England’s Last    Acceptable Asylum Seeker?
The Lesson of the Piano Man

by

Patrick Wright


(posted 26 May 2021)

The White House and The Leas beach



As you drive east, Marine Parade seems to leave Sheerness at two different speeds. To the left the sea wall closes in on the road abruptly, having at first wandered off to secure a no longer so dishevelled Georgian house that was once the combined home and HQ of Mr. D. T. Alston, king of the 19th century Kentish oyster trade. To the right the town thins more gradually, extending through a line of houses, a pub named ‘The Ship on Shore’, and a chalet park before yielding to a stretch of watery marshland on which  malaria-bearing anopheles mosquitoes were still worrying the responsible medical officer in the 1940s. The junction with The Leas is overlooked by a solitary building known as The White House.  Since 2008, this has been an Indian restaurant.  At the time of the events described here, it was still battling on in its traditional role as a pub.

Being on the northern shore of the Isle of Sheppey, at the mouth of the Thames estuary where the London river finally flows out into the North Sea, the shingle beach at Scrapsgate has long been known for its distinctive harvest of washed-up objects.  On 19 June 1756, the Oxford Journal reported that ‘A monfstros Fifh, fuppofed to be a young Whale, is come afhore . . . It meafures thirty fix Feet and a half in Length, twenty-two Feet in Circumference, and eight Feet from the Eyes to the Tip of the Nofe.’

If whales can founder here so too can ships, hundreds of which have run aground on this coast, including, in 1848, a vessel named the Lucky Escape, which carried a cargo of barrels. The ship was salvaged—the Kentish word for this semi-piratical activity was “hovelling”—by islanders who had good reason to be optimistic about their find.  Two years previously, a revenue cruiser named the Vigilant had boarded a vessel seen acting suspiciously offshore a mile or two from here and, having dragged the water beneath her, recovered 122 barrels of  ‘contraband spirits’ roped together and sunk for later recovery.[i] The barrels on the Lucky Escape, however, turned out to be filled with Portland cement, a material that was then manufactured on the southern shore of the island and transported upriver  to supply Victorian London’s building booms. They were only good for ornamenting the distinctive ‘grotto’ (now one of Sheppey’s Grade II listed buildings), which to this day adorns the car park of another pub—opportunely renamed the ‘Ship on Shore’—across the road.



Smaller but still noteworthy objects have turned up in these waters too.   In June 1893, a diver from the Admiralty dockyard at Sheerness picked up a bottle floating in the sea:  inside he found an undated message reading only ‘Lost off the Goodwin Sands. Please tell my wife A. Chamberlain, Lavender-hill, Enfield.’[ii]  On September 4th 1963, Mr. Jones of 139 Coronation Road, Sheerness, was getting out of his boat near the ‘Ship on Shore’ when he noticed a mail bag drifting in the sea.  He immediately telephoned the Sheerness police who ‘raced to the scene and took possession’ of it. Although inspection revealed the bag to be so ‘well-worn’ that the markings on it were indistinguishable, the excited police still alerted their colleagues in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, on the hunch that their find might be connected to the sensational Great Train Robbery of the previous month. [iii]



Human bodies have also been found on this disconcertingly productive shore:  drowned sailors and fishermen, and others who have made the same decision as Thomas Kirkham, a 40-year old private in the Royal Marines who put an end to his troubles here on Tuesday 15 January 1878.  He had, as his wife would inform the coroner at an inquest held at The Ship-on-Shore, been ‘rather fond of drink lately’ and had probably also gone ‘absent’ from his military duties.[iv]    The landlord  told the coroner that Kirkham had been in ‘the grotto’ by 7.20 that morning.  He was later seen wandering about on the beach, ‘apparently without any object’. The following evening a boatman with the coastguard service came across his corpse, washed up by the sandheap on which he had early been  pacing aimlessly. ‘Found drowned’ was the verdict in this case as in others before and since.  That couldn’t be said of the corpse some local boys found floating here in August 1976. Wrapped in brown paper and placed in a green canvas bag tied with “ordinary parcel string”: it was probably, so the police declared after announcing that ‘foul play has been ruled out,” the embalmed corpse of a woman who had been incompetently buried at sea about three years earlier.  



From Local Story to Global Legend

There was nothing dead about the young man who was spotted by residents looking washed up and confused on the beach opposite the White House. The sighting was duly reported to the police, and the man was picked up in the early hours of April 7, 2005 by two officers who had found him behaving strangely in Sheerness.   Both agitated and speechless, he had nothing on him to reveal his name or identity.  There had been heavy rain that night, but the arresting officers noted in their log that the stranger, who was soaking wet and shivering, did indeed appear to have been in the sea. 

A month or so later, the first newspaper report about this discovery appeared in the Sheerness Times Guardian.  Headed ‘Piano clue in bid to identify hospital patient’, it was a small item, printed at the top of page 7 on May 5, 2005, which happens also to have been the day of the general election in which Tony Blair won his third term of government for the Labour Party.

“Do you know this man?” asked this local weekly of its readers, before explaining how he had been taken by the police to the Medway Maritime Hospital in Gillingham, across the Swale on the mainland, where he was now being ‘cared for by NHS and Social Services staff.’  The paper reported that the man, who had remained mute since being found, appeared to be between 20 and 30 years old, and “approximately 6 ft tall with what looks like either dyed blonde hair or unusually greying hair and light brown eyes.”  It added that “When he was found he was wearing a black suit, black tie and white shirt.”  According to a spokesman from the hospital, “the only other clue is that he can play and read classical music on the piano.”  Readers with “any information about the man’s identity” were asked to contact a social worker named Michael Camp of the Rapid Response Team at the hospital.



This moderately stated notice was illustrated with an indistinct photograph of a face, pulled back and staring at the camera from behind a barricade of defensively gathered bedsheets.  The poor quality of that unattributed snap may help to explain why, by the time it appeared,  a Kent-based photographer named Mike Gunnill had already received a call from the Daily Mail picture desk informing him that ‘a man has been found, he isn’t talking.’[v]  Like the Sheerness-Times Guardian, the Mail had been alerted to the story by  Michael Camp, who explained that the clinicians needed help in identifying their patient. Meeting up with Camp at the hospital, reportedly on May 6th, Gunnill had struggled to photograph the man, who ‘covered his face every time and started to become distressed.’   As the photographer would later explain to a French journalist, he “screams and cries like a baby when he sees someone new.” He also stared around “as if seeing the world for the first time.”[vi]


Realising that Gunnill might fare better when he took the man out for his daily walk, Camp had shown him a place “partly hidden by trees,” and told him to be standing there with his camera ready at the appointed time. Gunnill, who seems by now to have been working as an NHS-assisted paparazzi, managed to get five shots (only three of which were in focus) before ‘the mystery man’ spotted his lens and took evasive action. The photographs show a tall, pale, stick-thin, and lightly bearded figure with spikey upthrust hair, wearing his by now dried-out suit

Photo: Mike Gunnill

with a white shirt and every possible button done up.   In one of Gunnill’s artfully stolen shots, the solitary figure sees the camera and stares back, clutching his plastic folder of music in both hands as if it were the only thing that stands between himself and some dreadful dissolution. In others he shields his face completely, or glares at the camera from behind the folder with a single fierce eye. 

Having sent his pictures to the Daily Mail Gunnill heard nothing until two weeks later when his contact at the paper called to explain that publication was proving difficult because ‘several Associated Newspaper executives thought my mystery man was just a “****** asylum seeker trying it on.’   Since the Mail was still being bothered by ‘that social worker’, who was allegedly phoning several times a day to ask when the story would appear, Gunnill was urged to take his pictures elsewhere.  The photographer had then spoken to a journalist, described as the ‘well-respected’ Richard Creasy, who wrote the article that eventually appeared, alongside one of Gunnill’s shots, in the Mail on Sunday on  May 15.  While the main article was on the inside pages, a small version of one of Gunnill’s photographs was also printed on the front page.   According to Gunnill, the picture stayed there for ‘the first three editions’ but was then ‘spiked’ thanks to the suspicions of senior executives, who remained convinced that the man was “just another asylum seeker” bent on ripping off the British tax-payer.

The Sheerness Times Guardian may have been first with the story, but it was Creasy’s article, captioned ‘Who is this silent genius they call the Piano Man?’, that projected Sheerness’s latest washed-up waif into the wider world.  The dishevelled man, who was said to have “turned up in a rainstorm”, had by this time become ‘immaculately dressed in an expensive dinner suit, shirt and tie’.  As for the doctors and carers at the Medway Maritime Hospital, they remained puzzled both by his distraught condition—manifest in rapid breathing and acute terror of other people—and by his protracted silence.  Creasy, who had interviewed Michael Camp, described how the carers had got their best clue so far when they left their charge alone with a drawing pad and pens ‘in the hope of a breakthrough’.  Returning an hour or so later they found he had produced a sketch of a grand piano, also photographed by Mike Gunnill, and drawn a paper keyboard on tacked-together sheets of A4.   They had then taken him to the piano in the hospital chapel, and been amazed when he ‘began to play long passages of classical music.’

  These recitals prompted the realisation that their now  mysterious as well as unidentified patient had, as Camp was quoted as saying, been found ‘dressed as if he had come from a concert’.  He may, as the social worker added, ‘have had a traumatic experience that has led to him losing his memory or suffering a breakdown. . . All we know is that he appears to be a professional pianist of exceptional ability,  and has amazed everyone who has heard him. He plays for hours every day from memory and from sheet music he has written.  It is difficult to stop him and he sounds concert standard.’   Camp admitted that, even though it was hoped that the man’s ‘so special’ gift for music would surely help friends or relatives to recognise him, enquiries sent to ‘concert organisers and musical groups’ had so far drawn a blank.

Following publication of Creasy’s article, which gave Sheerness’s smudged and sheet-clutching figure new life as ‘the Piano Man’, the story of this now enigmatic stranger was quickly taken up by other papers and media organisations in Britain and, indeed, around the world.  The tide of reportage quickly became a matter of acute concern to the managers at the West Kent NHS and Social Care Trust.  Camp himself, who could never have anticipated this explosion of interest, would be suspended from work until it was established whether he had acted with the appropriate permissions as he sought to discover the identity of his charge.

Mike Gunnill, the photographer who was now the only available source of information about the launching of the Piano Man, remembers how his phone went crazy. He would pick it up in the middle of the night and find himself talking with Japanese papers and television channels, people who were entirely convinced that  the Piano Man was actually an ‘alien’ who had dropped in from outer space or another dimension. One Japanese company made a pile of money by stealing his photograph and printing it on T-shirts with the slogan ‘Who am I?’ written under it.[vii]

Meanwhile, journalists and television crews from farflung places were finding their way across the Kingsferry Bridge to the Isle of Sheppey, where they carried their questions into the Sheerness Times-Guardian’s office on the High Street.   Jérôme Cordelier, who worked with the French news and political weekly Le Point, was among them.  No mere pedlar of sensations, Cordelier was a man of broad social sympathies who, only a year or so previously, had joined the president of France’s Emmaus movement to write a ‘Manifesto against Poverty’[viii] renewing the plea for an ‘uprising of kindness’ made on behalf of the homeless and derelict more than fifty years earlier by that same founding president, a Resistance hero and priest named Abbé Pierre who went on to be revered as ‘the conscience of France’.  Cordelier discovered Sheerness to be a “sad port in South-eastern England, battered by winds and disfigured by industrial facilities.”[ix] He also found the Sheerness Times-Guardian’s staff reeling in amazement at the sudden efflorescence of international interest in their normally ignored island.  ‘This is really bizarre, no?’, muttered a local reporter, pointing to a Japanese television crew that had turned up on the High Street at about the same time. The editor, who had just taken a call from the Los Angeles Times, is likely to have shared his reporter’s sympathy for Riichiro Harayama, of the Tokyo Broadcasting System, who had flown for 20 hours only to be told that there really was nothing for him to see in Sheerness.   The shingle beach known as The Leas was still there, of course, perhaps attended by a few paddle-boarding families and the odd dog walker, but what else could be said about the place? The Sheerness Times-Guardian had 27,000 readers on and around the Island but their request for information about the stranger had received no response at all.  It was, so the paper itself would conclude, ‘pretty safe to say that the Piano Man has no connection with the Island.’[x]

Stepping out of the Sheerness Times Guardian’s office, Cordelier soon discovered that this sudden wave of offshore interest seemed frankly incredible elsewhere in Sheerness too. The people he asked about the sudden fame of their unknown visitor appeared to be ‘torn between compassion, desolation and a good laugh.’  In the White House pub, outside which the newly dubbed Piano Man had been apprehended, Cordelier encountered a saleswoman named Debbie, who insisted that the fellow had earlier come into the grocery store where she worked, staring around wide-eyed but not buying anything: ‘he gave the impression of seeing but not thinking.’ The publican, Mike McAlister, took a more downbeat view of the stranger.  ‘We are,’ as he explained for the French journalist’s benefit, “located midway between the Channel and the mouth of the Thames, which leads to London...”  He had little doubt that the Piano Man was ‘part of a group of illegal immigrants. We get many here . . .’ This experienced grader of human flotsam reckoned that the smugglers were ‘surprised by the police boat, and threw them into the sea.’ 

The pages of the Sheerness Times Guardian confirm Cordelier’s account of the amazement that filled the paper’s office as their apparently incidental story was taken up in the world beyond their shunned and much maligned island.  By May 15, the paper had adopted Gunnill’s superior photograph and also the upbeat new interpretation of the Piano Man.  It noted that the National Missing Person’s Helpline had received 160 calls since ‘national and international media’ had picked up on the story.[xi]  By 26 May, the Times-Guardian was getting a little possessive, claiming that ‘Our Piano Man is world famous’[xii] and describing how its little office on the High Street had been ‘inundated’ with calls from journalists:  ‘I’m used to asking the questions, not answering them,’ muttered one bemused reporter. Having lost control of its story, the local paper was now running to keep up.  Far from standing back from the ‘rumour mill,’ its reporters could only repeat the questions that were now being asked around the world — ‘Where has he come from?  Why is he not talking? Was he thrown from a boat or did he jump ship?’ — before adding a suspicious thought that just might have been entirely its own: “Is he secretly trying to gain recognition for his musical talents?”

Two developments were necessary for the story to take off as it did, and Creasy’s article for the Mail on Sunday had successfully initiated both of them.  The drama had to be raised above the never entirely vanquished suspicion that the Piano Man was, in the Sunday Express’s headline, ‘Just a Clever Conman’ trying to enter Britain illegally and ‘playing the system as well as he plays the keyboard’ (12 May 2005, p. 45). The story also had to be removed from the Isle of Sheppey (’an odd outpost of Kent’, as the Sunday Times would call it), and re-voiced as a universal allegory about, in the quoted words of an already interested Hollywood producer, ‘the fragility of the human mind, the nature of communication, and the importance, or unimportance, of identity.’  The producer in question, Bard Dorros of Smart Entertainment, further explained that ‘great stories raise, and often attempt to answer, questions about the nature of the human mind, how it works, who we are. The Piano Man’s story frames that in a mystery – what is at stake is this man’s identity.’[xiii]   So it was that Michael Camp’s silent patient had emerged from the Mail on Sunday as a latter day version of Everyman, adrift in a world in which he could no longer find his bearings.  Emancipated from the contingent misery of its origins in Sheerness, the story was eagerly embraced as a fable proving the proximity of art and reality. That is how it seemed to the novelist, Chris Paling, who sat down to write an article for the Daily Telegraph, claiming that he himself had already written the ‘Piano Man’ in his just published and duly plugged novel, in which a forgetful man crawls out of the sea and heads into a nearby town.[xiv]

As the fable expanded into a global allegory, it also threatened to devour the ‘very highly strung’ young man who was by now lodged at Little Brook Hospital at the edge of Gravesend.  Journalists, who were now the missionaries of the expanding fable, tried frantically to winkle further  details out of more or less reluctant carers and managers.  It was reported that all the identifying labels had been cut or otherwise removed from the Piano Man’s clothes.[xv]  It was disclosed that the ‘silent genius’s’ carers had tried various techniques alongside the Medway Maritime Hospital’s chapel piano, which the Sunday Times had inspected and was pleased to identify as a Challen 50 key model.   They had brought in interpreters in an attempt to engage the silent genius in Russian, French and German.  They had showed him a map of the world and been encouraged when he ‘doodled on the coast of Sweden’. Reporters also teased further concessions out of Michael Camp, who told the Sunday Times that, when agitated, the Piano Man tended to ‘hyperventilate’ at a rate of  70 or 80 breaths per minute:  ‘I’ve never seen anyone breathe like that. Anyone else doing that for a bit might faint, but he does it for as long as he is agitated.’  And that was by no means his only peculiar mannerism: ‘He never walks in a straight line. If he enters a room, he will not walk across it. He will walk round the room, keeping his back close to the wall.  This way he maintains eye contact with everybody.  If more than one person is in the room, his eyes flicker from one person to another.’   ‘Locals on Sheppey’ meanwhile were said to persist in the suspicion that the Piano Man had ‘slipped off a passing vessel’ like so many others before him. Enquiries had been made with the owners of ships passing into Sheerness port that night – a vessel from Norway, a container ship from St. Petersburg, another from Sweden.  Although no-one had been reported missing, ‘it is, of course, possible that he was a stowaway.’

The Sunday Times also revealed that Sheerness, where ‘strangers tend to get noticed’,  had seen rather more of the Piano Man than was initially understood: ‘After about two weeks in hospital the Piano Man had been transferred to a Sheppey hostel’ (the obvious candidate is a place named ‘The Foyer’, almost beside Sheerness-on-Sea’s  railway station, which was not a secure unit but did have staff at hand).  There he remained, it was suggested, until one night he walked out.  ‘He was spotted sidling along the street in Sheerness, with his back against the shop windows, trying to keep his eyes on anybody who came near.’ The police had picked him up again and he was returned to the Medway Maritime Hospital, where he had this time been sectioned under the Mental Health Act and transferred to his present residence the Little Brook psychiatric hospital at Gravesend.

Learning that there was no chapel piano at Little Brook, the Sun made the mistake of trying to donate an electric keyboard to be placed in the Piano Man’s new room to make the story true: ‘he obviously wants a proper piano or nothing,’ Camp told the rival Sunday Express of this rejected offer.[xvi] Meanwhile, the Piano Man’s recitals kept getting better and better.   There was talk of the young maestro’s ‘meandering, melancholic airs’, and of the brilliance with which he cruised through Lennon and McCartney tunes while girding himself up for ‘a complete rendition of Swan Lake’[xvii].



Piling it on

As the story spread through the summer, the Piano Man was the subject of a great efflorescence of speculation in which the suspected illegal immigrant and NHS scrounger was converted into a tortured artistic genius—a fellow of unique brilliance who must, so some of his carers appeared to have concluded, have suffered some sort of nervous breakdown after a disastrous performance.  Indeed, he’d not even had time to change out of his concert clothes before stepping onto the boat from which he must have leaped, distraught, as it approached the Thames estuary. The search for the “mystery man’s” identity produced an escalating array of contenders.  The National Missing Person’s Helpline was said to have received 400 calls by 18 May (Guardian).  The Mail on Sunday followed up its first article with another, claiming that the man was called Tomas and had once played in a Czech rock band.  Other contenders included a performance artist of uncertain nationality who had been seen in France or Spain,  a Swedish pianist, Martin Sturfalt, who turned out to be in his flat in Stockholm after all, and a Canadian drifter known as ‘Mr. Nobody’ who had once tried to enter Britain illegally. Various women announced themselves convinced that the Piano Man was their missing boyfriend or husband.  Hundreds of names were put forward.  If Mark Lawson is to be believed, so many Hollywood producers were interested in his ‘story’ that the doctors and nurses could hardly get through the crowd at his bedside (Guardian, June 18).  

There was also a flurry of armchair diagnosis.   One psychiatrist,  Dr Felicity de Zulueta, who had never met the victim of her assessment, was nevertheless confident that he had been hurled into a ‘fugue-state’ by trauma and may only have been able to access ‘the  right hemisphere of his brain through the piano.’ (Sunday Times).  Pop psychologists also took to the prints to offer their interpretations of his plight.  Oliver James was in little doubt that the Piano Man was suffering from a ‘borderline personality disorder’.   Dr Judith Gould of the National Autism Society recognised him as belonging on her organisation’s spectrum but at least requested access so she might pursue her diagnosis more closely. As the legend grew it attracted the meta-commentators too.   Not content with commending the man’s ‘glorious, enchanting music,’ the allegedly Lacanian analyst, Darian Leader, used theTimes to declare that the story, which was ‘Striking a chord in all of us,’ was made of the ‘stuff of folklore and myth’.  It had also, so this expert confidently remarked, activated ‘the common fantasy of escaping a humdrum existence’ (Times, 21 May).   

This heaping up of speculative theories, in which an unknowing and apparently terrified psychiatric patient was drafted into service as an involuntary hod-carrier for the world’s fantasies, went on for the best part of four months. By late July, the doctors were reduced to wondering whether their mute patient’s voice box was damaged, or had even been removed: they hoped to investigate but were impeded by the difficulty of getting his formal consent for an endoscopic examination. On 8 August, the Independent reported that the NHS were worrying that “the talented musician in a wet suit” might never be identified”, a fear that was reiterated by the Sheerness Times Guardian on 18 August.[xvii]

All this, however,  came to an abrupt close the following morning, when a nurse went into the Piano Man’s room and asked routinely, ‘Are you going to speak with us today?’   Unexpectedly, the mysterious patient looked across and replied ‘I think I will’.  He went on to identify himself as a twenty-year old Bavarian named Andreas Grassl: a farmer’s son who, far from having been ‘washed ashore with no identifiable co-ordinates’ as Darian Leader had surmised, had actually travelled to England by Eurostar from Paris, and had been trying to drown himself in the hours before he was picked up by the police.  Informing the hospital staff that he had two sisters and was gay, he also announced that he had only drawn a piano because ‘it was the first thing that came to mind’.  As for his musical skills, the hospital chaplain had been right to warn the Sunday Times that he really could not play the piano very well at all.

The embarrassed hospital managers were careful to ensure that, by the time the  press was informed of this development, Andreas Grassl was back with his dairy-farming parents in the tiny village of Prosdorf in Bavaria, whence he would only speak in carefully measured statements issued through the family’s solicitor.  He explained that he had known nothing of the media storm brewed up around him, and, having thanked the psychiatrists and nurses who had looked after him during this distressing episode, and also the many sympathetic people who had written to him while he was in hospital. He was said to have announced that he had no memory of how he had reached Sheerness.  He wanted no further contact with the media and intended to withdraw in order to consider his future.  By the time the gay news service Pink News revisited the story two years later in 2007, Grassl was said to be living in Basel, in Switzerland, and studying French Literature at the university.  By then reporters had found various of his former friends and acquaintances who allegedly spoke of the difficulty of growing up gay in a conservative Bavarian village, and who suggested that his crisis had become acute in the French coastal town of Pornic, in South-Eastern Brittany, where he had gone to find work and entered a relationship that had gone wrong.

The British press was by no means unanimously content to have its summer fable so rudely breached by reality. Some commentators used merely plangent terms to lament the sudden disenchantment caused by Grassl’s recovery.  In a leading article for the Independent, Charles Nevin, who claimed to have dreamed that the piano man was another wandering genius like Paderewski, regretted that ‘a little touch of magic and mystery is no more’.  Other papers, and not just the old tabloids, reacted angrily to the sudden desublimation, as if they had been grievously let down by Grassl, who had surely proved quite unworthy of the fame they had so generously bestowed upon him.   

The fable had all along been pitched against the now resumed suspicion that the piano man was actually a ‘f*****g asylum seeker’ or, at best, a trickster perpetrating ‘some performance art prank’ (Sunday Times).  In this disillusioning light Grassl, who had unwittingly demonstrated that already in 2005 a foreigner seeking help in England had to be a creative genius to avoid the suspicion and hatred not just of large sections of the British press, but also of the Home Office under the Labour Home Secretaries David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, was now multiply denounced as a ‘fraud’ for not being authentically mute and a ‘sham’ for not really being able to play the piano either.  It was alleged that his ‘glorious, enchanting music’ (Darian Leader) was much worse even than the ‘good amateur’ level claimed by the hospital chaplain and had actually consisted of ‘hitting a single key repeatedly’.  Grassl, who was surely not having a go at Terry Riley’s ‘In C,’  was nothing but a ‘suicidal gay German,’ no longer a pianist but ‘just a fiddler’ who had made disreputable use of his past experience as a ward orderly in Bavaria to act mad in order to freeload on Britain’s cherished NHS.   As Grassl’s journey back from maestro to scrounger proceeded, various papers gleefully declared that the Health Authority was considering legal action to recover the costs of his care: a wishful recommendation that went nowhere, thanks partly, as may be surmised,  to the clinicians who appear never to have doubted that Grassl had been in the midst of a genuine personal crisis that was now at least partly resolved.

Many of the higher commentators,who offered their retrospective thoughts on the meaning of this drama, had shared the assumption that the story had been so evocative because the Piano Man represented what Darian Leader had called a ‘blank canvas’ onto which people felt invited to project their own longings and fantasies (Times, May 21).  In reality, ‘canvas’ was not the medium that had supported the clouds of speculation, and neither was the screen on which they were projected in any way ‘blank’.

In the words of the Sunday Telegraph, the story of the Piano Man was ‘strangely cinematic, from the shock of his dyed blond hair to the unusual formality of his attire. He is a walking plot yet to be unravelled.’[xviii]  In the early weeks, that unravelling had taken various forms, each one prompted by a different film.   Many, including the Mail on Sunday’s Richard Creasy and some of Grassl’s carers,  saw the Piano Man as a version of  the Australian film Shine (1996) – which turned the tormented pianist David Helfgott into an embodiment of what an American psychiatrist diagnosed as ‘movie madness’:  i.e. a ‘celluloid amalgam of schizophrenia, manic-depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and idiot savant’ (Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, M.D., letter to the editor, New York Times, March 15, 1997).  For those inclined to emphasise the ‘idiot savant’ in this winning mix, corroboration was provided by Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (1988). Writing in Le Point,  Jerôme Cordelier, added a more recondite film - The Man without a Past (2003) by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, the hero of which is a welder who loses all knowledge of himself after being beaten up and robbed a few hours after stepping off a train in Helsinki, and then builds a new life among the city’s container-dwelling outcasts. Other commentators, in Germany especially,  reached further back to  Werner Herzog’s historical drama The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), in which the people of Nuremburg wake,  on the morning of 26 May 1828, to find a strikingly inarticulate young man standing in a small square and holding out a letter explaining that he had  been raised in  almost complete isolation in an unnamed village on the Bavarian border and wished to become a cavalry officer like his alleged late father.

Bruno S as Kaspar Hauser in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser 

The story may well have demonstrated the power of film to shape public perceptions.   Yet the pictures that had done most to keep the “Piano Man” aloft as he was pushed and pulled through this storm of contending scenarios were actually of a decidedly static variety.  Mike Gunnill’s photographs travelled with the story as it went round the world.  In the most evocative example, a cropped version of which was used by the Mail on Sunday to accompany the inaugural article of May 15, the Piano Man has the caught-in-the-headlights look characteristic of paparazzi shots. Yet it is the contest between the predatory lens and Grassl’s only just retaliatory stare that gives the photograph its compelling quality.



Here, to be sure, is the Piano Man as something other than the merely abject sufferer of psychiatric illness: a pale but surely still minded figure, surrounded by leafy green nature rather than a pale institutional room with all the ligature points removed and slumped figures watching daytime TV.  Gunnill’s photographs had helped to confirm this idea of the Piano Man as a young genius in trouble. The man in his most widely circulated image had resonated  with the memory of other wandering pianists -  and why not  Chopin as well as Padarewski ? – but why not also with a wider tradition of genius-melancholics,  from the punkish variations produced by Malcolm McLaren or  in Julien Temple’s films,  back through Syd Barrett to Antonin Artaud as a schizo-tourist in Ireland,  the solitary melancholic males of Edvard Munch or August Strindberg in his Inferno period.  Indeed, since we are now following those who spent the summer of 2005 piling it on, why not add the windswept wanderer in  Kaspar David Friedrich’s painting ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’ (1818)?



The Island Reclaims its Story

According to the retrospective article published in Pink News  on May 1 2007, Grassl’s closing words on this drama before he got on with his literary studies were wishful as well as decisive:  ‘That Piano Man stuff, no-one is interested in that anymore.’  Certainly, the discovery of Grassl’s actual identity put an abrupt end to the interest of the Hollywood producers, who were quick to move on, leaving the suddenly abandoned “story” to be picked up years later by a small London-based theatre company named AllthePigs, whose members premiered their own production, ‘Piano Man’, towards the end of 2014.   Promoted as ‘the story of a man whose language was silence’, the show, which I saw as it passed through the studio of the Marlowe Theatre in