Nigel Farage is not the Fishermen’s Friend

I went along to Whitstable harbour to greet Nigel Farage on Sunday. He was there ostensibly to support the local fishermen in their protest about the transitional deal being imposed upon them by the EU, which the fishermen oppose.

It was a colourful affair with Whitstable’s fishing vessels circling picturesquely outside the harbour, setting off flares and smoke bombs and firing distress signals into the air, which shrieked upward in an arc of smoke and then exploded with a loud crack.

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It was a colourful affair

The fishermen seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I saw a number of them clutching cans. Is there such a thing as being drunk in charge of a fishing boat, I wonder?

There were people from both sides of the argument there, both Brexiteers and Remainers, plus at least one – namely me – caught firmly in the middle, having voted for Brexit, but from a Left Exit, not a Ukip, point of view.

The contradictions within the crowd were evident. The Remainers were holding EU flags, while the Brexiteers were flying Union Jacks. Both claimed to be on the side of the fishermen.

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The Brexiteers

The fishermen, meanwhile, while they probably voted to leave, are actually left in the worst of all possible worlds: the British Fishing Industry having been being locked into the Common Fisheries Policy by the transitional deal until the end of 2020, but without a say on quotas. By that time the entire industry could be decimated. No wonder they feel betrayed.

This was made evident by the old fishing boat they set light to on the beach, which they had renamed Thereason May: a clumsy pun on our Prime Minister’s name, obviously accusing her of treason.

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Thereason May

Quite how the metaphor of “burning your boats” applies to this situation wasn’t made clear.

A number of good friends were there, including Julie Wassmer with her megaphone, and Christine Dorothy, who had made a sign based upon an acronym of Nigel Farage’s name. It said: “Fisherman’s Advocate? Real Agenda Gargantuan Ego!”

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The author, with Christine’s sign, with Julie Wassmer with hers

Farage himself arrived at six o’clock. He climbed on board the Site Seeker Whitstable Boat Trips vessel in the harbour. When he passed through the harbour entrance there were people on the jetty jeering.

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People on the jetty

What is it about this man? Up until this point the gathering had been mainly peaceful, but it was as if his presence galvanised the crowd, which became instantly divided into separate camps.

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What is it about this man?

Fights started to break out, with people from both sides attempting to grab the others’ flags. I saw one Remainer woman being punched in the face, while one of the smaller boats edged close to the shore and sprayed the Remainers with sea water. I have a photo if anyone wants to make a complaint. Technically this was an assault.

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Fights started to break out

Farage’s belated attempt to hi-jack the fishing industry’s concerns is belied by his voting record in the EU. Official records show that over the three years while he was a member of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee, he turned up for just one of 42 meetings.

Greenpeace states that “during three major votes to fix the flaws of the Common Fisheries Policy, Farage failed to vote in favour of improving the legislation.”

The irony of all this is that it isn’t only the EU that is at the bottom of the Whitstable fishermen’s woes. According to Greenpeace, fish quota allocation favours large over small vessels, with just three large fishing firms controlling nearly two-thirds of England’s fish quota.

“The distribution of fishing rights within the UK’s fleet is entirely the responsibility of the UK’s fisheries minister,” they say.

Quite how a public-school educated ex-commodity trader came to pose as the fishermen’s friend is another matter.

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All photographs by Gerry Atkinson: http://www.gerryatkinson.com/

From The Whitstable Gazette 12/04/18

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, Room B119 Canterbury College, New Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3AJ

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Whitstable History: the Post Office inside St Peter’s Church, Sydenham Street, Whitstable

A fond farewell as post office saga goes full circle

As one Facebook post put it: it’s the end of an era.

This was under a picture of a queue lined up outside the post office modules in St Peter’s Church, Sydenham Street.

Well it wasn’t really an “era” as such, since it only lasted fourteen months, but it was a memorable period for all that.

I mean: how many post offices do you know on the inside of old Victorian brick-built churches such as this? I imagine there can’t be that many.

I will miss it. It became an integral part of my life for a while, not least because I was the postman there. Still am, but I won’t be delivering Local Collect and Special Delivery packages to the church any more.

Nor will I be issuing a hearty good morning to the staff while jumping the queue and going straight to the counter: my privilege as the designated postal worker.

It was quite bizarre in there. I’ve never been a fan of Christian iconography, particularly of the grim 19th century variety, so it was always a relief to get to the counter to see the image of Ganesha, the colourful Hindu elephant-headed god, in the post office: obviously the proprietor’s personal deity.

But the church was warm and dry compared to the Portacabin in Gladstone Road it replaced, so I guess we shouldn’t moan.

According to Wikipedia, Ganesha is the patron of letters and learning and the remover of obstacles, so a particularly apt figure to oversee to proceedings at a post office, albeit a temporary one.

One thing it made clear was how under used some of these old church buildings are. Good on Simon Tillotson for making it available as a home for the post office, but it makes you wonder what other community needs the building might serve in future.

The new post office inside the Co-op on Cromwell Road is now open, two counters to serve the whole of Whitstable, on the site of the old Royal Mail delivery office.

Things have come full circle. People will be popping in to collect their packages again, as they did for many years, on almost exactly the same spot.

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From The Whitstable Gazette 22/02/18

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, Room B119 Canterbury College, New Dover Road, Canterbury CT1 3AJ

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Whitstable People: Julian Spurrier

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain,
That was not made by the hands of men.

Ripple by The Grateful Dead

Something tragic always happens at Christmas. This year it was the death of my dear friend Julian Spurrier, who passed away on the morning of December 31st 2017.

Typical Julian, courteous to the last. He wanted to get the grim stuff out of the way in time for the New Year celebrations.

His illness was sudden and catastrophic. Barely a month ago he was still out walking his dog, or going to the Labour Club, having a few drinks and catching up with the gossip, as was his wont.

Then one day he was overwhelmed with tiredness while out on a walk. He had to lie down on the footpath in the woods to recover.

He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A few days before Christmas there was still talk of treatment, but the cancer had spread throughout his body by then and it was already too late. He went into a hospice, and within a week he was dead.

He died without pain. A friend, who went to see him, told me his eyes were soft, at peace.

What can you say about Julian? He was extraordinary: possibly the most kind, the most welcoming, the most generous person I ever knew. He was funny, irreverent, anarchic, mischievous and an old fashioned gentleman, all at the same time.

He liked nothing better than being the host at an impromptu party. My most abiding memory is of him preparing wine glasses in the kitchen. He had a whole ritual around this: pouring hot water into the glass, then polishing it till it shone; after which he would emerge, tea towel draped over his shoulder, a tray full of glasses, sparkling and filled to the brim, to serve to his guests.

I knew him for 40 years or more. I shared a house with him. He taught me to drive, and helped to bring up my son.

The last time I saw him was was on Thursday the 19th October 2017. I know this because my brother was over from America. We went out for a drink and ended up at the Labour Club.

Julian was at the bar before I even had chance to order. That was one of his tricks. He always had to make sure he got the drinks in first.

He said to my brother: “Thank you for bringing Chris out. I don’t see enough of my old friend.”

Those were almost the last words I heard him speak.

The night before he died I couldn’t sleep. My heart was pounding in my chest. I was restless and itchy and my brain wouldn’t stop churning, I didn’t know why. I had to get up. I went and sat in front of my computer.

There are two songs I associate with Julian. One is Ripple, by the Grateful Dead. I’d been singing it that morning in Tesco, no doubt to the annoyance of everyone at the delicatessen counter.

The other is I’ll Fly Away by the Kossoy Sisters, from O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coen Brothers movie. It was Julian’s favourite film.

I’d sent a friend a link to it earlier in the evening. So I dug out the email and clicked on the link to listen to the song.

The words are very precise and very apt.

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away, fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away, fly away

I’ll fly away, fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away, fly away, in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away, fly away

I wasn’t thinking of this in a religious way. I don’t know if there’s a God or not. I don’t know what lies after death. But I wanted Julian’s passing to be swift, for him not to have to suffer, and the idea of him flying away into the clear blue sky, like a bird, seemed the perfect image of what I wished for him.

When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away, fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away, fly away

I was thinking of my Mum’s passing. Her last few months were spent bed bound in hospital, her body a twisted, useless wreck. It was like her spirit was shackled to a corpse. She could do nothing for herself. She was utterly dependent. She was, indeed, in prison. When she died, it was as if she had broken free.

So I was wishing this for my friend. May he break out of the prison of his bound and broken body. May he be free to journey to the next realm, wherever, whatever, however that may be.

After a while I went back to my bed and tried to sleep. I was not very successful. My heart kept thumping in my chest and I dozed fitfully for the rest of the night, the words of the song echoing in my head.

I’ll fly away, fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away, fly away, in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away, fly away,
In the morning…

It was when I got up in the morning that I heard that he was gone.

So now it’s goodbye Julian, my old friend. I saw you drunk a hundred times, but I never saw you angry or aggressive. I never saw you violent. I saw you make any number of mistakes, but I never saw you lay the blame on anyone else for your own shortcomings. I saw that you lived your life according to a routine at times, but you never lost the light of possibility from your eyes, and you never gave in to hatred or scorn.

I only lived around the corner from you, no more than five minutes walk, but I never came to visit. That’s because I always knew you were there, and I could visit any time.

How wrong I was. I won’t make that mistake again. I will cherish my friends from now on.

Every minute of every day, every heartache, every pain; every smile, every laugh, every moment of joy; every weary step along the way, by the same old roads through the endless changing days: it is all so precious, it is all so alive. Let me know the value of everything that touches on my life, and let me never forget.

You, my friend. Let me never forget you.

Friends pay tribute to local Labour stalwart Julian Spurrier:

http://www.kentonline.co.uk/canterbury/news/tributes-pour-in-for-well-known-labour-stalwart-157905/

http://www.cjstone.co.uk/

Whitstable Shops: where a postman buys his socks

I’m a part-time postman. I walk, on average, between ten and twelve miles a day, three days a week, throughout the year. That’s about 1,500 miles a year: a lot of walking. I go through about two pairs of shoes a year. And yet I’ve been wearing the same three pairs of socks for the last three years.

How could this be?

They are mighty good socks.

Not only that, but I can wear them for a week, or even more, and they never smell. They are soft on the feet and very comfortable. They are made of bamboo fibre, and are, quite simply, the best socks I’ve ever bought.

I wear them in conjunction with merino wool socks made by Bridgedale, which I bought in 2008 and have been wearing ever since. I have two pairs of these. The combination of the warmth and comfort of the merino wool on the outside, and the softness and hard-wearingness of the bamboo fibre next to my skin, is perfect for the kind of gruelling regime I put my feet through on a daily basis.

The bamboo socks are made by a company called Bam, who make bamboo clothing of all sorts. I’m sure you can get them on the internet, but I, personally, buy mine at Herbaceous in Oxford Street, Whitstable.

They cost £4.50 a pair, which is quite a lot for a pair of socks, but, when you consider how long mine have lasted, that is actually a great investment.

Seriously: every time I’m forced to put on a different pair of socks, I regret it. They load up with bacteria and smell like ripe Camembert within a day. The bamboo socks never do. They are still fresh and clean-smelling even after several days of heavy use.

I love them so much they’ve become the standard Christmas present for all of my male relatives. How could that be wrong? Everybody needs socks, and who wouldn’t be pleased with the most comfortable, soft, long-lasting and sweet smelling socks in existence?

The reason I go to Herbaceous to buy them is that the owner, Belinda Murray, is an independent trader, of the sort who should be encouraged in our town.

She not only sells socks, but also wholefood, herbs and spices, eco-friendly washing products, ethnic goods, scented candles, jewellery, incense, and a large selection of gifts, like statues of the Buddha, sandalwood soap dishes and sun-catchers.

Belinda works very hard, and for not much of a return. It’s difficult being an independent trader in Whitstable these days, what with all the big supermarkets circling the town like vultures, but, actually Herbaceous remains very competitive.

Why not pop is and take a look some time? There are some great gifts on sale and you might be pleasantly surprised at the prices.

Plus you can buy a few pairs of bamboo socks while you’re at it.

Herbaceous website: http://www.herbsandremedies.com/

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Herbaceous-182513695129169/

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Whitstable People: Ritchie Harnett

House prices are driving people away.

People on Island Wall, Nelson Road and the adjoining streets, will have noticed that they have a new postman.

This is because their old postman, Ritchie Harnett, has moved to Grimsby.

There’s been a lot of talk about house prices in the paper recently. Ritchie’s move is the perfect illustration of that.

He has a growing family to care for and needed more space. He simply couldn’t afford to get a bigger house in the town on his income.

His family have lived in Whitstable for generations. He was born and brought up here. He went to school here. His relatives are here. His roots are here. Everything he has ever known is in this town.

On the other hand, most of his contemporaries have long since moved away. They too, like him, couldn’t afford to live in Whitstable any longer.

It’s a five hour drive from Whitstable to Grimsby, which means it will be very difficult for his Mum and Dad to get to see their grandkids.

On the plus side: the house he has brought up there is four times the size of the one he lived in in Whitstable, with a garden five times the size. He says his new kitchen is the size of the ground floor of his old house.

Also, his new office is within walking distance of his house, unlike the Whitstable office, which is eight miles away.

He probably never would have wanted to move had the delivery office not been shifted to Canterbury.

Ritchie was very popular with his customers. I spoke to one of them who told me they trusted him implicitly. There was even a petition going around trying to persuade him to stay.

Let me assure them: their new postman is just as trustworthy and reliable, just as honest as Ritchie, and will serve them just as well.

Nevertheless it is a measure of everything that is wrong in this world that postal workers and other people doing essential jobs, such as Ritchie, can no longer afford to live in the towns where they were brought up.

There is a chronic shortage of affordable housing in the UK, something which needs to be urgently addressed.

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From The Whitstable Gazette 10/08/17

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, 5-8 Boorman Way, Estuary View Business Park, Whitstable, Kent CT5 3SE

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Whitstable People: Trevor Seath

An inspiration in work and in defying illness

I went to Trevor Seath’s funeral at All Saints Church last week. Readers will remember Trevor, of course. He was the councillor for Harbour Ward from 1983-1987.

He was the first Labour councillor in Whitstable for many years, and the front page of the newspaper at the time showed a picture of him leaping one of the breakwaters on the beach in celebration.

That was Trevor: always full of energy and enthusiasm.

I first met him in 1984, not long after I first came to the town. I remember him as a friendly, approachable, slightly nervous character, who chain smoked all the time.

We had many conversations in those early days, and it was a pleasure to meet someone as idealistic and optimistic as me.

31bij-ise3l-_bo1204203200_In later years he and Julia Seath (herself also a councillor for a while) had a profound influence on me, although they probably didn’t know it. They leant me a book, called Witness Against the Beast, by EP Thompson: a biography of the poet and engraver, William Blake. Thompson traces Blake’s lineage back to something he refers to as The English Dissenting Tradition: to the antinomian sects who proliferated during the English Civil War.

Reading about the existence of such a movement made it clear to me that that was where I came from. It gave me renewed confidence in my political standpoint to be able to tell people that I was part of the venerable tradition of English Dissent.

Trevor was diagnosed with Dementia in 2012, but, instead of allowing it to undermine him, he rose up to embrace the illness. He became a spokesman for the Dementia and Alzheimer’s community, dispelling myths and taboos and raising public awareness about the condition.

The funeral was a lively affair, with the Church packed with people who had come to pay their respects.

The standout moment, for me, was singing William Blake’s great dissenting anthem, Jerusalem. It’s a series of questions to which the answer is always “yes!” Funerals are supposed to be sad affairs, but it’s hard to be sad when roaring out such life-affirming truths.

I feel certain that Trevor would have wanted to join in.

Obituary in the Whitstable Gazette: http://www.kentonline.co.uk/whitstable/news/former-councillor-leaves-legacy-in-125845/

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From The Whitstable Gazette 18/05/17

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, 5-8 Boorman Way, Estuary View Business Park, Whitstable, Kent CT5 3SE

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Whitstable People: Phil Cartwright

Cancer doesn’t have to be a full stop. See it as a comma

Most of you will remember Phil Cartwright, Canterbury City Council’s answer to Clint Eastwood.

He was the Labour Councillor for Whitstable till 2014, when the party deselected him.

I worked with him a couple of times, on the Post Office issue, and on the campaign to keep our delivery office open in 2012.

Friends of his will know that he recently had an operation to remove a cancer from his bowel.

He told me that he saw the object during a pre-op scan. It was like a giant chick pea, he said.

The good news is that the operation was successful, the cancer was removed, along with its blood supply.

The bad news is that one of his lymph nodes still has cancerous cells showing, which means that he has to undertake a course of chemotherapy, which he describes as like a mopping up operation.

I must say, for a man who has just come out of hospital after having had cancer, Phil is looking remarkably well. He’s lost a lot of weight, his skin is translucently healthy, he has a spring in his step and a sparkle in his eye.

I went to see him and his wife, Dee, to talk about it. He tells me that he doesn’t want me to make out like he’s a hero battling cancer. He didn’t choose this fight. He says: “I want people to understand that fear gets in the way.

“I’m not brave, just too busy getting fit and ready for the chemotherapy to work.

“Too often people look on cancer as a full stop. It’s not. Thanks to modern medicine it’s hardly a comma in a lot of cases today.”

There are still moments of trepidation, of course.

He says that fear is like an unwelcome relative; but the worst of it is the feeling of being in limbo, of being in other people’s control.

He’s writing a blog about his progress, to which the photographer, Steve Woods, will be contributing pictures.

The blog is called “SHH… IT HAPPENS…” and is on wordpress: http://wp.me/P8yP6Y-2

I’m sure that Gazette readers will want to wish him a speedy recovery.

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From The Whitstable Gazette 20/04/17

The editor welcomes letters on any topical subject, but reserves the right to edit them. Letters must include your name and address even when emailed and a daytime telephone number.

Send letters to: The Editor, 5-8 Boorman Way, Estuary View Business Park, Whitstable, Kent CT5 3SE

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Whitstable people: Peter Cushing

Town was the perfect place for an actor who sought obscurity

I moved to Whitstable in 1984. It was a very different town back then.

It was relatively undiscovered at the time. The only famous person living here was Peter Cushing, who enjoyed the town’s obscurity, I suspect, precisely because it gave him a degree of freedom to get on with his life unmolested.

People left him alone. You’d see him swishing about the town on his bike, or taking tea in the Tudor Tea Rooms but, aside from the occasional nod of recognition, that was about as far as any interaction would be likely to go.

I did canvas him once. This was when I was the election agent for the Labour Party candidate for the County Council elections in – I think – 1985.

I knocked on his door not knowing it was his house. He was polite but firm, telling me that, as an actor, he didn’t get involved in politics.

He didn’t need to introduce himself, and I didn’t need to ask his name. Both of us knew I knew who he was.

I was in the Tudor Tea Rooms when he was taking tea on one occasion. The cafe was full of eligible widows of a certain age, all dolled up and twittering with barely concealed excitement at his presence, but his interest was clearly more with the young waitresses who were serving him, with whom he kept up an almost continuous conversation. I suspect he tipped very well.

I know he loved Whitstable very much and can recollect seeing a sentimental poem about the town by him in one of the local papers.

And that’s about as much as I ever came to know about Peter Cushing’s life in our town.

I was there as his funeral procession made its way along Harbour Street. The town was very full on that day, and there were photographers from the national press elbowing people out of the way and climbing up on step ladders to get a better shot, and TV cameras from all the networks fronted by reporters with microphones.

I suspect that may have been the reason he came to the town in the first place: to get away from all that attention.

Whitstable People: Iain Gremo

Three stories about Iain Gremo, of Whitstable, who died on April 14th 2012.

1. Requiem for a Dreamer

It was in the woods on Tankerton Slopes that I bumped into him, this skinny old tramp with a beard. He was carrying a plastic bag with all his things in it. He sat down on the bench and started rolling a cigarette, clearly puffed out with the effort of getting up the hill. I said, “that cigarette won’t help.” And he said, “I know, I was just wondering if I needed one or not.”

Well he must have decided he didn’t need one after all, as he put his rolled up cigarette into his tobacco pouch and carried on his way.

“See you later Chris,” he said, and waved me goodbye.

That startled me. How did he know my name? He was this dirty old tramp, almost on his last legs by the looks of it. I couldn’t remember ever having met him before.

And then something began to register. I watched him as he laboured his way up the rest of the hill, looking frail and old and already half drunk, though it was early in the day yet. There was something familiar about him. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I kept looking and looking hoping that my gaze might begin to unlock the mystery. There was like the ghost of another person in his features, someone younger and more vigorous, someone I might have known in a past life.

It took a while for it to click. It was some weeks later, and I was delivering letters. I delivered one to a house which until recently had been empty, but was now in the process of being renovated. The letter was for an ex-resident of the house, someone I knew from my drinking days. That’s when it registered who the tramp had been. It was Iain Gremo, a drinking buddy from the old days. That’s who the letter had been for.

Well I say, “the old days” and that makes it sound like it was halfway back to the Middle Ages or something, but the last time I saw Iain Gremo was only about five years ago. And he wasn’t that old: in his early fifties maybe. Certainly a lot younger than me.

The last time I’d seen him had been in the Labour Club. I’d cut down on my drinking by then and rarely went out any more, but this was a special occasion. I went to meet a friend of mine who I knew always went out for a drink after work. I guess I was looking for company. And Iain was there, and he joined us at our table.

I can’t remember what we talked about. Talking with Iain was always a bit of a tussle. There was a kind of edge to his banter, as if he was privy to some source of knowledge I had no access to. That was the tone behind his words, as if he knew something I didn’t.

I can remember one occasion. I don’t know whether it was then or some other time. I was talking about politics: about the exploitation of one part of humanity by another, about the social breakdown in our world. And Iain said, “what about the animals? We are destroying the animal kingdom. Maybe the world would be better off without us human beings.”

That registered with me. He was talking from some other point of view than mine, though it made sense. But what I hadn’t realised at the time was the note of fatalism in his words. Maybe he was already planning on taking out the human race one at a time, starting with himself.

He could be quite funny and quite annoying at the same time. He talked about sex a lot, with a kind of visceral relish, licking his lips as he did so. And there was one occasion on one of the Friday night jam sessions down the Club when he dominated the proceedings by singing this impromptu song. He was making the words up as he went along and, while it was funny for the first few minutes, it soon began to wear. There were other musicians than Iain waiting to play: musicians who knew how to get along with other people, who knew how to blend in, who weren’t trying to dominate the evening. It was a joke, but not a particularly funny one. He was laughing, but he didn’t care if you were laughing with him or not. He was very drunk.

But the point about this Iain was that he was still full of life. The old tramp I’d met on Tankerton Slopes seemed to have no life left. He’d aged at least forty years in less than five. He was the living embodiment of Einstein’s theory, that time is relative. He was like a man at the end of his life, a man for whom time had already run out.

I only saw him once more after that. This was near the level crossing on Glebe Way. He walked right past me but didn’t recognise me this time. It must have been about mid morning, when I was at work. Again he was carrying a plastic bag, which I imagined had alcohol in it by the way he was staggering, but he was stopping to drink milk from a carton. He stood on Glebe Way, on the approach to the level crossing, and he was pouring milk down his throat. After that he went on his way, through the gate and over the level crossing. For some reason I stood staring at him, watching him go on his way. It was like I’d had a premonition. I wanted to call out to him, but didn’t. He was even dirtier and more decrepit looking than before. I imagined he must have been sleeping under one of the beach huts over on West Beach.

That was the last time I saw him.

Afterwards I kept thinking about him. What had happened? He was so skinny, the thought of AIDS popped into my mind. I couldn’t think what else might have enervated him so much. Later I rang up a friend and asked him.

It wasn’t AIDS, my friend told me, it was alcohol. He was drinking a bottle of vodka a day. After that he’d stopped paying the mortgage and had lost his house. So now he was homeless and alcohol dependent too. The descent had happened really quickly after that. Within the space of little more than a couple of months he’d turned himself into that broken down old man I’d met on Tankerton Slopes. It was really startling how quick it had been. From a man with a life, to a man with just the remnants of a life. He’d become a ghost, a walking ghost: a shadow walker in the realm between life and death.

I decided I needed to talk to him and went looking for him, but by the time I did that he was already dead.

I can’t tell you when he died exactly. It was last week, about the same time that I was talking to my friend on the phone about him. Maybe even at the exact same moment. Someone must have found the body. The police came and picked him up and took the body away.

I’d like to blame someone, to say that something more should have been done, but from what I hear everything that could have been done, had been done. The social services had been alerted and he’d spent time in a homeless shelter, but he’d upped and left there of his own accord. No doubt there were drinking restrictions and he wanted to drink. His friends had tried to help him, but he was so out of control in the end no one could do anything. The drink had him. He’d given his life over entirely to drink.

I’ve just remembered something. This was a few weeks back. There was what looked like a dead body sprawled on the pavement just off Canterbury Road. It was curled up on the curb in a half foetus position. It was only when I went up to him that I realised he was breathing and fast asleep, dead drunk in the middle of the day. I was delivering letters and had to get on with my round, but I spoke to one of the residents and suggested they ring the police. I don’t know if they did. We exchanged a few words about drunkenness and what leads people to get into such states. It’s only now that I recognise that it was Iain Gremo.

And that’s it. What more can you say? A man has died. He clearly chose his own end. People offered him help, but he didn’t want help. The drink had become more precious to him than life.

People need to remember this when they think about drugs. Drink is a drug too. Drink can kill a man as surely as heroin can. More surely, in fact. The heroin death is a relatively peaceful death. It’s like you are going to sleep, like your lungs simply can’t be bothered to breath any more. It’s actually very hard to overdose on heroin. But drink is like poison. It shuts down the body one organ at a time. It eats at the liver and it eats at the brain. It eats at the heart and it eats at the limbs. Your blood vessels begin to explode from the inside and you die very slowly over a period of months.

Iain Gremo had begun to die more than a year ago. Perhaps he’d decided to die. It’s hard to imagine what must have been going on in his mind. It was like a Faustian pact in reverse. Instead of selling his soul for power and prestige, he’d sold his life for a measly drink. It’s kind of sad, but he can’t be any worse off now than he was those last few times I saw him, utterly drained of purpose or direction, utterly drained of meaning, just looking for the next drink.

Well I say that, but what do I know? Maybe he decided he preferred living out of doors, and it was the sudden cold snap which got to him.

Who knows what was going on?

But the skies have been crystalline of late and the sunsets have been wild.

So I hope his last sight on earth was of one those epic skies. I hope he gave his heart up to the vastness of the sunset, that he took his last breath as the stars began to sparkle over the darkening estuary, and that his soul was carried out into the channel by the off-shore breeze.

2. Facebook

The above story was my first reaction after I read the news of Gremo’s death in the local paper.

Initially I called it Requiem for a Drunk, but afterwards changed the name to Requiem for a Dreamer. This was partly because one of the family contacted me saying they didn’t like him being remembered in this way. But it was also because it seemed to me that, like a lot of addicts, he was really a secret romantic.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot in the last week. We were never what you would call close, but we were contemporaries, and I spent a good few evenings with him back in the old days, ruminating about the state of the world. We both had a tendency to barroom philosophy after a certain time of night, if you know what I mean.

He had a characteristic smile: enigmatic, sceptical, amused. Almost the last time I saw him was up on Tankerton Slopes, but his appearance had changed so drastically that I failed to recognise him. Only the smile was familiar. Later, when I thought back to that occasion, it occurred to me that he knew I didn’t recognise him, and that it amused him to say my name and to watch my startled reaction.

I’ve also realised that I’d seen him about the town more often than I first remembered, usually round the back of an off-license with a bottle in his hand, or slumped on the pavement in a drunken stupor. I just hadn’t recognised him, that’s all. He’d become like a ghost even before he died, living a strange kind of twilight existence, halfway between the living and the dead.

What puzzles me is what drove him to this state? It wasn’t like he was lonely or lost. He had family, he had friends. He was in his own town. The place he died was just around the corner from the place he’d been brought up. But it was not a physical place Iain inhabited in the end. It was a spiritual place. And in this place, it seems, you can be lost even in your own town, and lonely even when surrounded by friends.

Obviously the drink got to him, and it should be a warning to any of you secret drinkers out there just how dangerous a drug it is. But there was also something wilful in his demise. It was like he’d had enough of the world and all its hurt.

That’s what I mean when I say he was a secret romantic. He felt the world’s pain more deeply than he liked to pretend. Drink was his way of anaesthetising himself from the world and its serial disappointments. It was his form of self-administered absolution, a release from the pain and guilt of being alive.

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Gremo’s image on Facebook

After I’d written the article I went looking for a picture of him on the internet. There are three. One of them is of him with his band, Bad Apples. You can see that below. They had a CD out which was reviewed on Red Sands Radio, here. One of their songs is called “Gimme a Drink.” I imagine this could have been written by Iain.

Another is of him towards the end. This one is a mug shot released by the police at a time when he went missing and people had begun to be worried about him. He is already looking like a tramp by this time, already in a state of decline. He’s lost the smile by now, and has that angry look you often see on the faces of street people.

But the oddest one is the one on his facebook page. He’s in a house, so it was before his catastrophic descent into alcoholic madness. He has a sort of half-smile on his face. I’d say he’d had a few drinks by this time by the look of his eyes: sort of drooping and unfocused.

On his profile he writes: “tip top M.F…er. Bloody good guitarist! Enjoy a jam with talent. and like motorbikes.”

This might have been his last attempt at domesticity, setting up a facebook page for himself, writing his own obituary, his own assessment of what was meaningful in his life.

I wanted to see his page properly, to see what he’d been up to, so sent a friend request. It was on an impulse, and I realised immediately how stupid it was. There was no one there to grant my request, or to friend me back. But the very existence of a facebook page is peculiar. It’s like a residue of Iain’s life haunting the internet, a ghostly presence, a digital reminder of his previous incarnation.

My article consisted of my last memories of Iain, plus some speculation about what might have happened to him. There was a thread of anger in it, as if I couldn’t quite forgive him his death. I’m always angry with people who die young. They remind me how fragile and temporary our place on this planet really is.

It was hard to imagine what might have driven a person to throw away his life like this. But then something struck me. Maybe I wasn’t giving him enough credit. What if he liked living out of doors? What if his death hadn’t been an accident?

All of a sudden I had a clear picture of him in his last moments, sitting on West Beach, looking at the sunset.

It would have been a sight that had greeted him all his life. The sunsets on Whitstable beach are renowned: vast, holy, transcendent. In his last days he would have lived with the sunsets as his only compensation.

I burst into tears, seeing him there as he gave up his heart into his beloved sunset. I felt a kind of poignancy mixed with sweet release. He was marking his place in history with the uniqueness and perfection of the sunset. Maybe his end had been more exalted than I thought.

It felt as if he had come to me and told me so himself. Even at the end of life there is truth.

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Bad Apples: that’s Iain there, third from the left

3. Bad Apples

This is the third time I have written about Iain Gremo, the homeless man who was found dead on Whitstable beach on Saturday April 14th this year.

We’ll call him Gremo, as this was the name he was generally known by.

There are a number of pictures of him on the internet. One of them is a mugshot issued by the police just after he went missing on January the 31st 2012. Unfortunately I can’t show that picture here as it seems to be locked in some way.

He’d been living at a guest house in Canterbury Road just before the picture was released, having been made homeless the previous year. The picture has him scowling and frowning. He looks like a tramp.

It’s no wonder he’s unhappy. His life had taken a catastrophic turn for the worse in the last few months. Prior to that he’d had a house of his own, which he shared with a couple of flatmates. He was secure and safe. However, his self-destructive impulses were already to the fore. He was drinking at least a bottle of vodka a day, sometimes more, along with drinks down the pub and cans at home.

There may have been other substances too, but there’s no doubt that it was the drink which was the cause of his final exit from this world

It was alcohol that killed him. Nothing else. The cold might have got to his bones. He was already in a fragile state by the time he went to live on the beach. The winter was damp and cold. No doubt there was a degree of exposure. But it was the alcohol which had taken him to that beach. It was the alcohol which had made him homeless. It was the alcohol which had separated him from his friends and his family. It was the alcohol which had lowered his resistance. It was the alcohol which had plucked the last threads of ambition from his life and which had cast him into this perilous state, homeless, cold, alone, living on a beach.

I don’t know when that photograph was taken or by whom. Possibly by the police, who must already have been alerted that he was in a vulnerable state; possibly by Porchlight, the homeless charity who had tried to re-house him after he’d first lost his house.

He had a choice. The guesthouse they provided him with would at least have been warm and dry. But no doubt there were rules about drinking. Probably Gremo had flouted those rules. Maybe he’d been asked not to drink. Probably he had argued. And then he had walked out of there, preferring life on the outside with the compensation of the bottle, to life on the inside without.

Because in the end, drink had become his only life.

Possibly that’s why he is looking so upset in the picture. He’s just been told he can’t have a drink.

But, you see, there was another Gremo behind all of this. A different Gremo. A very talented and accomplished Gremo. A Gremo who could have made something of his life.

When I wrote the first story about him, I didn’t know about this. I only knew him as a drinker I used to meet down the Labour Club and the East Kent. But actually he was a very good musician. He was a rock guitarist with an interesting and unique take on the standard rock and blues riff. He’d developed a certain contrapuntal style which is usually more associated with traditional folk music than with rock. So he’s playing this driving, powerful rock music, with more than an edge of punk aggression, when suddenly he breaks into a melodic line which might almost be from a jig or a reel. It’s a dancing tune. It has a certain skip in its step. It could be played on a fiddle or an accordion. It’s the sort of tune you might do Morris dancing to, if you can imagine that. Electric Morris. Pogo dancing with clogs on.

The only other person I’ve ever heard play the electric guitar quite like this is Richard Thompson, and he’s a certified genius.

Not that we are calling Gremo a genius, but he clearly had great potential.

He was in a band called Bad Apples, which had made a three track CD, with songs composed by the band. The songs are credited to all the members, but are mainly joint compositions between Dave Thomas, the singer, and Gremo, who wrote the music. The reason I know this is that the drummer in the band, Dom Sullivan contacted me. He sent me links to all of the songs.

The one featured below is called Ants. This is Gremo at his best. He’s clearly enjoying himself, whipping up a musical storm. The first cutaway from the band sees Gremo sitting there in the back room of the East Kent, with that characteristic grin plastered all over his face. He is clearly in his element. Later, when you see him playing the guitar, he has glasses on. I never saw Gremo with glasses. Possibly the only time he wore them was to play his instrument. He was way too vain otherwise.

The band also played one landmark gig, in the Barfly in Camden Town. Dom organised a coach and the usual suspects – the Whitstable ne’er do wells and musos – came up to see them. It was the most important gig they ever played. Half of Whitstable was there.

The band had gone up earlier, in a van, with all their equipment. They were smoking spliffs and drinking all day. It was strictly cider in those days: the hard liquor came later. Dom remembers the journey up, being tossed about in the back of the van, with all the equipment falling on them. He remembers the camaraderie, that feeling of belonging which is unique to a bunch of young guys in a band. He remembers the anticipation of the occasion: a mixture of excitement and fear. It was an important gig, in front of a brand new audience, up there in the Big Smoke. Nervous excitement permeated the atmosphere: nervous excitement mixed with nervous fear, rocket fuel for rock’n’roll.

They were a bit worried about Gremo, as he was drinking very heavily. But they needn’t have. His performance was flawless, not one bum note in the whole gig. Dom remembers one moment particularly. He was the drummer, so he only ever saw the backs of the other musicians. And at one point he was crashing away, putting his whole body into the work, giving it all he’d got, while at the same time willing himself to remember this moment, to not forget this night, when Gremo turned around and winked at him. It was as if he was answering his thoughts.

Gremo used to have a catch phrase. When he liked something he’d say it was “tip-top old man.”

That’s what Gremo’s wink said to Dom the drummer that night, as he was playing his heart out at the back of the stage, willing himself to remember every moment. “Tip-top old man,” it said. “We’ll never forget.”

So that’s what this story is about. It’s not about remembering Gremo in his last days, a dismal ghost wandering the shoreline between life and death: it’s about remembering Gremo the man, when he was very much alive. Gremo the musician, the rock guitarist with an original take on that old blues riff, who partied too hard and who took the consequences, but who lived his life in his own way, always with that sly grin on his face, as if nothing was ever too serious, even death.

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