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.


Background Artist said...

A beautiful tribute H, the voice so genuine, a depth of tenor i have glimpsed before in your prose on the odd post to Bo, but this is really moving.

I wrote you a long piece last night, officially ceasing hostilities, but didn't post it, and maybe i am doing the wrong thing posting this, but i wanted to say, no hard feelings for the last few weeks, as we are both up to the same thing and are both committed and seem to be getting better.

You are right about the BB. When i first went there, casting you as the rival foe responsible for the outrage enacted against me, a simple bluffer; it was all new and exciting. My practice rate went through the roof as i spammed all day long, and after a few months, wondering if this was it, to rant at the gulag as some dotty dolite twisting into an ever incr4easing pointlessness.

You coming back seemed to mark some natural terminus of my working there, and then they got really personal about keeping me out, but the Telegraph appeared and, much as when i left yours last year, stepped on to an ascending media. Dave's on the up, and i've seen through the plastic socialist act of the main protagonists on that oxcam common room jag.

Rumens has proved she aint the intellectual, and the place has garnered a rep for extreme bluntness and a poetic of cruelty , where sneering is the default mode, by failed hacks and green eyed trolls, not one voice there speaking up for the beauty, ma\king quality prose like this tribute to your friend which really shows the human Jane, and i reckon the Manx in you is where the real yield lies.

Just the words, unique, arrest the readers eye, but to you they must seem as ormskirk did to me, names so nowheresville, one assumed they would be of no interest to the universal intellect, but it is in the local parish we find our first home. Anyway love and peace, you are a great poet, please forgive any dickishness and boorish louty rants i sent yr way in the make beleive, god bless Roly Drower..

Jane Holland said...

I'm not sure how Roly would feel about being blessed by God, having been an atheist and humanist himself. But I thank you anyway, Kevin.

I agree re the power of the local name. There's something in that which perhaps I need to explore more fully in my poetry. Home is where the art is, if you'll forgive the bad pun. Though I wasn't born there and haven't been back to the island for some years now, it's still very much a part of me and influences the way I see the world.

Background Artist said...

not God H, but god.

a small but significant difference, i first saw anytimefrances using. the way s/he (the only one on the BB to successfully remain gender neutral. not once slipping in the year i've known her or him) deployed upper and lower case, was very effective and it's all new to me, continual practice and speculation, but the real breakthrough came after making a purchase on the Auraicept na n-éces, the 14C bardic primer of 40 A4's which give the comprehensive tale of the origin of ogam, and the five languages of the bardic voice.

I first read this four years ago and it was all gobble dee gook as one needs a fairly broad purchase on the four cycles, to get the mythological back-wash, and to graps the finer nuances of the five states of a letter's coming from silence to full upper case, this process was termed summat like

motion, come forward, sit, sue, beg a reward and sit back rewarded.

Utter tripe until some mythical boundary of belief is artificially constructed by our intellect over the years, perhaps, i dunno, but it's the ultimate book, as if s/he cracks it, well, the mists of Lir, and there's you dead center of it..

here's a link to it.

Bo said...

Jane this was beautifully written, and most moving. Thanks for sharing it.
B x

Sorlil said...

Sorry to hear about your loss, sounds like he was a really interesting man to know.

Roy said...

Hey, Jane - Roy McMillan here, ex of Manx Radio. You've been on my mind for a couple of reasons of late - one being your poem The Newel Post - and I was in the process of writing an introduction to a collection of Roly's poetry when I stumbled on your blog. Apologies for using it to get in touch.

Your piece about him is just lovely, by the way; and there's to be a memorial for him in spring back on the Island. If you get a chance, please give me a shout.

Hope you're exceptionally well,


Jane Holland said...

How splendid to hear from you, Roy! I only wish it could have been for a happier reason ... but it's good to see you on my blog, even so.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to return to the Island, much as I would like to. My finances are not in brilliant shape - when were they ever?! - and the current economic squeeze is not helping. But do keep me up to date with things and I'll see what I can do. You never know ...

My email is - do give me a buzz.


Karl Millar said...

Jane I Cant believe I have not found your blog before now, I have the fondest memories of Roly and to this day his wisdom and views have changed the way I think and look at life. Understanding what it means to be a good Atheist and think outside the "be normal" box.

A great blog and a true account of life at Ballagcreggan, how lucky we all are to have shared that time in our life with Roly and each other.

Karl Millar

Jane Holland said...

Good to hear from you, Karl. Roly still bringing us together even years after his death, huh?

It was a marvellous time at Ballacreggan, I agree, and that was largely down to Roly, whose ideals about community kept us all together. We owe him a great deal, even though there were plenty of tensions at the time! Overall it was an amazing learning experience for all of us.

Hope you're well!

I'm writing as Victoria Lamb these days, so keep an eye out for my historical novels under that name - coming soon!