When I first went to university I had to share a room with a complete stranger. Not just a flat, a bathroom or a kitchen – a room. A cock-up with numbers had meant that a bunch of people would have to share for the first few weeks until separate accommodation could be found and of course I was one of them.
For the first week or so there was no sign of my cohabiter and the other bed remained encouragingly unoccupied until one day I came back from lectures (or, more likely, record shopping in town) and another lad from the flat said, “new fella’s here” as I passed him on the stairs.
Not sure of the correct etiquette in this situation I knocked on the door of ‘our’ room. The latch clicked and the door opened just enough for me to see my new roommate. He wore glasses. He had a beard. He was wearing an African National Congress t-shirt that by its faded colour and curious shape was clearly a veteran of several years’ worth of vicious skirmishes with launderettes.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Tony.”
Tony was four or five years older than me, a mature student from Aylesbury who’d just switched to our university from Cambridge. He was studying politics and liked real ale, Viz and Gramsci. He hated the Tories with a passion, partly because, I would learn later, they once poisoned his mum. He was into Billy Bragg and Alexei Sayle.
I was a naive kid from south-east London who’d signed up to do a Russian Studies degree mainly because I didn’t have anything else to do and saw university mostly as an opportunity to meet girls and drink cheap booze until I was sick. I liked football and, at that particular time, Simple Minds (I know, I know). I knew it was bad that Nelson Mandela was in prison because The Special AKA had told me it was, but on the whole I thought politics was pointless and dull. I’d never heard of Gramsci.
Strange bedfellows we made, but being landed with Tony like that turned out to be one of the bigger strokes of fortune of my life. If it wasn’t for Tony I probably wouldn’t have made the most of my university years and I almost certainly wouldn’t have become any kind of writer. It was Tony – who also happened to be the funniest person I’d ever met – who talked me out of my ooh-no-I-couldn’t-possibly-do-that reluctance to write for the student paper.
It was Tony who encouraged me to run for election as editor of that paper. It was Tony who encouraged me to find my own writing style – even if I probably did steal many of his best jokes on the way to doing so – and it was Tony who instilled in me the confidence to do what I do now when I was convinced I’d never be any good.
Tony even saved my entire university career once. I wasn’t very good at Russian Studies even on the rare occasions when I dragged myself away from the newspaper office to attend the odd class, and after a couple of years of no-shows and crap exams the course leaders wanted me out. Tony represented me at the “well, what are we going to do about Connelly?” hearing as my student council representative and, after a sharp couple of kicks to my shins under the table when I said particularly stupid things, helped to get me onto the history degree course instead of the train back to south London.
We shared a student house for a year where if memory serves I made a mess and Tony tidied up, Tony did all the cooking and I did all the eating, and Tony brewed his own beer while I drank most of it when he was out campaigning on behalf of the poor and oppressed. It was, looking back, a great system.
These were the days before the internet though and when we graduated we fell out of touch. Over the years I tried to find him and he’d sometimes pop up on a website after being elected as a councillor somewhere, but the council e-mail addresses never seemed to work and he wasn’t on any of the social media sites, presumably too busy saving the world.
Then a few weeks ago I saw someone with his name had ‘liked’ my Facebook page. Closer inspection of the profile picture confirmed it must be him – animatedly addressing a crowd at some political event or other, still fighting the fight for the poor and disadvantaged – and now, after nearly two decades, we’re back in touch. And he’s still the funniest person I’ve ever met.
I’m sometimes asked in interviews about influences. I usually trot out Douglas Adams and PG Wodehouse, but probably the biggest influence on and the rightful recipient of the biggest thanks for what I laughably call a career have to go to the person who right at the start gave me the confidence to write something and show it to somebody else and who, in saving my academic bacon, caused me to fall in love with history, the subject I write about more than anything else.
So thanks, Tone. When we left university I owed you countless pints because I was a shameless ponce who never had any money. I owe you a good few more now, but they’re for different reasons.