The night I first met Olly Lassman, he got into a bar fight. He not only got into a bar fight, he got me into a bar fight. The fight wasn’t his fault, he was struggling with a drunk Scotsman who was trying to glass him with a broken beer bottle, the bouncers misunderstood the situation and went for Olly, impressively punching him clean out of his jumper and pushing me down a flight of stairs for trying to explain, while the bastard with the broken bottle watched on with glee.
Anyone who knew Olly would not be surprised by a story culminating in him being punched out of his jumper by bouncers as he seemed to attract both crazy situations and hilarious outcomes. Although he would never start a fight or even actually be violent above self-defence, his skill was one of effortless exacerbation which could inspire a passive onlooker to go from docile to glassing someone in mere seconds.
As we stood outside the bar, Olly bare-chested, bloodied and screaming ‘I just want my jumper back!’, we were both struck by the ridiculous situation we’d found ourselves in and started laughing uncontrollably. And that, in a nutshell is who Olly was to me. Had Olly been at my school, my mum would have fought tooth and claw to have us placed in separate classes. He was a bad influence in the best way. He was mischief and cynicism and exuberance dangerously backed up with fierce intelligence and pitch-perfect humour. He was the definition of charismatic and he was one of the few people in my life who seemed to rise above the boring confines of a polite society and revel in either existing outside it or causing mayhem from within.
I speak in the past tense because Olly decided to leave this world a few days ago.
It seems like all the years we were friends, 16 years, I spent a lot of time explaining him to people, often wrapped up in apologies for things which, as usual, weren’t exactly Olly’s fault but were undeniably inflamed by his reaction to them. I kind of don’t want to have to make explanations or excuses anymore and I realise that pretty much any story I could offer you about him would by its very nature end in me saying ‘but that wasn’t his fault!’ or ‘that’s not why he did it!’ or ‘that makes him sound bad and he’s not!’ so, instead, I’ll just tell you what he meant to me and if you meet me in a pub sometime, I’ll tell you tales of hilarity unequalled.
I loved Olly like a brother, we were partners in crime for a few years. I’d grown up in a circle of friends who enjoyed the sport of the putdown and was alarmed to arrive at university in Edinburgh to find myself surrounded by nice, decent people whose faces would drop in pained umbrage when you went too far. It was confusing and constrictive to me at that age as I genuinely saw mockery as a form of compliment. I didn’t meet Olly until my second year and we clicked immediately. He had no boundaries, and I say that as a very positive thing. He took no offence and meant none. It was all fair game with him and he took delight in the raising of stakes. Most importantly he had something which many who claim to have a great sense of humour completely lack; he was able to laugh at himself. This is something he taught me and something that I value intensely.
In the middle of a blazing row, all I would have to do is raise an eyebrow and Olly would collapse in fits of laughter, realising how insane he was sounding. Whenever something went wrong in his life, he immediately saw the inherent comedy in it and wanted to share that with others – at whatever cost to his ego, which was a thing he really didn’t have. He was so funny. He attracted trouble out of nowhere, like a magnet, and would always burn with fury for a second and then resolve into laughter. In one day in central London with him, I watched him get sneezed on by a tramp and spat on nonchalantly by a passing cyclist. It was as if the world, like me, took utter delight in watching him erupt into incandescent fury and then collapse into howls of laughter.
He had the best laugh in the world, his mouth would drop open, his eyes would widen and he’d emit huge HAAAAAAAAAAAs. Better than the laughter, was the moment of realisation, though. I lived for that moment, the point at which the penny would drop and his eyes would go from anger, concentration or disinterest into complete joy, even more so if he was the butt of the joke. He once got a tattoo, came back to the flat we shared and proudly showed it to me – a thick black outline of a dragon. I thought it was awful
“Just an outline?” I asked
“No, I’m getting it filled in next week. Red.”
“Why? Are you Welsh?”
The penny drops, the jaw drops, the eyes widen
And then we both laughed for ten minutes. It was always laughter. That’s all we wanted from each other, really. In 2002, both of us having moved down south, we decided to drive up to Edinburgh for New Years Eve. We set off in the morning, arrived there in the afternoon, as we drove into the city Olly arbitrarily decided there would be some kind of terrorist strike on Princes Street and decided we should just go home. So we stopped in Marchmont, picked up a sandwich and drove straight back to London, laughing all the way. I could have put my foot down and told him to get the train but 7 hours in a car with Olly observing the world was more fun than anything else that would have happened that night.
He was clever, insightful, artistic, incredibly gifted and he refused to play by rules that made no sense to him. He was fiercely loyal and inspired loyalty in those that understood where he was coming from. Well, we rarely knew where he was actually coming from but we trusted he was coming from somewhere. So much of the craziness in my life happened with him watching on, mouth wide open. We had capers, practical joke wars, fist fights, we had our own student radio show, we reduced two separate grown men to tears (one by loudly improvising a musical based on his life as he tried to revise for finals, the other with a car horn and stoic confused expressions). Olly’s videos were the stuff of legend. Long before Jackass, he was filming himself drinking wee, eating dog food and accidentally stabbing our friend Andy in the head with a bowie knife.
In recent years, our relationship distanced in the way relationships with uni friends do. He would disappear from contact for months and months and then suddenly appear in a blaze of emails and cheap, electric, chinatown buffet appointments and then he’d be gone again. His gift of friendship was a bizarre and unique one, he would share and encourage you to share all of the disappointments, hardships and atrocities of your life and then allow you to laugh at them. When something bad happened, whenever I hit rock bottom, it was Olly I would tell about it as I knew he would not only listen and empathise but immediately defuse it and turn it into something to laugh at until we could both barely breathe. Of course, I now see that the problem with holding your problems up for mockery is that it can give the impression that you’re dealing with them.
In the back of my mind, I’m expecting to turn up to the crematorium this weekend and have him leap out of the coffin, remind me of some bet we made in the nineties about his ability to fake his own death, and demand the Chinese buffet meal I now owed him. But it seems less likely than it might have a few years ago.
I’m angry at him for denying us all a lot more fun and, like everyone else in his life, I’m angry at myself for not having been there for him that night. Mostly I’m just sad. And now I have nobody to take my grief to and have them turn it into a horribly inappropriate but hilarious joke. I’ve not been brave enough or strong enough to make a joke about his passing yet. I tried one, on the phone to one of our mutual friends yesterday, who quite rightly replied ‘we don’t say things like that’.
But we did, didn’t we Olly?
I’m terrified of seeing his funeral through his eyes and getting the giggles. He loved nothing more than social awkwardness, inappropriate displays and the glorious way people failed to communicate with one another. I think nothing would strike him more hilarious than seeing everyone he knew in one room trying to act with the appropriate solemnity the service demands.
I will do my best to resist doing all of the things that would have amused him the most. There’s nobody left who would appreciate it.