the following interview has been conducted in June 1996 by Knut Gerwers - it took place in Margate, at the home of Jill Calvert and her son Nicholas - the son she has/had with Robert Calvert.
Jill Calvert worked as an illustrator and designer - a.o. things she also did covers for books of Michael Moorcock, to whom she was married before.
Robert and Jill Calvert got married in the early eighties - ever since she took part in many of Robert Calvert's projects. She did some design-work and performed in the electronic musical The Kid from Silicon Gulch, she sang on a couple of his tracks, took part in the Krankschaft Cabaret shows and did the illustrations/covers for records of Robert Calvert, that were released posthumous.

Jill Calvert gave me access to a lot of material from Robert Calvert's estate, she took the time for this quite extensive interview - I like to thank her for that.

The interview has been transcribed by Alan Linsley - my thanks to you, Al, for that hard labour.

The images of Jill Calvert were taken during the interview session by K.G.

KG: What’s the first memory you have of Robert - What springs up to your mind first?

JC: The first memory - then I certainly think of the first time I saw him.

KG: Could you describe that? His appearance etc?

JC: He was expounding to a small audience in Mike Moorcock’s kitchen at the time, looking extremely bright because his hair was still quite red then and he was wearing as I recall a tartan shirt. So, a sort of neon Robert! He was also chatting up my girlfriend (laughs), who was a dancer.

KG: What was he talking about, what was his current obsession?

JC: What then? Oh, I can’t remember. It was probably my girlfriend! (laughs)

KG: On the subject of woman - I’ve heard that Robert was quite a womanizer, that he could work well with his charm.

JC: (laughs) Yes…yes…

KG: Did he have a lot of woman in his life?

JC: Yeah, I should imagine a good few. I mean I certainly knew about a good few. Yes, I think there were two sides to (Robert) because, as I said, in a sense he was a family man, he loved children. Always wanted children. One of his earliest poems was called "What Do People Want If They Don’t Want Babies?".
So I suppose you’ve got two sides. He was so good at playing the English gentleman, that could be very flattering. And the rock star and all his poses. But I don’t know if he was an immense womanizer.

KG: It’s a term that Léonie Scott Matthews used when describing him.
(note: Léonie Scott Matthews runs the Pentameters Theatre (London), where Calvert staged a few of his plays and theatrical shows. She also published the "Pentameters Anthology" in which Calvert published some poems.)

JC: Is it?

KG: Yes, just one of many points but…

JC: I suppose he must have gone through phases (laughs) like everything else!

KG: So what was it that attracted you to him?

JC: Oh lord…His persistence I suppose. I mean, Iliked him when I knew him, which wasn’t kind of well, and I suppose in a way I was quite wary of him because I knew about …

(an interruption here - and we start again...)

JC: Well, as I said, he was very persistent because he decided he wanted to have some sort of relationship with me and I didn’t really want to have a relationship at that point in my life. But he was incredibly persistent as only he could be.

KG: What time was that?

JC: That was 1980 I suppose. And then I think the thing that finally did it was that I had been invited to a fancy dress party... Richard Branson’s fancy dress party. I quite liked the idea of hiring some fantastic clothing to wear, and I couldn’t find anyone else who was game enough to do the same thing. So I phoned Robert up and said "How about it?" and he said "Yeah, yeah yeah!", because he of course would be really into dressing up, and I think it was that that finally kind of changed my mind. (Laughs) Just that he was game for a laugh as they say.
And that was really the start of it, it was only then that I really got to know him. And he was actually very moral, he was very…he had very great integrity. And he was very honest. He wouldn’t have been the writer he was if he didn’t have those qualities. And as I got to know him I think that’s what I really appreciated.

KG: How would you describe that honesty, how did it come across?

JC: I suppose you could also say it was objectivity. If you look at the kind of things he wrote about, or wrote music about, wrote poetry about, a lot of his subjects are quite kind of moral issues. And I suppose taken as a whole his work had a kind of moral integrity to it. I mean, all the Test Tube stuff, the Test Tube Conceived album, and the play, was based on his perception that tampering with nature is not a very good idea. And that’s the kind of morality, the kind of integrity I’m talking about.

KG: Do you think he had this objectivity also about himself? I mean he is well known for his mood swings and his mental instabilities. Could he be objective about that as well?

JC: Yes. Privately, when he was "leveled" shall we say he was very objective about it. And it was I think probably deeply painful to him because he needed that, those bursts of creative energy. He couldn’t work without them, but he knew that inevitably they always led to problems.

KG: How would you describe these processes of him getting out this huge amount of energy he spent on his work and the intensity he brought into his performances? Do you think he found a structure in himself to build that up?

JC: Yes, very much so. It’s like, anybody who works creatively gets into the rhythm of working, knows how to build up their energy in a sense. But in Robert’s case he would kind of build up a head of steam, and whereas most people know when to stop, and actually can stop, maybe if you’ve been up working very late and you’re not getting much sleep there’s something in you says "ok it’s time to stop, I really need to take a break now, get some sleep, have something to eat, do something different", Robert just could not do that. He just carried on and on until his energy almost overtook him, he was no longer in control of it, it was in control of him.

KG: But he was always willing to give himself in to that?

JC: Yes. And that’s I think what his most painful area was, because it was almost like an addiction for him. He knew what would happen if he worked that way but he wasn’t willing to give up working that way because he reached a kind of... I suppose a level of perception, which was very good for his work, but then it would go beyond perception and start becoming paranoia. His brain signals would just get really scrambled. But, I mean, it really must have been incredibly painful for him because he always knew that that was going to happen.

KG: He was also quite straightforward about his mental problems. I’ve read some headlines quoting him: "I’m a manic depressive hypermaniac" sort of character. And he was, as he said himself, diagnosed as being schizophrenic in his youth. As it turned out he wasn’t, but was he afraid maybe of crossing the border at one point and not being able to come back? Maybe at the worst point being locked up somewhere in the loony bin and not be able to get out again?

JC: Well yes, but I mean he came very close to that. I mean he was sectioned more than once. But I mean it’s a very very confusing area because what’s the difference between someone who’s…oh lord how can I put it…kind of creatively haywire, you know, we’re kind of talking about "madman or genius?", where’s the dividing line? Unfortunately, during my marriage I was forced into the position of almost having to make that decision more than once. And I think it’s only when you’ve been in that situation that you become aware of the grey areas, and they are very very grey. It’s very hard. He went through different phases of saying things like you’ve just said. Also periods of denial, of just denying absolutely that there was anything abnormal about the way he functioned. So I don’t know, it’s difficult to say.

KG: Did you ever try to kind of slow him down in these phases - and how did he react?

JC: Well, it was partly why we moved out of London, because I thought maybe if he was in a slower environment that would be a help from the start. Just tried to keep his stress levels down. Tried to kind of guide him away from the absolute excesses of working flat out, and not sleeping for days and days and days and days. I don’t know whether I actually had any effect on it at all. In a way I needed to because it could be incredibly disruptive, but in another way I was always very wary of doing it because it was his process, you know? I mean when he was full on, he just had so much energy, no one could deal with him, no one could sort of…People would come and spend and hour and just have to go because it was "it’s too much", you know, just talk and talk and talk and talk.

KG: How did you get along with that? I mean, you must have spent more than a few hours with him in this state and that must have put quite a pressure on you as well - your whole marriage and family life.

JC: Yes it did, immensely, immensely. It was very, very difficult, but ultimately I loved him enormously and there’s no way I could have really done anyting other than that. A lot of people said I was crazy to sort of hang on in there, but you do, I suppose.

KG: And it was Robert who wanted the marriage?

JC: Yes, really. That was his kind of…as I say that was his "what do people who don’t want babies want?" bit coming out. His kind of romantic family man type. Because I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of getting married again, but there came a time where it seemed important to him and so I thought "yes", you know. His arguments for marriage were stronger than mine were against, I should say, so we did it.

KG: Did that make any significant change in your relationship or did it just went on?

JC: None whatsoever.

KG: Looking at that it seems to me that this is what he really wanted - marriage and family life, that he was looking for a kind of haven in which he could retreat.

JC: Yeah, that’s true.

KG: Maybe you could tell me something about this family situation he had. I mean, it’s well know that, being from South Africa, he was kind of obsessed as well with his family background. Did he tell you about this and how did he come to terms with that?

JC: I don’t know whether he did came to terms with it. What actually happened as far as I know is that his parents decided to go back to South Africa I think when he and Derek (Calvert's brother) were about 17 and 18 and they gave Robert and Derek the choice of staying in England or going back with them. They wanted them both to go back to South Africa. But Robert did feel, and you know this again is part of his kind of moral integrity, because of the political situation in South Africa he couldn’t…it wasn’t the place where he could live. And so Derek went back to South Africa with his parents and Robert stayed here. I think it was again a kind of constant pain in his life if you like that he was separated from his family not only by a lot of distance geographically but by a lot of attitudes. I don’t think he ever really kind of reconciled himself there. It’s why it figures so much in his work.

KG: But he also never made the kind of "final cut" with them. There was always a sort of relationship, if only a very distant one wasn’t there?

JC: He did actually make a kind of cut with them. They wanted him to go out and stay with them, I think it was the christmas of 1980. He was actually in quite a manic phase at the time, and had rather an upsetting discussion with them about going or not going. He didn’t go. And I think he lost contact or he stopped contacting them then for a number of years, actually I can’t remember how long. But his mother actually got the International Red Cross to look for him (laughs) and made contact again. But it was easy with his brother, I mean, you know, that wasn’t a problem, but he did find contact with his parents difficult. He found having a relationship with them difficult.

KG: Do you know something about his relationship with his parents during his earlier years when they were still together in England? How was his contact with his parents?

JC: It’s very difficult for me to assess. I mean, my impression is that it was difficult because his sister Rosemary was, due to problems at birth, developed cerebral palsy. And I think that most of his mother’s attention had to go to looking after Rosemary. And from what Robert said to me that seemed to seriously affect his relationship with his parents, which is understandable. But I don’t know, I mean that’s just from things he said and impresssions that, as I say, that I’ve built up.

end of part I


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