Peter Gowen: I beat cancer and I’ve never been happier

Peter Gowen works as a chef when he’s not acting, saying: ‘Even if I could afford not to work as a chef, I think I’d still do it, just to have the stimulation of it and the pleasure of it.’

Actor Peter Gowen was ‘menaced’ by anxiety as a result of his early school experience, but it left him when part of his bowel was removed, he tells Margaret Jennings

Last June, actor Peter Gowen was unexpectedly diagnosed with bowel cancer; he was very sick and his eight-month journey to full recovery only ended in January.

However, the 61-year-old admits that he has “never been happier” since his recovery, because for the first time in his adult life he is “free of anxiety”.

“It’s not like I made any decision about being less anxious; it was a gift really,that’s how I’d see it. It was a profound thing.”

Though he says it’s common for people who work in theatre to be anxious about things, he was actually “menaced by it” — waking up to it every morning — and he traces it back to the “tough Christian Brother schooling” he was exposed to as a young boy. It toughened him up, but also left him anxious.

“It’s almost as if the anxiety was located in that part of the bowel that they removed – and now it’s gone. It’s a wonderful feeling,” he says.

It didn’t interfere with the well-respected actor’s career and shortly he will be treading the boards for the first time since his illness, in Enda Walsh’s The Small Things, for a five-week run in Cork.

A native of Youghal, Co Cork, Peter has been based in Britain since 1988, when he came over touring with Field Day theatre company. He has been living for the past 17 years in London with his wife Anna, a partner in a family law firm, whom hemarried in 1996.

They have two children, Liza, aged 30, who is mum to their two grandchildren and Jack, aged 20.

“When the children were younger, I would have balanced up the impact on them, [not being around] to the value that the work would have. It actually made me a lot more choosy, so my CV is largely full of work I am very proud of,” he says.

Having a family also brings responsibility. You can’t live on an actor’s salary, so when I’m not working as an actor, I work as a head chef for a contract catering company and I really enjoy it.

It’s a bonus from the point of view of ageing well, also, as he’s learning all the time: “It’s challenging and can involve very high-end cooking processes. And, because I move around to different kitchens and environments, it is very stimulating. It makes your brain operate in a different way.”

He can choose to work whenever he is available: “In a bad year as an actor, I would have worked nine months as a chef and in a good year maybe two.

“But I love it as well. One of the great things is you have to get up early; the alarm clock goes off and I’m straight out the door, so no time for introspection or being melancholy. Actors very often experience that, the sadness of not working, but it’s an awful waste of time. Even if I could afford not to work as a chef, I think I’d still do it, just to have the stimulation of it and the pleasure of it.”

However, he is really looking forward to his return to the stage next Friday: “It’s a massive play; I love Enda’s work and also Pauline McLynn is a wonderful actress, I’ve worked with her before. It’s a brilliant crew — some of the best heads in Irish theatre — and it’s a privilege to work with them.”

Enda Walsh has said his play is “acelebration of the small things we cling to in life” and, for Peter, that includes the joy of his large, extended family on his wife’s side and his own. “We are close and look after each other, and we have great friends as well, so it’s a very rich life.”

He’s also a self-confessed “water baby”, having grown up by the sea in Youghal and he has a boat at the end of their garden in London, by the River Thames.

“I’m really looking forward to coming back to Ireland. I will be staying with my mother, who is 95.

It’s coming into a very nice time to be in Youghal; we have a boat there, so typically what I will be doing is sailing out into the bay, catching fish,sailing back in and then just preparing it.

“It’s those kinds of things I really love, so I will be swimming and boating and walking; keeping fit, while I am in Ireland. I will be in Cork for five weeks, a short, but beautiful job.”

Peter committed to the role after marking his full recovery at the end of January and just over four months down the line, he is back to doing all that he loves in life.

- The Small Things, at the Old Cork Waterworks Experience, on Lee Road in the city, opens on June 17 (with previews on June 14 and 15) and continues until June 29

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