64. Room 1016

It made me so happy to chat with Jon Marks again earlier this week. I was floating on air, after shooting the breeze with my old mate for half an hour. Work, family, football, the price of fish: the topics didn’t matter. Hearing his laughter and conjecture, his intellect and kindness, and his enquiries about my life, was as nurturing as ever.

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Jon feels like part of my DNA. He was known as Jonny when we were room-mates at High Hall during 1975-76. He smoked, and drank coffee, and sometimes stayed up all night writing essays due the next morning. I drank tea, worked diligently most evenings, and went to sleep in seconds on the other side of Room 1016 even if he was playing music or working. Sometimes he would sneak in late with his girlfriend. I would pretend to be asleep. And then listen with interest in the dark.

Most of my record collection was anathema to Jonny’s tastes, but he liked the Stones. He did a mean Jagger impersonation. Jonny and Mark (Ford) were actual, real musicians, who could play a range of instruments. Jonny’s brother and sister went on to be professional musicians. He had been to Ronnie Scotts in London, for Christ’s sake.

My room-mate studied Medieval English and History. He talked to me about Beowolf and the Bede as if I might have a passing acquaintance with these unknown people. His cultural knowledge was a size 11 foot to my little toe.

But we got on well. He did enjoy a piss up, and one or two of the vast portfolio of jokes in my expanding repertoire. He knew many of the Monty Python sketches verbatim, and his own wit incorporated great timing. Jonny also loved soccer. A Spurs fan, he accompanied us to watch Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers. We saw Liverpool win the title at Wolves on May 4, 1976.

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There was also an awful night where an odd glimmer of his latent leadership qualities emerged. Our very gentle mate John Noble had been beaten to a pulp for no reason by a drunken rugby player (some fucker surnamed Todd) in the adjacent hall of residence.

Jonny was incandescent that people had stood and watched this happen, and carefully wrote out a note. Then ordered us all to stay in 1016, locking us in for good measure. He walked into the bar amid some of the culprits and pinned up a withering proclamation to the effect that cowards were stinking the place out.

It was his good and then bad luck that just three students took his course. The others being the girlfiend, Adrienne, and another bloke, Jeremy. I watched Jonny fall deeply in love and then come catastrophically apart after Adrienne dumped him for Jeremy.

He tried to put on a brave face but never got over it. He sometimes went home to mourn and avoid having to face his two fellow course students. In no shape to pass his exams, he didn’t. Deliberately I think, to escape another two years of hell. Jonny worked for his dad for a bit, delivering stuff in a van around Essex, then studied at Kent University. I missed him. He later stretched and developed himself by living in Algeria, and occasionally Paris, learning French and becoming a North African correspondent for MEED magazine.

When I began to work for him in 1993, he pushed me to the limit. Now Jon, he started from absolute zero, and tethered my diligence to a never-ending series of tasks, a step by step apprenticeship lasting several years in how to write about economics, politics, finance and trade. I was a slow learner, but he never gave up on me.

High Hall is long gone, although its fame includes hosting Joy Division’s last gig fronted by Ian Curtis. Cross-Border Information is a booming consultancy. And I am fortunate enough to have been Jon’s friend.

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