Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Robert Dellar

Photo: Shirley Pearson.

Going back thirty years to Friday the 15th of July, 1983, here's what I wrote in my diary.

I'm really getting to hate my paper round. I got the Sudden Surge of Power compilation through the post from Larry Peterson along with tons of other stuff. The tape is excellent. My favourites are by Mex, Cult of the Supreme Being and Mandible Rumpus, all of which I'm surprised to find are superior to tracks by the big names like Chris & Cosey, Test Dept, 400 Blows and so on. The weather is bloody hot as usual. I must get down to some recording one of these days.

Should it require explanation, A Sudden Surge of Power was a compilation cassette costing a couple of quid and distributed through the mail, advertised in fanzines and showcasing music created for the most part outside of the existing music industry infrastructure - bands you've never heard of recording their efforts on home stereos, in their bedrooms and so on. Cult of the Supreme Being had two songs on the tape, Chlorine Fills My Lungs and God is Thicker Than Water. The booklet which came with the tape describes them thus:

The Cult of the Supreme being started in February 1982. They played gigs at Kelly Drake's party, the Centro Iberico Anarchist Centre, and Watford Girls Grammar School before splitting up in March '82, appearing with such convenient namedrops as Twelve Cubic Feet, Replaceable Hedz, the Apostles, and the Godless Pinkoes.

Since this short spate of activity, David has joined the Expansion Chambers propaganda and fundraising arm of the Watford Revolutionary Bakuninite Collective whose activities include setting fire to the local branch of McDonalds and declaring Hunton Bridge roundabout a republic. Robert is now in the Wanderin' Graves, a post-modernist skiffle-art biscuit tin orchestra.

The Robert in question was Robert Dellar and I soon became familiar with his name as it reappeared on other hissy tapes with photocopied covers, notably Khmer Rouge's Year Zero Disco from Dead Hedgehog Records upon which he is credited with keyboards.

I made quite a respectable quota of friends through the cassette thing, and I kept in touch with a few of them over the years, notably various members of the Apostles and their pals. Ten years later I was living in London and had come to know a number of these people in person, having ended up as second guitarist for Academy 23, the band formed by Dave Fanning and Andy Martin in the wake of the aforementioned Apostles. Our first somewhat shambolic live performance was at Hackney Hospital in 1994, a gig put on for the benefit of psychiatric patients and organised largely by Robert Dellar, now working for the patients council.

We hadn't become bosom buddies or anything, but we knew each other, and I suppose you might say we were all in the same gang - an extended sprawl of artists, writers, musicians, and awkward buggers loosely in orbit of various squatted premises on the Brougham Road in Hackney. We often ended up in the same pub and Robert seemed a decent guy - quiet, intelligent, funny, and somehow always reminding me of a young Peter Cook - strikingly good looking. Also he was one of the few people I knew who liked the New York Dolls more than I did, so he had that Byronic rock dude thing going on without being a dick about it. I think I freaked him out a bit when I first introduced myself as a fan of the Cult of the Supreme Being. I think he was hoping we'd all forgotten.

We seemed to live on opposite sides of our shared social circle, but his name remained a constant because it was always Robert is doing this or are you going to Robert's thing? and Robert's thing eventually became Mad Pride, a series of gigs and CDs set up for the benefit of those obliged to use the services of the psychiatric profession. I vaguely knew he'd written books, or at least edited them, and I was slightly miffed that he'd never asked me to contribute to his Gobbing, Pogoing, and Gratuitous Bad Language anthology - although to be fair my contribution probably wouldn't have been up to much - but anyway, the Ceramic Hobs were playing at a Mad Pride event at the Garage in Islington and I'd fooled them into letting me drop science - as the rappers say - on one track. So I turned up and paid my money, then Robert arrived and told me that I needn't have paid seeing as I was a performer. He even seemed a bit miffed on my behalf and I was almost surprised that he even remembered who I was. I'd assumed he had me down as one of Andy Martin's adoring session musicians, but apparently not.

More recently, despite my having moved to Texas, he recruited me as cartoonist for Southwark Mental Health News - a magazine he put together as part of his involvement with the patients council at Maudsley Hospital, but retaining much of the spirit of the kind of punk fanzines through which I'd first encountered his name. The hospital had adopted a no smoking policy and recruited a sniffer dog named Raffy for the purpose of locating sneaky packets of fags stuffed down the back of beds. Raffy was introduced to patients as a welcome addition to the team, helping you along the road to recovery because everyone loves his waggy tail and happy bark as he confiscates the one thing that's keeping you from really losing it - all for your own good. Naturally Robert felt strongly inclined to take the piss out of this potential violation of the rights of a particularly vulnerable group of patients, and so we came up with the cartoon strip. It was at least fifteen years past the point at which I'd had much interest in drawing cartoons and my eyes weren't what they had been, but it really seemed like something worth doing; and it was, proving popular with more or less everyone who read it, so I'm told, which made a nice change from the days of drawing material about which no-one gave two shits even when it got published.

On Friday the 9th of December, 2016, Robert left the following message on facebook:

I had an ultrasound today at Lewisham Hospital. I've been unwell for a few months now - hence have kept a low profile: no energy - but don't know exactly what's causing this. Maybe the ultrasound results will shed some light on it, maybe not.

Then on Thursday the 15th of December:

Tomorrow I have to go to hospital for another blood transfusion as my haemoglobin levels are low again. Might have to stay in over the weekend. Tomorrow is also my birthday. A strange way to celebrate. Maybe someone will bring me a cake. I have packed for all eventualities and have earplugs and a good book.

Finally, on Saturday the 17th of December I read the following message posted by Shirley Pearson, his long-term partner:

Our beloved Robert died today.

He has been unwell since May this year and very unwell for the past couple of months.

I found him dead at home earlier this afternoon.

I have tried to contact as many of you as possible personally. Sorry to anyone who is hearing the news this way. I will update you as soon as I know anything else.

I still haven't quite taken it in. I think back to all he did, and to all the people whose lives would have been so much poorer without Robert involving them in this, that or the other, and it seems impossible that his existence can simply have stopped just like that. I had an idea he probably wasn't in the best of health and may not have been for some time, but still this seems wrong, something which happens in an alternate timeline but not here. I consider all those millions of miserable, joyless, shrivelled-up fuckers out there busily poisoning the collective consciousness against anyone or anything slightly unfamiliar, and yet the Death Gods somehow decided it was Robert's time? How the hell does that work? His narrative has come to an end and is a finite thing. This world has no Robert Dellar in it, which really fucking stinks. Like I say we were never bosom buddies but he was one of the gang, someone I was glad to know, one of the few people I've known for most of my life and now he's dead.

I've managed to avoid getting too upset because it's better to remember that even though he's gone, the main thing is that he was here in the first place and that he made a huge difference to the lives of many, not just those of us who knew him. In some sense, he's still there, still with fingers wiggling about in a million different pies, still making the world a better place; but he's in a part of it to which we can no longer travel, a part accessed only by memory. He's gone but at least he was here.

Goodbye, old friend. You are missed more than you probably would have realised.

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