This is a tribute to a dear friend of mine – popularly known as “Lobster” and by a plethora of other nicknames – written in July 2011, a few days after he took his own life following a long battle with depression. I’ve re-posted it here now, with minor edits, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the most significant “unsent letter” I’ve ever written and probably will be for a very long time. Secondly, because of recent coverage and discussion pegged to Stephen Fry and Paris Jackson: the process of accepting that there’s something which will always make the news, and never be “just news” to you any more is a long one… Obviously, it’s a disjointed and raw piece of writing by nature, but there’s no graphic detail anywhere. There’s colourful language in abundance (though if you’ve ever met either of us, I doubt that’ll come as much of a surprise…).
To my dear, dear Lobster,
First thing’s first: You amazing man. And you absolute sod.
How many times over the last couple of years when we’ve been talking about depression (yours, mine or other people’s) have you assured me that I’m on a home stretch because a person’s suicide risk drops dramatically after the age of 25? According to you, mid-to-late-20s is the magic age when everything starts to fall into place and get easier “I’m not worried about you; if you were going to go truly off the rails, you’d have done it at 19,” you told me in that sage, emphatic way of yours during my slight wobble before Christmas. And now look what you’ve bloody well gone and done to yourself! You’re 39, you daft bugger! If a person’s suicide risk is supposed to drop after 25, yours should be bloody obsolete by now! I knew you dropping offline for a couple of days was ominous, but my worse-case scenario was that you’d had a terrible accident. Suicide?? No way!! Yes way, it turned out. For goodness sake, you have left a trail of people across three continents trying to make sense of the inexplicable. I was already looking forward to your 40th birthday next summer, so I could buy you lots of presents and rib you about your age. And what about our marriage pact, huh? (Mum, bless her heart, joked you probably ended your life because you didn’t want the burden of honouring it). It’s bad enough that you killed yourself; when I found out exactly how you’d done the deed I could’ve choked. Of course I knew you’d had suicidal thoughts in your youth, but you specifically pledged you’d never go through with it in the awful, awful manner that you chose. You had seen friends and clients of yours commit suicide, and the pain it caused to those around them. Most painfully of all (to me anyway), you told me in a conversation during that last wobbly phase of mine that you were confident I was a “survivor” and a “fighter”, who could stubbornly hack most of what life threw at me. But, you added that in the event of a real tragedy – and you specifically said a bereavement – alarm bells would ring and you would want to watch me very closely. Well, I hope you’re watching now, you massive git.
(That was the “Anger” stage in the grief cycle. You said it was normal when we spoke about my cousin’s suicide…).
Right. Selfish rage over with; now onto the nice bit. Let me remind myself – and anyone reading – of just how awesome (or, to use your preferred vocabulary how “bitchenly amazing”) you were…
As with many of the most extraordinary, fascinating, idiosyncratic people I’ve met, the way we came to know each other seemed unprecedented, out of the blue, and, with hindsight, heavily ironic. And it involved the internet. It was back in 2003 (aka my Gap Year From Hell) , when, I was 19 and to say the least, in a mess. It was a miracle anyone wanted to listen to me. But somehow, they did, because the only thing that kept me sane was writing an anonymous blog, which had a following of several people, all strangers at the time, who somehow felt they had something in common with me. One day, in response a particularly low entry, which I’d written while listening to Nirvana’s Best Of, someone who I later learned was you commented, with the typically-silly alias ‘SmellsLikeDeadLobster‘. That blog is still live (Lord helps us…) so I’ve managed to trawl through the archives and find it. It’s dated 29 April 2003 and says:
“It’s amazing how music can define a mood, a feeling or an idea. I use Marillion for the same, but that’s just because I’m ten years older [and ten years sadder, prob’ly]. “No man is an island” – nobody’s ever alone, it’s just finding the people you need. Some of mine are bloggers – but it works, so it’s good enough.”
(Bit ironic now, huh? Perhaps, as others have very astutely said, you often immersed yourself in protecting and listening to others at the expense of healing your own wounds. It’s easily done).
From there on, we became friends…online at first, then later in person, and built up a lovely close-knit circle of mutual friends through our respective blogs. When I, miraculously, made it to university after said Gap Year From Hell, I installed MSN on my laptop – largely so I could chat to the fit bloke at the other end of my building, but I ended up using it to chat to you instead, supplementing the blogging. I was struck by how open-hearted and fiercely intelligent you were (so well-read you put me to shame), and how funny (as in both funny ha-ha and funny peculiar) you were too. Yes, you were weird, but that was part of your charm. You reminded me a bit of Mark Thomas (cockney lefty comedian, those who don’t know). Yet, beneath all of that, I also quickly sensed a very painful past. Your wisdom and unrelenting kindness and compassion, as well as your interest in obtuse philosophy and Buddhism, was born out of having gone through a lot of shit in your youth. Like me, you’d had breakdowns during your teens and 20s, and struggled with “being the outsider.” My carefree childhood years, the late 80s and early 90s, were your worst years. If ever there was a sign of some lingering issues, it was your occasional propensity for running out on me in a panic when we went out – like at the cinema when we went to see the new Mike Leigh film, and more recently at the Wonder Stuff anniversary gig with Maria, which I’m so so sorry you missed most of. She might have been slightly taken aback by it. I wasn’t, because I knew that was just how you were sometimes and, seeing something of myself in you, I accepted it – just like I accepted you were never going to give up smoking, much as I wanted you to. Then there was the legacy of your battle with drink and drugs. Though you’d been sober and teetotal for many years by the time when we met, it was clearly still a very sore point for you. When I absent-mindedly offered you a lager at my house one day, you were like a scalded cat, and you quickly made your excuses and left. You tried to shrug it off afterwards, but I could see it was a huge deal. The brutal truth is – and I speak for myself as well here – the most interesting people are most complex and difficult to live with. But I didn’t appreciate just how complex in your case until now.
I could fill a whole novel with memories of you (hell, it’d probably sell more than the one I’m currently supposed to be writing…). I loved our silly in-jokes, like texting each other names of shops, how you were incredulous that I knew more about bad 80s indie bands than you, and how you used to tease me about my brilliant long-term memory for all those useless little side-anecdotes you used to tell, like the one about you nicking a Simple Minds tape from Debenhams as a teenager. I loved the thoughtful or funny gifts you sent me, sometimes for no particular occasion. I loved the fact that, like many who came of age in the late-80s and early 90s, you were fascinated by East Germany, my mother’s heritage, as well as all the politics surrounding the Cold War. But if I had to define you one way above all, it would be by your filthy sense of humour and your penchant for kink (I forgave you for being a man who looked better than me in fishnets and high heels….). You have, quite simply, the dirtiest mind I’ve ever come across (you’d make an innuendo out of ‘come across’, no doubt). You once memorably declared you would do anything sexually“except for kids, animals, wee and Bonnie Langford.” I’ve been a bit worried about the idea of doing a tribute at your funeral because I’m struggling to think of anecdotes suitable for a respectable audience. I really don’t want your mother joining you after a heart attack upon hearing about you once daring me to yell out “TITWANK!” in the middle of Primrose Hill. Or how you once offered Size Of A Cow by the Wonder Stuff as a song that most reminded you of your ex. Or the time you loudly announced to me, in a train carriage packed full of besuited Beaconsfield businessmen with their heads buried in the FT: “I once got on a train to the wrong end of the country while I was off my head on speed.” Or that you bought me a t-shirt with a Tori Amos lyric splayed across the chest, surrounded by mock jizz stains. Or the um, special device, you gave me, wrapped in a black bin liner sealed with gaffer tape like a sawn off shot-gun (presumably to spare me the blushes in case it fell out of my bag, as things often do…). I will never forget us playing ‘Shag Marry or Kill’ with Labour leadership candidates over lunch last year, or the cunnilingus discussion over coffee near Mornington Crescent. (I’m quite sure the staff of those establishments won’t forget either…). Then there were the six-inch-high PVC fetish boots you gifted me as a good luck present for my degree Finals…I’m really sorry I sold them on eBay later to pay for gig tickets, but at least I was upfront with you about it…
In spite of our frequent risqué banter and a certain amount of will-they-or-won’t-theysexual tension, theory somehow never crossed the line into practice. Maybe it was because you didn’t drink, and out of solidarity I never drank when I was around you – who knows? The furthest you ever went with me was hugging me so tightly I thought I’d split into two and telling me I was “a very, very special person” and a jokey: “Fancy a shag?” as we sheltered from pouring rain in Hyde Park. When I was younger, I always slightly suspected the responsibility of being the first person to unzip me would’ve been unwelcome for you, and in an odd way I’m glad I got all that needless first-time palaver out of the way with a fellow scuzzy undergraduate instead (equally glad that when said scuzzball dumped me shortly afterwards I resisted the urge to break into bits the Kate Bush CD I’d used as mood music, remembering that it was you who’d bought it for me). Your simple mantra when it comes to sexual matters “attitude always wins over technique” has set me up for life and I was always so heartened by the sensitivity and respect you showed towards women in general (well, apart from the time when you likened my relationship success rate to Ann Widdecombe’s….like me, you were an incredibly empathetic person capable of a sudden impromptu tact bypass….). If I’d known our last meeting would truly be our last, I’d probably have found us a room and given you some of my ‘attitude’, so to speak. (I’m not claiming sex with me is enough to dissuade anyone from killing themselves but, y’know, every little helps, doesn’t it….?) Incidentally, mum bought me a Cornetto to cheer me up yesterday afternoon and implored me, with a straight face, to “lick it, don’t bite it” – you would have wet yourself laughing I know…
We came from different backgrounds, an inescapable fact we played up to now and then. You took me to greasy spoons in Romford and teased me by talking in cockney rhyming slang; I took you to Chez Gerard in St John’s Wood, in your customary inappropriate attire of comedy T-shirt and trainers. Ultimately, we wanted subtly different things out of life. I want to travel the world, to meet new people, and punch out a kid or two, you were happier with the quiet life in the small East Anglian village where you’d settled during your recovery – I think these practicalities were the reasons our very profound connection never went beyond friendship. But we were emotionally and politically alike in so, so many ways. For someone who always professed to be socially awkward, your reach and your presence were incredibly profound. I’m sure even people reading this who’ve only met me once or twice will recognise all your influences upon me. You were a very, very good thing in my life at a time when a lot of people and things were very, very bad for it. Being 12 years older than me, you could have patronised the heck out of me, and there must have been times when you were exasperated by me; in particular by my devoting so much thought and energy to people who – unlike you – didn’t really empathise with me or give much of a hoot about me. You never showed it. I’m only sorry you ever had to listen to me drone on and on about people who aren’t fit to shine your boots.
Lobster, I loved you like a brother and a lover, although you were neither. As the cliché runs, I will never stop myself feeling I took you for granted in the weeks before you went and missed some sign I should have heeded. Rest assured I am determined to raise merry hell in your memory: I will suck up to people with money and make them give it to mental health charities, do as much awareness-raising campaigning as I can – professionally and personally – and finally read the books and listen to the CDs you leant me that I still haven’t got around to. But first off, I’m taking what I know would be your advice and sticking to the simple things. Since music was such a big part of our friendship (and since, er, half my MP3 collection is yours…), I’ve made you my own memorial playlist on Spotify (House of Love, Kate Bush, Kirsty MacColl, Faith No More, Wonder Stuff, James, Siouxsie Sioux…even bloody Iron Maiden and Motorhead, though you never inducted me into heavy metal as fully as you’d have liked to…). And I have always treasured your original 1988 copy of the House Of Love’s first album, which you sent me a couple of years ago on a whim after I’d had a bad week at work and said I could keep…it smells of stale B&H cigarettes and has a lovely leaflet inside with instructions on “How to Care For Your CD”.
On a more serious note, I’d love to name my first-born son after you, should anyone ever be nuts enough to get me preggers. However, I know you much hated your real name (as you put it: “Named after Anthony Perkins, closet gay AIDS victim who portrayed cinema’s most famous psychotic – gee, thanks mum…”). So, instead, any future girl offspring of mine are going to have Kirsty and Kate somewhere in their names, as in Kirsty MacColl and Kate Bush. If my future other half objects, they can sleep on the couch for the night (And if I’m single for the rest of my life; I’ll just have to buy more cats….).
I really hope you knew how much you were loved, by me and by others who were fortunate enough to know you. The world needs people like you in spades, and I’m so sorry you didn’t think so enough to stay in it. I will never be able to walk through St John’s Wood tube without a tear in my eye. I would resit GCSE Maths just to be able to see you again for five minutes, or to hear you answer your phone with“‘Ello sweetie!” in your nasal 40-a-day Essex rasp. But, knowing full well myself the horrible, horrible suffering depression can induce, I have to accept your wishes as they were.
One day, we will again trade 80s indie CDs and bawdy humour at a cheapo Italian restaurant in the sky. Til then, whenever I’m struggling with a piece, I will root out the Monty Python clip from YouTube you always used to send me to tell me off for procrastinating. And I will laugh, every time I remember that the last thing you posted on your Facebook page was a video of Touch Me by Samantha Fox (I still have the autographed picture of her you sent me as a wind-up, tucked into a very intelligent book where I’m bound to forget about it and let it drop out one day when I’m trying to wow somebody with my intellect…).
This is long, but hey, t’was ever thus. Unlike many of the subjects of my long ramblings past, you are and always will be thoroughly worth it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to They Don’t Know by Kirsty MacColl and sing all the lyrics wrongly at the top of my voice.
I love and miss you so very much.
If you’re in distress, please call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90. Lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, or email firstname.lastname@example.org