that we can have some fun’.

Tim shares his home and his life with Neil Jarvis, who works in the office of the Clerk of the House of Commons. Private lives should be just that, but in Tim’s case, the fact that he is gay, and the fact that he wants to be married to Neil are both public and also the first things he wants to talk about. ‘Be careful where you sit,’ he’d warned me, ‘Neil has taken up sewing, and he tends to leave pins all over the place – and look, there’s his knitting! And he loves baking! I tell you, he is a domestic god.’

They enjoy hill walking together in the Lakes, where they have a cottage, and have recently discovered gardening. They have been together since 1997, celebrated their relationship in 2004 with a church blessing and a big party, and entered a civil partnership soon afterwards. They hope to convert that into a marriage, but ‘we haven’t yet got round to doing the paperwork’.

As it transpires, his sexuality and his religion point to important aspects of Tim’s character. To call him a champion of gay rights is like saying that Alexander the Great occasionally toyed with the possibility of moving house.  At every opportunity he has worked towards offering succour and support to gay people in trouble, while Justin Welby’s opposition to the idea of gay marriage was, he says, the last straw that led him to leave the Church of England.

That was an unusually enormous step. For 45 years (he is now 49) he had participated fully in the Anglican church. At school he was Chapel Prefect; he has been a churchwarden and taken part in committees and synods, campaigning for women priests and so on. But he gave it all up a couple of years ago, and, perhaps surprisingly, he has absolutely no regrets.  Following Neil’s lead, he has become a Quaker, and he loves it. He loves the fact that there are no rules, save that you are required to re-think what you really believe. And it has changed him: ‘I used to think, for example, that there was such a thing as a just war.  I no longer do.’ And he adds, quietly, ‘It’s a mindset. It’s about seeing the light in people – and doing what love requires of you.’

In March 2015, Tim gave a valedictory lecture at HMP Shotts, using three texts, which he describes as criminological, political and spiritual. They were The Tale of Peter Rabbit; Richard the Lionheart’s theme from Korngold’s score for the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood (Political? ‘It’s all about the Anschluss’); and Hart Crane’s poem C33. C33 was the number of Oscar Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol.

Nipping into his bathroom just before leaving I saw a poster for the Robin Hood film, and I really wished I’d attended that lecture. The RSL will be safe in these capable hands.

Sue Gaisford is the former literary editor of the ‘Tablet’.