11 December 2014

Martin Herbert, who died on Wednesday 10 December 2014

Martin Herbert was my friend. He died in the early hours of yesterday morning. He died suddenly and unexpectedly. His death is a great shock to everyone who knew him.

Martin was my closest male friend from our University days: we studied at the University of Durham in the mid- to late-1970s. Like me, he was a thoughtful person, which is one of the reasons why we got on so well. We shared a taste in folk music. I talked at length with Martin when I first met the woman who would become my wife, and he attended our Quaker wedding many years later. It was Martin who aroused my interest in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

However, unlike me, Martin was a talented amateur artist, and a gifted musician, both abilities that were to prove extremely significant in his life. I was familiar with his artworks while we were still students. Before he left Durham, Martin gave me one of his early, airbrushed acrylic works, the style of which was reminiscent of the work of Roger Dean, whose album covers were popular at the time. The painting has rarely been off a wall in whichever house I have lived in ever since.

Immediately after university, Martin was uncertain of his direction, and worked for a while as a 'theme park' station master at Beamish Museum in County Durham, in full uniform, replete with pocket watch. When I was turned down by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Martin applied and his application was successful. In my beat up Austin 1300, I drove Martin and his luggage to Cambridge, where the BAS is based, only to discover that we had left a suitcase in Durham, so we had to drive all the way back again the same evening. He worked as a meteorologist in the Antarctic for a couple of years.

At some stage Martin took a well-paid job with a major software company called the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO), relocating to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. During this time, he developed his talents to play every musical instrument (other than a ukulele) one can find in a folk club, and then also started to run the folk club. Martin and at least one of his folk groups (Wynters Armoury?) played at folk festivals such as that at Cambridge. My wife, daughter and I met him in Whitby when he was playing at the folk festival there. He bought a bothy on the North York Moors, but sold it again when he realised how rarely he was able to travel back north. I am unsure how many years he worked for SCO, but at some stage he decided that he'd had enough of all that, had saved enough money, and took himself off round the world for a year, often travelling off the beaten track, collecting ethnic musical instruments, and being taught to play them. On his return, inspired by some indigenous American music and instruments he had encountered (and bought), he played, synthesised, recorded and produced an album of wonderful haunting music that I have listened to a million times: Spirit of the Wood. My cassette tape of the music is nearly worn out, but it can still be found in mp3 format on his website (www.martinherbert.com).

Whilst I am hazy about dates, some while later Martin packed his fiddle and went south to Andalucia (he was familiar with Laurie Lee's book As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning) to live in the house of a friend. There he started to develop much further his abilities in fine art. I think that he was in Spain for a couple of years. From a Pre-Raphaelite interest in naiads and dryads as an amateur artist at university, Martin developed a much more robust new-age kind of spiritual artistic interest and style, combining traditional artistic skills with digital. He launched a website called Spirit Visions, and was able successfully to sell some of his work. Returning to Britain, he moved into a ramshackle house in mid-Wales, and I guess that he was in proximity to like-minded people. He married a Finnish artist, Vivi-Mari Carpelan, who seemed to give him a renewed zest for life. Galleries accepted his work for sale, and he was a serious entrant for national artistic competitions. For a while his weblog incorporated weekly a new artwork. A year or two ago, Martin decided that he would be able to make more headway in the competitive artistic world if he were to have an MA in Fine Art. This autumn he enrolled at Aberystwyth University. His energy and enthusiasm for the degree appeared boundless, and it would seem that his presence was welcomed by staff and students alike.

I consider it possible that Martin may have mellowed in middle-age compared with our student days, when he was a refreshingly uncouth young man from Peterlee, County Durham, although I believe that he was born in Derbyshire. I will never forget an evening in some pub or other, telling how, on a previous occasion, having drunk quite a lot of alcohol, he had vomited and then observed: "I don't remember eating that!" Martin always lived life a little faster and more richly than me. Artist, musician, more-recently a loving husband, a good friend to many, many people, and my most long-standing friend. You will be missed. I shall miss you.

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