A eulogy for CHRIS LEE (1958-2019)
My brother finally conked out at five am on New Year's morning, which was about par for the course for Chris. He had great staying power, an iron liver, saw in many a dawn.. except this time he was alone. How he'd have hated this! I mean this - (pointing to myself) - his elder brother getting in the last word. Would've been anathema. (Laughter.) D'you remember Chris? (gesture of writing with a forefinger) He was always doing that. Some people play the air guitar. (mime of guitar playing). With Chris it was the air Biro. (laughter). Christ loved words, and he was good with words, much better than I ever was.
Not long ago, only last June - before all this started - I was in Liverpool with my youngest, Elis, and we were having a drink and a chat; Lisa was with us. I don't remember how it came up, but I was on about a story I'd written more than twenty years before; a novel, in which the hero - as an old man - dies from a lung infection. He's been exposed to anthrax during World War Two. I'd gone into great detail - one of my great faults - and Chris was shaking his head as though to say, "Here we go." Anyway, as I was saying, about five years later, our own dad had died with symptoms and treatments exactly the same as in the story. The only difference being, Dad's exposure had been to asbestos buidling the nuclear subs at Cammel Laird's. So at this point, Chris wags his finger and says, "Never write anything down!"
|Gang of 4 minus 1: Chris, Westy (face behind|
Blake's Verse), Stony with the V-sign; no Spenna.
When Chris got booted out of Alsop, he went down to London and walked straight into the proto-punk scene. It was the Autumn of 1975, and he was living in Ladbrook Grove, the house next door to Joe Strummer, who was still a hippie busker. There he was there in the thick of it, but it wasn't like Chris to push himself forward. He was more of a back parlour man. Snug but smug. Chris wouldn't dominate a group, he never laid his ego on you. He had no axe to grind. A couple of years later, when I got booted out of drama school, I was actually homeless and looking for him, but he had disappeared. In fact he'd been seriously ill, hospitalised. The family, as usual, were the last to know. Or would never know. There was no one at his last address: 11, Rust Square, off the New Kent Road. So I knocked next door, which was answered by Piers Corbyn. I've always had a lot of time for the Corbyns. Piers ran upstairs and came down with a huge black ledger. He found the entry for Chris and there he was at Lambeth Walk.
I don't think most siblings get the chance to live and work with each other in their twenties. We did, and though we would often argue and sometimes fight, we had lots of great times together in those dodgy days of London in the late Seventies: Chris & I, Westy, Dave Parry, Irene Kappes and Denis Davies. We lived in the obscurity of South London, crossing and recrossing the river every day in Denis's Luton van, working in and out of an old furniture shop behind the aptly-named Liverpool Street station. We had occasional brushes with the famous, hauling a piano up four flights of stairs for Morgan Fisher (keyboard player in Mott The Hoople); moving house for an exiled member of the ANC; we inherited a huge colour TV, and a broken guitar from the manager of Cockney Rebel. On a rare trip out of The Smoke, we crawled our way to the edge of Beachy Head, then ate fish'n'chips on the seafront at Hastings. This is before all those places on the South Coast got revamped. We saw The Clash a few times, and The Specials, caught Talking Heads's first gig in the UK. We bought a sofa that Mel Smith, Phil Daniels and Toyah Wilcox had shared on stage at the ICA long before any of them were household names. Meantime, Chris never lost touch with his mates in Liverpool. I remember a weekend visit by Phil Hayes and the High Fives, though I counted at least seven of them sleeping on that infamous sofa in our tiny living room.
Some time between Mrs Thatcher getting in and the election of Ronald Reagan, Chris decided he'd had enough of London. I think he realised he'd never be part of the network down there - there was no network down there; also, he could sense that Liverpool was about to go through one of its periodic resurgences. In fact, 1981 was when the British government tried to finish what the Luftwaffe had started in 1941. Chris coming home was a bit like Dean Cody's New York arrival in Jack Kerouac's novel On The Road. I think he'd become a bit of a legend in his absence, and so the circle of friends he returned to had grown. Visiting him in the early eighties, I met people such as Frannie, Keith Moneypenny, Paul Callister, Marg - no, I'd met Marg years before, when she was going out with Cliffie Roberts. It amazed me how Chris would pull in all these strands. Westy had joined Mother Theresa's in Haiti. This was when Bert & Chris got the cottage on Catharine Street and were in the Belvedere every night; plus the Casablanca whenever funds allowed (which was every other night!). I don't know where the money came from. From whoever had a giro coming in, I suppose. At the height of the unemployment crisis, they did their shoeshine act at The Pilgrim: Chris on brush, polish & Stock Exchange tips, Bert - in a top hat - as the barker. One weekend, Barry Robinson and I came down from London and we did our respective acts at a Sealed Knot do on Adwalton Moor.
|Our house in London|
Chris stayed out of the Peace Festival, rather wisely I supppose, though I was a little hurt at the time. I don't think we caught the spirit of the age because people were rightly angry at losing their jobs and having to lie and cheat their way through life. Militant summed up the mood in the days of the Miner's strike and Hestletine's Garden Festival. Also - let's face it - Chris was always pretty cool, while we were just all the dickheads in Liverpool.
The eighties were Chris's decade, by the close of it he was magnificent. He'd started at The Armadillo, where Sue Flacket and Martin Yarker were his great pals. Every night in Kavanagh's they compared crossword notes. Then there was The Acorn Gallery. At that point, I truly believed my brother was on the road to becoming No 1 caterer on the Liverpool art scene, maybe even a big cheese art dealer? He had an incredible collection of local paintings at that time, every wall of Chris & Gail's flat had two or three major pieces by important artists such as Dick Young. I wonder where they are now? If he'd cashed that lot in, he could've bought a detached house in Childwall. Probably most of them were loans. You know what itinerant lives artists lead. How many pints had Chris stood them for the honour of hosting their unsold works? It was round this time that we made The Sauce of the Mersey, with Dozy and Deborah Itzcovitz. Though they later fell out, Dozy was an important friend. Later on, Chris did a lot of catering at the Pink Recording Studios. He observed that in middle age most legendary musicians were mean with their money, like engineers with long hair and expensive tastes in cars. One American band lit an indoor barbecue which Chris managed to put out. The owners were furious.
The nineties were Chris's lost decade. I don't pretend to know exactly what happened after the cafe business moved from The Acorn to that Aunt Twacky place on Renshaw Street, except that it didn't last. Brody offered Chris a job in Walton Prison, which - on the face of it - looked just the ticket, except it involved writing things down. He would go and interview remand prisoners, helping them get their stories on paper, for the barristers to use in court. He was disgusted by what he heard, the reality of crime was nothing like a Philip Marlowe story. When Chris was attacked one night in 1993 and very seriously beaten, I can't think that it was simply a random act, unconnected to one of the crazies he'd interviewed. He ended up in hospital with a broken jaw and, as usual, the family were the last to know. He had more or less recovered when he came to visit us in Turkey in the summer of 1996, but a jaded look had slightly dulled the sparkle in his eyes.
Still, Chris could walk into anywhere. He had that ease of manner. On his first visit to Turkey, he flew Air France - which had a transfer at Paris. There was a short delay - an hour, I think. So he strode into the hospitality suite reserved for First Classes, to down as many free glasses of wine and plateloads of canapes as time and dignity would allow. When he got to Istanbul, where I was meeting him, he'd just about sobered up, and was ready for his first taste of Efes - the Turkish beer. He spent about a month with us, every day writing a letter to Janet, who at that time was a mystery woman. She still is. He got to visit Oludeniz before the place was totally overrun, met people who remember him more than two decades later. Both times he came, he quickly settled into a routine which included a daily visit to a local hostelry. When he'd gone, family and friends soon missed him.
Dixie invited him to New York more than once, to help with putting up art installations; and Chris took great pride in being peeled off the floor by a NYPD officer. It was like a badge of office. I don't know if his Desert Island discs contained a song by the Pogues, but he had lived the life, so what need of the soundtrack? He'd be having his breakfast in the restaurant at the top of one of the Twin Towers just a few weeks ahead of 9/11. This was just before his second visit to Turkey, when we went to Imbros, Troy and Tenedos. Unfortunately, he never made that third visit and so never got to see the house we built. Not did he see our summer place on Lesbos - a real Greek island - which was to make up for the loss of Anglesey.
You see, Chris and I were not just Liverpudlians. We were also country boys from the amount of time we spent in Anglesey, starting at our earliest years. The village of Dwyran was our home-from-home, where Dad built the bungalow Craigwen; and where our Welsh speaking cousins - living on and beyond the island - broadened our horizons. We cycled to beaches, poached in streams, caught eels and fed them to pigs, damned up drainage ditches, set fire to fields, hid in hay barns, stole apples and plums from people's gardens and generally played the city oaf to our young neighbour Ian and his dog Pal. Chris was there when Pal was hit by a tractor and the dog virtually died in his arms. How many times did we come home covered in mud after a whole day spent wandering long and far on the fields that overlooked the Menai Straits, with Caernarvon Castle and the mountains of the Lleyn rolling off into the distance? At low tide, we would row our little boat across to the vast sandbank that appeared in the middle of the Straits, and then run across it and be a shouting distance of Porth Dinorwic. Once our cousin Allan joined us in the boat, and waves almost drowned us from the extra weight. Later, we would trek of an evening to Moel Y Don and drink in a seaside pub called The Mermaid, alongside young farmers and yatching types. Many a time we would strut the three miles back to Dwyran, full of brown bitters, with the Milky Way sparkling overhead. We never seemed to argue in Anglesey. It was there that Chris helped Dad build his crazy boat. Anglesey always gave us a good break.
After Dad died, Chris had to spend more and more time in Anglesey, keeping an eye on Mum. Every year I would come to the UK and manage a summer school somewhere down south, then spend a week in Anglesey, via a night or two's visit to Liverpool. It must have been 2002 when Chris and I walked into Kavanagh's one evening. I must have stayed outside while Chris went in to the bar, and a couple of girls came up to me. Are you Chris's brother, one of them asked. I told them I had that honour. The other said, He's just like Chris without the glasses.
I can't go on here without saying something about The Look. The Look was Chris's own. It wasn't Morrissey's, or Elvis Costello's. It wasn't even Joe 90's - Chris already had the look back in 1963 when we were watching XL5 and reruns of Four-Feather Falls.
Anyhow, the first girl said, You've got to do something about your brother. Eh, I said, knowing perfectly well what she meant. But there was no point being coy. You can't change Chris, I said. He is who he is. And he's such a lovely fella, said the other girl. I know. They both pleaded with me, You gotta do something.
|Lisa and Chris|
What did people want from my brother? All he had to offer was his company. I think he was a true friend to many. And I say it with the merest touch of resentment, that he often put friends before family. That was the mark, if you like, of his loyalty; the importance of choice. But, as I said, the decade up until that point in time had been somewhat lacking in direction as far as Chris's life was concerned. And so, this is the time to pay tribute to Lisa, the love of his life. Had it not been for her, we wouldn't have been here today in 2019... but ten years ago. Lisa, by giving Chris permission to be himself, gave him a direction. She never kept him on the straight and narrow, woe betide anyone who tried that! But she allowed him to pace himself, allowed him to go on being friends and socialising with anyone he chose. That's a very rare thing, and Chris was lucky to meet Lisa. Not many of us get to share a love like theirs. Lisa.
And I'm going to have to wind this up conscious that I've left too many people out. Of those who are here, I want to mention Scott and Ray, Mick Fitz, Paula, Neil, Yusuf, Jackie and her family - Jackie in particular, who has done so much to help with all the arrangements and who will be speaking in a moment. I want to thank our cousins Lois & Shayne and Steve who've made it here from far away, and cousin Allan. We're hoping to see more old friends in Kavanagh's later. And as I've said from the start, however you choose to pay your respects to Chris is fine by us.
|Outside Wilson's den (No. 10) in 1969|
|Dad, Chris and Mum 1958|
Of course, Dad wasn't saying, "Give me a bowl, Son." He was saying, "Give me a hold." But I had never given my father a hold, and he had never given me a hold. Phhh! We just didn't do that kind of thing. Chris knew that. I had reminded him of it when talking about the story I wrote, when Chris had said Never Write Anything Down. That kind of precipitation would not have been in order.
I said I'd give Chris the last word. Well, here it is. The day before he went into the hospice - when actually I thought he was finally getting over the treatment - we had as long a conversation as we'd had in ages. We got a bit philosophical. I don't really know why, but I'm an interfering so-and-so and an upstart. Since he was feeling so loquacious, I felt as though he should put the record straight on this question of putting the boat out. So, I said, Well, brother, did you have a good time? He answered me without the slightest hesitation. As though he had brooded on it and come to a firm conviction. I could feel his head nodding into the phone, Oh, yes! he said, Oh, yes!
(June 2018, a month before his fall)