As a Bury Grammar School boy he was always the swot, weedy with thick spectacles. In our earliest school years being in different forms we’d never spoken. Distant memory says he was the boy having piano lessons in the school hall with music master Jimmy ‘Fingers’ Edwards. This set him apart seeing as music lesson fees were out of reach for almost all parents. Also remembered because passage via the school hall was closed during his lessons, so we all had to hike the long way around the quad to class. It did him some good at least, as he went on to win a prestigious local contest.
JW was bright, an academic year ahead of his age, putting him in the same year as myself. One of the few in the mysterious ‘Classics Sixth’ he was always destined for Oxbridge. The headmaster, himself an Oxford graduate, already had admonished John for his chain-smoking (out of class at least).
Moving on to the seventh form the swot became pretty cool, one of the first to drive to school in his own car, albeit a battered but sporty Hillman Imp. A year or so later, Summer ’75 an MG Midget was the weapon of choice when we met up at a group Devon cottage holiday (after my first year at university, and ahead of his.). By the time we returned North it had been traded in with a local mechanic for a three litre MG ‘C’ gas guzzler featuring at speed choking oil fumes leakage to the interior. JW had dedicated this trip to emulating Janis Joplin, easily exceeding a bottle a day of Southern Comfort while we played her LP Pearl very loudly in a stoned stupor day and night.
Later that Summer four of us took the boat-train to camp a while in an Amsterdam park. We parted there as John and Mike headed to West Berlin, while two other of us headed North. (Afterwards I wished I’d taken the more adventurous West Berlin option.). Around this time we had a more infamous parting of ways. A cause of no little resentment on John’s part, for a while at least: We’d been with our group of friends ‘locked-in’ until late at a remote pub high on the moors above Halifax. Driving some of the pals home I believed JW was in the second car. Discovered my mistake the next day. Poor John had suffered a twelve miles trudge home down off the moor through the dead of night. (If only mobile phones had been invented ten years sooner.).
In the Autumn he went up to Oxford Worcester College to read PPE, my recall of the next few years is a jumble of student parties and many other odd episodes. John’s first or was it second conviction for drunk driving forced his move to a house bought in Garsington village. He’d been found pulled over on the hard-shoulder of the Oxford ring-road having a little drunken snooze. His brief somehow argued JW’s asthma precluded him continuing to live in the damp air by Oxford’s rivers, so he needed his licence to live out of town to finish his studies.
Academia didn’t sit well with John. On PPE’s Politics aspect, to spice life up maybe, John chose for his thesis an analysis of The Troubles, at their height in this period. He stayed at Belfast’s Europa Hotel a firm favourite of the world’s Press, which infamously had been bombed over thirty times. Likely this kindled early interest in journalism.
On the Philosophy angle he became imbued with his professor the renowned A.J. Ayer’s logical positivism teachings, especially its relation to language and knowledge: Memories of drunken evenings’ exhausting debates as I came at it from the antagonistic existentialist dialectic.
The Economics third of the course John took the most from forward into his career and life. While at Oxford however this manifested chiefly as a probably unhealthy interest in gambling. Delighting in calculating odds meticulously this interest he returned to particularly in late life.
Student JW pursued his first entrepreneurial ventures, for enjoyment rather than need of the money. One was a mobile discotheque, driving around a van to lug cases of vinyl, turn-tables, speakers etc. serving college events, village pub dance nights and such. In fact his ‘business partner’ was assigned to most of the lugging, this inequity leading to the enterprise’ eventual demise. I have a few of his prize seven-inch 45 rpm disks somewhere still. The residual kit was later used for at his own house parties in Garsington. On one occasion the industrial-strength dry-ice machine caused clouds of choking ‘smoke’ to pour from all windows and doors as we evacuated noisily into the street. I’m pretty sure appalled neighbours called the Fire Brigade, though can’t recall if they actually showed up or not. The local Police surely did.
The sound-track for that party strongly featured current now eternal favourites The Passenger and Psycho Killer dating this at late ’77 / early ’78. An abiding memory is John dancing his characteristic semi-crouched swinging shuffle switching cigarette from mouth to hand, other hand clutching a bottle while periodically punching the air robotically. Later in 1978, another music love Bob Dylan staged his first UK tour for over a decade. This prompted John’s entrepreneurial bent. He cornered the market with a sizeable portion of the Oxford show tickets, paying fellow students to sleep out for a night or two in the booking office queue (the way it was done then.). John was taken aback to find his profiteering featured front page of the Oxford Mail headline ‘Student Ticket Tout’ or similar.
Some of John’s off-beat escapades may well have been inspired by his fascination with Hunter S. Thompson’s exploits and writings. Not to place our misguided ventures in the same ball-park of excess inhabited by the great gonzo-journalist himself! (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971). At any rate for certain the life-style of the hard-drinking, chain-smoking hack had considerable draw for John when he began his journalist career, as he moved to London in 1979.
The end of the road almost literally for the drink driving career came in ‘82 Winter I think, I seem to recall snow. During a party back up North John had failed to return from a late night beer run. We found eventually that he’d been briefly chased by the police, and crashed somewhere on the Bury road. Trying to flee the scene through some house gardens he was easily apprehended being seriously sozzled. The trusty Datsun Cherry was written off and just as well seeing as John was banned and told next time he’d be banged up. I know it was ‘82 as my Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask cassette which we liked very much was playing in his car stereo at the time, never to be seen again.
On moving to London John’s first sensible job had been with an obscure pensions industry periodical. Hardly the journalistic style he aspired to. To liven life up he spent his 1983 holiday driving the length of Morocco in a hire-car with fellow Oxford alumnus Ian. Passing themselves off as Coca-Cola salesmen they reached the edge of the Western Sahara War between Polisario Front and the Moroccan army. Their resultant article published in London-based West Africa magazine likely helped bring John’s potential to the attention of the Evening Standard which soon after he joined on the financial desk. Here he was proud to score a front-page story ‘Stampede for Jaguar’, the car manufacturer’s frenzied stock listing. In this period from time to time when not working abroad I shared JW’s small rented flat over-looking the noble Fitzroy Square. The following year we each bought a flat just a stone’s throw distant, then lived within 250 yards of one another for more than three decades.
Moving on to the Sunday Times John was happy in 1986 to fly in the face of the print union’s intimidating Wapping picket line. He passed daily on to site by taxi, declining the safer option of armoured buses carrying other staff. This industrial dispute the death-knell of Fleet Street traditional publishing. Up to and through this time John had spent all his spare hours working in his kitchen to launch his own publishing business. He had identified the huge potential of ‘desktop publishing’, which disruptive technology had its advent this very year. Moreover he had the conviction to place a considerably risky bet in becoming a very early adopter.
Over the following fifteen years or so JW scaled this enterprise to his desired level, then maintained it, now the company lives on beyond him. To most of the firm’s staff John was pretty much an enigma, certainly viewed as eccentric. Notoriously he was an absentee Chairman and boss, a trait acquired in the Fleet Street hack world of ‘jacket on back of office chair’ (… jacket owner at watering hole). In accord with this he was however always accessible to his staff at Friday nights after-work-drinks. While probably it wasn’t very apparent, I know John returned loyalty from his staff. Underneath a rather aloof persona he was concerned for them almost as a real family which sadly he was never fortunate enough to enjoy.
We had grown apart in the last five or so years of his life. Some regret, though it’s the way of things. But I am so glad we shared some really halcyon days earlier in our almost life-long friendship. Rest, JW.