This is Landor Road in Clapham North, SW9. That phone box played a massive part in my life. From here, in November 1990, I made a call to my oldest friend that would arguably alter our friendship forever. I made hundreds of calls, if not thousands, from this phone box. I loved phones as a kid. I couldn’t get over how incredible an invention they were. Navigating my way there from my home on Mayflower just two minutes away was a treacherous route full of the dog muck that has been the bane of my life, and the benches that used to be by this phone box, were always full of drunks. That visual created another lifelong OCD for me in that to this day I still never sit on benches.
The bench would have to be brand new for me to sit on it and a day later, it would be too old and dirty for me to consider parking my behind on it.
Landor Road to this day is one of the grimmest roads I know. The phone box was arguably located on its grimmest spot, essentially a patch of waste ground created by a World War 2 bomb, but here’s the interesting thing now for me about this spot. Walk just past the phone box, heading towards Stockwell Road, and it’s one of the few spots, if not the only spot now in SW9 and 8, from where you cannot see a single crane. It’s as if the building frenzy of the last decade has never happened.
And so we come to my story.
The reason I was always in this phone box is that until late 1990, we never had a house phone. The reasoning behind this, even almost thirty years on, I struggle to fathom, but my dad’s belief was if you had a house phone, ‘people will be ringing up and asking you for favours’. I lost a number of friends during the late eighties after school ended because I had to send them letters to stay in touch, and of course, at that age, letter writing isn’t exactly a priority for any sixteen-year-old boy.
I don’t know why I was in this phone box in November 1990. I can’t work that out. Our house phone had finally arrived in September of that year so I don’t know why I was in the Landor Road phone box making a call.
It was a filthy phone box, even then, and I would always wash my left ear (my phone ear) with soap as soon as I got home from making my calls. However, one Saturday morning in November 1990, I made what would be my final phone call to the home of the guy who had arguably been my closest friend at school since my aunt wangled me an invite to Nelly’s fifth birthday party. We had been inseparable for 13 years.
Maybe using public phone boxes had brutalised me and I still couldn’t grasp that I could now make calls from (I won’t say the relative warmth of the family bedsit as there was no heating) home. Whatever the reason, I was in that phone box and I was calling Nelly.
Over the summer, I had sensed a gradual distance creeping into our friendship. It was getting harder and harder to get Neil out to do anything with me in the way we used to. I wasn’t the most mature kid, I suppose. My mental advancement reflected the slow transition of my body from boy to man. And it’s interesting that a number of the great friends I have had in my life, like Nelly, have been able to grow the beards that have always eluded me, from school age. The late and much missed Lopez and arch-slacker Micky Boyd could both grow beards at school that at a push, I could say I was finally able to rival in 2012. So there was with me with my boy’s body always surrounding myself with peers with fast streamer bodies.
I remember the phone call was a big deal to me. I’d sensed Neil was making less of an effort with our friendship. Every time I went to see him at Nelson’s Row, he had some ‘edgier’ college friends round who I’d never been that keen on and everyone was sporting silly hair (me included). Of course, I was jealous. I recall watching seminal American High school drama My So Called Life in the mid-nineties and I don’t think any show has ever been better at showing the distance that can often creep in between childhood friends as they move into adulthood and develop different interests. Nelly was Claire Danes’ Angela Chase, and I was Sharon Cherski, her straight-laced friend, watching Angela move off in a different direction.
It was a Saturday morning. Neil, never at his best in the mornings, certainly not back when I knew him, sounded like he’d been woken up to take the call. I was quite assertive this time in trying to get him to meet up but his response wasn’t very encouraging. I can’t remember how the call ended beyond it finishing very quickly and I determined then that he would have to call me otherwise that was it. After 13 years of calling his house phone, I wanted the guy to finally call my brand new 071-274 number. He never did.
The next year or so was very difficult for me as I tried to adjust to a Nelly-free life for the first time. I remember my cousin telling me he had run into Nelly in Brixton the day before my cousin and I and some other school friends made a memorable excursion to Malta in August ’91, Nelly’s spiritual homeland. I thought something might come of it as a result of that meeting, but it never did. A couple of close friends remained in touch with Nelly and that college crowd and to avoid Nelly, I distanced myself from those friends too. In effect, I had to start afresh with my social life.
Well of course, we all change. In many cases with guys, girls come on the scene and friends struggle to get a look-in. I’m not sure that was the case here. I think it was music. Nelly was obsessed with his music. And not the stuff in the charts. And at college he met a bunch of like-minded music nerds from my old school who were into the same kind of music whereas I was still the kid that had bought the first three Five Star albums and followed that up with Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven on Earth in early ’88.
Now I often think, what if I had handled that phone call in a different way? What if I’d had the maturity to just let whatever was going on with us play out and hopefully Nelly would come back to me like someone returning home to fix up their faltering marriage? It’s one of the big what ifs in my life. Walking away from that phone box cost me nearly 30 years of friendship and was an early display of the cut-my-nose-off stubbornness that has characterised my life.
27 years on from that call, things are very bleak for Neil.
If you were a regular listener to my radio show/podcast, Daniel Ruiz Tizon is Available, or even indeed my Christmas show of 2014, Daniel Ruiz Tizon’s Advent Calendar, which first introduced listeners to Neil (22nd Dec ep), you’ll know Neil is battling Multiple Sclerosis and it’s not looking good at all.
His family and friends have been trying to raise (just) £90k to send this 45-year-old father of 4 young kids to Israel for life-saving stem cell treatment but have so far, after 13 months of hard campaigning, only raised £32k. Neil’s illness is now at such an advanced stage that unless there is some dramatic change in his fortunes, the money raised will go towards palliative care so his family can look after him at home.
Neil’s eldest kid has now started university this week and along with her mother, went to see her dad in a disability unit where he is currently staying but Neil was in a bad way. A muscle relaxant he has been given had ‘zombified’ him and he had considerable difficulty recognising his wife and daughter. Seeing Neil’s state, his wife had to battle doctors to stop giving Neil the relaxant but because of his trouble recognising his family, she had to prove she had the Power of Attorney to act in his interests. I could read that 100 times over and still not quite grasp what that must be like.
The situation is stark.
If the money isn’t raised, Neil dies. There’s no other way of putting it.
Some of the greatest days I have ever lived on this planet were spent alongside this man. While we might have gone our own ways in the last 27 years, the love I always had for him has never died and I think about him every day, which of course is of no consolation to him or anyone. He’s been an important person to me. He knew my family. A thread to my earliest days and who I once was. You never forget these people. Okay, he could’ve handled his disdain for Five Star a little more diplomatically, but you know, music was his thing. My musical tastes upset him.
I would be grateful if on reading this, you could tweet a link to it or retweet the original link.
Thank you for reading this.
And maybe you’d consider donating to the campaign set up for him by his family.