Caught by the River

Caught By The Reaper – Nick Sanderson

2nd July 2008

Nick Sanderson April 22, 1961 – June 8, 2008

We lost a mate recently. Below is a remembrance from John Williams, an old school friend of Nicks, followed by the trailer for a film on the FA Cup that Nick was making with Paul Kelly. It’s Nick talking and it’ll make you smile.

One Sunday during the long hot summer of 1977, when we were sixteen years old, Nick and I went to find Peter Gabriel’s house. We were in school together at the time, a boys’ boarding school in Bristol. We’d known each other for a couple of years then, since Nick arrived in the summer term of 1975. I’d already been there two terms and met no one who seemed to have any interest in the one thing that was keeping me sane: rock’n’roll. This new kid with the blonde hair in a weird fringe, though, he was well into it.

Actually calling what Nick was into back then ‘rock’n’roll’ might be a bit of a stretch. He loved Genesis, he told me. His curious haircut was the remnant of an experiment in which he’d aped Peter Gabriel’s reverse Mohican, cutting a vertical segment out of the centre of his fringe. I’d just recently started listening to Genesis, I said, I had a tape of their new double album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Nick was utterly stoked, as we didn’t say back then. And much of the next few months was spent sat in my so-called study – a room I shared with three other kids – listening to this mysterious recording over and over. Nick told me about the other stuff he liked, Van Der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant. I lobbied for Mott The Hoople and John Cale. He told me he played the drums, and he had an older brother who’d been at our school but had run away and been expelled. Some time later Nick ran way too, I can’t remember the details now, did he last a couple of days or just till dinner? I’m pretty sure he ended up at his parents’ place, near Amersham

In general, though, Nick coped pretty well with school. He soon had a gang around him He had that quality then, that he continued to have through the time I knew him, which meant people always wanted to be around him. It was only partly that he was funny, which he certainly was, but it was more that he was himself in a way that few of us are. He didn’t care what people thought of him, and as a result people loved him. Nick was just a completely original person and that originality fed whoever was in his circle.

Strangely, considering that Nick was probably most sociable person I ever met, his ambition back then was to become a lighthouse keeper, inspired by a Van Der Graaf Generator track called a Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, or something like that. At fourteen he went to see the school careers master and asked him to find out how one went about entering such an occupation. The careers master was delighted by the challenge, surrounded as he was by the sons of chartered accountants who didn’t need anyone to tell them that they were going to be chartered accountants too, and soon got Nick an application form. Nick filled it in, sent it off, and was mortified to receive a reply telling him he had to be twenty-one before he could be considered. Which really only left one option, career wise.

At first the knowledge that Nick played the drums was a bit imaginary: he didn’t turn up at school with a kit. It was only when I went to stay with him in Amersham, during the holidays, that I realised how completely a part of Nick the drums were. Right away it was obvious, even at fourteen, that this wasn’t a passing teenage craze: this was what Nick did.

After the first year or so I didn’t see as much of Nick. We were still good friends but he had gathered a posse around him, people who took life a little less seriously than I did, people he could have a laugh with, develop in-jokes and routines and a satiric, surreal private world, all the things you’d see in Earl Brutus twenty years later. And then his brother Sim moved to Bristol with some friends and Nick started to hang out at their flat, playing music and getting into teenage stuff. Our musical tastes too started to drift apart. Punk came along and I embraced it wholeheartedly, tried to convert Nick, who was reluctant, seduced as he was for a while by the muso charms of jazz rock. It was only when I played him Marquee Moon that he started to weaken.

So that Sunday afternoon in the long hot punk rock summer of 77 was not exactly typical. Why did we go in search of PG, the former Genesis figurehead who’d just released his first solo album? Well I’ve never known boredom quite as intense as that we experienced on Sunday afternoons in a 1970s boarding school. So Nick came up with the plan. His enthusiasm for Genesis was still bordering on the obsessional and he’d discovered that Peter Gabriel was living outside Bath, somewhere near a place called Solsbury Hill (it’s possible, of course, that he simply listened to the song Solsbury Hill and took it from there). So why didn’t we go and find his house, he suggested? Well, why not indeed?

We took a train to Bath. Found a bus that took us out to the nearby village of Batheaston and walked towards Solsbury Hill. After a little while we saw a house on our left that looked promising. On the front door that was a note that said ‘Ant – Gone to play tennis back around 3 – Peter.’ Ah. We rang on the door just to make sure. No reply. Nick led the way round the side of the house to the garden. There was a lawn and there was a patio door that led into the living room of the house, and it was open. We walked in. And so for the first and last time in my life I found myself an uninvited guest in a stranger’s house.

The living room was full of records and tapes and music stuff. That was as far as I got. I surveyed his tape collection and was chuffed to see that he had Marquee Moon in his collection, but chickened out of going any further into the house. Nick was more adventurous, went off to explore. I suspect he took some small souvenir. I know he wrote down Gabriel’s phone number because the following week he phoned up and spoke to an unsurprisingly perturbed Mr. Gabriel. I’m not sure what Nick was hoping for – an invitation to join Gabriel’s new band maybe? But looking back I think the significance of the trip for both of us was to prove to ourselves that these people we admired really existed, lived in the same world as us, so that maybe one day we too could live in that world of people who made music and wrote books, and not in the world of the children of chartered accountants.

We both left school in the summer of 78, and for the next few years we saw each other intermittently. We shared a flat in London during the winter of 1981/2 .Then Nick joined Clock DVA and moved to Sheffield, his career as a professional musician properly under way. It took me a few more years to make any kind of mark as a writer but I got there in the end.

Our meetings became more and more sporadic. We saw a bit of each other round the turn of the nineties in when I lived in Kensal Rise: our lives had gone in different directions, if sometimes parallel ones. But while I didn’t see that much of Nick it was always a comfort and an inspiration to know that he was out there being himself, following his path. The last time I saw him he told me about his new band Earl Brutus, in which he was to come out from behind the drums. I regret very much that I never saw them play. On one level this was because I moved back to my hometown of Cardif
f soon after, but really I was happy just to know they existed. Likewise I doubt very much that Nick read any of my books but I remember him coming to my first book launch and I could see how happy he was that I too was on this path of – I can’t think of a way of putting this that isn’t clichéd or sentimental, so here goes – following our dreams. What I’m trying to say is that knowing Nick was out there made me feel better, feel stronger.

And now I have a son who’s sixteen, the age Nick and I were on our housebreaking adventure, and he plays the guitar like Nick used to play the drums, like it’s an extension of him. And I wonder if he’s going to follow the same path, the path of most resistance. And I both hope and fear that he will. And I wish very much that he could have met Nick. Now he never will, but I do believe that Nick’s spirit will still be out there, and may it guide his footsteps, and may we all of us strive to take some part of the joy Nick so naturally took in this precious life of ours.

John Williams

Mojo obituary
The Guardian