The world has lost a great man. Well, two counting Nelson Mandela, but you’ve already read his obituary somewhere, so there’s no need to review.
I’m talking about my friend Stephen Hill.
When I was 16 my sister burst into my bedroom first thing one morning and announced, “Wake up. John Lennon and Grandpa are both dead.” This feels much like that day.
You most likely don’t know Stephen. Yet. And if you don’t know Stephen, there’s one thing I know about you: You are not from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
Neither was Stephen, actually, as you can tell from the below video, where he introduces the film With Glowing Hearts (of which he was a major financial supporter) to an audience comprised of motley crew of digital rock stars, renegade filmmakers, citizen journalists, activists, and the homeless (dress code the same for all of the above, except the activists are the ones wearing Blundstones). He did make it his own. He was One of Us.
Sounds like Alan Fucking Rickman addressing Noah’s Ark.
Only in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside could a white heckler interrupt a white speaker in front of a 90% white audience in a university named after a Scot to insist that the speaker acknowledge the speech was taking place on stolen First Nations land, and only Stephen Hill could roll with it like that.
Speeches are not easy to write or deliver, and very difficult to write and deliver well.
Eulogies are harder.
Here’s a good one. Stephen wrote it.
Here is another, about a different man. Stephen‘s brother wrote it. Stephen would expect me to snark at the fact that it’s not on WordPress; he’d be disappointed if I didn’t. I don’t like to disappoint Stephen, so: Blogspot? Really???
To get to know Stephen on paper, which is where he’d be more comfortable being known, is impossible now thanks to disposability, but you can come to know him in pixels, which always made him nervous, by looking through his CV, which he made in the (telling) form of a Community Walk map, a format which combines spatial relationships with textual and visual context. He believed very strongly that we exist at all times in intimate relation with our surroundings, and that our physical paths and environments are our life’s journey in more than merely the mundane way. His bone-deep connection to the concept of community was apparently nurtured in his school; they were both lucky to find one another.
On the Downtown Eastside Stephen worked as an employment counselor in his official capacity, and as an inspiration, firebrand, organizer, activist, and icon in his real life. He was everywhere, behind the scenes, generally helping those behind the scenes prevent the scenery from falling over. If I was at a protest or large event and I couldn’t find him, I’d just ask if anyone had seen “the posh Englishman,” and they’d all go “Oh, Stephen‘s over there!” and there he’d be, directing a crew of neophyte sound engineers plucked from the lunch room of the Carnegie or listening to an Elder tell stories of her childhood in a residential school, stories she’d never told a white man before.
Speeches are hard. I’ve made many speeches myself, often about the successes of my students from the Downtown Eastside, but I have a confession to make: they were all Stephen‘s protegees first. Citizen journalist April Smith was part of the Fearless City project which Stephen more or less badgered me into joining (so blame him, Irwin!). Henry Doyle the poet was a regular at Gallery Gachet, and a client of Stephen‘s at the Job Shop. All I did was provide a sort of finishing school for the forces of nature which they are, and which Stephen had helped them to recognize and harness. He was the one picking winners or, to be honest, building them seemingly from scratch sometimes, and convincing them they could win if given the right tools, which he taught them how to build or obtain for themselves. Not for nothing did he win Mentor of the Year from his peers.
He was also a terrific music snob, and I mean that in both senses of the word. No matter what your insidery music story, he could generally casually top it, trying not to show that it mattered to him, but the stories were so good they simply mattered intrinsically. The time Elvis Costello played an acoustic set in his living room, for instance. One wall of his office was covered with a web of steel wires and in this web hung a grid of albums: vinyl only, of course, for visual impact and also because vinyl > CD 4 eva. I knew I’d registered with him in more than a dutiful counsellor way when I rambled on about Year Zero in a meeting and the next week he had removed an old Blues album and put NIN in its place.
He hated NIN, really. That’s how I knew for sure.
In his eulogy for his friend Nigel he said:
Half my vinyl record collection is still made up of often obscure titles which Nigel liked and therefore I did too.
I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many of my albums were given to me by Stephen, who would not rest when he found out I had only Elvis Costello’s Greatest Hits and not Spike or any of the other “good ones, the ones you can’t buy here.” Or how many I bought because he’d mentioned the bands and how many hours I spent on YouTube particularly, trying to do my musical homework before the next meeting. He supplied the best songs on the Soundtrack for Occupy Vancouver, and I know that he donated at least two tents and two sleeping bags, which he’d gone out and purchased new just for Occupy.
God damn him, he even made me like twee hipster troubadors Arcade Fire, although it was their acoustic version of Guns of Brixton, and of course he told me all about the concert hall it was recorded in, as he probably spent more time there than at home for much of the 70′s. We spent a good hour or so discussing this song in the context of Boris Johnson‘s previous essay in which he pined for actual riots instead of quiet ones, now that BoJo had become mayor of London and had gotten (got?) his riots after all.
This, though. This is the most typical Stephen Music Story. It comes from the eulogy that he wrote for his old school friend Nigel Graves.
Then new wave appeared just before we began to part – a Christmas Eve Roundhouse concert featured ‘Eddie and the Hot Rods’ and we were so drunk and otherwise empowered by ‘Do anything you wanna do’ that on the way home we gave all our money to the striking firemen; working class politics indeed.
Here’s his musical scrapbook for July of 1969 alone. God, doesn’t that look exhausting?
This way of being we were creating included embracing contradictions and not toeing any one line. It was indeed possible to love Beowulf and Steppenwolf at the same time and with the same intensity.
You didn’t have to believe that you had to be this or that, you could be this and that. I carry this catholic view of passions, beliefs and ideas with me still, and in a world with increasing pressure to conform I will always be well pleased and plain relieved that early in our lives, with each others help, we were able to be true free thinkers.
I suppose one thing we learned together was to be ourselves; it’s funny how you often need someone else to help with that.
And that’s what he made his life’s work: to help others to find, and be, themselves.
I’m tempted, very tempted, to make a comparison between the Old Boys of his school, who are called Old Gowers or OGs for short, and the more widespread contemporary understanding of “OG” but I won’t, because it is just one of those overreaching, ridiculous, vulgarly amusing things that would bring the familiar pained, forbearing expression to Stephen‘s face and the eyes rolling heavenward, and we all do hate to disappoint Stephen.
He knew. He knew and he didn’t tell us, any of us.
He left Vancouver a year and a half ago, saying that he was going back to London to be with his mother while she was still here, and I had a few email conversations with him after that: he was living on a converted barge, tied up on the Thames somewhere far out of the centre of things for cheap moorage, which was the only way civilized people Bohemians could afford to live in London any more. I saw him just before he left, running into him at the Waves which served as a sort of community centre for everyone who was just well off enough not to have to hang out at the Carnegie, or on the sidewalk. We talked for a bit, and although we never talked about trifles (we usually talked about music, literature, politics, or other people) just what we talked about escapes me, but there is one thing I remember. He was silent for a moment, which is how you knew something big was coming, and then he looked at me and said, “There are a lot of people who you meet, and you get on fine and eventually go your separate ways, and that’s that. You don’t think anything about one another after that. But there are some people who go further. Some people who really care. People who give you the sense that you really matter to them, they’ll remember you, and you them. They stick with you. And that matters.” And then he couldn’t say any more but just hugged me. And I thought he was just going back to London and I’d see him for the Million Mask March on November 5.
I wonder if he made it to the march.
He died of scleroderma at the end of November.
Now is the time for that overreaching, ridiculous, vulgarly amusing thing without which this eulogy would not be complete. Because I could never stand to leave a meeting without giving Stephen a chance to show off his long-suffering basset hound look (it was a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and that’s another thing we took great pleasure in disagreeing about; my persistent dismissal of Byron and Shelley as second-rate pained him, but he had to admit he couldn’t trump my pair of Wordsworth/Keats).
This comes from a letter from the American political prisoner Jeremy Hammond, imprisoned for the next ten years for performing the Stratfor hack, releasing to WikiLeaks thousands and thousands of emails which came to be known as the Global Intelligence Files, and shining a light on the dark underbelly of the for-profit infosec world. It reminds me of Stephen for many reasons. He knew I drank coffee, he knew that I loathed the standard weak, cheap office coffee that his office supplied, and he believed, as all Englishmen do, that all right-thinking people should drink tea, preferably without milk. Stephen‘s esteem mattered so much to me that in meetings with him over the years I must have drunk enough black tea to float the Bluenose, even though black tea without milk gives me nausea. I never mentioned it. I would never have disappointed him by asking for milk. Four years, five years, how many years, and I never mentioned it.
Here is the kicker, courtesy of Jeremy Hammond, Prisoner #18729-424, MDC Brooklyn. In the last email exchange we ever had, I told Stephen that when he was being sworn in at his plea hearing, Jeremy had raised his hand in a power salute instead of laying it on the bible. And at roll call at lockdown, when his name was called instead of saying “Yes” or “Here” or whatever people in prison usually say, Jeremy yelled out, “LET MY PEOPLE GO.” Got solitary for it, too. I bet Stephen liked that story.
Come to think of it, I wonder if my Julian Assange crush springs from the fact that for years he had exactly the same hair as Stephen. Hm.
But to the punchline!
Actually, I think I heard that from Stephen first.