Otto English on the tragic story of how the social media civil war of the last few years has cost him dearly

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I first met Nick in the early 1990s in a staff room in Essex.

It was the year after I had left university and, following some protracted dithering, I had found myself living with my parents and working as an English teacher at a language school on the fringes of Harlow.

The rest of the staff was made up of borderline sociopaths so when Nick turned up one day, looking the very essence of ‘normal’, it was as if the cavalry had arrived.

We quickly became mates. Neither of us wanted to be there.

Brexit has cost us all so many things – and now it has cost me the chance to say sorry and goodbye to my friend.

I longed to be free. I had plans and ambitions.

And Nick wanted to be where he had been before. For just a few months before we met, he had been a professional cricketer for Surrey. Destined to go right to the top of the game, an injury had cost him his career aged 25 and he was struggling to find new purpose in his life. Perhaps he had thought that becoming an English teacher would open up the chance to travel to exotic places, but, like me, he had ended up in Harlow New Town.

Nick had also found God in the wake of his accident, but he wasn’t a holier than thou Christian. I was an avowed atheist and we had one of those great friendships where we could be completely straight with each other.

One night, the two of us tumbled out of an Essex pub and into the fields behind my parents’ house. The countryside bristled with barley and we made a den in the middle of a field and smoked and drank wine I’d managed to purchase before last orders. We talked about all the stuff you talk about when you’re wasted and in your twenties beneath the stars – neither of us ever forgot it.

Eventually, we escaped.

Nick got a job in Spain and I moved to London. Two or three years later, he rang and asked if he could stay with me. We had a bizarre night out in Brixton that ended with us sleeping in a car. He’d lost God and found politics. So now we could argue about that. We weren’t that far apart politically, but just enough and we enjoyed arguing – it was our thing – and it sustained us over the next decade.

Two or three years later he rang and asked if he could stay and we had a bizarre night out in Brixton that ended with us sleeping in a car.

I got married and settled down, but it was hard for Nick. His former friends and team mates had gone on to be household names and big sporting stars and, while he never complained, it clearly gnawed at him. Of course it did – the weight of what might have been.

He and his partner had a son and, when the relationship ended, he moved to Cheltenham to be closer to his boy. I’d sometimes get a call or a text or a thumbs-up on Facebook and, every now and then, we’d go for pints if he was around and laugh about that time we got drunk in a field and that other time when we slept in a car.

Then, Brexit happened.

Nick voted Remain but, having done so, believed that we should accept the result and leave. By now, he had become a psychotherapist and he talked a lot about the importance of moving on from trauma.

Thinking back, I realise now that his whole adult life after his accident had been dedicated to that aim, but instead of trying to engage with his point of view, I started to clash with him.

We argued a bit on Facebook and then a lot. It was friendly at first, but then he began to post articles by Spiked Online and Brendan O’Neill and I began to wonder what had happened to him. I couldn’t stop myself. If this had been in the pub we’d have been fine but, in the arena of social media, we both began to square up to each other and dig in over our respective positions. It felt nastier.

If this had been in the pub we’d have been fine but in the arena of social media we both began to square up to each other and dig in over our respective positions.

“What’s happened to Nick?” like-minded friends who had seen his posts and my replies would ask. But, they might as well have asked what had happened to me. Our relationship became frostier and sometimes I’d find myself feeling a bit sad about it and suggesting we go for a drink.

“Yes,” he’d reply “pint would be good next time I’m in London.”

I’m not sure if he meant it – but I certainly did. Either way, it never happened.

On Tuesday morning this week, as I sat on the District Line trundling towards Hammersmith, I discovered that Nick had died.  

He had been ill for almost a year. In the past, he would have told me and I would have gone to see him but, given the state of our friendship, at the end of his life he didn’t even tell me.

In the back of my head I had always imagined that we would one day sit down over a beer and thrash it out. It was not to be.

Nick was one of those people that make life worthwhile.

He was funny, engaging, larger than life, thoughtful and poetic. It’s rare to have a friend you can so understand and who so understands you and now I’ve lost him.

Brexit has cost us all so many things – and now it has cost me the chance to say sorry and goodbye to my friend. I wonder whether, in 10 years, all of us – so engaged in this mad civil war – will wonder if such things were a price worth paying.


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