My friend Jan died today. I think of him as a friend although I had not seen him in about a decade and I knew him best when I was a teenager and he was a minister in an Anglican church in Belfast. But he was a friend then, and I have never thought of him as anything else.
I think I must have ended up hearing Jan preach on some kind of youth group outing. I really can’t remember. What I do remember is feeling totally out of place in the church. A feeling that I never grew out of. And I remember listening to him and thinking, wow, there is somebody that is a bit odd, like me, and yet feels totally comfortable with the weirdness and even appears to be celebrating it somewhat…
I wrote him a letter. I always write people letters if they’ve said or done something that has been meaningful to me. It doesn’t matter if they’re very famous or not at all famous. I like feeling that they know how grateful I am. So I wrote to him- I’m pretty sure I looked him up in the phone book.
And he wrote back. A wonderful, funny letter, including a poem he’d written about stepping in dog poo in the church. I was, of course, delighted. The official address stamp he used had an image of a square peg being hammered into a round hole. This was someone I wanted to know.
Over the next few years I did get to know him. I met many friends though him who were very kind to me- all of them the sort who celebrated weirdness. Suddenly being an odd-looking kid who wrote terrible poetry and enjoyed silliness in a way that was deeply uncool with others, was acceptable and fun. Jan was an inclusive person and the little gang that he introduced me to was made up of people of many different ages and backgrounds and it took us to solemn places like church, where Jan would be the person to give me my first communion, and crazy places, like the Giant’s Ring where we once went in the middle of the night in pitch darkness to join with a huge gang of people who stood around the ancient tombstones to pray (sorry Mum- she is still freaked out by that story).
Jan taught me how to say ‘give us a snog’ in Romanian. He is the reason why I wear DM boots on a daily basis (he loved his DM’s so much that he staged a funeral for a beloved pair, and he persuaded my mum to let me have my first pair). He came to the house to introduce himself to my Mum and turned up on a motorbike dressed head to toe in black leather with a guy called Pete, also dressed in black. My mum nearly fainted- I think she thought it was the cops. He was possibly the first person to ever read my poetry and he was always positive about it, even though it was dreadful. He made toffee onions and gave one to his brother pretending it was a toffee apple. He played in a band and looked like one of the Village People (it was the 80’s). I have so many memories of this practical joker who was so clever and kind.
The last time I saw Jan I was grown up. It was lovely to see him again and we asked each other how life had been. I had been to university and got married. He had been to Afghanistan as a padre with the RAF. ‘Wow!’ I said, ‘What was that like?’ ‘Brilliant!!’ he said, ‘I became a Muslim!’
That was just like him. You never quite knew if he was joking. But what was clear was that he had gone out there and met people and listened to them and enjoyed their difference to himself. He never struck me as a person who was afraid of things like that, and that is something really special in our wee country.
I am so sorry he has gone, but I am so glad to have known him for that brief time years ago. I wish I had kept in touch, but I get the feeling that he would have been happy to call us friends too, even after all this time. I am thinking also of his family this evening, and what a great loss they have to face. I am sure that over the next few days they will meet many people whose lives were touched by Jan as mine was. I will certainly be holding them in my thoughts as I remember him.
Te iubim, Jan!