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Waterfront Festival

Remembering Nick Turner, 1949-2022

29 March 22 words: Sophie Gargett

Sophie Gargett, close friend of the much-loved Nick Turner, remembers the life of one of Nottingham's finest...

Nick Turner has left the stage. Landlord, artist, chef, frontman, father, grandfather and friend, with his passing Nottingham has lost one of its true legends.

Born on 5 October 1949 in St Ann’s, Nottingham, Nick is survived by his three children, James, Ben and Carmen, seven grandchildren, and one great grandchild, all of whom he had a great love for. Outside of his family life, Nick has been a familiar face in Nottingham for over sixty years, and there has been an outpouring of love and anecdotes from friends, staff, customers, and local musicians since the news was announced. 

Finding the words to describe such an illustrious character has been tricky. Nick was both kind and cantankerous, wickedly funny, generous, unaffected and unconventional. Anyone who met him will certainly have the event firmly placed in their memory. Many such encounters will have been at The Chameleon Arts Cafe, where he held court as landlord, raconteur, chef and judge. 

Nick’s support of local music cannot be understated. When he opened The Chameleon in 2007, he provided Nottingham with a much-needed no-frills DIY gig venue, welcoming an eclectic mix of genres, from heavy metal to house. Local artists who would go on to make their name internationally, such as Sleaford Mods and London Grammar, played their first gigs there, along with a huge array of smaller touring bands. Upstairs, Simon would make sure the mighty PA system was blasting properly, while downstairs Nick would cook up tasty meals for out of town musicians and make sure their visit to Nottingham was interesting and unforgettable.

He spent much of his time making art - something he’d dabbled with throughout his life. His knowledge of art history and techniques was vast, and the collages and paintings he created are truly unique

Located just off Nottingham’s Old Market Square, The Chameleon is an old, somewhat crumbling building. Due to the often packed out gigs, there was a running joke that the floor would one day fall through into the bar, so Nick would always warn people not to dance. “We put on the band Splashh in 2013 and oversold the room,” recounted Dom Gourlay on Facebook. “The floor started shaking, causing the ceiling in the bar to wobble, so Nick came and asked if we knew any emergency scaffolders while the bands were still on.” This story has had me laughing for days. You’d never quite know if he was joking or completely serious.

The Chameleon was refreshingly old-school; a place for misfits and late night shenanigans. The cheap beer was straight from the shelves of Aldi (wheeled through town in an old stolen shopping trolley) and for more acquired tastes, there was the mysterious extra strength raspberry perry that was a staple feature of the bar. If you had too much to drink, you could often look forward to a few of Nick's famous spicy roast potatoes, which he’d bring out in large trays towards the end of the night - sometimes to actual cheers from the clientele.

Along with fronting bands such as Nick Turner & The Frogs and Big Bandit, throughout his life Nick had many trades, from advertising and window-dressing to dealing antiques. For the most part he was a chef, working in Nottingham restaurants like Bobby Brown's and Punchinello’s. An excellent cook, he managed to make the simplest of dishes somehow brilliantly tasty. Towards the end of a shift at Chameleon he’d get to work in the kitchen whipping up some dinner to feed the staff before we went home, and at Christmastime he’d hold an epic private feast for his friends, family and employees.

After he handed over the keys to The Chameleon, many people will be surprised to hear Nick mellowed somewhat. He spent much of his time making art - something he’d dabbled with throughout his life. His knowledge of art history and techniques was vast, and the collages and paintings he created are truly unique. Large, vividly colourful, sometimes overtly erotic and always intensely surreal, he would tell me a different detailed backstory about each one. (“This one is about when Jacques Cousteau fell in love with a dolphin,” he once explained about an underwater themed piece called ‘The Swimmer’. “Cousteau was a dolphin pervert y’know …I’m making all this up, but it don’t matter.”) 

Given the generational difference, I had an unlikely friendship with Nick, but the particulars didn’t matter to him and he remained close friends with many of his previous staff years after retirement. I’d just moved back to Nottingham when we first met in The Chameleon, and he’d offered to give me a harmonica lesson one afternoon before the bar opened. That day I had just left a god awful job interview for a debt collection agency, so stepping into the shadowy depths of The Chameleon, promptly being poured a mighty strong G&T, and being in Nick’s offbeat presence for the next few hours was exactly what I needed. Over the following years as I got to know him better, I could always count on Nick to help put the nonsense of the world into perspective and offer some sound advice.

In 2014 he moved to the Canning Circus area. His flat was a special place - a haven away from the tiresome ways of the modern world. The air would be thick with incense and cigarette smoke; loud, chaotic jazz would compete with game shows or horse racing on the television (and of course competing with Nick shouting at the presenters, naturally); the shelves were scattered with records, knickknacks and antiques (always haggled down to a very reasonable price), along with half finished paintings, heavy art books, sketches and pictures of his family.

I've never come across anyone so perfectly themselves, and I know I never will again

We’d have a few drinks and play backgammon for hours while he told me stories about his youthful capers and friends, who had nicknames like Rock n’ Roll Mick and Religious Jackie. He had an excellent memory (although one always had to suspect there were embellishments to his many tales), and even the most mundane of conversations would be peppered with his sharp wit and wonderful philosophy.

Like many, many people in Nottingham, I will miss Nick immensely. I've never come across anyone so perfectly themselves, and I know I never will again. They certainly don’t make them like Nick Turner anymore, he was a rare bird and we were lucky to have known him. Goodbye my friend, we won’t forget you.

A funeral will be held for Nick in the coming weeks, and a website showcasing his art is now available - with the aim of exhibiting his fantastic work in the future

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