Friday, 5 June 2015

Mike White

Mike White died yesterday. 

Mike had cancer and talked very openly about his experiences and treatment over this last year, and until the last few weeks, had kept a blog which shared some of his reflections and the gritty realities of living with cancer. If you haven’t read it, it’s compelling stuff and can be found by clicking on the lantern procession below.

I first met Mike when I worked for the NHS in Public Mental Health and was looking for ways to strategically embed the arts in my work across North Lancashire and Cumbria. I’d heard about him on the grapevine and was thrilled when he agreed to be part of a steering group up that I sat on, that was planning an arts and health conference in Carlise in 2001. It seemed we were very different creatures, me all nervy and on the brink of histrionics and Mike - well - consistently calm, considered and so, so gentle. The conference was sold out and he was a great hit. Having been closely involved in the recent planning and completion of the Angel of the North in Gateshead, Mike had a certain mainstream arts cachet too!

Our second meeting was over in Dublin in 2004 shortly after I’d left the South West, where I’d been developing Arts for Health Cornwall, and was about to take up my position at MMU. This time, we met quietly and had time to discuss the growing international movement that we were part of and the characters that peppered it - some born of vision and committed to social change - and those shadowy figures, pursuing the market-driven dark-arts! He was candid and we enjoyed long conversations - his vast experience helping me navigate the fraught new arena that I was entering.

We met regularly and informally many times over the intervening years, but rather bizarrely, it was our time spent in Australia as the guest of Margret Meagher, that cemented our friendship. In 2009 her first International Arts and Health Conference, some 10,500 miles away from the northern climbs of England, brought Mike and I together in a way that we’d repeat almost annually up until last November. I have so many grand memories of his complete professionalism (what an ambassador for this field!) and his mischievousness - and his wonderful and always appropriate use of expletives! Walking back to hotels from conference venues in the heat of day and the dead of night, became a regular thing for us.

As members of the National Alliance for Arts and Health we did meet on UK soil, but it was the intimacy of time in Australia and his regular Critical Mass events that really got us thinking and acting as a wider community of interest. Mike regularly brought people together and effortlessly facilitated conversations on small and large scales and his Critical Mass events brought people around the globe together to actively peruse inquiries and develop practice. From these extended conversations sprang global friendships and some serious collaborative work.

Only last year and in the middle of his cancer treatment, did Mike come over to MMU to give us a suitably mischievous - but completely serious presentation - which he called - Randomised Thoughts, Controlled Ramblings and a few Trialised Thoughts! Exhausted from his cross-Pennine foray to the Manchester School of Art, Mike blew us away and opened his presentation with a booming youtube film of Psycho Killer by the Talking Heads, conjoining his early work by way of Welfare State International to the possibilities of generating new traditions - and sharing a wonderful anecdote about meeting the woman he would marry - and her slightly tipsy rendition of Psycho Killer to a nightclub full of people. Mike couldn’t half tell a quirky story.

Imploring us to share something of the spiritus mundi, Mike framed much of his presentation in David Byrne’s ‘slow dawning insight about creation,’ that 'context is everything.' Urging us to consider Bevan’s collective commitment to social habits and offering the best we can give to society, he subverted the context of health and safety from authoritative and risk-averse control, to caring for each other. His own work illustrated perfectly how investing in children and young people reaps dividends in generational change, not least in creating young researchers who inform new ways of thinking, being and doing.

Author of the seminal work in arts and community health “...A Social Tonic’, Mike remained committed to the principles of the Welfare State and a believer that creativity, culture and the arts were central to flourishing communities. His generosity imbued all he did with warmth, typified in those celebratory and conversational events he so often hosted.

Outside our community of arts/health, I often describe the positive working relationships that emerge from shared beliefs and vision, and how once a full moon, these spill over into real and deeper friendships. I’m proud to have had Mike’s friendship and wonder who I will look up to now? Always following in his footsteps, I will remember him as a man of superb intelligence - a knowledge born of experience - hysterically funny, warm and with the deepest integrity. A record-collector extraordinaire, a family man and a free-thinker. We will carry forward your ideas, but will miss your presence Mike White.

Post Script
We all have a gnawing anxiety about the eternity that stretches in front of us, and to a lesser extent, that which preceded our conception. I suppose that’s where religion offers some people comfort. For me it’s comforting to know that a billion, billion lives have lived and loved and thought and breathed-in all that is before (this here and now), and infinite moments will happen for unquantifiable lives to come. I wonder if we can take comfort in the earth and the sky and this simple privilege of our temporary existence? 

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