Day 81: We won’t ever stop the bus #107days

Day 81 was adopted by Izzi and it builds on yesterday’s post Busking for Justice, while also standing alone (so you don’t have to have read yesterday’s, but really why wouldn’t you?). This post also includes links to awesome performances which are well worth checking out.

This is why Izzi wanted to support #107days and #JusticeforLB:

I’m struggling to know where to start, my whole life I have wanted to write and I always have plenty of middle but no beginning or end. Much like Connor’s and the Augustines’ stories, both ongoing and timeless. I wasn’t there for the start of either story and I know they will live on far beyond me in the hearts of all who hear them.

I heard about Richard, Sara and Connor before I met them. Back in 2007 the new fella in my life, John (aka Busker John/Kid Rage) as Richard’s new ‘employee’ spoke fondly of them and very highly of Sara’s lectures. I can’t remember when we first met but I felt like I had always known them and was immediately accepted into the fold. I am the baby of my family and as my older brother and sister grew up 5 years ahead of me I wished that I had younger siblings. Connor and his brothers and sister very quickly came to feel like surrogate little sibs.

At a bit of a hard time for me in 2009, returning to the ‘real world’ after travelling with John in India, straight into the recession, struggling over whether or not to be a traditional classroom teacher, Sara asked me to do some child minding for Connor and Tom and I leapt at the chance. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with those dudes of an afternoon.

Some of my fondest memories of Connor are simply sitting in the living room: Bess snuggled beside me; Stan adoringly attached to Connor’s lap; Tom on the floor with his Lego; Coach Trip, Police Interceptors or Horrible Histories on in the background. I used to watch Connor more than the TV, not to ‘mind’ him but taking delight in his absolute focus and dedication to the things he loved. I learned so much from our LB.

Actually I don’t think my career mentoring children in care would have started without LB and his family, and I know John feels similarly about his work. I definitely mentioned Connor in my interview. Real people, real emotions, real face-aching laughter and bundles of genuine love and care for friends and strangers alike.

We moved further away and naturally lost touch a bit but always revisited stories of Connor. I was thrilled when Sara started her blog as I could keep up with their lives despite the distance. Just like Beck from Day 60, it was the first and only blog I’ve had email alerts for. I would read out the stories to John and we’d be crying with laughter, then gradually pulling our hair out as times became increasingly difficult and scary. I wish I’d let Sara know more often how much their battle raged within us and about the thoughts and good vibes we were sending their way.

Then those words, seared into my mind’s eye, appeared in my inbox one sunny afternoon last July.

Never have any words affected me so completely or baffled me beyond any recognition or belief. I had to show John as I couldn’t say them out loud but he wouldn’t believe it was a real post for a long time. I rang my parents crying down the phone in a way I only remember doing as a young child realising that I could never be Peter Pan.

So that’s why I love Connor and his family so wholeheartedly and what made me want to do something, however small, for #107days. I owe Connor so much and he taught me to keep listening to and learning from young people.

To be honest at this point I think if Izzi had just shared that context it would have given me enough food for thought today, but no, context isn’t enough for Izzi and here her post continues with why she has adopted today.

Connor’s story needs to be shouted on the rooftops until something significant changes. I wish I held the magic wand. I was humbled and in awe of everyone’s creativity throughout this campaign and struggled to think about what I could do (beginning issues strike again!) I was very fortunate that the answer found me in a surreal, ‘this only happens to other people’ way.

Nearly 2 years ago, 364 days before Connor died, I took John to the O2 Academy Oxford on a whim to a BBC Introducing gig for about 6 quid. A band whose album he had just bought, We Are Augustines, (now just ‘Augustines’) were headlining. Sweet, we thought, we like the sound of them. It turned out to be one of the best gigs we’d ever been to. Despite only hearing a couple of their songs in John’s little green fiesta (which, incidentally, came to a sticky end on the M40 on the way to Connor’s funeral), I was bouncing away at the front and singing along in no time. To our surprise, the whole band came out afterwards and sat with us, chatting and just hanging out. Again, real people, real emotions and bundles of genuine love and care for friends and strangers alike. We listened to the album on the way home, completely pumped and blown away by the energy and emotion in every song.

We found out more about the band and learnt that a lifetime of tragedy and grief had been poured into this record, which went some way to explaining its gut-punching impact on heart and soul. (You can read more about their story here: Augustines) Billy McCarthy, the frontman of the band was in foster care in the US as a child which again struck a massive resounding chord on my ‘corporate parenthood’ strings (hate that phrase but the sentiment behind it is genuine).

I’m not one to exaggerate but if you’ve ever read Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ or watched the movie of ‘The Golden Compass’ the silence at the end of each song or gig feels a little like, I imagine, the intercision of your daemon. A little vital piece of you that you didn’t really know existed, is torn away and left exposed. I bought the (now vintage!) T-shirt, spread the word and started a fairly healthy obsession with their record. Like Connor with Keane (then drum ‘n’ bass!) I would listen on repeat, watch YouTube videos and basically never get enough of them.

Last year, John mentioned one day that one of their songs ‘Headlong into the Abyss’ made him think about Connor and he’d unconsciously adapted the words in his head. I realised it had also started to mean more to me and I would sing at top volume driving to work wondering how I could still see past my blurry eyes. The lyrics that resonated so much with Connor’s life were/became:

“We were headlong into the abyss…in a red routemaster [four-door sedan] and a kid that always questioned [stuttered]. We stole it for the feeling of stealing. And drove it like our days had been stolen…

Our wheels touched the highway we travelled on down from the valley that raised us up to shrink down. It gave us the drive to keep driving from dreary and dread, to make bets we could not afford to; Call the police! Call your shrink! Call whoever you want but I won’t stop the bus [car]! Call the police, call your priest, call whoever you want call in the National Express [National Guard] I ain’t gonna wait around, ain’t gonna wait around for some pill to kick in…”

Last month we were able to see Augustines for the 4th time, back in the O2 Academy Oxford, now just down the road having moved back. After another ‘is this really happening’ gig, Billy and the gang took to the streets (our very own Cowley Road) for an acoustic set then on to The Library pub for a final singalong. We were able to meet the band again, buy them a drink and sit with Billy into the early hours (on a school night too!). What I love about their second album is that their past experiences and grief run like a lifeline throughout, but there’s an overwhelming twist towards hope and the joy of living, especially in ‘Now You Are Free’, which I feel is mirrored by the hope and passion of this campaign.

I plucked up the courage and inspiration from #107days to ask Billy if I could share a very sad story about ‘Headlong’ with him. He listened intently and was clearly moved, drawing some parallels with his own personal story. Amazingly, Billy offered guest tickets to their final gig of the UK tour that Friday in my home city, Birmingham, along with the possibility of doing something for Connor during the gig. I explained how much that would mean to all of us and we left feeling rather stunned.

After a few emails with Billy I realised that it was quite an ask for them to change the very last UK show of their life-changing tour at last minute, especially as ‘Headlong’ was their opening song. I told him that even the offer was enough and he said he’d be around for a hug and a chat after. I don’t have to tell you that the gig was phenomenal (skipping over a brief issue with the guest tickets not being on the door!)

Day81_Izzi and Billy

Ever true to his word, Billy had more time for us than I could have anticipated (possibly not out of choice?!). In tribute to Connor, I gave Billy an LB bus postcard, which I hope will travel at least as far as New York with him (photo please Billy?!) and also a little Travel West Midlands toy bus. The bus was a gift from my oldest friend, Leanne Curl (who also came to the gig) when I moved to Oxford, in memory of all the buses we shared on our long trip to school every day for 7 years. We never lost the excitement of being upstairs on a double decker (to this day!) I asked Billy to hold onto it for me as it was even more special since Connor died; it poignantly found its way onto our bathroom sink soon after 4th July and became a bittersweet reminder of our favourite dude and his bus collection. I hope it has great adventures with Billy and the band, wherever it ends up.

So this is as good a place as any to stop writing, but it is certainly not the end and Connor, my little brother, I still see you riding off into the distance on the top deck of the U1; we won’t ever stop the bus.

A huge hug and thank you to John, who keeps me smiling even when I don’t feel like it; Leanne; Sara, Richard and co; Billy and all the Augustines for being the most ‘real’ band I know. And last but never least, Laughing Boy, for everything.

You can hear Augustines for yourself singing Headlong into the Abyss and see them after their Oxford gig in two street appearances, here and here.

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