From 1975 through to 1981 I taught art at a girls' school, an ex-grammar that still looked like a grammar and tried to behave like one. After a year or of teaching, by a curious turn of fortune, I became head of art while still in my probationary year thereby reaching the apex of an art teacher's career almost before I started.
It was, essentially, a middle-class white school with an increasing number of working class girls, a few of them Caribbean. There was no particular problem with anyone, but Pauline Pearce was certainly noticeable because even then she was big, as was her voice. She quite enjoyed being in the art room but it wasn't of central importance to her. And that was fine too, for there is no reason everyone should love what you do. She did her honest best
Having written a play a year for school performance, with music by students or fellow teachers, I wanted to produce a Shakespeare and, in my last year there, I thought Twelfth Night might be interesting with an all-girl cast. So we auditioned and Pauline came along. She had something of the ebullience of a potential Sir Toby Belch, so we cast her against a talented tall thin blonde Sir Andrew Aguecheek and started rehearsals. Pauline was enthuiastic but tended to forget her lines and at one performance, having accidentally banged her head against a door, she lost them totally and was in a state. Fortunately this was just before the interval and she recovered sufficiently to make a reasonable triumph of the second half.
Then she left the school, just as I did, and for a while that was the last I heard of her.
But then a few years later I picked up the local paper and there was a big photo of Pauline. Apparently ball lightning had come down the chimney in her family house and struck the dining table just as she was reaching for an extra piece of cake. It was a warning not to be greedy, she said. The paper also said she was at one or other drama school and doing well. (The link is a more recent one but refers to the original incident and article.)
Once again, our lives diverged. And then last summer, in the riots of 2011, she was in the news again as the Hackney heroine who defied the rioters.
Suddenly she was everywhere, next to every dignitary that ever fancied being pictured next to a feisty black heroine and was even mentioned by Barack Obama as an example of female courage. It must have been a wonderful and somewhat dazzling experience for her.
But her story was a lot more complicated, as revealed by the Daily Mirror of the time, which is well worth reading, so please do. There had been a theatrical career (including playing Bessie Smith) cancer, mastectomy, inadvertent drug-muling, three-years prison, a stabbed son, and terrible arthritis that meant she had to walk with a stick.
Life tears around in an awful hurry, bumping into people, not much caring where it throws them. 'I'll drink to her as long as there is a passage in my throat and drink in Illyria,' cries Sir Toby Belch. Have a good new year, Pauline. Sing on.