Friday, November 25, 2011

For John: Still Dead, Still Gone

It seems like an age ago now, but there was a time when the Human League were the most exciting thing since Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura stuck a butt plug in her ear and began receiving communications from alien beings.  Gone were the shambling long-haired prog-o-hippies of yore and the wailing banshee of undiluted misery who changed her name from Roberta Joan Anderson to Joni Mitchell.  In their place stood brash new techno bands with haircuts like designer ladies’ handbags.  Of these, the League were the finest, and their lead singer, Phil Oakey, the most evidently clutch.

I first remember hearing them in the back room of a pub called The Union, right at the start of what turned out to be a lifelong experiment with alcohol.  To date, I’ve never seen so many people packed into so small a space, up to and including the celebrated circus contortionists Nicky and Nacky and their Trunk No Bigger Than A Toaster.  When you rubbed shoulders with people in The Union, it was by virtue of having been squeezed through their bodies to the arm on the far side.

In the corner of the room stood a jukebox, gaudy as a gypsy caravan minus the wheels and roughly the same kind of size.  From seven till eleven every Friday and Saturday night it belted out a succession of scratched 45s to the delight of the Union’s motley clientele.  For 5p you could choose from a selection of records to shame an 80GB iPod (so long as you had an hour to spare braving the crush to locate it) and the lone stool beside the jukebox’s hulking magnificence was fought over until closing time by hardcore musos duelling with dodgy roll-ups.

Around this time is when John first appeared on the scene.  He was much older than everyone else who frequented The Union, though how much I’d hesitate to say; when you’re sixteen, it’s still hard to figure out how old people older than yourself really are.  Maybe he was forty, I don’t know.  What I do recall is that his wardrobe looked like it had been dragged out of the nearest Oxfam shop (and by ‘wardrobe’ I mean his clothes, not an actual wardrobe — if he’d turned up for a pint with a wardrobe, either the jukebox or a dozen revellers would have been forced out onto the street).  No sorrier a collection of scuffed and shabby clothes have I seen before or since, all thrown over his careworn frame in varying shades of brown, and when he spoke, his words were even harder to decipher than most over the boom of the jukebox on account of his broken nose.  At some stage in his past he’d been involved in a fight and beaten with a crowbar.  If you think of what you might look like if you’d gone a hundred rounds with Joe Frazier you’ll have some idea of the damage done to his face — especially as Joe Frazier died recently and the only way you could go any kind of distance with him now is if his corpse was strapped like a demolition ball to a very long rope and swung by an ogre at your head.  Clearly, John had led a difficult life and had it not been for drunken idiots like me and my mates, I’m guessing there were very few people in his life to talk to.  Aside from passing comment on the music throbbing from the jukebox and the foolishness of the punks’ fascination for all things ‘safety pin’, his words spoke only of the past: adventures and altercations he’d had with people long since gone from his life.

As we threw on our clothes to go out of a weekend, my mates and I would ponder the John Conundrum.  Would he be around tonight?  Sat in the corner like a beaten anachronism, ready to parley over a pint or two of mixed?  Sometimes he was, sometimes he wasn’t.  If his irregularity had been a matter of choice I don’t suppose he’d have been any different from people like the Eagle Boy Gang, who tended to frequent the Union in their ridiculous tartan get-up only when their special New Romantic Spazz Night had been cancelled by the local night club.  When John failed to put in an appearance, it was usually because of some genuine bother, like being thrown out of his bedsit or getting arrested, all matters upon which he preferred not to dwell too much.  The one time he didn’t show for weeks on end was the one time the police found him dead.

According to my mate Ash (think Jim Morrison but with leatherier trousers and cornea), John was discovered unconscious and struggling to breathe in a grubby public toilet late at night.  By the time he made it to the hospital he was a goner.  No-one ever found out any more.  We didn’t even know his second name.  Maybe we should have mounted a hormone-rich teen expedition to uncover the truth of it all, but when you’re sixteen, you’re kind of stupid that way.  When you’re sixteen, there’s always some new fascination lurking behind every corner and letting go of stuff comes with the zits.  John came and John went, is all, like a television program that grabs you for a few weeks and then is gone.  In any case, if we’d partaken of any kind of fact finding expedition in a public toilet, most likely we’d have ended up in a sorry state too.  So were we heartless for not caring, for not bothering to want to know?  In some ways, probably we were.

What matters now is that John is still as dead and gone as he was in 1981, and I wonder who else remembers him now.  It’s not that I wake up every morning with an image of his broken nose blurring from my pillow, or sit and meditate on his death like a morbid guru whenever I’ve no sandals to crochet.

All I know is, whenever I hear the Human League, his sorry and dishevelled form intrudes on the gaze of my mind’s eye, hauling the Union’s mighty jukebox on his back like Jesus treading his final steps with the cross.

Needless to say, neither Oakey’s handbag vocals nor the rhythm of the synths inspire me to dance in any way.



Geoff's Ghost said...

This one sure is bombing, Whirl...

Sarah Laurenson said...

Sometimes people are just meant to be images in the memories of our best forgotten pasts.

Whirlochre said...

As long as none of them are me for the time being, I'm fine with that...

Donna Hole said...

That was sweet Whirl. You can write my memoire when I'm gone :)

I've had a few acquaintances like this; remembering them at odd times and wondering what happend to them over the years - or knowing they're dead and wondering what could have been.

Even when you are more than 16, life has a way of moving along . .