PAUL O’Grady, the chat show host and sometime drag queen, gave a lively and entertaining interview to the Guardian yesterday. In promoting the latest instalment of his autobiography, O’Grady discussed friends he had lost. The recent departures included Cilla Black and Jackie Collins.
The no-nonsense ITV host spoke entertainingly at Cilla’s funeral – entertainingly and movingly, as the two moods often hold hands at a funeral.
“What a rotten year it’s been!” O’Grady says in the interview. “Cilla, and then, while I was in Borneo, I saw it on the telly – Jackie Collins. I only spoke to her before I left. We were going to have lunch, and I said ‘I can’t, I’m going away…’”
What O’Grady touches on here is something none of us escape in the end, the opportunity missed for a last meeting with a friend, the lost chance to say goodbye.
For me this story concerns John Sheridan. This is not the John Sheridan who once played for Leeds United and now manages Newport County. This is the John Sheridan I met in 1975 on the English Literature BA at Goldsmiths’ College in New Cross, south east London.
I was straight out of school, John was a year or two older. He’d started a university course somewhere else, I can’t remember where now, Leeds perhaps, but had jumped horses.
That was the way with John. He moved from one thing to another. He gave the impression of never quite being settled, and in the end he had less time than most to find his place.
John was very tall, six foot four, of Irish extraction, amusing in a sometimes scathing manner, looked a little like Clark Kent, and he was my favourite university friend. He always seemed smarter than me, but then other people often do. We went for drinks, went to concerts, sat through seminars together, keen and mostly attentive (me), questioning and still doubtful (John).
A year or two after university we went to America on a three-week holiday linked in part to John’s family roots and routes. We flew to New York where we spent a week with one of his cousins in Queens. Then we picked up a car that needed delivering to Los Angeles. The deal with the car was that we had one week to drive 3,000 miles. We put down a returnable deposit of $100 and only had pay for the petrol. I had just passed my test, so John did the cities and we shared the long dusty stretches between.
Stopping in Boston (more of John’s cousins, including a girl cousin I liked), we then followed Route 66 across the States, clocking up 600 or 700 miles a day. We slept in tatty motels and ate at truck-stop diners.
One day in a somewhere-nowhere sort of place we stopped for a coffee. The young woman who served us was what about our age. She said something about our accents, and said in passing that she’d never been more than 100 miles from where she now was. And here we were driving all the way across her country. A picture that has stayed with me, although the details are hazed with time. And I can’t seek corroboration.
We spent a week in Los Angeles, near the beach (another cousin, this one was away in the Marines) and drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. At the end of the three weeks, we flew back from LA.
When I met my wife she found John difficult, then grew to love him. Just as well as he was best man at our wedding. The way I asked John for this favour was a little clumsy, and he told me, in a John sort of way, that yes he’d love to but I should have taken him out for a meal before asking. Even lovely friends can sometimes prickle, but he rose to the occasion and was a good best man.
After we moved to York, John came to stay a few times. He moved jobs, jumping ship from the Greater London Council to work for a charity in an accounting role of some sort (I think). Later he left that job to do VSO in Bhutan, sending me long and interesting air-mail letters which I have still somewhere in the tin of lost letters.
One day, back in London again, John rang to say that he’d been diagnosed with a brain tumour. We had a long conversation and he suggested I might want to pop down to see him sometime. We had young children, life was busy and, anyway, a good friend of mine wasn’t going to die, so I didn’t get round to that visit.
In the event that was okay, or so it seemed. John got better and went on holiday abroad by himself. Plans were made but I didn’t hear from John for a while. One day I left a message on his answer-phone.
John didn’t phone me back, but his brother Jim did eventually, telling me that John had died. Years later I can still feel the shock and the guilt; still hate myself for that last dereliction.
I went to the funeral. This seemed both the right thing to do, and the wrong thing. Right because you just do. Wrong because I should have visited John when I could have done.
It rained all day and the funeral seemed to be for someone other than my friend. This John Sheridan was a good Catholic boy who represented his faith well, which was news to me.
There are other stories about John. Such as the Audi car he spray painted so badly that the paint set in thick drips. Or the sweltering day when he route-marched the three of us across stubble fields in Kent, walking 12 hot miles so that we could get to the pub on time. When we arrived the bar was closing, but we did manage a pint.
John was 42 when he died, or maybe 43. He never married or had a partner that I met. He was just John. I still miss him and that’s why you should always say goodbye to a good friend.