Simple John: Remembering a strange, sadly-missed friend

Simple John: Remembering a strange, sadly-missed friend

By Malcolm Sharps

[Ed. Note: Although this story from Malcolm Sharps is set in England, it has strong echoes of the Urban Renewal experience of Charlie Gargiulo as related in his recently published memoir, Legends of Little Canada, which was recently reviewed on this site.]

The fact that John was my friend was less significant than that I was his and remained so until the bitter end. John was everyone’s friend, including the idlers and scroungers who came to his house, turned the hi-fi up to maximum and ransacked his booze collection so that finally it wasn’t worth restocking. John was hard-working, he was reliable, he always had a little money kept by. He seemed outwardly conventional, and amongst the crowd of people he surrounded himself with that made him the oddest of them all. In fact, John was the sole representative of the regular nine to five, stolidly responsible, grey suited, business world among a set that included the Art School crowd – pre-diploma and post-diploma rejects, Greens, vegans, the fans of lactose-free, sodium-free, salt-free, sugar-free food, the Gay Switchboard, the suicide survivors who ran a suicide prevention advice service, the Marxists, the Trotskyites, possibly even a self-styled Stalinist. In a small deindustrialising town in the North Midlands there were just a few of each of these, always the same faces, they all knew one another and in their isolation huddled together for warmth. John’s house was a popular huddling place.

John lived to that formula of the sixties and seventies: he was a hippy at the week-end and a straight in the week, a week well-dampened down by plenty of alcohol as an aid to earning his living selling stainless steel tubing for a multinational; John frequently went to the limits of his capacity but I never once saw him drunk. John was like a ring master among temperamental and volatile performers; he himself was the calm centre, he stood unbothered by anything, a guy over six foot tall and carrying a fair amount of flesh, who showed no awareness of himself, of his potential physical power, but gave out a prolonged, benevolent smile that never wavered and never ever broke up into an audible chuckle. In spite of his strictly-cropped, sandy hair, in spite of the grey pants from his suits, in spite of the striped office shirts, John was one of them inside, as knowledgeable about the latest avantgarde music and art as any of his visitors. He was a simple man with plain tastes; he loved daubs and splashes, he loved tangles of materials, he loved absurd installations with outrageous titles, textured single colour paintings, horizontal blocks of screaming colour, living statues, outrageous techniques like bodies dragged naked across a canvas of wet paint, pictures from elephant dung, or nothing but a concept on a small piece of paper fixed to the wall of a gallery. He liked hoaxes too, and regarded bogus art as part of the fun. He repeated the story of the fire extinguisher at an exhibition that people took as another exhibit. He wanted it to be true.

John was no less popular with women than with anyone else; they loved him, in fact, but he never exploited his position and had a long, unpromising relationship going with Lyn, a cook and manager at a local restaraunt bar. She worked long and inconvenient hours and her relationship with her ex-husband was never altogether suspended. John’s meetings with Lyn over many years were irregular and scrambled. The association reached the furthest point it was ever going to reach, then it stalled and she just vanished from the scene. As with other personal matters, both his triumphs and defeats, John never spoke about it.

Into his fifties, into the punk era, John became a Daddy figure to the people who were still coming to the house, the marginals, the politicals, the fadists, the latest art students who seemed to get younger and younger and looked even more highly-strung and underfed, and the permanent art students who had already graduated on the strength of some smart aesthetic theories and no talent and still persisted and still wondered why they weren’t making a living. It was the system. It was against them. John was still everyone’s friend, amid all the conceptual and personal mayhem he was the calm centre. I stuck with him too, I could always rely on John to amuse me, he made no demands, and I wanted to enjoy life as simply as he did.

John might have gone on like this but two disasters hit him, as disasters do, in rapid succession. He was diagnosed with cancer of the colon. And overlapping with that, the municipality tried to buy him out and to evict him from his home. The latter first; that’s the chronology.

What happened to John was something I thought two wars and the eclipsing of the Liberal party and then the Tories by the Socialists had put an end to: local government screwing the local people, and the local people allowing themselves to be screwed; but no, still we learn.

There was currently a housing boom and elements in the town administration wanted to cash in. The plan was to demolish late nineteenth century, privately owned houses and build a Yuppyville of more modern, market-friendly designs. They picked John’s district because, though the houses were actually in much better condition than in many other areas, it had a canal running through it and there was currently a vogue for apartments with balconies (not at all an established English tradition) overlooking water. In the stretched perspective of the City Architect’s drawing, the imagined ‘ville’ came complete with a cycle and jogging track for the yuppies to keep fit on and show off their designer trainers and sweat shirts into the bargain.

Here’s the catch – bigger by far than the simple disruption to people’s lives: the municipality made its offer of compensation to the house owners in a rapidly rising house market and the offers were instantly inadequate to provide a comparable replacement. John, all credit due, refused the offer outright. If it was amazing that such paltry offers were still made, it was more amazing that all but 4 out of over 200 house owners accepted the inadequately low price. You have to hand it to the municipality: they knew the dumbness and passivity of their citizens with scientific precision.

John began a legal battle with the town that initially gave no promise of a speedy or happy outcome. His home became a single occupied building surrounded by a ghost town; it was disorientating and bewildering like something from a surreal art work John might have found interesting had it not been too real to be fun. Visitors picked up the negative vibes, fewer and fewer of them came to the house. The illusory friendship network fell away, I must have been one of the last ones still visiting, though I was now an outsider making irregular visits back to a place from past times.

The town didn’t pay John a penny but while it was legally in dispute and the property otherwise unsellable, effectively it had already taken the house from him. So John followed the logic of his situation and no longer treated the property as his to care for. ‘Wig out’ was the phrase we used in those days and John wigged out categorically; the calm centre collapsed in on itself, he stopped attending to the daily business of maintaining the house, he stopped sweeping, dusting, polishing, things he had done to a necessary degree, at least. If a hinge became loose on a cupboard or a baton came unstuck, he took neither screw driver nor hammer to it. The debris of living, the hairs and dried skin, droplets of food, crumbs and dust deposited by shoes, built up until a haze of detritus enveloped the whole house. As for the toilet, it became a hell hole of sanitary neglect, like a latrine in a Stalag punishment block.

The estate itself took on the look of a scene from a futuristic dystopia, houses abandoned and awaiting the wrecking ball in parts and levelled to the foundations in others. A once thriving area of the city shrivelled like an image in a burning photograph. With a population from four households only, the police regarded the area as functionally uninhabited and largely ignored it, rendering it literally lawless. It was empty but not empty enough. Maybe it was only the one person who ever stalked the deserted planetscape with malice and intent, but on a walk one dark evening John had the luck to cross his path and was the target of an attack. John shook his attacker off as well as any solidly-built six foot three man can a considerably smaller and weaker adversary; but he was shaken by the experience. He spoke little about it, but from then on he used taxis to get home when he wasn’t in his car.

After three years and no settlement and no burgeoning hamlet of yuppy neighbours either, the housing market hit a sudden and dramatic downturn. The offer to John on the table was suddenly more realistic and rapidly became better than realistic, tending towards generous. It wasn’t worth lingering too long and chancing another market reversal, so John accepted the town’s offer.

The first disaster was avoided just as the second one followed on its heels. John hadn’t been in the new house more than a month when the chemotherapy and the radiation treatment started. Not a moment too soon; though John’s cancer responded well to his treatment and he tested negatively a few months on. He was clear. He was back. Back to things as they had been: a reset to prepare for a newly scheduled happy ending? At least 15 more years of a life that celebrated everything that was crazy, anarchistic and fantastical?

But something had snapped inside John when he had abandoned the other house, it happened at the moment he stopped caring for it and decided to preside over its slow decay. It was as though John had accepted that as his destiny and he didn’t believe in his new luck nor the house that went with it. And he carried the worst of his new nasty domestic habits with him.

By now I was often abroad visiting home only occasionally and regarded John’s house as a crashing place on a tour of old friends, but I usually had a female companion with me and John’s Hell Hole 2 offered no invitation for any partner of mine. I visited him just the once alone. The new house was more modern, brighter, flimsier and airier but was already shambling down the same road to ruin as the first and the bathroom was leading the shuffle. Standing in the kitchen looking suspiciously at the stained inside of the coffee cup I was drinking from, I wondered that anyone could live like this and remain healthy.

Weeks, months passed after that single visit until I made a casual call on my mobile to John. Hi, John, it’s me. Sometimes the phone gives a misleading impression of proximity and contact, you get a line that is freakishly clear, no crackles, no crud, no distant echoes of a call on a parallel line. John’s voice came back wonderfully present in my ear, the familiar welcome voice of the old John. Welcome except for his message. Malc, you’ve caught me at a bad time. I’m in NS General. (Naturally I knew the name of the county’s biggest hospital, knew it by the standard abbreviation, who didn’t?) What’s the problem, John? It’s complicated, he said. I waited. It’s got to the kidneys this time, they’re going to take a serious look tomorrow. Complicated. The repetition of the word and his reticence in adding more seemed like a code for ‘it’s not looking good, make it easy for me, please ring off, Malc’. John didn’t try to say any more, I followed his hint. I’ll phone you again sometime, John, sometime very soon. It was the last time I ever spoke to him. He never picked up the receiver or answered an email after that. I tried many times. Nothing.

When you get no reply, you say the reply for yourself in your head. Except you say it many times over and it grows more terrible and ominous each time. Eventually the reply I had to accept seemed to scream out at me in a way that John himself never screamed, he would never raise his voice. Even his laughter was silent. He was such a calm man. Such a simple man. The death of anyone one knows personally is always incomprehensible. First a life; then nothing. Simple enough, but like John himself, the simplicity of it was impenetrable, obscure, confounding, complicated.

5 Responses to Simple John: Remembering a strange, sadly-missed friend

  1. Steve O'Connor says:

    You’ve compacted a whole life into this short piece. I feel like I knew the guy.
    It’s very perceptive, very real, and very sad. Un coeur simple, as Flaubert might have said, in a complicated world.

  2. Peter Bendall says:

    This is a deeply felt account of a friendship and a vivid evocation of a distinctive personality, whose development and decline is charted against the backdrop of his decaying post-industrial surroundings, which Malcolm Sharps depicts and analyses with his usual insight and range of descriptive resources. Even though I have never been to the town described, this account of a small part of it is so convincing that I almost feel I must have; and John’s is a type of character that anyone at university in the sixties or seventies, apart from recluses, would have encountered, yet at the same time, in this account, a highly individual one, whose sheer state of being enlists our sympathy.

  3. Louise Peloquin says:

    This exquisitely etched piece on the unique individual who “showed no awareness of himself,” contrarily to today’s countless navel-gazers, turns “first a life, then nothing” to “first a life then its continuation” in the hearts and minds of friends like you Malcolm. Whoever reads this cannot help but love John too. And the description of “a once thriving area of the city shrivelled like an image in a burning photography” hits home for many of us here across the “pond.”

  4. Malcolm Sharps says:

    Thanks for the responses – they mean a lot to me.
    I’ll place this now so more readers can see it. Towards the end of his life John finally found a job which could combine his business acumen and his love for the arts: he became a sponsorship promoter for a foundation which ran one of the two theatres in his hometown. People believed in him, so they believed in his cause. There had to be a connection between the two, but soon after we lost John, the theatre went under.

  5. James says:

    If you were one day to publish a collection of these portaits of modest people, in good time, it would be a great work of literature. They are individually like this, too.