It’s my sad duty to report to readers and the wider Walsall online community that one of it’s finest, most respected writers has passed away – The Plastic Hippo was taken from us on Friday 13th July 2018 at his home in Chuckery, Walsall, following a protracted battle with cancer.
The Plastic Hippo blog ran from 2009 until late last year, when Hippo felt he could no longer continue. It was a blog that stood solely on the immense strength of the writing of it’s curator; unashamedly left wing, excoriating, erudite, beautiful.
For a brief precis of the scope of that great writer, see the following three posts. His full blog can be seen here.
- Carrot and Ginger Soup (2016, when he was ill)
- Cool Hand Luke (2015)
- The Great Chuckery Duck Rescue (2012)
This was a blog that quickly gained notoriety and fans, as well as a sizeable opposition.
Hippo shared his opinions on local and national politics, the preposterous strutting and bickering of local politicians – of all shades – and shared his continual bemusement with social media, education, local journalism and the modern PR culture.
Hippo was a personal friend whom I only met after starting to blog. He was older than me, larger than me, and wore his seniority like a cloak. He was warm, witty, loving and larger than life. He was a man that got me through some personally incredibly hard times with his wise counsel and was a true, true friend.
Yet we never really knew each other’s names, or where each other lived.
We met in 2010 I think, at the home of another lost Walsall hero, Mark Blackstock whose death last year devastated Hippo. Mark was the creator of the YamYam Walsall news site – still just hanging on here but fading without a steward – and a real live media man. Mark had found my blog in 2009, and egged me on. Hippo had started commenting on mine and other blogs, had written some early pieces for the YamYam and soon started to blog himself.
Mark understood both our requirements for anonymity and was keen to introduce us. I was sceptical, and nervous. I’d already taken a huge step in meeting Mark. I liked him. I’d come to trust him.
I first met Hippo one sunny summer afternoon in a Victorian backyard garden in Chuckery, armed with samosas, burfi and other snacks.
I didn’t know what to expect. Hippo was a formidable online force who considered and chewed over ever word, the better to meter their impact. What I actually met astounded me.
I was greeted with a tentative handshake, then a strong, utterly sincere hug. Every time we parted after that we hugged. A real, solid, protective hug. He was a large man, well spoken with a voice that varied between gentle coaxing and full on Brian Blessed. He laughed and smiled easily. He looked like he’d lived.
Hippo was charming, charismatic and as eloquent as you’d expect. But also cantankerous and capable of excoriating rants that took your breath away.
In that back garden, in that moment, I knew I’d met someone who’d influence my life. And now, the influence is absent.
But the echo lingers.
We met many times. We never spoke about our own lives much – I talked about my work, he talked about his. He loved my bike cams and 365daysofbiking and the riding adventures. Mark would occasionally invite us over. The drunken nights, the gossip, the laughter, the debate. I can still hear it but it’s gone forever now.
But dear god, it’s too late now.
We met in pubs, at events – Hippo was the kind of guy you’d bump into completely unintentionally in the supermarket or at some council event. We spent sunny days watching Aziz at Walsall Arboretum, people watching as we did one afternoon at the Wharf, Walsall. Hippo smoked with almost indecent pleasure so beer gardens were a favourite. We passed many chilly hours sat in the garden of the Victoria, the St Matthews Hall or wherever.
A half cut Hippo was a wonderful thing. Hippo and Mark together were the best double act ever. Your sides ached. Tears were in your eyes. You went home feeling exhausted.
But underneath this, there was a caring man, deeply troubled by the path he saw the world taking. He wrote with huge pride and affection about his family, friends and the things he loved.
Hippo was always the writer. Mark was the wise media owl. I was the Enfant Terrible bumbling like a talentless but frenetic pinball from one thing to another, constantly blinking in the light. I had, and still have, no idea what I’m doing. These friends guided me, helped me, advised me in times of crisis, but never stifled or controlled me. True friends.
Hippo was legal adviser to both me and Mark. He helped us with the inevitable issues. His wisdom kept both of us online. I’ll never forget that.
However, one day Hippo informed me of his illness, and contact became understandably less. He carried on blogging. I saw him in apparent remission in autumn 2016, he was thin but had good colour, but he was tired. His fight had clearly been prolonged and debilitating. We hugged again. A fine afternoon, I was positive. He was positive. We talked about going walking in the Peak District, about the first pint in a country pub. About sunny days with the warmth on our faces.
I never saw Hippo again. I always thought I would.
Falling ill again, Hippo gradually withdrew, which I understood, but found difficult.
Following the awful and unexpected death of Mark Blackstock in 2017, Hippo disappeared completely from online life. I couldn’t contact him – I had no phone number, no address. I was bereft.
I heard nothing more until Hippo’s wife contacted me this week to tell me the news (thankfully, this wonderful lady found my blog and my email through it). She told me that Hippo fought cancer with dignity, he withdrew, but succumbed on his terms with the pride and love we knew him for. I understood his withdrawal.
But right now I’m hollow. It’s selfish, but I feel like the last remnants of something that was once vital. Like the stones, piles of rocks, marks of some lost building people occasionally visit on some back-country B road when it’s too early to visit the pub.
Something once happened here. It was probably OK. But all there is now are traces and shadows.
The online scene of 2009 until now in Walsall was alive, spirited, organic. We sometimes dared to think we might change things, but in reality we were just a footnote. We thought we angered those in power, but I now realise we were just a minor irritation, a nagging ache soon dealt with. But we spoke, and some people read it. There was regard, admiration, bickering and great argument in the community. Searing grudges, in jokes and lots of clandestine meetings and beer. But it was a real, happenstance thing, and for a while, I had a sense of belonging within it.
I and Hippo co-operated on posts, and on the angles we took on things; whether it was calling out the council leader’s ridiculous bluster or the strutting peacocks of parliamentary politics. We put stuff out there that wasn’t official media. People read it. For a while, that seemed like a revolution.
It wasn’t, but it was damned good fun.
People see my online personality – like they saw his, I guess – and they construct a person behind it. People seem to think I’m brash, gobby, loud and annoying. In reality, I’m quiet, gentle, but hyper and the annoying bit is painfully true. But I’m not confident. I’m riven with self doubt and insecurity.
I have huge crises of confidence, nerves and long black periods. Hippo seemed to share that. He helped me with it. At 3am on some godforsaken Wednesday morning Hippo would be up, easing my struggle with a post. He was that kind of man.
I continue this thing I do, but it’ll never be the same. I feel like a holding space. I guess this is ageing.
So rest in peace, Mr. Hippo. We hardly knew each other, but we were such great friends. Some point in the distance when we meet again, we’ll hug, look each other up and down, he’ll light a fag, and we’ll walk the Roaches, or The Weavers and finish in some country pub, obscenely, happily drunk, and laughing like none of it ever happened.
Two things before I wind this up.
I thought of Hippo the other day. He was always baffled by my support of a local Tory Councillor to be a prospective MP for Aldridge Brownhills. (I’ve misquoted this in the last couple of days, sorry.)
‘I’m only doing it to cause trouble. And I quite like them. Nice. Sort of. For a Tory.’
‘Nice Tories are always disappointing. You think they’re sound, and then they shit on your doorstep and make you look foolish. Because they’re Tories. It’s what they do. They can’t help it.’
Walsall watchers know well why he’d be laughing his bollocks off right now.
Secondly, my abiding memory of Hippo and Mark is of meeting them just after a new year in the well days for a drink in the Manor Arms, Rushall. Drink was taken all afternoon, and into the evening. It was fair to say they were arseholed. They’d borrowed Hippo a bike to get home. He was not – shall we say – a natural cyclist.
I remember them shooting down towards Rushall lights, me having to stop in hysterics as both of them, grown adults, shrieked and yelled into the night at Hippo’s lack of skill. Thankfully, they both survived the adventure.
I’m sorry Hippo, I always thought we’d hug again.
My sincerest, most heartfelt condolences to Hippo’s wife, kids and anyone who knew him. He was a rare and fine man. And now he’s gone.
This is the hardest post I’ve ever had to write and this must be the fifth attempt. Please bear with me.