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Preview: Bobby Baker’s Mad Gyms & Kitchens

SHE’S a force of nature, Bobby Baker. Enter her for the Olympics, I say.

Bobby Baker and relatives pictured in 1904
Bobby Baker and relatives pictured in 1904

SHE’S a force of nature, Bobby Baker. Enter her for the Olympics, I say. How could she not get a gold medal with five legs?

It turns out, as I find during a brief but hectic chat in a Newcastle cafe, that there’s a precedent in her family for presenting a quirky face to the world.

She pulls out a wonderful photograph of her grandfather, George Taylor, and all his brothers and sisters sitting outside St Michael’s Church, Byker, in about 1904.

As you see, there were eight of them but they only needed one chair.

It’s a happy, funny photo, speaking of good times on Tyneside in the early years of the 20th Century. Bobby’s great-grandfather, the children’s father, was vicar of St Michael’s.

Her grandfather, the second eldest and seated second from the left, was a brilliant mathematician who won scholarships to Newcastle Royal Grammar School and then Cambridge University, where he became a rowing blue.

After graduating he returned to Newcastle where he had to work to help fund his siblings’ education. Taking the best paid work available, he became a ballistics engineer at Armstrong Whitworth.

A peaceable man, he paid the price for his diligence.

“He suffered what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder at the end of the war due to the consequences of his work,” says Bobby.

“My opinion is that periods of intense mental distress, like his, that are not acknowledged as valid by society and treated accordingly, can leak down through subsequent generations as sadness, depression and so on.”

So often sadness does lurk beneath the surface of a family photo, especially one of that vintage.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for the graves of 294 British soldiers called R Taylor killed during the First World War and among them is that of George’s brother Ronald (second from the right in the photo), killed on the Somme aged 20. As an armaments worker, George’s grief was perhaps tinged with guilt.

The family broke up and moved out of the North East. Bobby was brought up in Kent and went to art college in London. She studied painting but dropped it when she discovered performance art in the 1970s. “When the kids were old enough, I started making work.”

Today she is renowned for a career that spans four decades, during which – and here I quote from her media release – she has “danced with meringue ladies, made a life-sized edible version of her family and driven around the streets of London strapped to the back of a truck screaming at passers-by, ‘Pull yourselves together’.”

For that last service alone, you might agree, she is worthy of Arts Council support. In fact, her disability-led arts organisation Daily Life Ltd recently joined Arts Council England’s new National Portfolio in recognition of its good work.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. The show with which Bobby is returning to the North East this week is called Bobby Baker’s Mad Gyms & Kitchens and it was developed from her experience of depression and her fight back to bubbly good health.

Reflecting on her period of illness, from 1997 to 2008, she says it makes sense now. There were things she’d never dealt with properly, such as the death of her father who drowned on a family holiday when she was young.

And having developed breast cancer while also suffering depression, she reckons her physical illness masked her mental condition.

During her treatment for depression she started drawing. She did hundreds of drawings, in fact, producing an exhibition called Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me that has toured Europe and a related book voted Mind Book of the Year, 2011.

It has to be said that, despite all her past troubles, Bobby Baker exudes happiness.

Of the new venture she says: “It’s a funny show about how I became so incredibly good at being well. I’m sharing with people my tips for wellness. I’ve got hundreds of brilliant tips.”

No way would you dispute it.

Bobby Baker’s Mad Gyms & Kitchens, commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad, is being brought to the North East by Daily Life Ltd and Wunderbar, the North East producer of audience participation art events.

See it at Star & Shadow, Newcastle, tomorrow (12noon and 6pm), Lamplight Arts Centre, Stanley, on Wednesday (1.30pm), Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens on Friday (2pm) and Stannington Village Hall (3pm) on Saturday.

Box office: www.wunderbarfestival.co.uk or 0191 261 6326.

It’s a funny show about how I became so incredibly good at being well. I’m sharing with people my tips for wellness

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