Whitstable People: Iain Gremo


Christopher James Stone

Three stories about Iain Gremo, of Whitstable, who died on April 14th 2012.

1. Requiem for a Dreamer

It was in the woods on Tankerton Slopes that I bumped into him, this skinny old tramp with a beard. He was carrying a plastic bag with all his things in it. He sat down on the bench and started rolling a cigarette, clearly puffed out with the effort of getting up the hill. I said, “that cigarette won’t help.” And he said, “I know, I was just wondering if I needed one or not.”

Well he must have decided he didn’t need one after all, as he put his rolled up cigarette into his tobacco pouch and carried on his way.

“See you later Chris,” he said, and waved me goodbye.

That startled me. How did he know my name? He was this dirty old tramp, almost on his last legs by the looks of it. I couldn’t remember ever having met him before.

And then something began to register. I watched him as he laboured his way up the rest of the hill, looking frail and old and already half drunk, though it was early in the day yet. There was something familiar about him. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I kept looking and looking hoping that my gaze might begin to unlock the mystery. There was like the ghost of another person in his features, someone younger and more vigorous, someone I might have known in a past life.

It took a while for it to click. It was some weeks later, and I was delivering letters. I delivered one to a house which until recently had been empty, but was now in the process of being renovated. The letter was for an ex-resident of the house, someone I knew from my drinking days. That’s when it registered who the tramp had been. It was Iain Gremo, a drinking buddy from the old days. That’s who the letter had been for.

Well I say, “the old days” and that makes it sound like it was halfway back to the Middle Ages or something, but the last time I saw Iain Gremo was only about five years ago. And he wasn’t that old: in his early fifties maybe. Certainly a lot younger than me.

The last time I’d seen him had been in the Labour Club. I’d cut down on my drinking by then and rarely went out any more, but this was a special occasion. I went to meet a friend of mine who I knew always went out for a drink after work. I guess I was looking for company. And Iain was there, and he joined us at our table.

I can’t remember what we talked about. Talking with Iain was always a bit of a tussle. There was a kind of edge to his banter, as if he was privy to some source of knowledge I had no access to. That was the tone behind his words, as if he knew something I didn’t.

I can remember one occasion. I don’t know whether it was then or some other time. I was talking about politics: about the exploitation of one part of humanity by another, about the social breakdown in our world. And Iain said, “what about the animals? We are destroying the animal kingdom. Maybe the world would be better off without us human beings.”

That registered with me. He was talking from some other point of view than mine, though it made sense. But what I hadn’t realised at the time was the note of fatalism in his words. Maybe he was already planning on taking out the human race one at a time, starting with himself.

He could be quite funny and quite annoying at the same time. He talked about sex a lot, with a kind of visceral relish, licking his lips as he did so. And there was one occasion on one of the Friday night jam sessions down the Club when he dominated the proceedings by singing this impromptu song. He was making the words up as he went along and, while it was funny for the first few minutes, it soon began to wear. There were other musicians than Iain waiting to play: musicians who knew how to get along with other people, who knew how to blend in, who weren’t trying to dominate the evening. It was a joke, but not a particularly funny one. He was laughing, but he didn’t care if you were laughing with him or not. He was very drunk.

But the point about this Iain was that he was still full of life. The old tramp I’d met on Tankerton Slopes seemed to have no life left. He’d aged at least forty years in less than five. He was the living embodiment of Einstein’s theory, that time is relative. He was like a man at the end of his life, a man for whom time had already run out.

I only saw him once more after that. This was near the level crossing on Glebe Way. He walked right past me but didn’t recognise me this time. It must have been about mid morning, when I was at work. Again he was carrying a plastic bag, which I imagined had alcohol in it by the way he was staggering, but he was stopping to drink milk from a carton. He stood on Glebe Way, on the approach to the level crossing, and he was pouring milk down his throat. After that he went on his way, through the gate and over the level crossing. For some reason I stood staring at him, watching him go on his way. It was like I’d had a premonition. I wanted to call out to him, but didn’t. He was even dirtier and more decrepit looking than before. I imagined he must have been sleeping under one of the beach huts over on West Beach.

That was the last time I saw him.

Afterwards I kept thinking about him. What had happened? He was so skinny, the thought of AIDS popped into my mind. I couldn’t think what else might have enervated him so much. Later I rang up a friend and asked him.

It wasn’t AIDS, my friend told me, it was alcohol. He was drinking a bottle of vodka a day. After that he’d stopped paying the mortgage and had lost his house. So now he was homeless and alcohol dependent too. The descent had happened really quickly after that. Within the space of little more than a couple of months he’d turned himself into that broken down old man I’d met on Tankerton Slopes. It was really startling how quick it had been. From a man with a life, to a man with just the remnants of a life. He’d become a ghost, a walking ghost: a shadow walker in the realm between life and death.

I decided I needed to talk to him and went looking for him, but by the time I did that he was already dead.

I can’t tell you when he died exactly. It was last week, about the same time that I was talking to my friend on the phone about him. Maybe even at the exact same moment. Someone must have found the body. The police came and picked him up and took the body away.

I’d like to blame someone, to say that something more should have been done, but from what I hear everything that could have been done, had been done. The social services had been alerted and he’d spent time in a homeless shelter, but he’d upped and left there of his own accord. No doubt there were drinking restrictions and he wanted to drink. His friends had tried to help him, but he was so out of control in the end no one could do anything. The drink had him. He’d given his life over entirely to drink.

I’ve just remembered something. This was a few weeks back. There was what looked like a dead body sprawled on the pavement just off Canterbury Road. It was curled up on the curb in a half foetus position. It was only when I went up to him that I realised he was breathing and fast asleep, dead drunk in the middle of the day. I was delivering letters and had to get on with my round, but I spoke to one of the residents and suggested they ring the police. I don’t know if they did. We exchanged a few words about drunkenness and what leads people to get into such states. It’s only now that I recognise that it was Iain Gremo.

And that’s it. What more can you say? A man has died. He clearly chose his own end. People offered him help, but he didn’t want help. The drink had become more precious to him than life.

People need to remember this when they think about drugs. Drink is a drug too. Drink can kill a man as surely as heroin can. More surely, in fact. The heroin death is a relatively peaceful death. It’s like you are going to sleep, like your lungs simply can’t be bothered to breath any more. It’s actually very hard to overdose on heroin. But drink is like poison. It shuts down the body one organ at a time. It eats at the liver and it eats at the brain. It eats at the heart and it eats at the limbs. Your blood vessels begin to explode from the inside and you die very slowly over a period of months.

Iain Gremo had begun to die more than a year ago. Perhaps he’d decided to die. It’s hard to imagine what must have been going on in his mind. It was like a Faustian pact in reverse. Instead of selling his soul for power and prestige, he’d sold his life for a measly drink. It’s kind of sad, but he can’t be any worse off now than he was those last few times I saw him, utterly drained of purpose or direction, utterly drained of meaning, just looking for the next drink.

Well I say that, but what do I know? Maybe he decided he preferred living out of doors, and it was the sudden cold snap which got to him.

Who knows what was going on?

But the skies have been crystalline of late and the sunsets have been wild.

So I hope his last sight on earth was of one those epic skies. I hope he gave his heart up to the vastness of the sunset, that he took his last breath as the stars began to sparkle over the darkening estuary, and that his soul was carried out into the channel by the off-shore breeze.

2. Facebook

The above story was my first reaction after I read the news of Gremo’s death in the local paper.

Initially I called it Requiem for a Drunk, but afterwards changed the name to Requiem for a Dreamer. This was partly because one of the family contacted me saying they didn’t like him being remembered in this way. But it was also because it seemed to me that, like a lot of addicts, he was really a secret romantic.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot in the last week. We were never what you would call close, but we were contemporaries, and I spent a good few evenings with him back in the old days, ruminating about the state of the world. We both had a tendency to barroom philosophy after a certain time of night, if you know what I mean.

He had a characteristic smile: enigmatic, sceptical, amused. Almost the last time I saw him was up on Tankerton Slopes, but his appearance had changed so drastically that I failed to recognise him. Only the smile was familiar. Later, when I thought back to that occasion, it occurred to me that he knew I didn’t recognise him, and that it amused him to say my name and to watch my startled reaction.

I’ve also realised that I’d seen him about the town more often than I first remembered, usually round the back of an off-license with a bottle in his hand, or slumped on the pavement in a drunken stupor. I just hadn’t recognised him, that’s all. He’d become like a ghost even before he died, living a strange kind of twilight existence, halfway between the living and the dead.

What puzzles me is what drove him to this state? It wasn’t like he was lonely or lost. He had family, he had friends. He was in his own town. The place he died was just around the corner from the place he’d been brought up. But it was not a physical place Iain inhabited in the end. It was a spiritual place. And in this place, it seems, you can be lost even in your own town, and lonely even when surrounded by friends.

Obviously the drink got to him, and it should be a warning to any of you secret drinkers out there just how dangerous a drug it is. But there was also something wilful in his demise. It was like he’d had enough of the world and all its hurt.

That’s what I mean when I say he was a secret romantic. He felt the world’s pain more deeply than he liked to pretend. Drink was his way of anaesthetising himself from the world and its serial disappointments. It was his form of self-administered absolution, a release from the pain and guilt of being alive.

Gremo’s image on Facebook

After I’d written the article I went looking for a picture of him on the internet. There are three. One of them is of him with his band, Bad Apples. You can see that below. They had a CD out which was reviewed on Red Sands Radio, here. One of their songs is called “Gimme a Drink.” I imagine this could have been written by Iain.

Another is of him towards the end. This one is a mug shot released by the police at a time when he went missing and people had begun to be worried about him. He is already looking like a tramp by this time, already in a state of decline. He’s lost the smile by now, and has that angry look you often see on the faces of street people.

But the oddest one is the one on his facebook page. He’s in a house, so it was before his catastrophic descent into alcoholic madness. He has a sort of half-smile on his face. I’d say he’d had a few drinks by this time by the look of his eyes: sort of drooping and unfocused.

On his profile he writes: “tip top M.F…er. Bloody good guitarist! Enjoy a jam with talent. and like motorbikes.”

This might have been his last attempt at domesticity, setting up a facebook page for himself, writing his own obituary, his own assessment of what was meaningful in his life.

I wanted to see his page properly, to see what he’d been up to, so sent a friend request. It was on an impulse, and I realised immediately how stupid it was. There was no one there to grant my request, or to friend me back. But the very existence of a facebook page is peculiar. It’s like a residue of Iain’s life haunting the internet, a ghostly presence, a digital reminder of his previous incarnation.

My article consisted of my last memories of Iain, plus some speculation about what might have happened to him. There was a thread of anger in it, as if I couldn’t quite forgive him his death. I’m always angry with people who die young. They remind me how fragile and temporary our place on this planet really is.

It was hard to imagine what might have driven a person to throw away his life like this. But then something struck me. Maybe I wasn’t giving him enough credit. What if he liked living out of doors? What if his death hadn’t been an accident?

All of a sudden I had a clear picture of him in his last moments, sitting on West Beach, looking at the sunset.

It would have been a sight that had greeted him all his life. The sunsets on Whitstable beach are renowned: vast, holy, transcendent. In his last days he would have lived with the sunsets as his only compensation.

I burst into tears, seeing him there as he gave up his heart into his beloved sunset. I felt a kind of poignancy mixed with sweet release. He was marking his place in history with the uniqueness and perfection of the sunset. Maybe his end had been more exalted than I thought.

It felt as if he had come to me and told me so himself. Even at the end of life there is truth.

Bad Apples: that’s Iain there, third from the left

3. Bad Apples

This is the third time I have written about Iain Gremo, the homeless man who was found dead on Whitstable beach on Saturday April 14th this year.

We’ll call him Gremo, as this was the name he was generally known by.

There are a number of pictures of him on the internet. One of them is a mugshot issued by the police just after he went missing on January the 31st 2012. Unfortunately I can’t show that picture here as it seems to be locked in some way.

He’d been living at a guest house in Canterbury Road just before the picture was released, having been made homeless the previous year. The picture has him scowling and frowning. He looks like a tramp.

It’s no wonder he’s unhappy. His life had taken a catastrophic turn for the worse in the last few months. Prior to that he’d had a house of his own, which he shared with a couple of flatmates. He was secure and safe. However, his self-destructive impulses were already to the fore. He was drinking at least a bottle of vodka a day, sometimes more, along with drinks down the pub and cans at home.

There may have been other substances too, but there’s no doubt that it was the drink which was the cause of his final exit from this world

It was alcohol that killed him. Nothing else. The cold might have got to his bones. He was already in a fragile state by the time he went to live on the beach. The winter was damp and cold. No doubt there was a degree of exposure. But it was the alcohol which had taken him to that beach. It was the alcohol which had made him homeless. It was the alcohol which had separated him from his friends and his family. It was the alcohol which had lowered his resistance. It was the alcohol which had plucked the last threads of ambition from his life and which had cast him into this perilous state, homeless, cold, alone, living on a beach.

I don’t know when that photograph was taken or by whom. Possibly by the police, who must already have been alerted that he was in a vulnerable state; possibly by Porchlight, the homeless charity who had tried to re-house him after he’d first lost his house.

He had a choice. The guesthouse they provided him with would at least have been warm and dry. But no doubt there were rules about drinking. Probably Gremo had flouted those rules. Maybe he’d been asked not to drink. Probably he had argued. And then he had walked out of there, preferring life on the outside with the compensation of the bottle, to life on the inside without.

Because in the end, drink had become his only life.

Possibly that’s why he is looking so upset in the picture. He’s just been told he can’t have a drink.

But, you see, there was another Gremo behind all of this. A different Gremo. A very talented and accomplished Gremo. A Gremo who could have made something of his life.

When I wrote the first story about him, I didn’t know about this. I only knew him as a drinker I used to meet down the Labour Club and the East Kent. But actually he was a very good musician. He was a rock guitarist with an interesting and unique take on the standard rock and blues riff. He’d developed a certain contrapuntal style which is usually more associated with traditional folk music than with rock. So he’s playing this driving, powerful rock music, with more than an edge of punk aggression, when suddenly he breaks into a melodic line which might almost be from a jig or a reel. It’s a dancing tune. It has a certain skip in its step. It could be played on a fiddle or an accordion. It’s the sort of tune you might do Morris dancing to, if you can imagine that. Electric Morris. Pogo dancing with clogs on.

The only other person I’ve ever heard play the electric guitar quite like this is Richard Thompson, and he’s a certified genius.

Not that we are calling Gremo a genius, but he clearly had great potential.

He was in a band called Bad Apples, which had made a three track CD, with songs composed by the band. The songs are credited to all the members, but are mainly joint compositions between Dave Thomas, the singer, and Gremo, who wrote the music. The reason I know this is that the drummer in the band, Dom Sullivan contacted me. He sent me links to all of the songs.

The one featured below is called Ants. This is Gremo at his best. He’s clearly enjoying himself, whipping up a musical storm. The first cutaway from the band sees Gremo sitting there in the back room of the East Kent, with that characteristic grin plastered all over his face. He is clearly in his element. Later, when you see him playing the guitar, he has glasses on. I never saw Gremo with glasses. Possibly the only time he wore them was to play his instrument. He was way too vain otherwise.

The band also played one landmark gig, in the Barfly in Camden Town. Dom organised a coach and the usual suspects – the Whitstable ne’er do wells and musos – came up to see them. It was the most important gig they ever played. Half of Whitstable was there.

The band had gone up earlier, in a van, with all their equipment. They were smoking spliffs and drinking all day. It was strictly cider in those days: the hard liquor came later. Dom remembers the journey up, being tossed about in the back of the van, with all the equipment falling on them. He remembers the camaraderie, that feeling of belonging which is unique to a bunch of young guys in a band. He remembers the anticipation of the occasion: a mixture of excitement and fear. It was an important gig, in front of a brand new audience, up there in the Big Smoke. Nervous excitement permeated the atmosphere: nervous excitement mixed with nervous fear, rocket fuel for rock’n’roll.

They were a bit worried about Gremo, as he was drinking very heavily. But they needn’t have. His performance was flawless, not one bum note in the whole gig. Dom remembers one moment particularly. He was the drummer, so he only ever saw the backs of the other musicians. And at one point he was crashing away, putting his whole body into the work, giving it all he’d got, while at the same time willing himself to remember this moment, to not forget this night, when Gremo turned around and winked at him. It was as if he was answering his thoughts.

Gremo used to have a catch phrase. When he liked something he’d say it was “tip-top old man.”

That’s what Gremo’s wink said to Dom the drummer that night, as he was playing his heart out at the back of the stage, willing himself to remember every moment. “Tip-top old man,” it said. “We’ll never forget.”

So that’s what this story is about. It’s not about remembering Gremo in his last days, a dismal ghost wandering the shoreline between life and death: it’s about remembering Gremo the man, when he was very much alive. Gremo the musician, the rock guitarist with an original take on that old blues riff, who partied too hard and who took the consequences, but who lived his life in his own way, always with that sly grin on his face, as if nothing was ever too serious, even death.

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