My night in Zambia with Ian Dury

Ian Drury Photo: Redferns
Ian Drury Photo: Redferns

‘You’ve got to get a hat, my son. Walk into a room with a hat on and every bird in the room will turn around and clock you.’

Every time I hear that song ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’ played on the radio, I think, Lord, how I miss Ian Dury. Then I wish they’d play something other than that plodder, especially when there are so many great songs of his to choose from. Some people knew all the words to Dark Side of the Moon; others to Sergeant Pepper; but we knew all the words to New Boots and Panties!!. And what words! He was our poet laureate. Put that record on and everybody would sing their heads off, especially to ‘Billericay Dickie’. ‘I bought a lot of brandy/ when I was courting Sandy/ took eight to make her randy/ and all I had was shandy/ another thing with Sandy/ what often came in handy/ was passing her a ‘Mandy’/ she didn’t half go bandy.’ (Mandy is Mandrax, an illegally traded sedative and muscle relaxant.) I recognised the hilarious Saturday-night music-hall qualities in a song like ‘Billericay Dickey’, but at 18 I also thought those lyrics were philosophy. The man was a hero to us.

Twenty years later I went with him to Zambia. He had cancer by then and had put on weight. He went there to publicise a polio vaccination campaign and I was one of the journalists sent to write it up. I couldn’t believe that I was even on the same plane as Ian Dury, let alone that I would get to swap pleasantries with the guy for nearly a week. After we’d spoken a few times, he couldn’t believe it, either, that a bloke like me wrote for the Sunday Telegraph. He thought someone was pulling his leg.

 At the Zambian immigration desk there was a delay because his entry visa wasn’t in order, and there was a further delay because he offered the official a bribe to forget about it, and the official had taken offence and made a scene. ‘I thought slipping the geezer a cockle would do the trick,’ he explained to me in all innocence afterwards. A cockle is ten pounds. Cockle = cock and hen = ten = a tenner.

Ian had a minder with him called Derek the Draw. Derek the Draw’s main job was to set Ian on his feet again whenever his boss, who was disabled by polio, fell over. Sometimes Ian crumpled unexpectedly and Derek would have him back up on his feet in a flash — years of practice and technique, I suppose — without fuss or embarrassment. Derek the Draw was a big, gentle bloke, with a calm, humorous intensity filtering out of the gaps between the long hair, wild beard and droopy moustache. He loved Ian like a brother and was very far from the type of person one normally associates with the word ‘minder’. We were in a bar in Lusaka and Ian said to Derek, ‘Give us a tune, Del.’ And Derek the Draw went and got his guitar and played it, leaning far back on his bar stool until he was almost horizontal, and he was the most fantastic guitar picker I’d ever seen.

But before that I’d undergone the thrilling ordeal, on our first night in Zambia, of being invited up to Ian and Derek’s modest hotel room for a ‘nightcap’. Ian had brought a wind-up radio with him. The technology was in its infancy then. And he, Derek the Draw and I listened to a local African pop station on this wind-up radio and passed joints back and forth while Ian gave us his random thoughts. I can’t remember any of them, but I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I offered to be the wind-up person, but Ian was very possessive of his radio and insisted on that job, and he put it under his arm and wound it lovingly.

Then he said to me, as if he’d been meaning to say it for a long time and had been putting it off: ‘What do you fucking look like?’ ‘What?’ I said. ‘You’ve got to learn to dress yourself, Jel,’ he said beseechingly. ‘You can’t even tie a tie, you nit.’ So he stood up and made me stand up and he retied my tie in a Windsor knot. Then he said, ‘You’ve got to get a hat, my son. Walk into a room with a hat on and every bird in the room is going to turn round and clock you. If you want to get head [sic], get a hat. Try this one.’ And he positioned a Lock and Company white linen ‘Florida’ bowling hat on my head and carefully adjusted the angle. Then he took it off again and wrote on the inside: ‘Oi, Jel, where’s my fucking hat?’ A generous, very human man, as well as a great lyricist, Ian Dury was. And I still miss him.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 February 2014