Monday, May 26, 2008
In Memoriam Roly Drower
I had some bad news last week. An old friend of mine, Roly Drower, passed away suddenly on May 12th. He was only 54.
I'm still feeling a bit bruised by the news, but it's important for me to mark his passing in some way, even if only here on Raw Light.
We were friends when I was still living on the Isle of Man. Roly was a poet, satirical writer and musician who was living on the Island in order to be close to his parents, who had retired there. We first met early in 2000 through a mutual friend in the Isle of Man Poetry Society (he edited their newsletter - cum - poetry magazine Under the Hill, in which several of my poems appeared around that time). I was made homeless a few months after we met and he suggested I move in with him at Ballacreggan Farm, a sort of commune he had been running for a few years by then, albeit in a highly unofficial capacity, out in the wilds along the Santon coastline.
Ballacreggan was really an odd jumble of people living together in a casual, unorthodox manner rather than a commune with any sense of shared ethos. The main idea was to pay your rent on time each month and share in a few joint meals and activities every now and then, which most people seemed happy to do.
Roly was a website designer and logistics guy for a local haulage company; there were two other computer experts, Karl and Matty, the latter also a talented musician who often worked overseas; there was Abby, a charming student who worked part-time at a vegetarian restaurant; also Rob, a travelling ... well, I'm not sure what he did officially, but it seemed to be mainly painting and decorating on an ad hoc basis; and then there was me. There was another young man, whose name I've forgotten, but he worked somewhere that required a suit and never seemed quite at home on the farm.
A few others swam in and out occasionally, including past lodgers there, but that was the main crew at Ballacreggan during 2000. Roly would cook everyone a curry or something similar in the evenings, then make electronic music in his computer room upstairs - his 'band' was The Sulby Phantom Band, a name under which he released a number of records over the years - while Karl and Matty would play computer games together, each in his own bedroom with the doors wide open so they could yell abuse at each other. I would lie downstairs reading or watching a film on my little portable telly and drinking whisky. Rob spent most evenings at the pub or outside in his camper van - which he later sold to me - and Abby was usually out partying somewhere with her student friends.
Ballacreggan was a sociable place, a sort of open door to the world, where strange cars would pull up at all hours and discharge stoned musicians or other friends of friends who liked to visit the farm. Students would appear and make hash cakes in abundance at weekends, and large bonfire parties or more spontanous gatherings were organised to celebrate various Sabbats or for birthdays. Over all this activity, Roly would preside with an authority and panache born of supreme indifference to social norms. He loved to see people enjoying themselves and would only step in if things got out of hand. Which almost never happened, the charm of the place ensuring that everyone there looked after everyone else.
My favourite times at Ballacreggan were not the parties though, but the quieter evenings when most people were out. Watching a film with Roly, or messing about on the computers, or taking some homemade curry down to our elderly Indian neighbour, a retired surgeon. There was an open log fire at the farm and it was lovely to sit there with Roly long into the night, the two of us drinking whisky together and discussing poetry or local politics, our two favourite topics, and waiting for the others to come home, one by one.
I had to go back to Oxford at the end of that summer, however, which marked the end of my delightful idyll at Ballacreggan. Later that year, shortly after my mother died in October, I returned to the island to discover that Roly was planning to leave the farm. Several people had already left that year and the rent was too high for him to continue. A few weeks later, the remaining members of the commune had begun to pack up, and by Christmas the place was empty.
I went back one day in December to pick up a few things and wandered about the echoing rooms with a real sense of loss, remembering the months I'd spent there, the people I had met, the incredible feeling of community.
And now dear Roly is dead. Such a shock, especially since he was still so young, only 54. Too many roll-ups, too much whisky, not enough exercise perhaps - though he was always tall and wiry, the sort who could charge up the stairs two or three steps at a time. Charming, talented, intelligent - got a First in Astrophysics from UCL - and with a strongly caustic sense of humour. I consider myself lucky to have known the man.
I can still see him at his computer keyboard at Ballacreggan, sitting there into the early hours, smoking nervously, completely absorbed in his music, once even composing something to accompany one of my own Boudicca poems. I wonder what happened to that piece? Lost forever now, I imagine.
I'll miss you, Roly. It was a year - and an experience - I'll never forget.