There’s only one way to learn about grief and that’s the hard way. You can read and hear about its phases and effects but you don’t really know a damn thing about it until you’ve experienced it personally. And when you’ve experienced it a few times what you also learn is that, like snowflakes, grief is never the same twice. It chooses its own way and does things in its own time.
I’ve lost a number of people in my life but none of those losses affected me in the same way as the death of Stephen Foster, who died in Norwich in June. He was only 48. For a start throughout the whole process of mourning him I could never get used to people referring to him as Steve. I’ve only ever seen him as Winger just like he only ever referred to me as Grey Man, our epithets from the Oatcake messageboard, bringing webtards together since 1995.
I first met him in the real world through Mick Norcop, aka Old Stokie in his online persona, although nowadays referred to by me mainly as Bilbo. Real names are for wimps. Winger was by then officially that rarest of people, a celebrity Stokie. He’d just published ‘She Stood There Laughing’, his book ostensibly about Stoke’s 2002/03 season, but in fact rather more about his relationship with his son Jack. He was also about to become known as the bestselling author of Walking Ollie, his first book about his beloved salukis which sold over 100,000 copies and saved the business of his publishers in the year it appeared.
I think Old Stokie saw us as kindred spirits. That sounds promising but what he clearly saw us as was what Winger described in his autobiographical book ‘From Working Class Hero to Absolute Disgrace’ as Middle Class Gayers. The sort of fairies who like chilled Sancerre and poetry but don’t have the decency to keep quiet about it, as he put it. We also shared a hopelessly misguided antipathy towards Tony Pulis. Even though we were both completely wrong and Pulis spent years delighting in proving us and lots of others like us wrong, until the day he died text messages and emails from Winger inevitably ended with the words Pulis Out! Not because he meant it anymore. He was taking the piss out of himself.
A lot of people you get to know through the internet are different when you meet them in real life, but not Winger. His love of life, laughter, dogs, horse racing, literature, music, cooking, craft, design, art, fags and the whole shebang was evident in all he said and did. I can still hear his voice when I read his books, each of which is either openly autobiographical or which carries his own unmistakeable stamp.
As well as introducing us, Old Stokie also took it upon himself to incorporate us into a mixed group that came to be known as the Berlin Stokies after our first trip away. It consisted of permanent members OS, Winger, me, my brother Mister Pink (named for a botched shot in a game of snooker) and OS’s son Swiss Tony (because he is always neutral during arguments). We travelled to Berlin (twice), Krakow, Nice and Brussels, a trip that also included hangers on like Winger’s son Jack, his mate John The Miximator, potty-mouthed Oatcake stalwart RAF, Norwich Stokie and AndyP.
The Brussels trip meant we would be spending the penultimate game of the season we won promotion to the Premiership gathered like a group of resistance fighters around a Heath Robinson contraption consisting of RAF’s laptop, my wireless dongle and a set of speakers belonging to Norwich Stokie outside Fat Boy’s Sports Bar in the Place du Luxembourg. The sound of Nigel Johnson delivering the breathless word to a huddled group of Stokies in the middle of a boiling hot Brussels square, full of lager, expectation and fearing the worst – as you do – will stay with me forever. Thank God we didn’t go up that day though.
One of the words that kept cropping up in the various tributes paid to Winger was ‘generosity’. There were a number of people who’d enjoyed many kindnesses from him, often involving his time, not just his money. My own example is that he dedicated his book ‘… And She Laughed No More’ to my sons George and Joe as well as Old Stokie’s four grandsons. The tribute thread on The Oatcake included many more cases of people who’d enjoyed his generosity.
Winger was incredibly passionate about the people and things that he loved. His generosity showed through in the way he talked and wrote about them, whether they were his dogs, Stoke City, Mark Rothko, The Clash, cooking or how to achieve an interesting effect on your walls when painting them. He’d found new ways of sharing his writing with the world before he died including his blog which, with characteristic attention to detail, he tried to complete every day. And in his book about the FA Cup final (called in a way that he would have found ironically funny ‘The Final’) which we published together online at Amazon, while he was staying with me the week before he died. He didn’t like the format because he was a purist who thought that paper is what books are made of, but I wished he’d been around to see that it became the bestselling football book in the country for a while.
Winger’s ashes were scattered on Mow Cop on Saturday the 16th July. He’d been cremated the previous Tuesday. The scattering was an informal event attended by Trezza; his beautiful, kind, intelligent and warm partner, as well as his son Jack, brother Bumble, sister Diane and his mum along with a motley collection of people who had known him. As his family walked to the top of the hill to scatter his remains, something happened that he would have loved. A Lancaster bomber thundered past only a few hundred feet above the Cheshire plain so at eye level with us on the summit of Mow Cop. The Middle Class Gayer not only had Delia Smith making the sausage rolls for his funeral, but had a bloody fly past at his memorial.
At his cremation, I’d got talking to his friend and mentor George Szirtes who was writing an obituary for The Guardian, so we compared notes about what we were writing. I told him that I was thinking of using a poem from Christopher Reid’s collection called ‘The Scattering’ which he wrote following the death of his wife. George told me Winger had coincidentally known Christopher Reid through his writing course. He would of course have liked the way these little threads from his life had been tied up.
So here it is mate. Some poetry and I don’t even have the decency to keep quiet about it.
I expect you’ve seen the footage: elephants,
Finding the bones of one of their own kind
Dropped by the wayside, picked clean by scavengers
And the sun, then untidily left there,
Decide to do something about it
But what, exactly? They can’t, of course,
Reassemble the old elephant magnificence;
They can’t even make a tidier heap. But they can
Hook up bones with their trunks and chuck them
This way and that way. So they do.
And their scattering has an air
Of deliberate ritual, ancient and necessary.
Their great size, too, makes them the very
Embodiment of grief, while the play of their trunks
Elephants puzzling out
The anagram of their own anatomy,
elephants at their abstracted lamentations –
may their spirit guide me as I place
my own sad thoughts in new, hopeful arrangements.