Lenkiewicz recalls his childhood in the Shem-Tov: ‘It was a lunatic asylum really. I witnessed dementia, loneliness, quite significant packages of suffering from people who had survived horrendous things. There were surviors from Auschwitz and Belsen [but] life was just a constant creative indulgence’. How much he self-identified as a member of the second-generation trauma-sufferers of the Nazi attrocities is ambiguous. He sought no reconcilliation with the faith of his ancestors. Yet in exiling himself from the People of Exile Robert enacted a fundamentally religious or at least mythological devotion. He was most at home with the people who were not at home: a Jew who had wandered even from the Jews, an atheist exiled from the club of unbelievers.
Many artists have depicted vagrancy and addiction. But few if any rival Lenkiewicz in the extent to which art and life were inter-woven. He fed hudreds of vagrants, housed them, mopped up vomit and excreta, carried them in from the streets where they had collapsed, took them to hospital, and on several occasions was present at the hour of their death. Whatever we make of his many disavowals of altruism, he cared for these people. And willingly or not, consciously or not, they taught him about life, death, religion, addiciton, mysticism. Knowing in thir bones their lives had no meaning, they were desperate to make meaning:
‘The Bishop, Brother Blair, Mouth McCarthy, Scarface Fitz, Brighton, Psycho Jock, Big Brummie, now dead…so many of these characters, some of whom believed that they communed with Jesus, like Harmonica Jim [who] would light fires in derelict buildings then urinate them out in some strange private language of communion with the infinite’ ( Lenkiewicz, Interview 1979).
His early Vagrancy Notebooks reveal similar suggestions that the vagrants were hapazardly involving themselves in some kind of archaic magic. I discussed this with him in the late 1980s when he was studying the anti-psychiatric authors Laing, Cooper, and Szasz. Lenkiewicz speculated that at least some of the vagrants self-medicated on alcohol and pills to fend off the intensities of ‘madness’, but this madness may well be an artefact of an overly-restricitve society. He wondered what insights the vagrants might achieve if only they could abandon the breaks of addicition and instead accelerate their strange journeys. I recall him enthusing about how they might be lost forever, or might return like the Marco Polos of human experience with tales of New Lands. A similar thought appeared in his Exhibition Notes for the Vagrancy Project:
‘The relationship [between the vagrant and] Death and the Fool might in these terms become clear. The Fool survives where the wiser person might die: the survival of the Fool does not make sense, it is as if part of the Fool operates in another dimension […] The Fool reminds of us the ancient and essential possibility that life is not what we think it is and that there may be another order of things operating under our noses.’
(Vagrancy Exhibition notes 1973)