And eight years ago seems too long now.
This is a passing that many of us knew was coming, not something sudden and unexpected. Martin knew most of all. With a directness, clarity and forthrightness that is astonishing, he discussed his situation, through emails and in various posts via Facebook, acknowledging the cancer he had been diagnosed with, the steps that were going to be taken. And he continued on nonetheless, for that was his way.
And what was his way? Well, from nearly a decade and six thousand miles away, let me give just one portrait of many, far too brief compared to what others will share.
Imagine a house, one lived in for many years, dedicated to the pleasure of creativity. Of rooms of comic books most of all, for that was what he loved most dearly, but certainly never solely. Of music of all kinds, of sorts. A stack of the Trojan CD box sets over the years alone was enough to cause me to shake my head in wonder and not a little envy. Much more than that too, sometimes well organized, others maybe not so organized, but the former much more so than the latter, a treasure. A computer at a table to keep in touch with things out there, a cozy kitchen, the world of East Ham outside the door.
This was the heart of the world that Martin lived in for many years, though he moved soon after I saw his place to a new one in North London, one which I never had the chance to visit. I got to see it and know it due to a simple act of kindness that he offered, allowing me to stay with him in 2003 when I visited London in October of that year to celebrate the wedding of Tom Ewing, our point of commonality.
The larger point was ILX, that website I’ve mentioned over the years, still chugging and still strong, bless its heart. I can’t remember when exactly Martin joined but it was early enough on, certainly by the time one of its two key discussion boards was founded, I Love Everything. And that was Martin’s way, he did love everything, or rather, he loved what humanity had the power to create, to share, to talk about — and that was, of course, everything.
To speak to Martin’s background and earlier life is to claim a space I have no right to; others can and will say more as they choose. When he joined the boards, he was in his early forties, affable, knowledgeable, clearly a good soul from what I could tell. His frankness was always there too, not a huge rush of words that never stopped, but a directness in response to questions asked and a willingness to contribute where possible on subjects where he had a good grounded knowledge. And it was always very good; you never sensed that he was grasping at straws or looking to fill in space with words.
I remember he had established his bona fides as a man who knew his comics enough that some short while after he started posting regularly a comics question of some sort came up, or a thread was started, and I almost immediately responded “Martin Skidmore to thread!,” since I knew it would be his bread and butter. He did and very kindly and I guess surprisedly added as well that he was tickled pink he’d gained enough of a profile on the board to warrant it. If our acquaintance had a starting point it was there, and it was always easy, always a pleasure, to derive joy from his thoughtful take on things.
One of my favorite moments came on an Archie comics thread, an anecdote which I always will treasure and which sounds very him:
I just remembered an odd moment. On the tube with one of my oldest and best friends, G, maybe 15 years ago. He’s reading an Archie comic, a digest I think, and I’m reading it with him. At one point I say (in a jokey way) “Come on, turn the page!” He closes the comic and says “You can’t have read that by now.” I insist I have, but he won’t have it, so I start describing each panel and reciting, not quite word for word but close to it, the dialogue and captions. He has claimed that this moment had a profound effect on his view of the world!
The thing you need to remember as well, if you never had the pleasure of meeting him, was that he wouldn’t have said this in any sort of arrogant way, but a sweet, amazed way, with a smile and a chuckle. If you see things, read things, react to things in a way that is natural to you that might not be to others, it may indeed be profound to them, but to you it is simply how one is. He would have treated it like that rather than any sort of sign of something special.
When it came to staying with him in London, it was an outgrowth of something I’ve long done — staying with friends when possible rather than going the hotel route. I’ve done that many times now with people who I only know through the Net, and whether it’s luck or judgement or something else, I’ve always had a wonderful time — it’s let me do more in the places I’ve visited and I always, always hope I am never too much of an imposition, and I would do the same for each of my hosts in turn, it’s only fair, it’s more than even that, it’s right and proper. They took the chance on putting up with me, after all! Somehow the subject came up, probably on ILX by default, and one thing led to another. This was my first visit to London after my breakup in 2001 and so it was a way to start over a bit fresh, as it were.
Martin’s sheer kindness as a host was wonderful. You did feel like you stepped into a bit of a treasure trove as I mentioned, something that was a repository as much as a library, with an affable guardian. Meeting him for the first time and getting the measure of him as a person was wonderful, it was in many ways confirmation that what he posted and how he posted was who he is. It was only for a few days — a couple of days there, then a couple of days more with an intervening visit to friends in Dublin — but it was a great few days, and we went to the big party in Tom and Isabel’s honor at a pub and otherwise caught up, chatted and talked. A blast, a sheer blast of a time.
Martin eventually left ILX of his own volition and refocused his interests elsewhere. There was FA, his comics zine. There was Freaky Trigger, where he often contributed over the years. Then there was The Singles Jukebox, a site dedicated to talking about that — recent singles, from all over the pop map. Martin’s passion for the new was as strong as it was for the old, and the man who could talk about the joy of having seen T. Rex live in concert, to my undisguised jealousy, could rhapsodize over the newest release that month, that week, that day, if it was worth rhapsodizing over. Spend some time there and search his work through the archives, I beg of you — his last review ran just yesterday, and it was one that was as sharp, to the point, in the moment and well observed as everything else did. (A slight edit to note that site founder WBS’s tribute to Martin must be read.)
You wouldn’t have known he was fighting cancer the whole time.
The word went out a while back and the many messages of support and love that came in couldn’t be counted, I’m sure. I sent mine along, always worried that I was imposing a bit, hoping I wasn’t, and kept him in my thoughts. Every time a post of his appeared on Twitter or the Singles Jukebox had his thoughts, it felt like a bit of a gift. But he was blunt about his prospects, honest both about the respites and, over time, the clear signs that time was short. His last Facebook update from a couple of weeks back just sounds like…him. Not a despairing him, just him:
Bad health news update: exciting new cancers are proliferating all over me, and I am unlikely to have much time left – could still be some months, could be a couple of weeks, depending on when one of the tumours hits vital organs, and there is no predicting that. I am now on morphine painkillers – I suspect addiction is not a concern…
I have to smile at that. And how rare is that, when that is the subject matter?
Today the word has gone around that this upstanding guy, this wonderful fellow, is no more. He had his ups and downs in life, his frustrations and successes, and he would gently rebuke me if I didn’t note them. But I can’t really speak to Martin’s faults, if faults he had, for I never saw them. He would frown at that perhaps, accusing me of maybe varnishing the truth, but I would say, no, only that Martin himself would have had a clearer eye of them, a more honest appreciation of them and acknowledgement of them. I am not him. Only Martin was.
We are mourning him on ILX. We will mourn him elsewhere. His friend Tim posted a link to one of his favorite pieces Martin wrote for Freaky Trigger, commenting “it’s a really good way of remembering how Martin wore his great intelligence and his great insight lightly.” Please read it, and note Tim’s wisdom in summing up Martin’s abilities:
This isn’t an outpouring, it’s a very restrained and subtle performance, especially the very gentle start – it’s a sad and thoughtful mood, dominated by Al’s lovely and light falsetto tones, though he builds to the lower, hoarser tones in places. He almost speaks the first line, quickly and in a near whisper, setting a thoughtful tone from the start. He stays mostly behind the music and even the backing vocals for some while, his voice drifting alongside and behind the tune, carefully synchronising here and there and then going its own way again, a man thinking his way through an impossible problem. The way he breaks up the last word in “How can you mend this broken maa-aa-an?” is perfectly judged, a gentle little example of form and meaning meshing, then the first strain in his voice appears in the next line, “How can a loser ever win?” The hesitancy before the last word in “misty memories of days gone by” is another masterfully modulated touch. By the end he’s bringing it all to bear, the changes of tone, the hesitancies and ad libs, the sweet high voice, the gruffer tones, nearly crying in places, even a strangled scream at 5.26. It’s finally a determined song that looks to a positive future, and he injects real strength and straightforward force into his final “I want to live” as it fades.
To the end, Martin lived.