In Memoriam: Adrian Grey-Turner (1955-1986)

by Harry on October 12, 2006

About 23 years and 3 weeks ago You and Yours had one of those “off to University” shows, helping parents and about-to-be new undergraduates to understand what the first few weeks of University was going to be like. Although fitting in one of those categories, I only listened because at the time You and Yours was among my regular listening. One comment has stayed with me ever since then. A woman in her thirties, commenting on Fresher’s Weeks, said that “in that first week of college you meet people who will be your friends for the rest of your life”.

I was skeptical. And it turned out to be untrue for me. I’m in closer touch with several friends from secondary school than anyone from college (I did meet CB sometime in 1984, but only for a few minutes, and not again till Sept 12, 2001, so he doesn’t count). My first day was spent almost entirely with a girl who decided the next day to leave (not because she spent the first day with me, but because she was trying to escape her home town of Egham, to which my college suddenly announced it was moving). I’m still in touch with two other people I met that week, but I’ve seen them each only once in the past ten years, and have spoken to them only once or twice more.

But it was also that week that I met Adrian.

The Philosophy students had some sort of meeting with our course tutors, after which we all sat together in the student coffee area. They all seemed so sophisticated and worldly to me, with the exception of the old Etonian who had come straight from school. The most striking was a slender balding man in a lumberjack shirt with a Village People mustache. He was poring over the student union handbook, commenting on the various student groups, all of them named the “something Soc” (This, of course, afforded an opportunities for lame witticisms – I presume the Methodists set up their group solely in order to be able to call it the “Meths Soc”, and the footballers displayed remarkable ingenuity with their “Soc Soc”). He suddenly complained, very loudly, about the absence of a Christian Temperance Soc, and asked whether any of us would be willing to set one up with him.

It was, of course, a wind-up, and an absurd one at that, from a man who did look as if he had just walked out of Village People (it turned out that in fact he’d just walked out of Poison Girls, but that would not have occurred to me). But it fooled the more provincial of us, some of whom believed him and others of whom (like me) were just very puzzled.

He was older than most of us – just turned 27 – and had a life outside of college He’d gone straight to Cambridge from Winchester to do English, and dropped out to become a kind of bohemian, gay musician in Brighton (where else?). His band, The Dandies, had been labeled punk by the music press because, as he joked, someone at the NME liked them, and for the NME the word “punk” meant “anything someone at the NME likes”. Later I heard some of the recordings, which were far from punk – more like glam rock done by people with an interest in classical music. For all I knew then glam was all like that (its only more recently that I’ve come to like it).

I’ve no sense of how we became friends, but it was very early in the year, because by the second term seeing him and hanging out was a fixture of my day. Like me he studied hard, but unlike me he had a flair for the subject; he immediately got why problems were interesting, and why arguments did (or didn’t) work; so studying didn’t dominate his, already well balanced, life. He lived in 23A Theobalds Road, which had until recently been largely occupied by leading members of the IMG, right opposite Holborn police station. It was through him, in fact, that I met CB that time, CB being a friend of one of Adrian’s housemates. I hung out there a lot, far more than anywhere else.

He had beautiful eyes, and a delightful leer, which he occasionally turned my way. I think he’s the only man I’ve ever discussed my love life with in any detail. He was flip and serious at the same time; tolerant of what he saw as nonsense, but not taken in by anything. He was a lefty, and gay, but thought the idea (almost pervasive at the time) that there was any association between gay rights and more traditionally left wing concerns was risible; he was gay and politically left but not politically gay.

The best of many stories: Our college announced that it was closing on the day we started, and merging with Royal Holloway College in Egham (hence the departure of the Egham girl) and about half way through our second year a kind of college-closing reception was held for selected students and faculty to meet with our college patron, the Queen Mother. Most departments sensibly invited their 3 or 4 top students, but the Philosophy department, being democratic and (I suspect) republican, put a notice on the board asking interested students to put their names in a hat. I showed Adrian the notice, thinking he’d find it funny; instead of which he looked imploringly at me and said “Can we go? Please?”, rather as my elder daughter recently did when she heard there was a Bob Newhart concert coming up. We put our names forward and, of course, were picked out of the hat by default, being the only students politically incorrect enough to have thrown our names into the ring. We received the invitations a week or so ahead of time, which contained, on the back, the following instructions:

Her Majesty requests that staff and students attend the function wearing their ordinary working clothes.

We got wet feet at once, and went to our department chair, Mark Sainsbury, to secure a promise that, if we did attend, we should actually have to meet or talk to her maj; he kindly agreed, pointing out that he wasn’t too thrilled about going either, but that it was the sort of thing one was expected to do. Relieved, we agreed to go.

And, it turned out, that we were the only truly loyal subjects she had. Adrian attended in his leathers, looking like that clone out of village people. I, well, did not look like a clone, more like a tramp (bum) with a skinhead cut; I wore only second-hand clothes at the time, with the exception of my shoes which were usually well-worn and often holey plimsolls. Every other attendee was, of course, dressed to the nines; even the Union president with her goth haircut had bought a brand new outfit, of the kind that later became mandatory for New Labourites. Having made it through security, after being given a very skeptical eye (until we pointed out the instructions) we made a bee line to the Philosophy table where, I hope Mark won’t mind me saying, he and Adrian drank a good deal of the free booze (I was strictly TT, so nothing for me).

The QM was about an hour late, of course, so there was ample time for my two companions to cheer themselves up. When she arrived she was hurried from table to table by our college President and the Union President. Until they got to Philosophy, where the QM (who was a midget) began an odd conversation with Mark Sainsbury (who is a giant) about whether philosophy got enough public support (they both agreed it didn’t). She was peering over his knee at me and Adrian all the time, while the college President was colluding with her minders in trying to move her along, lest she notice the eyesore that we constituted. After a couple of minutes, shaking off one of her minders, she said directly to Mark: “And who are these people? I would like to talk to these people, they look interesting.”

I’ve never discussed it with him, but I presume something like the following reply went through his head:

No, your majesty, you can’t talk to them, they’re a pair of reprobates, one of them a flaming queer and the other a scruffy lefty, but they’re the only students we could get to come, and we only managed that by promising them they wouldn’t have to actually meet you.

and decided, sensibly, that discretion was the better part of valour. She was duly introduced, and immediately started telling us how important she thought it was for people to be studying philosophy:

Adrian: “Oh, no it isn’t. It’s interesting, but it’s not at all important, its quite unimportant”

QM, “ Oh no, I don’t agree, we need people to think about what the meaning is of life and why we are here”

Adrian, “Ah, but you see philosophy isn’t about the meaning of life, it’s about the meaning of meaning, and of words, and how arguments fit together, really, its not what you think”

The conversation continued in that vein for about 10 minutes, Mark Sainsbury occasionally trying to interject in support of his monarch, and I being too bemused to say much, knowing, in addition, that one wasn’t often going to be in a position of witnessing two people possessed of almost infinite charm having a ridiculous disagreement. For, to my complete dismay, and it still pains me to admit it, old fascist as she was, she was, as everyone says, utterly charming (less so than Adrian, but he set the bar absurdly high) and she clearly liked him enormously. After she moved on, the journalists who follow these people around, descended on us, wanting every detail of how it was that Adrian managed to hold her attention for an unprecedented amount of time, especially when she was already so far behind schedule, and what they talked about.

A few days later the college magazine devoted part of its front cover to a lovely picture, which I wish I still had, of the diminutive royal discussing philosophy with a scruffy skinhead, a tall philosopher, and a flaming queer. Someone put it up on the Phil department noticeboard with a short-lived, and rather generous, caption: “We’re the only people in the room who don’t want to be here; how do we get out?”

Shortly afterward Adrian arrived excitedly to the student cafeteria telling me his news. A band that he regularly played with had invited him to join as a permanent member. It would mean giving up college, because of the touring. He was delighted, but he didn’t do it. I never figured out quite what decided him against; I think that it was a genuine enjoyment of student life and the work we were doing. After graduating he signed on for a MA course at Birkbeck, and I suspect that he would have stayed in Philosophy and been successful if he’d lived.

Sometime in the Autumn of our third year he failed to turn up for lectures for about a week. There were just three of us who never missed, so I figured something was wrong. No-one had phones in those days, so I trudged round to his house and rang the doorbell. I rang and rang, and waited for maybe 10 minutes. Eventually an emaciated figure opened the door, barely recognizable as my friend. I helped him up the four flights of stairs, and apologized over and over again for getting him out of bed. I was 21, and AIDS was still a foreign, if frightening, disease in those days; I had no idea that what he had might be fatal. He got back to strength after a few weeks, and finished the year thanks, in part, to an incredibly high protein diet. It didn’t occur to me, or to those of his friends I knew will, how bad things were going to get. My guess is that he did know, perfectly well, what was going on, pretty early on.

One of my happiest memories of my college days is the two weeks of my finals; I’d arrive at his house early in the morning, we were both well prepared, he was openly nervous, we walk up to Bloomsbury for the exams, then have lunch together at his house (usually with assorted housemates teasing us; often his rather pugnacious steady boyfriend would sit with us encouragingly), and, if there was an afternoon exam, saunter back. In my memory the sun always shone. He got a first after a viva. I learned this from an indiscreet Mark Sainsbury into whom I bumped right outside the British Museum one day; he had just heard the results himself, told me mine, and then Adrian’s after I had, with staggeringly uncharacteristic nerve asked Adrian’s result, the one I really cared about. I ran down to Theobalds Road. And then, after finals, the casual freedom that 15% graduate unemployment and a low-consumption lifestyle allowed us. Punctuated by my Miners Strike-related trial for assaulting a police officer, in which Adrian’s behavior was exemplary; knowing that I would be tempted to refuse to pay the fine (I wasn’t guilty, after all), but knowing too that not paying was absurd, since it would only make a political point in a match that had already been lost hands down, he walked straight into the back office and paid the fine himself (I repaid him later, courtesy of my proud great uncle Dewi).

I went to my graduation ceremony in large part to see him at it; and last saw him in December 1985, the night before I left the UK for California. He came to a farewell party some friends held in Abberbury Road. The last time, I suppose, that I was really, truly, English. I wrote to him a good bit, but he was one of several poor correspondents. The reason was clear when his only letter to me arrived in October 1986, just two days before another letter from a mutual friend telling me he had died. His letter was a long and funny rumination on domestic life in London after the defeat of the left, but had a restrained sadness that alerted me that things might not be well. Our friend’s letter devastated me. I wandered around in a kind of fog for days, until the man who is now my brother in law but was then just another graduate student, told me to forget the expense and call my friend to talk about Adrian; we spoke for an hour and a half, which must have cost at least $50, except that it mysteriously never showed up on the phone bill.

Adrian has haunted me. I would have endless conversations in my head with him, composing letters never to be read. I would guess that I thought of him every day for 16 years. During my stint at the Institute of Education I passed the spot where we would meet before the Birkbeck intercollegiate lectures every time I went to work, and occasionally I ate lunch, alone, in ULU simply to remember him. It is not entirely a tribute to him that I did this; somehow in death he became a focal point of my homesickness. Not an unhappy one; my actual thoughts of him were much more cheery than maudlin, and still are. But when, at long last, my homesickness evaporated, so did my daily thoughts of him. It was as if a fog had lifted, and he had gone too.

But not completely gone. I still think of him often; I regret the rest of the life he didn’t have; I wish he knew my children and my wife (who is not easily charmed, but would have completely fallen for him); I delight the rare occasions I hear a Poison Girls song he was involved with (he wrote “Cry No More”); and the compilation of his recordings that was released for a benefit event after his death is an essential part of my music collection (someone else walked off with my original LP, so I have a not-that-great cassette which, if I were a bit more competent, I’d digitalize and put up on the web somewhere). Once in a while I see a kid round here with a Poison Girls T-shirt (what’s with that; isn’t it like someone of my generation wearing an Al Bowlly T-shirt?) and I smile.

And I wanted to write something about him. Things being as they are there’s a chance that some of our readers knew him; attended classes with him, taught him; maybe one of you was even a fan of The Dandies. If so, I hope you are glad to be reminded of a lovely person who taught me, and perhaps you, so much about how to love life. No-one told me the exact date of his death, but it was October 12th or 13th according to my calculations from the letters I was sent, and I always choose to remember him on the 12th. 20 years ago today, more or less exactly. He’d be 51, well into middle age, which is inconceivable. And, just as the woman on You and Yours said, I’m certain that we’d still be friends. I wish it had been not just for the rest of his life, but for the rest of mine, too.

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Tim Worstall
10.15.06 at 8:26 am



sk 10.12.06 at 4:44 pm

That is one of the most moving and eloquent tributes I’ve ever read. Thank you so, so much.


James 10.12.06 at 5:05 pm

Great memorial. Rather weird having something like this pop up among the drivel and whimsy that compose the rest of my newsfeeds. I shall now be fighting reminiscenses of the freakshow of a philosophy department that I ornamented in the early 90s…


Chris Bertram 10.12.06 at 5:31 pm

I’m sure we must have met on other occasions, simply because we were both in Theobalds Rd often at that time (though I was probably more 1982-3). My contacts in that house were mainly through my friends, so Adrian was, for me, one of the “other people” there. I do have a sense that I found him a bit intimidating, just because he struck me as very very clever indeed.


fjm 10.12.06 at 5:38 pm

Thank you.

I don’t understand why the QM’s minder tried to pull her away, The QM was notorious for surrounding herself with flamboyant gay men. Adrian sounds utterly wonderful.


Brian 10.12.06 at 5:45 pm

I didn’t have anything to add – so let me just add my thanks for a really wonderful memorial.


Henry 10.12.06 at 7:04 pm

GEMM, the best place to go for hard-to-find vinyl has a “bunch of”: Poison Girls EPs, LPs, promo posters and so on.


harry b 10.12.06 at 8:45 pm

He was astonishingly clever. And, indeed, a lovely person. The QM’s minders in question were the Principal of my college and the head of the Student Union both, presumably, unaware of her predelictions (as were we: we were told about her afterwards). Sorry, should have been clearer.
I hestitated many times abut posting this, so thanks for the affirmation.


rupes 10.12.06 at 11:27 pm

I do not know you, and I never knew Adrian (even indirectly) but that is a beautiful & moving obituary.


mike d 10.13.06 at 12:06 am

This is one of the better pieces I’ve ever read on the internet. Thank you for sharing.


astrongmaybe 10.13.06 at 1:09 am

That is a really beautiful text: hopefully it will have pride of place when the CT anthology is published. Funny too: it had me making strange barking noises out my nose when I read the part about the QM.


ingrid robeyns 10.13.06 at 2:31 am

You don’t mention why you hesitated about posting this (#7) — is it because it’s so easy in an obituary of a personal friend to become oversentimental or inappropriately personal? (which is what I’d think as a real risk, especially to those of us who are not so gifted in writing beautifully in English, since it makes it more difficult to get the right tone and nuances).
Clearly I’ve never met Adrian or have no experience with ENgland in the early 80s, but your text is a wonderful description of both the person and a specific time and place – thanks for writing and sharing it.


Alan 10.13.06 at 2:58 am

Very rarely does a memorial move me to tears. This did.


Andrew Brown 10.13.06 at 5:04 am

Thank you for that. I wish I had known either of you when I used to walk up theobalds road to the Spectator in those days. But a really lovely appreciation.


tom hurka 10.13.06 at 5:13 am

Sounds like two special people — to be remembered, and to remember, that way.


Backword Dave 10.13.06 at 5:23 am

I agree, beautiful. (But I think the para beginning “We got wet feet at once…” is missing a ‘not’.)


Em in London 10.13.06 at 8:39 am

So many of us were affected during those years with dreaded and dreadful loss. A few days ago I came across a rather philosophical letter from the recently bereaved partner of my first son’s godfather, Peter. He had just found out about his own Positive diagnosis and had written a glorious and witty letter about ‘Life these days’. Back then there was so much fear and loathing, certain uncertainties. Thanks for taking me back.


Anarch 10.13.06 at 9:21 pm

This was beautiful. Thanks.


Randy McDonald 10.14.06 at 12:02 am

I’m so sorry. Thanks.


Rob 10.14.06 at 7:34 am

This is really beautiful. Thank you.


Jonquil 10.14.06 at 7:27 pm

How loving and vivid.


Roz Kaveney 10.15.06 at 10:34 am

I was directed here by comments in my own lj and was quite inexpressibly moved by what you say and by a vague sense that all of this was going on somewhere just out of sight of my own life, separated by a mild fog of third-hand connections. Which is one of the good things about memoirs of one’s own time; they remind you of all the people you might have met, and loved, but never quite got round to becasue you happened not to go to this party or that gig.


harry b 10.16.06 at 5:52 pm

Thanks everyone for such nice comments. This is about to go off the page, so I’ll quickly explain my hesitation. I was worried it was a bit too personal and revealing, but more than that I was concerned that it might seem to be more about me than about Adrian. It seems not, so I’m very glad of that. And glad to have shown to people who didn’t know him aspects of a life that was wonderful but much, much too short.

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