Tuesday, 14 February 2017

My friend David

Early in the week I learned that my good friend David S Tails had passed away following a period of depression. I am deeply shocked. As to the direct cause, I await confirmation.

I rather expect his recent condition was a contributing factor if not the cause. For those who knew him, I don't want anybody feeling at all guilty for any reason. The last time I saw Tails he was quite insistent that he was "nobody's project". He gave me a very stern glare to butt out when I confronted him about recent behaviour. Whatever he was going through he was determined to handle it alone. Over the last year he has been increasingly distant. I had to respect his wishes.

With depression it is quite normal to go to ground to fight ones own inner demons alone. On the occasion I last called at his house he was dazed and distant, looking gaunt. He later told me he was putting weight back on but there was no outward sign of this. He was increasingly private about it.

Fairly regularly he would come with me for a day trip out in the car. The last time I think was Birmingham where he seemed his usual self. It was a good day. I believed he was fighting his way out of his hole. Depression though is an unpredictable thing. Sometimes you go into the cave to fight the demons and the demons win.

I was due to see him just before Christmas when our friend Toby was in town. He didn't show up, nor did he make any effort to get back in touch. That's normal though. He's never been that reliable with social commitments. I'm certainly not alone in leaving him to his own devices in the expectation he would resurface when he was ready. I spoke to him very briefly just four weeks ago so I at least knew he was alive and responding to people. I'd seen that he was out and about so I saw no reason to be concerned.

In his low moments you could see a man who had lost his way. He was lonely, sad and was not looking after himself. I don't know for sure how he was sustaining himself. He hadn't been working for some time. It's possible he was being frugal with redundancy money. That I know of he was not a big home drinker and lived a very austere lifestyle. He didn't really do technology or smart-phones. He was a make do and mend sort of person. He was a man out of time. He never looked more at home than in a friend's kitchen which has not been updated since 1950. Still, he didn't take very good care of himself. He lived in squalor even by my standards.

Tails is not the first of my friends to die alone this way. It seems to be a thing these days. Intelligence is as much a blessing as a curse. There was real depth to Tails.

I would try to get him to talk, but mostly he was a good listener. He would let me ramble for hours which makes me wonder if at some point I should have shut up and listened to him. But then we did talk about him. We tried to get to the bottom of it but he was not a man who was going to do himself any favours. Most of us don't I guess. We are all ultimately defined by the things we do to kill ourselves.

According to Toby, Tails was updating his CV just recently with a view to going back to work. I think he was at a loss as to what he was going to do. He grumbled about his old job but I think he found it interesting. I think that left a big hole in his life. He seemed to enjoy the first few months off but that's when he started to decline.

In the end he was surrounded by many good people who knew him well and loved him. He had a rich and varied social life. Enviably so. Plenty of people would have done anything for him but as with anybody, you can't help people unless they want help. You cannot force it on them. I did on occasion try, but ultimately you cannot live other people's lives for them. Tails made is quite clear that I wasn't to interfere. He was quite adamant. As far as he was concerned his depression was his business alone.

As I write this I am presently numb with shock, but at the same time not altogether surprised. I always knew this is how it would go. Just seems too soon. What I do know is that he leaves a very big hole. I depended on Tails a lot. Very few people understand what I do or why I do it, least of all me, and I don't think Tails was even bothered. He would just make space to listen to me blather on. But also, he would force me to try new things and show me new places. I have been in Bristol just short of ten years and most of what I know about Bristol, and all its hidden secrets, is through Tails. His world was very different to mine but I am very glad to have seen inside his Bristol.

On those day trips of ours we would end up in some far flung places and we would marvel at the unexpectedness of it along with the absurdity of our friendship. In many ways we had absolutely nothing in common. What we mainly shared was the love of a decent ale and a nihilistic streak a mile wide.

Being a man not inclined to plan and absolutely incapable of organising anything in advance, I tend to live each day as it comes. The thing I value the most is those days when I can get out to the coast or the countryside just to get away from it all. They are always good days but it was always good to have Tails along. I'm sure he wasn't the least bit interested in my military history lectures but he was always up for road trip. He was a hopeless navigator and very often a complete space cadet. It would really get on my nerves. He did have a singular talent for testing my patience.

What I enjoyed the most was seeing what he found interesting. He would pay attention to all the things I would generally ignore. We would always find a retro shop or something obscure that would catch his attention. He had an interest in vintage obscurities - and he was one who would always inspect any restaurant menu in full. There was a man who knew his food. He would stop me ordering the usual steak and chips and make try other things.

Mostly though we shared a very dark sense of humour. He had a very bleak outlook and he knew bullshit when he saw it. It was always interesting to see the contrast between his public face and the person he was around me. Most knew him as an energetic life and soul of the party. I didn't really involve myself in his social life but I see from the photos that he enjoyed horseplay and goofing around. He was an accomplished swing dancer and compère act. That though was not the man I knew. I knew him as a quiet and private man. He was often contemplative. Some Saturday mornings we would go out for breakfast and a coffee somewhere and actually say very little at all.

Then there were the times when he would suggest something out of the blue where we would end up walking around an abandoned factory in the middle of the night in the pitch black. He was driven by an innate curiosity and that is what I found most appealing. And for a self-confessed mardy bastard he was far more interested in people than I.

We didn't see each other all the time. Months would pass where I saw nothing of him at all. I think that was normal for him though, but over the years we cemented a close relationship and I have many anecdotes and fond memories. I am certain that Bristol is now a smaller place for his loss and things just won't be the same. Somehow a night out didn't feel complete if Tails didn't show up. I am sure that for many, his further absence will have the same effect. Already my inbox is filling up with messages of utter disbelief. I can barely absorb it myself.

David was witty, funny and thoughtful man. My life was certainly better for knowing him and I shall miss him. He was fiercely independent, intensely individualistic and not minded by the opinions of others. I loved that about him. He was a tortured soul but he was also generous of spirit and kind. One of the kind. He made time for people in their hour of need and he was patient. If you have one friend like that, treasure them.

I first met Tails in Leeds. He was using a friend's spare room for storage of his stock of clothes. He ran a stall selling Cyberdog clothing. I thought him an unremarkable man and my opinion of people who wore Cyberdog gear was not generous. From that point I was only barely aware he existed. Not until some years later when I moved to Bristol were we properly introduced. It was the evening of the Invisible Circus event at the old fire station in Bristol.

Toby was down from Leeds and we met in a pub in Easton. Tails was wearing an antique police uniform and sporting a bushy curled moustache. I had assumed this was all part of the act for later on. Little did I realise that it was pretty much how he looked most of the time. Nor did I realise he was about to become one of my best friends.

Quite obviously as a fellow Yorkshireman, sharing many of the same friends, we had a few things to natter about. His Huddersfield accent could strip wallpaper which made my own Bradford accent seem muted by contrast. He, though, was never ashamed of it. He was Yorkshire and proud.

I'm not altogether sure how we ended up hanging out so often. I think Toby had pointed out that I was an acquired taste and for friendship's sake he was to tolerate me. And tolerate me he did. Somewhere along the line we noticed each other's cynicism and general lack of compatibility with the world at large. Henceforth, whenever he sensed things were getting on top of me he would prize me away from my computer to go for a pint. It felt good to be remembered and included.

In my early days of Airbus, I barely knew anyone to talk to and so he would invite me to his friend's house on a Tuesday night where he would cook. He was an innovative and resourceful vegetarian cook and he liked to cook for people. Most of his friends were Bristol lefty hippy types. He found the whole scene quietly amusing and was never really all that persuaded by it. I think he just enjoyed letting me, a rabid libertarian, loose on a bunch of hippies and socialists and watching the fireworks. Whenever such a debate was engineered we could rapidly clear a pub. Suffice to say that few of his other friends became my friends. This was of no concern to Tails. Never once did he judge.

But then that was Tails all over. He enjoyed people. He wasn't the judgemental sort. He was never especially political and he barely ever reacted to anything I said except with a whimsical "aye lad!". I would often tag along whenever he went out and about. Through him I was introduced to the Bristol street art scene and the many pop-up cafés. I felt like every excursion was an episode of Louis Theroux. I often wondered what I was doing there and so did his friends. It was a most unlikely friendship.

There was one time I persuaded him to come to a warehouse party in London. We set out early with a view to trekking around London. We ended up in the East end. We must have walked for miles. I saw a wholly different London that day. One that I would never have known otherwise. By the fall of evening we were both knackered. We drove around East end for a few hours, completely failing to locate the warehouse rave. We instead ended up in a techno club in Brixton. I wasn't all that taken by the music and Tails wasn't remotely interested. He fell asleep next to the speakers and shortly afterwards, so did I.

When we were finally kicked out of the club we got in my Landrover and attempted to navigate our way back to Bristol. This was before the days of sat-navs in cars and I have always been hopeless at navigating London in the dark. I entrusted the map-reading to Tails where it soon became apparent that we were heading more in the direction of Portsmouth than Bristol. By sun up we were still nowhere near Bristol and driving through rural villages in Hampshire, with both of us desperately tired and struggling to stay awake. I've only ever lost my temper with Tails once and it was that morning.

A number of our adventures ended up that way. In fact more often than not we would utterly fail in our objectives. Even a quick lunch meeting would often degenerate into an eleven pint drinking session, ending up in some highly questionable venues - even by our standards.

The one time he was most animated is one Sunday afternoon where we were out for a drive somewhere in rural Gloucestershire. I'd bought a gleaming new Audi and was keen to show it off. Characteristically, Tails was not in the remotest bit interested and proceeded to roll up a fag, dropping tobacco and pastry crumbs everywhere. We happened upon Kemble airfield, which was at the time host to the Bristol Aero Collection. Tails did not share my enthusiasm of the aeroplanes but the hanger was full of artefacts from the early era of BAC, including a number of old buses. He was fascinated.

It was those serendipitous finds that made these road trips worthwhile. Most of the time I would do the driving and the talking. He would sit and watch the world go by. Sometimes it was like he wasn't even there - but then that was reciprocated.

He was a man of many contrasts. He was not athletic nor sporty but when it came to dancing, the man came alive. He attempted to get me to join in one time but it's not my thing. I did note though that he was never short of an attractive young lady to dance with. How that man managed to remain involuntarily single beats the hell out of me. But then that was part of his complexity.

Tails kept very quiet about much of his past. In many ways I knew him only on a very superficial level. There were defining parts of his life that shaped him but he would never talk about them. He was a very here and now sort of person. I knew that he had lived in London for a time and had worked in what he called "the rag trade" and I knew a little of his family life but he had really made his home and his whole world in Bristol. He was well known and instantly recognisable and we could hardly go anywhere without him being recognised. He was something of a legend.

In that respect, his loss will be felt nationwide. Very often when he took annual leave he would go hitch hiking and sofa surfing all around the country. He wasn't one for travelling abroad and had no real ambition in that sense. He lived his own life in his own unpretentious and frugal way. He would go off to roller-derby, clown workshops or some electro-swing festival somewhere. It was that other world of his that I saw fit not to intrude on.

What you could say of Tails was that he was certainly a social nexus. I could go to a goth club in Edinburgh or a rave in London or a metal night in Bath and somebody there would know Tails. His life spanned a number of different worlds and if ever I mention I live in Bristol to complete strangers they say "You must know Tails then!".

I know many successful people. People who have succeeded in business and other endeavours. Tails though was not ambitious in that way. He was not driven to set the world on fire. But he was a success in his own right by way of having lived a rich and varied life touching the lives of hundreds of people. I never saw him as a loser. I envied his vast and rich social life. He was not taken by material things. He was mainly concerned with making a contribution to whatever he did. He would volunteer to crew events and cook for them. He would always somehow make himself useful - even if just by being there.

Toward the end of his life I saw him in some terrible states. I have seen him cry, as have others. He was carrying a heavy burden in his heart. There was something he was punishing himself for and I never really understood what it was. Depression is a cruel condition. Often there is no logic or rationale for it. It's just there. Incurable and corrosive. In that regard I hope that he is now at peace.

I find it difficult to end this with anything more than platitudes. There is nothing I could possibly say that will soften the blow of his loss. He will not be forgotten though and the connections people have made through him will be lasting and likely strengthened by his passing. A community will be in mourning this week. We lost one of the good guys.   

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