Mick would not have approved of this.
Before Mick died in December 2018, he made it clear that he wanted to slip away quietly, which is more or less what he did. He asked me to do a few things for him after he died – very modest things, such as take his remaining clothes to the charity shop and send a few emails to the handful of people he’d wanted to be informed about his exit – but when he talked about these tasks, he would always add, “But it doesn’t matter if you don’t do any of them.” Well, I wanted to do those things, and have done them, not that it was onerous in any way, but I have chosen to defy his wishes and to go beyond what he wanted, and this small tribute is part of that. Mick didn’t have a funeral so this is my little ceremony in his honour. And why not? He had an impact on my life.
The first time I ever saw Mick was when I went to a miners’ benefit during the 84/85 strike with a mate who was in a band, and Mick was also on the bill. I didn’t meet him that night, and was a bit perplexed by the ranty poetry he recited, but he stuck in my mind, partly due to his imposing physical presence. I met him for the first time in Leeds in 1990, when he was already well-established on the comedy circuit and I was just beginning: in fact, performing at a night Mick organised was my first-ever time on stage solo. Within a couple of years, I’d say Mick and I were close friends, though it’s hard to say exactly how that friendship formed: it can only really have been from bumping into one another on the northern comedy circuit.
I think there were two things in Mick’s life that he was most proud of, and would consider his life’s work, and these were his writings, and his Glasgow Zen group. As well as teaching creative writing, Mick wrote about ten novels and, as I’ve said elsewhere, most of them were better than some of the rubbish I’ve paid money for, so it’s a crying shame he was never published. His early work was, I would say, autobiographical and was strongly Zen-influenced whilst, in his later work, he “sublimated” his Zen philosophy so that, whilst it may have formed the foundations of his work, it wasn’t visible on the surface – like a true Zen master!
I never attended Mick’s Glasgow Zen group – because I lived 200 miles away. However, had I lived in Glasgow, I think he’d have banned me, for having the wrong attitude. This wasn’t authoritarianism on his part, but perceptiveness about me (I think he’d be right!) and a determination for the group not to be all the things he detested: New Age philosophy and its trappings, and showy religiosity: bells, incense and the like. He was absolutely determined that this Zen group should attract people from the working classes who were interested in exploring this type of spirituality, and when I say working classes, I really do mean people who lived on schemes or worked on building sites or as delivery drivers, not the middle-class approximation to working class.
One of my happiest memories with Mick is my visit to stay with him in Manresa, Catalunya, where he lived from 2011 to 2014. I didn’t think it would happen, but the planets aligned and it did. I remember the walk from getting off the bus in Plaça de Catalunya to where I met him at the Arc de Triomf, in Barcelona. We had a drink in a bar, and I felt very cosmopolitan, then we took the train to his place in Manresa.
We spent a brilliant four days together, wandering around Manresa, sometimes together, sometimes separately, as Mick went off to teach his English lessons. Mick had a good knowledge of this part of Spain, and I remember walking north out of the town and Mick showing me some “casas baratas” (“cheap houses”), Spain’s version of council houses, I think.
Mick returned from Catalunya to the UK in 2014 and this was a tricky time for him. He couldn’t claim any type of benefit for a certain amount of time and, at first, he struggled to find somewhere to live: in fact, for a while, he was living in Hathersage Youth Hostel. However, things looked up: one of Mick’s brothers gave him some money, and he found a flat that didn’t require a deposit. So, within a few months, Mick had established himself in Sheffield and had made a life for himself there. He quickly learnt the history of the various lanes and old buildings around him, got involved with Union Street, and even managed to produce and stage a play, which had four performances around Sheffield. Mick had lived in Sheffield before – maybe in the very late 70s – and obviously had a lot of affection for the place. Whilst living there, Mick gave English lessons to Chinese students, charging £8 an hour: I suggested he up the price to £15, which would still have been cheap, but he wasn’t having it. Mick was not easily influenced! Again, as I’ve said, it was great for me to drive down the M1 and visit Mick on a Friday night: some of my happiest memories, not just of Mick, but of anything.
I’ve used the word “spirituality” but I think that’s probably the wrong word for Mick’s philosophy. He totally rejected what most of us would consider as normal Buddhist concepts, such as karma and reincarnation. He thought such things were nonsense, to be dismissed out of hand. Mick spent many years meditating daily but, I think, stopped towards the end of his life because he didn’t really feel the need to meditate any more: he had (almost) perfected the art of being present.
Mick and I never lived in the same city and saw each other far less often than I would have liked. A result of this was that I talked to him in my head a lot. At times, he was like a wise guide when I was confused or troubled. A trivial example of this is when I went to visit him once and thought I’d got a ticket for driving in a bus lane (I hadn’t): I told him this was gnawing at me and he explained that it wasn’t the ticket I was worrying about, but a deeper anxiety caused by being at the mercy of a random universe. I found this comforting and I still call on his wisdom from time to time.
Leeds, Peckham, Glasgow, Stewarton (Ayrshire), Manresa (Catalunya), Sheffield: these were the places Mick lived during our friendship. Sheffield was the closest and his latter years were, for me and I think for Mick, a very happy time because it was the only period in which I could get down to see him for an evening. I used to go down on occasional Friday nights. I loved the drive down, and I loved the time we spent together – often just sitting at his dining table, sometimes taking a walk and even going in a pub. We also had a couple of days out walking in his beloved Derbyshire including down the poetically named Spitewinter Lane, to which I will return some day as a small act of pilgrimage. The same day, he encouraged me to take his photo – something he didn’t normally like – so that he could send a final message to the world, as you can see:
I loved Mick’s flat in Sheffield: I didn’t at first, because it wasn’t a place most 60-year old men would tolerate, but he made it his own, in his minimalist way: boxes of Shredded Wheat neatly lined up side-by-side in his small kitchen; a small Zen shrine on his mantlepiece. I regret not taking a photo of his living room – though Mick would probably have felt this to be an invasion of his privacy – but, a few weeks after he died, I visited the flat to help clear it (not that there was much: I inherited a stick and a travel clock) and took a photo of myself in his bathroom. Note the tiny water-heater, like something out of the 60s.
Mick’s gone, and that’s that. He doesn’t live on, except in the memories of people who knew him and/or loved him – and I’m delighted to have met some of those people, since he died. And, of course, to have been one of those people. Anyroad – I think I should give the last word to Mick himself, in the form of the closing line from his comedy set:
‘There’s an old saying in showbiz: “Always leave ’em laughing.” Well, nobody tells me what to do!’Eric Heretic, Mick’s erstwhile comedy persona.
Michael Peter Parkinson, 12.8.1957 – 10.12.2018