Sunday, June 18, 2023

My friend Brian Richmond (1961–2007)

Brian Richmond was a colleague and friend, our offices both separated and connected by two short flights of stairs back in our days at GCAS, in the former Russell Court Hotel building on Belfast's Lisburn Road. Brian was one of the Creative Directors of GCAS Advertising - a copywriting wordsmith, a highly gifted and intelligent man, and great crack too. I joined GCAS Design in early 1997, and somehow became its managing director around 2000. Brian and I would banter about music, history, faith, politics, all sorts of stuff. We had a kind of 'fantasy' about one day doing an ad campaign for IKEA, using the Gram Parsons version of 'Dark End of the Street'. It's a long story...

Around 2005/2006 Brian had an opportunity to relocate to Bredagh Glen outside Moville in Inishowen, and work remotely from there. He emailed me on 27 March 2007 to say that the backache he'd recently developed might be a hernia or gallstones. Then on 9th April he emailed me to say it was pancreatic cancer.  Knowing his time was short, he started to write his experiences on a blog he entitled Captain Pancreas. His first post was 19 April 2007 and his final post 22 August 2007. Only 125 days.

He makes mention of me a few times in those blog posts. I was Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency at the time (which was just a 3 days per month commitment - at least that's what the officials said...) and we had a board meeting in Letterkenny on Friday 27 April 2007, after which I drove to see Brian. I visited him a few other times too during those 125 days – he took me to visit beautiful Stroove Beach on one of those, with his wife and son – and I was in frequent email communication with him as his fading strength and hospitalisations allowed.  

Brian had some Ballywalter ancestry but was very much a Belfast boy, still bearing echoes of the influence (and perhaps theological scars) of mission hall Sunday Schools and the vocabulary that they use. He was wary and sceptical of aspects of typical Northern Ireland conservative evangelicalism. You can see some of that in the blog posts.

At first Brian was very hostile to Ulster-Scots concepts – there was a notorious incident involving him sticking an 'anti' newspaper cutting on the notice board in the GCAS kitchen, to which I counter-stuck something in response, He went berserk and stormed up the stairs verbally lambasting me in front of my design team! – but to be fair to him, his only knowledge of Ulster-Scots then was the politically-driven current affairs media caricature coverage.  This was back in the old days when people could disagree, and discuss, and differ, and still remain good friends. Over time and conversation, he came to better understand.

In those last months he helped me on the 'Robert The Bruce 700' project that I was leading (in a sense) at the Ulster-Scots Agency – I did the raw research and writing, and Brian polished it into proper sentences, for a series of articles in the Agency's monthly newspaper. Sadly the subsequent standalone reprint tabloid editions removed both of our names from the authoring of those, I don't know why, but we were both 'expunged'. Brian also helped me with some of the Belfast/Nashville publications as the 'Sister Cities' relationship was being revived at that time. He was also working on a self-motivated screenplay called "Billy Antrim", about Billy the Kid's reputed Ulster roots.

Brian has been on my mind in recent weeks, so with the long days now here, one bright morning last week I set off early on the long drive to visit his grave, at St Columba's Church, Ballincrae, outside Moville. I left here at 6:00am, made a few stops, and got there bang on 9:00am. It was good to be there and to remember our times together. To see his name etched in stone. 

At the bottom of his gravestone inscription are the words "A pilgrim on his journey", I expect purposely reminiscent of the beautiful track "Pilgrim" by Steve Earle which I have posted above. Brian and I were both at an acoustic concert that Steve Earle did in the Ulster Hall in March 1997, not long after I had joined GCAS. We spotted each other, and bonded.

Brian's funeral was an ecumenical service, reflecting his family set-up. The first hymn sang was Psalm 23. The other one was 'There Is A Redeemer, Jesus God's Own Son'. I had the honour of saying a few words about Brian during the service, as did two other friends. Some were there from Sandown Road Baptist Church – if memory serves me correctly they included an uncle of Brian's called Harry Hawthorne who also took part. That contingent chatted with me for a while at McGrory's Hotel in Culdaff, a renowned local hotel and music venue where everyone went after the service and committal. Brian was thrilled to be living so close to McGrory's, and the potential gigs he'd get to experience there. 

I really hope that Terry and Matthew are well. He loved them both very very much.

It's hard to believe it's been more than 15 years. 

In memory of Brian. 

(PS - I have mentioned Brian here a few times, and have had some emails from people who knew him, who found those posts via Google searches, and then made contact with me. I hope this post is helpful for those who are searching)

Below: a detail from the artwork of the Bruce project, dated 9th April 2007. This was the very same day that he emailed me with his diagnosis.