Simon Jones’s Last Supper

I got to know Simon Jones in the Winter of 97/98 when I was huddled down for the cold months in a Brighton squat.  My life was fairly chaotic at this time and I lived hand-to-mouth.  I wasn’t eligible for benefits due to my “no-fixed-abode” status, so I scraped by each week doing odd-jobs and busking in the South Lanes.  Simon lived in another squat in Kemptown and was a neighbour of my girlfriend.  I visited him quite often and we would discuss politics and history late into the night.  We always ended our chats with a good long hug.

Simon was great company, level-headed and hugely intelligent.  He was taking a year off studies at the University of Sussex to figure out what he was doing with his life.  In the daily craziness of my life, his room became a refuge.  I wasn’t the only one, he had lots of visitors, waifs and strays like me, and he would always welcome us with a smile and a cup of tea.

Most of the squatter scene existed on the meager unemployment benefits afforded by the state.  I don’t think Simon had ever had a job, whereas I had had about fifty by that time.  I remember him grilling me about the types of work I’d done, as if taking mental notes.  I knew a little about his trouble with the Jobcentre.  As a long-term claimant under 25, he was being forced onto a welfare-to-work scheme, in other words, take this job or we cut your benefits.  His back was up against the wall, but ever optimistic, he preferred to see his predicament as an opportunity to get him out of the future-less rut he was in.  He was willing to give it every chance.

The catch was, he could only get a job in an area he had some experience in.  But he had no experience, just a good education but no degrees to show for it yet.  What should he do?  He finally settled on a position on the docks.  He had great respect for dock workers since coming into contact with them through his activism in support of the Liverpool Docker’s Strike.  It was honest work, done by honest people, and he wanted to join that cadre, not get stuck behind a desk for the rest of his life.  I admired his choice.

I called in on Simon the last time around the end of April 1998. He seemed to glow with health and optimism.  He had quit smoking pot weeks earlier in preparation for his new job.  He cooked pasta-pesto on the small two-ring electric cooker in his room and we were joined by another waif, a girl I can’t remember.  He talked about plans of getting a proper apartment with his girlfriend.  He cheered me up, I was happy for him.  I left early to allow him enough sleep for his new routine.

Simon Jones, ca. 1998

Simon Jones, ca. 1998

Bernie, ca. early 1998

Bernie, ca. early 1998

On the 24th of April, 1998, Simon stepped onto the Shoreham Docks on his first day of work, bright and eager.  He received no safety training and wasn’t wearing a hard hat when he was put straight onto the task of shifting bags of coal onto crane hooks.  Within two hours on the job he was dead, a mechanical grabber clamping down on his head.  I received a text from an ex sometime that evening.  It threw me into absolute confusion.  By the following day it was all over the news, but the details were still blurry.  It was all too much for me – I packed my backpack and left Brighton that very day, never to return.

The devastation felt by Simon’s family and closest friends I can’t even imagine.  I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.  And it got worse.  As details began to emerge of the accident, the true horror and evidence of criminal negligence came to light.  I find the details too disturbing and painful to repeat, but the old articles can easily be found.  The incident became politicized, questions were brought up in parliament, protest actions held, awareness of work casualisation raised nationally, and finally a trial with a shatteringly disappointing verdict.  It went on for years, I followed it from afar, and I can only feel terrible at what those loved ones must have went through.

Simon’s death was a turning point in my life.  It really drove home the realization that Brighton was a dead-end.  I was wasting myself there – there were no good intentions towards me or my kind, and I had to get out to save myself.  I was utterly disillusioned.  I spent the next several months as a tree-protester in Dorset and Cork and the following years drifting between the jungles of Mexico and the Redwoods of California.  I was a little unhinged from the rest of the reality.

During this time I ran into others from the Brighton scene at various festivals and they reported to me that Simon’s death had impacted quite a few people similarly.  The event radicalized some of us, it hardened us and made us profoundly suspicious of social workers, re-actively skeptical of government schemes and wary of work.

I didn’t know Simon well enough, but he was a character I strongly connected with and I am sure would have remained a friend until now had he lived.  The only thing of value I left Brighton with was the memory of him.  My subsequent adventures were fueled by my memory of, and compensation for, the misfortune he had.  I carried part of him away with me.

I have plenty of regrets in life, all trivial or embarrassing, nobody got hurt, but if there was one moment I could go back in time and change it would have been that last meal I had with Simon.  I would have grabbed him and shook him by the shoulders and warned him of the trap which lay ahead.  His was such a senseless death.  It was so totally preventable and unnecessary.

I lit a candle on his birthday and I remembered to do this for a few years.  Over time, I forgot.

It was the recent death of another, very close friend (who I won’t name as it’s too soon) that put what happened to Simon back in perspective.  At nearly exactly the same time of Simon’s death 18 years ago, this other friend had decided to play the game, put on a suit and tie, and went to sit behind a desk at an IT company.  A safe job, the kind Simon was seeking to avoid.  This winter, at the age of 43, however, it all caught up with my other friend quite suddenly – years of stasis and misdiagnosis didn’t give him a chance.

The stark injustice of Simon’s death hardly compares to the slow neglectful demise of the other, but I can’t figure out which is more cruel, the instant death or the one that took twenty years of exhaustion.  The contrast has left me philosophical, self-examining.  We hold ourselves up to our friends, and here are two of mine who were exemplary characters and left so much unfulfilled promise.  I’ve gone through the rollercoaster of emotions and am only left with anger and sadness.

It’s our obsession with work, our complacent belief that performing menial tasks for others is the only way to benefit society, that leads so many of us into oblivion.  Indeed, I have lost more contemporaries to work than to drugs or suicide.  I don’t know anyone on a 40-hour contract who works less than 50 and then spends endless hours commuting and answering emails from home.  Living-to-work is eating us alive.  Leftover time for family and friends often ends up feeling like stolen moments.  We’re chasing after this carrot of retirement and not embracing the fleeting “now”.

My departed friends had great potential.  They were thoughtful, sensitive, good and honest young men taken too soon.  The world would have been a better place with them here.  It is now the 18th anniversary of the death of one and the first birthday without the other.  All I can do is take a day off work, sit on a riverbank with a few cans of cider and remember them.


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