Smalltown England: 1982.
It’s a crime to want something else. It’s a crime to believe in something different. It’s a crime to want to make things happen. Somebody should write a song about it.
I was 18 or thereabouts when I got to know Jon Driscoll. He was more or less the same age, a few months older, and like all teenagers we were each racing to find our voice in the world. I was the new lamb at the local weekly newspaper, having freshly failed all the A-Levels that Exeter College could throw at me.
My life had quickly locked into a circuit of unedifying wordsmithery: a low-rent production line of wedding photo captions, pensioners-pointing-at-potholes and ticker-tape homecomings for local Falkland War “heroes”.
Jon, on the other hand, was getting stuck into something much more righteous – his fanzine, ‘Beast’, was badly printed, badly drawn and barely legible, but an intensely satisfying read.
Its pages (the ones which hadn't worked loose from cheap staples and become lost forever) were messily crammed with local gossip, worthy political rhetoric and stupid cartoon strips like ‘Mr Rubbish’. Death Cult and King Kurt gig reports were common, as were features on local heroes Cult Maniax, DV8 and Toxic Waste. There was information about and for local squatters. The ‘Diary of a Doley’ column was ascerbic fun for early eighties readers. Come 2014, it’s matured into valuable social history.
‘Beast’ was very sweet. Looking back on the few copies I have somehow managed to hoard over the decades, it’s the little things which make me smile my toothiest grins. Things like Jon’s advice on which local grocery shops sell the cheapest carrots.
I was drawn to the zine and to its creator. Jon and I would see a lot of each other at Timepiece, the local alternative (we didn’t have words like ‘indie’ or ‘goth’ back then) nightspot.
We would be at the same gigs, too. A great deal of these were promoted by Jon. And a fair few would include topless compere duties or a poetry set from him. Some of his verse was serious stuff. And a lot of it was about being fat. Take his “I Am Fat” song, for example:
“I am a flabby bugger, I weigh too bloody much.
When I bend over, my feet I cannot touch.
“I overfill the train and overload the bus.
“And when I sit in armchairs, they usually bust.”
Or something like that…
We liked each other, I think. It’s hard to tell when you’re 18. I sense that I could be pretty childish and irritating back then, a trait which Jon delicately tried to address with his poem “Andy Barding Why Don’t You Fuck Off And Die?” It was debuted at a packed Exeter University Pit in 1984 (I was there, fixed of smile and red of face in the shadows). And then it came out in print. Thanks, Jon.
Thick-skinned (and arrogant) as I was, I clung ever closer to the guy. I wrote a few bits for the fanzine, I became a regularish visitor to his slightly smelly first floor flat in Pennsylvania (it’s a part of Exeter). And I helped (or maybe hindered) production of ‘Beast’ by taking a turn at cranking the stiff handle of the strange wet-ink duplicator which sat on a plinth in Jon’s hallway. I have vague memories of my dad providing this machine, a cast-off from Devon County FA newsletter production. Or maybe dad just donated some ink or something. Maybe it was neither. My memory is vague.
Jon had a huge colour TV, no light in his lounge, and always enough cider to go around. My favourite memory of him (and one of my favourite memories from my youth as a whole) is of the two of us prowling the night streets of Exeter for hours in our seriously altered state, exploring craggy moss-covered walls, railway sidings and streets full of parked cars and drunkards. We were young, inquisitive and so very hungry for the adventures of life.
As years rolled on we gradually lost contact. Then one new day of a new career in a new town, I bought ’30 Something’ by Carter USM on a lunch break. I saw Jon's chubby chops dominate the inside gatefold picture and rang up the record company. They put me in touch with someone or other and I soon found myself on a train to Cheltenham, destined for a Carter USM gig and a smiley reunion.
We lost contact again. But then I saw him at Phoenix Festival for another smiley reunion.
We lost contact again. Then a mysterious message came through my Facebook page from an octogenarian woman from Worksop called Haley. “Pssst… it’s me, Jon.”
We chatted a lot through that medium. And through Facebook posts we slipped back into the cheeky way of communicating with each other that had been a staple of our 18-year-old selves.
We tried to fix a meet-up a couple of times, but Jon's ill-health thwarted those plans. Occasionally our chat windows would blaze with sincerity overload as we reminisced about this, that or the other. One late night, with Jack Daniels and coke in particularly bountiful supply at my end, I found myself on the receiving end of a compliment that lifted me so high I will never be able to forget it.
“You’re my inspiration, you know.”
“Fuck off, Jon.”
“You are. I blame you for everything.”
Rest in peace you fat, glorious bastard.