I moved to Stoke Newington in 1999 and as the world slid inexorably toward a new millennia and I toward my next relapse, I was also on the lookout for some new chums with whom I could share a can of Special Brew with at 7 o’clock in the morning.
It may surprise those of you who knew the man, but at that particular juncture, Graham didn’t actually drink Special Brew, so I guess I have to hold my hands up and take responsibility for broadening his alcoholic preferences in that particular area. Of course those of you who did know him, also understand that I am flattering myself by suggesting Grahams vast knowledge of alcohol required any expansion;
“Whatsthematterwuthya?, why are you drinking that shit?”
He rat a tat tatted at me as he roundly castigated me within seconds of my return from the 24 hour off-licence, a trip I’d undertaken with five minutes of meeting the man for the very first time, a meeting that had taken place within just a few hours of me leaving a ‘dry’ hostel in central London after a (almost) sober 11 months before being given the keys to 291c Amhurst Rd.
I opened my 2nd can of ‘Brew, Graham uncorked his second bottle of red and we settled in for an early morning discussion concerning the relative merits of Northern Soul, Charles Bukowski, ballet, Dub reggae and Iggy pop, it was roughly 7.45am.
If, like myself (at that time) and Graham, you found life to be a much happier existence when insulated from it by copious amounts of booze, dope and a record player, while showing scant regard for solid food and the ‘apparent’ necessity of owning a ‘telly, I can think of no better way of getting to know somebody, we were friends, he was my first friend in N16 and on some levels probably one of the best, insomuch as he gave me and my family something that nobody else I knew was able, or willing to do, but more of that later.
Graham made me laugh, often, he also made me want to scream with frustration on perhaps a more regular basis, I’m sure I’m not alone in that, anymore than I am the solitary recipient of one of his booze soaked kisses on the face whenever he and I would pass each other as we orbited Stoke Newington throughout the next 14 years. I choose my words carefully here, ’cos when I say ‘orbit’, I mean ‘orbit’.
This isn’t about me, but I would be selling the man and his compassion for most of the human race short, if I did not declare, that even at the very depths of my addiction to heroin and the attendant atrocious behaviour, Graham never once turned me away from his home. Ok he had nothing worth stealing so he didn’t have to worry about letting me sleep there from time to time and his own addiction to alcohol was as fierce and unforgiving as my own opiate stained existence as it barrelled out of control, but he never judged me, unless you can call him screeching
“Whatsamatterwivyouboy…….don’t you fucking dare fuck things up like I have with my kids, sort yourself out, ratatattat…..I’l l tell you ‘dis, I’m Graham Cyril Darby, who the fuck are you?”
Sometimes, when for whatever reason he’d decided he didn’t know who I was, he’d completely ignore me, I wrote the following piece about him many years ago, shortly after we’d first met and I was in search of someone to help me put some shelves up in my new flat, there is of course some ‘poetic licence’ involved, but then again, it is written by me and involves Graham so what do you expect?
Non-descript street, parked cars including an old red VW Beetle that has been partially painted blue with household emulsion.
A man sits on the steps to his house, drinking a can of Special Brew, there is a tin of blue paint by his feet, the upstairs windows are open a couple of old Hi-Fi speakers are resting on the window ledge blasting out dub-reggae, another man is pacing up and down shouting into a mobile phone clearly in conversation with the police.
“He’s fucking vandalised my car, the alcoholic prick has painted my car…what? What make? It’s a Volkswagen, What colour? What’s that got to fucking do with anything? It’s red, or at least it was red, the idiot’s painted it blue, now are you going to send someone to fucking arrest him? What? You want me to stop fucking swearing? What about the prick that’s just vandalised my fucking car you fucking imbecile? What are you going to fucking…Hello? Hello?”
Raises the can to his mouth, takes a long swig, burps and looks at the man on the phone who is now giving his details to the police operator.
“Is it because you support Arsenal?”
What the fuck are you talking about? What have Arsenal got to do with anything and turn that fucking music off you stupid, useless alcoholic dickhead.
“You don’t like reggae? Boy…you just don’t understand the vibrations do you, it sooths the soul man…makes for some peace in this violent world eh? “
He goes inside and turns the volume up, returning with another beer and a framed photograph.
“Right! The fucking police are on their way and this time I’m gonna make sure they arrest you and..
“It’s because they play in red isn’t it? Yeah man..I can see that, red is the colour of anger too of course, anyway, do you know who this is?
(He holds up the photograph while the first man continues to talk pace up and down examining his car)
This, my man, is a photograph of the West-Indies team from 1980, Lloyd, Richards, Holding, Garner, Marshall..
“Are you fucking mental? Why the fuck do you think I’m bothered about fucking cricket?
(Pointing at the car and Graham)
This! You are going to get fucking ‘nicked for this and when they’ve taken you to the station I’m gonna call the council and get you evicted and you can take the fucking West-Indies cricket team with you when you go., maybe give Viv fucking Richards a call, see if he’ll put you up?
“Did you know, that no two countries that play test cricket have ever gone to war against each other?”
As he is speaking another man crosses the road and approaches him.
“What about India and Pakistan? Are you Mad Graham?
“I might be, but you’re probably asking the wrong person, is that a rhetorical question or do you want to know my name? Anyway, who’s asking you lazy bastard?”
“Linda sent me over, she said you could probably put some shelves up in my flat if I asked nicely and I’m not a lazy bastard, I just don’t know how to do things like that! Anyway, what about India and Pakistan aren’t they at war all the time?”
“Jesus fucking H Christ, who the fuck are you? And what the fuck are you two talking about? That prick has just vandalised my car, the police are on their way and he’s going to be arrested for criminal damage! Fucking cricket..What the fuck?
Oh Linda sent you did she? She likes you but you never take care of your front garden, that’s why she thinks you’re a lazy bastard, it’s got nothing to do with not having any shelves.”
“I didn’t know it was my garden, I live on the 3rd floor, I thought it was hers?”
“It is, but it’s not a very big garden is it? You could do it, besides she’s got three kids to look after and no husband, you should make more of an effort to be a good neighbour man.”
“That’s fucking rich coming from you! You just wait ‘til the Old Bill get here and I show them what you’ve done to my car, look at the fucking state of it?”
“They’ve been to war on at least four occasions, although many people consider the conflict of 1999 as more of a skirmish than an actual war”
“Do you like Iggy Pop?”
“Yeah, of course, I preferred him with Stooges to be honest, but The Idiot is one of my all time favourite albums, not sure he knows much about cricket though, Americans don’t really understand things like that, they prefer golf, shit beer and eating too much as a rule.”
Who was the better batsman, Clive Lloyd or Viv Richards?”
“Oh fuck me, now you’re asking.”
Hello? Can you two stop you’re fucking nonsense for a minute, I want a witness statement for the police and seeing as you’re here I think you (nods at 3rd man) will do nicely.
Personally I prefer the big man, Richards was technically more gifted for sure, but Lloyd could
(Stands up and starts shouting)
SMASH THE FUCKING BALL RIGHT OUT OF THE GROUND FOR FUN.
(Sits down) You want a drink my man? I got ‘brew or Wine.”
“I’ll have a Special Brew please mate, now look, can you do the shelves for me and I’ll have a go at Linda’s garden, deal?”
“Ok, if you forget about India and Pakistan, for the time being?”
“Not a problem, although we’re talking about a lot of fucking people, we can’t just pretend they don’t exist?”
“Ok, let’s agree they have only ever been involved in numerous minor conflicts based on minimal loss of life when compared to the carnage of the two world worlds and also that the partition of India was badly handled by The British in the first place and as such whatever ensuing difficulties the two countries have experienced must be seen as partially a result of post-imperial jockeying for national stability, underpinned by religious and social-economic factors that were already firmly entrenched in both countries for hundreds of years prior to aforementioned partition, ok?”
“Fine by me and for the record, I consider Viv Richards a better batsman than Lloyd although I think Sachin Tendulker puts them both in the shade by quite some distance”
“Wanna fight about it, ha ha ha !”
Graham then goes back inside his house, Iggy Pop comes on the stereo at serious volume and he returns with 2 cans of Special Brew and a joint.
Graham. “I fucking hate cricket, fuck knows why I know so much about it.”
And that, is as good an example of the man and how he lived as I can think of right now, It’s essentially a true story, you’ll forgive me if I’ve spoken for him, but having said that, if you knew him, I think you’ll have many such stories of your own eh?
And as to the reference I made earlier about Graham doing something for me and my family?
By the time Tabitha was born, I was over 2 years clean, still living with Tamara in the 1-bedroom third floor flat on Amhurst rd while Graham had moved into a rather splendid, well it was when he’d received the keys, Victorian townhouse just round the corner, complete with a marvellous, if somewhat overgrown south-facing garden. We both belonged to the same housing association, to whom, I’d recently made a claim for a move due to the arrival of Ms Mason, a request that although sanctioned, came with a unspoken, but not very well unspoken caveat stating,
“Yes you’re entitled to be re-housed, but don’t hold your breath, it ain’t gonna be anytime in the next 5 years or so”.
Graham knew this, despite his affliction to alcohol having progressed the way it always does to someone with this particular condition, somewhere in his booze soaked brain, there was still a strong connection to a BIG caring heart. Yes he was a fucking nightmare to live next door to most of the time and yes, despite it probably being the last thing he actually wanted to do, he could scare the shit out of anyone who didn’t know him, or, was simply not in the mood for his delirious, alcoholic ranting and yes he was a fucking pain the ass, BUT……
Underneath all that and despite of his own sense of self-loathing and the damage inflicted upon himself because of it, there was a remarkably beautiful, highly intelligent, funny, opinionated, passionate, considerate and caring human being. Apart from when he was really really pissed ‘cos then he was a fucking nightmare!
He came to the flat on Amhurst rd unannounced one day, shortly after I’d been round to visit him for a chat and, amongst other things (Iggy Pop, Dub Reggae Bukowski etc) bemoan the fact there were three of us cooped up in a tiny one bedroom flat with apparently no chance of a move anytime soon.
I answered the door to be met by graham in his latest sartorial ‘experiment’ , an apparent combination of Islamic headdress, leather trousers and a skirt.
He ratattatted in my direction, can of brew in one hand, rollup dangling from his mouth as he blew a cloud of Special Brew fumes and Drum tobacco fumes in my face.
“Morning Graham, what’s happening?”
“Do you want my house, you need it, for the baby, I don’t need it, I’m a cunt”
“Sorry? And no you’re not, but what do you mean, do I want your house?”
“Come to mine tomorrow, early before I’m too pissed”
“6.30….. in the morning”
And off he went squawking and ratatattatting up Amhurst Rd.
I could add some sort of ‘context’ and/or explanation as to why he’d made me this offer, but it would detract from the place, the man, the magnificent heart from whence it ultimately came so I’m not going to, suffice to say, it took a while and the process was not without its stressful moments.
I collected Tabitha from that house today having finished work early and deciding to surprise her with a trip to the fish n chip shop on Stokey High Street. 5 Years and many many changes later, she lives with her mother in a beautiful home, a home I would never be able to afford to rent it it were in the private sector and as for buying? Ha you can’t get a front door for less than £250,000 in Stoke Newington these days! It’s changed, I can’t afford to rent there or indeed anywhere in London you might actually want to live! But my daughter has a home, thanks to the hard work(and battered credit card) of her mother, a beautiful home, in an area that despite an influx of luridly coloured chinos, beards, awful medieval haircuts and of course a multitude of middle-class media types with disposable income, still retains an echo of the Hackney of old, the Stoke Newington I fell in love with all those years ago.
When Graham died on Thursday, that echo got a little quieter, I’ll miss him dreadfully as will many of us.