It is strange to learn of an old friend’s death especially someone you have known since you were fourteen but from whom you have been separated for three decades by thousands of miles of ocean. It is even stranger when your contact is sporadic, sometimes just a card or that peculiarly impersonal intimacy the Round Robin at Christmas. In such circumstances, the friendship exists in a state of sempiternal suspension in time and place, an abstract rather than a reality.
Thus, when an email reached me in Sri Lanka from a mutual acquaintance in New Zealand saying that Nick Kelly had died in hospital in Miami, the news lacked the sense of reality, the empirical impact, that constant proximity might lend it. If I hadn’t received the email I would have continued in my vague assumption that Nick was alive and well on the other side of the world in Grand Cayman where he had lived with his wife Jane and sons, Tom and Jake, since 1983. I would have envisaged him as I last saw him sitting on his back porch, a barefoot stroll from Seven Mile Beach, sipping the kind of Pina Colada that takes all day to make from picking the coconut and grating its soapy white flesh to peeling and blending the fresh, juicy pineapple. Instead I have to process the fact that he no longer inhabits the same space as me, that we will never meet again and talk books and writing over a few golden rums.
Memories of a distant teenage life suffuse my present: Nick and Jon B’s squat in World’s End, Chelsea, with bohemian platform beds, Hell’s Angel neighbours and a pet python called Nigel; Nick’s flat in the then shabby Sinclair Road, Shepherd’ Bush, a short walk to the now demolished Duke of Clarence pub and the unrecognisably fashionable Prince of Wales where we indulged a taste for Stella Artois with Aussies back from the Hindu Kush; one long, blur of parties in squatted Victorian villas in the Grove, Edwardian bedsits in Earls’ Court, cramped council flats in Stockwell.
I began to realise how much Nick had influenced my early taste in movies, music and literature. Born in Tooting, raised in Wembley, he epitomised the bright drop out who, like me, yearned for more than the narrow terraces and mundane respectability to which our parents had aspired. It was Nick who took me to late-night showings of Fox and Jagger in Performance at the long-gone Paris Pullman and Warhol’s Trash at the Electric Cinema when it was still the same, unrefurbished flea-pit my mother and grandmother had known.
It was Nick who made me listen to Miles Davis, Hendrix, Tim Buckley, the Velvet Underground. Most important of all, it was Nick who gave me a little- known young writer’s first collection of short stories – First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan. Nick demanded that I read Conrad’s Secret Agent and Mervyn Peake’s Ghormenghast. Nick exposed me to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism, Michael Herr’s Dispatches and all the seminal works of 1970s counter-culture. Required reading for any self-respecting teen hippie perhaps but these books remain works of brilliance and I thank Nick for introducing me to them and helping form my taste.
I explain some of this to the friends I am with in Sri Lanka, the bits that might make sense to strangers who have never met Nick or knocked about the more louche hotspots of West London, indeed who were toddlers when Nick sank his first pint of Guinness. We go to the best hotel in Galle, the gloriously colonial Amangalla with its Victorian chequered tiles and classical columns, and we toast Nick Kelly’s life in champagne as befits a man who could spend all day perfecting a cocktail. Nick, I will miss you though in my mind’s eye you will be perpetually taking that first, magical sip as you gaze out over the Caribbean Sea. Farewell.
Ardella Jones pictured at the Amangalla, Galle, Sri Lanka