Saturday 27 April 2019

Death of a Friend

A few days ago came the sad news that an old friend of mine – one who has made occasional appearances on this blog as the Sage of Tiverton – had died. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago and more, and already outlived several predicted end-dates, so the news was not surprising, but there's something about even a long-projected death that always comes as a shock, a blow.
  It was half a century ago now (half a century!) that our friendship blazed into life. It burned brightly for a few brief but intense years, until we went our separate ways and completely lost touch, only to meet again forty-odd years later. We were both still at school when we first met. He was a year younger than me, but had an attractive glamour and air of mystery about him, and when we began to spend time together, we got on like the proverbial house on fire. He lived in a large house, of which a downstairs front room was, enviably, his own domain. His mother was sometimes around, but his father had died a few years earlier, leaving behind him a large and impressive library, the other side of the hall from the cosy, spectacularly untidy den in which he and I would sit smoking, drinking exotic teas (his mother had an impressive range of leaves) and listening to music. We took particular pride, I remember, in building up a thick fug of smoke, taking care to conserve it and top it up as required. It would choke me now, but then it seemed the very stuff of autonomy and possibility, of new exciting horizons dimly glimpsed.
  I remember also walking the streets with him in those days, often at remarkably high speed (both of us had a knack of moving our legs, and only our legs, extremely fast, while keeping hands in pockets and heads down). He often wore a green loden, or a black cape, and managed to get away with both. Sometimes we would descend on parties, and sometimes get thrown out, and he introduced me into a circle of friends who were, it seemed to me, even cooler and more glamorous than him – and some of them more criminally inclined; it was astonishing how much crime of all kinds went on in those circles, largely committed by the children of the nouveau riche bourgeoisie. Drugs were only a part of it. As he inducted me into that scene, my friend became the Withnail to my I, and I was happy with that role. They were heady times, and we sampled every consciousness-altering substance we could get our hands on. We talked and talked (and burbled) and shared memories and tastes and jokes and catchphrases.
  So we became very close – it was love, of course, though neither of us would have dreamt of calling it that (and it was 'platonic') – and we stayed that way through my university years. By then, he (having dropped out of art college) was living in various more or less squalid 'pads' in London, and I was a frequent commuter between my college rooms and those pads (which I much preferred). We were by now heavily into drugs of various kinds, and at one point appeared in court together and were fined for our folly. I remember in my last term, when I'd cleared the decks to get down to some much-needed revision for my finals, he suddenly appeared, smiling broadly and waving a bag of raw opium. My revision plans went up, predictably, in smoke... He had a way of popping up like that, as if from nowhere, like Jeeves materialising at Bertie Wooster's side. I once woke in the small hours to find him sitting at the foot of my bed rolling a joint, having somehow beamed himself up from London.
  By the end of university, I was sensing other endings – and beginnings – in my life, and over the following months an emotional tangle developed that could only be resolved, or so it seemed, by a clean break (or by acknowledging what was going on and talking openly about it – but something that obvious and uncool was clearly out of the question). Sometimes, as Tim Buckley says in Nobody Walkin', you gotta turn your back. It seemed the only way; at the time it probably was.
  And so, for four decades, I saw nothing and heard nothing of my old friend, apart from the rumour that he had taken off to the foothills of the Himalayas to live the simple life. Over the years I often wondered what had become of him, what he was up to, if I might bump into him on the street. He continued to make occasional cameo appearances in my dreams, but I never seriously expected to see him again. Then, by way of another friend's chance meeting with another lost friend, I learned that he was alive and surprisingly well, and living, rather reluctantly, in Tiverton, having returned from years of travel and living abroad. He was open to seeing me and the other friend again, and so a reunion was arranged.
  And there he was, my old friend, forty years on, his looks (and many of his teeth) gone, but beaming, arms outstretched, clearly delighted at this turn of events. Apart from his voice and his distinctive posture, he was quite unrecognisable – but the room in which he lived was instantly recognisable: it was essentially that fug-filled front room of yesteryear, strewn and piled with even more rubbish than the original (or indeed the Earl's Court room where we managed to fill a wide, deep club fender to the brim with fag-ends and roaches). He was still living the life he lived forty years ago, now fuelled by rum-and-water and heavy-duty dope (as we used to call it). Smiling beatifically, he sat cross-legged on the bed (or rather mattress) and surveyed the reunion with every sign of satisfaction. It was – for once the tired phrase is true – like walking back in time.
  He had indeed been travelling, spending many years in India and Nepal, in Spain, France and the Low Countries (his mother was Belgian, and he could speak Flemish). At one time he had a small boat and would commute to and fro across the Channel, one hand on the tiller, the other on his bottle of rum. A natural sailor, he never came to grief. He had not pursued anything resembling a career; having a talent for drawing, he could always make a few bob whenever he needed to by selling sketches. He had formed no permanent partnership with anyone and had no family beyond a few nephews and nieces he cared about (his mother of course was long dead). He had made none of the familiar compromises that most of us make, just to get along in the world; he had lived on his own terms, and by and large it had worked out remarkably well. He had a good deal of charm, and wherever he lived – as in the Dickensian rooming house in Tiverton – he tended to form a little family around him, a kind of unofficial mutual aid society. It seemed to work.
  I staggered away from that reunion determined to stay in contact, and the feeling was clearly mutual, as the old friendship flared back into life, if on a very much lower flame than before. We exchanged letters and mementoes, books and music, and texted frequently. Things were different of course, but it was good to be back in contact, on new, in some ways easier, terms. It felt good and right not to have lost touch entirely. The texts continued for a few years, but gradually petered out. Sometimes there was an angry, irascible tone in his communications, and this was something new. The friend who saw the most of him told me that he was becoming impossible, especially when drunk, and he was seeing less of him, being understandably fed up with making the effort to visit and then being roundly abused for his pains. I'm glad I never saw any of this, and on the last occasion I actually talked to him – by phone, having just heard of his initial cancer diagnosis – he was friendly enough. He was also commendably relaxed about the whole thing, having no complaints, and only hoping to die without being too much of a nuisance to anyone. I offered to visit, but I think we both knew that by then it wouldn't have been a great idea, so I never did see him – or that time-capsule room – again. The cancer took its course, but slowly and gently, and he seems to have managed his death as skilfully as his life, remaining in his own place, with ample supplies of morphine. When at length he died, his closest female friend was with him. It was a good death.
  Despite his ambition to outlive him, he died before his musical hero Hal Blaine had joined the great celestial jam session – but there will be music enough. RIP, old friend.


  1. I found this a very evocative and moving paean to your friend. A whole lifetime described and visualised so sensitively in a single blogpost. I think the Sage of Tiverton should be most impressed. Sincere condolences for your loss - you describe the passing of an entire historical era as well as an important person in your life.

  2. Thank you both. He was a remarkable person, and had a big impact on my life.

  3. This is so beautiful, Nige. RIP Tone.

  4. Very beautiful Nige. Moving in itself and so evocative of those extraordinary times we boomer teenagers lived through.

    I tend to save up my visits to your writing which I have been following for years now, mostly because I prefer it by the bottle rather than the glass.

    Thank you