This is a tribute -- of sorts -- to a dear friend and possibility one of the greatest influences on my life: Richard Tomes.
Richard died at the stupidly early age of 46. We hadn't spoken for over eight years; I seemed to have fallen off his invitation list after my daughter was born. Exactly why I didn't really know, and I don't suppose I ever will know now. I suppose I could declare a huge regret in not keeping in touch with him in these last eight years, but that just feels corny somehow. The obvious and trite thing to do, and Richard was never the one for doing the trite and obvious, so yes; regrets, I've had a few, but then again...
Given that barely anyone in my current social/work circle knew Richard, I have had quite a tussle over the past few weeks trying to explain who he was, what he meant to me, and quite why his death had knocked me sideways quite so much. The best one-liner I can come up with is that he was the Sebastian Flyte to my Charles Ryder. Though that doesn't really do our relationship much justice. It doesn't do me much justice either, but a literary reference always makes you look clever.
We were at school together but our paths rarely crossed. He had a reputation for being difficult, troubled and a bit dangerous. I had a reputation for being a weedy and deeply suspect geek, possibly gay. (This was in the days before being a geek -- or gay -- made you fashionable and cool.) He was kicked out of school when he was fifteen or sixteen, for some Dreadful Misdemeanour. Exactly what the Misdemeanour was is pretty much lost in the mists now, he broke something, or shouted at someone, or looked as if he was going to. That was enough in our school. He was shipped across the park to live out his remaining schooldays at the euphemistically titled Special School, and that was the end of his academic career. Our school was a bastard to him, and he carried that with him for as long as I knew him. At one point I was trying to get him to go to an art school, where he would have undoubtedly been brilliant, and which he would have loved, but he couldn't get past it being a school, so that was that. He never went. So well done, our school.
We then finished up in a mutual group of friends in our mid to late teens, and what a revelation to me he was. At least what a revelation his garden was. He'd built a small house at the bottom of it, and a small army of mid pubescent boys and girls would congregate in on a nightly basis, and smoke Bensons and Hedges until our eyes bubbled. He then remodelled it as a Viking long house, with a central fireplace and, slightly inauthentically for a Viking long house, a roulette table. We cared little for historical accuracy in those days, and we continued to blithely bubble away at our Bensons and Hedges. My main memory of that time was his long suffering mum, who would make the nightly journey, ignoring the wind, the rain, the mud, and the historical inauthenticity, into the depths of the garden to politely kick us all out at 11pm on the dot. Poor Janet. We must have absolutely stunk in there.
As is usual for mobs of confused teenagers, everlasting friendships turned into implacable enmities, and I found that our social groupings had shifted and Richard was no longer approved of by my social circle, although I certainly bore him no ill will. Being pathetic, I let it stand like that and Richard and I lost contact for a few years.
I was later driving though our home town and I saw Richard walking along. I stopped, wound the window down and Hallooed him. He Hallooed back, we became friends again and for the next few years our friendship entered into a beautiful halcyon period. This really was an Arcadian time for me, I had just got to university and felt a huge expansion in my horizons, and I spent a lot of my summers and many weekends back in my home town, in Richard's house, where we plotted world domination. Or, if we didn't feel like world domination on that day, we went to the pub and got drunk. I'm left with a wonderful sense of us two just feeling young, and like we were going to refashion the world how we wanted it. If you were to ask me what exactly it was that we thought we were going to do to dominate the world, I couldn't really give you specifics now. There's a half finished, half illustrated children's book we wrote in my loft somewhere. Its about a little girl who imagines her house is full of night time monsters, only to find out that actually it is. I'm not quite sure what the moral is in that, but it seemed funny at the time, and integral to our plan for world domination.
We were into our children's books then. We both loved Alice, and in defiance of critical sentiment, Sylvie and Bruno too. Richard created topiary chess pieces on his lawn, and I tried to convince myself that a detailed study of the Complete Works of Lewis Carroll would help me in my Advanced Logic exams.
Richard was working as a tree surgeon and I did summertime voluntary work for an inner city farm in central Birmingham. The sky was mostly blue and the world was stuffed with possibility. Richard had taught himself the guitar and I learnt the mandolin. Our repertoire consisted of the Irish folk dance Drowsy Maggie, the hornpipe The Trumpet (better known as the theme from Captain Pugwash) and nothing else. We would have dearly loved to play some Incredible String Band songs but we weren't good enough. I wasn't good enough. He was. He could play and sing at the same time, if adequately disinhibited by alcohol. Collectively though, we weren't good enough.
One very foggy Christmas Eve we went to the pub and both got so drunk we could hardly stand, then started the rather long and very uncertain journey home on foot. Out of the fog reared a very tacky plywood Christmas tree stuck in someone's front garden. Richard immediately took offence. He was a tree surgeon, and this was not a proper tree, but a tawdry imitation of one. He aimed a righteous kick at it, overbalanced and fell over backwards into the fog. I was confused, for where there was previously a Richard, now no Richard was there to be seen. I heard muffled swearing in the fog and he reappeared several moments later, having to satisfy himself with shaking his fist at the tree. We did get home that evening I'm sure, though I have no other memory of that Christmas.
We also, in those pre-internet days, wrote letters to each other. Great big sheets of scribbles and drawings and poems. We had immediately settled into a secure pattern of not doing the obvious boring thing in letters, such as telling each other what we were doing, but concocting enormous screeds of unutterable nonsense with no bearing on reality at all. I was avidly reading P. G. Wodehouse at the time and I remember the joy I felt after I had sat with a pen and paper, let words wash out onto the paper, and found that what was on the paper was pretty respectable pastiche Woodhouse. Its how I still write now, given half a chance. Richard excelled at illustrating his letters and they were packed with cartoons. We both loved drawing cartoons and we happily traded off one another developing our styles in mutual appreciation. Richard then decided he was an oil painter, then a stop frame animator. Then one night I went round his house and he answered the door in an Oscar Wilde smoking jacket. I had lost track of what he was, or wanted to be by that point.
Through all of this there was a central thread of Richardness though; he wasn't just a gadfly, picking up and discarding enthusiasms as he went along. Each one was an expression of who he was and made sense if you knew him. And then there was the mimicry. He could do a legendary James Mason impersonation. He was also an expert on black and white comedy films, golden era Hollywood, 1950's radio comedy, Syd Barrett, Land Rovers, DIY distillation, and so on, and so forth. There was also the annual Near Death Experience that was his bonfire party. Enormous wicker men were built in his garden, stuffed with fireworks and set alight, collapsing an hour or so later in a burnt out eruption of sparks, occasionally into the crowd of bemused friends invited round to watch who had to scatter pretty fast. The years when the wicker man didn't half kill someone were the boring ones.
Spool forward a few years and he'd given up tree surgery and was regularly submitting cartoons to the Oldie, which got published, and to Private Eye, which didn't. Then apparently out of nowhere he won The Times Young Cartoonist of the Year Award, and I accompanied him to a swanky knees up of an awards ceremony at Simpsons in the Strand. I made a star struck idiot of myself fawning over Steve Bell.
He then was getting regularly published in several magazines, he joined the Cartoonists Club, which seemed to me to be little more than an excuse for monthly beer swilling in a pub near Fleet Street, and there was even talk of a regular job with The Daily Express, but that came to nothing. This went on for a few years and he learnt the tricks of the trade, developed his drawing style until it became very mature and assured. He was getting bored with it though. He carried on with The Cartoonist Club, becoming their secretary, but I think after a while that was the only association he had with being a cartoonist; he wasn't actually submitting any work for publication, just turning up for their monthly beer swill. He did meet Terry Parkes, the cartoonist better known as 'Larry' who drew the opening credit sequences for many of the Carry On films (which Richard loved) and they became firm friends for a year or so before Terry died. Richard was chuffed to bits to be able to name Terry as a friend.
The Viking long house in the garden was gone by this time, replaced a by a replica medieval barn he built from green wood that he'd collected as a tree surgeon. It really was a marvel; no nails, screws or glue in the construction, only held together by wooden pins. In it he built a forge, bellows and everything. Then he started tool making. Before that though he decided he was a cider maker. The garden suddenly filled with apple trees, but not your normal apple trees, oh no. Traditional English varieties of apple particularly suited to cider making, with lots of tannin and no sugar in them (or possibly lots of sugar and no tannin; I can't remember which way round it was. The apples tasted horrid, made incredible cider though.) I remember sleeping on the floor in his back room one time, being gently lulled to sleep by the sound of the regular glub of the air locks on the fermenting demijohns that lined the room.
The thing is, through all this, there was only one way of doing things, and that was Richard's way. There was no other way. Even to the extent that he would deliberately and bloody-mindedly get it all wrong when forced to do something not in his way. This was appallingly frustrating for me who could see the enormous talent he had, but would not exploit or develop those talents unless he did so in his own way. He aversion to formal education that he developed at that stupid school of ours, held him back because he couldn't see that formal education was a way of bettering yourself; it was a way of those in authority clamping down on your creativity.
We used to go a folk festival, and he decided that you didn't go to festivals to do anything as trite and obvious as listen to the music, he went to absorb the spiritual festival vibrations. He would stake out the point on the field which he judged was the best point to absorb spiritual vibrations. Sitting anywhere else was untenable. The problem from my point of view was that this point was always just at the point at which you couldn't really see or hear the performers on the stage. I was trite and obvious enough to want to listen to the music. So I would trot off on my own to listen to the bands while he would absorb the spiritual vibrations somewhere off on the far horizon. One time I remember listening to hysterically funny Vin Garbutt who basically delivered brilliantly dry stand up comedy, occasionally punctuated by some songs. Richard would have loved him but he was too far away with his vibrations to hear. After the gig I stumbled back to find him and babbled about how wonderful Vin Garbutt was. I was ignored. We weren't there to listen to musicians.
A few years later I got a phone call to say that he'd just seen Vin Garbutt playing in a local folk club, and 'Wow wow wow! He's brilliant! You've got to hear him. He's playing again in a month. You've got to come see him. I've got you a ticket.' Yes, I explained, I know. I've known this for a long time. But there it was in a nutshell; I could lead him to water, but under no circumstance was Richard about to drink, or even admit that there was any water there. Only when he found it in his own way was it acceptable. So much of the stuff I wanted him to do or know about was met with this blank lack of acceptance. It drove me mad, but that was Richard.
After years of grumbling at me for being into those computer things, he suddenly decided to get one, hooked it up to the internet and sent me the following memorable email: 'My Dear Doctor, Screens full of naked women. Please advise.' One of the last conversations we had concerned his discovery on the internet of 'molecular gold' which when ingested apparently turns you into a god, filled with omniscient powers, overflowing with a joy that feels like 'a permanent orgasm'. I tried to suggest, in my trite and obvious way, that there was stuff on the internet that you find from time to time, which isn't entirely factually correct. He was having none of it. I wonder if he ever did get his molecular gold. If he had it might explain why we lost contact. I wouldn't bother phoning anyone if I was having a permanent orgasm. Would you?
A few weeks ago I idly decided to Google him (which I did occasionally), and found a woodworking site which regretted to announce his death. He'd died two days before. Since we lost contact he'd concentrated on his tool making skills, making handcrafted wood planes in his back garden forge. There's a website out there showing his work. It is beautiful.
So that's that then. Plan for world domination didn't quite come together.