Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Back To The Old House
I first met Andy Hollingsworth in early '73, when I was 19 and he was 16. The other members of Plod and I met him on the corner of Queen St and High St, Colchester one Saturday morning. He was a big lad with a baby face, slightly chubby, soft of build and a shock of dark curly hair. I'd instantly liked him. He was like one of those kids I'd been to school with, one of the outsiders, I suppose. This was partly by virtue of his sheer talent. He could play a piano, even at age 16, like a pro. He could sit down at an old pub piano and play complex JS Bach cantatas or Antonio Carlos Jobim sambas. What he wasn't, was a rock and roller, although he was something of a science boffin. He understood a lot of stuff that most of his friends didn't even know was stuff. Very occasionally, I'd get to play with him, and much as I liked certain types of jazz, I most certainly wasn't up to playing even an approximation of it at this stage in my life. Andy, therefore, was one of these guys that I'd gravitate towards in a pub, if I wanted to talk about something more complex than heavy rock bands or other musical mundanities.
Six years after first meeting him, it was a somewhat forlorn scene that he lit upon, when he visited me that day. I hadn't seen him for some months. I explained about the split-up with my girlfriend, about losing the house and then I found a couple of not-yet-packed cups and made us tea. While I talked to him, I carried on packing a few last things in cardboard boxes, ticked off items on the house inventory and generally swept up in all of those places, where the furniture had been. I'm my mum's practical son for that sort of thing. It was the last clean-up. He sat down at my clunky old first piano and played some Jobim stuff and some Bach. It was a still, grey day in early May. It was very poignant, which I suppose, is why the memory is still frozen there, so clearly in my mind.
He must have left at some point that afternoon. He wished me good luck and said that we'd catch up in the pub. My other friend Kate, arrived a little later. She was working as a waitress at the restaurant, where I was part-time kitchn porter. We loaded my boxes, and various bits and pieces in her old Morris Traveller. Except for the piano, which I couldn't take with me, we managed to get it all in the car. Looking at the car filled up with all my worldly goods except for a piano, my bicycle and my cat, reminded me of what happened to you if you joined rock bands. You don't usually end up with many material possessions. On the up side of things, your mum never minds storing it in the garage for you. This is where we headed next ‒ a village about 8 miles out of Colchester. I was twenty six years old. It had just gone a bit pear-shaped, really. When we got to my mum's place, we unloaded, stacked the stuff and had more tea. I was beginning to lose my voice again. The following morning, it had been reduced to a sort of Carslberg TV advert voice-over. A kind of low growl which you also hear on film trailers at the cinema. This co-incided with my dad, before we drove off, giving me an old raincoat ‒ a battered, sand-coloured Burberry flasher's mac with flaps, belt, straps and loads of buttons. “No wonder you're always getting colds and sore throats, if you walk around in all weathers without a coat.” he said, gruffly. It was coming on to rain. Cold English springtime rain. I put the mac on.
A couple of nights later, I met Andy in the pub. He was his usual boffin-like self, talking intensely to me about some revolutionary way of doing something in music, or some aspect of an invention he was working on. But he never forgot the occasion. Years later, he said: “I can never forget that night after you lost your house, and you came into the pub in that old raincoat, talking in that ridiculous croak, because you'd lost your voice.” Everyone else who'd encountered me at this point it seems, had just assumed that I'd for some reason, decided to do a permanent Columbo impression. There'd been much hilarity. But since it was the type of unpredictable thing that I might have done, for a laugh, no-one except for Andy realised that I'd lost my house, lost my girl and now my voice. There was a funny side to it, I suppose. Bloke blows it. Bloke decides to become Columbo for a week.
When you've got nothing, as the song goes, you've got nothing lose. There was a sense of freedom, too. There's something about those still grey days in spring. They can be very... healing. I spent a lot of time walking around. I revisited old haunts. I liked that bit of Colchester, the beginning of the suburbs just west of the town centre, with its big Victorian houses and avenues. I was going to miss it. I guesed that I would now go to wherever it was that I ended up.
I just didn't yet know where that was.
But I still had a band And there were gigs. I still had a part time washing-up job. I didn't owe anybody any money. The cat was staying with the ex until I got myself straight. Tell you what I don't like about being homeless? There's no window to look out of in the morning. It was only a couple of weeks, though. I stayed at my mum's a couple of nights. I stayed at one or two band members after gigs. I'd put enough unlucky people up in my time, hadn't I? My floor credit, at this point, was pretty good. Then, one day, Peter, who owned the restaurant where I worked, told me that he had a room going, just for the summer, mind. It was inWivenhoe. It was a big house, sort of bohemian. Lovely rambling old place. The room was mine if I wanted it, but only until the autumn. Soon enough, then, Kate the waitress was back with her old Morris Traveller, moving my stuff out of my mum's garage and into my new room.
Andy Hollingsworth died aged 49, which I suppose must have been about five or six years ago now. In the intervening twenty five or so years since he'd come upon me packing on that last day at Ireton Road, Colchester, I'd mostly seen him only sporadically. But in the mid 90's another old girlfriend of mine had formed a weekly jazz club around Andy's talent, for a few months. He moved his amps and his piano into the upstairs function room of the Greyhound in Wivenhoe. He actually 'lived' between his estate car and a semi-derelict building next to the Mark's Tey cafe and truck stop. That side of his life, for me at least was shrouded in mystery.
As for the jazz club, jazz musicians, being what they are, most of those who turned up to play each week were reluctant to sing. Andy liked a bit of singing. So after some persuasion and tutoring from him I learned a set of songs and we'd break up the general jazz willy-waving with Lullaby of Birdland, On A Clear Day, My Funny Valentine and other such standards, which I did my level best to sing properly.
Andy had lived in London for some of those intervening years. Sometimes, he'd taken residencies as a piano player. He'd played Ronnie Scott's, too. At one point, he became Head of Music at a large south London comprehensive school. I gather that he was pretty good teacher, but that those rough south London kids and their riotous behaviour was all too much for his rather gentle soul. While he was in Wivenhoe, we got to know each other all over again. He should have married and had kids, really. He'd have been great at that. Kids loved him. The thing was that he was pretty undomesticated. His diet was a disaster zone. Typical absent-minded boffin, he'd be working on manuscripts whilst eating sliced white bread out of the packet, which he'd smear with the cheapest margerine.. He'd adopted a huge and rather uncontrollable black Alsatian called Luke. The dog went everywhere with him. Andy had even been known to share the dog's food sometimes, if he'd forgotten to go shopping. Andy was also very fond of real ale and could drink quite a lot of it, without it ever affecting him much, other than to make him more philosophical.
I heard he got depressed sometimes, but to me, when we were talking anyway, he was always fired up with the general possibilities of things. I really found him quite inspirational. His talent and ideas were never really harnessed enough for the world's good. But he did not look after himself well.
He'd been ill. I believe he died quietly in his sleep ‒ I hadn't seen him for about six months, prior to that. I was surprised at how personally I took it when he died.
At the funeral were a handful of friends, fellow musicians and of course his family, who like us knew exactly how valuable he was. We hadn't known each other in childhood, but I think each of us, from the very outset, recognised in the other certain outsider qualities. I don't think I ever had a dull conversation with him. He'd have been one of those kids who was no good at football, like me, hanging round the frosty goalmouth on a cold afternoon, talking about music or great theories and waiting for the games master to blow the final whistle. So when I think of moving out of that house in Colchester, I can't do so without remembering Andy and the cadences of Bach and Jobim echoing around the newly-pictureless walls and the dusty floorboards on that last grey afternoon.