At his funeral we tried to explain why he’d made such an impact on all of us.
This isn’t the send-off Richard would have wished. We’ve ignored his instructions. You had to do that sometimes with Richard. A world designed by him would have been more just, more free, with chocolate and cigarettes on demand – but it wouldn’t have functioned for a day. He was utterly brilliant – and utterly impractical. So this event is not what he’d have wished – it’s much too predictable, too conventional. No matter that quite a bit of effort went into trying to contact the many people who’d want to pay tribute to a man who influenced and inspired them. Richard was the kind of person who didn’t just make friends. He changed lives, casually, often accidentally, but no less profoundly for all that. He was that rare creature – someone who did as he said; a man of principle. Which is just as well because he had a charisma, which, allied to his talent as a public speaker, could have been badly misused. He viewed astrology with contempt, yet he delighted in pointing out that he shared his birthday, April 20, with another orator with dangerous powers of persuasion, Adolf Hitler. Nonetheless, when first I met him almost 30 years ago, it was another icon of evil he resembled, a benign Charles Manson, always trailing a comet’s tail of acolytes. Richard appreciated the irony of his fanclub. At that time he officially espoused libertarian socialism, which argued for a world without leaders, yet his life resembled the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which the unwitting prophet implores a crowd waiting outside his window “you don’t need to follow me. You’re all individuals” and they reply, adoringly and in unison, “yes, we’re all individuals.” Richard had a trick of sounding reasonable, even when proposing wild trips across the country to visit unsuspecting friends at dawn or arguing that Labour was more toxic than any far-right party because in power it would dampen the masses’ appetite for revolution. And he was handsome, once that Manson beard went, arousing some unsisterly feelings in campus feminists. But his appeal went far deeper than any surface glamour. Even when a degenerative condition had stripped him of his strength and beauty, he had an extraordinary presence. He died two days before his birthday and just ahead of a party we planned to repeat celebrations held last year for his 47th in the garden of Ashley Cooper House, his final home. He couldn’t really enjoy himself that day a year ago – he was by then too debilitated and talking was too much of an effort – but still we orbited him like eager satellites while he observed our efforts with amused patience. He wouldn’t show such forbearance today. He’d be furious – a sensation I became pretty used to in latter years. As movement and speech deteriorated and this most independent of spirits was forced to beg favours, his temper shortened. My failure to visit as often as I should elicited emails containing detailed instructions for his funeral. That’s why I know how much he’d despise this municipal solution. He stipulated in his emails that we were to incinerate him in the manner of a Viking king, on a floating pyre. If I’d been particularly lax, he’d add a further instruction: for me to self-immolate on his pyre. West Norwood crematorium lacked the ceremony he wished and, as you see, I didn’t fling myself into the furnace after his coffin. So it’s even more important that we now let our memories accord him the splendour he deserved. We are here to bid farewell to Richard Flint, Viking king, albeit one who at various times described himself as Welsh, Jewish, Muslim, Canadian and Raelian. Richard could have been anything he chose. Like his dad, he might have been a distinguished academic; he would have made a great journalist or a science fiction writer. He could have used his skills to chase money and power. Instead, he chose to devote himself to the pursuit of social justice and human rights. Today there are others here who will talk about Richard’s eventful time at Sussex University, his expulsion and move to McGill in Montreal, and how he found a berth for his political passions back in London, at the International Transport Workers Federation. I am going to talk about his whole life and the condition that bracketed it. I want to talk about cerebellar ataxia not because Richard was an invalid in his final years – he was so much more than that – but because of how this neurological condition shaped him and how he defied it. His father describes him as a heroic spirit. Here’s how Richard became a hero, long before an accretion of symptoms forced him to acknowledge his fate. He had a stimulating childhood. He adored his father who, in his own words, dragged his kids all over the world. Richard picked up Ibo and pigeon English in Nigeria, and used fondly to reminisce about his time there. It’s lucky he never learned to drive because he was much taken with the national habit of playing chicken: a game in which drivers would head straight towards each other at speed until one swerved or they crashed. Tragically, there was a game of chicken going on in his own home, with his mother’s runaway demands threatening daily to flatten Richard’s will. His younger years were blighted by his mother’s ataxia, not because she became progressively disabled, but because she used the condition to blackmail and bully those close to her. Richard determined early on that if he had inherited the condition, he would model himself not on his mother, but on her sister, his Auntie Peggie, who though also afflicted, remained resilient and cheerful even as her body weakened. When living with his mother became too tough, Richard, encouraged by his concerned father, left Canada and sought sanctuary in Oxford with his sister Helen and John, her soulmate. They not only took him in; they soothed this poor, bruised boy, showing him how nurturing a functional family could be. Throughout his life, he held that family, which grew to include his niece Alice and nephew Max, as an example of the best of humanity. He did so with a wistfulness: he had decided not to marry unless certain that he was free of ataxia. In his early 30s he discovered he was not. His fears didn’t stop him having girlfriends or running full tilt at life, hungry for experience yet always certain he had just as much to teach the world as it had to teach him. He was probably right. He certainly taught Sussex University something: that this institution, which boasted of its radicalism, was lost when confronted with real rebelliousness. Richard’s infamy after his expulsion was such that when his father, a prominent historian, was invited to give a paper at Nuffield College in Oxford, he found himself being introduced as Richard’s Flint’s dad. John Flint was proud to be described in this way, just as many people here take pride in their association with Richard. All of us gathered here today are the friends of Richard Flint, an amazing piece of luck and a huge honour that sadly will never now be extended beyond our ranks. My sister pointed out something curious about Richard: that even when he was in his final years, when you’d have expected him to be needy and anxious, he instead provided emotional support to all of us. Yes, he could be grumpy and yes, quite rightly, he resented having to ask me to visit. And inevitably, like a number of us here, when I did spend time with him, it involved some light skivvying. I cleaned his glasses and changed his sheets and tried, unsuccessfully, to fix every one of his endless series of wheelchairs and to intercede with local authorities and social services on his behalf. But he was the one who reassured me, made me leave feeling happier than when I arrived. Most people wouldn’t have risen to the challenge of disability as spectacularly as he did. What I believe marked him out, beyond his early and lasting resolve to make a better fist of illness than his mother, was the richness of his interior landscape. Even when he was young and vigorous, Richard was more interested in ideas than in the material world. Like everything else about Richard, he could take this tendency to extremes. In the summer before he went to McGill, we travelled around America together with two other friends, once driving overnight to reach the Grand Canyon at sunrise. It was an arduous trip, but we made it there just in time, and the day promised to be perfect. Three of us sprang from our dusty hire car, eager to see this great natural wonder. Richard stayed in the back seat, opening a book – probably Philip K. Dick or Frantz Fanon – and commenting, laconically, “I’ve seen it before.” That’s how stupid this brilliant man could be. The last time I saw Richard was a month before he died. I didn’t visit him as often as I should in recent years. Priorities became scrambled. Looking back, there are too many occasions when I stayed in the car, on the basis that I’d seen it before. And now a great natural wonder is lost forever.”
I’ve known Richard since 1978. We met at Sussex University, sometime in my first year. I chose Sussex University for its radical politics and well, wasn’t I lucky! I met Richard through what started out as The Anarchist Group and then became The Libertarian Socialists under the guiding hand of Richard and his close friend Shaun Fensome. I seem to remember a dress code – dungarees, wild, bushy hair and a beard – though as I recall the beard was not compulsory for female members! Am I right in thinking Richard also wore red shoes? One of our mutual friends Vinod Patel has e-mailed me to say “I remember Richard walking into the Union bar at Sussex during the 1978 presidential campaign. I still recall him saying ‘I’m an anarcho syndicalist. Vote for me because I can stir things up!’. The rest is history…” I was eager to learn from Richard + Shaun and remember with incredibly intense happiness the many, many meetings we all had, fervently discussing everything: feminism, the IRA, the right to work, the right to education for its own sake and of course the relevance of exams. This great exams / education debate of course led to the great education protests which in turn resulted in Richard ending up going to Montreal – for which I know his many Canadian friends here today are extremely thankful for! That massive protest, instigated by Richard and Shaun through the libertarian socialists and during Richard’s presidential year, was a truly intense time. Richard, Shaun and 3 other protesters were arrested for various offences – at one stage they threatened to charge Richard + Shaun with arson in her majesty’s dockyards! This carried the death penalty – a little harsh I think! – but it was a threat made to them if they insisted on going to a jury trial! Richard conducted his own defence – there were a lot of ‘I put it to you’s about! Throughout that time, Richard helped me hone my political awareness. He encouraged me to stand for union office, which I did, becoming the rep for external affairs. One of my responsibilities was to write to specific world leaders, making them aware of Sussex students’ union condemnation of their sins against humanity – I remember Richard helping me draft a particularly scathing letter to General Pinochet – bet that scared him! For part of our friendship together at Sussex we went out together. During that time I met his dad John and his partner Nezhat, at their flat in Barons Court and Richard introduced me to the delights of adding little bits of cheese to beans on toast – another thing I am grateful for! Skipping forward a while, when Richard returned permanently from Canada, we were both looking 4 somewhere to live – Richard found us a flat by trundling around Hackney and ringing me up whenever he found a decent looking one: I worked for the council and would look up the L/L who we’d then ring to see if we could get a flat in that block! We ended up in Stamford Hill where we had many happy times – painting the flat pink and grey, parties, Richard cooking and me spending hours cleaning up after him, lazy Sunday mornings reading out passages to each other from the Sunday papers, Richard giving me Phillip K Dick books and dalek toys on my birthdays! He became good friends with my partner at the time, Pete, despite Pete being an active member of the SWP. He had visited us in Paris, where Pete was living, with his then girlfriend Christine. There was also one especially glorious time spent in Amsterdam for the New Year where I had a bad bout of vertigo – which became indistinguishable from the effects of traipsing around after Richard and Pete around the Amsterdam Cafes! He took us to the alternative arts centre and to where they let off fireworks in the squares at dangerously low knee height and continued my culinary education by introducing me to chips with satay sauce and chips with mayonnaise – thanks Richard! Richard eventually moved from Stamford Hill when he bought his flat in Amhurst Rd – where we kept in touch – especially at his birthday parties: of course it is so sad that he missed this year’s events by a few days. One of my other great friends Garrick, who sadly died last year was also a great friend of Richard’s. The three of us, and Chris Peck spent lots of time together over the last few years – watching SF DVDs, meeting up at Richard’s flat, and especially going to the two Sussex reunions which I think Chris is going to talk more on – I’d just like to point out that the time we all stayed in Kulukundis House and had an alternative party to the official one organised to which all the most interesting people came, goes down as one of the greatest nights in my book – from what I remember of it! I have so may happy memories of this great friend, this great man and will always cherish these. I love him for his intelligence, his bright sparkling mind, his witty cynicisms and his active disdain of religion and all its mindless hocus-pocus. I love him as my friend and he leaves a very large hole in my life.”
When I tried to remember things to say about Richard, stories to tell, especially about times at Sussex, I found it surprisingly hard. Obviously delving back more than half a life time is going to be hard – memories atrophy so that you keep rehashing the same few images, and gradually lose sight of the rest, there’s always so much new stuff to process that you get overwhelmed, and your memory cells just stop bothering; and of course you might not always have been as clearheaded as you could at the time when the memories were formed. But I think part of it is the nature of what stays with you: so of course there’s the set piece memories: Richard addressing mass union meetings in yellow wellingtons then leading his people to the promised land, which was usually somewhere on the 6th floor of the arts admin building; Richard mercilessly heckling the poor vice-chancellor at the 25th anniversary reunion talk at Sussex and nearly being escorted out; or just Richard demonstrating his new wheelchair by driving it at speed into your shins, easier to spin an anecdote from – but of course the kind of memories that make you know that someone was your friend, and not just a figure you watched alone aren’t really about that: they’re more amorphous, harder to grasp, because what you’re trying to remember is more about a feeling of just being with someone, doing or witnessing stuff usually quite mundane stuff together. Those are the memories that get right into you, and also the ones that give you the terrible feeling of loss, of absence, because your friend isn’t present any more to share them, and never will be again.
So I feel very fortunate, in that during all the times I knew him one of the most intense periods came when he had a kind of hiatus in his life, between being chucked out of Sussex at the culmination of his campaign against preliminary exams for science students, and going to Montreal, although hiatus was a relative term in Richard’s life, and we spent a lot of time just hanging out. It was one of the many amazing things about him that he was able to spend so much of his time interacting with people, whether that was socialising, or at work in meetings, or being arrested, and still be so unbelievably productive in terms organising, and especially in writing.
When Richard moved to ashley cooper house just around the corner from here, Greer, Bill Macintosh and I had the slightly daunting task of editing Richard’s possessions down from the contents of a one-bed flat to fit in one room – and apart from the music and the usual personal stuff and the complete works of Phiip K Dick there were boxes and boxes and boxes of paper – he was a great hoarder, though not always a great filer, and apart from the bank statements dating from 1980 onwards, the minutes of every meeting he’d ever attended (and there were a lot of those), situationist pamphlets, records of the many law suits he entered into, the increasingly abusive correspondence with the inland revenue (by the end his letters opened with the words ‘dear idiots’ and then got really abusive – though charmingly their replies always commenced ‘dear mr flint, thank you for your letter’ – you could almost hear the teeth gritting), there were many original pieces of writing, which we attempted to save, which gave a glimpse into the fluency and range of his abilities: as well as the history essays and editorial pieces and correspondence, with friends as well as political allies and enemies, there were short stories, and poetry, and pages of ideas jotted down when his mind raced ahead of his typing, all of which just seemed to flow out of him like water from a tap: it’s hard to fathom how he found the time to do it all. He used to put it down to a diet of coffee and cigarettes, which he loved whilst despising the class system under which they were produced, but we know that it was down to his phenomenal memory, his ability to concentrate, and that formidable organising intellect, the range of which we all perhaps know a little more of after today.
It was very easy to just be impressed by Richard because of this – I think a lot of us were initially drawn into his orbit by just that, and the glamorous public figure he cut, but then went on to discover that he had a real gift for friendship – his commitment and ability could be a little intimidating – an impossible standard that you could never match – but he was generous enough to show some human failings so that you wouldn’t feel too bad about yourself.
I really wanted to remember exactly when I first met Richard, but couldn’t; perhaps some of you here can remember your first encounter, (or even remember mine for me), but I do remember attending Libertarian Socialist meetings largely through his influence and his natural sense of inclusiveness towards any prospective fellow travellers, even though I was basically an apolitical hippy type looking for the most laid back route to fluffy radicalism – I was eventually gently but firmly sacked by Richard for being a bougeois individualist.
I got my own back eventually: when he came and shared a flat with Sam and myself, a charming airy place in a beautiful georgian square with unfeasably low rent and views of the sea if you stretched your neck, we made him live in the cupboard. It did have a window, though this was just into sam’s room, so we could entertain ourselves by messing with his perception of night and day. Not that this bothered him much, he had strong nocturnal tendencies which he was later able to indulge when he retired, as any of you who tried to visit him before lunchtime will know. As I mentioned, we spent a great deal of time doing nothing in particular, which i think was a welcome change for Richard, though maybe not so good for us who were still meant to be students, and especially Sam, who was meant to be doing his finals at the time. Richard managed to help out here; he wrote a final paper for Sam, although he got a bit carried away and wrote 25 000 words, all densely argued and relevant to the theme, which poor Sam then had to edit back to around 10 000. I remember a culmination of this sometimes rather crazy period when Richard insisted on playing ‘Off to Dublin in the Green’ out of the window at top volume, which only ceased when the speaker toppled off the window ledge and ended up dangling by it’s lead in front of our landlady’s window, still blasting out it’s Republican message. Of course Richard, the great delegator, sent me down to retrieve it.
After this time I accompanied Richard, along with Catherine, our friend Ruth and Pat Hagopian to the states, on route to Mcgill University where he recommenced his education. We were able to indulge in another of Richard’s great loves, the extended road trip, hitching across North America, although Catherine and Ruth usully travelled ahead by private jet or similar. Our journey was intended to be undertaken in the spirit of another of Richard’s many influences, Hunter S Thompson, though when we finally got to Aspen we drew back from actually going to his house, which was just as well as I don’t think they’d have seen eye to eye politically. But the trip continued one of the themes of his childhood, restless movement – thanks to his father John’s academic career as an eminent historian of Africa. After being born in Stoke Newington he’d lived in Nigeria for two years, in Canada and the United States: and he was always pleased to remind us that as a child he’d visited practically every one of them during a year long journey with his parents, even though he was not a fan of the American way, blaming the US for turning the rest of the world into an underpaid production line fulfilling it’s needs.
It was a pleasure to be able to make another road trip a few years ago to the aforementioned Sussex reunion, where he was able to taunt the management, throw a wild party, and surround himself with admirers. Plus ça change.
You’ve heard from Sarah Finke that he was able to recognise very early on new technological developments, especially where they were relevant to communications, and proselytise for their use; through his friendship with Sean Fensom he was a very early adopter of the internet – he never tired of telling people that he first connected to the net in 1986 – although what he didn’t always tell people, certainly not me, was that after making that connection (at Catherine’s house on a computer that he persuaded her to buy?) he couldn’t turn it off again, and left her stuck with an open connection to the arpa net in the States for 2 days. But that was Richard – he was always looking ahead and didn’t always have the time to follow his discoveries through in mundane detail. If it ain’t broke, then break it anyway and buy a newer one was his motto.
After Richard went to Montreal I lost touch with him for a few years, although I was aware of his continued radical campaigning, statospheric journalism career, and ability to become an instant leader wherever he went, and I was puzzled for a while as to why he ended up taking a job in an organisational structure where he had to toe the line to some extent, even though it is of course an organisation doing important campaigning work close to his heart: still, back then I was sure he would take a more obvious and direct route into politics, rather than becoming, as he sometimes sardonically put it, a leftwing bureacrat. But really, the answer’s obvious; apart from the dearth of successful syndicalist parties to head up up in the UK, at heart Richard wasn’t really a politician at all, at least not in the sense of compromise that party politics demand, endlessly tinkering around the edges of established certainties, talking change whilst never really altering much at all. He was a true radical, a sometimes impossible idealist who was far better placed as a campaigner and inspirer within a body whose function was the nuts and bolts betterment of people’s lives, and I think he found a better home in the ITF than any available political party could have provided. Of course, if enough of us had admitted that he was always right about everything all of the time, and been properly prepared to follow him without all those boring distractions like earning a living, who knows where he could have taken us?
I’ve been talking about Richard because of course this is his show, but I’d like to also mention some of the people who were around him when his body became more unreliable, and who were also sometimes the butt of his frustation when he had to rely on their help more than he wanted to: the carers from Wandsworth, especially Marcia, who is here today: Aston, the director of Ashley Cooper House where Richard lived around the corner, whose diplomatic skills Richard liked to push to the limit sometimes, and amongst the friends who visited and helped out where they could I’d particularly like to remember Garrick Gustavus, who shared so many of Richard’s qualities, and acted as his unpaid secretary, political sparring partner, and occasional voice of reason before his own untimely death last year.
Richard died far too young, but knowing this was a possibility helped fire up his attitude of carpe diem, and Richard seized more days than most. I know that lots of us feel guilty, inevitable when someone dies – you feel you could have visited more often, done more, and now you can’t put things right – but I think this is were we have to keep Richard’s memory by imagining reconstructing his attitude, and he didn’t have much time for moping about – he preferred to get fired up and try and change the present, not agonise about the past. If you feel too old and tired to start a revolution, you could always make a donation to the Ataxia foundation – Richard’s page that we set up at justgiving.com still hasn’t had many visits!
I wanted to finish off with some words of Richard’s – I looked through some of his writings for something appropriate, but to be honest there was just so much I didn’t know where to start. So instead I remembered a couple of things that he often said when he had company – over the last few years talking became quite tiring for Richard, so he had to condense what he wanted to say into much shorter and pithier statements – quite a feat for him – but I liked the way he invariably capped discussions about seemingly intractable problems, global and personal, by saying “of course, I’m an optimist”, and meaning it.
The other thing that stays with me is what he said whenever I was leaving, that somehow reminds me of his sense of inclusion and belief in the political necessity of forging bonds between people, and at the same time his warmth and humanity – instead of saying goodbye he always said “don’t be a stranger”. Lets take him up on that.”
Richard worked at the ITF for eleven years from 1986. During that time he transformed the organisation and he inspired many people across the world with his huge enthusiasm for solidarity and internationalism.
Richard made a vivid impression. He was an attractive and tousled young man – whose energy, kindness, acerbic wit and great dedication to the ITF’s particular brand of international trade unionism – is remembered by many. He would regale all comers enthusiastically with anecdotes about the ITF’s unique history and heritage. He worked hard – but also loved a party; ITF meetings were always fun when Richard was around.
Richard was the ITF staff negotiator – a role to which he brought characteristic stubbornness and originality. On Tuesday some of us went to the May Day rally – ITF staff have a day off on May first. It was Richard who battled for, and achieved, that.
He was also the Chair of TGWU Branch 1/128 until he became head of the Communications Department in 1994. It is later, as a branch member that many ITF staff members remember him, because Richard taught the branch to think about wheelchair access. On one occasion a branch meeting was moved to the ITF’s lobby because the wheelchair lift was broken; Richard made his forceful contributions from the stairwell.
Richard introduced the ITF to e-communications – and in doing so, shepherded the organisation firmly into the 21st century. It was because of Richard that the ITF can boast of an early web presence. He was convinced before anyone else that information technology would revolutionise our lives, and determined that trade unions would be a part of that revolution. Richard knew that communications had a huge strategic importance in the trade union movement. The co-founder of the ITF Seafarers’ Bulletin, which this year goes out to almost a quarter of a million seafarers, Richard never forgot the value of information to those fighting for their rights. Richard enthusiastically supported ITF Ship Inspectors in their efforts to help crewmembers all over the world, publishing and distributing their success stories and promoting the unique nature of the Flag of Convenience campaign to all those he met.
Alert to the ITF’s unique heritage, Richard put on record its official history, locating historians, managing the publication of their efforts and advocating the importance of Edo Fimmen, the ITF’s inter-war General Secretary as the true architect of the modern ITF. The centenary celebrations in 1996 were testament to Richard’s determination that the ITF’s active anti-Nazism in the 1930s would not be forgotten.
By 1997, Richard’s illness was getting worse and at the end of that year he retired from his job as ITF Communications Secretary. It was a difficult time for him. But he grew into his role as a campaigner for disabled rights. He drove a mean wheelchair. Many of us remember going out for a drink with Richard and trying to keep up with him as he weaved delightedly – and dangerously – all over the pavement.
Richard the politician was ferociously bright, idealistic and sometimes infuriating; Richard the man was a compassionate individual who thought kindness the most important virtue. He was very supportive of other ITF staff. He encouraged many of us to write and taught us computer skills. One freelance translator remembers how warmly Richard welcomed her into the ITF family – even though their contact was largely remote.
Richard was a genuine internationalist. “For Richard, solidarity was something obvious”, said one Swedish colleague. It is an honour for the organisation that Richard found his vocation within the ITF; in doing so, he made an enduring contribution to the labour movement. He changed the ITF and he touched many people internationally. The email tributes have been flooding in from all corners of the earth; something he truly would have appreciated.”
When I met Richard, he was pointed out across the room to me as someone who was already a celebrity at the age of 21. His political reputation had arrived in Montreal, across the Atlantic, almost ahead of him. People at McGill University were already in awe of his formidable reputation as a political activist and thinker.
We discussed action being taken which would result in McGill divesting itself of investment in South Africa. With typical understatement, Richard would later describe this, a little ruefully, as one of the far too few actions his side won. He always felt there were too few victories in his ongoing fight for the rights of ordinary working people. In this, as in so much, Richard underestimated the huge influence he had on the comrades he met along the way.
To be a socialist at McGill in the early 1980s was to be an endangered species. It was a time of law, accountancy and management students taking over the world. I still remember a vivid and symbolic moment when Richard – to educate and to fight back at someone who was attacking him verbally – said “What’s so wrong with the model of how Russia is run?”. The president of the McGill Students’ Union – a management student – screamed at Richard and at me that our loyalties were not to Canada, but to Russia. Sometimes, life is beautifully choreographed and, as if on cue, the Russian national anthem struck up on Radio McGill. Richard and all the other people at that table stood up, bowed our heads and put our right hands over our hearts. As an accidental and unplanned event, it sealed Richard’s reputation as a tough and distinctive campaigner and saw off the nasty right in a burst of laughter.
When the management students went off, spluttering, we laughed and laughed. Incidentally, I do not believe for a moment that Richard’s prime loyalties in socialism were to Russia, Cuba or any other particular country. Richard was a true international spirit, working to end oppression and enhance ordinary lives in many parts of the world. He was as likely to work to end injustice in Nicaragua as in his own neighbourhood.
He identified with his Canadian connections and felt that Canada was a positive place to be in those years of Margaret Thatcher in Britain. It was the time of the Falklands – always the Malvinas, to Richard – not long after that, and Richard took some pleasure in telling me about the mothers of the disappeared, who held up placards in Buenos Aires every day saying, “The Malvinas are Argentinian and so are the thousands of victims of the junta”. I told him that the writer Jorge Luis Borges had said that the conflict was like “two bald men fighting over a comb”. He enjoyed that comment.
Richard was profoundly anti-war and believed that most conflicts were the result of callous leaders sending young working class men to fight battles about money and power. Like many, he was upset that the events of September 11th 2001 had been used to clamp down on political activism and to tighten up security everywhere. Richard believed in the freedom to choose socialism. He hated what is happening in Iraq.
I remember someone saying to him “In many of the countries you claim to admire, you’d be locked up for saying the things you do”. Depending on the company and the time, he always had a great response. But often, he would ignore the comments in favour of spending the energy on happier and more productive activities.
As editor-in-chief of the McGill Daily – which he was elected to after a breathtaking campaign – he set about creating an agenda of education and social change. Indeed, each edition of the paper said “we are agents of social change”. He always made time for a young reporter just starting out and nervous about how to proceed. He coaxed and coached and inspired the best out of people and a number of journalists and broadcasters chose their path because he showed that hard work could be fun. He gave everyone a chance to shine.
I need to add that most of the women were a little in love with him and most of the men wished they were him. It would be wrong of me to say anything about Richard at that time without making the observation that he had buckets of charisma.
His reputation has lasted. After university, he worked in journalism in Montreal, making key contributions to the Quebec Ireland committee and many other action groups. They, and three of his dear friends are organising a wake for him in Montreal on May 12th, 20 years after he left Montreal to move to London. It will be packed full of people – 20 years after he left.
Others will discuss his campaigning and international research and writing work during that time. I would like to take a minute to talk about the activism Richard took up for disabled people to have better transport rights.
That started in Southwark, when Richard first organised local actions against the Council and transport providers for not making access a key issue. It seems remarkable to us now, when so many of Richard’s key transport issues have been taken up by the Mayor of London and Transport for London, but such basics as bus ramps, affordable alternatives to door-to-door transport, and accessible vehicle design were all far less accepted ten years ago.
When Richard moved to Wandsworth, he became Chair of Wandsworth Transportforall and campaigned for a better built accessible environment and better transport options. The next time you’re in Battersea, notice how many good surfaces there are that slope down to the street. Richard campaigned hard for those.
On the board of Transportforall, he demanded better options for disabled people and insisted that access was the most important issue. For him, inclusion was something you lived and not just something you talked about.
All this sounds so very serious, so I need to add that some of the most fun I ever had in my life was because of my friendship with Richard. We travelled to Derby in the summer of 2001 to a big national show for disabled people with lots of different gadgets and devices to improve access. We raced across the fields and challenged the definition of “fully accessible” on the trains there and coming back to London.
Similarly, we went to Manchester in August 2002 to see the strategic transport authority and tour around a little, at the time of the Commonwealth Games. It was a magical time to be in Manchester and I have brought along some of the photos I took during those three days. Again, Richard ensured that life was improved for future guests at his hotel, by forcing them to see that their definition of “fully” accessible and his were rather different. And another train company learned that they still had a few adaptations to make before they could really say their trains were “fully” accessible.
He loved a joke, a song and a photograph and had a real appreciation of design.
But perhaps more than anything else, he stayed a very good friend, who always accepted me without judgements or harshness – especially when I was in the wrong – and always found the right thing to say when life was difficult. He stayed close through different phases, lost touch and would get in touch again and always had the ability to create a good party and a fun outing. You would learn, because he was very clever, but you would also laugh and walk and climb and excel, because he would make you shine.
I will miss him more than I can ever say. Goodbye, Richard and I will always wish you nothing but the best of good luck.”