First and foremost, right from the off, John was there. He was one of the first poets in London I spoke to when I moved back in 1999, and he remained a constant presence on the circuit rather than disappearing for a quiet life after a few years. That's why his death has been slightly trickier for me to process than most, I think. I'm a republican and want to see the British monarchy disbanded, but when Queen Elizabeth II passes away there's a possibility I will have my own hypocritical and confused period of low-key mourning, not because I believe in what she represents, but because her death would create a complete erasure of a figure that had dominated my life through many different means - like having an historical landmark deleted from the London skyline overnight. The London poetry circuit without John feels a bit like that, except unlike the Queen, I obviously never wanted to see his role in society diminished, though he might possibly have suited a tiara at one of his bigger gigs (he'd certainly have bloody rocked her EU flower hat).
I can't remember where I first met him (Kerouac's in Deptford? Walking The Dog? Poetry Unplugged?) but he immediately impressed with his energy, enthusiasm, the rhythm and carefree absurdity of his ideas, his beatnik image, and his excitable pre and post-gig patter which was guaranteed.
He always knew of a fantastic gig going on somewhere else in town that week, or a jazz performer you really just had to see - he was, it has to be said, good at making quite personalised recommendations to people he knew reasonably well, always on the look-out for 'your kind of thing' - and once he'd finished talking about those he'd fill you in on what he'd been up to, which would take another few minutes at least, because it was never just a few things. You had to pause whatever you were planning to do and just hear him out.
He had a few decades on me in terms of age, but his energy and determination continually shamed my own. Apparently, he had a much-hated role in a bank which he had quit early to dedicate his life to writing and performing, and it always seemed as if he was throwing himself into the practice with total zeal to make up for lost time. It was impossible to imagine him working in a bank - I sometimes probably wrongly imagined it as being like Manny's role as an accountant in "Black Books" - but he made a very convincing beat styled poet.
The first work of his I was familiar with felt, from memory, zingy and enjoyable but a little naive in places, driven largely by his energy and stage presence. He got good very quickly, though, and as his writing improved so too did his ability to improvise and speed-write in a way that had recently begun to stun me. In February this year, he attended the Mark E Smith tribute night at the Poetry Cafe purely on a whim. He had no idea the tribute night was on, and had turned up to the cafe purely on the offchance of catching up with some fellow poets, having found himself wandering in that general direction. He immediately decided he was going to take part, and quickly scribbled a poem on a sheet of paper - sometimes taking breaks for conversations with people walking through the door - before going downstairs to do his slot where he read the new piece of work.
The crowd completely lapped up what he'd written and the whole thing gelled. Moreoever, he got me thinking about the value of spontaneity, and how you don't have to chisel away and toil over every piece of work for it to have some kind of meaning or value on a particular day or night. We talked about it later on, and he made me realise that sometimes, you just have to let go of your work and have fun with it, see where it leads your feet. Both the best and worst ideas flow out of your pen when you completely relinquish control. Oddly, that conversation was one of the last decent ones I had with him, and made me re-assess some of the bad habits I'd let myself get into lately, including slowly editing my work as I wrote rather than letting something fall on to the page first.
He also had a habit of popping up in unexpected places or being uncannily accurate in predicting your interests or bizarre obsessions. While I was working for Pearson Publishing in 2003, I was stunned to leave the office one day and find him strolling past on the pavement outside. He said hello and gave me a flyer for a forthcoming gig as if it was the most natural occurrence in the world, not a remarkable coincidence at all, then went on his way to whatever his appointment was. I suspect that even in a city like London, he randomly bumped into someone he knew every day.
On another occasion, he sidled up to me at an event, pointed at a random object at the wall and quoted something (I can't quite remember what) from Robert Anton Wilson's "Illuminatus!" trilogy. I immediately got what he was on about and replied with something appropriate, to which he giggled enthusiastically and said "I knew you'd be into that!" He always enjoyed it when someone was locked on to his wavelength, though he seemed faintly disappointed I DJ'ed at Northern Soul nights ("What's wrong with DJ'ing a bit of jazz?") The jazzman was always pushing his love of jazz.
I've been watching his Facebook page all day, and tributes have been flooding in from every corner of the London poetry circuit - because he was familiar with every corner of it. The man knew everyone, and his work seemed to translate to every audience, even outside the poetry world to places like Ronnie Scott's, where he occasionally gigged. I only really learned today that he would also subtly have words with promoters about suitable acts they could book, and try to influence the circuit for the better. I remember one occasion he did me a huge favour by performing one of my poems at "Bingo Master's Breakout", and sent members of the audience over to talk to me when they wanted to know more about who wrote it. I think people who didn't really know him sometimes got the impression he was a bit of a hustler, ever ready with his bag of books to sell and flyers to distribute, but he was a writer trying to sell his work, doing what writers without other jobs to rely on have to do - besides promoting himself, he also genuinely cared about and listened to what other people were offering, and freely apportioned praise to those he felt deserved it.
That's the tough part about this for all of us, I think. He was our link between the different poetry scenes, an enthusiast as well as a performer, and the rarest of things in our often introverted, insecure and occasionally self-obsessed little world - a genuine people person who would approach anyone he thought he might like completely unselfconsciously. Meeting and talking to people, and having places he could happily share his most absurd ideas without judgement, seemed to make him happy. He's one of the few poetry performers I've met you could put on the bill at a Fall tribute night, or Ronnie Scott's, or an urban spoken word event, or an anti-folk evening, or a 'serious' reading, or an event at an art gallery and get away with it. His image and enthusiasm gave everyone easy immediate points of entry, and the quality of his performances just caused everything else to click into place. I'll miss him, but so will many, many others.