In Memory of Frank Bangay 1951 – 2021

portrait of a white middle-aged performance poet

Frank Bangay at an IMF event at LSO, London 29.08.2007
Photo: Andrea Testoni

It is with great sorrow that we announce the death of performance poet, artist, musician and human rights activist Frank Bangay, who passed away on 25 January 2021, aged 70 years. Frank identified as a Survivor of the mental health system and was key to the advancement of the rights of those labelled and incarcerated within the psychiatric system.

In the early 1970s Frank helped form the ‘Mental Patients Union’ a group established to fight against political oppression and social control at a time when psychiatrists had free rein to imprison without trial, to drill holes in peoples skulls, to plug peoples brains into the mains and to inject with neuroleptic drugs without impediment – all under the guise of ‘cure’. In 1980 Frank joined the Protection of Rights of Mental Patients in Therapy (PROMPT) which ran a crisis phone line as well as campaigning on the streets. By 1985 PROMPT had become the ‘Campaign against Psychiatric Oppression’(CAPO), which ran weekly support meetings in London as well as regular awareness-raising poetry and music events, mostly at the Troubadour coffee-house in Earls Court. Frank’s down-to-earth warmth and humanity meant he attracted the likes of well-known singer-songwriters like Rory McLeod and Kevin Coyne as guest headliners. ‘We’re not mad, we’re angry’ was one of the key slogans of the gatherings of those times.

One of the groups key achievements was the CAPO manifesto largely written by Eric Irwin with support from Frank, published in 1986. Eric had who been incarcerated in seventeen psychiatric institutions in Ireland, Australia and England. The manifesto called in to question the prevalent concepts of “mental illness” and “mental health” looking rather at the ways in which capitalism exploits and stigmatises individuals labelled as ‘other’ in order to make profit for pharmaceutical companies and their shareholders. It demanded the banning of ECT, psychosurgery and major tranquillisers as well as compensation for those imperilled with drug-induced Tardive Dyskinesia. Amongst other things Iit called for an end to the slave labour carried out in psychiatric institutions under the euphemism of ‘industrial therapy’ – and importantly it called for the right to a “second opinion”, when being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

At the time the radical Marxist political nature of CAPO’s manifesto came under criticism, as Frank talked about in Pieces of Ourselves – an Asylum Magazine article he wrote about his friendship with Eric Irwin shortly after the activists’ death from cancer in 1988. However the influence of CAPO and the pressure exerted by survivor campaigners led eventually to many changes within the treatment of those labelled as ‘mentally ill’ and critically to provision within law that at least two ‘health professionals’ be present at the sectioning of an individual. Given the random nature of mental health labels and the proven fact that two psychiatrists will rarely offer the same diagnosis, this has been something of a safety net against the often cruel interactions of psychiatrists acting without constraint.

Frank was also involved with a sister group to CAPO – ‘Survivors Speak Out’ who created a spoken history of testimony of patients’ records of their treatment within the mental health system. Since 2000 these records are held in the Testimony archive at the British Library. It was Frank’s experience and skill at producing events for CAPO that proved invaluable when alongside Hilary Porter, Joe Bidder and Peter Campbell he formed Survivors Poetry a group that flourishes to this day in providing opportunities for mental health survivor poets to share poetry and creative endeavours through spoken word events and workshops.

Frank was a great empath who supported many thousands of individuals over the years. He had a humility that gave him an ability to listen to those in distress without judgement. He organised poetry workshops within institutions across London and beyond throughout the 1990s giving encouragement and advice to those seeking confidence to express themselves through poetry and performance.

Frank was a key performer, writer and organiser within the ‘Mad Pride’ movement which became active during the 1990s. In the anthology Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture’ published by Spare Change books in 2000, Frank wrote “I don’t see myself as a victim. Survivors of mental health services experience some horrifying things; we need to talk about them, and society needs to hear some of the real horror stories, but the public shouldn’t see us as victims…. [they] wouldn’t normally read a book about mental health and we’re often treated with suspicion, but we need to be able to get our messages across, to show what we can achieve with our creativity and campaigns.”

Over the last two decades Frank became known as the Bard of Hackney. His output – especially with the support of Core Arts moved his creativity more and more from the printed publication to musical and recorded expressions of his thoughts, feelings and ruminations on life. Untidy Frank – a series of songs published on Soundcloud shows his prodigious love of the blues. He had a DAO blog which he used to write mostly about the lives of the black US musicians whose output he adored. His humour and love of playing with words and rhymes shines through this output and songs like If I Had My Way offer a clear expression of the fun he found through creative endeavours.

Frank had many creative influences, none more evident than William Blake whose life and works he had studied effusively. His style of using watercolours showed the simplicity of expression and the child-like humour that Frank managed to retain through the hardships of his life. As he got older so he found comfort in a Christian faith that became a bedrock of his outlook on the world.

a watercolour of pigeons in a town park

Pigeon’s Heaven from Frank Bangay’s website

Frank is much missed by his sister Ursula and his numerous friends locally and through Hackney Core Arts, Survivors’ Poetry, Disability Arts online, Survivors History Group, Louder than War and beyond.

His poem ‘The Boat Sails’, written in May 2007, sums up his gentle personality and his attitude towards death, with a profound elegance. Rest in peace Frank – may your songs of rhymn and hope continue to make the world a better place.
Colin Hambrook

I will say farewell my friend
The leaves fall
And blow through an autumn park.
Through life’s turbulence
Your boat sets sail for a distant shore.
I know that my boat will sail one day
I hear Blind Willie Johnson singing,
Come with me to that land
Come with me to that land.

Core Arts are presenting a Memorial Poetry and Creative Writing event  for Frank Bangay from 6-9pm on 17 February via zoom. For more information about the event and further tributes please go to the Core Arts Facebook page.