Sunday, 29 January 2017

Meet the man behind London's Clown Museum

I visited London's Clown Gallery and wrote a feature about it for Londonist. The museum itself was interesting enough, but the man who runs it is a fascination in himself.

As the traditional church door swings open -- the fact that it's blue is the first clue that this is no normal church door -- a face peers out from behind it. Actually, several faces do, but the human face at the centre is the one that speaks.

"Come on in. I'm glad you found us."

The door opens further, wide enough to let me in, and I step inside. What hits me first is, oddly, not the hundreds of clowns staring down at me -- photos, circus posters, models, ornaments, even eggs -- but the cold. On a January day, it's warmer outside the church than it is inside.

"I used to be a clown doctor, you know", he says as he pours me a warming cup of tea in what can only be described as a cupboard. My mind races with the possibilities with what the phrase "clown doctor" could even mean, but he sees I'm struggling and helps me out.

"I used to clown for the patients at Great Ormond Street Hospital."

That's just the tip of the iceberg of the fascinating life of Mattie Faint. He's a retired clown, and curator of the Clown Gallery in Dalston. Reeling off a list of annual clown festivals, gatherings and conferences around the world, it's clear he knows his stuff.

In the two hours I spend with him, he hops between anecdotes of his life in clowning; alarming the Queen with a flashing nose at the Royal Albert Hall, meeting her a couple of months later when she singled him out of a crowd.

His knowledge of clowns -- both dead and alive -- is astounding. He talks about Joseph Grimaldi as though he were a personal friend, rather than a London character who's been dead for almost two hundred years. But what's most fascinating is the fact that he knows many of the clowns shown in the museum's photos personally; one's an "ordained clown" - a vicar by day, with a side job in the entertainment industry. Others are involved in the museum with him.

He points at the many photos on the wall and reels of the clowns by name "Bonzo, Ian, Smokey". The clown world, it seems, is smaller than you'd think. In an odd way, it reminds me of the Harry Potter universe -- and I don't mean that detrimentally to either the clown or wizarding world -- people going about doing daily jobs in PR, as vicars, as writers, while all the while being part of this separate community that most people don't even know exists.

Mattie himself recalls the time he spent in Sun City in South Africa, one of several places around the world that he's lived (Dubai's also mentioned in passing, as well as other parts of Africa). By day, he did the PR for the resort. By night and at weekends, he was the entertainment. Often, he slipped between his white suit and his clown make-up in the same day, something which baffled many guests who recognised his voice, but couldn't place it without the accompanying red nose.

"It's such a relief, clowning. It allows you to be mad, controllably," he says of this dual personality.

Back here in the UK, his work has ranged from opening Comet superstores to performing regularly at Smollensky's on Strand. Just when I think I've got to the bottom of him, he wheels out the fact that he was the original stage manager on the Rocky Horror Show when it as performed on King's Road, taking it on tour in Japan twice.

Now, in his sixties, Mattie's retired from clowning, focusing mainly on the museum, and is responsible for organising the annual clown church service -- a duty he's not taking lightly. And if you think he's let clowning rule his life, think about this; on his death, he wants his ashes scattered in the church garden, following in the footsteps of fellow clown Rob "Smokey" Townsend.

So next time you're in a museum, particularly a small, niche one such as this, it's worth remembering that there's probably a passionate, hardworking person (or team) behind it -- and they may be more interesting than the museum itself.

For more information about the museum itself, see my original Londonist feature here.

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