On Monday I lost a good friend in shotgun alley. I’m told that’s a term for our 50s. The idea is that if you make it through the random fire of premature death you’ll probably live to a ripe old age.
I’ve no idea of the veracity of the claim. But on hearing of the death of my friend Tim, I was reminded of something horribly obvious. Death gets closer with advancing years.
I lost a partner and some special friends in my 30s to HIV. I lost a sister in my 40s to cancer. Recently I lost my mum and dad. But now death seems to be lurking in the shadows of shotgun alley. Tim was the third long-standing friend close to my age that I’ve lost this year.
His death didn’t really come on an ordinary Monday morning. My dad died just a couple of weeks ago and the anniversary of my sister’s death was last Friday. And yet despite the niggling anxieties that come with middle age, death wasn’t feeling like a personal threat.
In fact, I was about to download an article by David Aaronovitch in The Times about the mellowness of autumn years. And for me, that’s how it feels largely.
After quite a bit of turbulence, I’ve found a place called home. That’s partly about the beauty and solidity of Edinburgh. But it’s also about a coming to terms with what I have and how and where I want to be. Just be.
I hadn’t seen Tim for a couple of years, but I had a sense, with hindsight perhaps both rightly and wrongly, that part of the reason I’d not heard from him was that he too had found his niche. He had married, relocated, had children, and was running his own housing consultancy with people he wanted to work with.
It transpires, of course, that part of the reason I’d not heard anything lately was that he’d been struck down in shotgun alley.
As often happens, on hearing of his passing I was transported back to some specific moments set against the backdrop of the time during which our friendship was forged.
Tripping lightly out of a union branch meeting addressed by Ken Livingstone and striking miners, charging away from police on an NUM picket line, heading off to parties on the other side of London with no prospect of getting back that night.
More recently Tim wasn’t part of my immediate circle. We met every so often and picked up where we’d left off. And that was the beauty of it. There was no judgement in either direction about not having seen each other for a while, just pleasure that we could still meet up and try and make sense of the world together.
After a long gap at one point, he turned to me at the end of a long evening and said quite spontaneously, ‘It’s good to see you, Chris.’ It was good to see him too.
Our formative friendship had its moment in the sun in the heady days of the early 80s. Both social science graduates not long out of university, we found ourselves working for a Shirley Porter led Westminster City Council, running the housing shop stewards committee and later, with others, the local branch of NALGO.
I was immediately drawn to Tim because of his intellect and style. He was, as a mutual friend from that time remarked this week, a cool dude; while I’d graduated in Politics, he had read Urban Studies.
Tim wasn’t conventionally good looking, but I sort of fancied him and briefly hoped he might be gay. He invited me out for a drink which fed my curiosity. He wasn’t gay but it didn’t matter. In some ways, he was something more important, a straight man who wasn’t afraid of physical affection. And he was a bit of a flirt.
I had not long come out at university, and in doing so had sometimes created an unnecessarily sharp delineation with heterosexual friends. The way Tim approached our friendship blurred those lines. While they were never going to be transgressed, we had more in common than divided us.
We were both still exploring who we were in the world and how we related to others. One of my treasured memories is a Friday night out to drag cabaret at a gay pub called the Union Tavern in Camberwell with Tim and a group of other male friends. I was the only gay in the party but so what?
Tim was a tad mysterious with me about where he lived when we first met. It turned out to be because he was living in a squat in Somers Town in Westminster’s neighbouring borough, Camden. Not the sort of thing to shout about as a housing officer in Westminster.
But it was all part of the radical chic and slight edginess that he brought with him. With its bath in the kitchen, the squat itself was closer to slum than shabby chic mind and I don’t mind admitting that I preferred my comfortable rented room in up and coming Stoke Newington.
Long before the massive redevelopment of Kings Cross, Somers Town was on the edge of a lost world you can glimpse in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. In the early 1980s in the shadows of the gasworks in nearby Battlebridge Road, lots of would-be cool dudes would congregate for impromptu warehouse parties.
In the days before text, everything happened by word of mouth. On one occasion sometime later, after he’d moved to trendy Brixton, we decided after a party at 4.00am in the morning that, at that precise moment, we had to go to Brighton. And off we all went in a cavalcade of probably unreliable cars, only to arrive and wonder quite what we should do next.
These are all the ramblings of a mildly misspent period of youth. But my biggest memory of Tim and the thing that endured was a shared curiosity about politics and how the world might change.
Back then we were romantics, but we were also pragmatists and we were both drawn to Marxism Today’s analysis of Thatcherism in contrast to some of the knee jerk posturing we encountered around us.
The emblematic event of the period was the miner’s strike and it was our response to that which became the linchpin of our friendship. Although both of us were strongly critical of Scargill’s failure to hold a ballot, we wanted to support the miners in their doomed struggle.
Together we set out on the train to Yorkshire to meet up with NUM officials to secure a twinning arrangement for Westminster NALGO with Carcroft NUM.
It was the first of many visits including one on the day the first Yorkshire miner returned to work which we wrote about for the branch magazine, State of the Union. Nearly 30 years later, in the wake of a Panorama programme about Orgreave, I republished the article.
Like many of those around us, our support for the mining communities was unconditional in public. From the comfort of white-collar unionism, it felt at the time to be a great privilege to support real trade unionists in a seismic struggle.
But our romantic pragmatism wasn’t uncritical in private. And it was the kind of questioning we did then which we were to return to in early middle age, about both politics and religion.
That’s what I’ll miss most about my friend. I always had a sense we were on a journey. It was mostly apart both occasionally together. Every now and again we’d pull up at the same station and share notes.
And just a week before he died, I was thinking about how good it would be to do that again. I wanted to ask him what on earth he made of the Corbyn phenomenon. And I wanted to tell him about the place called home I’d finally found and ask him whether he had too.
I can’t do that now. As I’ve been reminded too often lately, death is very final. But I’ve still got everything we had and did together, fragments of him which I’ll take with me on the rest of my journey. In all the aching sadness of the moment, that’s something worth clinging to. How lucky am I?
First published on 30th October 2015