The Volcano Is Now Extinct

This is a very difficult post to write. It concerns my oldest and closest friend.

We first met back in the early 1970s when I first moved up to London. I wanted to do some volunteer work, and ended up asking a gay counselling organisation, Centre, if I could be a volunteer. I was interviewed by, amongst others, Dr. Leonard Patrick Curran, a psychologist who was working for the UK’s Home Office in the Prison Service department at the time.

Thus began a friendship that has continued for almost forty years. Alas, it has now been brought to a close because Len has died.

Len Curran was a psychologist and an epidemiologist. He worked for many years in the UK’s Prison Service where he was responsible for the development of policy on HIV/AIDS in prisons, for medical research and ethics. After leaving the Prison Service he worked for international agencies such as the World Health Organisation and the International Red Cross as a consultant on infectious diseases in uniformed services. In this capacity he worked in over 40 countries across the globe. He was also a Trustee on the Board of Red Kite Learning for six years.

He was, perhaps, the most intelligent man I have ever known personally. He could also be, and frequently was, the most frustrating, infuriating, and angst-inducing friend that ever was inflicted upon us mere mortals. Len did not suffer fools gladly.

I liken the experience of knowing Len to that of living on the slopes of a volcano. The intellectual view is amazing, wonderful and far-reaching, the soil of intelligent discussion is rich, deep and fertile. But every now and then there comes an eruption, seemingly out of nowhere, and then you are simply left wondering what you have done to incur the wrath of the gods.

I don’t think I ever measured up to his exacting standards – I suspect very few did. But, all the same, I kept going back for more. He was a powerful drug, that at its best delivered pure enlightenment and joie de vivre.

He supported me through good times and bad times, and he also provided the lash to my back when he thought I was not measuring up.

In the late 1970s, we bought a house together in London’s Maida Vale. A former squat, it was a Victorian terrace house that had seen far better days. I remember the first time he drove me along the street – Bristol Gardens – pointing out the two properties that he thought we should put in a bid for. He was very excited at the prospect of us going into a joint project together, I was just looking at the faded glory, the bricked-up windows and thinking: “Aarghh!”

Rebuilding Bristol Gardens

Rebuilding Bristol Gardens

I thought he was out of his mind. However, such was his persuasive power that we ended up as the successful bidders for one of the two properties: 15 Bristol Gardens. Then came the heartburn of securing the finance – Len’s first option, the Allied Irish Bank (Len was born in Belfast), got cold feet, but finally we managed to persuade Barclays Bank to come through with the mortgages. With the help of an architect friend (Peter W.) and a builder (Peter B.), this disaster of a house was turned into two flats – one for Len (the garden flat) and one for me (the top two floors). I’m afraid that we managed to drive our builder into bankruptcy in the process, but eventually, and through a lot of our own work, we ended up with two flats in the up and coming area of Maida Vale. The house was a bit cantankerous, but it did deliver a lot of pleasure and good times during the 1980s to us both. Here’s Len partaking of breakfast in his garden at the back of the house.

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I moved to the Netherlands for my work in late 1983, and eventually started renting out the top flat to a succession of people. This put Len in the position of being the landlord’s representative living downstairs, a role that he certainly didn’t want or ask for. However, after telling me in no uncertain terms that he objected to the role being thrust upon him, he accepted it with good grace and performed it admirably. Finally, in 1995, I sold the flat to Len. I can’t now recall how long he continued to live in Bristol Gardens, but eventually he sold the house and moved to a house in a nearby Mews.

Up until mid-2004, I would often be back in London on business, and very often stayed with Len. That invariably meant very late nights full of wide-ranging conversations washed down by a bottle or two of wine (or, as he would say: a bucket of wine). I recall one occasion, following a visit to the newly-opened Tate Modern, where we sat up all night talking about the art, and life in general. Fortunately, I did not have to go to work the following morning.

Because I was living in the Netherlands in the mid-1980s, Len stepped in to being in direct contact with a friend of mine who was HIV-positive. As a result, he became close friends with Kerry, with whom he shared the same wicked sense of humour. The three of us went on holiday together to the South of Spain in September 1986.

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We stayed in the holiday home owned by Kerry’s sister in Murcia. They drove down in Kerry’s car from Calais, having many adventures on the way, while I flew to Malaga, where they picked me up. By the time we arrived at the house, it was dark, so they asked me to go ahead and switch on the porch light while they got the case out of the car. I didn’t suspect a thing, so I went ahead, found the switch and turned it on. Instantly, a swarm of insects and beetles flew straight at me – some of them bright green, and hard, like dried peas. Naturally, I let out a shriek, whereupon Len and Kerry turned to each other and said loudly in unison: “Yep, he’s a queen…”

Kerry and Len could both truthfully say that they had danced with Nureyev. Kerry, because he was a ballet dancer by profession, and Len, because he once met Nureyev at a party and asked him for a dance.

Len lived life to the full; I could never keep up with him. So I contented myself with listening to the many tales that he told. He was a great raconteur, and at many a dinner-party would hold us all spellbound as he wove his tales, which were frequently outrageous and would reduce his listeners to tears of laughter. He moved through all of society’s strata, and brought back stories to share with us. As a result of this oral storytelling, most of his anecdotes only exist in our memories, but here’s one I found in one of his letters:

It reminds me of when I was staying at the Loyal Liver Hotel in Bangkok (Royal River Hotel). Eventually I got so used to this that I used to leap into a taxi and with a straight face say in perfect Thai-English “Loyal Liver Hotel, Sangheee!” Which usually worked, though not always, because not all taxi drivers spoke Tinglish. So the hotels had cards printed with the address in English on one side and in Thai on the other.

One night I had been out visiting the boy-boy and boy-girl bars with the AIDS Task Force and they gave me a card showing their new condom promotion campaign for sex tourists which said: “Welcome to Bangkok. We want you to be safe whilst you are here. Please wear this condom when you are with me and it will make me feel safer and we can have good times together”. English on one side, Thai language on the other.

At the end of the evening, I leapt into a taxi and said “Loyal Liver hotel Sangheee!”, but no response so I took out a card and gave it to the taxi driver, who as Thais do when they haven’t understood, went into a meditative state to work out what you mean. We sat like that for a few minutes until I realised I’d given him the wrong card. I can imagine him later telling his wife in Thai: “Hey Martha, you’ll never guess what happened tonight!”

He also had a reflective side, so that his stories could also be moving and profound. I keep a letter in which he describes the experience of attending the funeral of a friend’s father where he pens loving portraits of the participants that bring them instantly to mind for me.

In September 1996, Len turned 50. Despite living in London, Len decided to mark the occasion by holding the party in Southern Spain at a campsite run by José and Tony, two close friends of his. People came from far and wide and it was a huge success. We ended the party dinner with a singing contest between the Spaniards and the rest of the guests fighting back with a variety of Irish, Scottish, American and German ditties. I think it was a draw, but my memory was extremely hazy by that point in the evening…

Len was born into an Irish Catholic family. Whilst in later life, he was an atheist and no longer a practicing Catholic, he recognised the value of his Catholic education:

During that time I received a very good education, compassion for those poorer and needier than me, a sense of honesty and of public service which I followed all my working life. I never suffered any guilt and I often laugh when I hear my ex-prison service psychologist (English) colleagues pontificate about ‘Catholic’ guilt. The most guilt ridden people I’ve met have been the English… not the French, Spanish, Irish or Italians. It’s true that in Ireland ‘Holy Mother Church’ was very down on sex but without that the whole country would have been at it day and night!!

Late in life, he had the rewards of being the “uncle” to the twin children of his dearest friend, Mo (Mohammed). He doted on Ayman and Ayaa, and they adored him in return.

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He often remarked to me on the simple and unalloyed joy that they brought him. They, like his beloved Mo, will miss Len sorely.

In 2009, although he was not in the best of health, he still made the effort to travel to the Netherlands and attend my 60th birthday party. During the weekend we were together we again had the opportunity to talk about life in general and at length. We talked about the choice of music for our own funerals. Typical of Len, as well as the Mozart and Monteverdi, one of the songs he wanted to have at his own memorial service was Marlene Dietrich singing “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have”:

See what the boys in the backroom will have
And tell them I’m having the same
Go see what the boys in the backroom will have
And give them the poison they name

And when I die don’t spend my money
On flowers and my picture in a frame

Chorus: Just see what the boys in the backroom will have
And tell them I sighed and tell them I cried
And tell them I died of the same

And when I die don’t buy a casket of silver
With the candles all aflame

Just see what the boys in the backroom will have
And tell them I sighed and tell them I cried
And tell them I died of the same

And when I die don’t pay the preacher
For speaking of my glory and my fame

Just see what the boys in the backroom will have
And tell them I sighed and tell them I cried
And tell them I died of the same

I last saw Len in person in January 2011, when I visited him in the Royal Free Hospital in London over the course of three days. It was the opportunity for him to confirm his choice of music for his memorial service; he gave me my instructions as to what he wanted, and which versions. It was also an opportunity to reminisce on all the times we had together. When the time came to take our leave, we both fully expected that this would be the last we would see of each other. It was bittersweet, but with no regrets. However, Len had one last trick up his sleeve.

Len was moved to a Nursing Home, but he was determined to get back home to his house in Oliphant Street and lead as independent a life as he could to the very end. It seemed an impossible goal back in January, but once Len put his mind to something, he would get there. And get there, he did. In June, he moved back home. I spoke to him a few times via computer video conference, and he was very much improved and on very good form. The difference between then and when I saw him in January was incredible.

It was, perhaps, too good to last. He went back into hospital very recently, and developed heart problems last Sunday. He died a peaceful death yesterday. Mo rang us late last night with the news. Martin says that we should open our best bottle of champagne and drink it to his memory, and today that’s just what we’ll do.

Len, for all the ups and downs we had, it’s been wonderful. We miss you.

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Leonard Patrick Curran

16 September 1946 – 10 August 2011

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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12 Responses to The Volcano Is Now Extinct

  1. Christopher Connor says:

    A right ‘Royal’ eulogy for a regal and well loved fella.

    Chris Connor

  2. carolien says:

    Prachtig verwoord. Een mooi man en een fijne vriend.
    Carolien Kooi

  3. Robert Dammers says:

    Many condolences, Geoff. What a wonderful friendship to have enjoyed. And how bittersweet to recall.

  4. martin van Hooft says:

    Now it’s time to reply to Geoff’s blog about Len.
    When I read Geoff’s Blog, the tears ran over my face. Len was a special friend for Geoff and vice versa. I know that Len would be very proud about what Geoff wrote about him.

    Len came into my life when I was introduced as the new lover of Geoff, it happened a hundred years ago… He was not convinced about me and saw me as a handsome guy with not much cells in the brain. It took years to get to know each other, the distance, the language, misunderstandings etc.
    I wish my English was better, but I do my best.
    In the years to come Len and I came to understand each other with respect and on the 60th birthday of Geoff ( I secretly invited Len for the party in the Netherlands) Len came to stay with us.

    That evening/night Len and I spend the night talking, a lot of drinks and cigarettes, from 4 till 9 o ‘clock in the morning. He wanted to know why I loved Geoff and in the end he gave me his blessings. That was a struggle for me to explain my thoughts and feelings to such an intellectual man, but I managed and it affected our friendship in a very warm way.

    My love for the man, who was a very dear friend for more than 40 years of my lover.

    martin van hooft

  5. cezirkle says:

    Lovely… someone I would have wanted to know…
    Ed
    16 Sept 1947

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  7. Mike says:

    Geoff, that’s an amazingly well-written piece. Thank you for making, in some small way, such a person real for the rest of us.

  8. Pingback: Someday, I’ll Go Back To Heaven | Geoff Coupe's Blog

  9. Abed Moola says:

    Dear Geoff I am grieved to learn about the death of Len Curran.I first met him in the mid seventies when he was involved with a counselling service for gay men.We became friends and our relationship continued until I moved to Australia in 1979.It was resumed on my visits to London and we travelled to Spain in 1989 and stayed with Tony and Jose.After another falling out in the early nineties,I never saw him again,I may have met you when I stayed at the grand house in Maida Vale
    I would like to contact Lens sister and Tony and Jose in Spain,and would like their e-mail details..if possible
    regards
    Abed

  10. Piotr Jaworski says:

    Many years (almost 20?) ago I had an enormous pleasure to meet and work for a couple of days with Len, over one of his numerous travels abroad. This time to Warsaw. Some time later we met again in his home in Little Venice, visited Holloway and Wormwood Scrubs. Born just a week earlier than my Mother …. Amazing personality. And wonderful recollection. Thank you.
    Piotr

  11. Pingback: RIP Margi | Geoff Coupe's Blog

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