Five years ago, on the summer Bank Holiday that takes place today, I said farewell to the oldest friend I ever had, and here’s how it happened.
Richard Southwell was born on May 18, 1947, two days after me, at Elmhurst Nursing Home, a maternity hospital at Bingley in West Yorkshire where our mothers were in adjoining beds. This led to a friendship between our families that lasted for years, and a camaraderie with Richard that was strong until I left Yorkshire for the south of England in 1969. Thereafter it was intermittent but it was rekindled on the summer Bank Holiday of 2011, two days before he died from cancer at his home in Steeton near Keighley.
The friendship was probably at its strongest when Richard and I boarded together at Malsis School between 1955 and 1960. On the outskirts of the village of Cross Hills between Skipton and Keighley, Malsis was once a lavish country home in its own extensive grounds, its impressive pillared frontage approached by a long drive that wound past a small lake through woods and playing fields. As well as spending time together in school – we were in the same year, in the same classes – we visited one another on a regular basis during the school holidays too. He lived at Eldwick, above Bingley, not far from where my maternal grandparents once lived. His mother and father, Bob and Dorothy, became friends with my mum and dad and on the eve of every new term we would all eat out together at the Overdale, a dining and dancing club in Skipton.
In my time at Malsis I discovered a love of reading, especially Conyan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and one term Richard and I produced and wrote the script for a stage adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles in which I played Holmes and Richard played Doctor Watson. The official school entertainment was the annual production of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and others, but it was soon established that I was tone deaf and I never took part in any of them. Neither did Richard who also couldn’t sing for toffee, but it was at Malsis that I discovered and first came to love rock’n’roll and pop music; Richard too but not with the same obsession as myself. We would have been nine when we first heard Elvis Presley singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on a 78 rpm record played on a wind-up gramophone that belonged to another Malsis boy. In quick succession we also heard ‘Diana’ by Paul Anka, ‘Last Train To San Fernando’ by Johnny Duncan & The Blue Grass Boys, ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’ by Little Richard and two other early Elvis recordings, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. I remember visiting Richard’s house where he had a Frankie Vaughan 78, ‘Garden Of Eden’, and Harry Belafonte’s 1957 number one, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’. Neither of these songs were rock and roll but I soon became absolutely hooked on it all, and from that age the acquisition of rock’n’roll and pop records (and knowledge about those who performed them) became an all-consuming passion that has sustained until this day and to a large degree provided me with a life.
Of course, it’s far too simplistic – and probably also a great exaggeration – to suggest that the course my life would follow was decided for me at the age of nine by whomsoever it was that brought a wind-up record player and a pale blue labelled HMV Elvis Presley 78 rpm recording back to school with him. If I hadn’t discovered Elvis and Little Richard at this school I would probably have discovered them elsewhere, probably heard them on the radio, and still become hooked on them – but not only can I recall the actual room where I heard my first rock’n’roll record, but also where the wind-up gramophone was located and even where I was standing in relation to it.
But I digress. Richard and I went to different schools after Malsis but because we never forgot how close our birthdays were we often exchanged greetings, cards and phone calls until the arrival of faxes and then e-mails. My Skipton band The Pandas played at a party at his family home in Eldwick around 1966, and my dad and I were at his (first) wedding in the early seventies. We stayed in touch in other ways too, me occasionally dropping in to see him at his home in Shipley when I went up to visit my dad in Skipton before he died in 1997. In 2009 Richard and his (second) wife Janet visited us at our home in Surrey. We always had a lot of catching up to do.
Richard worked as a travel agent in Bradford but in May 2011 he didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent on his birthday, nor had he e-mailed me on mine two days before his, so I called his office and was informed that he was off sick. So I called Janet and was shocked to learn that he was in the final throes of cancer. I wrote to him as follows:
“As Janet will have told you following my phone call earlier today, by a circuitous route I have just discovered to my profound sorrow how sick you are. I was quite lost for words actually as I had no idea whatsoever that you were ill, let alone how serious it was. It is an understatement to say that you and your family have my every sympathy.
“We were 64 last week. On the eve of my birthday Olivia, my daughter, who is now 19, played the appropriate Beatles song and handed over a bottle of wine, as per the lyrics. Sam, now 16, said he liked the song because Paul McCartney sounded so cheerful. I told him that Paul had written the song long before The Beatles became famous, when he was 16, your age. ‘How do you know?’ he asked. ‘Because it’s my job to know these things,’ I told him. Then we all sat down to a roast lamb dinner and, for once, I was excused the washing up. For desert Lisa produced home-made crème caramels, my favourite, from the fridge. The following morning, my birthday, I stayed in bed an extra hour but still went to work. I don’t think I’ll retire next year, nor do I think Music Sales will insist upon it. Just because I turn 65 doesn’t mean my accumulated knowledge of the history of rock and pop will disappear overnight. I’ll still know that Paul wrote ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ when he was 16.”
After a paragraph or two of family news I closed my letter to Richard as follows:
“Sixty-four years ago this week ago our mums occupied adjacent beds at the Elmhurst Nursing Home in Bingley, and I would like to have been a fly on the wall, listening to the conversation:
“Good morning Betty, how’s little Christopher at three days old?”
“Hush Dorothy, he’s sleeping.”
“I wish I could get my Richard to sleep. He was awake half the night.”
“Just think… all their lives stretch out in front of them. I hope they become friends Dorothy.”
“I think they will Betty. I think they will.”
I closed the letter: “All the best wishes I can possibly offer from your oldest friend,” and added as a PS: “Janet – if you think it’s practical for me to drive up to Steeton in the next week or two let me know. I don’t mind setting off early in the morning, maybe spending a night with a friend in Skipton.”
In the event I drove up the following Sunday because it was the Bank Holiday the following day, staying with friends who live in Knaresborough, and drove over to Richard’s house in the village of Steeton the following day. On a whim, as I passed through Cross Hills I called into Malsis School, up that winding drive, and parked my car in front of the pillared entrance. It was deserted, and the front door was locked, but as I wandered around the outside of the old building I thought about how Richard and I had roller-skated together along these same pathways over 50 years ago.
Then I drove to Richard’s house. Janet made me a cup of tea and told me Richard was sleeping upstairs. She would wake him soon. I chatted with her and their children, some from their marriage and others from Richard and Janet’s previous marriages. Then I went upstairs. Richard was lying in bed, looking 20 years older than me, as thin as a pencil and with a long white beard. I thought he looked like Rip Van Winkle, barely recognisable from the boy and man I once knew. He looked very frail. He smiled but didn’t talk much, and even when he did I barely recognised his voice, so I did most of the talking, about music, about families, about my visit to Malsis, about how long we had known one another. Janet sat on the other side of the bed and listened. Eventually she said the visit was tiring him out so I shook hands with Richard for the last time, gave him a hug, went back downstairs, made my farewells and drove back down south.
Two days later Richard died. Janet called to tell me and to say that my visit had seemed to act as a closure for my oldest friend, the friend I knew from the day he was born to two days before he left us. I didn’t go to the funeral. “There’s no need,” said Janet. “Your visit was all that Richard wanted. It made him so happy.”