Monday, 7 November 2011

The Death of a Beautiful Friend

On Wednesday, I shall be attending a funeral. Not only will this funeral be a deeply sad occasion, I think I can safely say that it will break the hearts of every person there.

You see, my friend Dave Roberts died two weeks ago. He was only twenty eight.

I can remember when I first met Dave. I’d moved into a dilapidated house in Salford which I was renovating from the ground up. It was September or early October 2001 and the US and Blair were preparing to drop weapons of mass destruction on the population of Afghanistan in response to the terrorist crimes committed by a group comprised of largely Saudi nationals. To say I was a little angry would have been an understatement. I’d plastered anti-war posters across the boarded-up windows and hung them from the scaffolding surrounding the house. In an odd way, this acted as a catalyst. A young lad called Dave introduced himself to me. I can't quite remember if he knocked on the door by way of an introduction. I recall that when I met him for the first time he did have two or three of his friends with him. Given he was only 18 or 19 he exuded a supreme confidence. From that point on, I was accepted into his extended family of friends.

Dave was an organiser par excellence. He was also a do-er. Together, as an anti-war group we travelled to countless demos, fly-postered everywhere and organised anti-war meetings in Eccles and Salford. It went something like this: I’d book the coaches on my credit card and Dave, Gaz, Ste and Beb would organise the bums on seats. He was almost single-handedly responsible for our anti-war banner – the legendary ‘Red Eccles’ standard. I think he was also the principal composer of the chant "Red... Fucking... Eccles... Red... Fucking... Eccles..."  which was of course an important accompaniment to any anti-war protest whenever our banner had a presence. He certainly had a hand in spray painting 'Welcome to Red Eccles' on the entrance to Albert Street in Eccles adjacent to the motorway on Wellington Road a greeting that didn't last long at the hands of the local New Labour Salford City Council.  

Dave was passionate in his anti-war activities. In producing the above banner he was given a remit: he wasn't allowed to spend more than £1.50! Not only did he produce a fine banner, he also came in under budget! He was so immensely proud of it. It quickly became the focus of attention from a variety of different groups. On every demonstration, throngs of people would stop us and ask if they could take pictures of our rather simplistic, Heath-Robinsonesque standard, which unlike the professionally made trade union or anti-war counterparts, displayed its amateurishness proudly, oozed anger and directed its venom like a stick-bound spitting cobra directly in the eyes of the naked imperialist ambitions of the US, the gods of war and war-profiteers. This was a banner everyone wanted to carry.

Yet there was another group who demonstrated an ardent interest in our banner. They also demonstrated an almost universal hatred of it and proved uniquely determined in their efforts to seize at every opportunity our huge red anti-establishment emblematic. The rationale for their determined efforts we concluded was the wording which proclaimed boldly FUCK CAPITALISM, FUCK IMPERIALISM, ‘FUCK WAR’ AND FIGHT THE LAW’ among other things. How many times did we have to prize from the poles grabbing constabularic hands. Very quickly a pattern emerged on protests which went something like this:

Generic Police officer: Take the banner down or I’ll have to arrest you.

Dave: Why?

Generic Police Officer: Its offensive.

Dave: I find the bombing of innocent civilians offensive. Why don’t you arrest Tony Blair?

Generic Police Officer: Displaying offensive words is illegal under section blah... blah... blah... of the blah... blah ... blah...

Dave: Get fucked!

The final line inevitably induced the same response from the police. It also engendered an equal and concomitant response from members of the public who would surround the banner and berate the police, successfully fending off their hostile advances. It was Dave’s handiwork that did that!

The second Red Eccles banner on tour
with CarbonSilicon
Many battles later, the police were to seize our banner at the fag end of an anti-war demonstration in Manchester. I say seize... the person left in charge of the banner (who shall remain nameless but knows who he is) kindly handed it to the police when they asked him to. I later went to Bootle Street police station with a few irked colleagues and enquired at the reception if I could have our banner back. The officer on duty disappeared and returned five minutes later. “I’m afraid we burned your banner out the back earlier” stated the grinning officer barely able to suppress his glee at their apparent triumph. “You can have the poles back though” he added caustically and with more than a hint of irony which was odd given he was a copper. We made our excuses and indicated to the officer where he could put them which involved shoving them up his arse. At the time, I didn’t realise that Dave had been arrested and was being held in the very same police station. Luckily, later on that evening, we were also allowed to retrieve young Dave who unlike the banner, had not been burned out the back. The triumphalism of the police was to be short-lived as the very next demo provided ample opportunity to air the bastard progeny of banner#1 which was even more offensive to the police. I still have this banner. I could never throw it away as I know the effort and loving care Dave invested in this project, produced in his parents garage. I took it on tour with me when I played with Mick Jones in CarbonSilicon. It became our backdrop at every gig.

He was also a vehement anti-racist and anti-fascist. How often had I seen him dart out of a kettled demonstration against the BNP in Oldham to try and beat seven kinds out of one or two members of the ‘master race’ who despite their apparent liking for fist-based trouble proved remarkably light on their feet when pursued by Dave in a pair of rather striking tartan trousers! Indeed, I ran into Dave on the 11th October 2009 at the organised protest against the EDL in Manchester in Piccadilly Gardens whom I almost stumbled across. He was a little worse for wear drink-wise and I was the apotheosis of gloom. I was glad to see him as he grabbed me in his trademark all encompassing affection-laden hug. Dave’s hugs were always heartfelt and meaningful. You were for that moment, the centre of his often oblique yet wonderful universe. Seeing him cheered me up no end.

He was also a talented musician. I once bumped into him at Big Fish rehearsal rooms in Ancoats where he was rehearsing with the Whiskey Bastards. He invited me in. True to type, he sat down, ignored the band and started gabbing away asking how I was, what I was doing... much to the chagrin of his compatriots who didn’t know me from Adam and clearly wanted to resume their rehearsals as the room was costing them money. He jumped up and they launched into one of their songs. It was excellent. Although I’d heard about the band, I’d never seen them play before. It was clear to me that here Dave was in his element... happy playing, performing and being creative in the moment. He had a huge grin plastered across his face which for me was his default setting. He was sunshine epitomised. Not wishing to disturb the band further, I stood up, waved my goodbyes and left. It was the last time I saw him.

It's often the case that those around us who seem to have the most carefree lives and exude such an intrinsic effervescence, are underneath profoundly troubled. For Dave, over the years heroin increasingly came to dominate his life. I found it impossible to keep in touch with him as he was always losing his mobile. I wasn't even sure which part of the country or world he was living in. 

Nevertheless he exuded a warmth and compassion, displaying a tireless concern for you even when you knew that his day to day life was at the very least precarious. Yet he was more, much more than this. You see Dave was one of those very rare people that gave a damn about the underdog. It was as if it was programmed into his DNA. I once came out of the Crescent pub with Dave around 1:30 one morning many years ago. We were both a little inebriated. We stood at a bus stop. On the opposite side of the road, two lads waiting for a bus to take them into Manchester were being mugged by a gang of around ten lads on bikes. He was off over the road like a shot. Hot on his heels I caught up. Dave was in the thick of it and the crowd dispersed as if by magic not knowing what had hit them. He proved again and again not only in words but in deeds that he was the eternal friend of those being oppressed. When he entered a room he became the focus of attention, not because of any ego – he was the most self-effacing person I knew. He was the focus of such attention because he'd earned it or would earn it in the future. In a crowded room or bar, when you were in conversation with him he listened. To him you were the most important person in the world. He loved life and those he touched loved him.

Looking at the many pictures of him posted on Facebook by so many people and I realise that my own recollections are but a tiny anecdotal fragment in a much grander life that was crammed with adventure, passion and love. In truth I can hardly bear to look at them as the tragic death of such a young man has for me created a huge vacuum and a deep sorrow. Yet I look back and realise that young David Roberts taught me a lot. He taught me a great deal about politics. He taught me to be bold, to be confident, to act on your ideas and to seize the moment. Yes, in his short life he demonstrated time and again that the important thing is to plan and to act.

What will I miss most with the passing of Dave Roberts? I will miss his uniquely colourful and whimsical voice, and the way in which it would weave in and around the general hubbub in the room. I will miss his laughter and his singular humour attached to that wonderful mischievous smile that only Dave Roberts could smile. But most of all I will miss the fact that he was simply there.

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