Tributes to…‘that man who was always walking backwards’
Michael Dickinson suffered from retropulsion
24 July, 2020 — By Tom Foot
Michael Dickinson was an actor, writer and campaigner
MICHAEL Dickinson had little choice but to get used to people whipping out their mobile phone cameras when they saw him the street.
They would film him as he walked backwards along the pavement with his head half-cocked over his shoulder.
He insisted it was not acting but a “bewildering” psychological condition called “retropulsion” that made him do it.
It meant he was known by many simply as “that man who walks backwards” and – inevitably – led to him becoming a brief internet pull as people shared their footage on YouTube.
But Mr Dickinson, who died earlier this month aged 70 from peritonitis, was known by friends as a political writer, talented actor and celebrated artist who once became embroiled in an international censorship row with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
During his life, he lived in a tent on the Heath, a cardboard box behind Camden Town Sainsbury’s and squatted many buildings including Hampstead Police Station.
Léonie Scott-Matthews, who has run the Pentameter’s Theatre in Hampstead for more than 50 years, described him as a “dearest friend with a wonderful eccentricity”, recalling how they worked together on several of his plays going back to the 1970s.
Ms Scott-Matthews, BEM, said: “We loved him here and he was hugely talented, a wonderful actor. The last thing he was working on was a play of his about Keats – I was on the phone to him most days about it. When he came to the theatre, he would say he felt a spirit here. He would become overtaken by it. He used to half-faint on the stairwell from it all.”
She added: “I remember when he started walking backwards. He was in a play here; he got off the stage and just started walking backwards. It was just after he had got back from Turkey.”
Born in Yorkshire, Mr Dickinson had lived all over Camden Town in the 1970s and 80s before moving to Istanbul. He was deported back to Britain in 2013 after being arrested for exhibiting a collage portraying President Erdogan as a dog collecting a rosette from George Bush.
At his appeal hearing, he arrived holding a similar collage work with Erdogan’s face on a dog’s body. During the dispute the co-founder of the Stuckist group of artists Charles Thomson wrote to prime minister Tony Blair demanding the “strongest condemnation of this prosecution”. “
The story got international media attention because they were trying to get into the EU at that time,” Mr Thomson told the New Journal. “I think without it he would have got a stiff jail sentence.”
He added: “He was walking backwards when I last saw him. It was clearly symbolic I felt. He enjoyed being in Turkey and he couldn’t go back.”
Mr Thomson described Mr Dickinson’s art as “exquisitely wrought political collages”, adding: “Stuckism is for individuals who feel marginalised and not prepared to kow-tow to the establishment. They are not afraid to be themselves, and often they pay the price for that.”
Mr Dickinson, right, with friend Charles Thomson
Mr Dickinson wrote dozens of articles, mainly published on the Counterpunch website.
In an interview with the New Journal in 2017, Mr Dickinson said: “I am not acting. If it wasn’t for the retropulsion, I would much prefer to be walking forwards.”
Kay Bayliss, one of his oldest friends, confirmed his death on July 2 in his bedsit in Highgate, in a post on his Facebook page.
It said: “Post mortem said he died from peritonitis resulting from a gut obstruction. He had emailed me around Christmas saying he was having phlegm problems that persisted. He was still suffering this when he emailed me on April 11 and now had serious sounding gut problems.”
She added: “Michael had a very interesting life. At school all the girls loved him. He was so good looking and very complimentary even in more recent times. I have really enjoyed reading some of his essays that he had published about his life.”
Ms Scott-Matthews said the Pentameters would organise “an evening celebrating the life and work of Michael Dickinson, as soon as we are able”.