‘They are not long these days of wine and roses’, as the poet Ernest Dowson, currently lying down in Brockley & Ladywell Cemetery, once told us.
I can do without the roses, to be honest, but even my preferred option – ‘Days of wine and bacon Frazzles’ – can’t last forever.
The fleeting nature of life’s bloom was brought to mind by an old pal who had pledged his support for our book with a considerable sum, but was unable to receive his reward, due to ill health.
Mad Dog was scheduled to join us on a day out around several pubs, watching the nags and gambling with money and livers, before being written into a Deserter tale. His doctor and his inner gyroscope advised otherwise, but I would still like to share his story.
Mad Dog was a Bromley boy and, back in the day, a huge fan of local band, Siouxsie & the Banshees. Still unsigned at the time, they were a hot ticket as a live act. As he was always a bit of a chancer, I regarded his claims to know them as doubtful.
Life was grey in London then, apart from the visceral thrill of punk and the sheer honour of being a teenager. When Mad Dog was casting around for a playmate to go see them in Edinburgh, I had a sudden ‘Why not?’ epiphany. I could just about scrape together the dough. All I had to do was get off work.
‘I can’t come in today, Mr Westlake.’
‘Oh? Are you unwell?’
‘No, I’m fine, thank you very much, Mr Westlake. Never felt better. How are you?’
‘Why are you unavailable to fulfil the duties for which you have been contracted, Mr South?’
‘I’m going to be in Scotland, watching a band, which would make my presence at the Elephant & Castle highly problematic, Mr Westlake, sir.’
Mr Westlake muttered something about it being ‘highly irregular’ and ‘booking leave well in advance’. I was equally incredulous that he would consider a bit of filing at the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity more important than going to see the Banshees at the Edinburgh Rock Festival.
Me and Mad Dog, who hardly knew each other at this stage, got to do so on the lengthy train ride. 17 years old and somewhat scared of our own skinny shadows, we managed to get served with rank ’70s bitter, avoid getting beaten up and enjoy a legendary gig.
As we walked to our seats on the train back, we were astonished to run into the band. I couldn’t quite look at Siouxsie as she was a) a woman and b) Siouxsie Sioux. The bassist, Steve Severin, greeted Mad Dog and came to talk with us about their new album, like we were just people. While I was amazed to meet him, it’s only now I realise how flattering it must have been that two kids had travelled 400 miles to hear the same set they’d heard at the Roundhouse weeks earlier.
Soon, I quit work and trialled Deserter Basic Income by living on the dole, sleeping through the mornings and ‘having ideas’. Mad Dog’s confident flannel earned him a stellar career in a Northern city that included a flash car, a wife, a girlfriend, a mistress and a predictable conclusion. He survived his wife’s attempt on his life and returned to London, promising a more monastic existence.
That didn’t quite happen, but after we both escaped turbulent relationships we decided it was time for healing and renewal. We got a flat in South London and concentrated on our core emotions: Beer, football, dope and the Sega Mega Drive.
Happy days, indeed. We were there for each other during life’s inevitable ups and downs, but Mad Dog went down with an almighty thump at 40 after a massive stroke.
The NHS played an absolute blinder, reviving him twice and restoring him to apparent health. His short term memory was fucked, but his bullshit mode was unharmed and he was able to blag several teaching gigs at renowned London colleges, despite having the recall of a stoned goldfish. He continued to drink, toke and take the piss until his mobility deteriorated to the point that even a trip to the pub was mission improbable.
Unable to join the Deserter all-dayer, but too proud to say, I visited him at his seaside home. We talked about music and Madrid, where he’d spent some time in his halcyon days. He couldn’t remember yesterday but he could tell me all about The Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza galleries. And he agreed he’d rather it was that way.
Me and a mate took him to Dreamland so he could get on its Grade II* listed Scenic Railway one more time, just like he did when he was a boy. As the ‘rickety rackety rollercoaster’ clacked its way to face the sea, Mad Dog said: ‘Just listen to that sound. It’s not a rollercoaster. It’s a time machine.’
The memory of it was precious but it would have been gone by the time we took him home, had we not kept referring to it, hoping it might stick. Nonetheless it had meant a lot to him.
‘That’s all very well, but when is one of you cunts going to skin up?’ he asked, proving that some parts of us are as constant as the sea.