Tidy St resident
At about 8.30pm on 25th June 2010 a group of people gathered on the pavement in Tidy Street and stayed there until the early hours of the morning. On many occasions during that time glasses were raised in unison and tilted towards the blank, unlit windows of the house opposite. We were holding a spontaneous wake following the funeral of our friend and neighbour, Ron Fowler.
He worked for the Gas Board
Ron was one of four sons born and raised in Brighton, growing up near the Lewes Road. After school he joined the Gas Board and remained there until taking a much enjoyed early retirement. He walked, as he often said, ‘thousands of miles’ over town in his work, enjoying his relationships with customers for whom time spent over a cup of tea was a valued part of the service.
A Trade Union Health & Safety representative
He retained strong memories of the privations, social hierarchies and inequalities of the post-war period, and perhaps because of this his political sympathies lay with those he saw as on the side of ordinary people. Just recently he declared New Labour’s Winter Fuel Heating Allowance ‘marvelous’, contrasting it with the precisely remembered policies of ‘… that other lot, they’d let you freeze to death’. He worked hard but non-confrontationally as trade union Health and Safety rep for 28 years, running successful campaigns against unsafe working practices and recalling with particular pride how his intervention had saved the job of a ‘family man’ who had committed a sackable offence. In the 1950s he had been impressed at the improvement in the family home when – at last - electric lighting replaced gas, and he maintained an open-minded enthusiasm for other modern technological advances, whether mobile phones, the internet or the International Space Station passing in the sky.
Ron loved to cycle
He loved his bicycle and had been known to cycle to Crawley and back; more than that, he actively disliked the damage car culture did to communities and sociability and so participated enthusiastically in the street parties we held from 2007. One of our favourite stories about Ron was of the time he won a car in a casino tournament and stubbornly refused to be deferentially impressed by it, insisting instead on his right to an appropriate cash equivalent.
A man of contradictions
Ron was in many ways a man of contradictions: a smart and stylish dresser, a connoisseur of quality but at low cost; a sociable being who was happy in his own company; someone who hardly drank but loved to party; an often guarded, cautious personality who yet thrilled to the uncertain outcomes of the bets he placed on the horses and at the casino. He was ‘single’, a ‘bachelor’: but marriage, of course, charts only one of the many paths of love that the human heart can follow. Ron became the devoted friend of two older women residents in Tidy Street, looking after them through an old age that was undoubtedly happier, healthier, longer lasting and more secure for his attention and care.
An active outgoing life
After their deaths he inherited their house, which enabled him to leave the basement he rented at 34 Tidy Street – a space so damp, he related, that unworn clothes rapidly grew mildew and his electric blanket had to be left permanently on. No 20 became the home he called his ‘church’, on which he lavished care, attention and DIY skills: his was one of the most frequently polished brass door knockers in the street. From this more secure base his active, outgoing life continued: often from across the street I would see him depart, dressed up to the hilt, and later hear the coming and going of a taxi in the early hours of the morning, which only deepened my intrigue about the (to me) mysterious world of Brighton’s casinos.
Ron was resolutely independent: at his funeral a former colleague related how he dug out the cellar of his house and cleared up the sewage that then twice flooded it, all on his own: he sought advice as to the solution, but not assistance. Only last year he single-handedly built a summer house in his garden. Perhaps his most satisfying achievement was to become a self-taught artist: he worked in acrylics, developing his craft late into the night in the cellar that became his studio. Occasionally he invited others into his house to view the paintings lining every wall: one night he knocked at our door to share the excitement of finally ‘getting’ just the expression he wanted on a portrait. All of his pictures were meaningful, but perhaps particularly those of deceased family and friends, intended for their relatives as a gesture of honour and consolation.
A distinctive and irreplaceable individual
His diagnosis of lung cancer came too early for a man with so much to do and live for; one bittersweet consolation was that it led Ron to seek out company more actively than before so that many of us came to know him better. Perhaps it brought out the best in all his neighbours too, by giving us a chance to care: providing lifts to and from hospital appointments, fetching prescriptions, visiting him in hospital, sending cards, providing haircuts, inviting him to or bringing round meals including a Christmas feast over which he rhapsodized, or spending hours, when he locked himself out one winter night, working out how to get back into the house without causing any damage. So it felt entirely fitting that we should then come together in the street where he belonged and had been happy, to celebrate but also to mourn the loss of a distinctive and irreplaceable individual.
By Sara Bragg
[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 206, September/October 2010]