Two nights ago I learned the devastating news that my friend Frank Key had died in September last year. I’d spent months wondering why he hadn’t been replying to my emails and now I know; in fact I feel rather foolish to have been emailing him right up to the 6th of this month.
I first met Frank in 2005 at Resonance FM, minutes before I was due to engineer his show, i.e. push two mic-faders up and down whenever Frank raised an arm. As the Slapp Happy piece played, bookending each of Frank’s live readings, the conversations we snuck into that meagre timeframe grew and grew.
Hooting Yard’s stories reminded me slightly of J.B. Morton’s ‘Beachcomber… By the Way’, brought to life on Radio 4 by Richard Ingrams in the late 80s. I appreciated them but – and Yard fans may pour scorn on me for saying this – absurdist writing doesn’t hold my attention for very long; my brain’s not wired that way, unfortunately (ditto Puckoon and anything by Mervyn Peake or Vivian Stanshall).* What I did value, hugely, was Frank’s opinion on things, from post-punk (Swell Maps and The Associates) to his beloved Henry Cow and the dark comedy of Alice Lowe; in fact I’ve just performed an undeservedly narrow distillation of the wide, tangential turns in subject-matter that our chats would take. He would talk openly about his past struggles with alcoholism, always asking how my mum was getting on in coping with the same disorder.
When I left Resonance, those late afternoon conversations continued semi-regularly at the Costa close to the radio station’s studio on Borough High Street. We’d chat for a couple of hours until ten minutes before showtime. Frank would often offer me a part to read, should I want to, but there was never any pressure. I’d always fluff my lines and eventually began declining these prestigious roles when they were handed to me, something I now regret.
It astonished me how Frank could write a fresh new story each week, then read it so fluidly from his laptop (albeit punctuated by his signature cough) like an actor who’d been rehearsing for weeks. The aforementioned cough or a misread line would be followed by the calm announcement, “I’m going to read that again.”
Frank’s ‘Shorter, Potted, Brief, Brief Lives’ column in The Dabbler put to good use the wealth of brilliantly delivered anecdotes he would treat you to in conversation, most memorably the one where a famous avant-garde artist and her first husband descend unannounced on the home of Cornelius Cardew’s long-suffering wife and children.
I wish we’d reconvened more recently, instead of limiting our conversations to email back-and-forths. However, I can’t imagine Frank being at all impressed if he were to see me beating myself up about this and playing the futile “Should’ve” game. Our last two correspondences, in June 2019, concerned the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s album of Robert Wyatt songs – “The singer is a bit too mannered. What happened to the sublime Sharon Whatsername?” – and a 1986 Smash Hits cutting in which Samantha Fox scathingly reviewed The Fall’s ‘Living Too Late’. (“Actually, she’s not entirely wrong in her judgements.”)
Thank you Frank, thank you Pansy Cradledew and thank you Resonance FM for bringing Frank Key into (not just) my life. I get the feeling I’m going to spend the rest of it saying goodbye to him.
Hooting Yard website
Hooting Yard on ‘the Tube’
(*I make this claim and yet how could any human cerebellum not engage with a ‘Festive Adrian Chiles Sea Creature Story’?)